We do the Dismal Swamp Canal

21 Days Looping
489.1 Nautical Miles Total (562.8 Statute Miles)
113.3 Nautical Miles This Week
13.0 Hours Underway This Week
8.8 NMph Average Speed
2 Locks This Week, 2 Total Locks

Monday – April 29th – 17.7 NM – To: Edenton, NC
After two days of Civil War Battles, we were leaving Plymouth and heading toward Edenton, NC across the Albemarle Sound. Overnight, the wind came up some and was blowing UP the river, against the current. This has two effects, first, it causes waves and we had 1-2 ft waves on the river. Second, it causes the water level to rise, so in the morning the docks were partially submerged. We had a last “bacon” breakfast at Sarah’s and then headed out.

Before leaving Plymouth, we went up river about a mile to take a look at the paper mill, then turned around and headed back downstream.

As we passed Plymouth, our new reenactor friends, Stephen & Billy were on the dock to wave goodbye. We cruised past the CSS Albemarle and downriver to the Albemarle Sound. The crossing to Edenton was a bit bumpy, but the sun was shining and since it was short, I didn’t get too much grief from Brenda.

Edenton harbor is protected by a sea wall, and has a lighthouse at the entrance. We past the lighthouse and were assisted in docking by the crew of “The Lower Place”, “Phantom”, and a new Looper boat “Miss Adventure”.

We checked into the marina, walked up Main Street which ran up from the harbor, and had some lunch. Then walked back to the boat, and said goodbye to “Miss Adventure” who was moving to the Albemarle Plantation marina.

Miss Adventure

In the afternoon, we walked around the town a bit, visiting the local ACE hardware, (ACE Hardware stores in small towns usually have been there for years, and are fun places to walk around), checked out an antique store, and stopped into the local pharmacy and visited the antique soda fountain.

Edenton is a historic seaport and was one of the major ports in the mid-1800s. After some shoaling due to hurricanes, and issues with war blockades, The Great Dismal Swamp Canal was built, and bigger ships started going to Norfolk and Edenton lost a lot of its importance. There are many historic buildings in Edenton, and we visited the Baker House, which is right at the edge of the harbor.

The Baker House

After walking around for a few hours, we went back to the boat to cool down, as the temps were in the 80’s. In the evening we met up with Robin & Charlie from “The Lower Place”, for dinner at Governors Pub. Then back to the boat. We had a family of 6 ducklings, whose mother had a broken foot in the marina, and we watched them paddle around the boats.

Tuesday – April 30th – 0 NM- In: Edenton, NC
Tuesday morning was cloudy, with moderate wind and foggy. “Phantom” and “The Lower Place” left for Elizabeth City around 7:00 for a foggy, lumpy crossing. We decided to stay and do some more sightseeing in Edenton.

We walked up Main Street and had breakfast at a local cafe, and then walked the historic district. The fog cleared, and while it was still a bit windy, it warmed up and turned into a very nice day.

The historic walking trail took us past the Court House Green, with a great view of the sound, and past an old Woolen Mill and Mill Housing.

When the mill was built, they also built several hundred small houses in a community across from the mill. They advertised, come to Edenton for a job and a house. When the mill closed in the 1960s, the mill building and houses were left derelict. The town talked the mill owners into donating the property and houses to the town, and they converted the mill into high-end condos and the houses into affordable housing for primarily people of retirement age. They also converted an old county administration building to subsidized retirement apartments. We made a big circle of town and ended up back at the boat to cool down and have lunch.

In the afternoon, we walked over to the Light House and took the tour. The lighthouse used to stand where we came out of the river on our way from Plymouth and was moved to Edenton by a ship captain who purchased it as his home when it was decommissioned. The Light House is furnished pretty much as it was in the early 1900s when it was in use.

After the Lighthouse, we walked around the historic waterfront, looking at the large old homes (several are currently for sale in the $1.5 to $2 million range). We then went for a tour of the “Copula House” which had a nice garden and beautiful woodwork.

From there we walked up Main street to the Latham House, for another tour. The Latham House also has a collection of outbuildings, kitchens, smokehouses, schoolhouses, on the property that have been moved from some of the old plantations to save them.

