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Down the Wild Cape FearA River Journey through the Heart of North Carolina$

Philip Gerard

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781469602073

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: July 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9781469608129_Gerard

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(p.241) 15
Down the Wild Cape Fear

Philip Gerard

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter shows that the route to the actual Cape Fear on Bald Head Island is circuitous and expensive. The cape, of course, is a shifty piece of real estate. In this part of the world, sand migrates south and west, as a rule, according to currents and tides, but storms tend to plough through these low islands, moving thousands of tons of sand in hours. The relentless undertow of large wave trains sucks sand off beaches and furrows it into shoals offshore. Dredging the long fairway into the ship channel undoubtedly contributes something—nobody can agree on exactly what—to the whole restless equation. The cape can be thus thought of as an indeterminate place, partly submerged, where land turns into treacherous water.

Keywords:   Cape Fear, Bald Head Island, low islands, large wave trains, ship channel, indeterminate place, treacherous water

The route to the actual Cape of Fear on Bald Head Island is circuitous and expensive.

The cape, of course, is a shifty piece of real estate. In this part of the world, sand migrates south and west, as a rule, according to currents and tides, but storms tend to plough through these low islands, moving thousands of tons of sand in hours. The relentless undertow of large wave trains sucks sand o beaches and furrows it into shoals o shore. And dredging the long fairway into the ship channel undoubtedly contributes something—nobody can agree on exactly what—to the whole restless equation.

So think of the cape as an indeterminate place, partly sub-merged, where land turns into treacherous water. The Frying Pan Shoals extend more than twenty miles o shore. There used to be a light tower marking the outer fringe of the ship-killing sands, but it's been decommissioned and sold o to a private individual.

I once helmed a forty-six-foot sailboat under power through a shortcut across the shoals, heading north to Sag Harbor. The captain navigated. All I had to do was drive. But steering through that narrow, twisty patch of water was unnerving.

On either hand, only a couple of boat-lengths away, the steep, four-foot-high breaking waves frothed and slapped down. We crawled slowly across Cape Fear through a little furrow in the shoals, and I was glad when we nally found open water again and the depth-sounder read first twentyve feet, then forty, then sixty, and at last o the continental shelf, no bottom.

To get to that remote spot, the Cape of Fear at the far southeastern tip of Bald head Island, we begin in Southport, my wife, Jill, and I. That's where the Bald Head Island ferry terminal is located, at Deep Point Marina. There is no bridge to Bald Head, no public ferry, and even docking your own boat in the Bald Head Island harbor will run you $20 an hour.

We purchase round-trip tickets, $23 each, and settle in to wait on the observation deck, shaded by a peaked pavilion roof. The benches are curved and comfortable, and there are white rocking chairs, the staple of beach-town porches everywhere. (p.242)


Old Baldy Lighthouse on Bald Head Island, the sentinel marking the Cape of Fear (author photo)

The benches and rockers fill up with families and kids, a frisky yellow lab and comical French bulldog, and businessmen clearly looking forward to a week on the golf course. They converse in the accents of South Jersey, New York, Virginia, and the Midwest. When the ferry arrives, a hundred or more passengers, including us, swarm aboard as staff members rush cargo wagons full of baggage down ramps and into the cargo bay. Many of the passengers will be trammed off to vacation rentals once they arrive on the island.

I spent a long weekend on Bald Head Island a couple years back while researching and writing a story about the “Bald Head Mounties”—inspired by a photo.

It's an arresting image, one of a suite of photographs posted above a glass-covered display case in the Smith Island Museum of History near Old Baldy Lighthouse: A tall young rider wearing long-sleeved Coast Guard blues, high leather riding boots, and an infantryman's helmet sits astride a horse rearing up on its hind legs in the surf, a dramatic Lone Ranger pose. But it's not the (p.243) Wild West. The mounted guardsman is Jack Murphy, all six feet, five inches of him. The horse is King. The time is World War II. The place is a beach on Bald Head Island.

Murphy was one of an adventurous band of farm boys, cowboys, polo players, retired cavalrymen, stunt riders, and jockeys that made up the “Coast Guard Cavalry,” who scouted the beaches for trouble, armed with rifles and radios, first responders against invasion. The display case holds his scarred, lace-up cavalry boots and a rusty helmet found on the beach that matches the one in the photo, physical reminders of an era of vigilance against an enemy coming from the sea.

