By Pat Garber
Off the coast of eastern North Carolina lies the remote island of Portsmouth, renowned for birds, seashells, and history. Accessible only by boat, Portsmouth Island is part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Beautiful ocean beaches and soundside marshes stretch its -mile length, with excellent fishing and beachcombing for those who visit. Portsmouth is not just, however, an undeveloped seashore. At its northern end, not far from the island of Ocracoke, stands what is left of a once vibrant and important port. Big sailing ships once stopped there on their way to and from the mainland for lightering-unloading ballast and supplies so as to navigate the shallow waters to the west. The town slowly failed, however. Its residents moved away, and the National Park Service took over the island. Now a ghost town, the village is maintained as a cultural resource, with a visitors center as well as public access to the old church, the Lifesaving Station, and several of the old homes.
There is no ferry service to the northern end where the village lies, but two brothers, Rudy and Donald Austin, carry passengers from Ocracoke to Portsmouth on a regular basis. They captain two 24’ Carolina skiffs, each of which can carry up to 15 people. The ride to Portsmouth takes about 15 to 20 minutes, but it is much more than just a boat ride. The Austins, who grew up on Ocracoke, are a wealth of information about all things related to the islands, and they are more than happy to share their knowledge. Their sharing is not a planned speech; rather an informal conversation as topics come up and visitors ask questions. Born storytellers, they entertain their guests with wit as well as knowledge.
In an interview, Rudy, the elder brother, explains that their father, Junius Austin, had begun the business year ago. He had, for twenty years, been the caretaker of the Portsmouth Lifesaving Station, used as a hunting and fishing club after it closed. He sometimes took people to Portsmouth in his skiff, but after the Park Service took over Cape Lookout in 1976, interest in visiting the island increased and his business prospered. After Junius died, Rudy and Donald began doing the boat trips, sometimes with help from Rudy’s son, Wade. Now they run the boats seven days a week, weather permitting, in the summer season and on demand at other times. “I’m not going over in any thunder squalls!” Rudy said emphatically. They also take out school and church groups, sometimes using both boats. At the end of December each year they transport assorted bird watchers to the island for the annual Christmas bird count, a nation-wide citizen-science bird monitoring project. “They’re an interesting group,” says Rudy. “Some come from as far away as Michigan!” Every other year the brothers ferry people across for the Portsmouth Homecoming, sponsored by the “Friends of Portsmouth.” A lot of people go, including the descendants of the residents who once lived there. “It’s a great way to encourage young people to get involved,” Rudy muses.
As the boat leaves Silver Lake Harbor, the captain might mention that the harbor, then known as the “Creek,” was shallow and non-navigable before the U.S. Navy dredged it out for its ships in World War II. He might follow up by describing what happened when the War came to the Outer Banks, with German submarine attacking merchant ships in plain sight of the islanders.
Then he’ll point out Hog Shoal, alive at low tide with a variety of water birds. He may steer the boat close to Beacon Island, famous for the number of brown pelicans, terns, and other sea birds that nest there each spring. Beacon Island is itself rich with history, having been the site of the Civil War fort, Fort Ocracoke, which was burned by federal troops in 1861. Erosion from storms has eaten away at the island, and it is now the focus of a joint project by the North Carolina Coastal Federation and the Audubon Society, which are using oyster shells to build a protective reef around it. Rudy has high praise for the work of the NCCF, particularly its president, Todd Miller, in working to preserve and restore this important nesting site.
In the distance can be seen what is left of Shell Castle, once a significant island in itself. Wharves and warehouses, used by the ships that passed through Ocracoke Inlet, lined its shores, and before the Ocracoke Light was built, there was a wooden lighthouse there. The island, which built up around a huge oyster reef, has almost disappeared. “Things change,” muses Rudy. “Everything changes.”
The boat ride may include a swing by Ocracoke’s South Point, with a chance to see Blackbeard the pirate’s hideout, Springer’s Point, and Teaches Hole, where he anchored his ship. Whatever route it takes, the ride is sure to be interesting and informative. “We try to educate the people on birds, turtles, dolphins, shells, whatever they want to know.”
Approaching Portsmouth, the boat slows to navigate the shallow and winding channel. The steeple of the church is visible in the distance, as well as Haulover Dock, now under repair by the Park Service. The captain hands out maps and directions to guide visitors to the beach and the village, with instructions to be back in a little more than three hours. For those who want to go to the beach, Rudy says with a laugh, “I tell them walk to the ocean and turn left. If you turn right, we may not see you again for days!”
To take the ride to Portsmouth Island, book ahead and then come to the dock behind the Ocracoke Waterman’s Exhibit, next to the Community Store in the heart of the village. The round trip ride to Portsmouth costs $20 per person, and the entire excursion lasts four hours. Be sure to bring bug spray and water if the weather is warm, and be prepared for a memorable, rewarding adventure.