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Boating North Carolina’s Cape Fear River

With the boater-friendly city of Wilmington and a wide range of boating possibilities, North Carolina’s Cape Fear River is an ideal destination from spring to fall. Running due north from the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, the Cape Fear is a convenient Carolina treat.

As the state’s only river to feed directly into the open ocean, the Cape Fear is quite active commercially. Huge tankers, container ships, and more ply the river, but it’s wide and welcoming to power boats of all sizes. Add to this the charming city of Wilmington and a nice variety of marinas and facilities--you have an ideal boating destination.

The Cape Fear River has played an important role in state and U.S. history. Pirates roamed the river in the 1700s and a famous battle involving the pirate Stede Bonnet took place in 1718. In 1725, the port city of Brunswick was founded and thrived for many decades. Later in the century, it was eclipsed in commercial activity by another town to the north--which would eventually be called Wilmington.

The river was a hub of activity during and after the Revolutionary War, with tar and turpentine two of the major products. The region also hosted several Civil War battles, while Wilmington would be the last of the state’s coastal city’s to fall (Civil War buffs will enjoy historic Fort Fisher on Kure Beach). Today, Wilmington and the Cape Fear River are thriving, thanks to a bustling boating scene and a rejuvenated riverfront.

The area where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic is bordered by Bald Head Island to the east and Oak Island/Caswell Beach to the west. Approximately ten miles of the lower Cape Fear River is actually part of the Intracoastal Waterway, connecting Snows Cut in the north to the charming town of Southport, where the Intracoastal picks up its narrow passage again. This ten mile section is highlighted by Bald Head Island, the new North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher on Kure Beach, relatively easy ocean access, and wide river passage.

Bald Head Island is a lightly developed destination accessible only by boat (residents use their private boats or the ferry to get on and off the island, traveling the island in golf carts once there). There’s limited shopping and dining, excellent beachcombing, and a nice marina (Bald Head Marina-910/457-7380).

Made up of the townships of Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, Pleasure Island borders the Cape Fear to the east. Along with the aquarium and Fort Fisher, the marina facilities and park activities at Carolina Beach State Park and Marina (910/458-8206) make for a nice stop. Coquina Harbour at Carolina Beach (910/458-5053), near Snows Cut, is another option.

North of Snows Cut, the river narrows and the marked channel is quite easy to follow. The commercial traffic can be a bit intimidating at first, but there’s plenty of room for all boating traffic.

Daybeacon #59 marks the way to Wilmington Marine Center and Wilmington to the east, as well as the mouth of the Brunswick River to the west (a nice sidetrip for boaters). Wilmington Marine Center (910/395-5055) is a great Cape Fear River base, with full modern facilities, friendly staff, complimentary cruising information, and easy access (by short taxi ride) into downtown. It’s also the only marina on the river offering both gasoline and diesel.

Historic Wilmington is situated right on the Cape Fear and the revitalized downtown area is a great place for boaters to enjoy sightseeing, shopping, and dining. The long list of highlights of any Wilmington visit has to include: walking along the river; taking a horse-drawn carriage tour; visiting one or more historic homes, like the Burgwin-Wright House, or simply enjoying the city’s architecture; the fascinating Cape Fear Museum; the new Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum; touring the famed Battleship North Carolina across the river; shopping at Chandler’s Wharf (and a meal at the adjacent Pilot House). Special events, including the North Carolina Azalea Festival in April and Riverfest in October, provide special reasons for boaters to stay overnight, as does a wide variety of inns and B&Bs right downtown (the Graystone Inn is a boater favorite).

Marina facilities along Wilmington’s riverfront include the public docks at the Hilton and elsewhere along the riverfront’s Riverwalk (910/341-7855) and J.W. Brooks Warehouse Dock (910/251-6635), but dockage space and facilities are limited and it’s best for boaters to call in advance.

Further north, more boating opportunities abound. Just north of the public dock area, the river divides in two. The western branch (still simply called the Cape Fear) gets quiet in a hurry, with peaceful boating up to Navassa and the northern section of the Brunswick River.

The eastern branch is known as the Northeast Cape Fear River and this is also popular with boaters. Cape Fear Marina-Bennett Brothers Yachts provides excellent marina facilities, as well as somewhat of a Mecca for fans of the company’s custom boats. This section of the river is also busy commercially, but less so the further north one heads.

Thus, from excellent facilities all along the river to the charming river city of Wilmington, there’s nothing to fear about visiting the Cape Fear River. In fact, the only fear would be passing it by during a trip along the Intracoastal!


For boating and tourism information, contact the Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800/222-4757 or visit www.cape-fear.nc.us (they have an excellent visitors center in the old courthouse at 24 North Third Street). Claiborne Young’s book, Cruising Guide to Coastal North Carolina (www.cruisingguide.com), is also an excellent resource for boating in this area, as well as the rest of the state’s coastline.