The Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry is one of the most popular of the seven coastal ferry routes that are orchestrated and managed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT.) Open for everyone, with daily runs that occur 365 days a year, the short 40-45 minute island-hopping ferry provides an integral link for Ocracoke Island to the rest of the Outer Banks, and provides visitors of all seasons with an exciting way to enjoy a coastal day trip. For a little bit of completely free entertainment, hop aboard via car, truck, bike or even just on foot, and discover a scenic boat ride that's just as thrilling as discovering the island of Ocracoke itself.
History of the Hatteras / Ocracoke Ferry
The roots of the North Carolina Ferry System, a subset of the NCDOT, begin in the Outer Banks with a privately run tug bug concoction that was operated by a local captain, J.B. Tillet. Tillet recognized the need of both locals and occasional visitors alike to get both on and off water-locked Hatteras Island, and began providing private ferry services across Oregon Inlet in the 1920s for a small fee.
By the 1930s, the service had become subsidized by the government in order to keep the fees affordable to ferry patrons, and after a while, the NCDOT simply bought out the ferry business in its entirety to provide passengers with reliable, government funded transport across the shallow inlet.
The route was so popular, with regular lines occurring on either side on a regular basis, that two monumental actions came about as a direct result of this first, locally run ferry. The first was that a bridge was approved and built to provide an easier route across the inlet, the Herbert C. Bonner bridge, and the second was that the NC Ferry System was established, with more routes set up along other areas of the coastline where transportation had previously been limited to just a privately run boat or ferry.
As a result, ferries popped up along the East Coast providing new visitors with access to coastal areas that were relatively unexplored. One of the most significant of these routes were the three new ferries that were added to provide passage to Ocracoke Island. These ferries included the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ferries which departed from the mainland, and the Hatteras Ferry, which provided a quick little trip from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke.
Many Ocracoke locals continue to prefer this route for routine off-island trips, such as an optometrist or dentist visit, or a weekly trip to the Hatteras Island's only chain grocery store. But perhaps the biggest use of this ferry visit is for seasonal day trips or week-long vacations by visitors and Outer Banks locals alike. The ferry makes a trip to otherwise isolated Ocracoke Island a breeze, and a relaxing trip to boot.
Thanks to the early roots of the ferries, a trip to Ocracoke Island is a tradition for many Outer Banks vacationers, and the small town of Ocracoke is the most visited town in all of Hyde County, North Carolina. This is quite a feat for a home that is located 30 miles offshore, and miles away from the rest of the county mainland.
On your next vacation to any portion of the Outer Banks, make your own personal salute to the ferries' history by taking a ride across the Pamlico Sound and exploring the small town of Ocracoke. En route or waiting in line, admiring the massive ferries that chug by on a regular basis, it will surely be hard to imagine that just a few decades ago, the only transportation to these southern regions of the Outer Banks was only by a small, locally run tug boat. Next time on board, be sure and tip your cap to the enterprising Captain Tillet for turning a small business into a standard method of transport to some of the Outer Banks' most beautiful locations.
Operations of the Ocracoke / Hatteras Ferry
The Ocracoke / Hatteras Ferry departs from both the Hatteras and Ocracoke terminals daily, including all major holidays, from 5:00 a.m. until midnight.
In the summer season, the ferry runs every 30 minutes from both sides during the prime ferry traffic hours, which is generally from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. This schedule gradually dwindles to every hour as the season progresses, and the need for every-half-hour rounds decreases. By the winter months of December, January and February, the ferry runs every hour, which is generally more than enough to serve the limited seasonal population.
The ferry boards on a first come, first serve basis, with no preferences given to locals or visitors. The only exception is those Ocracoke and handful of Hatteras residents who are given a "priority pass." This pass is given out to only a select number of locals whose transportation on or off the island is instrumental to government or Outer Banks business. Examples include employees of the US Coast Guard, the Emergency Medical Technicians, or any occupation where getting to Ocracoke or Hatteras Island quickly is instrumental in performing one's essential job.
Other Ocracoke services, such as US Postal Service or grocery deliveries, may also take precedence via a priority pass, although more often than not, these vehicles travel to Ocracoke Island via the mainland departing ferries for both convenience and proximity to their delivery hubs.
The wait to board the ferry all depends on the traffic. In the summer months when the seasonal population is high, visitors may have to wait anywhere between 15 minutes to several hours to board an incoming ferry. Thankfully, there are plenty of attractions nearby at both terminals to keep everyone entertained. Just be sure you are back at your vehicle before boarding.
Bicycles and foot traffic are almost always able to eek their way onboard, although vacationers from Hatteras should note that it is a good 13 miles from the Ocracoke ferry terminal to Ocracoke Village. That said, for folks on foot and bicycles, there are plenty of gorgeous beaches to explore just yards away from the ferry terminal, as well as vending machines and public restrooms for essential amenities before and after a beach trip.
