The thin barrier islands of North Carolina, located up to 30 miles off the mainland, present a wonderful opportunity for travelers to see the state from a unique perspective - by ferry. The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) oversees the fleet of ferries that carry passengers and vehicles to and from the coastline. Since ferry transportation to these delicate islands was established in the mid-1920s, millions of visitors have happily gotten on board.
Currently, the NCDOT has seven routes and 24 ferries that serve Eastern North Carolina, from Knotts Island which straddles the Virginia state line, to Fort Fisher and the Southern beaches of the Cape Fear region. Operating 365 days a year, the 400+ hardworking employees make sure that rain or shine, the ferries get to their destinations, whether they are a quick 20 minute jaunt away or a 2.5-hour stretch across the Pamlico Sound.
Bear in mind that it's not just curious visitors who flock to the ferries. For the residents of lonely barrier islands such as Ocracoke Island, the ferry is the lifeline that provides goods and transportation to the mainland. Without it, life on these deserted islands, and the subsequent tourism that brings millions of visitors every year, simply couldn't exist.
Currently, locals and visitors alike are welcome to ride the ferry, driving any size car, motorcycle, or recreational vehicle that can operate on the highway, though in some locales, reservations may be required to ensure a spot. (Also, special permits are required for vehicles over 65 feet.)
All of the ferries are also pet friendly, provided that your pet either stays in the vehicle with you, or on a leash while exploring the boat. For folks with pet allergies, the ferries also offer pet-free passenger lounges.
For a starboard snack, most of the ferry terminals offer vending machines and close proximity to restaurants and stores, and several of the longer routes have ferries with vending machines on board.
Regardless of which route you take or which boat you board, the experience of turning off your car engine, rolling down your windows, and enjoying a cool ocean breeze while relaxing behind the wheel is nothing short of amazing. It is hard to believe that this experience is available to everyone, with thousands of passengers on board statewide on any given day, when originally the ferry system began with just one captain and just one boat.
In the mid 1920s, Captain J.B. (Toby) Tillet established a privately run tug and barge service that would carry passengers across Oregon Inlet, connecting the Northern Outer Banks with Hatteras Island. In 1934, the North Carolina Highway Commission took notice of this operation and its importance to residents, and began to subsidize Tillet's business, keeping tolls affordable to his small clientele. Eight years later, the Highway Commission eliminated the tolls altogether, paying Tillet to continue his business until he decided to sell it to the state in 1950.
In 1947, Thomas A. Baum, who had a similar operation running between the Croatan Sound and Manns Harbor, sold his business to the Commission as well, making this route the first official route of the NC Ferry System.
Today, the NCDOT's Ferry Division operations are supported by a full-service shipyard, dredge, military-style landing craft utility vehicles (LCU's), tugs, barges, and other support vessels. Each year, North Carolina ferries transport over 1.1 million vehicles and more than 2.5 million passengers across five separate bodies of water - the Currituck and Pamlico Sounds and the Cape Fear, Neuse and Pamlico Rivers.
Obviously, a lot has changed in the 50 years since the state purchased their first passenger ferry, but in the more recent years following September 11 (2001), like all forms of public transportation, national safety has been at the forefront of the NC Ferry Division's concerns.
Today, all NCDOT ferry passengers and vehicles may be subject to voluntary screenings and photo ID checks, and the ferries are also no longer permitted to carry unaccompanied baggage or unattended vehicles.
This stems from the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA), enacted on November 25, 2002. The MTSA was designed to protect the nation's ports and waterways from terrorist attacks. It requires vessels and port facilities to conduct vulnerability assessments and develop security plans that may include screening procedures for passengers and baggage, personnel identification checks and/or installation of surveillance equipment.
In addition, the North Carolina Ferry System is part of America's Waterway Watch, which is a national awareness program that asks those who work, live, or recreate on or near the water to be aware of suspicious activity that might include threats to our country's homeland security. Anyone observing suspicious activity is asked to note details and contact the National Response Center's Hotline at 1-800-424-8802 or 1-877-24WATCH.
Overall, the photo ID checks and other security measures in place do not jeopardize the enjoyable experience of riding the ferry, and for the majority of passengers, aren't the slightest bit inconvenient.
One concern that all travelers should bear in mind is the possibility of bad weather, and travelling by ferry is no different. In the event of a bad tropical storm or hurricane, particularly one with high winds and large waves, ferry service is suspended until the conditions are once again deemed safe. If such an event is on the horizon, check local weather listings, call 1-800-BY-FERRY, or visit the NC Ferry System website for travel updates.
Rainy weather is not a problem, however, as the ferries run their courses rain or shine, with passenger lounges or covered areas for folks who need to get out of their vehicle and stretch.
Depending on how much of the state you want to explore, it is possible to travel along the coast of North Carolina and hit all seven of the individual ferry routes, but whether you take just one ferry or a few on your coastal adventures, each route is a little different, each with its own procedures and local attractions.
Terms: NC Ferry System, NC Ferries
Information on the North Carolina Ferry System, including schedules and fees.
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