Vacationers will notice a handful of sailboats at every local Outer Banks port, either saddled up to the docks or breezing across the harbor, en route to the nearest sound for a cruise, or to the continent-spanning Intracoastal Waterway to continue a long coastal voyage. Some vacationers are even in it for the long haul, docking for a summer or a winter season at a number of local marinas that offer all the comforts of home. Clearly, sailing lovers of all varieties have plenty of options, but even newcomers to the sport can experiment with life on the water with a local sailing lesson, rental, or waterfront cruise.
Plan a lazy sailing afternoon on your vacation, or take your boat with you for an extended waterfront stay, and enjoy a taste of Outer Banks Life on the water.
The Intracoastal Waterway
Explore any coastal area of North Carolina and you'll likely find a dock or a bridge that borders the Atlantic and Gulf Coast's Intracoastal Waterway. This channel of water can comprise of narrow manmade canals, salty rivers, and wide natural sounds, as it travels for over 3,000 miles along the coastline. The waterway is essentially a nationwide navigation route for commercial barges and pleasure vessels alike, providing an easy way to access a large number of Eastern American's busiest southern cities and ports.
What started as an idea to improve navigation for commercial shipping in the early 1800s and 1810s has become a federally maintained instrumental route to both shipping companies and sailing enthusiasts. Running from the Manasquan River in New Jersey to the Gulf of Mexico territory in Brownsville, Texas, the route is well-known and well-traveled by experienced sailors who want to explore every nook and cranny of the East of Gulf Coast.
In North Carolina, sailors can enter the state through two different canals, the Dismal Swamp Canal, the smaller original 1820s channel of the Intracoastal Waterway, or the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, which was created just 30 years later to accommodate larger, (specifically wider), ships barreling through the waterway. From there, it's an easy sail through the wide-open Albemarle Sound with distant views of the Currituck Outer Banks.
The Intracoastal Waterway then strays from the 30+ mile wide Pamlico Sound. A rough storm can make this large body of water choppy, and with an inconsistently shallow bottom, with some waters even in the very center of the Pamlico Sound being 5 ft.' deep or less, being stranded on a sandbar is always a possibility. Instead, the waterway snakes through mainland Dare and Hyde Counties, easing its way through a series of well-tended channels to Beaufort and Cape Lookout, and continuing to border the Southern North Carolina coast all the way through the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
Along the Dare County and Currituck County section, mariners will find tons of harbor front stores, marinas, harbors, and even restaurants, making a rest stop to relax and admire the scenery an easy affair. The area may be not be the most populated of Intracoastal channels, but is certainly one of the most scenic with front-row views of the Great Dismal Swamp, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and right-off-the-boat access to some of the best seafood restaurants and scenic soundfront sunset locales around.
Sailors who are exploring the entire length of the waterway from New England to Texas, or simple sailing enthusiasts who just want a long, enjoyable cruise, will find the Intracoastal Waterway portions of the Outer Banks, or rather the Inner Banks, a fascinating way to get a new perspective of the islands.
Cruising the Sounds
While sections of the local Outer Banks sounds may be notoriously shallow, the water is wide open for sailboats, as the same areas that can accommodate kayaks and fishing skiffs can easily accommodate small sailboats as well.
Some of the most popular launching points are located in Manteo and Ocracoke, although virtually any expanse of soundfront that includes a boat ramp or harbor can serve as a departure port. Manteo's historic downtown is always busy with sailing activity, and Ocracoke Harbor is also a popular spot, and sailboats can consistently be seen cruising in and out of the clam-shaped waterfront of Ocracoke Village.
Mariners should pay special attention to shifts in depth, which can occur at any random spot in the sound, and is typically as visible as a wide change of color in the water. Also, use extreme caution when navigating the inlets of the Outer Banks, specifically Oregon Inlet, Hatteras Inlet and Ocracoke Inlet. All three inlets provide vital passageways to incoming and outgoing charter or fishing boats, and the Hatteras and Ocracoke inlets in particular can be particularly dangerous as they serve as right-of-ways to the North Carolina State's ferries. Use caution, and tread slowly, so as to avoid encounters with other passing, larger vessels.
In addition, sailors will want to load up on sunscreen, as the North Carolina sun can beat hard against the clear blue water. And while sailors do trek out to the oceanside to skim the coastline, this is an exercise best left to experienced sailors, as the ocean waves can be both treacherous and unpredictable.
With these safety concerns in mind, feel free to go forth and explore. The sounds of the Outer Banks, specifically the Albemarle, Roanoke, Currituck and Pamlico Sounds, offer a world of treasures. Mariners can expect to find brilliant sunsets on a nightly basis, passing pelicans and great blue herons mid-flight, and small pods of porpoises cruising by. In essence, a sailboat cruise along the local sound can be a thrilling, relaxing, and positively Outer Banks experience.
