Dan had extended an invitation to join him aboard Marian Claire for part of his Spring 2013 trip north to the Chesapeake Bay, and we made arrangements to meet in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. I would drive to Norfolk and leave my jeep there, take a bus to Elizabeth City and board Marian Claire for the trip north through the Dismal Swamp Canal to Norfolk. We had done similar trips before - once I left my truck in Charleston, sailed with Dan to Savannah and took a bus back to Charleston. Another time I took a bus from New Bern to Wilmington and joined Dan there for the trip up the ICW to Matthews Point. These bus trips generally require long waits, expensive parking and even more expensive cab rides, but they do make it possible to take some trips that otherwise would be impractical. Anyone interested in crewing on the East Coast would be well-advised to study the Greyhound and Amtrak timetables - the bus routes in particular hit a lot of the small towns along the coast where it is possible to meet a boat passing through.
I got a couple hours sleep and then at 11:30 secured the boat and repaired to the clubhouse where I made a pot of coffee, checked email one last time and hit the road shortly past midnight Thursday morning. It was an easy drive up U.S. 70 and 17 through New Bern, Washington, Williamston, Edenton and Elizabeth City, but it got slower as I approached Chesapeake. This is a rapidly urbanizing area and the roads are being rebuilt to handle the extra traffic.
The road map for the metropolitan area looks like a bowl of spaghetti, but after some bumbling around, I found the bus station. It was around 4:30 AM and the ticket agent was not on duty yet, and in fact came on at 5:00, just in time to handle a mass of riders waiting to board a 5:10 bus to Atlanta. I stepped aside and let her help them, and got back in line about 5:15. When I got to the front, she asked me for my reservation number, which was on a piece of paper buried in my sea-bag – but I had been thinking about it long enough to dredge it up from memory, and got it right on the first try. With ticket in hand and over two hours until departure, I started working my way through the cab ranks and station employees, looking for someone who knew where the nearest parking deck might be. I finally found a helpful baggage handler who directed me a couple of blocks down the street.
I left the jeep at the deck and lugged my two bags back to the station. The ticket agent and a local waiting for a bus both swore the only place to eat close by was the MacDonald’s, but I set off on foot, still lugging the bags, to find something better. No dice – all the downtown diners opened at 7:00 AM. I resigned myself to the MacDonald’s, but when I got there I found the doors locked and a crowd waiting outside. Seems the manager was running late. She finally showed up and opened the doors around 6:20. I still had plenty of time to eat and get back to the station for my 8:00 bus.
A few minutes before departure we queued up and went through a desultory security check which did little to reassure me that we were not soon to become a flaming bomb hurtling down Highway 17. We boarded and I got a seat right behind the driver. Across the aisle from me was a young lady with a soft case of Wilson racquets, a player on the Norfolk State team on her way to an out-of-town match.
While the station was just as scuzzy as bus stations have always been, this bus was truly the luxe. Immaculately clean inside and out, with electric outlets at every seat and wi-fi! Most of the passengers contentedly leaned back in their big overstuffed seats, inserted ear-buds and tuned in their favorite sounds, surfed the web or industriously thumbed their cell phones. This good sailor took the opportunity to catch a few minutes of sleep.
What a change from the spavined steed that took me to Wilmington a couple of years ago. That bus suffered a debilitating mechanical difficulty twenty miles short of its destination that left it limping down the highway at 10 miles an hour. The driver pulled into a gas station and poked at the engine for a few minutes while 'spatch tried to find another bus to send to the rescue. Unfortunately the nearest replacement was hours away, so we got the go-ahead to crawl on into Wilmington. The driver agreed that if I could get a ride she would drop me off on the side of the road, so I borrowed a phone from a deadheading truck driver and called Dan, who was already waiting at the station for me. He drove up U.S. 17 and flagged us down. The driver pulled over on the shoulder and let me debark. I must say that, even with the engine problems, the courtesy and consideration of the bus driver and the good nature of all the passengers made the trip a pleasure.
Today, though, on our Greyhound de luxe, we cut through rush hour traffic like a knife through warm butter, and right on schedule at 8:50 we pulled in to the Elizabeth City “station”.
