On a clear, fresh May morning in 1973, my friend Brack Tesh and I pushed his Tanzer 14 sailboat through the salt marsh cord grass into the “Cut,” the local name for Taylor’s Creek in Beaufort, North Carolina. The boat was fitted with snacks, drinks, and two surfboards tucked under the bow. Our destination was Cape Lookout, some 12 to 13 miles to the east.

As we squared off in front of the old Beaufort waterfront, it looked like achieving the Cape would be impossible. Our forward progress was determined only by the outgoing tide, while the jib and mainsail hung limp against the bright blue sky. We began to talk about alternatives to the original plan.

Tesh was one of the two environmental science teachers at East Carteret High School during this time. I was a rising senior, and Brack had heard I was interested in sailing in addition to my fanatical pursuit of surfing. He had the boat and needed a crew. I was available.

As we floated past Radio Island and drifted into Beaufort Inlet, off Fort Macon, we wondered if there would be enough wind to get back home. A dolphin broke the surface within arm’s reach and turned its head to look at us for a moment while exhausting its previous breath. As if an omen, a few seconds later, a slight puff filled the sails, and we began to make way.

The Tanzer 14 is a fiberglass copy of the Blue Jay racing class, most of which had been built with marine plywood. The design has only a very slight dead-rise, or “V,” producing a nearly flat bottom with hard chines, vaguely like the old North Carolina sailing sharpies. The topsides consist of a short fore deck, longitudinal seats, and narrow side decks. The center board is aluminum plate, as is the kick-up rudder. The sail area is more than adequate for driving the craft along the central coast of North Carolina.

As the boat responded, we bore off on the ocean side of Shackleford Banks towards our destination. In the lee of this northeast zephyr, the area close to shore was smooth and free from chop. Then, to our surprise, in a matter of seconds, the breeze freshened into a powerful 25+ mph wind.

We made all the necessary adjustments in response to conditions as they intensified. When the blow finally settled in, Brack and I were jammed together, side by side, just forward of the transom, trying to keep the bow up to prevent a broach. The nearly overpowering aerodynamic and hydrodynamic forces tested our ability to trim the sails and balance the vessel as the boat surged over the small ground swells like a skipping stone.

After a few minutes of managing this terminal white-knuckle velocity, I gained some confidence that the mast, sails, and boat were all going to hold together and glanced over to see Brack, hand on the tiller, his red-haired topped face frozen with a situational, toothy grin. It was a magical moment of craziness. 

We went on to easily reach the Cape by mid-morning and enjoyed lunch within the shadow of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Things calmed down a bit from there, and we went snorkeling at the rock jetty. And on the way back home, we stopped and surfed the Shackleford break at Beaufort Inlet. It was a lot of adventure and fun to pack into just one day.

As an adventure destination, Cape Lookout Lighthouse has only increased in fame since then. The Lighthouse is the focal point of hundreds of boaters and thousands of visitors during the summer. And the fact it can only be accessed by boat increases its allure. The Lighthouse is the dominant feature of an otherwise barren landscape. This contrast belies its former purpose, but now only a relic artifact of an ancient civilization that has long since passed. With this heritage, little wonder it is the treasured icon of Carteret County and all of Down East. 

But the Lighthouse may not always be there. A little-publicized drama is playing out between the adjacent eroding shoreline of Barden’s Inlet and the government agencies. If they don’t get it together and stop dithering soon, things may not end well for the old diamond-studded tower. 

Nelson Paul is a real estate agent, former NC Coastal regulator, inventor, husband, father of four, and a grandfather of seven.