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Madcap Sailing
Dismal Swamp? Not a Chance!
Beth - 34C
17/06/2008/7:47 pm, Dismal Swamp Canal, NC and VA

On our way south we were dubious about the depths in the Swamp route and made the decision to take the Virginia Cut. On the way back north we were determined to try it and are we ever glad we did.

At about ICW mile 78 as we entered Albemarle Sound, we veered to port and followed ICW Route 2 - The Great Dismal Swamp Route - to begin a wilderness journey that we stretched out to 3 days so we could savour it.

The swamp was so named back in 1728 by Colonel William Byrd II, who led a surveying team into the swamp to establish the state line between Virginia and North Carolina. Another version was that early settlers called swamps, "dismals". Either way, the name stuck. It may be dismal on a dark day in the heart of the swamp, but as we cruised along the canal under bright sunshine, it was anything but.

Years ago, I read and loved an old book, "Freckles" by Gene Stratton Porter, about a boy and a swamp. I need to find that book again because I think I've gotten a glimpse of his swamp.

We had planned to stop in Elizabeth City for the night. It is famous for free docking, the "rose buddies" who give roses to visiting boats, for the wine and cheese parties ...But... when I radioed them, a boater called back to say they don't answer the radio and when I phoned the number in the book, it was a voice message from the chamber of commerce - closed on a Sunday afternoon. We circled a couple of times but no one was in sight and the slips were the kind we would require assistance with so we reluctantly kept on going. I think we must have just caught them on an off day.

It all worked out well though, because we anchored just off Goat Island - around a couple of bends in the river and had a perfectly wonderful evening. The water was mirror flat, trees grew right to the edge of the river, one lone powerboat anchored nearby for a few minutes while the captain had a swim and then left. It was just the birds and us.

There were a couple of forest fires burning in the area causing smoke (sometimes heavy) along the rivers but we were lucky enough to miss most of it. Our evening was mostly clear, and although the smoke hovered around, we never had the experience of ash falling on us nor any difficulty breathing.

We left about 9 on Monday to catch the 11 o'clock opening of the South Mills Lock. The first few miles were part of the winding Pasquotank River with its dark tannin coloured water and leisurely S curves. Each corner opened up a new vista of dense foliage right to the banks - loblolly pine and pin oak, sycamore, sassafrass and sweet gum, red maple and red cedar and a host of others. Wild roses bloomed down near the water, lilies carpeted corners and fallen logs provided sunny spots for turtles.

The winding route eventually gave way to the canal - hand dug (by slaves of course) beginning around 1793 as a trade route between Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The area was heavily logged and has a couple of interesting historical stories. The area was of prime importance in the Underground Railway as it provided shelter for slaves making their way north, and for groups of "maroons" who hid out in the swamps. We read that Edgar Allen Poe composed "The Raven" while staying at the inn along the canal, and a theatrical boat that plied these waters was the real life example for the musical "Showboat." The canal had periods of prosperity and periods of neglect over the couple of hundred years since its creation, and is now maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers as a pleasureboat waterway. I'm sure those slaves and the businessmen who drove them had no vision of creating a place of beauty for the likes of us, but we sent a little vote of thanks to them as we traveled.

We stopped at the Welcome Centre with a question in our minds of whether to make it a short visit or an overnight one - and opted for the latter. Once again, the day was stifling hot; the dockage was free and the centre air-conditioned! We exchanged some laughs with Sudie and Dolores, the friendly hosts - "Got any elastics?" "HOW many brochures can one person take?" as we checked e-mail and perused the book trade shelves. We visited the newly opened visitors centre for the Dismal Swamp State Park across the canal, and then spent a leisurely evening lolling about on the boat and wandering the nearby paths. The trails were closed because of the forest fires, but I'd make time to go exploring them next trip.