Like many towns, Elizabeth City has been bypassed by the main highway, and the bus stop is five miles out of town in the parking lot of a convenience store. Usually there are a couple of wildcat cab drivers awaiting the arrival of the bus, but today there were none. A flurry of phone calls by debarking bus passengers and convenience store hangers-on soon had cabs on the way, and within 15 minutes everyone was accommodated. My ride took me right to the town dock for a fare of $7. I was flabbergasted and gave her $10. That would have been a $25 ride in Savannah or Charleston.
“Mariners’ Wharf,” the public dock in Elizabeth City, is wide open to the southeast. There is no face dock, just slips perpendicular to the shore. All in all, not the place to sail into on a blustery southeast wind. It’s just not set up well for stepping on or off a boat. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a real courtesy for the town to make this free and convenient dock available, and I’d enjoy spending a day or two moored to it while I explored the town. That will have to wait for another trip. For now, I just needed to get aboard Marian Claire. I could see Dan out in the river, so I hailed him and we had a quick conversation. We decided that I would scout around for a better dock. A quick walk turned up a more sheltered dock behind a nearby condominium. The manager graciously granted permission for me to board Marian Claire in an open slip, so I got back on the VHF with Dan and gave him directions. Soon Marian Claire nosed into the slip. I threw my bags aboard and jumped aboard myself while the friendly manager held the bow pulpit. Then we backed out and aimed north.
Immediately upriver was the Highway 158 lift bridge. Dan hailed the bridgemaster asking for an opening and within seconds the horn started sounding and the traffic gates closed. The bridge opened and we motored right on through without having to stop. There wasn’t much shoreline development north of the bridge other than the small Pasquotank River Yacht Club marina off to the east. Traffic was light, just one displacement-hulled power boat that came out of the marina and proceeded off upriver and one outboard fishing boat coming downriver.
I stowed my bags below and then Dan and I were able to catch up on the past few days. Dan’s naturally a taciturn guy, but I’ve noticed each time I have joined him on Marian Claire he has been eager for conversation – there is something about being alone on a boat for several days that puts anyone in a talkative mood. I related my trip home from Oriental a few days prior, and how I had sailed in to the dock at Matthews Point to the applause of the watching dock residents, and he told me about the parade of northbound snowbirds diverging to the east and the Virginia-Carolina Cut while the lone Marian Claire continued onward to the Pasquotank River. He ended up in a relatively open anchorage on the lower river where he passed a restless night as the boat was buffeted by waves coming off the sound.
Soon we came to the railroad bridge – closed! Our first thought was that a train might be coming, but then we noticed men in hardhats walking along the span peering into the water. The displacement-hulled boat had turned back downstream and we did the same, figuring that while we waited for the bridge to open we could examine the small pocket of water just downstream that, according to Claiborne Young, is "the best overnight anchorage on the northern Pasquotank". We found good water and plenty of protection, and the well-maintained home on the point makes for a pleasant setting. We didn’t have much time though, as the bridge span began to swing open. We followed the other boat through and I called out to one of the workmen on the bridge, asking if they had found the diesel yet, but he must not have gotten the joke as he just smiled quizzically.
The railroad bridge is on one of the surviving sections of the old Norfolk Southern Railway which once ran from Norfolk to Charlotte. It was bought by Southern in 1974, which later merged with Norfolk & Western to form the new Norfolk Southern Railway. The bridge is on the route of the original Elizabeth City and Norfolk Railroad dating back to 1881.
Next up was a long dock on the west shore that belongs to Albermarle Hospital. Opening its doors in 1914, it was the first hospital in northeastern North Carolina. The current facility was built in 1960. The dock would allow for dozens of ambulance boats to tie up at once, but I’m sure it is mainly used for fishing and taking the air.
We continued up the narrowing Pasquotank River through gorgeous live oak swamps. The water turned blacker and blacker until it was the color of good strong coffee. The river – really more like a creek at this point – twisted and turned, but continued to carry good depths. We passed Goat Island, another good anchorage that Dan has used in the past. Eventually we came to a point where the waterway divided – to the left, the twisting Pasquotank continued onward, to the right, narrow Turner’s Cut led off to South Mills. Claiborne Young states that the Pasquotank is navigable for a bit upstream from here, and that would be worth trying someday, but today we headed up Turner’s Cut.
