Once you reach the lower Chesapeake you have two options to reach Key West in Florida which is some 1,200 miles to the south. One can take the coastal Atlantic Ocean route, the outside route, or, depending on your vessel’s draft and mast height, you can take the ICW. ( Intracoastal Waterways). Many do a mixture of both as there are safe estuaries and channels used by big shipping to enter and exit through. Many though require local knowledge, the correct tide, and good weather to pass through as silting can be a major problem. As we had sailed up the Atlantic Ocean route, we decided we would do the ICW on the return trip. We would have dozens of bridges to pass under or wait till they open for you. The Fixed Bridges are all around 65ft. Our mast is 58ft so no problem there. Other bridges are Swing, or Bascule – lifting. These have different opening times, usually on the hour and half hour, so you try to time your approach just before they open. Each of these bridges has an operator whom you call ahead to and advise of your pending approach. Also we would have a couple of locks at the northern end to pass through.
The ICW is a network of Canals, Inlets, Bays and Rivers that run the length of the Eastern Seaboard from Norfolk Virginia to the Florida Keys. The History of the ICW can be traced back to the 1700’s when the Dismal Swamp Canal was conceived as an idea as a means to transport the Atlantic white cedar out of the great swamp. Work began on the 22 mile long canal in 1713.
As time passed other sections were dug and dredged. In 1912 a proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers was put forward for a 10 foot deep waterway extending 925 miles from Beaufort North Carolina to Key West Florida. It was constructed in fits and starts like earlier sections.
Then during World War Two the need for efficient transportation of bulk materials within the United States was well demonstrated after German submarines sank numerous ships off the East Coast, hence the waterways were upgraded in places to take these ships and barges.
Today the ICW is still used by some commercial traffic, but also large numbers of pleasure craft.
So our decision was to do the ICW. It is now the 3rd of December as we untie our mooring lines from the Hampton Public Dock and motor on out on a sunny but cold morning. We head out to cross Hampton Roads with winds blowing 20-25kts creating very short sharp seas. Then into the Elizabeth River. On the Norfolk side at Sewells Point we start to pass the long grey line of naval cruisers, aircraft carriers and other naval vessels all tied up at the huge Naval Station. This Station covers 4,300 acres, making it the largest naval base in the world. Some of the ships are under plastic wrap undergoing repairs and maintenance, and others just seemed parked up. Further up the river are more naval dock yards. We also pass the National Maritime Centre – also known at Nauticus – where the “ Wisconsin”, a World War Two battleship is now tied up and open as a Museum.
We then pass the “Tidewater Yacht Marina” on our Starboard side. This marks Statute Mile Marker Zero of the ICW. We are officially on our way. Our first night is spent on a very noisy free dock just outside Norfolk City. We have done about 8st.m. from the zero mark and are just a very short distance from one of the Interstate bridges. The portion of the bridge that opens is made of metal grating, and oh the noise when a vehicle goes over that, and they run all night long !!! Never mind, we were in for much quieter times ahead. We are parked just by the entrance to Deep Creek. The next morning it is fine, clear and COLD with not a breath of wind. The reflections on the waters of the trees and homes are truly beautiful. I take so many photos. We leave in time to catch the 08.30 opening of Deep Creek Lock. This one we will have the water raising us some 8ft. Once the water has been pumped in, Robert, the Lock Master then invites us for Breakfast. There are two other yachts on the other side who passed through last night. We meet up at breakfast with Diane off “ Ariel 111” Robert tells us that as we have already crossed The Mason Dixie Line (which is further north from here) where we will receive true Southern hospitality. This line became widely known as the symbolic divider between the Northern and Southern States during America’s Civil War, in short, it divided slave states from non-slave states. Well Robert is certainly right. We have found such warm friendly welcomes starting with him. He offered us fresh fruits and bagels with hot coffee, all on the house. He also gave us a copy of the Waterways Maptech Chart from Norfolk to Florida as I only had the Cruising Guide. The Chart Book is great and goes with the Cruising Guide.
|Deep Creek Lock|
Once out of the lock and on our way we were now in The Great Dismal Swamp, and in fresh water. I was just awed at the scenery. The Great Dismal Swamp is one of two routes one can take after leaving Norfolk. The other is called the Virginia Cut. It is wider, deeper, faster and more popular than The Great Dismal Swamp. They come together again in Albemarle Sound. We are not in a great hurry, and the Dismal Swamp Canal sounded interesting. We draw 1.2mt. – 4ft. and they say if you draw 6ft or less you should be fine. Let’s go !!
The Great Dismal Swamp. The sheer name alone conjectures up images of creepy crawlies, snakes and alligators (I think we are still too far north to come across alligators yet ?) and other bities. It may have been like that long ago, but to-day we found it quite delightful. Mind you we were seeing it from the safety of our boat. The swamp itself covers an area of 440 square miles. In the late 1600’s the Native Americans hid in the swamp from the European settlers. Later the African-American run-away slaves used it as a hiding place setting up quite large colonies.
|The Great Dismal Swamp|
In the 1700’s George Washington bought shares in a company that planned to drain the swamp and harvest its gum and cedar stands. This never materialized, but over the next 200 years loggers would nearly clear out the valuable timber. The canal was originally the idea of Colonel William Byrd 2nd., in 1728, but it took nearly 60 years before it was started. In 1793 using slaves hired from nearby landowners the gruelling work of digging out the canal began. It was treacherous brutal work as workers had to cut through dense tangles of vines and trees and work in deep muddy water at times pulling out trees stumps. Not only did they have to contend with this, but the heat, biting insects, and, cruel beatings. It was a slow and expensive process. In 1796 work came to a stop. Eventually in 1805, 12 years after it was started, the canal opened.