After the Latham house, we walked back toward the boat taking back streets to be in the shade as it was almost 90 out. We went past the Old Jail, which was behind the courthouse, something that we would have missed otherwise! Brenda got even with me for taking the boat out in bumpy weather by making me spend some time in the stocks.

We when to the boat for a rest and to cool down. In the evening, I played with my Drone a little, and we then went to Waterside’s a local restaurant for dinner. After dinner, we took a few sunset shots of the lighthouse and turned in as we were planning an early departure for Elizabeth City, NC in the morning.

Edenton Lighthouse at Sunset

Wednesday – May 1st – 48.8 NM Miles – To: Elizabeth City, NC
Elizabeth City, our next port of call is 50 miles at the other end of the Albemarle Sound and we were hoping for a smooth water day for our crossing. We got our wish as morning dawned clear, warm, with very light winds from the South. MUCH better than our last two crossings!

Leaving Edenton

We cast off at 7:00 and headed out into the sound. As we rounded the last harbor marker, we could see a large barge near the bridge in the distance, and we headed toward it. We took it slow and let the barge clear the bridge before we passed it, then opened up the throttles, and ran the rest of the way across the sound to the mouth of the Pasquotank River without incident.

As we cruised up the Pasquotank River, we passed a HUGE blimp hanger. It was built during World War Two and houses reconnaissance balloons about the size of the Goodyear Blimp! We then passed the Coast Guard airbase and rounded the corner into Elizabeth City.

“The Lower Place” and “Phantom” were tied up at the City Docks, but we went across the river and tied up at the Pelican Marina so that we could get a pump-out and have power. (The city docks had no facilities). Pelican Marina is a bit “tired” but they are starting an upgrade program and they only charged us $30 for the night.

We walked across the lift bridge and the mile to downtown, and met up with Robin, Charlie, and Herb (The crews of “Lower Place” & “Phantom”) for lunch. After lunch, “Lower Place” and “Phantom” decided to move up past the bridge to a regular marina for the night to get a pump-out and power. Brenda and I went to the “Museum of the Albemarle” which is a huge building with displays showing the history of the area from the native Americans to the current time.

We then walked around town for a while, and then back across the bridge to the boat. In the evening, we had a nice dinner at Paradiso, an Italian restaurant next to the marina, and then called it an early night, as we needed to be on the water early to get through the drawbridge at the 7:30 am opening.

Thursday- May 2nd – 21 NM Miles – To: Dismal Swamp Visitor Center, NC
In the morning, we cast off to a nice day with clear skies and light winds. We left the dock at 7:15 and rode around the corner to wait for the drawbridge to open. Right on time at 7:30, the gates came down, the span opened and we went through. As we cruised up the river, we passed the marina where “Phantom” and “The Lower Place” were docked, and headed toward the Dismal Swamp Canal entrance and our first lock!

We took it slow, only 6 knots, as the lock only opens on a set schedule, and our first opportunity to go through was 11:00. We chased a few geese that kept taking off when we got close, fly up a couple of hundred feet, land, and take off when we got close again. The canal started to narrow as we left the river, and entered the dug portion. We passed a family of young geese, and a “High Water Chair”. At about 10:00, we saw the sign for the lock. We rounded the corner and got our a view of our first lock.

There was a sailboat, “Down Home” already waiting tied up to the wall next to the lock, so we stayed back a bit and dropped the anchor to wait the hour for the lock to open. 30 minutes later, “The Lower Place” and “Phantom” rounded the corner and dropped anchor next to us to wait.

At 11:00, we got a call from the Lock Master (Mistress in this case), that they were getting ready to open, and we started the engines, pulled up the anchor, and got ready to enter the lock. “Down Home” went in first, we were second and the other boats followed behind us. Herb, Robin, and Charlie on the other boats chatted with us on the radio and gave us encouragement and tips on entering and getting into position.

