September 19, 2016

The Great Dismal Swamp To Norfolk

"Oh God, thy sea is so great,
and my boat is so small."
 Winfred Ernest Garrison

The Intracoastal Waterway begins at Norfolk, Virginia and runs 1270 miles to Key West, Florida. After that it continues another thousand miles up the Gulf Coast to Brownsville, Texas.  This post will cover the final 60 miles of this northbound section of the ICW to Norfolk.  

"Ok," I tell myself.  "Everything is moving north and it's
moving in a perfect place at a perfect pace." 

Still single handling, I departed Belhaven, NC, August 6, 2016, seeking to connect the ICW from Key West to Norfolk.  I'm getting close. I count my blessings as everything on the boat continues to function according to plan.  It pays to stay on top of things ahead of time and to head off any pitfalls before they bite you in the arse. It's become routine now. 

Eating well, working out often, and meditating frequently is paying off and giving me a steady assurance that all is on a perfect pattern of sequence.  All is truly well. 
After clearing the breakwater in Belhaven, I soon entered a very loooong stretch of a canal that eventually leads to the massive Alligator River.  With no room to sail in this narrow canal, it would be a 6 hour motor trip in order to arrive and stage myself for crossing of the Albemarle Sound on the following day.  

It was a happy sunny day, and I enjoyed the leisurely pace passing mile after mile of remote rich coastal marsh and forest savoring the birdlife and blue sky along the way.

Leaving Belhaven  after just one night seemed a bit premature, because I tend to linger more than one day in each new town I discover.  But I was determined to continue north even though quaint little coastal towns like Belhaven and the like kept luring me to linger longer.

This canal to the Alligator River turned out to be one of those days where I did not see another human being along the way, or until the following day when I would arrive at Elizabeth City at dusk. But that's ok too. 

I threaded the needle to find a perfect anchorage at the exact coordinates recommended by a previous cruiser in the guide book. Glory Days swayed gently on the hook as the majesty of dusk soon gave way to a gold crescent moon smiling down at me.  

Tomorrow would be a ten mile sail as the Alligator River widened its gaping mouth to enter Albemarle Sound.  The 22 mile crossing of the sound would allow me to shake out the sails again and catch a nice breeze off the beam. It was lovely and it blew me all the way into the little coastal town of Elizabeth City, NC. I burned zero fuel getting there.

It was one of those times when the wind moves me ever so finely that I felt the need to detour and delay just so I could savor the sailing a bit longer before arriving. It's so magical at times.   it was getting dark so I succumbed to my passion and snagged another free city dock for the night. I am finding that many of the small coastal towns offer a free docking for transients if you need a place for 24-48 hours.  Longer than that and you will need to move elsewhere.

In Elizabeth City, NC, I was able to get off board, stretch my sea legs and enjoy a fine dinner at a waterfront eatery on this quiet Sunday evening.  I didn't get to see too much of Elizabeth City but she was kind to me.

Tomorrow I would enter an area known as the Great Dismal Swamp.  When you are headed towards Norfolk, there are two routes to choose from.  Boats with deep drafts often take the North River route.  Others like me, choose the more scenic and wilderness route to the west crossing through what is called the Great Dismal Swamp. It starts on the northern edge of North Carolina and meanders north crossing over the Virginia State line.

Minutes after leaving Elizabeth City  to enter the Swamp, this bald eagle gave me the eye as I slipped by his domain quietly as I possibly could.

"The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is the largest intact remnant of a vast habitat that once covered more than one million acres of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. 
The Dismal Swamp Act of 1974 directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to: “Manage the area for the primary purpose of protecting and preserving a unique and outstanding ecosystem, as well as protecting and perpetuating the diversity of animal and plant life therein. Management of the refuge will be directed to stabilize conditions in as wild a character as possible, consistent with achieving the refuge’s stated objectives.”
Entering the swamp started out wet and rainy and I quickly donned my rain gear.  I never really mind the rain.  I embrace it, and just move forward knowing a sunny day is always around the corner.  It hasn't failed me yet.  The mixture of light fog, rain and pendulous tree branches welcomed me into the long stretch of a wild swamp canal. What a change, I thought to myself, from sailing in the open Atlantic just a couple days ago.
Green algae scum covered the water in one section making for an interesting trail to leave behind. 

You have to enter a lock at the southern end of the canal that raises your boat up about 10 ft.  There is another lock at the end of the swamp that lowers you back down.  It's all about water management to keep the marshes from flooding and managing the water levels which affect the whole southeast I was told.
Here's the lock as they flood in the water to raise your vessel. You just tie you vessel up to cleats on the side and hang on while the water rushes in.

