Unless you're starting your day at the Inlet itself, I'd just stay inside until Masonboro.
We'd be starting the day at the Crickett Cove Marina, which is about as close to the inlet as you can get!
...The Slue at 12 miles is marked by an unlit red/green and then a sea buoy on the northern side. With radar, it's trivial as the buoys are plenty far apart. There's plenty of distance for accurate GPS positioning too although I like radar because it shows where the buoys really are.
Thank you for the in-depth reply, it was really helpful. I'm very comfortable with navigation, and although I don't have radar, the slue appears to be very well marked. Based on my north-easterly route, and your information, I think I'm going to build in the option (depending on weather and with winds from either south, southwest, west, or northwest) to use the 12 NM slue. As of now, I'd be passing through the slue at around 3-4 pm, with plenty of time on either side for good daylight.
The information about the Little River Inlet is also incredibly helpful. Great local knowledge. Like you, we'd prefer to do the trip on the outside when we can - Zephyr only does 6 SM an hour under power. (Incidentally, that's why I'd rather do the slue than head inside at Cape Fear - the time savings and ease is really very nice. Otherwise, I'll be heading up Cape Fear River for about 4-5 hrs before we can exit Masonboro... And based on timing, I'm willing to bet that we'll have to anchor there before we head out the morning just due to our fatigue from jumping in-and-out of the ICW.)
Our heading-inside option will be fine too - I'd be hitting Cape Fear river with a flood tide, so that would be helpful (around 2-3 pm). We'd have a few hours before the ebb tide really worked against us.
Thank you again for the great reply.