Turner’s Cut leads 4 miles to the town of South Mills and the southern terminus of the Dismal Swamp Canal. It is a straight shot for ten miles with a dogleg in the end. We motored up the cut, around the bend, and into the lock that would lift us up to the level of the Canal. There was a time when South Mills was a real town, but not much is left any more. It’s too far from metropolitan Norfolk to be a bedroom community. The last big news in South Mills was April 19th, 1862 when the Yankees tried to blow up the lock but were repulsed by Colonel Ambrose Wright’s men. There was one other boat waiting for the 1:30 lift, and we set up behind it. It looked familiar, and I confirmed that I had seen it in Oriental earlier in the week. The captain stated that they were on their way north, home to Burlington, Vermont.
At 1:30 the south-end gates closed and water started boiling up under the north end gates. In a few minutes we lifted about 7 feet, and then the north gates opened and we motored out after the other boat. The lockmaster jumped in his truck and drove to the bridge where he operated the lift to let us through. Now we were in the Dismal Swamp Canal by rights, 18 miles north of Elizabeth City. We followed the Vermonters north and passed one lone southbounder just north of town.
Now we had some decisions to make. The weather was predicted to turn ugly during the day Friday, with heavy southeasterly winds, thunderstorms and rain. Then the winds were going to clock around to northeast and continue to blow hard. Our choices were to take our time, make an early day and dock at the Welcome Center overnight, or push on through to Deep Creek and anchor north of the lock. Either way, there wasn’t a realistic chance of getting to the Norfolk area Thursday night, meaning Dan was going to be bottled up in Hampton Roads until the northeast winds died down. That was predicted for next Tuesday.
With this in mind, Dan decided we would make an early day of it and dock for the night at the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center at ICW Milepost 28. The miles count from the north and this is only about four miles north of the South Mills Lock. A pleasant 45 minutes of cruising and we were tying up on the long face dock at the welcome center. The center caters to both highway and canal traffic and is the only bimodal facility of its kind. There is a North Carolina State Park adjacent with 17 miles of walking and biking trails and its own nice visitors center. In addition, there is a biking trail along the canal that runs all the way into Chesapeake, Virginia.
We did some quick housekeeping around the boat, covering sails, refilling the water tank, putting away all the items that get taken out under way. Then I took off for the State Park Visitor's Center and left Dan to wash up. The Visitor's Center had some nice exhibits and excellent taxidermy of some common North Carolina animals - a full-grown bear and cub, a beaver, a nutria (newcomer to these parts), squirrel and so forth. I met Dan passing as I returned to the boat, and when he returned from the Visitor's Center we opened the rum bottle. Later Dan proved that he could cook, turning out a fine repast of bowtie pasta in a white sauce and Italian sausage. Even so, he is going to have a hard time shaking his nickname "Spam and Yams Dan". After dinner we did more damage to the rum bottle and Dan played his guitar.
After a while Dan repaired to the cabin and I rolled out on an insolite pad under a blanket in the cockpit. Mercifully there were no mosquitos and I was able to make up some of the sleep deficit from the night before.
In the morning we cast off and continued north toward Deep Creek and the northern terminus of the Dismal Swamp Canal. You can never relax at the helm, but you can sit down on Marian Claire. As we settled in on a long stretch of straight, narrow canal, Dan set up his customized lawn chair that fits perfectly next to the helm, allowing him to sit in comfort with a clear view forward and easy access to the tiller. I suggested he emulate Hermann Miller, marketer of the Aeron Sit-For-Less chair of NPR fame, and put the “Boney-Chair” in production. Once the dollars start rolling in, I’m hoping Dan will consider an NPR Sponsorship of his own, perhaps for coverage of the America's Cup Race. When my turn at the helm came around, I asked if I could try it out, and Dan graciously agreed. I found it very comfortable and conveniently placed relative to the helm. In summary, much better than the one behind my desk at work. I heard an ominous crack when I got up, and thought, not for the last time, "hmmm, probably need to lose some weight," but examination revealed no breakage.
