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Harbor Towns Cruises: Making Old Ways New Again

 In Something to Talk About, Summer 2024, Travel

Before roughly a century ago, if one wanted to explore the Outer Banks, they would arrive by boat, crossing the sounds’ shallow water in private ferries and boats captained by skilled locals. Their journeys would start at one of the many port towns on the inner banks, where they would have stayed in town for an evening or two before heading off to one of our barrier islands. These towns with their bustling docks were teeming with businesses that changed over the years, but kept them in economic health until automobiles, freight trains and other factors lead to their decline. Harbor Towns Cruises now wants to be a big part of reversing this trend.

As each town put forth efforts over the years to bring folks traveling through the area to the area, former Mayor of Roper, North Carolina, Bunny Sanders had an idea to make the old ways new again, and she has been working towards her goal for quite a while. Over thirty years ago she proposed bringing back boat transport to join these struggling destinations, in an effort to create a unified attraction. While there are more towns and cities planned to be included in the future, the first five are: Edenton, Plymouth, Hertford, Elizabeth City and Columbia, with Manteo added as a sixth destination. In describing how to attract people to the area she says, “boats make sense, and they make much more sense for five towns.” As Bunny says, “they can do it all by boat.” Her partner Phillip McMullen, a retired operations research and economics expert, who at the time was at Elizabeth City State University working in economic development, echoes her sentiment by saying, “How can we increase the attractiveness of these towns? Let’s capitalize on the water.” He explains, “Sell all the towns as one attraction and call it Harbor Towns,” and thus the non-profit Harbor Towns Inc was born.

The former mayor knew that community investment was necessary and went to each municipality’s leadership and, “got support for what we were proposing to do.” This monumental goal needed more than just two highly motivated people to get off the ground and into the water, and thus the team grew. Around three years after Bunny and Phillip first proposed the concept of Harbor Towns, Peter Thompson, an Elizabeth City businessman and now “a director of Harbor Towns Inc and local coordinator,” joined the project. Coming from Canada, he says he looked out onto the often empty waters of the Albemarle Sound and thought, “no one was doing what was obvious,” which to him was utilizing the waterfront to increase visitation. When he heard of the plan to join the waterfront towns by fast passenger ferries, “it made so much sense – who could not want to help.” When asked about his main goal, he said it was for the average person to have, “the opportunity to get out on the water. That is what it’s all about…the gorgeous water. The Roanoke Delta is wonderful.”

During that time, the then current President of UNC Erskine Bowles introduced Bunny Sanders to Kenan-Flagler Business School Professor Nick Didow, now Harbor Towns CEO, and, as he said in our interview, “my life hasn’t been the same ever since.” He also saw a future in bringing back water transport and tours to the Albemarle Sound. “These Harbor Towns, this is where North Carolina began,” and that he fully supported Bunny’s idea to, “reconnect the Inner Banks and the Outer Banks…putting water transportation back on the sound as it used to be a hundred years ago.” He describes his part, starting over 15 years ago as, “trying to find a way to fine tune this…so it will be both beneficial to the Inner Banks and the Outer Banks.”

Real traction began when Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan County became involved. Professor Didow explains, “Ed was the Ferry Director for NCDOT…so he understood that ferries and water transportation are not just functional, they’re attractive. They can be enjoyable, fun, and they can connect people, provide excitement and adventure.” Through this and agreement with colleagues that “the Inner Banks of North Carolina are one of three regions that need a little love, they approved a five million dollar grant for a pilot of this project.” With that grant and other investment, Harbor Towns Cruises began looking for boats, a more challenging task than one may think, even with their budget.

As beautiful as the Albemarle Sound is, it is as difficult to navigate. This is where the experts come in as, “the chop can be gnarly,” according to Peter Thompson. Thus, they enlisted retired Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry captain Tex Gallop and worked with “aeronautical engineer designed” boats that are hydrofoil catamarans, designed to keep the riders comfortable and safe through the often shallow choppy waters. As Mr. Thompson explained, “A Hysu Cat (hydrofoil supported catamaran) is a type. Ours is a new class of Hysu Cat called the Albemarle class, made by Smoky Mountain Jetboats of North Carolina.”

