No one knows for sure when the first human set foot on the barrier islands of North Carolina, but one thing is certain: he had to cross water to get there. There is no way around it. Life along the Carolina coast is defined by water and, to just as great an extent, by the wind. The first European explorers came in wind-driven sailing ships. Local fishermen make their living by harnessing sea and sail. Even the Wright Brothers, ensured privacy by the water and locomotion by the wind, came here to learn to fly.
You can climb just about any dune along the coast and see water-the endless Atlantic Ocean to the east and the placid waters of the sounds to the west. Chances are, that while you are perched on that sand dune, the wind is blowing hard enough to make standing a challenge. It is that unique combination that makes the Carolina coast one of the best locations for water sports of all kinds.
The Wright Brothers didn't know it at the time, but their glider and kite experiments started a trend that is now big business for the Outer Banks: hang gliding. The principles are the same as they were when Orville and Wilbur floated above Big Kill Devil Hill in 1903. You simply let the wind lift you into the sky.
Headquartered across from Jockey's Ridge in Nags Head, Kitty Hawk Kites is the leader in the hang gliding industry. Whether you are an expert or novice, Kitty Hawk Kites offers a hang gliding package that's suited to you. Instructors will walk you through the basics and have you in the air within three hours. For the particularly brave of heart, tandem gliding is a popular variation of the sport. Strap yourself into a glider with an instructor and be prepared to soar to incredible heights of 2,000 feet over the water and land.
While hang gliding is growing in popularity, surfing is still king on the coast. The best waves can be found on the northern Outer Banks, where the eastward facing beaches take the direct brunt of Atlantic. Surfers from all over the world travel thousands of miles to ride Outer Banks waves, and Hatteras has hosted the East Coast and United States Surfing Championships many times.
Good surf is common in the spring and fall, after passage of a stiff cold front, which generates huge swells flattened out by a stiff westerly wind. Keep your board handy if a hurricane is due to pass offshore as well. The 10-12 foot breakers generated by this phenomenon will take you on the ride of your life. Surf shops up and down the coast, from Wrightsville to Nags Head will rent you a board for a day for about $10. Shop owners are also indispensable sources of the lowdown on local surf conditions.
Windsurfing is the latest rage along North Carolina's coast and for good reason. A wide variety of water and wind conditions make this sport ideal for those with the need for speed. If you've ever sailed, you are one up on the novices, but just about anyone with a sense of balance and strong upper body strength can windsurf. Equipment consists of a board and a monosail rig attached by a pivot called a universal that allows you to move the sail in any direction. Many surf shops along the coast offer equipment rentals and lessons for about $40.
The best place to watch the experts is at Canadian Hole, on the Pamlico Sound just north of Buxton. Named after the predominance of our northern neighbors who windsurf here in the winter, the Hole is one of the most popular windsurfing destinations in the country.
Are you more interested in a seagull's eye view of the coast? Then parasailing may be for you. This heart-stopping activity involves a parachute, a powerboat, and a very strong line between the two. Participants strap themselves into a harness connected to the chute, then assume a lift-off position on a floating dock that from the air looks like a postage stamp. The towboat takes off from a dead stop, pulling the chute and victim into the air to altitudes of 350 to 1,250 feet. While the view from above is astounding, parasailing is not for those intimidated by heights (like me).
The flight usually lasts about 15 minutes. Rates begin at about $40. The higher you go and the longer the flight, the more money its costs. Parasailing businesses are located at soundside locations in just about every beach community.
A more leisurely way to explore the waters of the North Carolina coast is by kayak. The broad, placid waters of the sounds, rivers and creeks are ideal for a laid back afternoon on the water. Kayaking is a breeze to learn. If you've ever canoed, you can learn the balance and the strokes needed to master kayaking in an hour or two. It is the most intimate way to observe the diverse marine environment of the sounds. Bring your camera and be prepared to see otter, deer, pelicans, bears, snakes, and maybe even a gator or two.
Another aspect of the sport that is gaining in popularity is ocean kayaking. Akin to surfing, ocean kayaking is a thrilling way to ride the waves and requires a more sophisticated knowledge of strokes, as well as a strong upper body. Kayak rentals are available at many locations on the coast. If it is your first time, ask about guided group tours.
Sailing and powerboating are the most popular water activities on the coast. There is no water activity more thrilling than sailing out Beaufort Inlet for a day at the Cape Lookout Bight, or guiding your powerboat into a secluded creek for an afternoon of water skiing. Boat rentals are available in just about every community. Rates begin at $30 an hour. You can charter a sailboat for a weeklong trip or overnight. Or you can rent a ski boat for the day.
Just remember that they don't call this section of the world the Graveyard of the Atlantic for nothing. The waters are shallow, and constantly shifting sandbars lie submerged a foot or two below the surface. Be sure you are familiar with the local conditions and charts. Don't stray from the marked channels unless you know exactly where you are going or you'll end up aground. And the Coast Guard won't come to your rescue unless a life is in danger.
Jet skis have exploded in popularity over the past few years. Even through the National Park Service has banned them in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, rental businesses are flourishing due to the popularity of this sport. And for good reason! These powerful little craft can take you up to speeds of 60 miles per hour, and offer you access to shallow draft coves and little explored beaches. But beware: every year, jetski accidents increase in North Carolina. Although no license or training is required to operate a jetski, they can be dangerous. Make sure that you get a thorough check out on the craft if you rent. Always wear your life vest. Observe all rules of the road. And think twice about allowing your kids to operate one without adult supervision.
So there you have it: a rundown of some of the great watersports available on the North Carolina coast. Of course, you can always just go for a swim in the ocean, the old-fashioned way.