Intracoastal Waterway, Dismal Swamp - November 2, 2012

  Sunday, November 4, 2012 / Stephanie / Uncategorized  

Another early morning departure as Rode Trip and Serendipity hauled anchors at 7:30am and departed the Hampton River. We made our way motoring through choppy seas into the Elizabeth River. This river passed by Norfolk, VA and lead us into the Intracoastal Waterway. The industrial banks of the Elizabeth River were lined with Navy shipyards and piers hosting destroyers, cargo ships, tugboats, and aircraft carriers. The channel was bustling and more than once we had to swing off to the side to make way for tugs! Our first bridges were no sweat, plenty of clearance room. I looked ahead on the charts to see when our turnoff would be approaching for the Dismal Swamp and spotted the Gilmerton Bridge. This bridge opens every hour on the half hour. Uh oh, we had less than five minutes to make the 10:30am opening. As it turned out, the Gilmerton Bridge was running on our schedule! It hadn't opened on time and we joined a group of waiting boats. Gilmerton Bridge opened and it seemed as though it were a flood gate as all the boats rushed through.

Underneath one more bridge and there was our turnoff, a sharp turn to starboard, with a national park sign both encouraging and welcoming us into the Dismal Swamp. We were on our way through the first stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). The Dismal Swamp is the oldest operating artificial waterway in the United States. Construction began in 1793. Labor was done by slaves; we learned that slaves knew this area so well that the swamp became a refuge for runaways with several colonies being established throughout. The Dismal Swamp canal was finally opened in 1805. It's use was limited to shallow draft, poled or towed flat boats and log rafts. Throughout the years the canal faced financial hardship and difficulty maintaining locks due to flaws in design mainly caused by incorrect measuring of the feeder ditch runoffs. The US Army Corps of Engineers began maintaining the canal in 1913 and the government purchased the canal in 1929 for $500,000. (This was the same price paid for the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal the now more popular extensions of the Intracoastal Waterway.) The Dismal Swamp was widened to 50-feet and dredged to a depth of 9-feet. Our first lock on the Dismal Swamp, and first lock EVER, was the Deep Creek Lock. We were loaded into the lock with 10 other boats. We were instructed to raft on our port side to another sailboat. Brian pulled Rode Trip into our spot effortlessly and we handed off our lines to our rafting partners with ease. Serendipity thought this was much too easy for our first lock experience, we didn't have to tend any lines along the wall while the water level changed. We enjoyed the ride. We had a very entertaining and informative lockmaster; he even played the conch shell for us as the water started rising. A nice tribute to our future travels south!

The lockmasters at each lock also controlled the two corresponding bridges. Once all the boats were clear of the lock, he lifted the bridge. While I was taking the bumpers down we passed by this buoy "ROCKS," necessary because of course we hadn't noticed them along the shoreline. We kept to the middle of the channel since there were also floating stumps and branches scattered throughout. We didn't hit anything noticeable sitting aloft our lead full-keel, but some of the other boats traveling in our line that day had bumped logs out of the way for us. We had to hustle to make the 3:30pm lock because this group of boats had already held up the 11:30am lock, which hadn't loaded us all until at least 12:00pm. Full steam ahead at 5.5 knots we continued onward. The water was not really cloudy, but it was the color of (as Brian describes) tea or (as I describe) molasses. The land surrounding the Dismal Swamp is a national park. This made for excellent labeling of what we were passing. It also meant that the navigator could spend more time outside and less time looking at the charts to see what we were passing. Although there was a lovely view from the navigation station. The feeder ditch pictured below leads to Lake Drummond, the largest lake in Virginia. Entering a NEW state! This day is just full of firsts! Rode Trip stops traffic as we pass underneath our final bridge of the day just near the second lock. The lockmaster controls the bridge and we were last in line for the 3:30pm lock - late! Serendipity had called ahead to let him know there were a few boats in the back of the line and he assured us we'd make the lock. At 3:48pm we entered the South Mills Lock. This time we were against the wall and had to tend our lines as the water level dropped.

Through the lock, only 18-miles to Elizabeth City. We wouldn't make that this evening but decided to continue onward another 10-miles to Goat Island where we could anchor for the night. After the South Mills Lock the scenery in the Dismal Swamp changed and actually looked more swamp-like. We anchored behind Goat Island just as the sun was setting.

But that was not the end of the day's adventure. On Goat Island we could see a dock with a campsite sign. Matt wanted to venture there as did Brian and I, so we dinghied over to the dock to check it out. It was two campsites, on docks. Strange. The dinghy was stuck in sludge when we came back so Brian had to give us a running, jumping, shove-off the dock.

Matt drove us over to West Creek to investigate before returning home for supper. This creek was similar to driving down a suburban road, it was a waterway looping through large, brick homes.

Back to Rode Trip and Serendipity for supper and planning the following morning's departure toward Elizabeth City. What a beautiful anchorage!


  1. From Ann Landau on Nov 06, 2012
    What an adventure you both are having! Thanks for sharing! My father always intended to take me through the Great Lakes Locks. (I'm from Cleveland) I am having this locks adventure vicariously through you two....your photos are beautiful (an understatement) and your storytelling skills are excellent. Thanks to your webmaster in Columbus for his skill in designing a simple clean site that shows off the material so well. Be well, be safe and have more fun to share with us! And according to that big sign you are some 700 miles from Boston but with the weather we are facing I bet you would prefer it where you are and where you are headed! All the best....Ann

  2. From Art Werner on Nov 05, 2012
    Great pictures as usual, it's almost as good as being there. Thank you