Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Portsmouth Island / North Core Banks Circumnavigation

Our Campsite on the first night
On Friday, March 23 2018, Lee Toler and I set out to circumnavigate Portsmouth Island. Portsmouth Island is essentially North Core Banks and is separated from South Core Banks by Ophelia/Drum Inlet. Circumnavigating Portsmouth Island is part of Lee’s quest to circumnavigate all the barriers islands in North Carolina and at the time of this writing, he has done 11 out of the 19.

We traveled about 4 hours from Raleigh to Cedar Creek Campground and Marina in Sea Level and setup camp, so that we could get an early start on Saturday morning. There were no other campers at this time of the year and our campsite was out on a peninsula, with a kayak launch only 30 feet from our tents and no security lighting to illuminate our tents, allowing for a great view of the nighttime stars.

A Change of Plans

Our initial plan had been to travel about 25 miles sound side, then another 2 miles out Ocracoke Inlet and around the North end of Portsmouth, camping ocean side the the first night(Saturday.) We would then spend two leisurely days paddling back ocean side, possibly with some surfing, and returning through Ophelia/Drum inlet.

However, the weather had changed several times during the week prior to our trip and a Nor'easter was now pushing towards Portsmouth and expected to bring rain Saturday night into Sunday morning and then potentially gale force winds Sunday and Monday.

Since we had both discovered during the first night, which dipped down to about 42 degrees, that our sleeping bags lefts something to be desired in terms of warmth and faced with what would be a long, cold, and rainy night/day in our tents, followed by what could be very heavy winds and seas the following days, we decided to make a change to our plans.

Instead of traveling sound side the first day, we reversed our trip and decided to paddle ocean side the first day along Core Banks in order to take advantage of the calm seas and good conditions, then travel back sound side in order to be more protected.

An Early Start

Our first stop on Portsmouth Island
We got started around 7:30 AM and after the 3 mile sound crossing, pushed out Ophelia inlet ( Drum Inlet per most nautical charts.) The inlet was not visible from our campsite, so Lee plotted a bearing to help us find the inlet and as expected, we received a bit of a push from the ebb current and cruised out the inlet at about 6 MPH.

The wind was to our face for much of the morning, but it was relatively light and conditions were very calm, so we made good time. After about 11 miles, we decided to take a quick break and did a surf landing, ate, and then hopped back on the water.

Along the way, we were taken aback by the beauty of the desolate coast line with few signs of mankind, aside from seeing a few trucks from people staying at the Long Point Fishing Cabins. We also saw a number of dolphins, including one that swum close enough to Lee’s boat to give us both a jolt.

Planning for the Storm

As we had been paddling, one of the most prevalent talking points was how to handle the impending storm.

We threw around a number of ideas, including possibly taking refuge at the abandoned Portsmouth village, but the idea that we kept coming back to was paddling a bit further to Ocracoke and staying at a local hotel. No doubt, our cold experience camping Friday night made this seem like the most attractive option.

Paddling to Ocracoke Harbor would add about 7 miles to the trip that day, but a bigger concern was that since we had reversed the trip, instead of riding the tide out of Ocracoke Inlet towards the ocean, we would now be arriving as the tide was pushing out to sea and working against us. Even taking into account the usual 1-2 hour delay in tide reversal from the printed tide schedule we were quite worried that the current would be too strong to paddle across the inlet.

Due to timing, we predicted it might have been necessary to wait until around 8-10PM to catch the next in-going flood tide. In addition to this putting us crossing in the dark, rain was expected around 6PM, so we would also be crossing in what might be a heavy storm.

We discussed a number of possible contingency plans, such as continual paddling Northeast oceanside past the inlet to an oceanfront National Seashore campground further up Ocracoke island.

Another idea we tossed around was to try to make it far enough into the inlet and around the North end of Portsmouth, which is a mile wide, and contact a local man who runs a ferry service from Ocracoke for people wanting to explore Portsmouth Village. We would ask him to come gets us, as well as our boats and gear, and transport us to Ocracoke Harbor.

