A Near Sinking at the Cape

About this time each summer it’s fun to take a break from the humdrum of economics and investment practices to slow down and remember a simpler time. Travel with me to a place that no longer exists and perhaps never will again, except in the memories of a blessed few.

The wonderful thing about growing up at Cape Lookout was the immense freedom it offered. As teenage boys, my brother Clyde, my cousin John, and I had very little adult supervision. At our disposal were boats, jeeps, equipment, a house, and miles and miles of desert island and calm beautiful sea. There were no schedules, few responsibilities or expectations, just endless summer days and nights of countless adventures and more than a few risky ventures.

Cape Lookout is every bit a desert island, jutting far into the Atlantic Ocean, situated 12 miles east of Beaufort Inlet, and seven miles south of Harker’s Island. It is remote, rugged, and accessible only by boat.


When Cape Lookout was privately owned about 45 years ago, there were a handful of homes on the island, a fishing store run by Sally and Les Moore, and a Coast Guard station with about ten men. Our uncle’s house was a large stately three story A-frame. It was built by my father and others near the sound water’s edge on massive pilings to protect it from storm surges from without and carefree teenagers from within.

During the week the Cape was a quiet and deserted place; ideal for fun and mischief. To earn our keep, we had a handful of important duties ranging from the mundane to the exciting. The former included equipment maintenance, which was most often directed toward the jeeps and the old Ford Model A used to ferry consumables and large numbers of guests who showed up on the weekends to invade our kingdom.

Maintaining these vehicles more often meant fixing the breaks from our “Rat Patrol” games in the dunes and pulling skiers in the sound through considerably more salt water than they should have been subjected to. We became experts at taking them apart and putting them back together again – good as new (at least in our minds).

Because of the remoteness of the island, everything we and our guests consumed had to be brought from the mainland, including gasoline, oil, and propane. There was no electricity on the island except that which was generated onsite. Electricity was used mostly to run the water pump to fill the massive water tanks on the third floor and to charge a large bank of truck batteries. We loved running that huge military surplus generator to enjoy the bright electric lights, but consumed far too much gasoline to run for long.

Light, cooking and refrigeration was fueled by propane. The propane lights emitted a low, warm light, and too much heat on the hot nights of summer, but they were better than nothing, and they killed lots of mosquitoes.

When the folks came with their friends, the big generator seemed to run for hours longer than required to fill the tanks and charge the batteries. There were the uncommon sounds of fans and hairdryers and every incandescent light in the place shown brightly like Gatsby’s home. From a distance, that A-frame looked like an elegant ship gliding smoothly across the night sea.

Soon after the parents and their guests left and we restored our abode to a more suitable state of teenage casual, somebody would bring up the idea of replenishing the fuel supplies. Now we are not talking small quantities of these highly explosive and flammable liquids. Really it was something more like industrial.

The fuel run always got us a little excited. It was not so much the danger, but the way it made us feel like men. The heavy lifting and the large quantities somehow glamorized the hot, greasy, and gritty work of it all. We were boys, yet we were doing men’s work (if still more like teenage boys.)

Gasoline is transported in 55 gallon drums. A full drum of gasoline weighs about 350 pounds and we would typically carry three in the 20-foot wooden Whirlwind runabout and two if we were carrying propane. Today was a gasoline and propane run. Propane cylinders are about five feet tall and 14″ in diameter. They weigh about 70 pounds each. A full bank of six added another 400 pounds of explosive liquids to our vessel.

With our load secured, mostly by gravity, we headed back to the Cape, specifically to Les’ dock where we would employ his heavy-duty davit to gasoline drums. Thinking back on it we weren’t nearly as worried about those propane cylinders banging around in the choppy waters as we should have been.

In the Sally’s store we ran into Shoofie Davis and her friend Susan. They were staying in one of the houses close to the Coast Guard station. We invited them to go skiing with us that afternoon after we finished our fuel chores. With no better offers likely to turn up on a Tuesday at the Cape, they eagerly accepted.

