ICW Snowbird Rally: Dismal Swamp Canal


Cruising guide authors Mark and Diana Doyle, co-leaders of the upcoming SAIL Magazine Snowbird Rally, continue their eight-part tour of the Intracoastal Waterway. In this second installment they describe one of their favorite runs, the Great Dismal Swamp.

Since the ICW south of Portsmouth, Virginia, splits into two routes, Virginia Cut and Dismal Swamp, like Robert Frost you need to choose which road to take. Last year, three of the SAIL Snowbird Rally boats diverted to Virginia Cut because of draft and rig limitations. But the remainder of the fleet enjoyed the friendly (and free) ride through the Dismal Swamp Canal.

Longer distance, skinny water and too many logs—no doubt you’ve heard the warnings about the Dismal Swamp. But don’t rule out this route until you weigh all the facts; most boaters who try it return year after year. It’s actually only three miles longer than Virginia Cut (Route 1), and it’s a more peaceful, scenic trip through a unique area with no commercial traffic. Unless it’s an exceptional drought year, Dismal Swamp Canal carries a minimum depth of 6ft, so it’s fine for most sailboats with mast heights less than 65ft. In fact, you’ll see more sailing vessels than powerboats along the Dismal Swamp route—part of what contributes to its laid-back no-wake ambiance. And despite the occasional and much-publicized forum rant, this route has no more debris than any other wooded portion of the ICW. (Latest updates on depth and lock schedules are posted at dismalswampwelcomecenter.com or call 252-771-8333.)

The Dismal Swamp route is especially popular in the fall, when foliage peaks and the insects are minimal. However, in both the spring and fall, it’s popular enough that you can expect to raft up at the more coveted courtesy docks–which may be a bit daunting for some, but is also a great way to meet other cruisers and potentially find a Bahamas-bound buddy boat!

Most ICW sailors tend to rush through the Dismal Swamp, timing the two locks for a two-day trip. Instead, we like to move through at a more stately pace (the entire canal is a no-wake zone to prevent erosion of this historic landmark) and enjoy more stops along the way. It may only be 45 miles to Elizabeth City, but we suggest taking several days. Folks along the route are very welcoming, plus all overnight moorings along the way—with the exception of two affordable marinas (Lamb’s Marina and Pelican Marina)—are free. Yup, frei, libre, gratuit.

Here are some of our favorite stops:

Elizabeth’s Dock

West of the Deep Creek Lock lies a well-maintained courtesy dock known as Elizabeth’s Dock (Dismal Swamp Statute Mile—DS STM—10.7—36°44.74N 76°20.49W). Donated by a local resident in memory of his wife Elizabeth, it accommodates boats large and small each season.

The dock is located in a public park adjacent to the lock, with room for several boats. Water is sometimes available, but the power outlets are locked. The park has picnic tables and portable toilets. There is a grocery store, a pharmacy and a couple of casual restaurants nearby.

The highlight of a stop here is … departure morning. That sounds bad, but it’s good! You can’t proceed northbound (because of Deep Creek Lock) or southbound (Deep Creek Bridge) until legendary lockmaster Robert Peek opens them. And he expects a visit, a morning gathering in the lockhouse for coffee and sticky buns before the day begins. He’s also the region’s local historian and shared a fascinating account of the Dismal Swamp’s history with last season’s SAIL Snowbird Rally. And of course we all whooped for an encore after he played the Star-Spangled Banner on one of the many conch shells he has received as gifts from transient cruisers.

Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center

You haven’t done the Dismal if you haven’t stopped at the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center (DS STM 27.8—36°30.41N 76°21.34W). This cruising-community landmark is unique, because it’s both a highway and waterway rest stop. Welcome to North Carolina!

We suggest spending two nights at their long face dock. You’ll need a full day to enjoy all the nearby activities. The welcome center, located in a well-maintained park, provides courtesy bikes for its canal-side paved bike path that runs into the small town of South Mills. Or you can walk across the pedestrian pontoon bridge to Dismal Swamp State Park, where there is an interpretive visitor center, a lovely one-mile nature boardwalk trail through the swamp, and miles of hiking and biking trails.

During the busy season there may be a dozen or more cruising boats rafted up three-or-four boats deep at the dock. There’s plenty of room, just be sure to slightly stagger your masts to avoid snagging your neighbor’s spreaders. The camaraderie is great. Boaters often connect their hoses end-to-end to access the single fresh-water spigot. (The docks don’t have electricity.) And don’t be surprised if there is an impromptu cruisers happy hour at the dockside picnic tables. If we’re there with the Rally, please join us!

Goat Island Anchorage

Goat Island Anchorage often suffers the fate of a ‘tweener.’ Located in a spacious oxbow behind Goat Island (DS STM 43.8—36°20.58N 76°13.25W), it’s just 16 miles from the welcome center and only seven miles from Elizabeth City. Falling between these two popular stops, most cruisers pass it by.

But what a perfect anchorage: it’s wide, deep, scenic, quiet and protected. And if you stop here for a night, it’s easier to time a mid-morning arrival to grab an open slip at the courtesy docks in Elizabeth City. It’s fun to dinghy or kayak along the adjacent oxbow, tucked in among waterfront homes. Stop in at the “camping platform” for dry access to Goat Island. Or simply enjoy the anchorage with a sundowner and wait for the owls to start their nighttime serenade.