And then before you know it, you are out of the lock and presto!  Sunshine!  The golden rays peek through as I continue on this narrow route for the whole day passing a wide variety of birds, more green algae, and pristine quietness.  This is pretty much the same view I had for the next 40 miles.  I never met or passed another boat the whole day.


Along the Dismal Swamp Canal, there is nowhere wide enough to anchor.  But there are two public docks along the way that make for a great tie up spot to enjoy the surrounds.  I decided to spend the night at the free dock and continue on the next day. I had the whole place to myself.

There was a huge sign at my overnight dockage that warned of bears in the area.  This was not an element I had planned on for sailing at sea... bears? I thought sharks would be my biggest fear!  Oh well, the bears kept to themselves, and so did I.  

Check out the color of the water here.  It is full of tannins which gives it that dark coffee color.

The Dismal Swamp was certainly worth seeing and is a real gem of a nature experience.  Just be sure to keep an eye out for floating logs to dodge and of course those wild bears should they pass your way. 
Click this link to learn more about this unique area:
Before you can exit the Great Dismal Swamp there is one more lock you must enter to adjust your boat back up to the level of the waterway ahead.  At the north lock, I had the pleasure to meet a wonderful and helpful gentlemen, Robert Blikes.  I had read about him from other boaters in the cruiser guide. Their descriptions of him as a walking encyclopedia of local knowledge were spot on. He was quite a character, fun, entertaining and most helpful.

The northern lock dates back to pre civil war days, and evidently George Washington was involved in its construction. The Union forces had tried to destroy it to cut off the Confederate supply lines, but they were turned away by rebel forces to save the lock.

Robert, a 22 veteran lockmaster here, considers himself the "new guy" as only a handful of people have held his position through the centuries.  He was the perfect example of a man who truly loves his work and a kind soul eager to help and educate anyone who passes through his domain with an inquisitive attitude.

As a newbie to the area, I was asking Robert where to go in and around Norfolk, where to get fuel, where to dock, and what to see here.  He started rattling off so much useful information about the area ahead that I just had to stop and record it all on my phone. Take this ferry here, see this museum there, catch this show there, etc... I still had a full day ahead of me, and without Robert's tips on local knowledge I would've not seen half the things ahead that I did.  Thank you Robert! 

I wasn't quite prepared for the culture shock of leaving a remote swamp to immediately entering the full blown congested industrial harbor of Portsmouth.  It happened so fast.  One minute I'm in a quiet swamp and the next I'm suddenly surrounded by bridges, barges, tugs, battleships, and pleasure craft all jockeying for position in one of the busiest ports I've ever entered.

All of the shots below were taken from my little shiplet as I passed through this ultra busy industrial port.  Just little ol' me on my little ol' sailin' trip guiding my Glory Days through it all one wave at a time.

The Portsmouth/Norfolk area is home to lots of military vessels and a huge, historical shipbuilding industry.  My little boat seemed so tiny as I puttered along just trying to stay out everybody's way.

I took Robert's advice and promptly tied up smack in the middle of downtown at a free dock facility that allows one overnight stay.  Then I took his advice and hopped a ferry boat over to the war memorial museum where I spent a couple hours boning up on naval history and touring a huge U.S. Navy Battleship, the Wisconsin.
To top it off, on Robert's advice I walked a few blocks to catch a movie at the world famous Commodore Theatre built in 1945.  This art deco theatre is an architectural masterpiece that has been completely restored inside and with a state of the art sound system approved by George Lucas himself.   Here I dined at my dinner/theatre experience and sat back and enjoyed the latest Star Trek movie sequel.  What a nice cap to the day that began in the Great Dismal Swamp and ended in the heart of bustling twin cities Portsmouth and Norfolk.

I passed the Intracoastal Waterway mile marker zero in Norfolk and toasted a cold one to connecting the dots from here to Key West.

It's really a small world when it comes to transient cruisers who  choose to make this their lifestyle.  Such was the case at the free city dock where i tied up next to a boat named Tehani.  It was not until the following morn that I realized the boat just next to me belonged to a nice couple I had met 2 years ago in Fernandina Marina, Paul and Sherry, aboard their vessel Tehani.

Small world again.  We shared a few tales about similar travels in the Bahamas and discovered we were both headed up the Chesapeake for the next few weeks and would most likely cross paths again. Handshakes and boat cards were exchanged and they made their way north while I sat down and wrote another new song here.

Paul and Sherry Davis, fellow cruisers. 

I slept good on this night.  Tomorrow I would officially begin my passage north into the treasures of the Chesapeake Bay of which I have heard so much from fellow sailors.

It was a nice long, scenic day departing Norfolk. I would pass through commercial shipyards and naval bases on my way to a tidy anchorage I had targeted at Mobjack Bay.

Stay tuned for Entering The Chesapeake coming up next!!

All is Well!