Sailing lessons, rentals and sales
The love of sailing is evident on the Outer Banks, from the cluster of colorful sailboats that can be found at any local harbor, to the locals who live aboard their sailboat and carve out a salty life on the water. While many visitors may not want to embark on the sailing life for the long haul, at least not right away, newbies to the OBX will find plenty of ways to get in the water, despite their sailing experience.
When it comes to learning the ropes, there are plenty of opportunities around every waterfront canal. A number of instructors and classrooms dedicated to the art of sailing can be found throughout the Outer Banks, such as the Outer Banks Sailing Academy, based in Manteo. Here, long or short-term visitors can take 3-4 day classes and emerge themselves in the sport, from obtaining a Basic Keelboat Sailing Certificate to working towards a Coastal Cruising Certificate. Depending on the course, holding one of these two certificates may be a pre-requisite, but a number of fundamental classes, like Small Boat Sailing or Basic Coastal Cruising will generally have no experience required except for an enthusiasm for learning.
Nor' Banks Sailing, located in the town of Duck, also offers sailing lessons, including a group "Welcome to Sailing!" course that covers the basics in a two-hour session, The company also provides private lessons that can be custom-tailored to any individual sailor's needs, whether it's trying out a new boat, or getting a grip on advanced boat handling.
Local Watersports legend Kitty Hawk Kites also offers 2 hour beginning sailing lessons for 1-2 people that will introduce new sailors to the basic rigging and maneuvering of a Hobie Cat sailboat, one of the easier and smaller types of sailboats available for new students.
With any local sailing lesson, class, or in-depth tutorial, all sailing equipment is provided, from the sailboat itself to the life jackets, so all a student has to do is bring along some comfortable, (and water-friendly), clothes and some sunscreen. 3-4 day seminars and classes will require reservations well in advance, but can easily be booked by phone, email or online before your Outer Banks vacation.
The same sailing establishments that feature lessons also provide sailboat rentals for an afternoon, a full day, or even a week. The rental provider's staff can also provide advice on the best launching points and places to sail. For long term commitments, a number of watersports companies along the beach offer sail sales, and the more extensive marina boat shops and dealers along the Inner Banks of the Currituck and Dare County mainland have extensive selections as well as gently-used sailboats for sale. In short, just miles, if not feet, from the Intracoastal Waterway, sailors will have plenty of opportunities to upgrade their coastal ride.
Local marinas and ports of call
There are a number of marinas on the Outer Banks where passing sailors can pull up and stay for a night a week, a month, or even a year, and enjoy access to a world of amenities and all the comforts of home. Many local marinas offer electric and cable hook-ups, laundry facilities, Wi-Fi or other internet access, and even on-site restaurants, grocery stores, and ship's stores to refuel on much needed supplies.
For sailors just passing through the islands, there are a few Outer Banks areas that are definitely worth a trip, for both the scenic Outer Banks landscape, as well as the bustling activity that can be found around the town.
The Historic Downtown Waterfront of Manteo is ideal for passing sailors, as the stretch of dock located in front of the town features a wide array of restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall local favorites to upscale soundfront fine dining establishments. In addition, passing mariners will find a number of shops, antique stores, ship's stores, and local attractions, all within the tiny mile-long waterfront border. For a port with plenty of activity, Manteo's waterfront is certainly hard to beat.
The town of Avon has its own unique secret destination bordering the Pamlico Sound. Historic Avon Village is a small residential community with dozens of historic homes dating back to the early 1900s, a small collection of locally owned gift stores, and miles of soundfront sunsets. The small Avon harbor provides dockage for passing sailors, and step-off-the-boat access to one of the best seafood "shops" on the island, Avon Seafood's waterfront commercial docks. Here, sailors can purchase fresh shrimp, scallops, and seafood literally minutes after they're hauled off the boat.
Ocracoke Island's harbor may be the most popular scenic pit stop for passing mariners, as the harbor features a semi-circle of renowned restaurants, inns, bed and breakfasts, art galleries, and gift shops. Anchored sailors will find no shortage of historical and cultural attractions to explore in Ocracoke, and several restaurants and stores often offer on-the-dock cafes, bars, and shop access. Water lovers adore the Outer Banks' most quaint and well-preserved treasure, Ocracoke Village, and sailors will find themselves welcome among the local water-loving crowd.
Regardless of where your sailing adventures take you, the coast of North Carolina offers ample opportunities for mariners to spread their wings. Enjoy an extended vacation exploring the Intracoastal Waterway, or docking by one of the area's best-loved waterfront locations, or simply dedicate an afternoon of your next Outer Banks vacation learning a bit about the local sailing scene. Sailing lovers and sailing novices alike will surely find the Outer Banks a port of call well worth the exploration.