Almost to our Winter Home!

After leaving the Dismal Swamp, Elizabeth City, NC was the next town. Elizabeth City is known for its free docks which allow people to stay for free, with the expectation that the boaters will spend money in town.

Elizabeth City, the City of Hospitality (picture from last May when we stopped by)

There are three sets of free docks and, depending on which way you enter Elizabeth City, some are more convenient than others.

From Elizabeth City to New Bern, NC

There is a draw bridge that must be opened for most boats of cruising size. One set of free docks is on the southerly side and two sets on the northerly side. (I say southerly and northerly because the river twists and turns and I’m not exactly sure what the orientation is there.)

We were coming from the north, down the Pasquotank River from the Dismal Swamp so we decided to stay at Mid-Atlantic Christian University (MACU). There is a face dock there that will accomodate about three cruising size boats. There are also slips, but they have boats permanently in them, generally.

We walked over by the other two sets of docks. One is at a seafood processing place on the northerly side of the bridge. It is a face dock with room for a couple of boats. It has a “dock and dine” sign on it. If you dock there, you are expected to eat in one of the city’s restaurants, preferrably one that sells the seafood that runs through the business.

The other set of docks are slips on the southerly side of the bridge. These docks are run by the city and are slips running perpendicular to the city park. The finger piers there are very, very short, so people have to get out over their bows. Not an easy thing to do on our boat. (Perhaps you can stern in, but I don’t get the impression people do that much.)

The MACU docks we stayed at are run by a non-profit, Maritime Ministries. My vague understanding is that the docks were put in at some point by a grant…maybe by the city. Maritime Ministries and MACU have an arrangement where several of the ministry’s boats are docked at the university in exchange for things like offering sailing classes to university students and managing the transients who use the docks.

Dock at Mid-Atlantic Christian University. Looking toward Elizabeth City. The boats at the end of the dock are Maritime Ministries boats.

The docks are first come, first served. Fortunately, as we came around the corner, we saw the dock had just one boat on it, so there was room for us. We were met at the dock by Aaron. Elizabeth City has a tradition of giving a rose to arriving boaters, and sure enough, Aaron handed us a small sweet rose. The welcome packet had information about what to do in the city as well as a small gospel of John.

Blessings Flow on the MACU dock. The sailboat behind us is the Canadian family that we shared a dock with at the Dismal Swamp visitors center the previous night. .

I had communicated with the manager of Maritime Ministries several times regarding some ministry things, so I was very glad we were able to dock there. Dan, the manager, was not there, but Aaron and his wife Laura took good care of us. That night, they built a bonfire in the MACU fire pit and we sat around on porch swings and talked.

Aaron and Laura and family

We heard about their dreams for using their boat for ministry purposes. They are fitting out a ketch. He is a musician/songwriter and she is an artist. They have three children and a heart for helping youth and those in ministry. One potential use for the ketch is having respite sailing trips for ministers who need some time away and could never get a chance for a trip on a boat. Other plans involve youth.

We were able to pray with and for each other around the fire and it was a very sweet time. We stayed the allowed two days before heading out towards the Albermarle Sound.

Gazebo style fire pit with porch swings

The Albermarle Sound is a large body of water with several rivers running into it. Up many of these rivers is a historic town, such as Elizabeth City, with a waterfront that welcomes cruisers for up to two nights for free. The “Albemarle Loop” involves visiting each of these towns around the sound.

We had intended to do the Albemarle Loop on our way to New Bern, but we started looking at the upcoming weather and decided we needed to push on. The Albemarle can get quite rough and we didn’t want to be stuck in one place for a week waiting for it to calm down. We hope to do the Albemarle Loop next spring as we head north.

The Albemarle Sound was “OK” as we crossed. Not super calm, but not bad. The waves were from the rear quarter, which is a direction that our autopilot doesn’t like. It won’t hold a heading in those waves, so Lance had to hand steer. Not a bad thing, but it gets tiring.