Similarly, if faced with a strong ebb when we arrived in Ocracoke Inlet, we thought it might be possible to hug the shore line of the North end of Portsmouth Island as much as possible, then set an extremely aggressive ferry angle in order to make it across Ocracoke Inlet to Ocracoke Island.

Like Horses to a Barn

After about 15 miles after our first shore landing, we reached the North end of Portsmouth and did a beach landing just inside the inlet. Here we assessed our situation.

Fortunately, we had not noticed any major push from the outgoing tide as we approached, despite arriving when it should be flooding out ( explanation to follow ) Convinced we had the energy and plenty of daylight to paddle another 7 miles, we called a local hotel to see if they had availability. After securing a room and only a very brief 10 minute stop, we hopped back in the boats to head to Silver Lake( Ocracoke Harbor.)

Despite already having paddled about 25 miles, much like a horse returning to the barn, the thought of a warm shower, clean bed, and restaurant cooked meal energized us and we made short work of the inlet crossing. We safely arrived at Ocracoke after paddling 32 miles, and averaging 3.7 MPH, with 8:33 Hours of paddling and 38 minutes of breaks.

Since it was still off season in Ocracoke, we were able to stay at the Anchorage Inn & Marina, which is directly across from their boat ramp in Silver Lake. We had told the hotel clerk we were arriving via kayak in about 2 hours, so she had already cut on the heat to our room before we arrived and helped us carry some of our gear to the room. After showers, we got a ride with the local taxi up to Howard’s Restaurant and Pub for a well deserved meal of crab cakes and fresh fish.

Waiting out the Storm

Our Rustic Campground at Ocracoke
As expected, the rain hit that evening and ended up bringing quite a bit of precipitation to the area and we were quite happy to be riding out the storm in a warm hotel room, rather than what would have been a very long and cold night in our tents.

We had discussed getting started Sunday morning as soon as the rain broke, but the rain lingered until around 11AM and so there was little chance of us paddling all the way back to the vehicle that day. With a gale force wind warning in effect, we decided to stay one more night in Ocracoke, so after a great breakfast at Pony Island Restaurant, we spent the rest of the day walking around Ocracoke, visiting shops, getting coffee, and preparing our gear ready for the next morning.

Homeward Bound

Leaving Silver Lake / Ocracoke Harbor
At around 6:30 AM on Monday, we launched and headed out of Silver Lake to cross Ocracoke Inlet. The wind was very strong, but a little lower in the morning and expected to pickup again as the day progressed.

After a previous day of strong Northeast 25 Knot+ winds, the seas were pretty rough and there was reasonably heavy swell in the inlet. However, as expected the heavy winds from the northeast were favorable in terms of our southwest paddling direction. Once out of Ocracoke Harbor, we immediately began to paddle swiftly in our intended direction and reached the 3 mile south end of Ocraoke in minutes. We passed the inlet with Lee reaching a speed of over 10 MPH during one of his surfs.

Since Portsmouth Island and Ocracoke Island are oriented in a Northwest/Southwest direction(40 degree axis) and the Nor'Easter was blowing in a southwest direction, with speeds around 20 Knots and gusts to 30, it pushed us on our way, creating following seas in our direction of travel.

To quote Lee; “ The very strong winds created well formed 2-3 foot surfable mildy breaking waves, pushing us in our intended direction home. I was handed a situation like I never imagined. I was visualizing the possibility of “surfing” all the way back to Sea Level. We did unfortunately have to take a break from the surfing after about 7 miles. That was the fastest and most exhilarating 7 miles I may ever paddle.”

Trouble at Sea

Sound Side, Portsmouth Island
Unfortunately, after surfing the following seas for about 7 miles, I got a bit too comfortable and in a moment of inattention, capsized. I attempted 3 rolls, but due to a combination of rough seas, wind, and not being properly locked into my boat, my feet/knees were not connected properly to the boat, I was unable to get back up and wet exited.

