To former state senator Marc Basnight, Shallowbag Bay is home, the setting for many of his childhood memories. Protecting its pristine shores, along with the rest of the Outer Banks, has fueled much of his drive.
On most summer days in the 1950s, young Marc Basnight and his good friend, Saint Clair Tillett, launched a small skiff into Manteo’s Shallowbag Bay. No shirt, no shoes — just fishing poles and crab nets. Almost always, they returned with a mess of gray trout or rockfish to docks where commercial fishermen, charter boat crews, and casual anglers gathered with their catches or at least stories about them.
“The docks were a lively place of colorful characters,” says Basnight, a former state senator who turns 64 this month. He leans back in the desk chair at his restaurant near Manteo, Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe. “The bay had a great cycle of life.”
Basnight’s accomplishments in public office, especially on environmental issues, rise from his experiences within that cycle of life — and from watching it diminish over the years.
Basnight and Tillett blended among those waterfront characters — with names like Balford and Alford. The spelling of those names may not be correct, but the pronunciation is about right, says Tillett, whose recollections add to Basnight’s. “We were out there every day that school was out,” he says.
Balford was a white man, and Alford was black. They worked separate rigs but swapped tales together at the docks. Whoever needed help — Balford or Alford — would get a hand from the boys.
Instead of crab pots, the fishermen set out lines a mile long fixed with pieces of salted meat and skin called bullwhip. Crabs loved it and clamped on to it like they would a chicken leg on a single line weighted with a nail. The boys helped net the crabs as the fisherman pulled the line into the boat.
Once, after a hurricane, Basnight and Tillett launched a rowboat into Manteo’s flooded streets. They rowed up to the first-floor window of the local five-and-dime store and gathered merchandise floating out of the window on the receding tide.
“We called it salvaging,” Tillett says.
As a young man, Basnight worked for Tillett’s father, also named Saint Clair. Under the hot sun, he shoveled beach pebbles into the back of an old Jeep pickup parked near the pounding surf. Pebbles were mixed with cement to build driveways on the developing beachfront. He was never far from some body of water.
One time, his mother, Cora Mae Daniels Basnight, took him out on the front porch during a storm blowing through the Outer Banks. Howling winds whipped up whitecaps on Shallowbag Bay. She explained how hurricanes were sent by God to freshen the bay, clean out creeks, and water the live oaks and yaupon trees.
“Basically you grew up learning the meaning of the sea and weather,” he says slowly in the Outer Banks brogue that blends Southern and British accents. “You were in the elements. You worked in them. You played in them.”
A neurological disease has slowed Basnight’s speech and affected his balance, prompting him to resign from the senate in January 2011 after 27 years of public service. Basnight held the position of president pro tempore for 18 years, the longest anyone ever held it. He established several environmental programs, such as the Natural Heritage Trust Fund, which has set aside more than 300,000 acres for conservation projects across the state.
In 2010, Basnight spearheaded passage of a plastic-bag ban on the Outer Banks, one of only a handful of similar laws in the nation. The sight of wispy bags flapping like flags in trees and rolling like tumbleweeds across the beaches set him in motion. As usual, he researched the problem and learned leatherback sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for a meal of jellyfish. He discovered the plastic may slowly break down into chemicals harmful to the water.
“We’re in the business of beauty out here,” Basnight says. “Plastic bags would stand out like a billboard. I came to realize that if we — those of us on the Outer Banks — did not care, why should Raleigh or Washington, China, India, or Europe?”
As a boy, he and his family rarely left the Outer Banks, and when they did, they went to Norfolk, Virginia, or Elizabeth City. Roads to Raleigh were narrow and passed through every small town along the way. Raleigh didn’t know much about Dare County either.
“You might as well have been in Bermuda as far as they were concerned in Raleigh,” Basnight says.
Former senator David Hoyle, who hails from the western part of the state, remembers the first time he met Basnight. He noticed the first district senator was wearing shoes but no socks. “And a tie with a knot in it as big as a cantaloupe,” says Hoyle, who now serves as state secretary of revenue.
But after an introduction and conversation, they became close friends. He and Basnight roomed together in Raleigh during legislative sessions for 18 years. Basnight, who regrets not getting a four-year degree, was a voracious reader and student of the environment, Hoyle says.
