The race was on. Arriving at ICW Mile 0 on Halloween we were on schedule. In three days, it would be us against the cold weather as more cold fronts would pass through. Might our cold weather gear remain sequestered? How dismal would the Dismal Swamp be? These were some of the questions on our mind as we sailed and motored into Hampton Roads and Norfolk.
Located in southeastern Virginia, at the confluence of three major rivers, James, Elizabeth, and Nansemond Rivers, Hampton Roads is a large deep-water port at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay. The world’s largest navy base, Naval Station Norfolk is located in the city of Norfolk along the Elizabeth River. Entering the river, we passed an impressive number of naval vessels from small support craft to large aircraft carriers while helicopters passed overhead.
Our stay in Norfolk was typical, a short stay to resupply, take on fuel and water, empty the blackwater tank and move on. Waterside Marina is located in an area of downtown Norfolk being revitalized. A new marina, it has large stable docks, convenient access to downtown, and clean showers. We managed a short walk through downtown with a visit to an independent bookstore and noted how empty the streets were on a Monday. Susan took time to visit a yarn shop to find a winter knitting project and yarn, while I tended to odds and ends on the boat. When living in close quarters, time alone is rare and we both appreciate these breaks in routine.
Early in our colonial history it was recognized that a shorter safer passage from the Chesapeake Bay to the inland waters of the Carolinas would be of economic benefit to the colonies and in particular to the Carolinas. In the mid eighteen century George Washington surveyed the Dismal Swamp and soon afterwards plans were floated to dig a canal connecting the Chesapeake with Albemarle Sound. It was into this history we motored as we left Norfolk first looking for fuel and to pump out our holding tank on a brisk November morning. It was to be one of “those” mornings. The first marina we went to was out of diesel and their pump out was not working. A few miles north (not the direction we wanted to go) we found a marina with both diesel and a working pump out. An hour or so behind schedule we finally headed towards the Great Dismal Swamp Canal.
A few miles upstream from Norfolk we went under our first lift bridge and then turned right confronting a new challenge. Lying ahead were power lines. The charted clearance was 90 feet, they looked much lower. Gingerly we approached the lines and passed under with only 40 feet to spare. Our depth perception needed fine tuning.
Locking into the Canal was a much different experience from the locks on the Erie Canal. The lift was fairly low at about 9 feet, less than half the height of most Erie Canal locks. The big difference was the lock tenders. On the Erie you are on your own, the lock tenders offer little assistance. On the Dismal the lock tenders greet each boat and help with the lines, the pace is slower with an aura of southern hospitality. Ahead of us was a solo mariner on his trawler, a gentleman we would come to know later in our journey.
Once in the canal we were enclosed with a canopy of trees with a slender opening to the sky down the middle. Prior to making our choice to take the Dismal Canal route rather than the Virginia cut, we had heard rumors about shallow water, sunken logs, and assaulting trees. Fortunately, the canal is straight with only a few gentle curves along its route, navigation did not live up to its reputation. We dismissed these concerns as simply rumors of poor judgement by lessor skippers. In the end, we found more caution and attention were required than when sailing in open waters, however it was not all that challenging.
Once into the canal there are few docks along the 20-mile route and no anchorages. The first dock is small, big enough for the two boats and maybe a third. We chose to be the third boat. Maneuvering to the dock we were attacked by a marauding tree. Tree branches stealthily reached out and attacked our masthead 52 feet above the water. A valiant fight ensued allowing us to free ourselves its grip. Alas, we did not escape unscathed; a (expensive) masthead wind instrument was lost in the violence. Rumors were confirmed, trees on the DSC are indeed aggressive and unpredictable, we have the scars. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Others of course may have different stories; stories of a skipper paying attention to only two of the three hazards in the area. I don’t care, I have my story, they can have theirs.
The following morning, in advance of another cold front, our small fleet moved onto the next larger dock at a North Carolina visitor center. A wet and cool afternoon found us in the cabin reading, writing, and knitting. As Susan dove into her project she realized she needed a smaller needle for her project. A stop in Elizabeth City was added to our itinerary to procure the additional needle. In the late afternoon, as the rain tapered off the number of boats docked grew to 9 with 6 boats rafted off our three. Overnight the skies cleared, the temperature fell, and the tannin stained water turned glassy. Motoring towards the South Mills lock we were treated to stunning images of trees and reflected sky before entering the Pasaquotank River.
The Pasaquotank River meanders for twelve miles through northeastern North Carolina from South Mills to Elizabeth City and then onto Albemarle Sound. Bordered by swampland thick with cypress, the river has a primitive and remote feel. A few miles past Possum Quarter Landing lays Goat Island and an anchorage. It appeared to be an anchorage capable of providing protection from the frontal passage due the next day.
Lying on anchor behind Goat Island, we reviewed the weather forecasts and watched the thermometer begin to drop. Staying on anchor for the next three days with wind, rain, and cold in the forecast was becoming more untenable as the afternoon wore on. Finally, we surrendered, contacting nearby Lamb’s Marina about slip availability. One was available if the water levels did not drop overnight. Crawling into a cold bed laden with blankets and quilts we waited for morning. Cold was winning.