Norfolk and the Great Dismal Swamp Canal

<< Previous | Next >>

Our early am trip through Norfolk was the complete opposite of yesterday’s adventure. The water was calm, the Naval activity was silent and the channel markers were clear!

We were headed to North Carolina, through the Great Dismal Swamp. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, or who didn’t follow our previous blog, here’s a brief history, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“In the Colonial period, water transportation was the lifeblood of the North Carolina sounds region and the Tidewater areas of Virginia. The landlocked sounds were entirely dependent upon poor overland tracks or shipment along the treacherous Carolina coast to reach further markets through Norfolk, Virginia.

In May 1763, George Washington made his first visit to the Great Dismal Swamp. He suggested draining it, and digging a north-south canal through to connect the waters of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. As the first president, Washington agreed with Virginia Governor Patrick Henry that canals were the easiest answer for an efficient means of internal transportation, and urged their creation and improvement.

In 1784, the Dismal Swamp Canal Company was created, and work was started in 1793. The canal was dug completely by hand. with most of the labor was done by slaves  hired from nearby landowners. It took approximately 12 years of back-breaking construction under highly unfavorable conditions to complete the 22-mile long waterway, which opened in 1805.

Tolls were charged for the canal’s maintenance and improvements, and in 1829, the channel was deepened. The waterway was an important route of commerce in the era before railroads and highways became major transportation modes.

We were timed perfectly to be at the first lock for the 11:00am opening, when we came upon a railroad bridge that was down (closed). A long train slowly moved forward, then stopped….then slowly backed up…and finally slowly moved off of the bridge. Ok…we were still on schedule, if we pushed it a bit. As we came around a corner to pass under a highway bridge, we found that the railroad bridge next to it was down.

After hailing them on the radio, we were told that they were awaiting a train. We waited…and waited….and finally the train came and passed. Then we waited….and waited….and waited for the bridge to lift. In the meantime, Scott had me call the lock, to let them know that we were trying for the 11am opening, but were being held up. Robert, our favorite lock keeper (whom we had met on our previous cruise south), told us not to worry, that we  had plenty of time and that he would be ready for us. Finally, the bridge lifted, and we were on our way.

We got to the lock at 11:04. Robert had the gate open, and was ready to help us tie to the wall. The gist of “locking through”: come through a gate, tie to poles that are quite a bit above you (hence, the help from Robert) and the gate closes behind you. Water fills the area, until you are at ground level and the gates ahead open, for you to continue on.

Just as Robert was closing the gate behind us to fill the lock, a sailboat showed up (another victim of the railroad bridge, I’m sure), so he opened the gate to let them in also. This is still a slow time of year for Robert. In six weeks or so, when the mainstream of boaters head south, both us and the sailboat would have been out of luck.

The lock fills much slower than you’d think, giving us time to chat with Robert, and the couple on the sailboat that were tied up behind us. Once we were at ground level, Robert entertained us with a tune on the conch shell. Boaters bring him all sorts of conchs, on their way north, and he can play almost all of them. He gave us a quick lesson on the types of conch shells (complete with visuals), and then opened the forward gate for us to pass through.

About a quarter mile after the lock is a lift bridge, that Robert also operates. Once he opens the gate to let boats out, he jumps in his car and drives to the bridge, to open it. Quite an active job! It was nice to see him again, after seven years. He makes the Dismal even more neat!

We traveled about three and a half hours through the canal, and stopped at the North Carolina visitor center, because we wouldn’t make the second lock in time for it’s last opening. The words visitor center are a stretch, as it’s basically a rest stop….but maybe a rest stop on steroids. Cars stop off of the road, and boats can tie up on the canal side. There is water available, a book swap and dumpsters for trash. Across the canal, accessed by a small lift bridge, is the Dismal Swamp National Park. There are free bikes to use along the trails, and you can also rent kayaks and canoes to use in the canal….ok, maybe it is a visitor center.

Howard was itching to get some fresh air, so we took him for a few walks along the canal bank. Scott chatted with the couple that locked in with us, who were now tied up behind us for the night.