The old Superintendant's house appeared on the starboard bank. This is the last remaining building of the original Dismal Swamp Company, which built the canal starting in 1793. It wasn't until 1805 that the canal was completed. It was deepened in 1829 and completely rebuilt in 1892. Each time it was dug deeper, not just to increase water depth, but to lower it to closer to the level of the waters at the north an south ends. The high banks are due to this repeated deepening. The original canal had seven locks but now it has only two. Other relics of earlier days are the massive granite mile-markers along the banks. Not all are still there, but many can be seen along the northern end of the canal. They are contiguous with the ICW mile markers but 11 numbers lower, as the ICW starts 11 miles north of the Deep Creek Lock, where the Canal numbering system started.
In 1859 the wider, deeper Albermarle and Chesapeake Canal opened and took most of the business. The Civil War left the Dismal Swamp Canal in a shambles, but it managed to limp along in the face of heavy competition until 1899, when it was rebuilt for the enormous cost of $1,000,000. For a while it regained much business, but in 1913 the Federal Government decided on the Albermarle and Chesapeake as the route for the new Intracoastal Waterway. The Dismal Swamp Canal lost almost all its commercial business. In 1929 the government bought it and made it an alternate ICW route. Today there is no appreciable commercial traffic on it, but around 2,000 recreational boats transit the canal. The Albermarle and Chesapeake still has heavy commercial and recreational traffic.
As we approached the north end of the Dismal Swamp Canal, Dan sent me below to get docklines out of the forepeak. I called back, "This is probably my last trip on the Marian Claire," and Dan replied in a concerned voice, "Why? What's the matter?" I called back, "I'm almost too fat to get into the forepeak," to gales of laughter from us both. Dan told me he wasn't going to move the mast step for me, so I guess I'll have to go on a reduction diet.
We arrived at Deep Creek to find our lockmates from the day before tied up to the small face dock just south of the lift bridge, so we turned up into the wind and dropped anchor. With a half hour or so to wait for the bridge opening, Dan did maintenance on the Atomic Four and I tried to photograph two groundhogs grazing on the fresh new spring greenery along the bank. At 11:00 the bridgemaster stopped the heavy traffic (Deep Creek is close enough to the city to be a bedroom suburb) and opened the bridge. We motored through, though the other boat stayed on the dock - not a bad idea, since the deteriorating weather precluded them from heading north into the bay for a few days at least. We continued into the lock, where the bridgemaster soon arrived, put on his other hat, and locked us down and out of the Dismal Swamp Canal. This lockmaster is probably the foremost authority on the history of the Dismal Swamp Canal and we had a pleasant chat with him as the waters of the swamp slowly drained out of the lock.
We continued north on - yes - Deep Creek for a short while, past an amazing circular anchorage with a narrow channel into it. Dan recognized a boat in it that he had seen before and tried to hail it, but no answer. It is not far down to the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River, and soon we were turning out of the sheltered waters of Deep Creek into the choppy, windy and heavily trafficked main stem of the gigantic Norfolk/Newport News/Hampton Roads commercial port.
We passed under the enormous Highway 64/17 bridge and found the railroad bridge and Highway 460 lift bridge (locally known at the Gilmertown Bridge) both closed. Soon the railroad bridge opened but the Gilmerton bridgemaster did not respond to hails from any of the collection of boats waiting to pass. We stayed well upstream of the two bridges which constituted a lee obstacle, though the other boats crowded in near the Gilmerton Bridge. Despite the bridgemaster's silence, the bridge did open promptly on schedule at 11:30. One of the other captains gave the bridgemaster some grief as he passed through but Dan, always the gentleman, merely reported through, thanked him and returned to channel 16.
At Elizabeth River Terminals, the big bulk carrier Atlantic Spirit was in the last stages of unloading as clamshells cleared out the corners of her hold. Atlantic Spirit is a relatively new vessel, built in 2007, with a length of 540 feet and deadweight of 33,427 tonnes. (Deadweight is the total of the weights of cargo, fuel, fresh water, ballast water, provisions, passengers, and crew, and a tonne is a metric ton, 2,205 pounds).