It's hard to imagine now an idyllic island vacation community, a place of quiet natural beauty and peaceful contemplation, as the outpost of a war effort. Hard to realize after all these years of security, even after 9/11, that in the months following the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor our long, mostly undefended coastlines were considered dangerously vulnerable to attack. Following the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States, and President Franklin Roosevelt went on the radio warning Americans on the Eastern Seaboard to be prepared for aerial bombing raids launched from forward German bases in captured Scandinavian countries.

The threat was real enough, if sometimes much exaggerated. Fleets of German Unterseeboots, operating in radio-controlled wolfpacks, were plundering the shipping lanes from the Gulf of Mexico to Nova Scotia seemingly at will. If the Japanese could strike unexpectedly across thousands of miles of trackless ocean, why not the Nazis?

On some moonless night over New York or Baltimore or Charleston, would the skies blossom with hordes of enemy paratroopers? The harbor fill with enemy warships?

Indeed, according to legend, a U-boat fired on the Ethyl-Dow plant at Kure Beach, just north of Bald Head, in 1943.

The other invasion danger was more insidious: spies and saboteurs.

In June 1942, two teams of English-speaking Nazi saboteurs were landed from U-boats in rubber rafts, equipped with thousands of dollars in U.S. currency and the ingredients for making bombs to blow up shipbuilding works, factories, and other targets crucial to the American war effort. A young coast guardsman named John Cullen, patrolling on foot out of the Amagansett, Long Island, station, surprised one of the teams, which had landed from the U-202.

The saboteurs tried to bribe him into silence, but instead he alarmed his (p.244) station, and a reinforced patrol found a buried cache of explosives in the dunes. Not long afterward, the FBI captured the saboteurs as they attempted to make their way inland. Another team of saboteurs that infiltrated via U-boat was nabbed only a few days later in Florida.

Though beaches in populated areas were already patrolled, it was clear that the threat of enemy agents required that even remote beaches, like those on Bald Head Island, be patrolled regularly. The port of Wilmington, seventeen miles upriver, had become an important shipbuilding center. The Gulf Stream close offshore was a hunting ground for U-boat wolfpacks, the north-bound highway for ships en route to New York and Halifax that would form into convoys for Britain. Bald Head Island sat squarely on the hip of a crucial shipping channel to a port vital to the war effort, where Liberty Ships still under construction on the ways could be sabotaged and valuable cargoes destroyed.

As the Atlantic war escalated, North Carolina governor Joseph M. Broughton complained of the vulnerability of the coast to President Roosevelt. Each morning, debris would wash up: abandoned life rafts, oil, even occasional bodies. Governor Broughton had long advocated for a more comprehensive beach patrol.

Fearing a new kind of invasion, military authorities beefed up their “trip-wire” forces. By the end of the summer of 1942, Bald Head Island, like the entire Atlantic Seaboard, was patrolled around the clock.

The coast guardsmen who patrolled the strands were called “beachpounders.” To assist the two coast guardsmen who alternated duty on Bald Head at the start of the war, a dozen or so new men were assigned to the three old buildings at Captain Charlie's Station near Cape Fear, which had been shut down but was recommissioned for the war. A new steel “skeleton light-house” tower was erected nearby on South Beach, with an enclosed watch room at the top, near the current intersection of South Bald Head Wynd and Silversides. The men took four-hour shifts scanning the horizons for signs of threat or vessels in distress.

In addition, on Bald Head, as in other locations with miles of wild, open beach far from population centers, the Coast Guard stationed another twenty to thirty riders and a stable of army cavalry remounts from the more than 3,000 assigned to the Coast Guard.

Think of that: the Coast Guard with three regiments'worth of horses. Jack Murphy and his comrades patrolled on horseback in pairs, in four-hour shifts.

“Well, when they decided that they needed a horse patrol to cover the beaches, they sent a memo out asking for volunteers, anybody that knew anything (p.245) about horses,” recalled boatswain's mate Chester Hennis, who served on Bald Head in those days before volunteering for duty in the Pacific war, in a 1995 interview for UNCW's oral history project. He came to Oak Island straight out of boot camp in New Orleans but quickly decided that Bald Head Island would be the ideal post and asked to be reassigned there. “So all these kids from Texas and Oklahoma thought they were cowboys, so they volunteered immediately. They were tickled to death. They were scared of the ocean, scared of boats, and here they're in the service and it was like a godsend to them. Man, they wanted to get on those horses and get away from the boats!”