Once across the Albemarle, we entered Alligator River. There is a draw bridge near the beginning of the river that we had to wait 10 or 15 minutes for, but it was not bad and there were not many boats jockeying for position.

On a boat, especially on a river with current or wind, you cannot just “park” the boat and wait. The boat doesn’t stay in one place. You have to be going forwards, backwards, etc. to keep the boat where you want it. Every one of the boats is doing that, so depending on the width of the channel, it can require a lot of attention.

The rivers around here are very wide, but the navigable channel is not. We have a route in our Navionics software and we had red/green markers to follow with our eyes. The water in the channel is probably 12-13 feet deep and the water outside the channel is significantly shallower, so you want to keep in the channel.

The Alligator River runs north/south and at the south end a canal has been cut that goes to the head of the Pungo River. Right before the entrance to the canal, the Alligator River turns west and narrows. The canal continues southerly. Where the river turns is a good place to anchor. There are several 6-8 foot spots and some 4-6 foot spots. We went past the entrance to the canal and carefully picked our way past 4 foot depths to a 6 foot pool. We left the 8 foot spots for the sailboats who would be coming in right up until dark.

It was a nice night on anchor. The land is very low. The elevation is probably not more than two or three feet with marsh grasses and some trees. When you are anchored in such a spot, you still get wind, but the land keeps the waves from getting big. It is a wildlife refuge, so the land is pretty wild and not developed. We got there around 2pm, so we had three hours or so to enjoy the sights around us before dark.

The next morning, we headed out down the Pungo-Alligator canal. You have to keep an eye out for floating logs, as always, and trees that may have recently fallen, but the canal was wide and deep enough to be able to avoid them. Boats go fast through here, so it is not unusual to get a big wake when someone doesn’t slow down.

Pungo-Alligator canal

The canal gave way to the Pungo River where the wild land gave way to home sites with docks.

Not far after the end of the canal, we stopped for the night at Dowry Creek Marina. Actually, we looked at the weather and the price of a week vs a night and we decided to pay for a week. If we stayed at least 5 nights, which was probable given the weather forecast, we would break even.

Dowry Creek Marina was a really great place to stay. They have free laundry and the bathroom/showers are individual bathrooms, like you would have at home. They even provide towels in the bathrooms for your shower! They have a courtesy car to get into nearby Belhaven for provisioning.

Dowry Creek Marina. There is quite a community of liveaboards here.
The land is low, but the houses are high! This is a new house on a lot across the road from the Pungo River. They can get a few feet of storm surge here, so they build for it.

It was Lance’s birthday the day we arrived, so we visited the Salty Crab, the restaurant on site, to celebrate both our birthdays. I finally got a good hamburger and Lance had a huge piece of flounder. We had an appetizer of cheese curds which were very, very tasty and which we ordered a couple more times for take-out during our stay.

There was a sign for the local Global Methodist Church on the bulletin board at the marina. We called the number and asked if there was someone who could give us a ride. It turns out the dockhand who was working there every day lived nearby and was the sound technician at the church, so he and his wife gave us a ride. It was a friendly and lively service. Unfortunately, we were not there for their “Fifth Sunday” potluck, as we heard there is shrimp and other low-country fare! Sorry to miss that!

We ended up staying at Dowry Creek five nights. When we left, we broke a long travel day into two short ones on the way to New Bern. We headed down the toward the mouth of the Pungo River, across the Pamlico River into Goose Creek and were soon in another cut/canal. This cut led us past a shrimp processing plant, R.E.Mayo, that sells fuel to the public and allows pleasure boats to tie up if there is room beside the shrimp boats. We didn’t stop then, but drove back in the car a few days later to buy some shrimp and take a look at things. After crossing the Bay River, we anchored in Bonner Bay.

Shrimp boats at RE Mayo company.

It is a wide looking bay, but quite shallow. The marsh lands around the Chesapeake and this area have duck blinds. Some are small structures on stilts, but the ones here just look like taller marsh grass.