At this point, I was in a rather serious situation, as we were a mile or two from shore. The winds were very heavy as mentioned, and even though we were sound side, the swell was steady and strong. Ever vigilant, it didn’t take Lee, who was a bit ahead of me, much time to notice I was in trouble and circle back, with the arduous task of paddling back to me against the wind and swell.

He got me back in my boat, but because the seas were so rough, we opted not to do a t-rescue and instead I hopped into my boat still full of water. With the wind and swell, I was unable to safely paddle with a full boat of water and initially tried pumping, but this proved to be too exhausting. Worried about getting blown off course and the energy I was expending pumping, Lee instead told me to hold on and began paddling towards a duck blind.

The duck blind was in the opposite direction that the swell and wind was blowing us, but against all odds, we made it, with Lee paddling full force and me paddling with one arm, as I held on with the other. At some point during this ordeal, I capsized again, but was able to roll up and grab back onto Lee’s boat.

Once we made it to the duck blind, Lee tried to hold onto a post, but had to let go due to fears of capsizing himself.

Lee was not able to make any progress paddling the rafted kayaks in the direction of shore and at this point, we felt like there were 2 options; 1. a May Day call, 2. Attempt a T-rescue despite the great chance Lee might capsize also.

We decided on a T rescue, which necessitated me jumping back into the cold water. However, as luck would have it, as soon as I jumped out, I realized I was able to touch ground and so held onto Lee’s boat and supported it, so that he could empty mine. This is described in more detail below, but in retrospect heading towards the duck blind and general shallowness of this area helped out a great deal, although if I had become separated from my boat, it could of been a very serious situation!

My boat must have re-filled some with water during the period I was trying to attache my spray skirt with frigid fingers, but much less than before. I hobbled back slowly to shore sideways against the wind/swell. I was surprised at my feeling of relative stability with as much water as I observed in the boat once on shore.

After being in the water for so long, I was very cold and the heavy wind was not helping. After only a few minutes, I opted to keep pushing on in order to warm up. We paddled for several more miles before stopping again in a slightly sheltered hollow, so that we could eat and take a breather.

Back on Track

Lee at Long Point Cabins
Despite the time we spent during the rescue and subsequent slow paddle to shore, we still made excellent time, with the same wind and favorable following seas giving us a much needed push. We arrived at the Long Point Fishing Cabins, which is operated by the Parks Service, after only 4.5 hours of paddling. Our moving average for this leg of the trip was 5.44 MPH and we had traveled 24.5 Miles from Ocracoke.

The Long Point Fishing Cabins are a semi-rustic set of cabins located towards the middle of Portsmouth island. There are around 10 rental cabins of varying amenities, with the nicest having indoor plumbing, heating, and all getting power from a diesel generator.

Accessible only via a local ferry, this was the first week they were open to the public and there were already several people staying there, although only a couple had fishing poles. Some of the campers, including the camp volunteer, had seen us paddling two days earlier as we traveled up the coast line.

Lee and I moved our boats out of the way of the dock and found a porch on one of the cabins that was out of the wind. We ate and sat in the sun to warm up. After eating, we spent some time looking at the map to determine our location and path, figuring that we were about 8 miles from the car.

Erring on the Side of Caution

Our Windbreak at Long Point Cabins
After about an hour and feeling refreshed from being out of the wind, we hopped back in our boats to finish the short leg, but by this point, the winds had picked up and shifted directions. The wind had been predicted at around 25 knots, with gusts above 30 knots, but even in just the short period when we stopped, it felt like it was blowing more than it had been during the day.

Likely with the thought of my capsize in the back of our minds and faced with what would be a rather difficult 3 mile crossing, as the wind and swell would now be essentially perpendicular to us as we crossed, we decided not to risk the crossing. After paddling only 50 yards, we decided it was a no-go and not worth the risk.

Communication on the water would have been near impossible, given the increased wind velocity and moderate change in direction, rescue would have been even more difficult than earlier in the day, and separation of a paddler from his boat would have been disastrous.

Even though it was only a three mile crossing and 9 miles to go, neither of us needed to be home that day. So, we decided it was better to err on the side of safety and wait until tomorrow when the wind was expected to die down.