The fireman at a steam processing plant ashore overfired his boiler and the safety valve blew off with a roar. Train horns sounded in the distance, and trucks rumbled across the bridges. Dan found all this cacaphony nerve-wracking, commenting that he had a hard time monitoring channel 16 over the din, but I found it quite exhilarating. I love an industrial landscape and this was one densest and heaviest ones I have ever seen. We passed St Juliens Creek , which might make an anchorage in a pinch, though the bottom is no doubt foul, and curved back to the north and through another railroad bridge. Ahead I could see the DD Vigilant, Korean-built in 2007, probably loading grain for export. The DD Vigilant has very little in common with a recreational sailboat, but it does use Yanmar diesels to generate house power. To port were shipyards full of smaller vessels. We passed under the Highway 337 bridge and ahead was the vast Norfolk Naval Shipyard complex with a huge vessel that appeared to be an ocean liner or troop transport undergoing major repairs.
Ahead in the distance we could see the shipyards of the Atlantic Fleet to starboard. Gunboats with flashing lights stood guard on the edge of the channel. As we approached, I could make out LHD-7, USS Iwo Jima, in the massive Navy drydock. Destroyers and cruisers were docked close-by, making for an impressive array of nautical might. Iwo Jima is an Amphibious Assault Ship, essentially a small aircraft carrier able to support a versatile array of jump jets and helicopters with landing craft accomodated in the hull. It was built at Ingalls Shipyard, Pascagoula, with a launch date of February 5th, 2000. In 2005, Iwo Jima sailed up the Mississippi to New Orleans to serve as the command center for disaster recovery operations in the wake of hurricane Katrina.
To my regret (and probably Dan's relief), my stage of the journey was coming to an end. I could see the long floating dock of Ocean Marine Boat Center on the Portsmouth side of the river. It looked like a perfect place to debark. Dan hailed the Center and got permission to approach the dock. We came alongside as the dockmaster walked out to meet us. I threw my bags onto the dock, climbed over the safety line and stepped off. The dockmaster gave Marian Claire's bow a push and she swung back across the current. Dan motored off downriver and I walked up to the marina office and had a cup of coffee. The dockmaster gave me directions to the pedestrian ferry landing. I thanked him and made the short walk to the landing.
There I found that the fare was $1.50, exact change. Hmmm, no ones in my wallet, maybe change in one of my seabags. After 10 minutes of searching, I came up with $1.35. Next step, go for a hike, as the Portsmouth waterfront is far too high class to have a convenience store. The charming shoppes all have conspicuous signs stating "NO CHANGE." Fortunately, I ran across a couple of obvious yachtsmen who were able to break a five for me, and I could make my fare. I boarded the outbound ferry and went to the upper deck, hoping to get sight of Marian Claire, and was soon joined by a crowd of close to a hundred first and second graders on a field trip. They were well-behaved and looked to be having fun. The teachers looked a little frazzled, though.
As we crossed the river I could just pick out Marian Claire swinging on the anchor in the bight behind Hospital Point, along with several other boats. Dan was facing days of foul weather - violent thunderstorms and high southerly winds Friday night, then a wind shift to the northeast that would bottle him in harbor for at least four days.
It took just a few minutes for the ferry to reach the Norfolk side of the river. From there I had a ten block walk back to the parking deck which I broke up with a stop at Granby Street Pizza for a slice and a draft. I picked up the jeep, paid $24 for two days parking, and got directions from the attendant to Hospital Point. I hoped to get a good photograph of Marian Claire at anchor, but in the event the whole point is within the precincts of the VA Hospital and rather than bother the gatekeeper to gain entry I decided to go on. Then it was a long drive home through vicious storms and pounding rain. I followed US 158 most of the way and got home long after dark.
Norfolk has a new streetcar system, and before my next trip I am going to study the routes and see if there is a good one from the waterfront to the bus station. A ride on the streetcar would be a good way to close out a trip by jeep, bus, sailboat, ferry and foot.
I'd advise any sailors to consider the Dismal Swamp Canal route for their trip through northeast North Carolina. It is quiet, beautiful and protected. The town of Elizabeth City on the southern approach is a fine destination in its own right. There are a couple of well-regarded marinas in the area as well as the public docks, and there are sheltered anchorages in the upper Pasquotank. We encountered no problems at all along the way - no snags or deadheads, no oncoming traffic, no scheduling difficulties at the locks, no crowds at the Welcome Center. It seems that most snowbirds favor the Virginia-North Carolina Cut route, but if they once tried the Dismal Swamp Canal they might be converts.>
Finally, a word of thanks to Dan for inviting me along on this trip. I had wanted to do this section since I first heard of it years ago, and he gave me the opportunity.
A few more picture: