The Good News and the Bad News
20 October 2011
Our goal for the next day was to lock through onto the Dismal Swamp canal and make it to the famous Dismal Swamp Welcome Center before nightfall. In perhaps our most profound humiliation since our inept docking maneuver in front of hundreds of amused spectators at Frankfort, Michigan, we began by going up the wrong river and then engaged in a lively discussion as to why the highway bridge in front of us was not on our chart, and as to whether our mast would fit under it. Our ruminations were interrupted when the manager of the Tidewater Marina called us on channel 13 ( bridge tenders channel ) to ask us if our intention was to proceed down the ICW, when we told him it was he told us we had turned the wrong way out of the marina. We had to come back and turn left in front of the marina. To make it worse when we got back near the marina we called him and asked, " Do you mean left here?", to which he responded " Do you see the sailboat with the blue canvas behind you - they are your buddy boat just follow them!". We did follow the sailboat which apparently had smart people on it ( smarter than us anyway). We followed them through the first bridge and parted ways when we arrived at the turn off to the Great Dismal Swamp Canal. The good news is the Dismal Swamp is not dismal but amazingly serene and beautiful. It is amazing to think about the slaves who had dug this canal in early 1800s. We slowly navigated the Canal managing to stay in the middle of the channel. It was a beautiful warm fall day as we carefully followed the coffee colored water of the Dismal Swamp which ends up leaving a "brown mustache" on the boat's bow. The dark water, from rotting leaves and cypress tree roots, mirrors the trees and skylight. It is truly like entering another world. We reached the first lock that raises boats about 9 feet early in the day. We were the first of three boats in the lock and Merry was at the bow holding lines as we were lifted. The locks in these canals do not have lines available; you have to provide the lines and the lock masters grab your lines with a boat hook and wraps it around the bollard so you control the lines. The rush of water coming into the lock, jostling the bow of the boat via whirlpools of water was mostly ignored by Wiley as he tended the stern line and engaged in conversation with the other boaters. This was a good thing as he would have "freaked out" had he seen what was happening at the bow as Merry wrestled with the line and a boat hook to keep the boat off the canal wall. As you travel the canal you must constantly watch for "dead heads" (floating logs) and "snags" - underwater entrapments. There were a couple of times that we heard a loud thump - knowing that while we did not see a log, we hit one. We arrived at the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center to find seven boats tied up off the dock - rafting in groups of three. We were welcomed by a kind offer from a lovely Canadian couple on a 38 Island Packet, Island Pursuit, - a serious ocean going vessel. Wiley, kiddingly, informed them a number of times that "we were watching them" - Canadian foreigners need to be monitored! Unbelieveably, every time the Canadians enter a new state they must check in with customs. The welcome center was closed (we move slowly and just missed the opportunity to be "welcomed"); we cooked dinner on board and made an early evening of it. We looked forward to a second day thinking it would be as good as the first day. It wasn't!
After going under a bridge we entered the second lock where we were dropped the same 9 feet. All of the boats that were at the Welcome Center were in the lock with us. It was filled with boats on both sides of the lock and while preparing to be on the starboard we were told to go to port. This required a quick movement of lines and Merry ran around the boat preparing lines. The ride down was smooth. We all chatted while in the lock and met a young couple with a year old baby girl on a boat from Honduras named Kittyhawk. When leaving the lock in the sequence suggested by the lock master some of the faster sailboats were eager to get past the slow little sailboat - that being Les Miserables. They zoomed past us - waking us - and almost sending us out of the center of the channel which would mean we would go aground. Fortunately, we didn't - well at least not at this time.
Now being married to someone who is ADD has its advantages and disadvantages. The plus, is as many of you know, ADD people are often very intelligent, resourceful, and creative. However, again - as many of you know, the downside is their inability to stay focused and complete a task. "Bright shiny objects" constantly distract and draw attention away from a task at hand. So, as we traversed the next section of this trip the first mishap occurred when Merry steering the boat almost took us the wrong way down the Pasquotank River and led us to a creek that was a dead-end. The plotter was unclear and the navigator was at the wheel - not navigating. A mix up that could have led to disaster was quickly remedied as we turned around in the creek! Wiley kindly took over the helm and just a little further down the river, while talking - BANG - THUMP - the boat shuddered ...stopped, listed to port and flung us forward in the cockpit. Quickly the complete quiet of the swamp enveloped us, along with duck weed, in contrast to the expletive 4 letter words that came out of Wiley's mouth. Merry trying to use her best coaching skills - did not paraphrase, but tried to soothe by saying it will be okay - as she tried to convince herself of this. We will get off - we both ran down to check the bilge to make sure there was no water coming into the boat. We did not put a hole in the boat! This was the good news. The bad news was we were hard aground. So the downside of ADD again is the distractibility - the upside is creative problem solving. Wiley went into action. First preparing the dinghy, getting the anchor off of the bow, rowing the anchor out and dropping chain/ anchor out to place off the stern of the boat to try to winch us off. However, this failed on two attempts. Next came an attempt to pull us off by putting a line around a tree stump sticking up out of the swamp and winching us off. This resulted in a loud crack in the empty swamp - the sound of the tree being broken off and floating into the river. Wiley rowed the tree stump off to the side so no other boat would hit it. Merry insisted after looking around at all the swamp around us that if the creative ideas failed by 1:00, Boat US would be called for a tow. Wiley donned his scuba gear to check out what was happening under our boat. It turned out that we were not aground, we were caught in a snag - an underwater tree. The Boat US call happened right on schedule, but during the wait a power boat "Just Ducky" came and pulled us off - only to send us aground in the mud. However, just as we went aground in the mud the red Boat US boat came roaring up the river toward us. On board was our Island Pursuit friend whose boat was also aground a little further up the river. Long story short we were finally pulled off - which would have cost us $900.00 had we not had Boat US insurance. Of course, after this rather remarkable lesson, you would think that the captain would be re-focused with great intent on not going aground again... however, it took reminders by the navigator to focus the helmmen's attention on the channel NOT on the guy kayaking nearby, nor the bird on the shore, nor the boat that was further up the river - but on staying in the center of the channel. When we finally finished traversing the river just prior to going through a bridge to Elizabeth City we learned that the winds were going to be from the Southeast - this is not a good direction to be at a dock in Elizabeth City and being exhausted from our days adventured we dropped the hook off of a yacht club near Elizabeth City and spent a peaceful night.