Boating in North Carolina's Legendary Pamlico Sound

By: Richard Crowder

One of the definitions of a “sound” is a body of water between the mainland and an island. The eighty-mile long by fifteen mile wide Pamlico Sound on the eastern coast of North Carolina fits this definition perfectly. It is separated from the mainland by the idyllic, unique, and scenic island chain comprising the Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina stretches almost two hundred miles from south of Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Virginia in the north where Chesapeake Bay empties into the Atlantic Ocean all the way south to Cape Lookout in North Carolina. This narrow berm of sand protects the northern half of mainland North Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean and creates a pair of brackish saltwater sounds that is boating paradise.

The Outer Banks consist of several thin islands, most of which are connected by ferry or by bridge by US Route 12 which runs almost its entire length. Smaller Albemarle Sound in the north is sheltered from the ocean by Bodie Island, which is famous for the sand dunes of the Kill Devil Hills of Kitty Hawk and its sixty foot granite monument commemorating the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903.

Oregon Inlet separates Bodie Island from the longest island in the chain, Hatteras Island, which is almost sixty miles long and is most famous for Cape Hatteras near its southernmost point. Cape Hatteras is itself famous for its shoals stretching east into the Atlantic that has claimed hundreds of ships over centuries.

The Hatteras Ferry extends Route 12 across Hatteras Inlet south to fourteen mile long Ocracoke Island. From there, Route 12 ends and a ferry will take you past Portsmouth Island south to Cedar Island where Route 12 continues to the mainland. Ocracoke Island is separated from Portsmouth Island by Ocracoke inlet. All of these narrow inlets provide access from the protected sounds from the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Ocean tides and currents flow into the Sound through these inlets, meeting and mixing with the many freshwater rivers and creeks flowing from the mainland, resulting in a brackish mix.


In decreasing size and from north to south, Hatteras, Ocracoke, Portsmouth, and Cedar Islands form the eastern barrier of the eighty mile long Pamlico Sound. The southernmost part of Pamlico Sound breaks into two separated bodies of navigable water. The most easterly of these two is the long and narrow Core Sound which is bordered on the east by the Outer Banks’ most southern group of islands forming the Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Cape Lookout National Seashore is a protected area on the southern point of the Outer Banks aptly named Cape Lookout. The western shore of Core Sound is a peninsula of the mainland. The southernmost town of Core Sound, and by extension of Pamlico Sound, is the picturesque town of Morehead City. Morehead City is a popular destination for boaters and offers every imaginable form of culinary and entertainment delight.

The other navigable body of water on the south of Pamlico Sound is the long and wide L-shaped outlet of the Neuse River, which for practical boating purposes ends inland at the town of New Bern- the first state capitol. With a population of about 30,000, New Bern is accommodating to every possible pleasure boating requirement, has many historical sites, and is famous as being the birthplace of Pepsi Cola in the 1890’s. The drugstore in which Pepsi Cola was created is a popular tourist attraction.

About one-third up the sound on the western shore is the outlet of the Pamlico River which will take you inland to the city of Washington, North Carolina. With a population of about ten thousand, Washington, known as both ‘The Original Washington’ and ‘Little Washington,’ was settled in 1776. It was the first settlement in America to be named after the storied General who became the first President.

Downtown Washington borders the waterfront of the Pamlico River with welcoming facilities for visiting boaters. The scenic boardwalk provides access to all manner of services and supplies along with restaurants, boutiques, museums, and theatres. Boaters will find launching facilities and every imaginable boating accessory for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, boarding, along with rentals of most of these items.

Washington is home to Fountain Powerboats, now part of the Iconic Marine Group which includes Baja, Donzi, and Pro-Line. It has been from Washington that I have made several sorties on the Pamlico River and Sound in the company of the most hospitable, affable, and knowledgeable Mr. Reggie Fountain, often referred to as the King of Offshore.

Pamlico Sound claims a worldwide designation as the ultimate watersports playground. It is the largest sound on the east coast and the largest salt water lagoon. It is said to have some of the best windsurfing and kiteboarding conditions in the country, especially in the spring and fall when wind conditions are best. It also supports excellent bay fishing opportunities and spectacular cruising scenery.

Wherever you choose to go on Pamlico Sound, make sure you have a current navigation chart and updated GPS chip as overall the Sound is relatively shallow. Ensure you religiously follow the marked and charted channels, and if venturing off-channel have a good depth sounder and/or bottom graph and post a lookout on the bow.

Pamlico Sound has plenty of good fishing holes and is known for its oyster beds and clamming grounds. Local tourism sites claim you simply have to find a sandy bottom near sea grass, hop out of your boat, and you’ll land on a live clam ready to cook.

The mainland side of the Sound offers dozens of inlets and coves for cruising, often leading to small communities but again ensure you have a current chart to lead you. The eastern shoreline comprising the Outer Banks is very shallow but offers great public access for anchoring and swimming as well as welcoming communities with docking and amenities. Overnighting along the Outer Banks will provide you the unique opportunity to enjoy both a relatively unobstructed sunset and sunrise over open water.

Pamlico Sound, beautiful and unique, is welcoming and hospitable for boaters of every stripe.


#destinations #pamlico #pamlicosound

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