Bald Head by Boat

February 2022
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
courtesy of Paul Grimshaw; IOFOTO; Stephen Locicero & Reedy River Company Photographs

A Sailing Adventure to Bald Head Island, NC

Better than owning a boat is having a friend with one, and there are many friendly motorboat owners along the Grand Strand. But not nearly as many are sailboat owners. When friend Aaron Maynard, retired U.S. Air force Colonel and owner of Pedego Electric Bikes in Myrtle Beach, suggested a day sail to Bald Head Island (BHI) in North Carolina, I jumped at the chance.

The trip should take six to seven hours, I was told, and Maynard’s two brothers, Gregg and Jonathan, would complete our crew of four. We packed beer, NA beverages for the captain, plenty of ice, Yacht Rock on Pandora and sandwiches prepared by Jonathan’s wife, Malia, a local dental hygienist and all-around good sport.

We met at the Cherry Grove Marina in North Myrtle Beach at 8 a.m., ready to board the Endora, Maynard’s sailboat, a MacGregor 26M. The Endora, recently purchased and named by its former owner, will be rechristened the Miss Shell sometime in 2022 when it gets a full makeover. It’s a sleek, 26-foot sailboat that is about perfect for four, though five could manage and sleep onboard. It has a head (boat lingo for toilet), a small galley and reasonable storage. Maynard’s boat is equipped with a 60-horsepower outboard motor and two 12-gallon fuel tanks.

We stowed our gear–I was teased for packing a small suitcase and garment bag–and settled in for the trip. We motored north on the Intracoastal Waterway under blue skies with the sea and adventure awaiting us in the same way it has called to sailors from time immemorial.

We passed by the massive gambling barges and waterfront of Little River, then past oyster beds, past the left-hand turn to the Calabash waterfront, past small islands, before exiting the rock jetties at Little River Inlet. When we crossed the unseen line separating the Inlet from the Atlantic Ocean, we cut power to the motor and began the task of harnessing the wind.

Sailing, as it turns out, is a lot of work, and unless you’re aboard something built for speed, they’re not very fast, especially compared to even a modest motorboat. But something Captain Maynard already knew, and the rest of us would discover, is that the value of sailing, using the power of just the wind and some ancient but very clever human engineering, is the reward in and of itself.

We hoisted the mainsail and unfurled the jib while Captain Maynard shouted commands, looking nautical with his salty white beard and mandatory deluxe captain’s hat. Maynard is relatively new to sailing, but is detail-oriented from a career as navigator for the Air Force, serving between 1988-2014. He and his wife, Michele, are accomplished sailors, something required of their 2019 purchase of a much larger sailboat kept in the Virgin Islands. The couple, married for 33 years, trained together in 2019 and passed extensive sailing courses. They’ve hosted and led a dozen or so casual sailing trips around the British Virgin Islands with friends and their three grown children.

I was told this trip up the coast to BHI should be a breeze, which is something we really needed and was noticeably absent.

Captain Maynard steered us a bit further east into the Atlantic where the wind suddenly picked up, snapping and filling the sails, pushing the boat forward, as if by magic, at around six knots (seven MPH). When the wind and direction were just perfect, and we were instructed to watch our heads and be prepared to move, the boat suddenly and dramatically tipped to the starboard. This “heeling” of the boat feels like a deliberate attempt to throw everyone overboard. Heeling, I was told, was not only “OK,” it was the goal, as it’s the most efficient way to cruise. Heeling is proof to the sailor that all is right with the world, and all is right with their sailing skills.

We had a good sail going and were on schedule until the wind changed in speed and direction, doing strange things to the way the sail responded. Constant monitoring of the onboard electric navigation was required to keep us headed East-Northeast to our destination, but this, I was also told, “is a part of sailing.”

Halfway There

Bald Head Island sits at the easternmost and southernmost tip of North Carolina’s southern barrier islands, at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. Its nearest coastal neighbor, the old seaport town of Southport, is where most people board daily ferries to visit the island. BHI is only accessible by boat, and no cars are allowed–only golf carts and bicycles, which can be rented by the day. Wilmington sits up the river and Fort Fisher is another popular nearby destination. By car and ferry, BHI is accessible from Myrtle Beach in about two hours.

As a part of the greater Frying Pan Shoals region of the coast, the area is also known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” as it was once considered treacherous water in which to sail or steam, and is the site of countless shipwrecks. This bit of trivia I repeated to the crew at least 15 times, as I wanted to add to their sense of adventure. Fear and foreboding, however, were difficult to manifest on this picture-perfect day on the water. We basked in the warm sun, reveled in the cool breezes, enjoyed plenty of food and beverage, good company, and were already three hours into our scheduled seven-hour trip… then, disaster!

