Pilots, Pirates, and Dingbatters in Ocracoke

Ocracoke is a village on Ocracoke Island in the lower Outer Banks of North Carolina. There are no other towns or villages on the island, but it is helpful to understand the distinction.

Wokokkon was first used by the Croatan and other Native American tribes as hunting and fishing grounds until British colonizers arrived in the 1730s. North Carolina officials renamed the island Pilot Town and extended incentives for ship pilots and other maritime crew to settle in and manage the area’s trade/shipping routes.

Pirates also utilized the island as a hub in the early 1700s, a tertiary element in the struggle over this land. A tall, dark, and frightening sea Captain named Edward Teach who we all know as Blackbeard held dominion over the nearby waters. His camp was called Teach’s Hole, and can be found near Springer’s Point Nature Preserve.

Blackbeard was killed in Ocracoke in 1718 and his death essentially marked the end of piracy on Ocracoke. The islanders rejoiced and today you will see a lot of pirate motifs and lore around the village.

Though Ocracoke is not quite Barbary, my song for this blog is “The Coast of High Barbary” by Joseph Arthur:

Settlers and future generations in Pilot Town were primarily fishermen, as they still are in modern day Ocracoke. Residents of this flourishing but primitive fishing village had no contact with the rest of the world or any outside accents influencing their speech, and inevitably developed their own unique dialect.

This Ocracoke Brogue is mainly spoken by native, older residents and fisherman in Ocracoke. Some call it the High Tiders dialect, pronounced performatively as Hoi Toiders.

Recent decades of exposure to tourists, foreigners, popular media, leaving home for college or other experiences, and marrying non-natives they endearingly call Dingbatters has all played a role in diminishing the prevalence of the Ocracoke Brogue. Less than two hundred natural speakers remain, though the importance of preserving and passing down the dialect has been growing among the islanders.

Ocracoke is still quite isolated geographically and can only be reached by the public ferry system or a private boat/jet. Most visitors first make their way to Hatteras and board the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, but there are two toll routes from other locations.

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In Hatteras, the port is between Hatteras Landing Marina and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. The ferry crosses the waters to and from Ocracoke multiple times each day, but check the website before you go incase weather or other factors affect the normal schedule. Such changes also determine if your journey will an hour or nearly two hours each way, so plan accordingly and do not miss the last departure of the night.

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Boarding is first come, first serve, like waiting in line for a ride at an amusement park. If you don’t make the cut, wait a bit longer for the next group. You can walk, drive your vehicle, or ride your bike on board and once the ferry is in motion, you are free to wander around the boat and enjoy the sea cruise.

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When you exit the ferry you will need some type of transportation for the 16-mile trip to the village. Bikes, golf carts, and off-road vehicles are available for rent in advance through various companies if you do not plan to drive your own vehicle.

Most of Ocracoke island clings to the two-lane Outer Banks National Scenic Byway that becomes Irvin Garrish Highway near the village. First time visitors may find it frustrating that there are no sidewalks, and that people are constantly walking or standing around and talking on the narrow street. We saw many of them on roller skates, hoverboards, and skateboards, dodging street cats and unsupervised children. Ocracoke has a low-key wild west vibe when it comes to navigation.

The entire village has a 20 mph maximum speed limit and parking can be hard to come by. Driving is worse at night because there are few streetlights and it is nearly impossible to see what might walk out in front of you. Because of this, there is serious emphasis on walking, biking, or renting a golf cart. The village also operates a free trolley system to nine varying stops during summer months to ease the traffic strain.

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Ocracoke village has dozens of shops and historical sites, and you will likely have a great view of the water anywhere you go. Pick up coffee at Ocracoke Coffee Company or custom batch herbal tea blends at Moonraker Tea, then browse the bookshelves at Books to Be Red. We found lots of cool items to take back home from the collection of jewelry, beachwear, art, decor, shells, and more at Pirate’s Chest.

If you plan to stay for a few days, pick up necessities at the only grocery store on the island, Ocracoke Variety Store. They also offer household and garden goods, medical and pet supplies, auto parts, home improvement supplies, and hardware to support local domestic needs.

If you really want to learn more about Ocracoke’s history and what sets it apart from any other island, spend a few hours touring the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum, the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Museum, and the British Cemetery.