Tomorrow, we plan to do a long day out of the canal, past Elizabeth City, NC, across the Albemarle Sound and into the Alligator River, where we’ll anchor for the night. Here are some photos of today’s travels.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Welcome To Norfolk??

<< Previous | Next >>

A long, eventful day! We started out of Olverson’s pleasantly, everyone relaxed and ready for a long day. Not two hours later, before we were even out of the Potomac, things picked up a bit, causing Howard to go into full seasick mode. I managed to get a anti-vomiting pill in him, and he and the water settled down.

We got lucky for a long while, with big current behind us, despite the wind coming at us we moved along pretty well. The big wind and waves held off until about 4pm, as predicted. We were getting a pretty good fetch off of the ocean, as we got closer to Norfolk, which sent Howard back into seasick mode. With an empty stomach, and anit-vomit meds still in him, all he could do was howl and drool.

So while we’re pitching around, he’s trying to find a place to vomit, and I’m trying to chase him with a towel, to catch it, in case he actually did vomit. After spending some time panting on the salon floor (where is was close to 90 degrees), he eventually settled into his litter box.

Now we’re approaching Willoughby Bay, and our anchorage for the night, and we spy a helicopter hovering over the water, with a cable coming down from it. Not that it wasn’t odd enough to see a helicopter towing something by a cable, but this thing was kicking up a massive amount of water and spray around it:

While we’re trying to figure out what the heck is going on with the helicopter, Scott notices that the channel markers were all askew. He then remembered reading that the channel had shifted, and was now marked with floating, relocating markers. This made our chart plotter worthless, and Scott had to do some old school navigating, while keeping an eye to make sure that the helicopter wasn’t going to swing toward us, bringing the wall of water.

Once we navigated through the floating markers, Scott stumbled across a note about the helicopter, on our Ipad navigation system: (prepare for Coast Guard-speak)

“Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron Fourteen (HM-14) routinely conducts airborne mine countermeasures (AMCM) operations utilizing the MH-53E helicopter at low altitudes over the following inland and coastal waterways.(I skipped the listed locations)

During these operations, the aircraft will be operating at altitudes as low as seventy-five feet and will produce localized winds in excess of 125 miles per hour. Rotor wash produced winds pose a considerable hazard to vessels, especially sailing vessels. The devices the helicopters tow range in size and appearance from a large orange and white sled approximately the size of a pick up truck to slightly submerged steel pipes thirty feet in length, both of which have submerged cable extending well beyond the visible portion of the towed device. The Aircraft Commanders have been directed to exercise every effort to conflict and avoid surface vessels.

“All mariners are requested to remain well clear of the helicopters, the towed devices, and the area extending directly behind the aircraft for four hundred yards. Do not approach or cross the area directly behind the towed device as a submerged hazard exists regardless of whether the device is in motion or stationary.”

“These operations involve large naval helicopters at flight altitudes of 100 feet or less, towing surface and sub-surface devices at speeds up to 25 knots. Helicopters may be identified by a rotating amber position light on centerline of main hull flashing 90 times per minute. An area of hurricane-force winds exists within a 250-foot radius around these helicopters, sufficient to blow people and objects from exposed decks and capsize small craft. The towed devices may be completely invisible and include large cables on or just below the surface streaming up to 1200 feet behind the aircraft.”

So now we have navigated the new channel, know what’s up with the helicopter and that it’s not going to turn near us. We now have to navigate to find a place to anchor, through a mine field of crab pots (no crab pots in sight two years ago, when Scott was bringing the boat up from Ft. Lauderdale).

We get anchored, knowing that we’ll have to be careful getting out of the snarl in the am, and I go off to locate Howard. I find him wedged in some stuff that I have stored in our forward head (bathroom). Once I grab him, and he realizes that the motor and motion are done, he begins to purr like crazy and beg for food. Not scarred at all:

So we survived our long day. To quote Overboard, one of my favorite movies: “It’s a hell of a day at sea, sir!” Tomorrow, on to the Great Dismal Swamp Canal…and the Intracoastal Waterway!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”