In this lock, we were being raised 8 feet. As we pulled up to the wall, the Lock Master called down to us from the top and asked if we were the “newbies”, we said yes, and she helped us position our lines around the “Bollards” (posts on the top of the lock). The lines are looped from the boat up and around the bollard, then back down to the boat. This way as the water rises, we can tighten the lines, to keep the boat next to the wall and prevent it from moving. We watched the lock doors close behind us, and the flood gate was opened and the water started coming in. It took about 15 minutes to rise the 8 feet. It was a cool experience! As we were rising the Lock Master stopped by and chatted with us, she commented on our boat name, and we gave her a rubber frog. Once we reached the top, the doors opened and we entered the Dismal Swamp Canal. Our first lock was behind us! Not as scary as we thought it would be. There is a draw bridge about 1/2 mile from the lock. The Lock Master has to secure the lock, then jump in their car, and drive up to the draw bridge to raise it. We took it very slowly, all 4 boats in a line up to the bridge, and waited for it to open.

The bridge lifted quickly, and with the lock operator waving to us, we headed up the canal, with Down Home, us, Lower Place, then Phantom bringing up the rear.

Over the past few weeks, there had been reports of issues with the Dismal Swamp Canal. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the canal was hit pretty hard with downed trees and flooding. It took them over 6 months to re-open it. They are still dealing with some of the issues and this year are dredging parts of the canal to make it deeper where there is shoaling.

Because the canal is narrow, shallow, tree-lined, and has locks on both ends that restrict current, any trees that fall into the canal, typically sink to the bottom. Also, the canal was used to move logs cut from the swamp in huge rafts for many years, and some of them broke loose. After 200+ years, that’s a lot of sunken debris! With the dredging, or when boats with deep drafts go through, it stirs up the bottom, and these trees pop up and float just below the surface. Hitting one of these logs with your propellers or at any speed can seriously damage a boat. We had heard that two boats heading to our rendezvous in Norfolk were having propellers repaired that hit logs or the dredge pipe.

Parade of boats

We cruised very slowly through the canal, just faster than a slow jog (5 knots), and had the largest boat with the deepest draft go last. As we traveled, we kept in touch by radio, calling out any logs, stumps, or shallow spots we encountered. We traveled the 5 miles from the lock to the Visitor Center and State Park without incident.

The visitor center has a wall with tie-downs for three boats on one side and is also a rest area for the highway on the other side. Just beside the rest area is the entrance to the Dismal Swamp State Park, which is only accessible by a swing bridge across the canal that they move out of the way when boats come through. We had decided to spend the night tied up at the Visitor Center.

As we approached, we saw that there was already another boat there “Magic”, Down Home (the sailboat) took the second spot. We called our friends on The Lower Place and Phantom to ask if they wanted to continue as there was no room for all of us. “Heck no!” said Herb on Phantom, “we’ll just raft up to Y’all!” Brenda and I looked at each other with some panic. We’d heard of rafting (tying boats together side by side when anchoring) and knew that on the trip we’d have the opportunity to do it, but after the excitement of our first lock, we weren’t quite ready for a second first time experience. The sailboat agreed to allow Lower Place to raft to them, and Herb was going to raft to us. Herb’s boat is roughly 50% larger than ours and we didn’t quite know how this was all going to work. Regardless, we pulled into the third spot and tied up to the wall, then quickly ran to the other side of the boat to put out fenders and catch Herbs lines.

In the end, it was very easy! Herb pulled up next to us, we grabbed his lines, he dropped some extra fenders to keep the boats from touching, and we tied his boat to ours. No panic and we all got to stay at the visitor center!

After getting settled in and registered at the Visitor Center, Brenda and I took a walk to the State Park that has a Museum and miles of walking trails including a bike path that runs the entire length of the canal. We visited the museum which has displays on the history of the canal and the swamp, as well as a large collection of taxidermy animals (bears, deer, and large cats are common in the swamp, as well as many smaller animals). After the museum, we walked on a 1/2 mile boardwalk trail through the swamp that was raised about 3 feet. As we were walking, I noticed that at a trail intersection, the park had put a stuffed deer next to the boardwalk, I was pointing it out to Brenda so she could get a photo when the “stuffed” deer moved! It was a young buck, that still had the velvet on his antlers. He didn’t seem too upset that we were there and continued eating the young plants along the path, ducked under the boardwalk while we watched him, ate some more, then casually, wandered off into the undergrowth.