After speaking with a park ranger and getting some pricing, we opted not to rent a cabin, but instead camp nearby. The local volunteer, who stays on site and helps manage the cabins, was kind enough to drive us around in her Gator in order to search for a camp spot that was somewhat protected from the wind, as well as help us move our gear. For tent campers, you are required to be 100 feet from any of the cabins and we were much further than this from the nearest cabin.

We setup our tents, changed out of our dry-suits into dry clothes, and then retreated back to the porch we had rested on earlier in the day for some hot coffee and to relax in the sun.

While it was disappointing to be so close to our vehicle and, after having made such great time, still very early in the day, it was a beautiful place to camp. We both also felt that we had sort of cheated by staying at a hotel in Ocracoke, so this helped make it feel more like a proper camping trip.

An Easy Paddle Home

Our campsite
The night was uneventful and as expected the wind began dropping during the night. We had a lazy morning and were on the water by about 9:30 that day.

The wind was 1/3 of what it was the day before, so the crossing back to mainland was easy. We started out with a rather aggressive ferry angle, but ended up adjusting it several times as we realized that the wind and swell were not presenting much of an obstacle.

After an 8.7 mile paddle, we arrived safely back at the campground.

Local Insights and Closing Thoughts

How come Ocracoke Inlet was still flooding, when we reached there so late after the schedule tide change to ebb? After talking with the owner of the campground, he indicated that sometimes, the deeper water in the inlet will be flowing out, while the water closer to the surface is still slack or even still moving in. This likely accounted for our easy crossing of Ocracoke Inlet, despite being at a time when the tide should have been flowing out.

Another factor he mentioned was the effect of the Nor’easter. It will continue to blow water into the inlet past the time you would expected the tide direction to change. A long term South Wester has the opposite effect.

He also helped clear up a discrepancy between our map and what we had learned from the Park Ranger regarding the names of the local inlets. Our map had the name of the inlet across Core Sound from Sea Level as Drum Inlet. We had thought that Ophelia inlet, named for the hurricane that breached the outer banks and created the inlet, was three miles North. We both did Google Earth(GE) recon as part of our trip planning and on GE, you can see a second Inlet to the north. However, upon paddling both sides, there was only one inlet open, the one named Drum inlet on our map.

The Park Ranger, however, referred to this inlet as Ophelia Inlet and said that there were two others, Drum Inlet and Old Drum Inlet, which were both closed now. The campground owner confirmed this and said that while some of the locals still call it Drum Inlet, several maps have it incorrectly labeled and it is really Ophelia inlet.

Duck blinds are your friend: This is actually the second time a duck blind has proved to be a safe refuge. In a previous paddle while crossing from the Cedar Island Ferry to Portsmouth, Lee and I had also stopped at a duck-blind to get a breather when another paddler in our group began to feel seasick. In that case, while we were not able to climb onto the duck blind, it was shallow enough that we were able to get out and take a much needed break before finishing our paddle to Portsmouth.Duck blinds are almost always planted in shallow water and in both of our experiences, they have never been in water more than 3 feet deep. During another trip, while Lee was doing his Hatteras circumnavigation and during a 10 mile diagonal crossing from Hatteras to Buxton, his group took a lunch break at a massive duck blind, tying their boats to the support posts that stood in only 6 inches of water.

Trip Statistics

  • Overall Distance: 65.2 Miles
  • Total Moving Time: 16:20 Hours
  • Total Stopped Time(While Paddling :) 2:33 Hours
  • Moving Average: 4 MPH
  • Overall Speed: 3.4 MPH
  • Top Speed: 11.1 MPH

Day One:

  • Overall Distance: 32 Miles
  • Total Moving Time: 8:33 Hours
  • Total Stopped Time(While Paddling :) 0:38 Hours
  • Moving Average: 3.7 MPH

Day Two:

  • Overall Distance: 24.5 Miles
  • Total Moving Time: 4:30 Hours
  • Moving Average: 5.44 MPH
  • Top Speed: 10 MPH

Day Three:

  • Overall Distance: 8.7 Miles