All four of us have been dreaming this summer of dropping anchor in clean deep water where we can simply dive off the boat when we need to cool off. Navigating between two unmarked shoals, we felt our way from Beaufort Inlet into the deep water along the north shore of Shackleford Banks, a uninhabited island that stretches between Fort Macon and Cape Lookout. We set the hook in fifteen feet of water less than fifty yards from shore. A wild horse grazed the edge of a tidal pool.
In the nineteenth century, Shackleford was home to the area's whaling industry which was centered around a settlement called Diamond City. A series of devastating hurricanes in 1899 persuaded the inhabitants to relocate to the mainland or Harkers Island. Today, only wild horses live on the island, wandering freely through the dunes, thickets and maritime forest of stunted juniper, oak and myrtle.The horses too are stunted, hard and lean with long manes and tails that sweep the ground behind them. Although the origins of the horses are not fully known, many people choose to believe that they are descendants of Spanish mustangs lost off shipwrecks.
We lowered Scout in the dinghy, his elevator on and off the boat, clad in in his booties and PFD. Cameron ran Beth and Scout to shore, then returned to pick up me and Taylor. On shore, we walked along the edge of the water looking at the hoof prints in the sand, including the small prints of a dark golden foal we had seen earlier in the morning.
We ambled down the shoreline, then Cameron and I climbed a trail into the dunes to cross the island to the ocean. We trudged three quarters of a mile in soft sand up and down a seemingly endless sea of sand dunes before we dropped down onto an empty beach. The ocean was dark green and windblown, the waves surging over broken shells.
On our way back across the island, we passed four more horses grazing on thin grass alongside the pathway. They ignored our intrusion. Back on the sound side, Beth and Taylor soaked while Scout swam then dug himself a cooling hole in the sand. Cameron decided to swim out to the boat, leaving the rest of us to motor back in the dinghy.
After we hoisted the dinghy with Scout aboard, we dropped it into the water to float astern in the current. We ate lunch, then napped and read for an hour or so. Refreshed, we jumped overboard and floated at the end of a rope we hung off the stern.
We finished our dip with a rinse using a bucket of fresh water, then settled into the cockpit for chips and salsa and a cold beer while we waited for sunset over Fort Macon, a Civil War fort with a dry moat built to guard Beaufort Inlet (bricks provided by Otway Burns, namesake of Burnsville, North Carolina in the mountains-- a long story for later).
We slept well, cooled by the ocean winds that dance over the island. We fished but did not catch anything. Most of the sea life we saw was cannonball jellyfish. Then, late one night, I discovered the sparking phosphorescence of the sea water when I peed over the lifeline. For a few days we tasted the flavor of what cruising can be.