After another couple of hours lugging the propane tanks and rolling the gasoline drums from jeep to shed and placing them in their proper places, we cleaned up by taking a dip in the sound. Refreshed and ready for an afternoon of more pleasant scenery and activities, we returned to the Whirlwind to clean and reconfigure her from workboat to ski boat. We made our way across the Lookout Bight (a very large bay) on what promised to be a beautiful day.

With an excellent view of the bay from their front porch the girls saw us coming from a long way off. We could see them start their lengthy walk toward the Coast Guard dock as we grew closer. They arrived as we pulled up, hopped into the boat like pros, and off we headed into the Bight for what promised to be a carefree afternoon of skiing, sun, and fun. Not only did these girls not keep us waiting, they weren’t fussy, and were very good skiers. The best part was how generous they were with their praises and admiration for our skills – skills that had been honed by hours of practice and one-upping that occurs so naturally among teenage boys.

While we were skiing we saw our good friend Henry Long walking out on the dock waving his surfboard to get our attention. We acknowledged with a wave and headed his way with all the speed that old Whirlwind could muster. Henry was without a doubt the best skier of us all. He would really wow our new friends.

We approached the dock from the direction of the old Coast Guard dock. My brother reminded to me to watch for submerged pilings that had not been removed when the old dock was replaced. I responded “I got it,” less responsible, and considerably more showing off.

As we approached the dock, all eyes were on Henry who never disappointed with his uniquely entertaining methods of water entry. We were on a half plane as we grew closer when suddenly we hear an awful deep thud and the boat lurched violently to starboard tossing everyone forward on top of me. As we collected ourselves and asked if everyone was alright we began looking around the boat to see what we hit. As we were looking around, Clyde lifted the deck to look into the bilge. In a shout of near panic, in sharp contrast to our earlier cool, he reported a long swath open to the sea.

In fact, we were sinking and fast. With that realization we quickly got Henry onboard, tossed the girls onto the dock, and gave that old Evenrude all the gas it would take. I yelled to Henry to pull the plug (to drain water at high speed) and Clyde to find something to bail with. Before us was a seven-mile 20-minute trip in a boat that likely would not be afloat that long.

Once we were on our way and we had the plug and bilge pump draining as much water as possible we found a speed that lifted some of the hole from the water and slowed the in-rushing water some. But we knew that the 3/4″ drain hole and the 1″ bilge pump pipe were still no match for the huge opening that remained below the surface.

As we approached Credle’s Marina we developed a plan. Henry would get the plug back in and continue bailing, Clyde would take the wheel to drive the boat into the marina, and I would jump off at the far end of the dock to bring the car and trailer around and backed down the ramp. The first bump in our plan came when Henry couldn’t get the plug back in. We circled a few times in front of the marina while he slashed madly at the bilge water filled wood splinters jamming the hole, until one of us wised up and announced how insignificant that 3/4″ hole was in the scheme of things.

Returning to reality we were ready to execute our plan. We entered the marina going entirely too fast and yelling at the top of our lungs – “clear the boat ramp – we are sinking!!!” To this day I have never backed a boat trailer as fast and as straight as I did that day – in front of a very large crowd I might add.

No sooner than the rig entered the water, Clyde drove that big, heavy, soaked boat hard onto its trailer. With lots of help we quickly secured the boat and began a difficult haul from the water. That Oldsmobile’s big V8 labored mightily as its tires squealed and smoked wrestling its hulking mass from the water that still seemed determined to win.

When the rig finally came to rest on top of the hill we congratulated ourselves then looked underneath to survey the damage. To our surprise the tear in the hull was considerably larger than we thought. It ran three feet long and was more than a foot wide in places. The water poured out like a small waterfall. No one at the marina could believe that we had come like that all the way from the Cape. Our cool began to return as our shakes began to subside.

That boat continued to drain water for the next three hours while we drove around Harker’s island looking for a boat builder who would repair our faithful friend – and before our uncle found out. We were not successful on either front.

Eventually my dad found someone to repair the Whirlwind, our uncle’s temper returned to its usual growl, and life at the Cape returned to “normal.”

Have a great weekend – to the Cape!