Ch. 5. Sailing to Port of Bath– In and Out from Ocracoke with Cargo Imports
For eastern North Carolina in 1715 Ocracoke Inlet was the primary gateway for commercial vessels, bringing
goods from other colonies and from across the Atlantic (see Ocracoke Inlet inset on 1733 Moseley Map).
However, due to the reefs offshore and the sandbars, many English and other European passengers opted to sail
on transatlantic crossings to Virginia (Hampton Roads) entering at the entrance to the James River. New
colonists and visitors then had the option to transfer to a smaller vessel or go overland. Going by land required
renting or buying purchase horses, using guides, purchasing household servants, farm slaves, farm equipment,
and assorted chattel. Horse drawn wagons, pack horses and mules would carry new colonists to their ultimate
destination, along the way sleeping outdoors or staying at homes, inns/ordinaries or taverns.
Ocracoke inlet was treacherous. If they didn’t founder on a reef on the approach, sailing vessels crossing the bar
were in danger of running aground on the shoals once inside. As early as 1715 the North Carolina General
Assembly passed a resolution calling for the settlement of pilots on Ocracoke Island. Residents with local
knowledge of the changing channels were necessary to help guide ships safely through the inlet, and across
Pamlico Sound. It was a function of the Carolina provincial commissioners to license and regulate the Ocracoke
pilots. At this time the sextant had not been invented and navigators could only tell latitude not longitude so
captains consulted maps relying on local knowledge and sun and stars, not navigation charts. Maps of the era
had insets of key inlets with printed instructions (Ex. Lawson’s 1709 map, Wimble’s 1714 map, abd Okakoke
Inlet instructions to left of cartouche at bottom of 1733 Moseley map, for link to digitized Moseley map see
ECU Joyner Library weblink in references).
Ship captains would tack back and forth just outside Ocracoke inlet, waiting for a pilot boat from Port Bath or
from Ocracoke Island to appear. Many vessels, drawing too much water for safe passage, needed to be
‘lightered” (much or all of the cargo would be transferred to lighter vessels) before crossing “the bar”. After
passing safely over the bar, small craft drawing less than six feet might pass through Teach’s Hole. However,
“no vessel of burthen can pass it (the Swash with 8-9 foot depth) until they discharge Cargo, and can only
return again half loaded, & have the Reamainder sent down in lighters, Sloops or Periaquas (NC Rec V 816,
IV 171, Crittenden 1936 p. 5) Once inside the protection of the islands cargo would be loaded back onto the
ship or lightering boats would carry on with the cargo across the sound to Bath, New Bern, Washington, and
other coastal Carolina ports.
“Ships of up to 250 tons could sail through Ocracoke Inlet and even through the Swash, so North Carolina was
not as isolated from the main ocean commerce as might be thought. Despite commercial handicaps (hazards of
storm and sandbank, difficult communication with the outside world, low prices for native products,
communication, high shipping insurance rates, high cost of imported goods) North Carolina succeeded in
developing a trade of no mean proportions. The majority of vessels were so small, that even though dangerous,
they did not find it impossible to put into North Carolina ports. Even by 1764-1800 according to Lloyd’s
Register of Shipping the majority of ships registered were less than 300 gross tons each.” (Crittendon 1936).
In 1715 the most common types of coastal boats in use at Port Bath were the two- masted Chesapeake style
pilot schooner and single masted Bermuda style sloop, both having less than 50 ton burthen (burden cargo
carrying capacity). The major carriers of naval stores were two-masted brigs or brigantines, capable of 100 ton
burthen, especially used out of Edenton and Brunswick. Larger vessels along the coast were the three-masted
ship and the two-masted snow, both with 150 ton burden. Vessels with up to 250 burthen were capable of
crossing the Ocracoke bar (Crittendon 1936).