Men and horses trained together at the Mounted Beach Patrol and Dog Training Center, in Hilton Head, South Carolina. At least two dogs, Wolfe and Gypsy, patrolled Bald Head with the mounties. Each dog was paw-printed and inducted formally into the military, complete with a service record that noted whetherthe dog had passed obedience training and camewhen it was called—no kidding.

The mounties lived in a long-gone board-and-batten beach shack with a screened-in porch “at the last palmetto tree on Bluff Island” up the East Beach. Nearby was one of two horse barns—the other was a converted boat-house on South Beach, now a private residence moved to the head of Sea Lavender Lane. Except in the coldest winter weeks, they bathed their horses daily in the saltwater to keep them from getting saddle sores in such a hot, humid climate.

According to Coast Guard directives, the job of the mounted patrols was not to repel “hostile, armed units” but, rather, to report any suspicious activities in their sectors—unauthorized boats, strangers, wreckage, anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes local fishermen came ashore, were questioned, and were allowed to go on their way. As part of the wartime navy, the beach-pounders were to work closely with their local counterparts in the army and the FBI. Their second assignment was to do what beach patrols had always done on the North Carolina coast: Be on the alert for vessels or mariners in distress and aid them in any way possible.

So they patrolled the wide-open, windy beaches on the south, east, and west of the island, crossing the sharp point of Cape Fear.

The waves break onshore at the point of Cape Fear with astonishing violence during the rising tide, more so in storm. The Frying Pan Shoals are barely submerged sand ridges on which the waves break with fury hundreds of yards offshore. Indeed, the shoals are a ship-killing ground. During rough weather, when the Atlantic gets its back up, the breakers froth in ragged lines all the (p.246) way to the horizon. It's easy to imagine threat or calamity coming from the restive ocean that pounds the beach.

Since the Gulf Stream, the favorable current for northbound ships, runs so close to the North Carolina shore, and southbound vessels often steamed in-shore from the stream to avoid the adverse current, the beach patrols had a ringside seat to watch the U-boat war. Almost nightly, they could seethe glow of burning ships on the horizon. During the first six months of 1942 alone, seventy-two vessels were sunk off the North Carolina coast, including two German U-boats. The toll also counted thirty Allied tankers, three of them lost on the same night.

While researching the mounties, I stayed ata cottage called Merde Rêve—Sea of Dreams—also known as Surfman's Walk #10. Like many such vacation cottages, this one had a guestbook in which occupants could record their adventures. The entry for March 17,2005, caught my eye: “Lost at sea for 30 days, today we were forced to eat Jim. It only took 3 hours to wrestle him to the ground and knock him out, but it took several more hours to cook using the microwave. Sorry about the mess.”

A companion note the next day: “We found out today how to charge up the golf cart, and it turned out the shopping center is walking distance. We had lobster for dinner. It was Jim's favorite.” Signed: Hannibal Lector and Family.

No motor vehicles are allowed on the island except fire and police and maintenance vehicles. Everybody else walks, rides a bicycle, or scoots around in an electric golf cart. On our excursion, Jill and I rent #109, the last cart available, forewarned that it is not completely charged. But it will get us there and back. It's a breezy three miles from the ferry terminal down shady Federal Road through thick, lush maritime forest.

Along the way we pass the historical marker for Fort Holmes, once a formidable Confederate bastion. During the Civil War, Confederates using conscripted African American laborers built an elaborate sand fort on the western corner of the island, Fort Holmes, in honor of General Theophilus H. Holmes, to guard Old Inlet, the main channel into the Cape Fear up to Wilmington. Long guns were mounted in elaborate breastworks similar to those at Fort Fisher not far away to the north, garrisoned by the 40th Regiment of North Carolina troops under Captain John Hedrick beginning on September 9,1863.

Bald Head Island straddled both the main channel to the Cape Fear River and New Inlet.

Thus it was strategically located to either block or cover vessels trying (p.247) to enter the river. Anticipating that sooner or later the Yankees would get a foothold on Bald Head—for they had already taken the barrier islands to the north, Hatteras, Ocracoke, and Roanoke—General Charles C. Whiting, in command of the Wilmington District, fortified the island. Fort Holmes ran 1.7 miles along the eastern and southern faces of the island. At its peak it was garrisoned by about 1,700 soldiers—more than twice the garrison of Fort Fisher before it was reinforced in 1865.