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When the British Royal Navy sent a crew over to protect our American hides during WWII, the HMT Bedfordshire suffered a fatal attack by a German U-boat at Ocracoke Island. Only four of the 37 bodies were recovered, and those four are buried here in the British Cemetery.

Like the WWII British Cemetery in Buxton and other locations in the Outer Banks, this small plot of land was declared British Commonwealth territory so that the fallen Navy seamen could rest in peace on British soil. In May each year, Ocracoke village holds a memorial to remember these sailors but you can visit the cemetery year-round to learn more about them.

Ocracoke Island Fig Festival is another popular annual event, as the islanders are known for their abundance of and affection for the juicy fruits. Typically it is held in August of each year, but you can try some of their beloved desserts and other fig dishes any time at Sweet Tooth Fig Tree Bakery.

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After abandoning self-control in a gift shop and indulging my new love for ankle bracelets, my crew suggested we get  lunch. SmacNally’s met our minimal criteria of having an open parking space nearby, but watching the fresh fish arriving on the dock made our decision easy.

We started with the curried chicken salad appetizer, and it was just perfect.

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My entrée pick was the Ginger Tuna Wrap with blackened tuna, feta cheese, ginger aioli sauce, and lettuce. I was thrown off for a second when the waitress asked how I would like the tuna cooked. To explain, I eat sushi all the time and I’ve had it fully-cooked many ways, but have never been presented options about anything in-between.

She said “honey you’re in a fishing village and your tuna just got pulled out of the water, so it’s safe to eat it medium rare. I’d get it medium rare.” Feeling like a real dingbatter, I followed her suggestion. It was heavenly.

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We also ordered the Mango Shrimp Wrap with breaded/fried shrimp, mango pineapple jalapeno salsa, lettuce, and tomatoes, and it was delicious too.

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Afterward, we tried a few beers from the 1718 Brewery, aptly named to commemorate Blackbeard’s victorious demise. It was entertaining to watch people as they zipped around on their boats and climbed aboard for a meal before heading back off to who knows where.

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Our next stop was at Ocracoke Island Light Station and Lighthouse. This historical site is one of the main tourist attractions on the island and there are only like three vehicle parking spaces, so you may have to make some rounds in waiting.

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Ocracoke Lighthouse has played a crucial role in facilitating trade and military routes in the area for centuries. This 75-foot tall lighthouse is not the original tower but the station itself was built in 1823, making it the oldest active light station in North Carolina. In 1977 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

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The essential postcard image of Ocracoke often includes this lighthouse backed by a bright blue sky, or of Silver Lake Harbor packed with sailboats, fishing boats, kayaks, and paddleboards.

Check out this photo below of Silver Lake Harbor, shared from LeadingEstates.com:

A ship carrying Spanish ponies wrecked on Ocracoke beaches back in the 1700s, and they happily found a new home on the island. Over time, settlers captured and tamed them sporadically for transportation and physical labour, but they were otherwise allowed to roam free.

That era quickly came to an end in 1950s when members of the local Boy Scouts troop were each challenged to domesticate a wild pony. Soon this became the trend among villagers and even the military. Ponies were used to patrol the beaches and carry heavy burdens, then ultimately turned into a tourist attraction.

As much as I loathe that outcome, this rare breed is majestic and exciting to see up close. You can visit them at the National Park Service Pony Pen attraction, and I encourage you to donate or sponsor the ponies through the Outer Banks Forever Adopt-a-Pony program.

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Outside of the village, the main appeal of Ocracoke is the pristine natural beaches. Unlike most vacation destinations, there are no beachfront properties or hotel balconies looking out over the ocean here.

The island falls under multiple environmental protections so homes, businesses, and other developments are restricted to the village on the far end of the island. If you want to camp on the beach, you will need to make arrangements with the National Park Service Ocracoke Campground

Nearest beach access to the village is about two miles away and it has a lifeguard station, but there are a few other beach access points and interesting sites along the Byway including Point Beach, fishing holes, ORV runs, campgrounds, and trailheads.

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In the area for a while? Follow me to Hatteras, the northern Outer Banks, and Roanoke Island!

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3 thoughts on “Pilots, Pirates, and Dingbatters in Ocracoke

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