Can you spot the duck blind camouflaged as tall marsh grass?

The next morning we woke to find three duck hunting boats sitting, with decoys, where we needed to traverse. We had to go right in the middle of them in order to stay in deep enough water. We went super slow so as to not mess up the dozens of decoys floating around their boats.

Duck hunting boat camouflaged as trees on the skyline

New Bern is up the Neuse River. The mouth of the Neuse, where it flows into Pamlico Sound is big water and we ran into some waves that were bigger than we like. It was that way until we turned a corner and were protected from the wind, about two-thirds through our day.

We were very happy to pull in to Northwest Creek Marina, a few miles downriver, south, from New Bern.

The docking was a bit tricky as it was stern in (backing into the slip) and you tie mostly to pilings, rather than a dock alongside, and it was in a stiff wind. Jeremy, the manager here at Northwest Creek Marina was there to catch our lines and he hopped aboard to tie to the pilings on both sides of the bow.

We were glad he was here, as we would not have known how to do the tie-ups in the front. Usually the eye of the line goes through the cleat on our boat, but in this case, he made a large loop to go over the piling and tied the bitter end to our cleat. It is going to take some doing whenever we leave for good, as we’ll have to get those loops back off the piling. But that’s a problem for another day. I imagine it will involve a boat hook.

Safely in our slip. If we look tired it is because we are!

We are home!

The Dismal Swamp!

The name itself conjurs up images of the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride, along with ROUS (Rodents of Unusual Size). The Dismal Swamp is a little scary, but because of things that go “bump” against your boat in the canal, and the snakes and chiggers and critters like that in the forest.

Dismal Swamp Canal – Most of the pictures look just like this. Long narrow waterway with beautiful reflections of sky and trees.

The “Dismals” was an old term used to describe swampy areas where the water stood. The Great Dismal Swamp is in a swampy area covering parts of the coastal plain of southern Virginia and northern North Carolina. The swampy area used to be much larger, but over the years has been drained and put into agriculture. Much of what remains has been conserved in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife refuge. There are miles of trails and inaccessible areas of the wildlilfe refuge. There is also a historical canal running along the edge of it.

A road runs along the edge of some of the canal and, on the Norfolk end, there are homes and subdivisions.

There were many canals used to drain and log the swamp, and this remaining through-canal is one that opened up the area to commerce back in 1805. Today it is used by recreational boaters. It has a depth of 5 or 6 feet, which is on the shallow side for boats.

This canal is one of the highlights of America’s Great Loop and one that caught our imagination early on. We had looked forward to it.

We left Norfolk on my birthday in time to make the 11am opening of the Deep Creek lock and bridge at the north end of the canal. One of the highway drawbridges across the river (before the turn off to the swamp) was malfunctioning and cut down the number of openings it did. We fit under the bridge, no problem, but there were about a dozen sailboats stuck on the Norfolk side of it until noon. Because of that, there were no sailboats with us in the lock, just one other power boat.

The power boat let us go by them as they stopped to get some groceries just after the lock, but eventually they caught up to us and passed us. We let them get a half mile or so in front of us so that any debris (old waterlogged logs) they kicked up would have time to settle. You often hear of people incurring damage to their props or other underwater gear on the canal, so you need to take it real slow.

We inched along, at idle speed. The canal is a long straight stretch, then a slight corner and another long straight stretch. It’s about 22 miles, all told. The north lock is at mile 10 and the south lock at mile 32. There is a visitors center with a dock about 18 miles in at mile marker 28 where we hoped to spend the night.

The water in the canal is dark with tannin which creates a mirror effect in the water. It is beautiful and photogenic and it also means you cannot see what lurks beneath.

At about mile 15, five miles into the canal, we felt a big thump that vibrated for a second and then was gone. That was the worst of the thumps, but there were a couple others.

