The Blue Flame at the Outer Banks

At Avon, Buxton and Rodanthe the houses sit on stilts. It’s that way all along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Especially so on Hatteras Island, accessible by the tall bridge spanning Oregon Inlet or by the N.C. State Highway Department ferries to Ocracoke Island. The latter is only a 45 minute trip. It’s two and a half hours by ferry to the mainland from Ocracoke. People come to enjoy the views, the beach or to go fishing. The stilts keep the sand from the beach houses’ bottom floors, blown about by the constant wind off the ocean. The vacation homes rise three or four stories above the sand, with decks encircling the clapboard walls. Some even have a cupola or crow’s nest atop the roof. All the better to see beyond the barrier dunes that keep the waves at bay–until the next hurricane or tropical storm that hauls the sand back out with the tide. Then the houses are knocked down and sometimes a new inlet cuts across highway 12 that runs the length of Hatteras.

The Outer Banks are a graveyard of countless ships. Sandbars and reefs shift with the tides near and far from the shore that juts out from coastline. Lighthouses here and lighthouses there protected the ships in the days before modern navigation systems. Those systems are not foolproof, but few ships are lost today as they ride the Gulf Stream north. Between fishing trawlers, charter boats and cargo ships there’s no room for oil or gas drilling–even if the shelf were up to it and drillers could get permission. So when Carson saw the plume rising from above the waves he couldn’t imagine from whence it came. Five or six hundred yards offshore he guessed. He grabbed the binoculars he kept handy on the 2nd story deck that opened from the living room. Naught but the bright blue flame could be seen. No ship. No people. Nothing. He must call the Coast Guard.

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