Back to modern times – our adventure was nothing like the past. In parts the canal is quite narrow and we have trees overhanging the waters. Now you would think in a catamaran you would just sit in the middle and you would be fine. I was at the helm and passed just a little too close to a huge pine tree that hung well over the canal. I collected two lovely small branches at the top of the mast – well it is Christmas. Now all I need do is decorate them !!!! Alec was not that impressed. It was he who later had to go up the mast to remove them – spoil sport !! We motor along for 17 st.m. till we reach the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Centre where we tie up to another dock. Another yacht was already there, and behind us another four came in over the afternoon and evening. Some commented on how cleaver it was to have such a Christmas Tree at the top of our mast, and all it need now was lights !!! As there was only room for three boats along the dock, we rafted up and had an enjoyable evening with some of them. Earlier in the afternoon we had visited the Dismal Swamp State Park Centre and then gone for a walk into a small portion of the Dismal Swamp along the boardwalks. No Alligators were seen !
Next morning we are awake at 06.30 to a good hard frost. Yes it is COLD. SHAMAL is covered in a crisp layer of crunchy white ice. We all pull out around the same time and head on down to South Mills and our second lock. This lock drops us down, and once through we enter the Pasquotank River. This river is more like what I imagined the Dismal Swamp to be like with trees growing out of the water along the edge. Another day without wind, but the sun slowly warms us up. We wind down the river until we arrive in Elizabeth City at midday and tie up to another free dock. It is here Alec removes my “Christmas Tree”. Again we are met with that southern hospitality. A couple come and invite us to use their car if we want to go off and get supplies. They tell us about the local sites and eateries, plus inform us that this evening it is the Elizabeth City Christmas Parade. On the way to the Christmas Parade we met yet another couple who also offer to take us shopping. Just complete strangers who see there are yachting visitors in town and want to help you out in any way they can.
Next morning we wake to no frost, but it is only slightly warmer. We are off the dock just after 0700 and motoring out down the Pasquotank River which opens up into the Albemarle Sound. We are able to put the jib out here, and have a cold wind of 8-10kts which gives us a little bit of a push along with the help of a following sea – well I should say following waters as we are a little way from the sea. The sun comes out and we enter the Alligator River which is still quite wide. At a big bend in the river and where it gets narrower, the ICW enters another canal. It is late afternoon and there are already two yachts anchored here for the evening with another three coming up behind us. We are at the entrance to the Alligator River – Pungo River Canal. It is an isolated, but a most picturesque spot. There is not a breath of wind and not a sound to be heard. Most of the trees here have lost their leaves and the bare trunks and branches stand above the marshland grasses. We spend a very peaceful night here.
We wake to a light foggy morning and are entering the canal just after 0700. By 0900 it is raining. The rain comes and goes for the rest of the day, and we only have one vessel coming in the opposite direction, a big barge. The canal is nice and wide so there are no problems, but as always we watch the depth as it can change very quickly. By 1400 it is still raining and visibility is down to less than half a mile. We have reached Belhaven and decided to anchor in the harbour there. We notice a couple of the yachts in front of us have also decided to call it a day and have gone in as well. Also the Port engine has started playing up again, so Alec decides he will replace the water pump that afternoon. We don’t go ashore here, and yet I am sure it would be interesting, but with the inclement weather it was nice to have an on-board afternoon and evening. Sometimes it is nice to just do nothing. (Well Alec was working) We have no schedules to keep and nowhere to really be in a great hurry. This is what makes this life so free. We sit in our chairs on the back deck once Alec has finished replacing the water pump, having our drinks watching the rain and other boats moving about the harbour.
It is overcast the following morning as we up anchor and motor on out. Another catamaran comes steaming up behind us to say hello. A South African guy who lives in Greece and has a catamaran based there, and now has just brought one to base in the Caribbean. He plans to fly between the two locations – Summer in the Mediterranean and winter in the Caribbean. By mid-morning the sun is trying to come out and we have enough wind to motor sail as we enter Goose Creek.
The ICW is marked out on the paper charts, and the chart plotter, in statuary miles. I am not sure the reasoning for using statuary miles, but at the end of each day I am converting it over to nautical miles for my log book. It takes a lot more concentration navigating the waterways, as you are watching out every minute you are under way. The depths are our greatest concern as they are not always what they are charted as, if they are charted at all. But the port and starboard markers are excellent. You are passing through stunning scenery at times, and we are seeing an abundance of bird life. I am still looking out for my alligator. In fact we may very well still be too far north for them. Not too sure about that one. !?!
Our next stop is the town of Oriental. It is the most beautiful evening without a breath of wind so we drop anchor just off the town, which is on the northern shore of the Neuse River. Today we have been able to motor sail for most of the day as the rivers have been nice and wide. Oriental got it's name in 1866. The postmaster wanted to call the place Smith's Creek, but his wife found a nameplate on a beach along the Outer Banks from a sunken ship called "Oriental".
The next morning we take the tender ashore to visit the town. There are only about 900 residents, but it is a charming town. It says there are more seagoing vessels in Oriental than residents. We visit the Island Waterway Provision Company which has a wonderful chandlery. I am able to buy a replacement American courtesy flag as our one has nearly flogged itself to death. Again the town is dawned in lovely Christmas decorations. We find a great “local” coffee house where we watch the comings and goings along the waterfront. By midday we are ready to move on.
The Admiral and The Commander