If your boat has a shallow enough draft and a short enough mast you can get from Norfolk, Virginia to Miami, Florida without being in the exposed Atlantic waters. This route is known as the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the ICW for short. Some will refer to this as “doing the ditch”. Essentially it’s a system of canals, rivers and sounds that have been connected in the name of interstate commerce. There are little towns, cities and deserted anchorages along the way that can make this a really fun way to explore America by boat. Luckily our almost 5 foot draft and 49 foot air draft lets us explore this route.
We picked up the ICW after leaving the free docks in Portsmouth, Virginia. The first decision we had to make on the ICW was to take the Dismal Swamp or the Virginia Cut. A couple we had met on s/v Grace in Bohemia River told us that after five trips up and down the ICW they would only do the Dismal Swamp. We took this advice and made the sharp right turn at mile marker 10.
We were following a new cruising friend, Nathaniel on s/v Disco Sandcastle, who we had met on the free docks in Portsmouth, VA. He was from New Hampshire and heading for a warm spot in the Caribbean with lots of rum bars, sun and sand. Nathaniel was traveling solo and we offered to let him raft up to us in the lock if that would be easier. As it turned out, this offer was unneeded thanks to the great lock operator Ed.
This was our first lock experience. This lock would rise us 8 feet in elevation to be even with the Dismal Swamp. Ed had everything under control and gave great, clear instruction and helped everyone get secure for the lock operation.
After you get through the lock and the first bridge (also operated by Ed who has to get in his car and drive down to open it), you are in a narrow, shallow cut that is beautiful and creepy at the same time.
Due to the tannins from the vegetation along the swamp, the water looked like iced coffee.
Along the way you may encounter what are referred to as “dead heads”. These could be anything from logs that have washed into the canal from high water, trees that have fallen into the canal or the stumps from trees that were cut down. We hit three along the way but luckily had no damage. We think we hit them because the boat in front of us had a slightly deeper draft then us and was stirring up things on the bottom.
About halfway down the canal you cross over into North Carolina. Now it was really start to feel like we were heading south!
Shortly after crossing over into North Carolina, we arrived at the Dismal Swamp Visitors Center. This was where we planned to stay for the night. We were able to get the last few feet on the dock and we rafted Disco Sandcastle up to us. This was noted as a great stop between the two locks if you didn’t time it to do the whole swamp in one day. We were a little surprised to find that it was just a rest stop on the highway that happened to be along the Dismal Swamp. Still, it was a nice stop with a dock, a visitor center, across the canal was a board walk and it proved to be a great meeting area for cruisers.
We went for a walk on the boardwalk with Summer and saw this guy.
We were surprised he didn’t run away from the sent of Summer. Some other cruisers reported seeing coyotes along the boardwalk too.
The next morning we got up at dawn and headed for the next lock and on to Elizabeth City.
On our way to Elizabeth City we needed fuel and there was only one option. Part marina, part trailer park, part roadside store and grill and all down the sketchiest channel we had ever transited.
After filling up we were on to Elizabeth City. A cute looking town that is trying very hard to be cruiser friendly. They have room for about 20 boats on their free docks! For a modest fee you can use newly installed showers. They will even greet newly arriving boaters with the Rose Buddies Ceremony and a social hour with beer, wine and cheese and crackers hosted by the former mayor. Unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of what cruisers look for in the water front area of Elizabeth City. There are a couple of expensive restaurants, a museum and an art gallery. There are little to no stores where you can reprovision, hardware stores or marine stores.
Luckily for us, we have relatives in the area. Stacey’s uncle Mike, aunt Jill and cousin Rachel live just outside of Elizabeth City (her cousin Ryan is away at college). Jill came down to see us the first night we got into town. We had some supplies shipped to their house from Amazon and Defender and she dropped them off. There was an east wind making it very bumpy at the dock and not very good for socializing. We made plans to meet up the next morning. Jill picked us up the next day and took us around to show us the city and do some reprovisioning. We hung out at their house and took advantage of fast wifi to backup photos and update our various electronic devices. Jill taught my Bride how to cut my hair since I refuse to pay $20 for that on our budget. Jill also made us a nice dinner. It was great catching up with family.
The next morning Mike took us on a tour of the US Coast Guard Station in Elizabeth City where he is stationed. Its a large base that specializes in major overhauls of aircraft and their systems. It was really great to see how some of the systems we have on the boat integrate with the search and rescue operations for the USCG.
Mike and Jill even lent us their minivan for the afternoon. We were able to bring some of our cruising friends to store so they could get provisions as well.
After 3 days in Elizabeth City we headed off down the Ablemarle Sound for the Alligator River. It was a nice day with good winds and we were actually able to sail. But the Ablemarle Sound is shallow (the max depth we saw was 20 feet) and the winds can whip up the water pretty quick. The flat seas we started with were soon 4 foot chop following Smitty as we crossed the sound. We left with Hullabaloo, Calista and Wildcat among others.
We spent the night with Hullabaloo and Calista in the South Lake anchorage. Most of the area surround the Ablemarle Sound and Alligator River is swamp. So finding a place to anchor where you could take a dog to shore was difficult. Thanks to Active Captain, we had found a place to anchor where we could access a boat ramp to walk the dogs. Only this wasn’t a boat ramp like we think of them. This was a redneck, duck boat, backwoods boat ramp. We could only find the entrance to the canal to access the ramp thanks to Google Earth. Once you get down the canal we found a little patch of mud where boats could be launched. The whole thing was very weird and I kept thinking to myself “run if you hear banjo music!” My Bride was afraid that an alligator would eat Summer.
The temperature was a little cold to truly enjoy it but the stars at this anchorage were breathtaking. We could see so many stars and see the constellations so clearly since there was nothing on land to pollute the view.
The next day two days were again filled with canals and rivers as we made our way to Oriental. We went through our first swing bridge. Again we traveled with Hullabaloo and Calista during the day but due to the cold just stayed on our own boats once we got into the anchorages. We anchored in the Pungo River. We made it into Oriental, NC to find the free town docks full but room in the anchorage for all 3 boats. As we were pulling in we saw Disco Sandcastle getting towed by two dinghies into a nearby harbor.
Some rain was coming in for the next couple of days but the temperatures had come up into the 70s. Oriental is a very cruiser friendly town but there is not a lot here. We walked the little down town harbor area that consisted of two restaurants, a marine supply store and a create coffee shop called the Bean. They do have a dragon.
We walked up to the grocery store. Well we tried to. A Walmart Express (grocery only) moved in about a year ago and drove the local store out of business. So we had to go there. It had started to rain pretty hard but a nice guy gave us and Skelton Crew a ride back to the docks in his pickup. We also walked to a great hardware store with a large marine section. We tried to go to the marine consignment store a couple of times but could never make it there when it was open. One day we walked over to visit Disco Sandcastle who was on the hard working to repair his stuffing box, transmission coupler and a few other projects. Skelton Crew found a place were we could buy fresh shrimp right from the fisherman. We had a great night eating fresh shrimp on Hullabaloo with the crews of Calista and Wild Cat. (Check out Wild Cat’s blog Climate Odyssey. They are sailing with a cause and have some cool stuff reading.) I may or may not have ended up swimming back to Smitty after falling off Hullabaloo at 1 am.
After 3 days in Oriental we took the short day down to Beaufort. That took us down to just passed Mile Marker 200 on the ICW. This short trip was great because it was filled with dolphins and even a pirate ship.