To Canal or Not Canal: AICW Dismal Swamp Canal Route VS North Carolina – Virginia Cut (a. k. a. “Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal”)
The interesting discussion below was copied from the AGLCA Forum, and provides good insight into the relative merits and demerits of the two choices that AICW cruisers may pick from to cruise from Virginia to North Carolina waters, or the other way around.
The AICW Alternate Dismal Swamp Canal Route southbound departs the primary AICW south of Norfolk at Statute Mile 7.2 and begins officially at Deep Creek Lock at Mile 10.6. The Dismal Swamp Canal Visitors Center, A SALTY SOUTHEAST CRUISERS’ NET SPONSOR, will come abeam at approximately Mile 28. Elizabeth City lies south of South Mills Lock at Statute Mile 50.7 and is also A SALTY SOUTHEAST CRUISERS’ NET SPONSOR!
I find the Dismal Swamp Route more enjoyable. Elizabeth City is one of the gems of hospitality with its free town dock, “wine” and “cheese” parties, and waterfront events. The upper Pasquotank River is simply beautiful (kind of like the Waccamaw), and the canal is gorgeous. If you have time, tie up for the night at the welcome center, or dinghy up to Lake Drummond. Whichever way you go, have fun…they’re both nice routes.
Depending on your preference, either route is worth the trip. The Dismal Swamp is beautiful and much more peaceful and remote. The stop at Elizabeth City is wonderful. Traveling through the DS Canal means slow going and you have two locks to time for your transit. The Welcome Center is always everyone’s favorite stops. It will take a bit longer than the traditional ICW route if you are in a hurry, which I hope you’re not. There have been occasional issues with debris in the Dismal Swamp Canal so go slow and pay attention, and of course your draft will matter. On the other
hand, we often like to stop in Great Bridge and take advantage of the free tie up and the short walk to restaurants and shopping if taking the ICW route. Have a great trip.
We’ve done both and if your draft will let you, take the dismal swamp route at least once. It’s awesome. Especially the part of the river leading up to it from Elizabeth City. Take care to time your arrival at the south lock as
they won’t let you in to wait. Stop at the visitors center. Take your time. Spend the night. Check with the lockmaster at the north lock to determine what time he’ll open the bridge if you want to tie up on the long dock.
Take a look at the distance if you plan to do it in one day. That will mean skipping the visitors center and traveling around 6 to 7 mph (5 -6 knots).
But, if you’re a full displacement boat, at 6 – 7 mph you’ll start to lift stuff off the bottom (old logs) that could hit your props or rudder (depending on how they are protected) and definitely throw up obstacles for the boats following. You’ll also suck a lot of water away from the banks at this speed which will exacerbate erosion.
If you go the Coinjock route, make sure you get your order in for the Prime Rib early. The 32 oz is ridiculously large.
Bob & Kemba DeGroot
Both the Virginia Cut (through Coinjock) and the Dismal Swamp Canal have pros and cons. Neither is great cruising. Neither is bad cruising. Sanctuary and crew have done both routes several times, and it is now our preference to use the Dismal Swamp Canal whenever possible.
The Virginia Cut generally carries the bulk of through traffic. This route has several bridges. All are restricted. The restrictions will affect slower boats more than faster boats, and the faster boats become impatient. Large, go-fast boats prefer this route, so expect to be waked; it’s just a fact-of-life on this route. Time the restrictions carefully. While waiting on bridges, station keeping in current and wind, the occasional impatient boater and poor boating manners, can make this route unpleasant and challenging. There is a single lock in this route, at Great Bridge (Chesapeake, VA). The lock operates with a 4-lane highway bascule bridge there. That bridge is restricted, which effectively restricts the lock. The lock has a free wall where boats can tie up and overnight. There is a
Farm Fresh super market two city blocks away, within walking distance. Beer and wine is available at grocery stores from Virginia south.
Currituck sound is wide and shallow, and go-fast boats will not slow when passing. The southern part of the route – below Coinjock – is scenic.
There are marinas on this route, with all normal marina services. There are a couple of reasonable anchorages south of Coinjock. Although the route carries better depths (the control depth is 8′ – 9′) you must pay attention to the marked channels, particularly in the open water stretches. Markers are often well away from the deepest water of the actual channel.