Because we had so enjoyed the first day's travel, we left very early so we could mosey along at about 3.5 to 4 knots to the Deep Creek Lock for its 11 o'clock opening. We've discovered that while we must hurry up sometimes, we prefer to drift whenever we can! Once more, we gazed at the trees and listened to the birds. We searched for snakes but didn't find any. We watched for overhanging trees that might catch our mast, and our depth sounder for shallow bits (the lowest we saw was 6.5 feet for a few seconds here and there) and the path ahead for wayward logs but encountered no difficulties.

Once at the Deep Creek Bridge, we waited for a bit because Robert had 7 southbound boats locking through. The routine is that the lockmaster helps each boat tie up, closes the lock doors and then when the water has reached its desired level (8 feet up at this lock; 8 feet down at South Mills) he opens the doors, sees the boats out, hops in his car and drives to the bridge to open it. We enjoyed meeting Robert - a man who clearly is in the right job. He answered his radio promptly, gave clear information on opening times, efficiently caught our lines to sling them over the pilings, made cheery conversation as we dropped out of sight and wished us well as we traveled onward. He is the best source of information on the water levels in the canal too. (757-487-0831)

From there, it was a fast re-entry into busyness. We mingled with boats from the Virginia Cut Route and with barges and tugs as we made our way under 5 more bridges - all of whose operators were helpful and friendly, and with the noise of road and air traffic over head we found ourselves once more in the hustle and bustle of Norfolk. Soon enough, we passed Red Marker 36 - Mile 0 of the ICW. It seemed fitting that on this day - June 17th, we marked a whole year since this adventure began.

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Thank Goodness for Tomorrows
Beth/ only 28 today, a little breeze on the water
13/06/2008/11:09 pm, Oriental, NC

After our frustrating morning in the Morehead City/Beaufort area, it was a relief to lift the anchor and get out of there.

Fortunately our next stop was Oriental, a town we just loved when we stopped here in the fall, and which we just love again now. People are friendly, the houses are pretty, the website (www.towndock.net) is chockfull of activities, and the tree lined streets and seawall are perfect for strolling along. There is room to anchor in the harbour and free dockage for 72 hours at the town dock, along with several marinas. The Oriental Marina makes its showers (complete with towels, soap and shampoo for a $5.00 fee) and laundry available to cruisers who are anchored out. This place just feels good.

When we arrived on Thursday evening, we cleaned ourselves up a bit and went off to M&M's for a wonderful dinner. I ordered shrimp and grits - I'm becoming a connoisseur of the many variations of this dish - and Jim had duck.

On Friday, we started the day with coffee and bagels at the Bean - the popular coffee shop on the waterfront. We took care of all that sweaty laundry and enjoyed luxurious showers at the marina, and visited our favourite store - the Inland Waterway Provision Company - filled to bursting with clothes, giftware, marine supplies and all things nautical.

The icing on the cake was that our friends Gail and Peter (Jabiru) were here and we spent a fabulous few hours catching up with them. These Australians are great fun and it was so nice to sit with them and share some of our experiences and impressions as we cruise through the US. We last saw them as we both departed Georgetown in the Exumas.

It was also cool to meet Andrée and Tic (Antic) again. We met them way back in the fall on a water taxi in Port Washington. We didn't remember the boat, but when they came walking down the dock and Gail introduced us, it all came flooding back - another one of those wonderful small world events. They are heading for the Chesapeake so we look forward to seeing more of them.

The grocery store is about a mile up the road from the waterfront so we got some exercise at the end of the afternoon. On the way back, some friendly locals picked us up in their cute red Cabriolet and delivered us right to the dock.

We're off first thing in the morning as far as we can get up the ICW toward Mile 0 again.

Our passage from Cape Fear to Beaufort on the outside was smooth and solitary with not one sighting of another boat all night long. These next few days on the ICW will probably be quite different. It's a spring weekend and there will no doubt be dozens of pleasure boats along with a barge or two out there.


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Runaround with Border Protection
Beth/ sunny, hot
12/06/2008/11:03 pm, Beaufort, NC

This picture of the muddy water kind of fits the day.