As the jib ripped and separated itself unceremoniously from the line that attached it to the rest of the rigging, the flapping and clanging of metal snaps against the 35-foot-tall mast was deafening. We had to bring the boat to a complete stop and enlist our inner MacGyvers to make emergency repairs, especially thanks to Jonathan, a commercial helicopter pilot and new resident to the Grand Strand. This repair using zip-ties and duct tape worked briefly and we were back underway until the winds died again. After an hour of trying to catch the light wind the best we could, the jib failed again. There was only one thing to do: fire up the outboard.

Cruising comfortably under steam at around 10 knots, and making up for lost time, we relaxed, told tall tales and remained incident-free for the remainder of the trip north. Standing by the bow I shouted, “There’s Old Baldy!” pointing toward the easily recognizable BHI lighthouse standing proudly in the distance like it has since 1817. As the only one of the four of us to have ever visited BHI—this would be my fifth trip—I became the de facto, yet ill-prepared, tour guide. As we started to see our destination looming closer, we were informed by our captain/navigator that we were less than 45 minutes away.

Pulling up toward the southern beaches of the 12,000-acre BHI, Old Baldy let us know we were following old maritime traditions. As we neared the Cape Fear River, the currents got squirrely and the depth finder proved that anywhere other than dead center of the wide channel was risky, with ocean depths suddenly changing from 40-feet to 11-feet without notice. These are the ever shifting, dangerous and infamous Frying Pan Shoals that have caught countless sea captains unaware.

We pulled into BHI’s Deep Point Marina, found our reserved boat slip, and congratulated ourselves on a successful sail. Jonathan and Gregg set to making more permanent repairs to the jib in preparation for the sail home and felt confident in the reengineering. Still mid-afternoon, after a shower at the marina bathhouse, we rented a golf cart and set out to explore.

We stopped at the town center, which is little more than a small collection of restaurants, shops and business offices for the marina and various commercial enterprises. The marina and town center are spotless and charming almost beyond description, capturing the look and feel of a centuries-old New England fishing village, even though the bulk of the manufactured town came into being beginning in the late 1970s.

Though quiet on this off-season trip, summertime crowds can be quite large on BHI, which has more than a thousand rooms for rent in various private condos, the large Marsh Harbour Inn and other commercial rentals. For the lucky few, BHI boasts hundreds of single family homes, also often available for rent, that range from modest, small homes in the quiet maritime forests of the inner island, to multi-million dollar mansions (some approaching $15-mil) sitting majestically high upon windswept dunes.

Hollywood has come calling over the years with movies shot entirely or mostly on the island, including the 80s staple “Weekend at Bernie’s,” the Demi Moore, supernatural rom-com “The Butcher’s Wife,” and Julia Roberts’ hit “Sleeping with the Enemy.”

Our golf cart tour took us to Old Baldy next, then past the only grocery store on the island, then to the private Bald Head Island Club, complete with an 18-hole golf course and an elite croquet course luring travelers from around the world for starched white linen seasonal tournaments. Ten minutes down the narrow road designed for golf carts, bicycles and just wide enough for municipal emergency vehicles, we came to “the point” and the over-the-top beachfront resort, The Shoals Club (open March–December).

The point, easily visible on any map of the coast, is my favorite spot on the island. It’s a sandy land mass surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on two sides. It’s a place where, given enough time, you can see the sun rise and set over the Atlantic without moving your beach chair. The point juts out so far that it makes the beginning and end of the day on BHI quite special.

After cruising back to town, we had cocktails and dinner at Jules’ Salty Grub & Island Pub just before sunset. We retired back to the Endora, where we chatted, listened to music and began to really relax and take stock of just how fortunate we felt. A cool, moonless, crystal-clear night soothed any pulled muscles, leading to a deep sleep, at least for most of us. The next morning, Captain Maynard suggested that maybe next time the two biggest guys shouldn’t sleep on the same side of the boat, as the 15-degree list was just enough to be annoying.

The Journey Home

In desperate need of coffee and with appetites waking up, we took a quick golf cart trip to the center of the island to visit a popular breakfast shop at the Maritime Market, which proved to be a winner with the crew. We returned the golf cart and paid up at the marina office before beginning our journey home.

The winds were up compared to the previous day, and that was good news. With the engine off we tested the new repair to the jib, finding it more than adequate and the sailing quite good. We came upon a pod of dolphins, which meandered lazily in groups of two or three, surfacing just long enough to miss getting great photos. Regardless, it was a good omen and wonderful to witness.

The six-hour return trip was made mostly under wind power, with the exception of the last 30 minutes up the Intracoastal Waterway and back into our home marina. We all agreed it was a great trip, with the only caveat being we needed much more time on Bald Head Island, but still well worth the effort. We plan to go back.

Visit BHI anytime of year, with or without a boat. Plan to rent bikes or a golf cart, and stay as long as you possibly can, but for overnights book rooms early, as they’re hard to come by in high season.