Early in Basnight’s political career, a Hyde County fisherman told him about crab pots coming out of the ocean coated in a scum no one had ever seen before. A Dare County fisherman told him that harvests were dropping. Fishermen were encountering large patches of dead water, depleted of oxygen, throughout the season — not just small ones in the summer when they’re common.
“In time, I understood that something was changing in the water,” Basnight says. “As a young adult, shrimping and rockfishing was not there like I had enjoyed as a boy.”
Farther inland, rivers once famous for fishing were choked with pollution. Drawing on his days on the water, Basnight took a rafting trip on the French Broad River and saw industrial plants discharging directly into the waterway. He canoed the Tar River where cities dumped untreated sewage. On the Neuse and Chowan rivers, he saw more of the same.
“I realized we were making terrible mistakes,” he says.
Today, with no obligations pulling him to the state capitol, Basnight spends more time in Manteo, where his heritage reaches back 300 years. Residents and tourists often see him in the 360-seat restaurant his daughter, Vicki, and late wife, Sandy, opened in 1996. Named for an old hunt club, the restaurant sits high on pilings on the shoreline of Roanoke Sound, not far from Shallowbag Bay. After the original building burned down four years ago, the family rebuilt the structure in 90 days.
“We recycle everything, and we buy recycled,” Basnight says. “You can operate right on the bay without affecting it.”
Three cisterns collect rainwater used for watering the restaurant’s herb gardens. Storm water runoff drains to holding ponds. A plastic pipe underneath the kitchen catches cooking grease and directs it to underground storage; a recycling company hauls it away.
Through his office window, Basnight watches Ricky and Lucy, a pair of ospreys, raise their young every year in a tree jutting from the water within view of the dining room. Shedders line the dock out back where they collect fresh soft crabs for the menu. White wooden rocking chairs on the back deck offer a resting place with a sunset view.
Despite the Friday night rush, restaurant manager Gail Shelton takes time to give a tour. First item, the menu. It lists the fishermen who caught the day’s seafood. Most of the customers know them personally, Shelton says.
Back in the spacious kitchen, sous chef Susan Peele serves up a plate of rose bass caught by local fisherman Gordie Elliot. Travis York brought in the rockfish baking in the oven. And dessert? Janie Midgett makes them daily; it says so on the menu.
Hair pulled back and wearing a white T-shirt with a Basnight’s Cafe logo, Vicki Basnight transfers plates from one stainless-steel shelf to another where the waitress picks them up. Working the height of the rush, Vicki is not an owner who directs from an office.
“We’ve got to get this food out,” she calls out without stopping.
Charter boat Captain Bull Tolson sits at the end of the bar not far from a wall where a Basnight relative painted the rear view of dozens of local boats. Sandy loved boats, Shelton says. The name of Basnight’s boat, Miss Toot, is painted on the side of the bar near Tolson’s seat.
“Where’s your boat?” Shelton asks Tolson.
“It’s up there,” he says, pointing up, high, near the top. Sea Toy runs across the stern. “That’s it, there.”
Fishing comes in cycles, Tolson says. He remembers when there were no yellowfin tuna. Then, for about 15 years, there were plenty. And now they’re gone again. In and around Shallowbag Bay, they still catch red drum, speckled trout, crabs, and shrimp.
Shallowbag Bay, about a mile wide and more than a mile long, cuts into the Roanoke Island shoreline. A public dock follows the curve of the bay along the Manteo waterfront. On a quiet evening, sailboats and motorboats rest at dozens of docks and boat slips. On the north side of the bay, where Roanoke Island Festival Park sits, a breakwater of rocks protects a restored shoreline of sand and aquatic plants. A manmade oyster bed lies just beyond the rocks.
“We still have this incredible beauty,” Basnight says. “The sun still comes up over the ocean and still sets in the wetlands of Dare and Hyde counties.”
A boy can still get out there in the bay in a rowboat, catch fish, and net a few crabs.
Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe
7623 South Virginia Dare Trail
Nags Head, N.C. 27959
Jeff Hampton writes for The Virginian-Pilot covering northeastern North Carolina and lives in Elizabeth City.