OBX dispatch: Portsmouth, Ocracoke, clams and pirates

by Brian Clarey

I’m sitting on the deck at the Jolly Roger looking out to the crystalline expanse of Silver Lake that cuts a hollow into the tiny island village of Ocracoke. You can only reach this place by boat or private plane and it’s so far away from everything that most North Carolinians will live their whole lives without ever knowing it’s here.

It’s one of my most favorite places in the world, for aesthetic reasons mostly, but also because of the Jolly Roger itself, which has the best fried clams I’ve ever tasted.

They’re beautiful – plump little local numbers shucked today and fried whole, so damn tasty I could eat them for an hour.

I’m waiting on a basket of them right now, with cole slaw and some fried okra.

I left the guys over at Portsmouth Island this morning, 15 of them, drunk as lords and with coarse sand infiltrating every crevice and fold of their bodies.

Portsmouth lies to the southwest, just across Wallace Channel amid a tiny archipelago that was once the hub of a vast network of oceangoing trade. The most prominent of these, called Shell Castle, once supported a lumberyard, a mill and a warehouse but when trade died down after the Civil War the place went fallow and has since been mostly reclaimed by the sea.

Damn, these clams are good.

It’s been four years since I’ve been out here, this tiny little slip of sand and live oaks hanging way out in the Atlantic Ocean, and time and tide have surely changed the topography, particularly the south end which has built up into a fine expanse of beach as flat and level as a vector plane.

The guy who runs the Portsmouth shuttle put it nicely in the lilting hoi toide accent peculiar to this part of the world:

“It’s real good… noice and flat and woide.”

I am not alone in experiencing a phenomenon I call “island envy” when I come to this place. I could live here, I’m thinking to myself even right now. I could cash it all in and uproot my family for a life played out in paradise. But, of course, I’m not going to. The isolation and stillness of the off-season would surely cause me to lose my mind before the Thanksgiving turkey was carved.


If left to my own devices I would probably have booked a bed last night at the Silver Lake Inn here on Ocracoke, or maybe gotten one of those rooms with a balcony overlooking the lake where I fantasize about knocking out my first novel. But I came as part of a group, that gang of 15 I mentioned earlier. It’s the fifth iteration of an annual trek these guys call “Man Trip,” and for this one they wanted to spend the night on a deserted island.

Portsmouth is not exactly deserted, but it surely has seen better days. That same lull in shipping trade after the Civil War that eradicated Shell Castle dealt a festering wound to Portsmouth and over the next hundred years the island’s 600 or so residents lit out for greener pastures. The last of them left in 1971.

They never laid plumbing out there, never ran electricity across the channel, and now it’s as pristine as American waterfront property can be, with rolling fields of beach grass and tufted dunes, unfettered marshlands, scrub trees and a tiny village on the north side where the caretakers and a few – a very select few – leaseholders enjoy the most isolated piece of land in the Old North State.

There also exists on Portsmouth a thriving colony of greenheaded flies, billions of them, each the size of a horse pill. I myself am so stricken with red bites that it looks like I have chicken pox.

Itch. Scratch. Scratch some more.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of shipwrecks buried beneath the sandy bottom of these waters, 16th century Spanish galleons and ironclad warships and trade vessels and, if you believe the local lore, the remains of the Queen Anne’s Revenge and her captain, Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the pirate, in the wide cove they call Teach’s Hole.

I believe it. Yes I do.

A local charter boat captain told me yesterday about a piece of driftwood that washed ashore after Hurricane Isabel and was found by a park ranger. There were, my captain said, 75 diamonds embedded in the wood.

They don’t make ’em like they used to!

Over on Portsmouth the guys are likely into their fifth or sixth case of beer. I hope they have enough to last the night.

As for me, after I polish off these clams – Have I mentioned how good they are? – I’m gonna buy a hermit crab for the kids and steer my car up Highway 12, ride the ferry across to Hatteras and make for points west until I roll into my driveway.

And I’ll be thinking about these clams until the day I return.

For questions or comments you may email Brian Clarey at