Activities for your visit

A Trip to Portsmouth Island with the Austins: More Than Just a Boat Ride

July 2013
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.