The Dismal swamp canal is narrow and has stretches that carry depths of 6 to 6-1/2 ft. Yes, there are (few) submerged logs in the canal bed. There are two locks, one at Deep Creek and one at South Mills. The locks are 22
miles apart, and operate (unless drought restrictions are in force) at 08h30, 11h00, 13h30 and 15h30. If you lock through either end (either direction) at the 08h30 locking, you have 5 hours, until 13h30, to get to the other end. That works out to 22 miles/5 hours equals 4.4 StM/hr. Adjusted for locking time, actual travel speed (to avoid prolonged station-keeping at the destination end) will be at around 5 StM/hr. The speed limit on the canal is 6 StM/hr. Most trawlers and sailboats are at reduced speed at 5 Stm/hr, so these locks are *not* a problem for passage
in one day. Travel at 5 StM/hr speed will *not* generally lift submerged logs off the bottom, but I suggest you travel 1/2 mile behind any vessel you might be following. Especially, stay away from two-engine trawlers, where prop wash might lift stuff up. With distance, anything that does lift off the bottom will settle back before you get to it. Within the canal, there are several docks that are all free. There are no services in the canal. The North Carolina Welcome Center is always a fun place to stay. Rafting is the rule, and is expected there, and at other docks in the canal. If you stay at docks within the canal over night, it’s easy to make the 11h30 locking at either end, from either end. Both locks have bridges that open only concurrently with the lockings. If you arrive
early, you have no practical options to tie up, and usually must station keep. The greatest bonus of this route is the free wharf/slips at Elizabeth City, NC. EC is the most welcoming city on the East Coast for boaters! There is a nice Maritime Museum there, many restaurants (not 5-star, but good) and Sammy’s Barber Shop. Sammy has a sort of cultural museum in his shop. If you’re interested in State Police history, or politically-incorrect curiosities and mementos from the 50s, a visit to his shop is a definitely worthwhile. Plus, he’s a good barber. And of course,
the previously mentioned Rose Buddies’ Wine and Cheese gatherings!
Because through traffic on the Dismal Swamp canal is constrained to daylight hours by the lock operation, you can legally anchor in the channel by the locks. That works fine above Deep Creek, southbound. Spend the night on the hook there, and lock through southbound at the 08h30 locking in the morning. The bottom above Deep Creek is sand and mud, and is not foul. Some people anchor south of South Mills in the feeder ditch there. If you do, I recommend using a trip line, although I have no specific knowledge of any foul.
If severe weather – n’oreaster w/gale-to-storm force winds – is forecast, the Dismal Swamp Canal offers somewhat better protection and cover. That said, it’s narrow enough that if a tree(s) does come down, it will block the canal and you’ll have to wait a day or so for the CoE to clear it. Would be worth it to me.
Peg and Jim Healy aboard Sanctuary
Jim’s assessment is thorough, spot on and I agree completely. I just make two additions. Between the Deep Creek Lock and swing bridge on the west side near the lock there is a free dock some call Elizabeth’s Dock or Robert’s (the best lock master of all) Dock. This has deep water (7’+) even into the lily pads. This is very, very protected and a great spot to wait out a weather delayed fall clog of boats to dissipate before heading to Elizabeth City or if heading North to stage and await to move thru the dreaded Gilmerton Bridge. There is a small park with trash cans and par course. The lock house is on that side a short walk and Robert is great with Dismal lore. A short walk across the swing bridge you come to strip mall with a Food Lion supermarket, advance auto parts, pizza place, Mexican
Restaurant just before crossing the bridge there is a CVS. In short you have many resources that have easy access within a 1/4 mile walk of this nice dock. We have rafted many boats there in storms and had great gatherings
or have had the spot to ourselves. There are power stations but they are turned off. There is one hose bib on the dock so city water is available. Also the dock at the junction of the Dismal Canal and Virginia Cut route next to the boat yard on the dismal route is free and there is a great hurricane hole anchorage in the basin just to the south between the lock and the junction. Enjoy.
Joseph C. Pica
I recently did the Dismal again – my 8th time now. I saw one log at Marker 18 – reported it to the Welcome Center and within 6 hours it was towed outta there. All this talk of what could happen reminds me that it’s far more dangerous crossing the street – that could happen too. So here I am in Great Bridge lock buying supplies. At least three logs passed me by today – not to mention several huge and far more dangerous barges plus fearsome looking mega yachts and sportsfishers creating tsunami waves equivalent to that last year in Japan. 🙂
So go figure – if it’s lower risk you’re after – the Swamp everytime!
Cap’n Parky now back cruising Chesapeake alert for the mermaids said to be in Hampton, VA. Now that’s risky – they could give you a nasty bite if you don’t take them to WalMart.
Fun and adventure – that’s the joy of cruising my fellow sailors.
Cap’n Parky, MV Pisces