I still remember when I first heard of the Dismal Swamp Canal as part of the route we must take down the ICW. It sounded, dark and deep and, well, a little scary. In 2013 we were ready to give it a go and head towards it from Portsmouth with our sailing buddies on Magnolia, Anthony and Annette. (“Dismal Swamp Canal = NO…..Virginia Cut = YES“) Just as we “turned the corner” into the canal, we were warned on the VHF to turn back due to the thick choking duckweed that was covering the water. We did, and took the “Virginia Cut”, an alternate route.
Here we are in 2015, and we really wanted to “do the Dismal.” It’s not just the duckweed that scares boaters away from the Dismal; it’s also the shallow depth (“maintained at a six foot mean depth”) and sunken logs beneath the surface. We personally know cruisers who have had significant damage done to their keels or have overheated due to duckweed in the engine system. But…. we are a trawler now with only a 4.5 foot draft which makes the average 6 foot depth of the canal less of a concern. I called ahead to the first lock tender to check the conditions before we set out. He assured me that we would be fine if we had a skeg protecting our prop and if we only kept the speed to 5 knots. No problem. We hoped!
This is a big deal for us. A new route and something we did not do last time. So come along with us for our 2-day trip through the Dismal Swamp Canal……
We crossed Hampton Roads (a large busy anchorage bay, not a land road) over to Norfolk and Portsmouth through the bustling navy yards. The naval ships were up and about in the early morning and so were the dolphins. I took photos but thanks to the overcast and cloudy day, everything really was a battleship gray color.
Here is the big moment – At red can #36 just past Hospital Point anchorage in Portsmouth, we officially entered the Intracostal Waterway, the ICW. Red can #36 = ICW Mile Marker “0”. Don’t you think they should hang a sign on it??
The Puffin Bulker, a “bulk carrier” was in dock. What a caught our eye was the escape pod. It reminded us of the movie we had seen at the Commodore Theater in Portsmouth on our last passage through here Captain Philips. Just reminiscing.
The new Gilmerton Bridge is now operating. Once a bascule bridge, it is now a lift bridge. The good news for us was that its new height was 35 feet when closed – we would not have to wait for it to open.
Shortly after the Gilmerton Bridge, the sign for the turn-off into the Dismal Swamp Canal appears. Read the sign – it’s kind of cute. “IF YOU HAVEN”T DONE IT YET, YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU ARE MISSING, THE DISMAL SWAMP IS LOVELY AND WORTH MUCH REMINISCING.” We turn in and get ready to “do the Dismal.”
Some basic facts about the Dismal Swamp Canal:
The name itself is intimidating, conjuring something that is dark, dreary, and forbidden. Early settlers called swamps, “dismals” hence the name. Although that would seem to be redundant, wouldn’t it?
It is the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the United States. In 1784, the Dismal Swamp Canal Company was created, but work did not begin until 1793. The canal was dug completely by hand and must have been excruciating for the slaves who were hired from nearby landowners. It took approximately 12 years of construction under mostly unfavorable conditions to complete the 22-mile long waterway, which then opened in 1805.
The Canal is on the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic Landmark, noted as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and has received the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Designation.
The Dismal Swamp Canal has two locks to regulate the water level between Hampton Roads and to the north and Albemarle Sound to the South. For those of you who like the technical information —
We reached the first lock, Deep Creek Lock, in short time as it is 3 miles after you enter the Dismal. Deep Creek Lock is famous for its gregarious lock tender, Robert Peek. I had read that he was retiring in October so we were looking forward to meeting him and experiencing this lock before his retirement.
Our locking experience —
Robert Peet is known for his conch horn blowing. As soon as he heard we were headed to the Bahamas, he asked us to bring him a conch shell back on our return trip. He needed a new one.
He told me he could teach me how to blow it like he does. Good try, Robert. I still have a lot to learn. He used both of our conch horns and then blew a tune on one of his – a real tune. Click on this 6-second video to hear Robert:
Robert told us he has changed his mind about retiring and will be here in the spring on our return trip. Told us to pull over to the dock on our passage north and have coffee with him in the morning. Probably says that to everyone, but it was a nice chat and visit. I do wonder if the other boats in the lock were getting anxious to get on with things.
Now we really get into the Dismal Swamp Canal experience. Our sights along the way —
The Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center is about 18 miles south of Deep Creek Lock and is a “rest stop” for both the highway and the waterway – very unique! The Welcome Center also has a 150 foot long dock for boats, for free. During the busy migration season there can boats rafted to each other 3-4 deep along the dock. Seems to us that the whole canal would be blocked if that happened.
The second day though the canal brought the duckweed, but not to the levels that would choke our engine’s intake. It was just a light covering on the surface and did not extend downward to any depth.
The water through southern Virginia and northern North Carolina is dark brown, like a strong tea or root beer. Tannin is naturally released from the roots and decaying leaves of the baldcypress and juniper trees that line the canal cuts. We had noticed this last time, but the water seemed to be deeper shade of brown here in the Dismal than it did in the Virginia Cut. The tannin doesn’t make the water “dirty”, but it does stain the fiberglass on boats giving them an “ICW moustache” along the waterline.
This next picture is not what you think it is!! The toilet on this boat flushes with “outside” water which usually means salt water. Most boats do. Kindred Spirit, the sailboat, had a fresh water flush system designed by Al. Therefore, we were caught off-guard by the tannin in the water when we flushed the toilet, to say the least. This is a very clean toilet even though it looks gross. The left picture is of our wake, churning up the brown water.
South Mills Lock is the second lock in the canal, preceded by a bridge. It is a lock that goes from high water to low water.
The Dismal Swamp is home to one of the largest Black Bear populations on the East Coast, subtropical birds, butterflies, bobcats and white-tailed deer, so the Visitor Center said.
The Dismal Swamp Canal brings you to Elizabeth City, passing under a bridge to arrive there.
We had planned to stay the night in Elizabeth City at their free municipal docks, but our plans changed based on the weather forecast for later in the week (I’ll save that for another blog.) Elizabeth City is known for its hospitality to cruising boats and provides free dockage at Mariners Wharf. There is also a special welcome party hosted by the “Rose Buddies” when there are 5 or more boats at the dock. They give a red rose to each boat. I told my captain that he now owes me a red rose since I missed this.
This was a long blog, but because it was a new experience I really wanted to remember it all. I read somewhere that the Dismal Swamp Canal route is one of those “either you love or you hate it” experiences. I don’t think it is that black and white for us. We are really glad we had the opportunity to take this route, everyone should do it once. Will we do it again when we go north in the spring?? Undecided.