August 30, 2006
For years I have wanted to go to Portsmouth Island. Ever since I first heard about this tiny island below Ocracoke with the abandoned village, I've been fascinated with it. And since I'm an avid kayaker, it seemed natural that paddling to the island would make for the perfect adventure. So my paddling partner Kim and I came up with a trip plan. Basically, we were going to basecamp in Frisco on Hatteras Island, take the ferry to Ocracoke first thing in the morning, launch from somewhere around Silver Lake, spend the night on Portsmouth, then return the next day. It didn't quite work out the way we planned, but we did finally get there.
Upon our arrival in Frisco Monday morning, we came to the realization that tropical storm Ernesto was going to screw with our schedule. Although we had planned to launch on Thursday and return on Friday, it was looking like if we didn't do it by Wednesday, our window of opportunity would close on us. So we decided to rest on Monday, do a little wet exit/entry practice on Tuesday, then head out Wednesday. On a whim, Tuesday we decided to do a "quick" paddle up to Buxton from Frisco. The intention was to dock at the Fish House in Buxton, get some dinner, then paddle back. But we never did find the Fish House, and having paddled the distance pretty much in a nice tailwind, we faced a headwind the whole way back. It turned out to be nearly 5 miles each way, so we got a bit of a taste of what we'd be in for while paddling to Portsmouth.
So around 7:00 a.m. we headed out from base camp to board the ferry to Ocracoke. It was already shaping up to be a beautiful day, but we had decided at this point that camping overnight on Portsmouth would be too risky. The storms ahead of Ernesto were already predicted to start arriving on Thursday. Paddling down and back on the same day could be rather strenuous, but we were willing to try it. Upon our arrival in Ocracoke Village we stopped at the National Park Service visitor's center, just as they were opening for the day. We had assumed we needed to check in with them and provide them our float plan. They knew nothing of any such requirement, so we just asked them for any advice they had. Their only advice was for us not to attempt it. They felt the winds and surf would be too difficult that day, and we should cancel our trip. But they suggested we check with the guys at the Ride the Wind surf shop in the village and see what they thought.
Our response from the guys at Ride the Wind was the same: too much wind, water too rough; postpone till another day. That was not an option! They said we'd be paddling directly into a 15 mph wind the whole way there. Well, I reasoned, wouldn't that then mean we'd get to ride a 15 mph tailwind the whole way back? We figured we might as well try it, and if we found it too difficult after a mile or so, we'd just head back. One of the guys there agreed with that philosophy, and also suggested that we do the trip in a straight line, instead of hopping first to Beacon Island to avoid the shoals, as we had originally planned. He said since it was high tide, the shoals would be navigable. We thought we'd go with this plan, since it would cut some mileage off of our trip. He did reiterate, though, that the inlet is tricky.