Avoiding Snakes and Deadheads in the Great Dismal Swamp!
Heading north on the Atlantic InterCoastal Waterway, you come to a point in your journey where you need to decide on one of two ways to make the transit from the Albemarle Sound to Norfolk, VA. Soon after entry into the Albemarle from the Alligator River, you can either veer right and proceed along a course called the “Virginia Cut”, or you can veer left, head into Elizabeth City, NC, and then proceed through the Great Dismal Swamp.
We’d been reading about the Great Dismal Swamp for years. The Swamp is filled with great history, including the fact that it was surveyed by George Washington himself! We’d spoken with dozens of cruisers that had their opinions on whether we should make passage through the Swamp, or not. Some encouraged the passage as a once in a lifetime experience that we shouldn’t miss. Others were vehement in their opposition to a transit of the Swamp and pleaded with us to avoid it at all cost. Their argument was that, even though the Swamp is a beautiful place to behold, it is dangerously narrow and shallow, filled with “deadheads” that can damage your hull or prop, overhanging tree limbs that can damage rigging, and … snakes! Yikes!
Sounds like fun! We veered left, headed for Elizabeth City and prepared for a two-day passage of the Great Dismal Swamp.
The Dismal Swamp is twenty-two miles in length, bounded on the southern end by the South Mills Lock and on the north end by the Deep Creek Lock, each raising you or lowering you about eight feet, depending on the direction you’re heading through the Swamp. However, each of these locks only operate at certain times of the day. The navigational challenge is to arrive at each lock at the appropriate time. Otherwise, you must tie up somewhere close by and wait.
After our arrival in Elizabeth City, we spent a couple of days walking the small community and preparing for our passage through the Swamp. We awoke early on the morning of our departure, timing our exit from the marina to arrive at the South Mills Lock for the 11:00 opening. But first we had to make our way through the Elizabeth City Bridge, about a half mile up from our marina. This requires a call to the bridge tender on VHF channel 13 requesting that motor traffic be stopped, and the bridge raised allowing us through.
Once through the Elizabeth City Bridge we still had eighteen miles to travel to get to the lock. First, we entered a continuation of the Pasquotank River, followed by a short four-mile section call Turner’s Cut. This section of the Pasquatank River is very similar to the Dismal Swamp, although much more winding. It is probably one of the most beautiful sections of water we’ve experienced since leaving Fort Pierce on our journey north. On the down side, it is filled with “deadheads”. We’re not talking about Grateful Dead band type of deadheads. These deadheads are logs and tree stumps protruding precariously out of the water waiting for the unaware or inattentive navigator to strike. Hull damage, rudder damage, propeller shaft damage and loss of a propeller can easily result. We were on high alert! Although we saw several deadheads, we successfully avoided what many boaters in the past haven’t.We arrived at the South Mills Lock about fifteen minutes early, tied up to a nearby pier and waited for the lock to open. This was our first locking experience and we were anxious to get it right. It turned out to be no big deal. Jane did a great job managing the bow line (her first time), and we were through the lock in no time.
Both the South Mills Lock and Deep Creek Lock are accompanied by a lift bridge less than a mile away from the lock. The lock master is also responsible for operating the lift bridge. So, as soon as we had cleared out of the South Mills Lock, the lock master quickly got into her pickup truck and raced to the lift bridge to let us through. Now, that’s an efficient use of public service man-power, or woman-power in this case.The next twenty-two miles was officially the Great Dismal Swamp. Our plan was to spend the next two days transiting the remainder of the Swamp, with a stop at the Great Dismal Swamp Welcome Center, five miles north of South Mills. The Welcome Center serves both mariners traveling the Swamp and motor traffic traveling Interstate-17 running parallel to the Swamp. We had a great stay and peaceful night at the Welcome Center, enjoying the warm hospitality of the Welcome Center hosts before continuing our way north the following morning. Below is a time-lapse video of our transit from the Elizabeth City Bridge, through the Pasquotank River and Dismal Swamp to the Welcome Center. The following day, we continued our journey north through the Swamp for another seventeen miles arriving at the Deep Creek Bridge and Lock, the culmination of our Great Dismal Swamp passage.
A special treat awaited us at the Deep Creek Lock. The long-time lock and bridge master, Robert Peek, was awaiting our arrival with an oral history lesson of the Swamp, and entertainment that we’ll never forget. Robert is famous for his long dissertations of the Swamp, and also his talent blowing a conch shell. Thanks for the great time, Robert!We made our way out of the Deep Creek Lock and out of the Great Dismal Swamp with just a few miles remaining before our arrival at Atlantic Yacht Basin located in Chesapeake, Virginia, and the start of some badly needed repairs. Prior to entering Albemarle Sound we had noticed a small trickle of water coming from our “drip-less shaft seal”. We called the head mechanic at Atlantic Yacht Basin who assured us that it probably wouldn’t get much worse and we should proceed and make repairs when we arrived. By the time we pulled into Atlantic Yacht Basin four days later, the small drip had turned into a leak around the shaft seal of two gallons per hour!
The morning after our arrival at Atlantic Yacht Basin, Dejarlo was pulled out of the water for a two-day replacement of our shaft seal.
Coming up next …
We depart Atlantic Yacht Basin after replacement of our shaft seal and make our way through the middle of the Norfolk Naval Boatyard and into the Chesapeake Bay. Stay tuned!