Upon arriving, vehicles will be guided or "stacked" into lanes that border the ferry terminal on the Hatteras side, or will simply line up single file on the Ocracoke side. Please note that upon arriving at the Ocracoke terminal there will be two lanes - one for priority and one for regular ferry traffic. Be sure and stick to the regular ferry traffic lane, (which will usually be the longer of the two), unless you have a priority pass. On the Hatteras side, NCDOT employees will guide vehicles to the appropriate lanes.
Once in line, visitors can hop out of their vehicle and look around, but are advised to be back in their vehicles 10 minutes before the departure time. Ferries generally board about 5 minutes before leaving, and vehicles left behind will simply have to wait for the next run.
As noted, the ferry is free to all passengers, visitors and locals, and generally takes between 40-45 minutes depending on weather conditions. For visitors, the short run tends to fly by as they pass by Hatteras Inlet and some of the most scenic areas of the Outer Banks. Be sure and take a camera along, as it generally seems that as soon as you board, it's time to unload and depart again, and start a new island adventure.
The Hatteras / Ocracoke Ferry Ride
When it's time to board, NCDOT staff will guide vehicles on board one by one. Be sure and pay attention to their directions as they lead you over the makeshift metal bridge and into a "parking space" on the ferry. Once positioned, drivers should turn off the vehicle, remove their keys, and set their emergency brakes. Once the ferry boat moves, they are free to step out and explore the vessel.
The front and back of the ferries are popular congregating spaces as they provide some of the best views of Hatteras Village and Ocracoke Island, either disappearing or slowing approaching on the horizon. Be sure and enjoy a little time outside enjoying the view, and don't forget to look down. In these shallow sound waters, with the deepest section being the channel that the ferry chugs through, it's not unusual to see blue crabs or small fish drifting by in the 5' feet of water that surround the boat.
For a little shade and a climate controlled environment, head up to the passengers lounge. This area is accessible via a staircase located near the front of the boat, and visitors can relax on padded benches in the air conditioned compartment that also features a water fountain and a wall of windows to take in the waterfront views. Bathrooms are also located on the lower deck, as well as life boats and life preservers in case of emergency, (although these items have rarely if ever been used in the North Carolina Ferry System's long history.)
Visitors may also want to note the name, details, colors and emblems of each boat. The ferries are named after historical Hatteras Island monikers, like the Chicamacomico or the Kinnakeet, and each ferry is "sponsored" by a North Carolina state-run university. Passengers with an eye for detail may notice the East Carolina University's signature purple and gold coloring, or the North Carolina State's famed wolfpack icon en route to Ocracoke or Hatteras Island.
Above all else, be sure and sit back and enjoy the ride. Leaving Hatteras, passengers will slowly churn by several miles of undeveloped Hatteras village soundfront before crossing the at-times choppy Hatteras Inlet and skirting towards the isolated Ocracoke ferry docks. Along the way, observant passengers will spot dozens of shorebirds, temporary sandbar islands that disappear with very high tides, and gorgeous open water views. Enjoy the scenery both to and from the island, as the view changes with every trip, and every time of day.
The Hatteras Ferry Terminal
Visitors heading to Ocracoke Island via Hatteras may experience a little wait, depending on the season, but thankfully there are plenty of places to explore while in line.
The Hatteras Ferry terminal borders a shopping plaza that features everything a lingering vacationer could need, including boutiques that specialize in bathing suits, a watersports shop, a convenience store and deli, gift shops, and assorted food stands for easy bites on the go. The Hatteras Landing shopping center is in fact a popular idling location and shopper's destination, and on busy ferry days, provides plenty of entertainment for Ocracoke visitors.
One the other side of the stacking lanes, passengers will find the ferry's accommodating visitors' center, which includes a small gift shop and stand with local attraction literature, ferry employees on duty to answer questions, and a line of vending machines for everything from a cold soda to a bag of wheat crackers. There are also public restrooms as well as a collection of newspaper stands.
Once in line, visitors are free to hop out of their vehicles and explore the neighboring shops, attractions, and facilities, but are reminded to be back in their cars 10 minutes before the next scheduled departure time.
The Ocracoke Ferry Terminal
The Ocracoke Ferry Terminal is certainly less developed than the Hatteras Ferry Terminal, and there are no major shopping plazas or privately-run businesses to greet visitors upon their arrival.
There is, however, extensive restroom and vending machine facilities that are sure to supply visitors with everything they could need for an enjoyable short wait, and a small "stand" bordering the actual docks where a NCDOT employee is generally stationed and available to answer questions.
