Most people don’t know who Harry Schiffman is, but almost everyone who lives in or visits the Outer Banks has seen the results of his efforts.
Harry has been instrumental in keeping Oregon Inlet open.
There have been more task forces, working committees, and hearings on how to keep Oregon Inlet open since the 1980s than can be counted, and Harry Schiffman has probably been a part of every one of them.
The recent decision by the US Army Corps of Engineers to keep a dredge at the Inlet so it can be dredged year-round is the culmination of at least 30 years of effort on Harry’s part. It probably came about because of a statement made at the Oregon Inlet Task Force—the most recent iteration of official committees looking for a solution.
The problem was that dredging the channel for two or three months a year was at best a stopgap measure, so at one of the meeting Schiffman proposed a wild idea.
“Why don’t we ask the Corps if they would be willing assign a dredge at Oregon Inlet basically full time?” he asked.
“Everybody in the room said ‘You’ve lost your mind,’” he recalled.
But as he points out, “If you don’t ask you’ll never know.” And as it turned out, the Corps of Engineers thought the idea could work.
Harry has spent a good part of his childhood and most of his adult life on the Outer Banks. He was born and raised in Greenville, but according to him, his mother, who was from Manteo, knew at an early age he was going to live by the sea.
“My mom told me as soon as I could, I crawled east and she said I was crawling back home,” he said.
The original plan was for him to go into the family business. “My father and his father were in the jewelry business,” he said. And after a stint in the Coast Guard it looked as though he was following the family tradition—he has a degree in gemology and a masters certificate.
“I did that for about 11 years, but my desire to be here was just too strong,” he explained.
He came back to the Outer Banks and he seems to have been in the right place at the right time. A tug and three barges were being sold in a bankruptcy and the tug, it turns out, had an interesting history.
“I captained the world’s oldest operating tugboat,” he said. “It was built in 1862 as an ammunition carrier during the (Civil) war.”
After five or six years plying the waters between Edenton and Kitty Hawk, it was time to move on. Piloting a tug with barges can be tense. “It takes a real lot of concentration,” is how he described it.
The tug by that time didn’t have much value, so he gave it away. “At the end what I decided to do was give it to the state for an artificial reef.”
After the tugboat, Harry opened Salty Dawg Marina—which no longer exists, but is where Marshes Light is now. Twenty-nine years later, in 2004, he sold it and he’s been towing boats ever since.
His towing service, Tow BoatUS- Oregon Inlet, was started in the 1980s when he was still running Salty Dawg Marina. As he explains it, that was when the Coast Guard changed their rules and would no longer tow boats back to the dock, so if someone was stalled in the sound or had run aground, Harry became their only ride home.
He’s still doing it. After Hurricane Matthew passed, as an example, he probably put in two weeks of work in two or three days, getting boats back where they were supposed to be.
Because of the time he has spent on the waters of the Outer Banks, Harry has become an expert on keeping waterways open. His preference would be for a jetty with a sand bypass system to minimize damage on to the south of the jetties. A system like that would be prohibitively expensive, so he takes a deep breath and acknowledges that what is in place now will work.
“It’s something everybody can live with,” he said.