Metro Magazine
February 2008

The North Carolina Navy

By Jim Leutze

Although everyone knows that North Carolina has a long sea coast, most people are unaware that we have a navy. Sometimes referred to as the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division, our navy has 24 ships, a shipyard, a dredge, tugs, barges, military-type landing craft and various support vessels.

The ferries are divided into three classes — Hatteras, River and Sound. The Hatteras-class ferries vary in size from 199 gross tons to 248 tons and can carry as many as 30 cars and 149 passengers. The River-class ferries are larger, ranging from 372 to 462 tons and carrying 20 to 42 cars and 149 to 300 people. The Sound-class ferries are the largest, weighing in from 574 to 771 tons and carrying 35 to 50 cars and 300 passengers.

There are seven different ferry routes, so if you are traveling along the coast, you won’t go very far without seeing a DOT sign alerting you to the presence of a ferry route and the times of operation. Actually, if you are traveling the Outer Banks, you must take ferries linking Hatteras to Ocracoke and Ocracoke to the mainland.

The Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry alone carried almost 1 million passengers this year, up 100,000-plus from last year. The Southport-Fort Fisher ferry carried almost half a million, up 20,000 over the year before. All in all, some 2.5 million people sailed with our navy. Our number of ships and number of passengers makes our ferry system the second largest and busiest in the nation. We’re number two, we’re number two!

How we got this way is a story of its own. Like lots of things, our ferry service sprang from small beginnings. Sensing an entrepreneurial opportunity, a man named Jack Nelson started a ferry “service” across Oregon Inlet in 1924. Business wasn’t all that hot, which isn’t surprising considering (a) it took people who were not risk averse to drive on a barge and be pulled across the water by a tug, and (b) there were no roads once you got on the south side of Oregon Inlet. Nelson soon went out of business. Undeterred by this example, Captain JB (Toby) Tillett re-established the ferry and preserved through thick and thin until the state stepped up in 1934 and began subsidizing his operation so fares could be reduced. Eight years later, with lower fares and an improved wooden “trawler-type ferry” drawing more customers, the state underwrote the operation so that the tolls could be dispensed with all together. North Carolina was in the ferry business.

Perhaps inspired by this example, Captain TA Baum started operating his own ferry business on Croatan Sound in the early 1940s. And, sure enough, when he died in 1946, his family soon sold the business to the state, which this time placed the operation under the Highway Commission. This made sense since the state was paving the roads on the Outer Banks at about the same time. It is not quite as easy to make sense out of the names of the two ferries Tillett was operating at the time — New Inlet and, would you believe, Barcelona. In any case, the state bought Tillett out in 1956, thereby acquiring the two 11-car ferries. Noting that the US Navy had an excess of World War II landing craft, the state purchased several LCTs (Landing Craft Tank), which had a capacity of 21 cars and LCUs (Landing Craft Utility), which could carry 18 cars. How’s this for an advertising slogan, “Let’s hit the beach at Whalebone Junction”?

The rest, as they say, is history. As time went by, some new ferry routes were established and others were replaced by bridges. The fleet grew in numbers and sophistication. The whacky creativity of the name Barcelona was replaced by the more pedestrian policy of naming ferries after governors, other notables or local landmarks. (Your quiz for the month: Who was Alpheus W. Drinkwater? For extra credit: How did a business called The West India Fruit and Steamship Company come to own the private ferry Sea Level?)

In an effort to jazz up the fleet, the Ferry Division decided to put the logo and stripe the ferries with the school colors of 16 state universities, but they didn’t name them m/v (motor vessel) Chapel Hill or m/v NC State or m/v Wilmington, etc. For example, the UNC-Wilmington ferry is named m/v Fort Fisher, but painted in the UNCW teal, gold and navy colors; the UNC-Chapel Hill is actually named the m/v Carteret.

After the 16 were done, someone did the math and realized they had six undecorated ferries (22 minus 16 equals six). Hmmm. Maybe we ought to rethink this. How about the community colleges? Aside from the fact that these schools don’t have colors, there are 58 of them. OK, how about the private schools, they have colors? Whoops, there are more than 35 of them (35 schools minus six ferries leaves 29 unhappy schools).

Finally, someone terminated the dialogue by deciding that the six should be painted in honor of the six largest private colleges: Gardner-Webb University, Duke University, Wake Forest University, Methodist College, Shaw University and Meredith College.

On a serious note, our navy does a great job of ferrying thousands of tourists, commuters and thrill seekers across our rivers and sounds — generally at a low cost. Moreover, if the doomsayers are correct, and the sea level rises in the next century, we may be connecting a lot more points along our coast with ferries.