The route to the Dismal Swamp Canal passes through the metallic landscape of Norfolk, VA. This is home of much of the US Navy, and most coal carriers judging by the mountains of coal at the side of the river. This isn’t the prettiest of places to sail past, nor is it the most tranquil – there’s far too commercial traffic for that. As well as navy ships and coal carriers, barges are being pulled and pushed by tugs carrying their cargo up and down the river with speedy abandon.
But the visual trauma doesn’t last long. Shortly after the Gimmerton Bridge, there’s a choice of either going straight along the more commercial section of the ICW or turning right towards the Dismal Swamp – a completely different experience.
And it’s beautiful.
We almost didn’t go down the Dismal Swamp route. Maria studied the comments made on Facebook by others claiming to have transited the route. These were tales of groundings; banging into overhanging trees, bumping into submerged logs. This didn’t sound good. But, we had heard similar stuff before relating to other locations and couldn’t relate to the negativity. So, we gave it a go.
And the first thing we saw on rounding the corner to the Dismal Swamp was a yacht aground and on its side. There was no way this guy was moving (later we found out that he did get free and is now OK). That focussed our minds. We continued puttering down the canal at around 5 knots, keeping in the middle of the channel in about 8ft of water. That saved us from any logs and overhanging trees.
Lock and Roll
A short distance along the dismal swamp is the first of two locks. The first – Deep Creek Lock – is manned by Robert, who has been in the job for many years and is a great ambassador for the canal. As we came in, he took our lines, looped them over bollards and passed them back to us. Then Robert explained that we had drawn the short end of the stick because the boat at the front always takes the biggest beating. He wasn’t making that up either – it was hard work.
After the water had finished rushing in, everything had calmed down and our arms had recovered, Robert educated us with the story of Dismal Swamp and the role that a pre-presidential George Washington played in the creation of the canal. He also gave us advice on where to stay in the canal and how long it would take to get there. As a finale, he played us a tune on the conch shell just before we left. Brilliant. The only thing we regretted is not parking up on the south side of the lock for the night. Robert provides coffee and doughnuts at 0800 for anyone staying there overnight. But we didn’t know that until we were already on our way. Instead, we pressed on with a small convoy of two other boats towards the Douglas Road dock further south.
All of the docks along the Dismal Swamp are refreshingly free of charge. And Douglas Road is no exception. It has around 130 feet of linear mooring to tie to; there are basic facilities (a couple of washrooms) on land, and it is peaceful. There might have been strong winds out at sea, but here it was flat calm. And the tannin-rich water was reflecting the red and brown colours of autumn.
The next morning we left at 0800 to make the 1100 opening at the South Mills Lock and arrived with a few minutes to spare, this time tucking into the back of the lock with several other boats in front of us. After a gentle lowering of the boat down the lock, we were off to our next destination at Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
Free docks are everywhere at Elizabeth City. There’s two before the bridge, two more after it, and plenty of anchoring spots too. We grabbed a place at the Mariner’s Wharf city dock, close to everything in town.
The folks at Elizabeth City have a history of looking after seafarers. The Rose Buddies occasionally put on a wine and cheese party for anyone at the dock. We missed out on that, but this is a great place to stay – even without the party. So, we stayed for two nights. The first night we went into the Cypress Creek Restaurant because we thought it read Greek – not Creek – only realising our mistake when we noticed an absence of Moussaka on the menu. We still enjoyed it though; the food was excellent and more than matched by the service.
On Wednesday 7th November, we left Elizabeth City and headed down the Pasquotank River and across the Albemarle Sound towards Alligator River. This is back to the more functional rather than beautiful part of the ICW. We anchored for the evening in mud, just before the long section of the canal leading to the Pungo River. And because it was mud, we made sure to bury our anchor deeper than a miner’s pickaxe.
The next section of the canal between Alligator River and Pungo River is ruler straight. This makes for smooth sailing (motoring really). We set the autopilot and only occasionally made adjustments to our course – relaxing stuff. The water was calm, the traffic light, and again, the trees shielded us from the brunt of the wind.
Just after 1500, we arrived at our destination: R.E. Mayo Seafood Marine Supply. Granted, that isn’t a name to conjure up an image of a great place to park your boat. But it is. Berthing here is 40 cents per foot, diesel is cheap, and water is free. Not only that, but the shrimp boats working from here bring in the freshest fish and seafood anyone could hope for. And the shop sells it to visiting sailors.
Although this is a working fishing dock, help given to leisure boaters is exceptional. Better than most leisure marinas. As we approached the dock, Pete who was working the dock at the time, asked us if we needed a berth (yes) and if we required diesel fuel and water before we docked (also yes). He said he would handle everything for us, guided us to the fuel berth and took our lines around the enormous wooden piles. He then helped us off the fuel berth and onto a berth at the end of the dock where electricity was available (and included in the berthing fee).
So, we stocked up with diesel, water, fish, and scallops, stayed for the night – ate on board, and headed off the next morning to Beaufort, North Carolina.
ICW to Beaufort
The canal to Beaufort meanders through woods, open areas and narrow channels providing occasional – and unwanted – entertainment from passing tugs. Nonetheless, late afternoon we arrived safely at Beaufort. The anchorage, however, looked uncomfortably busy. And with the chance of our anchor hitting rubble on the seabed from the recently constructed bridge, we headed to the Town Creek Marina and parked up on an alongside berth.
And as it was still light, we had the chance to walk across the bridge and see a little of the town; mostly inside one of the micro-breweries.
The morning of 10th November brought stronger gusts than expected. It looks wild out there, so we have decided to stay another night before looking to go outside towards Southport, North Carolina.
And we get the chance to see Beaufort by day. According to Wikipedia, in 2012, Beaufort was ranked as “America’s Coolest Small Town” by readers of Budget Travel Magazine.
It’s even cooler today with the north wind howling I can assure you.