The Cedar Island-Ocracoke Ferry

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Nowhere is that more true than aboard the state-run ferries crossing the Pamlico Sound, with the wind in your hair, the sun on your back, and a smile on your face. The Cedar Island-Ocracoke Ferry makes eight crossings per day in the summertime and four per day in the winter. Reservations are strongly recommended, either online or by calling 1-800-BY-FERRY (1-800-293-3779), and passengers are strongly advised to arrive half an hour prior to departure time.

Because this activity involves wind and water, doing all the right things in no way guarantees safe and timely passage. And, if your deposit on that Ocracoke vacation house was non-refundable, you will definitely encounter untold, possibly insurmountable resistance to your travel plans. Your first official act, after shutting off the car’s ignition, is to sprint up the metal steps to get a seat on the upper deck. These seats fill up fast and people retain them stubbornly throughout the entire trip. Feigning an injury or faking a pregnancy will get you nowhere, because you can always go sit in your own car, and also there is an indoor compartment with booths. However, none of those options are nearly as much fun as having a perch way up on top at the front of the boat.

The excitement is palpable when the ferry heaves through the thick wood pilings and the kids bring forth their abundant supplies of stale bread and popcorn to feed to the seagulls. In fact, the seagulls follow the ferry for the entire two and a half hours, and are so acclimated to people that they take food right out of hands — a thing that astonishes the children again and again. So, now it’s time to rethink this strategic seating plan, here beneath a circular flight pattern involving a feeding frenzy. Food runs right through these raucous, winged creatures and it is entirely possible to take a direct hit. You may retain this position at your own peril.

At some point after the seagull food supply is depleted, the kids go off to play a game of cards in an air-conditioned lounge with orange vinyl booths, silvery formica tabletops, and a vending machine that has 12 different varieties of Nabs crackers. Their parents go down the metal stairs to pull the seat reclining releases on the front seats of their SUVs, to close their eyes and will away this last tiresome leg of their adventure on the high seas.

A traveling family, possibly from India, at last put away the camera and settle into a silent row on a long white bench on the foredeck. Down below where the cars are parked, the last young bastions of enthusiasm still lean on the railing, willfully resistant to the lethargy, the fatigue, the ennui that pervades the other passengers. Their pink sunburns deepen significantly to red as they look to the horizon where land might be expected to appear.

They make a game of spotting foreign objects dancing and flashing in the waves. It is amusing to know that flotsam is the wreckage of a ship or its cargo floating at sea, and jetsam is part of a ship’s cargo that has been thrown overboard deliberately to lighten the load of a ship in danger. In addition, it is impossible to tell them apart, leave alone make a determination whether or not a rotten piece of wood might have been ejected into the water from land, in which case it has no special name at all except maybe driftwood.

When the ferry docks of Ocracoke Island loom into view, all hands abandon the upper deck, everyone searches their pockets for car keys, and there is a collective sense of trying to recall what the original mission was, somewhere back there long before being hypnotized by sky and sea. Through the docking of the ferry and the firing up of engines and the massive embarkation onto asphalt, it all slowly comes back, the world from whence we came. How much more alien that world is going to seem after a vacation on Ocracoke and another long, dreamy ferry boat ride back to the mainland.