We paid a visit to the Customs and Border Protection Office in Morehead City for the purpose of obtaining a replacement for our expired cruising license. After much discussion, argument, and condescension, the officer handed us a folder and told us, "Now you have all the information you need. You can help other cruisers understand the rules too." So, since I still don't understand their rules, here is my advice: If you can possibly avoid the Morehead City Customs and Border Protection office, do so.

This was the most irritating experience we've had with any kind of officialdom on this trip. What made it so difficult was her unwillingness to listen to our point of view, to explain the reasons for the rules she cited, and to consider exercising any discretion. At one point, when Jim asked the reason for a rule she was telling us we had to follow, she replied, "You don't need to know the reason. You just have to follow the rule." Interesting...

It would take far too long to give all the details of this experience so here is the short version. Our yearlong US cruising permit had expired and we wanted to renew it. We had discovered while in the Bahamas that a foreign vessel (built outside the US) cannot apply for a renewal until 15 days after the expiry of the old one and must be entering from a foreign port. This didn't work for us because we didn't want to stay in the Bahamas that late, and we were hoping for a little discretion in applying the rules - the same discretion that our fellow cruiser had been the recipient of. No such luck.

No cruising permit for us - just a local permit and a requirement to obtain permission to both enter and leave each region and pay the accompanying fee all the way from here to the Canadian border. That's a lot of regions. If we had only known this when we got the permit originally, we might have been able to time things better, but in our experience, when one permit expires, you just apply for a new one. The issuing officer told us nothing to contradict that impression and there was nothing on the permit itself or in any accompanying literature to indicate these conditions for renewal. When we produced our permit to show the Morehead City officer that the renewal information was not on it after she told us we just hadn't read it, she took it away from us and refused to make a copy for our records.

She also raised the issue of requiring Canadian vessels to report in to each US region even with a cruising permit. We attempted to explain that two seasoned officers, the one who issued the permit and the one who cleared us into the United States in Maine had assured us that with the permit, there was no requirement to report to each region. She kept saying they were wrong. It was hard for us to understand why we should take her word for it, and not theirs. We also do not understand why one can enter by land or air, travel all over the country and never have to report in again, while it seems to be different for mariners.

Eventually, she called her supervisor out to deal with these difficult Canadians. He at least listened to us, agreed that Customs and Border Protection Officers have wide powers of discretion, but he too refrained from exercising them other than getting us a copy of the expired permit.

A couple of other events made our Beaufort experience less than ideal. It all started on Tuesday when we tried to make a phone call. Jim's T-Mobile phone is not working here for some reason so we went ashore in search of a payphone. After looking in all the likely places without spotting one, a fellow at a tour boat office told us there was one beside Finz. Well, there might have been at one time, but not now; we found nothing the length of Front Street. Finally, the man at the Post Office told us the only one he knew of was at the library, four blocks back the way we had just come and two blocks to the right. Keep in mind that it was 33 C that day.

On Wednesday morning, we waited 20 minutes for a cab to arrive, climbed in and headed off. The driver was pleasant and chatty until he got a phone call from his dispatcher. Apparently someone was complaining about a long wait, and he launched into a frightening diatribe that went something like this: "You tell him we don't want his f...... business. He can stick it up ... ... sideways. He's not going to get a pickup. I'll give him some lead, that's what I'll give him." He then continued on in his friendly tone to Jim, turning to me and saying, "Excuse my language ma'am." It was a relief to get out of his cab.

After returning to Beaufort - in a different cab - we walked to the coffee shop and because we were hungry, thought we'd get some sandwiches. The time was 10:50. The sign on the wall said they started serving lunch at 11 but things seemed to be pretty much ready - bread on the counter, tubs of sandwich fillings made up. The cashier asked the woman if we could get sandwiches 10 minutes early but she shook her head. "No"

We ordered our coffees but didn't bother to order food when the magic hour of 11 arrived. A lost sale didn't seem to matter.

One positive event here was a pleasant conversation with Terry (Marigold) in the Backstreet Pub on Tuesday. He is single handing, has crossed the Atlantic once already and is making plans to return to Europe via the Azores. We love meeting these adventurous types who follow the "Just go do it" maxim.


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