Anyone who spends a lot of time on boats likely spends a fair amount of time on docks. Relatively speaking, that is, as the dock is usually just a transit point for getting from land to boat. But along with being an important junction point between land and boat, docks offer plenty of opportunities for recreation on their own merit, with fishing and swimming quickly coming to mind. Indeed, a dock’s utility can go well beyond its purported uses and some docks can also develop distinct characteristics, such as romantic, haunting, or full of life, to name a few.
My favorite dock of all time based on inherent recreational components and other distinct characteristics was the U.S. Coast Guard pier at Cape Lookout, North Carolina. It is also, by far, the largest dock I have ever had the pleasure of becoming intimately familiar with, thanks in large part to the Coast Guard’s abandonment of its facilities on that island in 1982.
The dock was located in front of a house that my family shared with three others as as vacation and weekend getaway spot. My father had spent significant time at that house during his childhood and teen years and, when given the opportunity to buy a share in the 1970s, jumped in with cash and several years of hard work to bring it back from the brink of dilapidation. It was his slice of heaven on earth, a slice I was blessed to enjoy, too.
The dock served as a convenient amenity, but our usage of it was dependent upon the good nature of the Coast Guard station’s captain, who generally changed each year. “By the book” captains generally prohibited our use of the dock, which meant multiple long slogs through the salt marsh to get from our boat to the house with our attendant coolers, luggage and assorted gear. This also meant that I could not use the dock as my personal playground and swimming/fishing platform.
The few captains with a more-laid-back attitude would grant us permission to unload at the dock, which also gave me leeway to fish and swim from it. And in the latter years of the Coast Guard’s tenure there, my sisters had reached an age at which the Coast Guard sailors would “look the other way” when by-the-book captains were shoreside, and were more than happy to help us bring our gear to the house.
That annual worry about whether or not we would be able to use the dock came to an end in 1982, and the dock, while still property of the U.S. government, started to feel like ours. And we used it like it was ours. No more slogging through the salt marsh, and I was able to fish and swim from it with impunity. For a while, anyhow….
The island had fallen under U.S. Park Service Control, and it seemed to take them a few years to get the place up and running as a park. They also didn’t utilize the Coast Guard pier, as it was across the bight from where they had set up their facilities. Nevertheless, starting in about 1989 we started to get push back from the park superintendent. U.S. Government issue “No Trespassing” signs went up on the dock and Park Service personnel started kicking us off the dock and warning us that we were breaking the law. As with Coast Guard captains, the park superintendents generally changed year by year, and that year’s was the only one that proved to be of the “strictly-by-the-book” variety. After she was shipped off to Alaska, the signs stayed up, but succeeding superintendents looked the other way and park rangers generally ignored our use of the dock.
And use it we did. It was our go-to for the basics of docking, unloading gear, swimming, and fishing. In fact, even though I have not cast a line from that dock since 2007, I have undoubtedly caught more fish from that dock than from all of my other fishing forays combined. Spot, pinfish, hogfish, croakers, bluefish, skate and dogfish by the thousands; flounder, sea bass, pompano, mackerel, sheepshead, puffer, trout, sharks and snapper by the hundreds; and a wide variety of other fish–known and unknown–by the dozens. It was a fishing paradise. If nothing was biting on the surf, and no hits while trolling, I could always count on catching something off that dock. And more often than not, something substantial. My dad’s biggest flounder and King Mackerel ever were both caught off that dock, and all of my 20-plus pound bluefish were caught there. It’s the only place I have ever caught a hammerhead shark, and a place where I’ve caught plenty of “the one that got away.” And while some of those “got aways” were undoubtedly sharks, others were definitely of the game fish variety, as evidenced by great leaps from the water, or up-close views before a last lunge and breaking of the line.
That dock also served as a perfect walkway for morning and evening strolls, as well as a perfect spot for sundown cocktail hour. While on that dock I have experienced countless magical moments brought forth by various elements—big and small—of nature putting on shows. And that dock as been the site of great bonding with friends, romance, and, sadly, even mourning.
The view is magical, too, with all of Cape Lookout’s bight before you, along with the black and white diamonds of the state’s most beautiful lighthouse. Along with the house, the dock was truly a magical place and my most favorite spot in the world. But it’s all gone now.
The Park Service took possession of the house in 2007 and, with no maintenance over the years, was finally claimed by a storm in 2020. Likewise neglected by the government, the old Coast Guard dock is being claimed by the sea and will soon consist of nothing but some old wooden pilings . . . and some wonderful memories.
—Originally published in Slidemoor.