Trailering Magazine Archives - Destinations

North Carolina's Pamlico Sound

The barrier islands called the Outer Banks span 100 miles along the North Carolina coast, separating the Atlantic Ocean from the mainland. In between and running along half of those 100 miles is the water called Pamlico Sound.

The name comes from a group of Algonquian Indians, the Pamlico, who lived along these shallow and protected shores. Today, Pamlico Sound is still shallow (average depth is 20 feet), still protected and the country's second largest estuary (the Chesapeake Bay is the largest with its mix of fresh water from the Susquehanna River in the north and salt water from the Atlantic Ocean in the south). The three inlets along the Outer Banks (Oregon, Hatteras and Ocracoke) bring salt water from the Atlantic that mixes with fresh water from five different rivers along the mainland. The result: a fishery that is active throughout the year.

Paul Rosell has traveled Pamlico Sound for more than 35 years. As operator of TowBoatU.S.-Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks, he's assisted all kinds of boaters on the Sound. "My advice for the first-timer with a boat on Pamlico Sound is the same for anyone with a boat regardless of the body of water they are in," he says. "So many think a GPS on water is like a GPS in a car. It's a terrific navigation device but don't take what it tells you as the gospel truth. Nothing is better at navigating than the human eye."

Rosell knows of what he speaks. Pamlico Sound is as wide as 18 miles in some places. Because the shoreline is flat, many areas can look similar. Problems like fog can complicate the matter. Because of its size, the Sound has a variety of characteristics, and because of currents or heavy weather, the bottom is ever changing. "Most of the calls I get are for boaters who have run aground," he says. "The fishermen like to find the sloughs because fish will congregate on the edges where the water drops off to deeper areas. And if the wind comes up or the tide goes out or all of that happens together, they'll find themselves on hard sand."

Pamlico Sound can be a challenge even with all the available modern technology onboard. Without GPS or fishfinders or VHF, its history has proven time and time again that anyone with a boat will always be tested.

The first explorers are believed to have come ashore on the Outer Banks around 1500 in a search for gold (which wasn't found) and a link to a route to China (also not found). Almost a century later, an expedition of more than 100 tradesmen led by Sir Walter Raleigh arrived with instructions from Queen Elizabeth to establish a permanent colony. The idea was good but the timing and temperament left room for improvement; they arrived too late to plant crops and the newcomers alienated the local Indians over a series of disputes involving land, food and accusations of stealing. The settlers were left to fend for themselves while their ship returned to England for more supplies. When it returned, the colony was gone, except for the letters "CRO" etched into a nearby tree. A search began to find the settlers in nearby Croatoan (now Hatteras Island), where Indians lived, but none were found. Archaeologists have spent years trying to find any clues to what happened to "the Lost Colony" as it's been called and an effort is underway right now using ground-penetrating radar, which has produced the site of a well and pieces of copper used to trade with the Indians. Other experts are convinced the site is under water as a result of four centuries of Outer Banks erosion. Today, there's a daily production of "The Lost Colony" at the Waterside Theater on Roanoke Island, the site where the first settlement is believed to have been established.

Just getting to the Outer Banks presented a challenge. With the Gulf Stream at its closest point to land (just 12 miles offshore from Hatteras Inlet), ships bringing goods for trade found themselves surprised by heavy seas if the Gulf Stream (running north) was offset by heavy winds (heading south).

pamlico3Places to See
Add an Atlantic storm to the mix and the fact that the continental shelf is only 25 miles offshore (this is where the depths drop from a few hundred feet to a more than a thousand feet), one can understand why this is called "the Graveyard of the Atlantic" where as many as 1500 ships went down between 1524-1945.

Boaters who launch at the public boat ramp maintained by the National Park Services will likely pass the Oregon Inlet U.S. Coast Guard Stations and the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center on their way to the Atlantic or Pamlico Sound.

On Pamlico Sound's western shore are a number of small waterfront towns, many lost in time but never too far from the modern world. The Intracoastal Waterway passes many of them and as a result, there are more than adequate and state-of-the-art facilities.

New Bern-located at the confluence of the Trent and Neuse Rivers, New Bern is a must see for fans of old homes. In fact, 36 homes are on the National Register of Historic Places including the 13-acre Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens, built in 1770 to house the governor of the royal colony called North Carolina. New Bern was the original capital of the English settlement in North Carolina. Today, the state's symphony orchestra plays weekly concerts in the gardens of Tryon Palace. New Bern celebrates its 300th birthday in 2010.

Boaters will enjoy the fact there are three separate ramps in three of the city parks and all are available for use at no cost. Lawson Creek Park is 140 acres with a pair of lanes for launching; Union Point Park spans six acres with a pair of ramps providing direct access to the Neuse and Trent Rivers, and the 51-acre Glenburnie Park also has ramp facilities.

Oriental-It calls itself the "Sailing Capital of North Carolina" and is located 14 miles up the Neuse River from Pamlico Sound. Oriental boasts that it has as many sailboats in the water as it has residents on land. There's a boat ramp in the center of town and in keeping with its desire to remain a small town, the closest stop light is 12 miles away. The local rotary club hosts an annual Tarpon Tournament that brings anglers from all over the country (it was July 25-27 this year). It's also a stopping point for boaters traversing the Intracoastal Waterway. As for the name? In 1886 the United States assigned a post office to the town which was called "Smith's Creek." The postmaster's wife didn't like the name and made her opinion all too clear. One day while walking along the beaches of the Outer Banks, she came upon the nameplate of the Oriental, a ship that had been wrecked. The nameplate was brought back to the town and the name stuck.

