We awoke bright and early on Monday morning to lift anchor and put the final 10 miles to the enterance of the inner coastal behind us! Traveling across the James River into Norfolk offers a very impressive view of our naval fleet, from Nimitz Class Aircraft Carriers, Aegis Guided Missile Cruisers to small Destroyer Escorts There were more than 20 vessles of various types and sizes in port. Wish we had time to tour Norfolk and Portsmouth, particularily Nauticus (National Maritime Center) and Battleship Wisconsin, but with the cold weather such a distraction we’ve decided we will save that adventure for our return, along with a passage up the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. So onward to the ICW!
The ICW starts as Mile “0” at Hospital Point, VA. From this point forward our travel guides refer to points of interest, bridges, locks, marina’s, dockage, mooring fields and anchorage’s by mile number on the 1239 (statute) mile journey to Key West, FL. We had a choice of two passages for the first 50 miles. The VA Cut; faster, deeper and most frequented by power boaters (thus disruptive wakes) or the Dismal Swamp, a narrow and shallow passage lined with woods and scenic views. We chose the latter as we transited the VA Cut when we brought Dolphin north from West Palm Beach 6 yrs ago.
The first portion of the ICW is comprised of a series of what I’ll call obstacles; train bridges, bascule bridges and locks. The distance between each obstacle and timing of scheduled opening/closing varies making the first part of this journey a challenge! If you miss one scheduled opening you will likely miss something else down the line, delaying an already slow passage! As we arrived at the first train bridge we were caught by surprise. It was supposed to be up and easily passed to get to the 08:30 opening of the Gilmerton Bridge, but it was not! The train bridge tender finally responded after multiple hails and opened the bridge but the delay put us behind and we missed the Gilmerton bridge opening…by just about 3 minutes and even though she saw us coming, the bridge-tendress would not keep the bridge open for us! That left us with an hour and 20 minutes to kill, circling around in a holding area with 6 other vessels until,she was ready to open the bridge again. Once through the bridge we made a hard right turn that marked the entrance to the Dismal Swamp Route.
Our next schedule to meet was the 11:00 opening of the Deep Creek Lock. We missed that one too and expected to wait til the 1:30 opening. But Robert the Lock Tender was on duty. He has a reputation that precedes him as the man how loves his job more than anyone you’ll ever meet! True to his reputation he was a most accommodating and engaging gentlemen! He opened the lock for our caravan of vessels, off schedule, to accommodate our passage. After the last vessel cleared the lock he hopped in his truck and drove half a mile to the bascule bridge and open that for us as well. Thank you Robert!!
Deep Creek Lock
We couldn’t resist leaving our mark!
The Dismal Swamp
For a bit of history, this passage was conceived in the 1700’s by politicians and entrepreneurs including George Washington. It was invisioned to be used as a transport avenue to bring Atlantic White Cedar out of the Swamp to make house shingles. Work began in 1793 and finished in 1805 . Slave labor was used to dig the canal, and with familiarity of their surrounds in the Swamp, became a passage for the undergound railroad. Today its a national historic landmark.
As mentioned the canal is narrow and shallow. It can be clutttered with low lying branches, fallen trees and floating debree…so travel is best in day light. Speed limit on the canal is described as "no wake" so we're limited to no more than a 5kts cruising speed. Invision long, straight and slow, but not straight enough to use auto pilot!
As we approached mile market #28 we were crossing the VA line into NC. We could not make the next lock opening at South Mills Lock so we decided to take advantage of the free dock tie-up at the NC Welcome Center, along with the 5 vessels already there and the 6 in our caravan.
Once lines were secure we took a quick walk across a pontoon foot bridge to the Dismal Swamp Museum and Nature Center to learn more about the history, wildlife and vegetation in the area. As we were returning an informal Happy Hour started to form on the dock. It was cold as the sun was setting but everyone was eager to meet each other, talk about their passages, destinations and most importantly intentions as the N'Easter was bearing down on us! We all agreed that a 07:00 coffee & dock meeting in the morning was a good idea.
We convened on the dock the next morning with coffee in hand. We shared ideas about the storm and passage. The biggest concern was that leaving the protection of the canal would expose us to the anticipated 30-40 kt winds. It was unanimous, we were all staying. The next topic was what time was Happy Hour? 5:00 was confirmed by all. With the most important decision of the day made several of us took off for a brisk walk along the nature trail while others returned to their boats to do chores,etc. The Welcome Center was furnished with sofa, chairs, TV and wifi so most of us make our way there in the afternoon.
At 17:15, after the maintenance man ended his shift, we all gathered with our drinks of choice and a dish to share. Beef stew, Chili, cheese & crackers, chips and dip- I made Butternut squash soup with brown sugar and cinnamon (compliments of s/v “Thistle”) served in Dixie cups. I’m sure we took the Rt 17 motor visitors by surprise but we were warm and enjoying each others company and sharing good food!
The Happy Hour Gang!
The next day was a repeat of the last; morning dock meeting for updates, a bit of exercise, and back to the warmth of the welcome center to catch up on email, update travel blogs and a competitive game of scrabble and a few hands of cards.
A few words about the NC Welcome Center…. Sarah and her team could not have been more hospitable. They offered us coffee, snacks and even contacted the Tractor Supply store in Elizabeth City to see if they could sell us propane heaters for our boats. The cashier lived near the Welcome Center and offered to hand deliver the heaters along with making a special stop at the nearby Walmart to pick up a case of propane tanks…..now that is Southern Hospitality!!!
A few new vessels joined our raft at the dock..including a 53′ trawler who’s captain was 4 months new to the boat. It was a struggle that many of us shared to raft her to a 32′ Cat that was rafted to a 28′ Cape Dory . With the forecasted winds we all felt that trouble was looming! The next morning the Captain was rudely awakened by an uncomfortable bump at 06:00AM. The Captain looked through the overhead hatch to see a 85 lb. Bruce anchor pecking away at his solar panel. The stern line on the trawler had come untied. It was quickly wrestled under control and fortunately no damage was sustained.