To combat this, we resigned ourselves to the fact we would likely be taking the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) much of the way down. It can still be cold and rough, but at least good parts of it are fairly narrow rivers and channels that can provide at least a modest amount of protection from the worst of it. There is one place just south of Norfolk where you even have two options for the ICW. In the past I've typically taken what is known as the Virginia Cut route. This is what I think most people consider to be the main route. The other option is known as the Dismal Swamp route.
The Great Dismal Swamp is a wildlife refuge and park. The canal that makes up this leg of the ICW runs along the edge of the refuge. We figured this route might be a bit more protected from the elements based on the stories of a tree canopied canal. And we have wanted to go that route ever since we met one of the lock operators when we were last at the docks in Portsmouth.
So, yesterday morning we left near first light to make it to the first lock for the 8:30 AM opening. Yes, this route has two locks. And unlike the one on the Virginia cut route, these actually do make a decent elevation change in the water...around 8 foot or so. The locks have a limited opening schedule of only 4 times a day at 8:30 AM, 11:00 AM, 1:30 PM and 3:30 PM, so you have to plan your trip with that schedule in mind. We figured if we could make the first opening of the first lock we could make it to the second lock for the 1:30 PM opening and get into Elizabeth City just before dark.
It was again a cool morning. I'd tell you the temperature, but honestly I didn't want to know. I knew it was supposed to get a bit warmer today than yesterday, so I just kept thinking of that. We back-track the few minutes from the marina to the turn off for the Dismal Swamp route. We make the turn into the canal and head on to the first lock.
|The only boat at the Deep Creek lock.|
At the first lock was where we ran into Robert, the guy we had spoken with about the Dismal Swamp in Portsmouth just over 6 months ago. We were the only boat there (not a big surprise given the time of year). He gave us some good advice for handling the lock. After lifting us up, he offered us some coffee and to chat a bit. He even demonstrated his Conch shell horn (he is collecting conch shells, so if you have one to donate, I'm sure he would like it). Since we were the only ones there, he also called the other lock master to tell him we were coming and to arrange for an earlier than normal opening to give us more time to make it to Elizabeth City.
|Robert with my wife after sharing a cup-o-joe.|
Once we were out of the lock, Robert hopped in his car and drove over to the nearby bridge to open it for us (yes, he is both the lock master and bridge tender at Deep Creek). He opened the bridge, wished us a safe journey, and we were on our way. While we haven't run into any, I've heard rumors that some bridge tenders are not terribly friendly or "customer" oriented, but Robert is at the very opposite end of the spectrum. If you ever get the chance to go through the Dismal Swamp, do plan to spend a little bit of time talking with Robert. He is a really nice guy and a wealth of information on the area.
The Dismal Swamp canal is interesting. It is more narrow than the other route and is tree lined most of the way. With our catamaran, I would have hated to have met any oncoming traffic...not sure how we would have managed to pass. The trees also leave branches floating in the water, so you do have to keep an eye out for these obstructions. At one point, we encountered a small tree that fell into the canal and was blocking about 2/3 of it. We managed to get around it, but not without our mast trimming another tree on the side of the canal. No damage done, except to a couple small branches of the trimmed tree. Those trees did seem to help block the winds, so the journey wasn't as cold as I'm sure it could have been.
|One of the wider sections of the canal.|
As promised, when we reached the South Mills lock and bridge (about an hour ahead of the usual opening time), the other lock master greeted us on the radio and said he would be right over to open the bridge and the lock was ready and waiting for us. Another nice fellow, but given our time crunch we didn't spend a lot of time chatting. He sent us on our way with an extra hour to make it to Elizabeth City. Now we were able to make it there well before dusk.
The last hurdle before getting to the marina (we are staying at marinas this trip so we have shore power for running the reverse-cycle heaters) was the Elizabeth City bridge. When we get there, we find a construction barge blocking much of the bridge opening. I try hailing the bridge and get no response. I try again, still no response. I use my binoculars to see if I had the name of the bridge right but couldn't find the usual sign naming the bridge. We end up calling the marina, and the employee informs us that the bridge tender has a bit of reputation of falling asleep at the wheel and offers to give him a call on the phone. I try hailing a few minutes later and finally get a response...guess he got his wake up call. When I ask for the opening, he says he needs to check with the construction people. Then another voice comes on the radio and says we should have enough room. I ask if I should approach and get no response. We see the gates go down so start our approach. The bridge tender only opens up one half of the bridge and we squeeze through the limited opening left by the construction barge and half bridge span.
When we get to the marina, the wind is blowing about 35 knots. Why is it that whenever I'm docking it seems that the wind is strong and perpendicular to wherever I'm trying to go? I maneuver the boat near the dock and spin it sideways and let the wind blow me to the dock. It worked kind of like having side thrusters...except you couldn't turn them off. I use the engines to keep us lined up with our "parking space" and slide into the spot with a thud. Guess I should have worked just a bit closer before turning beam to the wind, but I was tired and it worked out well enough.
Checking the weather it appeared that it was going to be cold and windy so we might end up spending a second day in Elizabeth City. But this day was not that dismal at all.