We put the boat in neutral and coasted past where it looked like there might be underwater problems because of trees lying partway across the canal, but the thumps were all in places where there was no indication of anything underneath.

There were plenty of things to look at along the way. Ducks, old canals, mile posts, more ducks, the beautiful reflections. And the whole way I’m hoping that it will be a charmed day with no damage because it is my birthday!

Turtle 🐢 sunning itself on a log
Mallards 🦆 taking flight as we pass
We crossed from Virginia into North Carolina on the first day

This time of year, the visitor center dock is often full, requiring that boats raft off each other. But as we pulled up, we found it entirely vacant…yay! I think it must have been the malfunctioning draw bridge upstream that kept the traffic down.

All alone at the visitors center dock
Rest area side of the view

The visitor center is a highway rest area that has a dock. My understanding is that it is the only highway rest area in the country that also services a waterway.

There is a swinging foot bridge at the visitors center which goes across the canal to the state Dismal Swamp interpretive center. The trails through the swamp also start there. The interpretive center had a nice poster on the various snakes in the area and how to tell venomous from non-venomous ones. It involved looking closely at their eyes or at the scales under their tails! We had seen a big black snake when we had visited here last May on a road trip, so we did not partake in the trails.

From interpretive center look back over foot bridge and rest area
George Washington had a hand in the project

About dusk one other boat, a sailboat, pulled up to the dock. They were a family from Montreal. They said there had been one other boat with them in the lock but that boat had stopped at a dock a ways back.

Family from Montreal

The next morning we heard that the remaining 4 miles of the canal were worse for things that go bump, so we took about an hour and a quarter to cover that four miles. We alternated between idle (in gear) and neutral and we did not have any thumps.

The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) maintains the canal and pulls out the downed trees. The lockmaster explained that it is hard for them to get their work done during the months boaters are coming through since the USACE just gets their cables out to move a tree or deadhead when they have to put it away to let a boat go through. There is going to be a time this winter (January-March 2024) when the canal will be entirely shut down for work on a lock. This is will also give the Corps time to get some of the debris picked up.

After the South Mills lock at the southern end of the canal, you enter another canal, Turners Cut. We were afraid it was going to be more of the same, in terms of underwater dangers, but that section is about 13 feet deep. Any big logs on the bottom are way down there and not a danger.

Turners Cut flows into the Pasquotank River. This is still swampy area and really looks like what we would expect of a place named Dismal Swamp.

Trees growing right in the water. Very swampy.

The boat seems to be running well. We will have a diver come sometime this winter to see if everything under the boat looks OK.

UPDATE: A diver came and said no damage!!! Yay!!! Some paint scraped from the keel, but no action needed at this point.

Here is the video he took.

No dings and no barnacles

Chesapeake – Part 2

After waiting out the winds and freezing temperatures in the lower Potomac, we were in a mood to get south before the next front of winds came through.

We made two long days travelling to Norfolk, passing by many interesting places like Yorktown and Jamestown without stopping. Maybe we’ll do a road trip to see them this winter. They are only a few hours from our winter marina.

We anchored in the Deltaville area between our two travel days. It was up a creek in a neighborhood. It is a little wierd anchoring next to someone’s front yard, but as long as you don’t attempt to go ashore, it is very accepted.

Anchored in a cove surrounded by homes
Bringing up the anchor the next morning
Cold night + no electricity at anchor = chilly boat. But the sun warms it all up, eventually.

In our navigational softward, Navionics, there are anchorages marked. I also keep an eye in Nebo on people we know, to see where they have anchored. When I see them in an anchorage, I will drop an anchor “pin” into Navionics so we can find that place again when we need it.

Round gold anchor “pin” showing our target destination

You know, you can see where we are by clicking this link from Nebo.

The seas were much better on these legs of the Chesapeake compared to when we came from Annapolis to Solomons Island. We saw a few dolphin and a lot of big ships.