"If we get a southwest wind during the summer, watch out," notes Rosell of TowBoatU.S. "That's the biggest issue to be aware of when you're going out around here. That kind of wind is going to build up a fetch, which means larger than usual waves on the Sound. If you have that going on and the tide coming in through the inlets, you're going to have some rough water to deal with. The other issue is a 25-knot wind blowing in and while the tide goes out in the inlets. That's going to create some rough water too."

Outer Banks
Of the 14 towns along the Outer Banks; the northernmost is Corolla where beach house rentals are an industry in the summer. Corolla had been home to the Whalehead Club built back in the 1920's by millionaires looking for a hunting club lodge. It would have stayed a sleepy village had the state not extended Highway 12 to the north in 1984. Today Highway 12 runs the length of the Outer Banks along Pamlico Sound. To the south is Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers made aviation history in 1903 and visitors can see the place where they took flight as well as tour the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Note: Both these towns are north of Pamlico Sound-which begins at the Oregon Inlet along the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and extends all the way to Portsmouth, North Carolina.


Even at high tide Pamlico Sound is shallow, but at low tide (top), many boaters will pull their boats to the newly -formed beaches for a quick swim or to explore the sea shells. Located in New Bern, Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens (bottom) will celebrate it's 300th birthday in two years. Note: Photo courtesy of Tryon Palace Historic Sites & Gardens

But the center, literally, of the Outer Banks is the Cape Hatteras National Seashore which runs 70 miles from Oregon Inlet south to Ocracoke Inlet. It's also the center of a heated debate between owners of off road vehicles who have enjoyed driving along the beach for generations and environmental groups who have claimed the vehicles disturb nests built on the beach by piping plovers, American oystercatchers and sea turtles. The drivers argue this is a national seashore and not an aviary, but a consent decree signed in April of this year has set buffer zones around each nest, effectively limiting the areas where off road vehicles can travel.

pamlico1 National Park Service Rangers make daily inspections of areas where nests are located to ensure they are protected.

What all of this means if you intend to take a walk (or a drive) along the Atlantic side of the seashore, is that you should be aware of where the buffer zones are located. Some areas between Salvo and Avon have trails for the vehicles on the "sound side" of the seashore (the side facing Pamlico Sound). The National Park Service web site for Cape Hatteras has buffer locations (

Rodanthe-Located on the northern end of Hatteras Island, Rodanthe has a 796-foot fishing pier (it's called either "Hatteras Pier" or "Rodanthe Pier") that has withstood, for the most part, hurricanes since being built in the 1940's. When it was first constructed, the pier was 1100 feet long and had a motel and cottages; then in September 2003, Hurricane Isabel came ashore, shortening the pier to its present length.

Avon-Located just north of Cape Hatteras, Avon has a 600-foot fishing pier (there's a fee to use it). On the sound side, "Canadian Hole" attracts windsurfers from around the world to a deep protected area just offshore.

"If you're looking for something like Atlantic City with nightlife and fast food, forget it on the Outer Banks," advises Paul Rosell. "But if you're looking to chill out and relax while enjoying some world class fishing, this is where you want to be. I guarantee, it's a place the likes of which they've never seen before."

Pamlico Sound
Fast Facts:
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States at 208 feet high.

- The film "Nights in Rodanthe" starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane was filmed in the Outer Banks as was "Leatherheads" staring George Clooney and Renee Zellweger.

- They were born in the Outer Banks: Astronaut Michael Collins (Apollo 8 and Apollo 11) in Avon, North Carolina and Caleb Bradham, inventor of Pepsi Cola, born in New Bern, North Carolina

.- Over time, there have been inlets in 24 different locations along the 100-mile stretch of the Outer Banks. Today, there are three.

BoatU.S. Cooperating Marinas
- Hurricane Harbor Marina and Boatyard, 601 Chinchilla Drive, Bayboro, North Carolina, 252-745-3369 BoatU.S. Members receive $.10 gallon fuel discount and 25% off transient slips.

- Hatteras Landing Marina, Hatteras, North Carolina, 800-551-8478. BoatU.S. Members receive 25% discount on transient slips and free pump-out.

- Whittaker Creek Marina, Oriental, North Carolina, 252-249-0666. BoatU.S. Members receive 25% discount on transient slips and a 15% discount on pump-out.

- Bridge Point Marina and Hotel, 101 Howell Road, New Bern, North Carolina, 252-637-7372. BoatU.S. Members receive 25% discount on transient slips.

Outer Banks Tourism
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Tryon Palace, New Bern
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum

Blackbeard Slept HereHis name was Edward Teach but his friends, and enemies, called him "Blackbeard." Probably the most famous of all pirates, Blackbeard made a living plundering ships sailing in and out of inlets along the Outer Banks that carried gold, rum, food and weapons. He was killed at age 28 during a battle with British Royal Navy Lt. Robert Maynard in November 1718 just inside the Ocracoke Inlet. In 1996, his ship, Queen Anne's Revenge, is believed to have been found in 20 feet of water in Beaufort Inlet. There's a Blackbeard Pirate Festival held every June in Hampton, Virginia and Dreamworks is at work on a movie about his life.