A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_169342" align="alignright" width="300"] Hatteras native Ernie Foster has seen his neighbors stick together through thick and thin. As part of the Day at the Docks tradition, he and the

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_169342" align="alignright" width="300"] Hatteras native Ernie Foster has seen his neighbors stick together through thick and thin. As part of the Day at the Docks tradition, he and the

The Tides That Bind on Hatteras Island

Hatteras native Ernie Foster has seen his neighbors stick together through thick and thin. As part of the Day at the Docks tradition, he and the historic Albatross lead a procession of boats during the Blessing of the Fleet. photograph by Baxter Miller

The sun hangs low in the sky as the parking lot at Hatteras Harbor Marina fills with spectators — some perched on golf carts, others in lawn chairs, still others standing. All eyes are on the procession of boats floating solemnly in the water. The hum of diesel engines quiets, giving way to the prayer that echoes over the fleet’s VHF radios. Pastor Toni Wood’s voice rings out, her pitch rising and falling: “Father, thank you for this beautiful place that we call Hatteras Village. We thank you for each and every person who works out on the water. We thank you for the work they do and the food they provide.”

Ernie Foster, a Hatterasman and legendary charter captain, sits atop the bridge of the Albatross, listening intently, one hand resting on the ship’s wheel and the other cradling his chin. As he gazes across the harbor, a calm breeze tousles his white hair. He waits for a sign from below. As he’s done for the past 18 years, he prepares to complete the final rite in the Blessing of the Fleet. It’s a poignant epilogue to Day at the Docks, Hatteras Island’s celebration of working watermen.

As he reflects on the strength of his community, his mind drifts back.

• • •

Almost 20 years ago, Ernie stood peering out the second-story window of his home as Hurricane Isabel enveloped the southern end of Hatteras Island. “I was looking where I had two of my boats tied up across the creek when she came in,” he recalls. “It was blowing 50 or 60 out of the southeast, and the tide in the harbor was down at least four feet below normal.”

No strangers to storms, Outer Bankers had made their preparations as Isabel charged up the Atlantic, setting its sights on North Carolina’s barrier islands. Boats were moored, fishing gear was secured, and cars had been moved to higher ground. But little could prepare Hatteras Village, the island’s southernmost point, for the weeks ahead.

“All of a sudden, there was a wall of water coming up the road,” Ernie remembers. “It kept building, and along with it were light poles and gas tanks and chunks of debris. It was going so fast that it started eating away at the land and the highway.”

As Isabel bulldozed its way north from Core Banks, the storm spread its tendrils between Frisco and Hatteras Village, leveling dunes and excavating blacktop. The tremendous storm surge and unabashed wave energy removed, relocated, or splintered most everything in its path. Motels and cabanas were washed from their oceanfront perches into and across NC Highway 12. Homes disappeared into sinkholes or were swept off their pilings. Cars lay scattered on their sides. Caskets floated up from their graves.

In its wake, Isabel left a 2,000-foot-wide inlet in the middle of Highway 12 that severed power and water supply and cut Hatteras Village off from the rest of the world.

“We were without electricity, water, utilities of any sort,” recalls Ernie’s wife, Lynne, a community leader. “People couldn’t come or go for months. The village was devastated.”

In the last weeks of the high season, Isabel had dealt a fatal economic blow. Commerce halted. The usual stream of visitors ran dry. Livelihoods collapsed. The long path toward recovery would be arduous, of course. But one storm, however devastating, could not shred the spirit of Hatteras Village.

“The collective took over,” Ernie says. “There was a collaborative effort to work together for the greater good.”

During the children’s fishing contest, young anglers drop a line around Hatteras Harbor Marina, hoping to win a prize for the heaviest pinfish or the longest catch. photograph by Baxter Miller

Neighbors helped each other rip up carpet and tear out drywall. Waterlogged furniture was lugged to the roadside. Carpenters and watermen rebuilt docks. Anyone with a working boat, from Manteo to Morehead City, became a lifeline for supplies. Dirty laundry was ferried on the headboat Miss Hatteras to Buxton, where church groups washed, folded, and sent clothes back down Pamlico Sound. Neighboring villages that had escaped the worst of the storm’s wrath rallied to Hatteras Village’s aid.

“When you live in a little island community like Hatteras,” says charter boat captain Rom Whitaker, “there are many times when you’re dependent on each other. After Isabel, someone whose own house had been devastated would be asking someone else what they needed help with. That’s just the way it is. It’s one of the great things about living here.”

Despite tremendous loss, the people of Hatteras were reminded, time and time again, of their greatest asset. It wasn’t the world-class fishing, or the pristine national park beaches, or even their distinct heritage — it was each other. “It brought out the best in everyone who was here,” Ernie says. “You saw good, good, and more good.”