The day was hot, and in the swamp quite humid. Fortunately, there were almost no bugs! When dinner time came around, Robin from Lower Place, stopped and suggested that we go up to one of the picnic tables up in the park where it was shady, and there was some breeze. The Visitor Center does not have power poles for boats to plug into, and we didn’t want to run our generator too long with the boats rafted together due to noise and smell, so this sounded like a great idea! Robin had made a pot of Spaghetti, and we roasted some hot dogs and heated up a big can of baked beans on the grill, and everyone including the folks from the sailboat met up at the picnic table for a pot luck dinner. Siobhan from Down Home had baked a blueberry cobbler, and Herb had ice cream in his freezer, so it was an excellent meal!

Dinner at The Dismal Swamp Welcome Center

After dinner, we all agreed to run our generators for a few hours to cool down the boats and charge up our batteries. At 9:00, what is referred to as “Looper Midnight”, the boat was nice and cool, and we turned off the generator. We have a battery bank and inverter, that will let us use A/C powered appliances like the TV, coffee maker, and microwave without being plugged in or running the generator, so we watched TV for a while and then turned in as we were leaving at 7:30 to continue our trip on the canal. After the sun went down, it cooled down, so we had a pleasant night.

Friday – May 3rd – 18.5 NM Miles – To: Chesapeake, VA
In the morning, Down Home decided to stay for the day to do some hiking in the State Park, so it was us, The Lower Place, and Phantom that pulled out at 7:30 and headed down the canal. After about an hour or so of slow cruising through the canal, we crossed into our third state Virginia!

Shortly after crossing into Virginia, we sighted the dredge up ahead. The dredge is in the middle of the canal and has a large pipe that extends across the canal and down a side channel to dispose of the dirt that they dig up from the bottom. When boats pass, they fill the pipe with water to sink it to the bottom so that they can pass safely over it. In the past week, two boats have hit the pipe, because it was not sunk deep enough. As we were in the lead, when we got in sight of the barge, we called them on the radio, and let them know we were coming. They said that they would take a break, and asked us to wait for a few minutes while they sunk the pipe and moved out of the channel. After about a 5-minute wait, the dredge captain called us and said it was okay to come through. They parked one of their workboats over where the pipe crossed so that we would know where it was. We inched up to the dredge, then put the engines in neutral, and drifted across the pipe so that if we did hit, the damage would be minimal. We passed over without incident, noticing the quick blip on our depth finder as we passed over, The Lower Place also made it over just fine. Herb in Phantom bumped but passed without any issues. We thanked the dredge captain for a safe passing and headed down the canal.

We kept to a slow speed 5-6 knots so that we could watch for logs, and so that we would reach the end lock around 10:00 to be in time for the 11:00 opening. The canal is long, straight, and narrow. There is a road that follows along the side that used to be the towpath for horses pulling the barges. There are still signs of the wayside camps along the banks.

At this end, the bridge is before the lock, and there is a wall to tie up to wait for the opening. We reached there right at 10:00. There is only room for 2 boats here so again, we rafted up with Phantom on the outside. Right across the street, there was a Food Lion grocery store, and a Hardee’s. Brenda and Robin went to Food Lion to pick up some provisions, and Charlie and I went to Hardee’s to get breakfast while Herb watched the boats. Charlie was SO excited that he could pull up to a wall and walk across a street to Hardee’s and get a Porkchop and gravy biscuit!

We were all back at the boat by 10:45, and right at 11 the lockmaster showed up and opened the bridge. We cruised under the bridge and into the lock for the 10-foot drop out of the canal. Again the locking went smooth, and we left the Dismal Swamp and entered the Elizabeth River in the Norfolk, VA area.

Rather than go up to the marina where our event was, we decided to go about 2 miles south to a marina called “Top Rack” which is known for cheap fuel prices and dockage to spend the night, then head up to the event marina in the morning. Each of us took our turn at the fuel dock, then moved to our assigned slip. Top Rack is a nice new marina that specializes in small boats that are stored in a large warehouse and put into the water when the owners want to use them. They allow larger boats to use the launching docks when they are not busy. It’s not a glamorous place as there is a smelly asphalt plant just across the river, and there is no power on most of the docks. Regardless, it was a place for the night and we were able to fuel up. There were already several other boats that were going to our Rendezvous there, and several more arrived during the afternoon. We spent the rest of the day meeting new Loopers and resting up. In the evening, a group of us walked to the marina restaurant for dinner then turned in.

