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Dismal Swamp: Not So Dismal After All

Updated: Aug 25, 2019

Norfolk, VA to Elizabeth City, NC //

Our day started on the morning of Wednesday, November 14 as we headed southbound on the Elizabeth River. We were nearing one of the first (of many) lift bridges, when we took notice of Aircraft Carrier 69 making its way out towards us. Various Navy Police boats were circling the area and letting other cruisers ahead of us know of the need to keep clear. We tucked into one of the many wharves along the river and waited out as the carrier made its way past us. It seemed members of the armed forces were accompanied by their families and they waved us hello as they passed by. It was impossible to keep "God Bless America" from playing in our heads. Quite a patriotic moment there.


After the Navy Police cleared us, we continued forth through a few other lift bridges along a very industrial part of Norfolk until it was time to make a starboard turn into the Dismal Swamp Canal right after coming under the I-64 Highway Bridge. We had anticipated taking this route rather than the more popular Albemarle Canal as we wanted to avoid the Palmico Sound given strong winds were forecasted offshore for the next few days. The Dismal Swamp is the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the Americas. Currently maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, it offers a much more scenic and peaceful travel south and allows cruisers, along with the Albemarle canal, to avoid an offshore crossing around Cape Hatteras which is known for troubled waters and rough weather all around. Unfortunately, what the canal operator didn't get to clarify in his history lesson (as we waited for the water to fill at the first lock, Deep Creek) is that the canal was hand dug by slave labor. We reflected upon the unsung heroes who made this passage possible.


At lunch time, and under the persistent recommendations of the chatty canal operator, we tied up at a concrete dock just beyond the first bascule bridge because he had told us there would be a supermarket, a 7-Eleven, and some restaurants nearby. Perhaps it is because we had been motoring continuously for five hours that his recommendation seemed so appealing. This was just the Dismal Swamp equivalent of a rest stop on I-90 on your way to New York state. As you would on a long drive on the highway, why not stretch out our legs and get some lunch? Let this blog record in the archives of the interwebs that in the middle of this historical and cultural landscape that is the Dismal Swamp, we had takeout. From Golden China. Finger-licking, indulginly greasy good. Apparently we had some unknown inner cravings for Chinese takeout that needed to be satiated, or perhaps it was the cold and cloudy day. We called in with no need for a menu, placed what our usual order would have been back in Boston and picked our food 10 minutes later. Of course I could not get away from enduring Tom’s commentary on greasy foods for the next hour and a half... Nevertheless, we wrapped up our rest stop by stocking up on beer at the 7-Eleven as well as oil and other boat parts at an also conveniently located Advance Auto shop.


We got back to Sparidae and continued motoring on toward the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center, a few miles further where we had planned to spend the evening. Unfortunately, by the time we made it there, there were several sailboats docked (should have thought twice about that “rest stop”), so we continued on to the South Mills, NC. As we crossed the Virginia/North Carolina state borders we were greeted by a bald eagle perched atop a tree, and not too long after that, a bear cub, who seemed to have fallen down a tree scared from the noise of our incoming vessel. It made for a pretty exciting welcome to the inner swamplands. We tied up to the fender walls at the South Mills Bridge just before sunset and waited until 8:30 AM for the first bridge opening so we could go on to the South Mills Lock.


The next day, Thursday, November 15, was forecasted to be a rainy one — a complete downpour. But we’ve seen worse days. Donning our full foul weather gear and long underwear, we motored on without hesitation and took shifts from standing in the rain and warming hot tea under way. After crossing the South Mills Lock, we had about three hours left to motor through the last parts of the Dismal Swamp, through Turners Cut and out into the Pasquotank River to Elizabeth City. We were looking forward to the “Dock and Dine” experience there, a suggestion offered up by the Deep Creek Lock operator (he was a man full of insight), but also just for free docking (who doesn’t want that?). The wind was forecasted to be quite gusty but we weren’t too worried about it since we were so protected in the canal and the cypress swamp forest. But, the wind did eventually build to a solid 25mph breeze from the East, and with the ongoing rain, it made for nasty conditions. Our “dock and dine“ dreams were out the window by the time we reached the waterfront at Elizabeth City as all the tie ups were taken, but also after seeing how the easterly breeze was beating up the tied up boats along with the chop that had developed on the river.  We attempted to go outside of Elizabeth City through the lift bridge, to check another anchorage area, but after 15 minutes of motoring, the wind built to +25mph with gusts up to 35mph. This was just too much to bear with, so we proceeded back through the Elizabeth City bridge and anchored back up in the river at what seemed like a protected bend near a couple other cruising sailboats. First time anchoring in a cypress swamp with only seven feet of water was kinda neat. But the weather... not so much. The night turned into what it was going to: winds became Westerly and rendered us exposed. We had exhausted all our anchoring/docking options and were limited to our location -- we were frankly too tired to try for something else. Inevitably, we had a pretty rough night with the winds howling and the boat yawing. We barely slept as we both kept an eye on our position on the GPS chartplotter for fear of dragging... Eventually, winds calmed down in the morning and we headed out to the Elizabeth City bridge once again to continue our move South. What was a dismal night turned into a cheerful sunny day the next day and we were happy we were finally able to have some room and favorable winds to get the sails up as we crossed the Albemarle Sound towards the Alligator River.



Aircraft Carrier 69 coming through!


The not so dismal, Dismal Swamp

Waiting for the water to fill at Deep Creek Lock

Tied up to fender walls at South Mills bridge

Rainy and windy day at Elizabeth City, NC

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