Ernie Foster’s wife, Lynne, started the Day at the Docks tradition. photograph by Baxter Miller

Rom’s wife, Elaine, smiles as she recalls making the best of the difficult situation. “My friends and I all timed our trips to the community showers together,” she says. “We took turns bringing wine and rode our bicycles home with towels wrapped around our heads. We made do and got by because we had each other, and because we love this place. It’s a simple life, but it’s an extraordinary one. We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

The night before the highway reopened, two months after its destruction, villagers gathered for a community meeting hosted at Hatteras United Methodist Church. “It was a beautiful evening,” Lynne recalls. “The windows of the church were open, and little kids were outside playing and laughing. It was such an emotional night. People were weeping with the joy that we had survived it.”

Emboldened by the long-held tradition of survival and working together as a community, she and Ernie resolved that Isabel’s impact would not be forgotten.

• • •

The determination to commemorate the spirit of Hatteras Village, one buoyed by camaraderie and earnest care for each other, would become what’s known today as Day at the Docks. It has evolved from a dance in the firehouse to a multiday festival with thousands of visitors.

Each September, near the anniversary of Hurricane Isabel, the waterfront in the heart of the village teems with demonstrations, competitions, storytelling, music, local seafood, and vendors. Kids with sun-bleached hair and deep olive tans run barefoot along the harbor, dodging the occasional dock dog. Men and women with white-knuckled grips breathlessly reel in a 30-pound piece of concrete, vying for the title of Concrete Marlin Tournament Champion. Visitors weave in and out, juggling trays of fried shrimp from a nearby church and cold tall boys from the Ship’s Store at Oden’s Dock.

At Oden’s Dock, crowds gather to see the day’s haul.  photograph by Baxter Miller

Jake Griffin, a commercial fisherman from Wanchese, mends nets from the back of his pickup, where he tells tourists about catch limits and mesh sizes. In pursuit of a prized four-inch pinfish, children clamor past Jeffrey’s Seafood, their seven-foot cane poles dangling red-and-white bobbers. Charter boats toss their catch to the salt-weathered dock, the fish skidding to a stop at the feet of onlookers. The day’s haul is carted in 55-gallon trash cans to the fish-cleaning tables at Oden’s Dock, where marveling crowds gather ’round.

With so few working waterfronts left in our coastal communities, Day at the Docks is a rare sight. Locals and visitors mingle. Commercial fishermen and charter captains work together to represent the best of an industry. Residents pause to remember and celebrate what’s so special about the island they call home. But this is Hatteras Village, and if there’s any place where people understand the importance of community, it’s here.

As the sun begins its descent into Pamlico Sound, all eyes turn to the weekend’s signature event: the Blessing of the Fleet.

• • •

Bathed in golden light, Captain Ernie and the historic Albatross lead a procession of two dozen commercial and charter vessels to port. Water laps at the bows of the vessels gliding into the harbor. A bagpipe player aboard the Albatross drowns out the low rumble of engines and the chatter of onlookers who line the bulkhead or peer down from the upper deck of Breakwater Restaurant. As the boats take their places and tie off between dock pilings, the faint smell of diesel exhaust wafts through the salt air.

A cacophony of gulls introduces Pastor Toni, cloaked in a white robe and stole. As she steps off the gunwale of the Albatross and onto the dock, the Methodist minister begins the brief ceremony with a hymn, singing through the VHF radio: “So let the storms rage high/The dark clouds rise/They don’t worry me/For I’m sheltered safe within the arms of God.”

The Rev. Toni Wood — pastor of the United Methodist churches in Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras Village — pays tribute to those who work on the water during the Blessing of the Fleet. photograph by Baxter Miller

The Blessing of the Fleet is, at its core, a benediction for a safe and prosperous fishing season. Yet the act has come to not only honor working watermen but also remind islanders of who they are and the bonds that bind them.

“In many ways,” Rom says, “the blessing is really the history of this village.” A history anchored in heritage and tradition, and perpetuated today by all who gather in celebration of working together for the greater good. That is the spirit of Hatteras Island.

Ernie looks down from the bridge of the Albatross as Pastor Toni, from the deck of the boat, receives a wreath across the stern. This is the sign he has waited for. He turns over the engine, and the Albatross rumbles to life. As the sun dips below the horizon, he guides the boat out of the harbor, where, under the echo of the Lord’s Prayer, the wreath — an offering for safety and a tribute to the lives of watermen who have passed away — is laid in Pamlico Sound.

Day at the Docks

The festival is held each September on the waterfront in Hatteras Village. For more information, visit hatterasonmymind.com/HVCA/DayAtTheDocks.

This story was published on Jun 04, 2023

Ryan Stancil

Stancil is a writer and photographer based in New Bern.