North Carolina

7. Dismal? Try Dismaltastic!

Greetings from Belhaven, NC!  This last leg of our trip marks a number of firsts for the crew of Delancey.  Up until now, we’ve been retracing the path we took when we first found the boat in Annapolis.  Since leaving that lovely drinking town with a sailing problem and turning south, we’ve been pushing Delancey’s bow through new waters.

After all the marinas and moorings on the way from New Jersey to Annapolis, it was exciting to save money and spend some evenings on the hook.  Our first day out took us to Solomons Island, MD, where we anchored in one of the many coves of Back Creek.  The next day was rainy and, when we got back out into the bay, rougher than we would have liked.  After pushing through the chop for a few hours, we reminded ourselves that 1. We have no schedule and 2. This really shouldn’t be work.  With this new perspective, we called it a day and ducked around Lookout Point to anchor in Smith Creek near the mouth of the Potomac River. 

So that was a short day; only about 25 nautical miles.  We typically prefer to be anchored somewhere before dark.  With the lessening daylight, that means around 5pm.  Leaving around 6am, that gives us a maximum of 11 hours of transit time.  Traveling at 6 knots (nautical miles per hour) means we can theoretically make 66 miles in a day. In practice, with enjoying sleep and the time spent getting in and out of anchorages, the real daily maximum is just north of 50 miles.  [What’s the difference between a statute (i.e.: normal, land) mile and a nautical mile you ask?  A nautical mile is about 1.15 statute miles.  Why?  Because rather than originating with some nonsense involving furlongs and kings and barleycorns, a nautical mile is equal to one minute of one degree of latitude on a nautical chart.  Rational and useful.]

The following day found us again anchored in Fishing Bay in Deltaville, VA, but not before pulling into the Fishing Bay Marina where, for the cost of 26 gallons of diesel, we were able to wash off the boat, fill our water tank, pump out our holding tank, take showers, and use their wifi.

We were particularly happy to wash off the boat because, while these creek and bay anchorages have been secure, free, and attractive, their bottoms are also very muddy.  Every morning the anchor chain comes up coated with a thick ooze that fouls Delancey’s bow, me, and everything I touch.



The next morning we got up before the sun for the run to Norfolk, VA.  The day began flat and featureless, promising another overcast motor with no wind, but by noon the sun had broken out and the wind rippled the bay.

It's quiet.  Too quiet.

It's quiet.  Too quiet.

As we were approaching the busy entrance to Hampton Roads, we enjoyed another first:  Dolphins! Frolicking! Or at least, the way they crested and dove under our boat looked like frolicking, but perhaps they were working their flippers off.  Sorry no pictures.  We were busy not smashing into an aircraft carrier at the time. 

After another evening at anchor, this time in the flats north of Hampton Roads, we again woke to a foggy rainy morning to thread our way through Norfolk Harbor and the Elizabeth River and into the Intracoastal Waterway.  We had two ICW routes from which to choose: The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, or the Great Dismal Swamp Canal.  Of the two, the Albermarle and Chesapeake, known as the Virginia Cut, is deeper and more trafficked.  The Dismal Swamp is shallower and less popular.  We chose the Dismal Swamp.  The Great Dismal Swamp Canal was constructed between 1793 and 1805 (George Washington was an investor) and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The US Army Corps of Engineers keeps the canal at a minimum depth of six feet, but in fact we never saw a depth of less than eight.

Shortly after entering the canal’s northern feeder river, we experienced another first:  Locks!  The canal proper runs in two straight legs connecting the Deep Creek to the north with the Pasquotank River to the south.  At each end is a lock.  After idling about with other southbound sailboats for a few minutes, the lock opened per schedule and we all tied up and waited for the water to rise.

Robert Peek, the good natured Deep Creek lock tender, kept things pleasant and orderly.  While the lock filled, Robert blew a tune into one of the many conch shells decorating his station.  He requested that, if we get as far as the Bahamas, to bring one home to add to his collection on the return trip.

After getting us through the lock, Robert hopped in his truck and drove about a mile ahead of us to raise a bridge blocking our path.  Now we were in the canal proper.  Also, we were no longer alone.  Boats on the ICW must coordinate their travels with scheduled lock and bridge openings, which creates little groups.  Our five-boat convoy cautiously made our way down the narrow canal, tying up for the evening at the Great Dismal Swamp Welcome Center about half way through.

We entertained ourselves with a visit to the nearby Dismal Swamp Nature Center, where I surprised a stuffed bobcat.

The next day we all cast off bright and early.  Through most of the canal, we saw few signs of human existence other than the boats ahead and astern. Dead straight, with lush growth on either side, the canal felt primeval.   As Deb said, it was absolutely beautiful, even though it was raining most of the time.

After a second lock and bridge opening, the canal fed us into a winding river that eventually opened up to deposit us at the town docks of Elizabeth City, NC, where visiting boats can tie up for up to 48 hours for free. 

We took advantage of civilization to shower, reprovision, and do laundry.

All this  and  Ms. Pac Man.

All this and Ms. Pac Man.

The next morning, cleaned and fed, we cast off to cross Albermale Sound.  It was another motoring day, with the not-inconsiderable wind directly on our nose.  I arbitrarily take this moment to note Deb’s piloting prowess.  Nearly every picture I have of her is from her position at the helm.  This is not a coincidence.  Something upward of 90% of the time, Deb’s driving the boat.  Most importantly, Deb is our close-quarters pilot, expertly parallel parking us alongside fuel docks, slipping us into slips, and stopping on a dime right on top of our moorings.  For this trip, she’s added an ability to keep the boat inching through the water just enough to maintain steerage while keeping us from smashing into anything while waiting for a bridge to open.  My job is to trim sails and wrestle with dock lines. In all the years we’ve owned Delancey, I have pulled her in or out of a slip exactly once.  In many important respects, Deb knows our boat far better than I do.

We anchored at dusk just off the canal in a bend in the Alligator River.  We felt truly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by marshes and nary a cell signal.  While making dinner, we were startled by the sound of jet engines passing quite close overhead.  Since approaching Norfolk, we’d first heard and then seen fighter jets making regular arcs across the sky.  Our guess was that, perhaps because of the isolation, the Navy uses the area around our anchorage for night training or patrols.  It’s pretty daunting to hear the powerful jets dopplering overhead and opening the companionway to see not lights, but afterburners flickering across the night sky.   

We woke to a calm day ready for a short run through the Alligator River – Pungo River Canal.  To be perfectly honest, canals are starting to get a bit boring; a powerboat passing is a big event; and I’m looking forward to maybe taking some offshore passages as we continue south.

Go thataway.

Go thataway.

With some ugly weather forecast, we pulled into the quite hospitable Dowry Creek Marina, just outside of Belhaven, NC.  We’ve spent a day in stasis, checking on boat systems and watching movies.  Last week's unseasonable warm spell ended and a front brought chilly winds and rain, but marina proprietors Mary and Nick have been friendly and helpful, lending us a courtesy car to drive into town for sundries and hosting a BYO happy hour for arriving guests.  Tomorrow morning, the weather is expected to moderate a bit and we’re off again, ever toward the warm.