Elizabeth City Courtesy Docking

Elizabeth City wants you to visit. If there’s any doubt about that, consider that they offer four free docking locations. And each evening, during peak season, the town hosts a dockside informational presentation and reception, with light hors d’oeuvres, beer, and wine—plus roses for the ladies, a legacy from the “Rose Buddies” who once greeted the arriving boats. We suggest staying at least two nights here.

The best known courtesy docks are located right along the downtown waterfront (DS STM 50.9—36°17.91N 76°13.11W). Officially called Mariner’s Wharf, there are 13 first-come, first-served slips (each marked with its beam). There is fresh water, daytime restroom access and free town Wi-Fi, but no electricity. You can check to see if the slips are occupied using the harborcam at discoverelizabethcity.com.

Wider vessels often land on the bulkhead at Jennette Brothers, a food service company just north of the Elizabeth City bascule bridge (DS STM 50.7—36°18.11N 76°13.06W). Docking is free: They simply ask that you visit one of the town’s restaurants for dinner. (As if that wasn’t going to happen anyway!)

Another option for catamarans is Elizabeth City’s courtesy bulkhead at Waterfront Park (DS STM 51.0—36°17.83N 76°13.08W). This location is right across from the new Museum of the Albemarle, an impressive museum that is worth a visit.

Finally, most cruisers don’t know about the Mid-Atlantic Christian University docks located a few blocks north of the bascule bridge (DS STM 50.6—36°18.19N 76°12.98W). This small waterfront college maintains eight finger slips right along the ICW, with very deep water for boats up to 11ft beam. The slips are basic (no water or electricity), but are within easy walking distance to downtown.

Pelican Marina

Elizabeth City is the perfect place for southbound boats to wait for good conditions to cross Albemarle Sound. If you want to stay longer than the city dock’s 48-hour limit, or want electricity and showers, Pelican Marina is an excellent option.

Pelican Marina is located just across the small harbor (DS STM 51.4—36°18.03N 76°12.71W). It’s a no-frills cruiser-friendly marina costing $35 per night (including electricity, fresh water, restrooms/showers and Wi-Fi). A short walk over the bascule bridge leads you into the heart of town.

“And Sorry I Could Not Travel Both…”

We’re obviously Dismal Swamp fans. And unless you draw more than 6ft, the Dismal Swamp Canal is our recommended route down the ICW.

The SAIL Snowbird Rally will again transit this truly unique canal, a National Historic Landmark first conceived by George Washington and the oldest operating man-made waterway in the United States. But both routes are worth considering, and either way, you’ll be sorry you could not travel both. But for that, there is always the spring northbound return. s

Mark and Diana Doyle manage On the Water ChartGuides Foundation, offering “almost free” cruising and anchoring guides for the Intracoastal Waterway. Visit them at onthewaterchartguides.org or on their Facebook page for frequent ICW updates.

Join SAIL for an unforgettable trip down the ICW

SAIL’s 2014 Snowbird Rally down the ICW proved a fantastic learning, confidence-boosting and social success, so much so that we’re doing it all over again in 2015.

Ably led by On The Water Chartguides authors Mark and Diana Doyle, with former ABYC Technical VP Tom Hale repeating his 2014 role as technical advisor and troubleshooter to the fleet, the Snowbird Rally will visit some of the ICW’s most beautiful towns and harbors. Along the way there’ll be technical and navigational briefings, along with parties, dinners, and sightseeing excursions.

“The Intracoastal Waterway isn’t the long, dull motoring ordeal it’s made out to be,” says Mark. “It’s an amazing stretch of water with a rich history, and we’re going to make the most of it.”

The 2015 Snowbird Rally gets under way from Hampton, Virginia, on October 23, and winds up in St. Augustine, Florida, on December 1. We’ve limited participation to 20 boats, and you’re invited to join us. There are only a few spots left, so sign up now at icw.sailmagazine.com.

Sign Up For Our Seminar

If you’re planning a trip on the ICW this year or in the near future, you won’t want to miss our Secrets of the ICW seminar on Sunday, October 11, during the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland. There’s no better way to get a handle on this iconic waterway. Speakers include Snowbird Rally hosts Mark and Diana Doyle, systems guru Nigel Calder, Snowbird Rally technical advisor Tom Hale, and cruising experts Paul and Sheryl Shard.

No Boat? No Problem!

If you’re yearning to experience the ICW but don’t have a boat or just want to boost your confidence, we have the answer for you: a berth on a Dream Yacht Charters Catana 41 catamaran, skippered by sailing instructor Mark Thompson, a veteran of last year’s rally.

You’ll ride in stress-free comfort on this performance boat, enjoying a terrific flatwater cruise along the historic waterway while brushing up on coastal navigation, polishing your seamanship, and learning how to skipper a big cat—and enjoying the Snowbird Rally parties and camaraderie along the way.

Mark says he actually sailed most of the way down the ICW last year, contrary to the popular belief that motoring is the only way to go, so this will be a great learning experience.

There are 6 berths available per leg, and they’ll go fast, so call 866-469-0912 to learn more, or email Mark at icw@dreamyachtcharter.com.

Photos courtesy of Mark S. Doyle, Justin Falls

Read Southbound with the Snowbirds by Mark & Diana Doyle here

Read Planning, Preparation and Practice on a Long Coastal Cruise

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