Beautiful day on the water. If you zoom in you can see lots of ships on the horizon. These were anchored next to the channel. I guess it is a good parking zone. Water depth is 25 – 30 feet.
Unknown ship passing nearby

Since the weather was so good, there were a LOT of boats making the move at the same time.

As we pulled into Norfolk, it was a bit intimidating to go by all the Navy ships, but very exciting.

We stayed one night at Tidewater marina which is in Portsmouth, VA, across the river from downtown Norfolk.

We had a Walmart grocery delivery scheduled and had to plan our day to arrive in time. It all worked out beautifully. We are fairly new to having groceries delivered and it seems like a very wonderful thing.

At Tidewater Marina – The people on a boat across the dock from us were from our home town. Small world!
Trekking back to the boat after meeting the Walmart delivery driver in the parking lot
Big cargo ship passing the marina
October 15 – November 4, 2023. Chesapeake Bay travels.

Side Trip – Washington DC

Washington DC is 104 miles up the Potomac River from the Chesapeake Bay. That’s two long travel days at our speed.

This side trip has been on our wish list forever and we consider it a real blessing that we were able to do it. Brenda has been numerous times to DC, mostly for work, and Lance accompanied here there on one of her work trips. We wanted to do some of the tourist things together.

We waited in Solomons Island several days for the weather to clear and once it did we headed out. Solomons Island is in the next river north of the Potomac, so it required heading south on the Chesapeake for a couple of hours before making the turn west and north into the Potomac.

The Potomac reminded us of Puget Sound, in terms of size…both distance across and distance to our destination. It is huge. There are places where you cannot clearly see land across the river.

We saw a surprising number of bald eagles on the Potomac

We anchored out mid-way-ish, both going up and coming down. Both were very pleasant rural anchorages up creeks that flow into the Potomac. We had to dodge a jillion crab pots once we left the shipping channel and started towards the creeks. But no snagged crab pots, so that is a win.

Early morning departure from anchorage

We passed Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home, as we were getting close to Washington. It was very exciting to see it come into view. We considered stopping by the Mt Vernon dock on the way downstream, but by the time we were actually in a position to do so we found we were quite museumed out and needed to make time to get to our destination before dark.

Mt. Vernon from the water

In Washington DC, we stayed at the Capital Yacht Club which is in an area known as the Wharf. It is in a prime location very close to the National Mall and the memorials. It has recently (in the past few years) been redeveloped and is full of pedestrian friendly walks and piers and trendy, spendy restaurants and hotels.

View out the back of our boat in DC. Public pier, mega yacht, and sunrise.

The yacht club was also spendy, but sometimes it is worth a splurge. When you think about it in terms of value for money, it was absolutely worth it.

The first night, there were fireworks just a block or two down the waterway. We had a wonderful front row seat for the entire show.

One of those moments that make great memories. Sitting on the bow of the boat in comfortable weather listening to and watching the fireworks.

The first full day in DC we made our way, via Connector bus, to the Lincoln Memorial, then walked (along with scads of middle school tour groups) along the Reflecting Pool to the World War II memorial. From there we walked past the Washington Monument to the Museum of American History. After a few hours in there, including a delicious lunch in the cafeteria, we made our way to the metro and took it to Arlington National Cemetery.

We keep running into Abe Lincoln. First at Gettysburg and now here. Go figure!
Reflecting pool. Nice day for a stroll. Before the day was done we had accumulated 18,000 steps.

We joined one of the hop-on-hop-off trolley tours within Arlington cemetery and went first to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where we watched the changing of the guard. Such precision! I wonder what is running through their heads to make them always exactly the right number of seconds to march from one end to the other.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Arlington National Cemetery

We hopped back on the trolley for the ride up to Arlington House, where we saw the home of George Washington’s grandson (?) whose daughter married Robert E. Lee. It is a lovely old house. Then, finding that the trolley was easier to hop-off of than to find one to hop-on, and finding that we were in the highest point in the cemetery, we walked back down to the entrance, stopping by the Eternal Flame at the John F. Kennendy gravesite.