Saturday – May 4th – 7 NM Miles – To: Norfolk, VA
Saturday morning dawned cloudy and cool. There was rain predicted for the afternoon, so we all decided to head up to Waterside Marina where our event would be early. Phantom, Lower Place, and a few other boats left around 9:00, we waited for 30 minutes as we were all going to the same marina so that we would not all arrive at the same time, and left at 9:30. It was a short 7 mile trip up through Norfolk harbor. We took it slow and were amazed at the number of large ships, warships, and huge industrial complexes along the river. We quickly caught up with the other boats, as there was a railroad bridge that was down and had two long freight trains passing over it that the other boats had to wait for. We hung out in the river next to the Purdue Chicken Grain depot waiting for the bridge to open.

Once open, we traveled up the river past many warships and queued up to enter Waterside Marina. We had to wait 30 minutes to get into our slip as there were 6 boats all waiting to get in. There is a lot of traffic on the Elizabeth River and we had to keep our eyes out for other boats. There was a small cruise ship, a 3 masted schooner, water taxis, and barges moving all around us. When our turn came, we pulled into the marina and backed into our slip one boat down from The Lower Place and across the basin from Phantom. There were already about 35 of our fellow Looper boats here, and they were expecting a total of 50.

Waterside Marina is part of a large restaurant and entertainment complex with several large hotels right on the waterfront. There is a large park (which was hosting a wine festival, a Carnival Cruise ship terminal, and several other large dinner/sailing/cruise ship piers in the area. Also, it’s right on a major shipping channel, and across from a General Dynamics shipyard where they re-furbish Navy warships. Quite a busy place!

We spent the next half hour adjusting our lines and settling in, then walked the docks helping our fellow boaters tie up when they arrived. In the evening, we walked through the Waterside Complex checking for a place to eat. Between the Kentucky Derby, The Wine Festival, “May the 4th Be With You” day, and the lead up to Cinco De Mayo”, the place was a zoo! We couldn’t find space in any of the 6 restaurants where we could hear ourselves talk, so we decided to walk across the street to “Grain”, which is a rooftop beer garden on the 5th floor of the Hilton Hotel. We had a nice dinner (and some great beer), then walked back to the boat. At 8:00, a band started to play on the bandstand in front of the Waterside complex, and right across the marina from our boat. So we pulled out the lawn chairs and sat on the bow of the boat with Robin and Charlie from Lower Place and enjoyed the concert. At 10:30 I put in my earplugs and went to bed. Brenda stayed up until the concert ended around 11:30.

Sunday – May 5th – 0 NM Miles – In: Norfolk, VA
On Sunday morning we took an Uber to a laundromat to do laundry. We had two full loads to do, so while it was washing we looked for a place to have breakfast. The first place we came to looked good, so we went in only to find that it was a vegan restaurant. We ordered anyway and had the breakfast burrito, which was VERY tasty! Who knew that smoked mushrooms could taste like bacon!

After getting back to the boat, and putting the laundry away, we hung around meeting our fellow boaters as they arrived. At 3:00 we had our first event of the Rendezvous. Curtis Stokes Yacht Sales had purchased 20 bikes for underprivileged kids, and we volunteered to put them together. It was a fun time, as they did a trivia challenge where you had to answer questions about the trip, in order to win the parts to put together the bikes.

After the assembly, the kids receiving the bikes arrived, and we helped adjust the bikes and helmets for them. A few had never ridden before, so we helped them learn. After an ice cream social with the kids, we headed to dinner, then back to the boat for the night as we had an 8:00 start time for the conference. It had rained while we were assembling, but when we left for dinner, we had a nice rainbow.

This upcoming week we are in port in Norfolk for the entire week at our “America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association” (AGLCA) Spring Rendezvous. More on that in our next posting!

Kiss Some Frogs To Find Your Prince
Thanks for visiting! –Tom & Brenda

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