The Dismal Swamp Canal is one of the masterpieces of the Atlantic Intracoastal Water Way. For one thing, it is not particularly liked by power boaters, as the entire 22 miles is a no wake zone and they can make better time on the alternative Virginia Cut Route. Another thing they don’t like about the Dismal Swamp Canal is the snags which are numerous but mostly harmless to slow moving sailboats. Those who appreciate this canal like to travel slowly and smell the roses, so to speak.
We had hoped to make it to Norfolk/Portsmouth in one day from Elizabeth City, but the three hours plus from Elizabeth City to South Mills lock and the published lock schedules would have made it impossible for us to get there in time for the fireworks. Neither could we have stayed in Elizabeth City to watch theirs as we are in a swivet to get north so Ted can make his VA appointment in Vermont on July 12th. So onward we pushed. Little did we know that the published lock schedules are only for restricted times. We found that both locks opened for us upon arrival and locked us through all alone.
Immediately after you leave the Elizabeth City docks, you pass under the draw bridge and begin winding your way up the Pasquotank River to the South Mills lock at the southern end of the Dismal Swamp Canal. It is a long, circuitous route which took us a little over three hours to cover. At times the compass indicates that one is headed south of west. at others… well, it is easy to lose track. From the Elizabeth City bridge, where the Pasquotank is wide and deep, the river gradually narrows and splits several times. The U.S. Army Corps of engineers has placed green channel markers in several places to mark the route, and at the last fork before reaching South Mills, a discreet sign with an arrow removes any ambiguity. However, we came to an apparent impasse well up the river and had to back down hard to stop and figure it out. There was no apparent passage through the jungle, but we found it around the corner. Thereafter, we maintained a leisurely pace of 4.5 knots instead of 5.8 knots.
To meander thus into an ever narrowing, winding river is fascinating. Here you are miles from the ocean in an ocean capable sailboat wondering if you will ever get there or if you have made some mistake and taken a wrong path. If our sailboat had conventional rigging, the upper shrouds would surely have fouled an overhanging branch, and even our mizzen backstays brushed a leaf or two. Don’t take our word for it; have a look at the photos Ted took.
Although we were way early for the 1500 scheduled locking, we were locked through (alone) soon after we arrived at the lock. We would still be too late to make the last lock at Deep Creek, so we stayed overnight at the NC welcome station which is the only such facility which caters to both motorists (and truckers) and boats. We were the only boat.
The friendly ladies at the welcome center gave us several dryer sheets which they said would keep the yellow flies away. We can’t say that they did: another insect repellent myth tested and rejected, but we appreciated the thought and effort. We were told that the local baseball players could not play without them. Perhaps the flies have become used to the repellent. We found that the “moscaswatta” Jack Wisner had given Ted was very effective in dispatching the little yellow buggers. Jack grew up in Argentina which is a hint as to the derivation of “moscaswatta,” a bastardization of Spanish and colloquial American.
Captain Ted Jones