Leaving Wilmington, a mix of natural North Carolina coastal scenery and development kept us on our toes. Salt marshes, their edges chiseled by water currents, opened to inviting sand bars and sugar beaches, the water changing from muddy-river brown to Caribbean aquamarine. Where there is beach, there are also boats and people, especially as the week end approaches. And homes, of course. Who does not long to watch the sunrise over the salt marsh from every window in their house for all the days of their life?
The 90-mile cruise to Beaufort at 8 mph is not a one-day leg. We caught the current and 11 mph flashed on the speedometer a time or two, but it’s still too much of a slog in our slow boat. We wish now that we had anchored at Topsail Beach, but for some reason it did not call to us at the time we made the itinerary. And we weren’t keen on the flyover shows at the other anchorage near Camp Lejeune, which many cruisers enjoy but characterize as “noisy.” We opted for the only other anchorage on the chart—Sloop Pointe, noted for “only light small boat traffic.” We have since added our notes to Waterway Guide, that the small boat traffic is heavy— even a tour boat came by—and further, cruisers were either in a big hurry or experienced sadistic pleasure in seeing a tall red boat at anchor rocking mightily in their wake. We should have moved, but we kept thinking traffic would die down. It did not—not until after dark, and it resumed before dawn, inciting us to hoist the anchor by first light.
The cruise to Beaufort (what a relief to pronounce it the French way, as opposed to the the South Carolinians’ pronunciation of their “Beaufort”) on a Saturday was entertaining, replete with fishermen, small center console week-enders, and even a commercial tow. Add these to the resulting wakes, slow residential areas, and inlets with channel marker changes—with “red” now to the starboard, and now back to the port again—all in a narrow channel surrounded by shoaling. Our timing was perfect—slack current. We thought. In Beaufort slack current arrives an hour after slack tide—the relationship of tides and currents, being specific to each place and changing every day. The dock hand on the radio told us the current was ripping through the marina. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “ Just cruise by and look for me waving by your slip and then turn around and come up into the wind.” As he was speaking we were watching small crafts being pushed sideways and helpless to land where they were aiming. Slow docking speed always our preference, a current requires speed to retain steerage. The crusty dock hand coached Steve (this one did know what he was talking about) telling him “more speed,” but our comfort mode being slow, Steve nailed the sweet spot beautifully. The saying that you’re only as good as your last docking made us feel brilliant in the moment.
Beaufort is a small, attractive town with eateries and nautical boutiques on the main drag. We checked out the shops in short order and found a good mid afternoon meal. The entertainment for the evening was watching other boats come in, also contending with the wind and current. The next afternoon we thoroughly enjoyed the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Only briefly referencing the whimsical lore in film and fiction of Edward Thatch (or Teach) aka “Blackbeard,” the museum displayed historical data and artifacts from the site believed to be of his sunken vessel, Queen Anne’s Revenge. Between 1716 and 1718 Blackbeard attacked 70 ships! A guy who develops this kind of notoriety in only 3 years will eventually get his due. And so this swell guy—ladies man and collector of seven wives—finally met his maker, his head mounted on a pike along with the Jolly Roger, as a warning to all. A Jolly Roger, the skull and crossbones flags, were flown by pirate ships particularly during the Golden Age of pirating, the decade of 1710s. Pirates generally had their unique flag, flown only when preparing to attack. Some sources attribute a particularly shudder-producing design to Blackbeard, while others state that he preferred plain flags, the black to signal attack and the red, warning of no mercy.
Learning about the North Carolina fishing industry at the museum and the development of various boats shaped for specific industries was fascinating, as well. Especially notable is the story of Menhaden, a forage fish with alternative aliases bony-fish, whitefish, fat-bat, mossbunker, and bug-head, to name a few. The Narragansett word for menhaden translates “that which fertilizes.” So plentiful were these fish that, when they were in season in the fall, N. Carolina, fishermen could collect them with a shovel. Commercial menhaden fishing boats, worked by black and white crewmen, hauled in such bountiful catches that in order to coordinate their heaving, they sang rhythmic chanteys, and this musical art form to this day sometimes takes the stage. We saw photos of men waist-deep in menhaden at processing plants, where the fish, high in Omega-3 fatty acids, were pressed for animal feed, fertilizer, and human food products. While not as plentiful as they once were and limits have been placed on a fishery’s allowable tonnage, they still are vital for these same uses, and we ingest them in such things as fish oil capsules, cooking oil, salad dressing, and lipstick. As a matter of fact, Menhaden may be a key to saving our planet, as they are vital to the food chain, filtering phytoplankton and zooplankton from the water they live in, and in turn are eaten by predatory gamefish like swordfish and tuna. So reach out and thank the Menhaden in your life today!
It turns out that, had we not planned an extra day in Beaufort, we would have stayed for weather, anyway. The courtesy car which we borrowed for provisioning competes for worst beater on the Loop, but we were grateful for its utility. We checked out the wooden boat-building exhibit and wandered into the historic area, staffed by enthusiastic volunteers in antebellum dress, but the return of threatening skies deterred much of a historic walk. One of the favorite stops on the walk includes the “spooky cool” cemetery in which some local lore is retained. One story goes like this:
Sarah Gibbs (d. 1792) & Jacob Shepard (d. 1773)—Sarah was married to Jacob Shepard, a seaman. Jacob’s ship went to sea, but never returned. He was presumed to be dead. Later, Sarah married Nathaniel Gibbs and had a child with him. After an absence of several years, the shipwrecked Jacob Shepard unexpectedly returned to Beaufort to find his wife married to another man. The two men agreed that Sarah would remain with Gibbs as long as she lived, but must spend eternity at the side of Jacob Shepard.
Locals encouraged us to visit Beaufort in October, after hurricane season and after tourists go home. Perhaps we’ll do just that.