The biggest diversion for Ocracoke Ferry Terminal passengers is, essentially, the beach, and folks in line will find at least three small sandy paths that wind from the stacking lanes to the shoreline, and are incredibly easy to access. At the end of these paths lies a quiet, soundside beach which is chock full of beautiful views and fantastic small seashell finds. Have fun beachcombing, just be sure and make sure your seashell isn't already occupied - a number of shells along these beaches are home to local hermit crabs. Also, make sure you don't miss the boat, although visitors to this area can usually see the next ferry chugging towards the ferry terminal minutes before it actually arrives.
Tips and Tricks for Riding the Hatteras / Ocracoke Ferry
- Summer visitors who are planning a trip to Ocracoke, and who don't have time to spare and wander around the Hatteras ferry docks, should avoid Tuesdays-Thursdays. These are generally the most popular days in the summer season for day-trippers, and during the prime hours of 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., can become fairly crowded with ferry wait times ranging from 20 minutes to up to two hours. If at all possible, plan your day trip on a weekend or Monday, or plan to be an early bird or a night owl. The early 6:00, 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. ferries, as well as the late afternoon and evening ferries, aren't nearly as crowded departing Hatteras and many times visitors can simply "drive right on."
- There's a local rule of thumb that the best time to head to Ocracoke is in the evening and the best time to head to Hatteras is in the morning, and while this isn't always feasible, it's something to keep in mind while planning your trip. Many Ocracoke shops stay open until sunset or later, so even night owls can get a fantastic tour of the area without any long ferry waits and without the threat of their favorite shop or galleries closing for the night.
- Don't miss the boat! The ferries typically load between 5-10 minutes before departure, and if you're not in your vehicle, the NCDOT staff will simply guide traffic around your parked car. Best not to risk the inconvenience of moving your vehicle and waiting for the next ride by simply being by your vehicle close to departure time.
- Pay close attention to the ferry rules. Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the ferry, including in your vehicle, and passengers will be sternly warned or even fined for violating this rule. In addition, feeding the seagulls is not allowed on the ship, and pets must be kept on a leash at all times if outside of the vehicle. The rules are straightforward, but travelers are encouraged to brush up ahead of time, either via the ferry literature located at the bordering visitors' center or online, to avoid a stern talking-to, or worse, a hefty government fine.
- Be prepared and have you driver's license handy before boarding. The NCDOT staff performs spot checks as part of the Homeland Security program, so travelers are advised to have proper identification forms ready.
- It certainly might be tempting to ease into an empty priority passage lane, but unless you have a priority pass, don't do it. The priority pass also entails a highly visible sticker which allows NCDOT personnel to quickly spot who is a legitimate priority passenger, and if you're mistakenly in this lane, you could be sent back to the end of the regular lane. It sounds like grammar school rules, to be sure, but the priority lane can only be used by vehicles that are instrumental to the daily operations of Hatteras or Ocracoke Islands.
- Don't miss the boat again! The last ferry from either Ocracoke or Hatteras Island leaves at midnight sharp, with loading commencing 5-10 minutes before 12:00 a.m. Allow yourself plenty of time to get to the terminal. Many locals and visitors have been stranded on one side, or have gotten a hefty speeding ticket, trying to catch the last ferry without a little extra leeway.
- Please keep in mind that inclement weather conditions are the only factors that may deter a ferry's schedule. While the ferries run fine in gusts up to 30 or even 40 miles per hour, they do have temporary delays or suspension of service for massive shoalings or consistent winds of 40 miles or more. These measures are only taken in extreme weather conditions, and are only taken for travelers' safety. Otherwise, visitors can expect no interruption in ferry serve, 365 days a year.
- If at all possible, plan a ferry crossing around sunset or sunrise. Arguably one of the prettiest vistas on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands, a waterfront sunset on the ferry can provide incredible views of the inlet, the small make-shift islands, and the clear blue open water that lies in between.
- Curious as to how your ferry captain is doing? Keep your eye on the markers. Ferries are required to travel in between the blue and green markers that bob above the waters, and indicate the deep channel that was specifically cut for the ferries' passage. To get an idea of your exact route, simply step outside and look for the red and green channel markers that will indicate the way. As long as your ferry is in between these two markers, you're well on your way to a successful passage.
The Hatteras / Ocracoke Ferry has provided countless visitors with an incredible launching point for day trips, transportation, or just a new adventure on the Outer Banks. The brief but beautiful ride, which takes just 40-45 minutes, has become an annual tradition for seasoned vacationers, and one of the most enjoyable parts of a southern OBX vacation.
From the novelty of exploring the shops bordering the Hatteras terminal, to the thrill of maneuvering a car or truck over a temporary bridge that leads on board, travelers have been fascinated with ferries even since Capt. Tillet first took the wheel in the 1920s. On your next vacation, come celebrate the tradition of open water transport, and plan a trip to Ocracoke Island. With stunning scenery that captures the beauty of the Outer Banks, and a free excursion that won't put a damper on any budget, a Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry ride will offer every visitor a brand new perspective of the fragile Outer Banks.