Thursday, June 23, 2016

Another Dismal Day

After a good meal and a good nights sleep in Elizabeth City, it was time to head through the Dismal Swamp. This route has two bridges that need to be raised to let most boats pass and adjacent to those bridges are two locks.  The locks run on a very limited schedule so you need to time your arrival.  The schedule at both sets of locks and bridges are at 8:30 am, 11:00 am, 1:30 pm, and 3:30 pm.  In order for us to make the 11 am opening at the South Mills lock, we needed to leave the dock at 7:30 am. So, at 7:30 we untied the dock lines and headed on.

Winding up the Pasquotank river is nice.  Being the only boat as the path starts to narrow is even better. We left the river itself and started traversing a canal as the river became a bit too narrow.  Oh and then there is the depth.  When we left Elizabeth City the depths were not a problem and we saw lots of depths well above the usual ICW 12 foot range.  But the Dismal swamp canals are a very different story.  Here, the controlling depth is only 6 feet.

The Pasquotank River north of Elizabeth City.
A bit smaller than it is south of town.

The depth, and the fact that most of the canal is a no wake zone, and those that travel this route are a very small subset of those you find elsewhere on the ICW. They tend to be slower or smaller craft, or at least ones that will fit and aren't interested in going fast. It wasn't until we were nearing the first lock that we saw another boat.  We had slowed down since we were arriving early and a trawler appeared behind us and caught up as we were waiting at the first lock.

The South Mills Lock after we entered.

And again when we were ready to go.

The schedule of the locks in combination with the no wake rule means that, if you want to go all the way through the canal, you do so at about 5 knots.  While there are no anchorages, there are a few free docks where you can stop if you want to spend a bit more time in the canal. There are walls and docks near each of the locks, one at a park next to the canal and one at the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center. All the docks are free for a one night stay. In our case we again didn't have time for a lot of exploring...hopefully next time we can spend the night at the welcome center dock and check things out.

One problem with a less traveled and narrow canal is that you can occasionally find floating debris in the canal.  The pollen is one thing, but the large branches or small logs are another story.  Twice we approached ones that blocked 2/3 of the canal span.  In each of those cases, we slowly approached the log and I managed to use a boat pole to push it out of the way.  In one case, we scared two turtles off of the log as we made our approach.

Yes, it was calm on the Dismal Swamp this day.

The highlight of the trip this time is the same as the one from our trip south last winter.  In a name, it is Robert.  He is the lock operator of the Deep Creek lock. A wealth of information on the Dismal Swamp and the surrounding area.  We were there for the 3:30 opening and he even checked with the Gilmerton bridge for us to see if there was a commercial opening scheduled so we might be able to make Portsmouth (of course, there was not).  He is a great guy and well worth spending a bit of time getting to know.

We ended up stopping at a dock that was marked in Active Captain as a free dock. This dock is actually part of a boatyard called Chesapeake Yachts and we got there just before they closed.  We walked up to the office just to verify it was a free dock and we were in a good spot. The lady in the office told us that it technically is not a free dock and they usually charge $1 a foot for dockage. She mentioned that there have been times where their dock was full of boats hiding from weather to the point they couldn't get space for their customers.  But, since we were nice enough to come up and talk she would let us stay there. I wonder if they once offered the dock for free and too much advantage was taken, but I hope they continue to let wayward travelers stay there.  I even found out that they could haul my boat, so I may look into them the next time I need a DIY yard.

The only thing dismal about the swamp this time around was the number of biting bugs out due to the lack of a breeze.  But the area is quite pretty and green and I'd recommend you take the route at least once if you have a boat that can make it.


  1. Amazing photo of the canal with the reflection on the water.
    Some of these towns and places where you are stopping look like they would be great to explore on a bike. Have you thought about folding bikes as a means of transport on your journey?

    1. Yeah, I couldn't believe how calm it was...and with no traffic the canal was like glass.

      As for bikes, yes we have. We used them when we were in the Keys and Florida, but most places where we have spent time we had our cars so we didn't bother.

      Speaking of bikes, the Dismal Swamp welcome center claims to have a few beach cruiser bikes for people to use on their trails.

  2. We're headed up the intracoastal (yes, very late in the season!) and planning on taking the Swamp route - good info.

    1. Just pay attention to the depths and things floating in the water and you should be fine. You can even call Robert at the north lock and see if there is anything of concern on your trip through the Dismal. And at the lock...if you aren't in a will find Robert a wealth of information. A real nice guy.