All Over But the Pilings–Memories of a Dock

All Over But the Pilings–Memories of a Dock

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.

My Last Sunrise from the Coast Guard Dock at Cape Lookout

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.

Kicking Off the Season—Just Me and My Boat!

Kicking Off the Season—Just Me and My Boat!

—March 2, 2016

It is an especially cold mid-winter day. The type day that gave reason to mammalian hibernation, as just trying keep warm in the cold of the open air would rapidly deplete an animal’s fat reserves. So cold that birds are reluctant to fly and the briny water of the harbour has iced over, encasing docks and mooring balls in a steely grip.

Any thoughts of boating quickly turn to thoughts of hypothermia and speculation as to how many minutes—or would that be seconds?—one might survive from an accidental spill overboard into the open waters. Thoughts of boating also quickly bring forth the image of the lonely boatyard, some 300 boats enshrouded in tarps and plastic, that are further covered with a thin layer of crusty snow. The place so still that it seems if the boats have been sitting there for years, like the headstones of a centuries-old cemetery.

But no, life will return to the boatyard, and in just two long months the first of them will be launched and the boating season begin again with the first whisperings of spring.

This idea of a “boating season” is something folks in the deep south and out on the southwest coast don’t have to contend with, as their boating season is year round. And yes, we boaters up here in the cold northern climates are envious. We miss our boats during the long winter season and sometimes wish we lived in a place where it’s possible to jump on one’s boat and take a toot on a warm (what’s that?) February day.

Sometimes….

We relish our short season, and with the annual changing of the seasons get to experience an elation that would be entirely foreign to you deep south and southwest coast boaters. It’s an elation equivalent to that experienced by children on Christmas morning—boundless joy over the promise of all the foreseen and unforeseen boating of the season yet to come.

It happens every year in mid to late April, after I get the call that my boat has been launched, rigged, and is ready to go. As soon as work permits, I load my truck with sails, sheets and the minimum gear needed for safety and comfort, and head to the boatyard. It is always a solo venture, as I like to savour the season’s first outing—that trip from the marina to my dock—alone, just me and my boat.

I am usually just about shaking with excitement by the time I climb onboard. And though the boat always seems quite the mess, what with mold in the cabin and the deck dirty with grit from the rigger’s shoes, discarded tape and broken clevis pins, it doesn’t bother me as my annual cleaning later in the week is just part of the overall spring ritual. I check the rigging and lines and inspect the boat from bow to stern, mentally checking off all the things that will need to be done to prepare for the season’s successful voyaging. The engine and its fluids are checked, and then the starter pushed, which will bring a smile to my face upon hearing the familiar sputter of the Yanmar diesel. The engine tested and ready for action, the sails will be hanked on next, a job much easier with two, but one I do happily alone, just me and my boat.

When all seems ready and I can cast off and head for my harbour, I crack open a beer and pause to enjoy the boat sitting quietly on the mooring. I look around at the few other boats that have been launched, all in various stages of readiness. I try to just relax and enjoy the beer, but the season has begun and I need to feel the boat move. So I cast off and put her into gear and head out of the harbor. If there is a favorable breeze I will unfurl the jib once I’m in open waters, and sail for my harbor, but if not, no bother as I am content to motor with the knowledge that there will be many months of sailing ahead.

It is the best day of the year, and the elation I feel while heading for my harbour—just me and my boat—makes the change of seasons and months-long absence of boating worth it.

—Originally published in February by slidemoor.com.

Pause and Consider the Micro-World that Thrives Around Your Dock

Pause and Consider the Micro-World that Thrives Around Your Dock

While most people consider docks primarily as a platform from which to board a boat, many docks also serve as unique micro ecosystems teeming with marine life.

Take, for example, my own wharf. The T-shaped structure itself is comprised of three rock-filled cribs that support wooden beams and planking from above the high-tide line out 40 feet to end in six-feet of low-tide water where the top of the T provides a brace and anchoring point for a 30-foot wide floating dock.

It’s a nice little piece of wooden real estate above the water. So nice that sea gulls like to use it at times for their dining room table. The local green crab seems to be their favorite dish, but every now and then I guess they dine à la dumpster as I’ll find chicken bones instead of shells. A bit annoying, yes, but they don’t abuse it too much and I keep a push broom under the stairs leading from the embankment to the wharf.

A pair of kingfishers also like the wharf. I believe they and their ascendents live in a large copse of trees on the hill above the wharf. While a bit skittish, they sometimes alight on the top of the pilings as if to survey their hunting grounds before darting over the harbor to scoop up minnows.

A mink, and his likely ascendents, has claimed the wharf as his territory for years, but as a part-time claimant. For whatever reason he normally doesn’t make his presence known until late July or early August. At first his presence is only noticed because of the scat he leaves on the floating dock, usually by the bow of my overturned dingy and near a cleat on the dock’s south end, perhaps a marking of territory. I generally catch my first glimpse of him by mid-August, and by mid-September he will have grown so bold that I’ll often see him slinking through the crib’s rocks, swimming around the pilings, and even prancing down the wharf and up the stairs to explore the embankment’s rock wall. Like the leavings from the seagull, the scat is annoying, especially because it smells so horrific and sometimes gets on a line. Oh well, it’s his home turf and nothing a bucket of water won’t take care of.

As for fish, they seem to come and go. Minnows of various sorts can usually be found flitting about the pilings, some eel-like and translucent, others looking like baby bluefish, and then the most common ones looking like, well, minnows. Every now and then a school of mackerel will come in and do a steady weave around the outer crib and floating dock, individual fish sparkling as refracted rays from the sun capture their silver bellies and dance across their metallic-blue, wavy zebra stripes. A neighbor once caught a large flounder from his dock, but I’ve never seen nor caught one from my dock.

Last week a small school tropical-looking fish hovered off one end of the floating dock by the bow of my boat. I’d never seen them before and can only assume that they were pulled up here by the Gulf Stream, escaped its grip, and somehow made it to the shallow waters of our coast. They seemed lethargic or in shock, perhaps dulled by the icy waters or exhaustion from their journey.

Green crabs would seem to be masters of the wharf’s seabed, and are easily spotted as they pick for food among the rocks. My son used to fill up a bucket within a half hour with just a chunk of hot dog dangled from a string. They’re not tasty like their southern blue crab cousins, though, and thus soon found themselves back in the water. Once my son caught a baseball-sized lumpy looking rock crab. They might be as prolific as the green crab, but one wouldn’t know it because of their perfect camouflage.

Mussels and some kind of sea snail dominate the pilings and crib rocks, though on occasion I will spot a rare starfish. When I was younger, starfish seemed to predominate the pilings, but they seemed to have died off, whether as food for the crabs, or through disease or environmental change, I do not know.

Of algae, seaweed and seagrass, I know nothing, but they make the wharf area their home as well, and add color to the brown hues of the rocks, pilings and crib works.

And then there are the dock spiders. I prefer not to see them, and generally they oblige, but sometimes they seek an upgrade to their accommodations, from the dock to my boat. Oh well, it’s their world, too, so I just have to put up with it.

So, the next time you go boating, pause on the dock, and take time to consider the small world teeming with life that surrounds you.

—Originally published Sept. 9, 2015 by slidemoor.com