The next day, we had tickets for a 9am tour of the Capitol Building. It’s a free tour, but tickets are required. We took a Lyft to get there as we weren’t sure if the busses would get us there in time. We were early, so walked over to the outside of the Supreme Court building to take some pictures.

Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) building

The tour of the Capitol was wonderful. The guide was very sharp, as DC young people tend to be. They handed out headsets to everyone so we could all hear what the guide was saying.

In the Capitol Rotunda. Tour guide in red.
The dome, way up there.
Close up of the fresco at top of dome. Apparently the artist had been working at the Sistine Chapel previously, thus George Washington seated as God.
Brand new name plate for new Speaker of the House. This was Friday after he was selected on Wednesday.

After the Capitol tour, we walked several blocks to the National Law Enforcement Memorial. This memorial lists names of law enforcement who have lost their lives in the course of duty. In 2022, one of our young friends, a friend of our son, who had attended youth group at our church, lost his life in a SWAT incident and his name is engraved in the memorial. It was very moving to see his name there, and quite sad to think of his life being cut short. We are very glad we went. A great-great-uncle of Brenda’s also had his name there, and amazingly, we found it just a couple of panels over from Dom’s.

Lance pointing out Dom’s name.
Dominique B Calata. An exceptional young man. I always thought he would end up in DC in congress, after having been an elected head of the sheriffs department.
Tipton M Simmons – brother of Brenda’s great-grandma. Killed in the line of duty.

From the National Law Enforcement Memorial we walked through an almost dead retail section of DC to a Walgreens to pick up a prescription. For our trip, we transferred our prescriptions to Walgreens, as they are available most anywhere around the loop. This was our first try using the Walgreens app to manage the pick-up and it was just moderately successful. On the app, they kept delaying pick-up, but when we actually showed up in person, they got right on it and filled it.

From Walgreens, we picked up a Lyft and spent a couple of hours at the Museum of the Bible. It is very well curated and has displays from antiquities to the history of Christianity in America to the impact of the Bible on society.

Ten Commandments (I presume) outside the museum of the Bible. (Although, now that I look at it, maybe it is the printing press from a Gutenberg Bible?)

That evening, a former colleague of Brenda’s picked us up and we went to a Nepalese restaurant across the river in Alexandria. It was wonderful to catch up with Eileen and the food was good, too.

Eileen with Brenda and Lance.
Very tasty Nepalese food

The next day, we took a free shuttle from The Wharf to L’Enfant Metro station where we took the orange line metro to the end of the line. Robin, another former colleague of Brenda’s, had us to brunch at her house. Again, it was wonderful to spend time with friends and the food was delicious.

Taking the metro
Brunch with Robin and her husband Alejandro

Besides a few boat chores and Amazon deliveries, that pretty much covers our time in DC. This trip was a definite highlight in our travels so far.

On the way back down the Potomac, prior to entering the Chesapeake we stayed for four nights at Olverson’s Lodge Creek Marina. It is the home port of one of the associations we belong to, so we get one free night a year there.

It is a very rural, family owned marina, which is a big contrast to the DC location. Both are totally appropriate for their settings. Olverson’s has a courtesy car that we took out a couple of times to do shopping, for Lance to get a haircut, and for some sightseeing.

Olversons Lodge Creek Marina
Cut-off socks 🧦 on the flags to stop the flapping in the high winds
Courtesy car which we used to do errands and sightseeing. The geography around here is interesting with all the creeks forming “necks” of land. What is just a few yard over water may take miles to drive around in the car.

Three of the nights were to wait out wind storms. The last night was because it was going to get close to freezing and we wanted to have electricity to be plugged in for heat. Sure enough there was frost on the boat and dock the next morning, so we waited for it to melt before heading off down the river. Walking around on a slick boat deck or dock is a disaster waiting to happen – slip, splash!