Coping without a ferry at Ocracoke

Feb. 10, 2013 @ 01:33 AM

For hundreds of years, Philip Howard says, his ancestors lived on Ocracoke Island without ferries.

They did just fine, although it is fair to note that his forebearers were not used to large chain grocery stores and medical specialists.

Since the channel filled with sand earlier this year, blocking the hourly free ferry between Ocracoke and Hatteras islands, Howard and the rest of Ocracoke's 1,000 or so residents are learning to cope.

There's no short way to the rest of the Outer Banks. Islanders have the "long ferry" to fall back on - a three-hour voyage across Pamlico Sound to the mainland - but the inconvenience of the long, slow ride, followed by a multi-hour drive to get anywhere, followed too often by a hotel stay, is frustrating everyone.

Especially basketball coaches.

The usual ferry off Ocracoke took about 40 minutes to reach Hatteras Village. It ran every hour (every half-hour during tourist season). Once in Hatteras, it was an easy drive up N.C. 12 to any point on the Outer Banks.

In October, Hurricane Sandy ripped out parts of the highway on Hatteras Island. Still, Ocracokers could go shopping or visit doctors on Hatteras, and those with four-wheel-drive vehicles could even detour around the breach in the highway to reach Nags Head and Hampton Roads.

Since Hurricane Irene in 2011, shoals have built up in the inlet that separates Ocracoke from Hatteras. Since Sandy, the ferry could sometimes run only at high tide. Since mid-January, it has not been able to run at all.

What was once a day trip to Nags Head for chemotherapy is now a two-night hotel stay for Doreen Robinson.

Swan Quarter on the mainland, the long ferry's terminus, is an hour's drive from Manteo and a 90-minute drive from South Nags Head, if there's no traffic. The two-lane road past and through three national wildlife refuges is "the longest no-man's-land road," Robinson said.

Even a trip to the grocery store takes careful planning to get back to Swan Quarter in time to catch the three-hour ferry ride home.

To make life easier for islanders, the state's Department of Transportation added two extra runs. The late ferry leaves the mainland at 10 p.m. and reaches the barrier island about 1 a.m.

"I had an eye doctor's exam in Elizabeth City, and it took me 18 hours to go and come back," Howard said. "The good thing was, I didn't have to stay overnight because they started running a 10 o'clock ferry home."

Sidra Seitz broke a tooth right after Christmas. She boarded the Hatteras ferry to go to her dentist, but the ship got stuck on the shoal for four hours and turned back to Ocracoke after it was freed. Seitz couldn't get the tooth fixed until January, and even then, she sat five hours in line to board.

The simple things like grocery shopping are harder now, she said.

"Who wants to ride a ferry three hours, drive three hours, then turn around and do it again to get home?

"You do roll with the punches, but you get pretty tired of it after a while."

Few businesses are open in Ocracoke in January, but now is the time for building and repairs, if supply trucks will agree to make the long crossing. Rates may go up.

John Gossman, who has a coastal delivery business, said he may have to double his charges to take into account the extra miles and the extra time. On Sunday, he delivered plumbing and heating supplies to Ocracoke; he spent four hours on the road and six hours reading the newspaper in the passenger lounge of the long ferry "Silver Lake."

"A seven-hour day is now 12 hours, 14 hours," he said. "It's horrible. This ferry ride is way too long for me. I won't be happy till I see land. You don't see land, do you?"

The ferry division has adjusted departures to give deliverymen extra time to unload in Ocracoke and catch the ferry back.

Mail delivery is 90 minutes later than normal since the Hatteras ferry was sidelined and the truck was rerouted through Swan Quarter. Willing hands are waiting to unload, Postmaster Celeste Brooks said.

"We unload him, and we feed him, if need be," she said. "You've got to take care of people you work with. That's how the island works."

It is possible, said Cheryl Ballance, director of the Ocracoke Health Center, to live on the island without leaving often, but it has no large grocery stores, little entertainment and no dentists, no eye doctors, no specialists at all.

"You either really like it, or you really can't take it," said Ballance, who has lived on Ocracoke for 25 years. "This type of situation weeds people out."

Those with medical emergencies can be airlifted off the island, she said, and the Coast Guard will send a small boat from Hatteras for less-severe but still urgent cases that can tolerate the 20-minute crossing to meet an ambulance.

Each weekday afternoon, someone from the clinic drives to the north end of Ocracoke Island, to the now-idle docks where the Hatteras ferry used to come in, to meet the Coast Guard's small boat that can cross the shallow waters of the inlet.

A guardsman hands over a sealed case containing prescription medications for islanders. The clinic sends back a sealed case containing blood and other samples that need to go to a lab.

On the way over on Monday, the water was only 3 feet deep in some places, Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Preiser said. The Hatteras ferry draws 4 feet.

A dredge is deepening the channel to 10 feet, but it won't finish for at least 30 days.

"I don't know that I ever remember it this bad, that it took this long," Robinson said. "It screws up the kids playing sports."

Wintertime in Ocracoke is dominated by high school basketball.

The girls' varsity team is No. 1 in the Tideland Conference this year. The boys are No. 2. Everyone comes to the games.

"It's a huge following," Ocracoke School Principal Laura Kelly said. "A lot of times we have more fans at a game than the home team."

After Sandy, visiting teams could not easily get to Ocracoke, and games were delayed until after Christmas. Then shoals blocked the Hatteras ferry, and now time is running out for the Dolphins to get in enough games.

"It's been a scheduling nightmare," athletic director Charles Temple said.

The Lady Dolphins will take the long ferry today, play Columbia and catch the late ferry home. They do homework on the six-hour voyage.

"You can't justify this much time traveling in a season if you don't emphasize grades," coach Adam Burleson said.

Tonight's game is huge for the Lady Dolphins, and the outcome will figure in the tournament brackets.

Waiting for the brackets, Burleson said, "is kind of neat, unless you're trying to figure out how to get here. There are a lot of schools that would prefer their kids not go on a 14-hour trip for a one-hour game."

The Lady Dolphins varsity team has only eight players, so some of the middle schoolers practice with them. Both ends of the 2-year-old gym are covered with booster signs naming local businesses. Volunteers are numerous, offering discounted rates on hotel rooms for visiting teams, finding food and lining up travel arrangements for the home team.

Burleson and his assistant, Bill Evans, put the girls through 75 minutes of drills after school on Monday. He talked to them about tonight's game, about psyching out opponents.

"Most of this is mental," he told the team. "We're trying to wear them down."

The long ferry can do that, too, if you let it.

Rumor says the Hatteras channel is refilling with sand behind the dredge. Rumor also says the short ferry may not run again until spring. That would be disastrous - Ocracoke's tourist season begins in early March, and it is heavily dependent on day-trippers.

The Lady Dolphins sprinted up and down the gym floor.

"You trying to catch the ferry?" Burleson called to one scampering player.

"You've got to be good at calling an audible," Temple had said earlier in the day, "and just dealing with things as they come up."

Like sand in the channel and taking the long way home.

The girls ran and shot. Sometimes they missed.

"Don't give up!" Evans shouted at them, and then again: "Don't give up!"