North Carolina Circumnavigation
By Steve Earley - Chesapeake, Virginia - USA
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Most folks have used Google Earth and if you have you are in for a treat. Click the image at left to see a track of Steve's trip. Be sure to click the push pins for more info about each location. Let me know what you think.

Six days, 97 miles, two sounds, a river and a creek made for a fantastic sailing trip aboard my John Welsford-designed Pathfinder “Spartina” in late September. This trip was a bit different for me. Normally I cruise single-handed, but this time I brought along Bruce Hollingsworth, a great friend for over thirty years. Our friendship goes back to when we worked together in a scuba diving shop in San Diego back in the 1970s. We’ve lived on opposite coasts now for over twenty years but have kept in touch. When I told him I was building Spartina for some open boat cruising he asked to join me on a trip. Bruce had not spent a lot of time sailing, but he had done plenty of backpacking and wilderness camping. I’ve always thought of open boat cruising as backpacking on that water - this trip was an opportunity to combine our skills. In addition to his experience, Bruce brought along some excellent safety gear including an EPIRB, waterproof GPS, safety strobes and a couple of harnesses with automatic inflation life vests. Combined with my gear from earlier cruises, we were well prepared.


Bruce, left, and Steve at the dock at Harkers Island Fishing Center

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Our plan was to circumnavigate a portion of mainland North Carolina and Cedar Island. What appealed to me about this trip was the variety of water we would cover – from narrow channels between sandy islets to wide open sounds, broad rivers to the long canals with commercial traffic – each day would be a little bit different. Plus we would visit a couple of beautiful waterfront towns along the way.

We put in at Harkers Island just inside of Cape Lookout. The ramp was at Harker’s Island Fishing Center which offered a modest hotel, excellent ramp and vehicle storage all at reasonable prices. I would recommend it to anybody wanted to cruise in the Cape Lookout area. We arrived late on a rainy evening, rigged and loaded the boat and then headed to a nearby seafood restaurant. Then back to the hotel for some rest and to go over the charts one last time.

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Our route up Core Sound at right, across the bottom of Pamlico Sound, down the Neuse River to Oriental and down the ICW to Beaufort and then back to Harkers Island. Click image for larger view.

Click HERE for an interactive version (must have Google Earth)

We launched in a steady rain and started the first leg of our trip up Core Sound just inside of the Core Banks. The weather cleared by mid afternoon and by evening we anchored at an area called the Swash, so near to the barrier island we could hear the surf breaking on the other side of the dunes. The second day took us the northern end of Core Sound and an anchorage in three feet of water behind Wainwright Island. The lightest wind of the trip was on the third day as we motored across the bottom of Pamlico Sound. The water was so glassy calm that we stopped miles out in the sound for an afternoon swim. Later that afternoon, as the wind picked up, we reach our next anchorage at Raccoon Island. Day four was a great reach across the Neuse River to Oriental. We tied up at the public dock there and stayed at the Oriental Marina and Inn just yards away. A couple of Coronas followed by dinner on the waterfront made for a great evening. Day five we headed back across the Neuse River and up winding Adams Creek to the Intercostals Waterway. Twenty five miles later we passed under the bascule bridge to Beaufort. We were out on the water thirty minutes before dawn the next morning on the short run back to Harker’s Island Fishing Center and tied up at the docks before nine.

It was a fantastic trip that we’ll remember for a long time. I’m already looking forward to a spring cruise. With that in mind I would like to take a moment to look at equipment/techniques to see what worked well and where we could make some improvements.

Bruce at the tiller, boat fully loaded with gear, food and water for two – and still a wide open cockpit

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The boat

I’m a real fan of John Welsford’s Pathfinder design. I built mine as a gaff rigged yawl with a conventional boom. It is a joy to sail. On this trip we had two people, boom tent, sleeping bags, three cameras, two fishing poles plus food and water for nine days (we carried 50% more than needed as a safety margin). Even with all that gear on board we had a wide open cockpit.


I carry a Coleman propane grill with a burner and a griddle. A typical dinner was sautéed onions and peppers mixed with chicken breast (from a foil packet) served with instant mashed potatoes. It was easy to fix, tasted great and was very filling. Breakfasts were granola type bars. Lunch was tuna fish salad, crackers and fruit.

Most of the food was in the water tight areas beneath the thwart (along with our clothes). Veggies were stored in a mesh hammock up under the foredeck where they stayed fresh and dry.

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Peppers, onions and chicken on the griddle, mashed potatoes in the pot

Boom tent

This is an area where I would like to makes some improvements. My boom tent is made out of polytarp, closed at the front end and open at the aft end. During my spring trip on Chesapeake Bay it was cool and comfortable. On this trip, with higher temperatures and more humidity, it was very warm and muggy. Muggy, and yes, buggy. More mosquitoes than I want to remember. So my plan it to add mesh covered vents at the forward end and along the peak, plus put mosquito netting flaps at the aft end. I won’t completely eliminate mosquitoes but would like to minimize them. And I think the extra venting will make things a bit more comfortable.

Sleeping bags

Both of us had good quality synthetic material sleeping bags. They were comfortable and, once put in their stuff sacks, took up very little storage space. But they may have been more than we needed for a late summer/early fall trip. Towards the end of the trip we were wearing thermals shirts and pants instead of sleeping inside of the sleeping bags. One of the options we talked during the about was using a combination of thermals and a bivy sac instead of a sleeping bag. Bivy sacs, at least according to the literature, take up even less storage space than a sleeping bag, offer waterproof protection and breathability, and come with the option of mosquito netting hood that certainly would have proved useful on this trip.

Evening at Wainwright Island

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One of the decisions we made while planning the trip was to use the outboard in case of no wind. We had a schedule to keep, no point in sitting and baking in the sun when we could be motoring to the next anchorage. My 3.5 hp two stroke Nissan outboard worked very well. It kept us moving on day three with virtually no wind, and it help us navigate the narrow Intracoastal Waterway. We carried a little over two gallons of gas and that it more than we needed. Our best estimate was that we could have covered well over 35 miles with the fuel on board.

Safety gear

We were extremely well equipped in this area. In addition to the Coast Guard required equipment, we had the automatic inflating vest/harnesses, strobes, cell phones, vhf radio, two gps’s and hypothermia kits which included extra clothes, thermal blankets and fire starting equipment.

Things I would like to add

Number one of my list is a boarding ladder. Sometime this winter I’ll design and build one. We could climb in to the boat from the water, but it was more work than I would like. A ladder would be a nice addition.

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Swimming on a calm Pamlico Sound

For those days with light wind I would like to have a larger head sail. John Welsford tells me he had a design for a flat cut radial head gennaker. It will be at least a few seasons before I can afford one of these, but some day I would like to have one on board.

Weather and Planning

I found that inclement weather is not a problem. We started the trip in a steady rain, and then got caught by a small thunderstorm the following day. Our foul weather gear worked very well. In my case, I had the West Marine jacket and pants, the lowest cost version they had to offer. They kept me dry and comfortable. We did not experience high winds on the trip. We did build two lay days in to the schedule in case of severe weather, our plan being to anchor in a protected area and wait it out.

As for planning, I aimed for roughly 16 miles of travel each day. I found we covered distances quicker than I had expected. On my next trip I’ll look at 24 mile days, but 30 miles could be practical.

The next trip

Half the fun of any trip is in the planning. I’ve been looking over my waterproof chart books of Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina. There is a lot of territory out there to be explored. I can see a long weekend trip in the spring and a longer trip in the fall. But exactly where, I’m not sure. That will give me lots to think about this winter.


Click HERE for a photo album from Steve's trip.

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