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Changing times at Hatteras - and everywhere

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, May 22, 2006

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Chapel Hill, NC - "Hatteras Blues: A Story from the Edge of America," a recent book by Tom Carlson, is set on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The book’s story of a family business in changing times might have taken place in another part of our state where growth and development have brought new ways and new people into the mix.

But there is something about the North Carolina coast and its people that is particularly captivating. Our State magazine’s annual “lighthouse” issue is always a bestseller, even though the same group of lighthouses is featured in photo stories year after year. Why are lighthouses so popular? Maybe it is simply the stately beauty of the structures. But I think we are drawn to them also because they remind us of our enchanting but dangerous partnership with the powerful ocean that forms the eastern boundary of North Carolina.

Why are lighthouses so popular? Maybe it is simply the stately beauty of the structures.

The family business chronicled in “Hatteras Blues” is a sports fishing charter operation. The village of Hatteras, near the famous lighthouse, has long been known for its commercial fishing. Every now and then a commercial fisherman would take a sportsfishing group out in his boat, but it was a definite sideline.

According to Carlson, just before the beginning of the Second World War one of those commercial fishermen, Ernal Foster, had a radical idea: “Instead of fishing commercially as much as you could and maybe taking out an occasional gamefishing party, why not reverse the polarities? Why not take out gamefishermen exclusively when the weather held — the early spring, the summer months and into the fall — and then do commercial fishing when the sportfishing season was over?”

In about 1937 Ernal designed a fishing boat for sportsfishing and named it “Albatross,” inspired by Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Within a few years after the end of the war, Ernal and his brother Bill were operating a fleet of three vessels named “Abatross,” all of them devoted to sportsfishing. Their success in finding, hooking, and bringing in impressive game fish helped make Hatteras Village a “Mecca” for sportsfishermen and a charter fishing center.

In 1951, Ernal and the Abatross II brought in a 475-pound marlin from the Gulf Stream. Thanks to the efforts of a local publicist, newspapers across the country published a photo of the fish. Hatteras was on its way to being “the Billfish Capital of the World.”

Although Carlson grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Memphis, he is enchanted by the Outer Banks, its history, and its people, whom he describes thusly: “They are hardworking and loyal and patriotic and stunningly selfless when such is called for. But, at the same time, these same people are fiercely headstrong, independent, mistrustful of authority, wildly impatient with bureaucracy and often sleeve-rolling angry with unethical bull….”

Carlson came to know and admire Ernal’s son Ernie, who carries on the family’s traditional business and holds on to the family’s values. But the end of the line is in sight. The old Hatteras Village has attracted newcomers and developers who have “priced out” the old-timers. Recently Ernie told a friend that, even if his family wanted to continue in the business, they wouldn’t be able to afford a place to “park their boats.” Ernie’s children and the children of other villagers are finding their life’s work in other places, leaving their parent’s village to the wealthy newcomers.

Someday soon, Hatteras will be a fishing village in the same way that Nantucket Island is a whaling center—in the memories of the vacationers who have taken the place of the people who worked on the sea.

Changes like those at Hatteras are taking place all over North Carolina. Newcomers are drawn to our mountains by the simple beauty and the traditional lifestyles of the people there. But their overwhelming presence changes the very things that drew them there.

Recently, a visitor to Chapel Hill asked me how a professor could afford to live in one of the million dollar houses on Franklin Street. The atmosphere created by the university and its professors is threatened by its very attractiveness.

As Carlson explains, “History, like a shark, must move forward to survive. Progress is impersonal, voracious.”


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (May 28) guest is Shannon Ravenel, author of “New Stories from the South, 2005.”

Upcoming NC Bookwatch programs, all at 5pm, Sundays on UNC-TV:

May 28 Shannon Ravenel New Stories from the South, 2005

June 3 Emily Herring Wilson No One Gardens Alone

June 10 Randall Kenan Walking On Water:Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century

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Changing times at Hatteras - and everywhere

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