Captain Gallop’s experience ranges from his home waters off Wanchese to as far as Alaska and Nova Scotia. As Senior Captain at Harbor Towns Cruises, he is directly involved in the design process and explained the Hysu Cat catamaran has “a hydrofoil that allows it to ride on the fin,” with as little depth of “10 1/2 inches draw that chops the waves down as you enter the Albemarle Sound.” Being from Wanchese and having captained the Crystal Dawn headboat he knows the waters, and sees many of these boats, some smaller, making trips “from Manteo…up to Kitty Hawk” stopping at various locations in between.

Though focused on the future, the team behind Harbor Towns knows the past-Phillip McMullen even writes history books! Furthermore, Captain Tex Gallop reminds us that “years ago this (the Roanoke Delta) was a hopping area. They had showboat barges…people would head to Norfolk through the Dismal Swamp Canal.” It is this history that is brought back to life with their addition of The Albemarle Queen, a true paddle boat that hosts tours, events, and dinner cruises. Speaking to the authenticity of the vessel, both Thompson and Gallop emphasized the paddles are not just for show, as many paddle boats in use today use modern motors behind cosmetic paddles.

Mel Martine is the events director of the Queen, and when asked about her decision to join the Harbor Towns Cruises team she said, “When the opportunity to direct and manage events on the Albemarle Queen presented itself, I couldn’t walk away.” She describes the multifaceted experience of the paddleboat thus, “The Albemarle Queen offers two experiences within the same vessel with its beautiful downstairs parlor and the open air top deck! It’s not just a venue, she’s an experience.

Smooth slow paced rides along our waterways with the option to book and listen to live music on the top deck while sipping a glass of wine. What could possibly beat that?!” She knows her wine, too, as she and Harbor Towns Cruises spokesperson Nicole Hyatt (Nicole J & Co. Marketing Group) own 2Souls Wine Bar in Elizabeth City.

She loves the area and emphasizes to future passengers, “Northeastern North Carolina is gorgeous, and the best views are from the water, paddling on the Albemarle Queen!”

One of Harbor Towns Cruises’ passenger ferry, the Penelope Barker docked in the scenic Inner Banks town of Edenton.

One of Harbor Towns Cruises’ passenger ferry, the Penelope Barker docked in the scenic Inner Banks town of Edenton.

The other two Harbor Towns Cruises vessels- the Penelope Barker and the Moses Grandy-are both fast passenger ferries. These hydrofoil catamarans are as modern as they come, but their namesakes are not. Professor Didow emphasized in our conversation the significance of highlighting important local historical figures. Penelope Barker was the organizer of the October 1774 Edenton Tea Pot, considered the first women’s political demonstration in America. She led the local women in their boycott of English Tea, showing women could have a political influence regardless of standing. Moses Grandy was born into enslavement, yet despite his hardships became a renowned seaman and abolitionist. Grandy shared his narrative and spoke publicly in an effort to convince people of the evils of slavery. As more ferries are added to the fleet, more local figures’ stories will be shared; yet another way Harbor Towns Cruises is bringing the past and present of these areas together.

Even though the concept of passenger ferries in the sound has been around for hundreds of years and the hydrofoil catamaran concept was patented in the 1990s, these modern vessels still bring new challenges. As Peter Thompson explained, “No bureaucracy in the world likes something new.” Since ferry boats are from point to point, they have a different standard of inspection and need Federal Coast Guard approval. This means that each vessel is rigorously inspected and since this type of vessel is not commonly used in this country, it was unfamiliar territory. “On the other hand,” he says, “the local guys (Coast Guard) were extremely helpful,” as they understand why you would need a special type of vessel. Despite the challenges, these two passenger ferries are on the water with schedules online and more planned for the future.

Thirty years in the making to bring back something common a hundred years ago seems like a Sisyphean task, but Peter Thompson pointed out that their group’s motto is: “if it was easy, it would have been done long ago-or someone else would have done it.” It certainly has taken a special collaboration of people, only some of whom we have referenced in this article, to bring Harbor Towns Cruises and the larger Harbor Towns concept to this point. As they work through the hurdles with these first three boats, Professor Didow emphasizes, “the plan is more vessels and more trips, tours and cruises…but it’s a wonderful start. It is the start.”

All Photos Courtesy of Nicole J & Co. Marketing Group

Jes Gray
Author: Jes Gray

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