Text and photos by Connie Leinbach
Woody Outlaw still vividly remembers the night he saved a ferry boat captain.
Outlaw, a native of Wanchese, is a true “old salt,” having begun his waterman career at age 5 when his father first took him to set crab lines.
“I was asleep, and Daddy threw me in a boat,” Outlaw, 74, recalled. “I woke up with the sun in my eyes. We were setting crab lines and I got hooked on boats.”
Ever since then, Outlaw has worked on boats—as a mate, in maintenance and as a charter boat captain.
It was during the first few months of his stint in 1961 with the U.S. Coast Guard at age 18 when the boat he was on got a call to help save a utility ferry in distress near Wanchese.
“A nor’easter was blowing about 65 knots,” he said. “It was really ripping. We got the call about 4:30 p.m. that a ferry was sinking in the sound (near Wanchese).”
Along with Outlaw, the other men on the Coast Guard boat 95307 were a “greenhorn captain just out of the academy and a chief bosun mate,” he said.
“Their last radio contact said they were taking on water and had to abandon ship,”’ he said about the ferry. “It was all head-to to where we had to go.” (“Head-to” in boating lingo means head-on into the wind.)
Outlaw went to sleep during the long ride, but then he was abruptly awakened by the captain.
“’Outlaw, you think you can get the heaving line to her?’” the captain asked.
The plan was to tow the distressed ferry.
As Outlaw readied the ropes on his own boat now alongside the ferry, he saw that the ferry deck was clear of all of its gear—a crane and diesel fuel and oil barrels—and waves were breaking over top of the stack.
On deck were three men—the captain, a deckhand and the engineer.
Outlaw readied his arm to throw the heaving line to the ferry.
“I wound it up once and let her go,” he said. “It went two times over that ferry. It was all adrenalin.”
After about an hour, the ferry broke loose from that line and the coasties went into rescue mode.
The three on the 95307 let down the scramble net alongside it so that the rescued men could climb on. The deckhand and engineer made it, but the captain was waiting. The coasties yelled at him to grab the life ring.
The two boats were now about two feet apart in the still-whipping storm and midnight-black night. The only white was the sea.
“I’m looking at fear,” Outlaw said about the captain. “I went right into his face and said, ‘You’re not getting your feet wet tonight.’ Then I grabbed his shirt and pulled him.”
The three ferry men were saved, and the captain skedaddled below the coast guard boat deck.
“He never said a word to me about it,” Outlaw said. “You’d think if someone saved your life they’d thank you, but nothing.”
He doesn’t know what happened to the ferry, but, he said, there are no records of this maritime event that he knows of.
After his four-year Coast Guard service, Outlaw and his wife of 56 years, Ocracoke native Betsy Carol Styron, Ocracoke School Class of 1961, went to California for about 20 years while Outlaw worked on private boats, and even met some celebrities, such as Fess Parker and Robert Wagner.
“I once saw Columbo,” he said about the late actor Peter Falk. That was during a TV shoot for “The Admiral” episode at the dock where Outlaw worked.
Upon returning to Ocracoke in 1981, Outlaw became one of the few charter boat captains back then, taking visitors inshore and offshore fishing.
Skilled at finding fish, Outlaw has several citation fish catches and two state records. One of his anglers, his “uncle” Robert Cranton, still holds the world record for a 13-pound Spanish Mackerel, caught in 1987.
In 1994, one of Outlaw’s anglers, Kevin Elwell, on a Gulf Stream trip was credited with hauling in a 150-pound wahoo, still the state record.
“He was a big strong guy,” Outlaw said. “It took him 40 minutes to land that fish. If it was anyone else on that rod, we would’ve lost it.”
Strong and still in shape, Outlaw tells how he used to do sit-ups with his then-mate, Roger.
“He would hold my feet off the back of the boat and I would lie down almost to the water,” he says.
Outlaw’s beloved boat, “The Outlaw,” is gone and he has a new, smaller boat, as yet unnamed, that he can crank up to high speeds.
“When you level it out, it scalds the dog,” he said.