But the Yankees never attacked Fort Holmes, and it was burned and evacuated by the retreating Confederates, leaving behind some vestigial earthworks and three recently disinterred remains of workers or soldiers.

Bald Head's martial history actually extends all the way back to the Revolutionary War, when the British, having been driven out of Boston, returned in May 1776 to invade the Carolinas. The British fleet, carrying Lord Cornwallis's famed 33rd Regiment of Foot, rendezvoused in the Cape Fear estuary. They established Fort George on the island. Patriot troops landed and tried to capture it, but they were driven off. Many historians consider this the first amphibious assault by American troops in U.S. history—another unlikely first for the Cape Fear River.

In our rented golf cart, Jill and I trundle on silently to East Beach, where the cape spreads out in a gorgeous soft sand beach, disappearing into a roiling sea. We clamber over the boardwalk that crosses the double dune line and step out onto the Cape of Fear.

For miles out to sea, all we can see are thrashing breakers, rearing across the sandbars and shoals in ragged lines. There is not just one definitive line of breakers but foaming ranks slamming in at several angles, cresting on the scalloped floor of the shallowing ocean. Far off to our right passes the ship channel, the channel markers barely visible at this distance. The water quiets only a little as it enters the river fairway, looking slatey and humped with wind-driven combers on this overcast day.

James Sprunt's portentous words come ringing to mind, proclaiming the name as “Fear” rather than “Fair”: “There it stands today, bleak, and threatening, and pitiless, as it stood three hundred years ago, when Grenville and White came nigh unto death upon its sands. And there it will stand, bleak, and threatening, and pitiless, until the earth and sea shall give up their dead. And, as its nature, so its name, is now, always has been, and always will be, the Cape of Fear.”

The tide is advancing across the beach, creating long tidepools parallel to shore in the swales of sand, then oversloshing them with new waves. The life-boat Cape Fear lies overturned in the sand above the high-tide mark, next to (p.248)


The author at the Cape of Fear, the “playground of billows and tempests” (Jill Gerard photo)

its identical unmarked white twin. I can only imagine this exposed arrowhead of sand as a storm, ora hurricane, piles giant waves onto the beach, flooding it all the way to the dune line and perhaps beyond. I can't quite fathom heading out to sea in weather like that to perform a rescue—not of anybody, for any reason.

The sky to seaward is suffused in mist, created by blowing spindrift.

This is the front door to the river, the first landfall west of Bermuda, 600 miles to the east.

Overlooking the cape is the Shoals, a luxurious club with bar, restaurant, pool, all the amenities—not a sight Sprunt would have recognized. The dunes fronting the club are posted and roped off to keep tourists from trampling the nests of seabirds—David Webster spent part of last week out here mapping out the nesting zone. Bald Head is also a haven for loggerhead sea turtles. Last year seventy-five nests were discovered and carefully tended by volunteers from the Bald Head Island Conservancy. All seventy-five hatched.

Down the long stretch of South Beach, kids cavort in the surf, fling foot-balls and flying rings at one another, screeching with delight. Surfers bob offshore on their boards, waiting for a ride. The wind is picking up. Darker clouds are moving in. Before long a quick downpour will pass over the island, slapping it with a wet hand, then disappearing.

I stare off at the breakers, the gray mist, the darkening sky, the relentless thrashing surf, thinking, what a beautiful, treacherous place.

(p.249) We have just enough battery power left in our golf cart to make it back to the ferry landing and catch the commercial ferry heading back to the main-land. This is not the slick, new catamaran that carried us here a few hours ago but an older monohull boat that pitches and rolls in the restless cross-seas stirred up by wind and tide fighting against each other. Rain and wind drive us into the main saloon, where the passengers are lounging among tool-bags, backpacks, and personal coolers: housekeepers, drywallers, carpenters, masons, tilers, mechanics, hospitality staff, all the workers who make it possible for Bald Head Island to thrive, headed home after a long day of work.

Out the window I watch the river, gray and heaving, listen to the engines labor against all that current, all that water, upriver to our landing.

On our drive home, we cross the Cape Fear River yet again. High on the bridge, our SUV buffeted by the wind, we can spy the McAllister tugboat fleet below us, see the blue and orange cranes of the port downriver.

But my mind is on the thundering lines of breakers at the far reach of Bald Head Island, the Cape of Fear. (p.250)