Sailing The Great Dismal Swamp Canal

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The historic Dismal Swamp Canal not only runs through acres of primeval forest, but is free of commercial shipping  

The historic Dismal Swamp Canal not only runs through acres of primeval forest, but is free of commercial shipping  

They said it couldn’t be done, but damn it, we did it! We sailed the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, in light winds, no less. Everyone else just motors. Like many other cruisers, I have also transited the canal twice under power and can tell you from personal experience that none of the people motoring this historic waterway ever really see it. Same thing with those people driving the scenic road that runs alongside. They aren’t really seeing it either.

When you’re going an average of 1.5 to 2 knots, though, by way of sails and sculling oar, you more than see it. You become part of it. So much so, there were times I seriously wondered whether we would ever make it out of there…

Heading south from the Chesapeake Bay many cruisers opt for the scenic, historic Dismal Swamp Canal route that runs through Virginia and North Carolina as part of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Neither weeds nor lack of engine was going to stop the author 

Neither weeds nor lack of engine was going to stop the author 

With a dark history of slavery and deforestation, the canal and surrounding woods are now both wildlife and recreational preserves. Tannic water from local peat moss beds, overhanging cypress trees and a lovely state park make the canal a truly iconic southern cruise.

Construction of the 22-mile canal from Deep Creek, Virginia, to South Mills, North Carolina, began in 1793, with the intent of connecting Virginia’s tidewaters to the sounds of North Carolina. Dug entirely by hand by enslaved people, the project took 12 years. Later, it functioned as a key link in the Underground Railroad, by which refugees of slavery escaped to freedom in the North.

Rich in cypress trees and other hardwoods, the Dismal Swamp has attracted loggers for centuries. Today, of the over 1 million acres that existed when the canal was dug, just 112,000 acres remain. Only recreational boats can transit this National Historic Landmark, which serves as an alternative to the Virginia Cut, the waterway east of the canal and the main route for the Intracoastal Waterway. Literally running through a forest, the Dismal Swamp not only offers a more scenic option but one sans commercial shipping traffic.

At the time my boat—an engineless, full-keel Great Dane 28, named Sohund—was new to me. And while my crew, Sean, and I had finished a number of repairs, we had yet to replace all the chainplates, which meant we were not yet fully seaworthy. However, we were also living aboard, and with the winter season upon us, it was time to head south. Rounding Hatteras at the end of November with winds opposing the Gulf Stream did not sound ideal. Neither, for that matter, did sailing a narrow inland canal. But with the right wind, we figured we could make it. It would be fun, we said. It would be a challenge. And with that, we were off. First, though, came the stretch through Norfolk.

If you’ve ever been to Norfolk, Virginia, you know the challenge it can be under sail. The Elizabeth River runs through the city and marks mile #1 of the ICW. Commercial traffic and Navy ships three stories high are everywhere, with restricted zones up to a quarter-mile wide lining the shore. Tall buildings further distort the wind. Throw in a series of unpredictable railroad bridges that sometimes close without warning, and you’ve got a serious obstacle course to contend with.

My first time sailing through Norfolk, we were northbound on my previous boat, a 26-footer, and were sailing against the wind. I had to explain to the guy on the radio of a Navy patrol boat what tacking was and that we weren’t in distress. The Navy guy laughed when I said he should try out sailing.

This time we were southbound and had the season and wind on our side. Still, it was a cold autumn morning with a small-craft advisory in effect out on the open Atlantic and waters of the nearby Chesapeake Bay. At 1000 we untied from the town dock in Portsmouth, on the west side of the river, raised the main and, after reaching out of the harbor basin, turned dead downwind.

Aside from almost getting into irons coming up to one of the railroad bridges, encountering a bunch of small-boat construction traffic and having to hand steer down a snaking channel with mud shoals to either side, we made it through with relative ease. In fact, things went so well that we arrived in time for the last opening of the day at the Deep Creek Lock at 1500 where we would be raised 8ft into the canal.

The crew was in good spirits, and we were ghosting along under main alone when I hailed the lock operator on VHF. Much to our chagrin, it was not the celebrated Robert, who provides breakfast to cruisers while offering history lessons of the swamp, but a much less friendly voice that greeted us. “You’ll have to drop your sails to come into the lock,” he said before signing off.

A few hundred feet from the lock, we dropped sail and drifted in: Sean first aggressively stroking the sculling oar in the boat’s stern, then pulling ourselves along the wall to meet the lock operator with our lines. The lock operator asked what was wrong with our engine. We told him we didn’t have one, and he told us he wouldn’t allow us to go through. He kept referring to Sean as the captain, even after being told I was the owner of the boat.

Where were we supposed to go if we couldn’t transit the canal lock, we asked. It would be dark soon, and there was nowhere to anchor. I was about to claim safe harbor when a phone call to the lock operator’s supervisor provided us with the necessary clearance. There is, in fact, no written rule against going through the canal without an engine. The only condition was that we had to drop all sail going into the locks and under bridges.

There was one last drawbridge before officially entering the Dismal Swamp preserve, and the same operator who controls the lock controls the Deep Creek Bridge, which about a quarter-mile away. We held onto the faded wooden fenders until he was ready to open. With long steady strokes, I sculled the 8,500lb Sohund slowly but surely to the other side.

From Deep Creek Bridge, most cruisers quickly motor the 16 miles to Dismal Swamp State Park and the visitor’s center dock there. For us, though, the trip took two full days. The wind was north, but light. The surrounding trees either shifted it around or blocked it completely. Sean proved a master at sculling through the dead zones. I called it magic. He called it art.

The weeds were so thick it was touch-and-go on the final approach to the lock at South Mills 

The weeds were so thick it was touch-and-go on the final approach to the lock at South Mills 

Between sculling and sailing, we maintained the aforementioned speed of between 1 and 2 knots. People walking the nearby footpath moved faster. We stopped eight miles up the canal at a dock where we saw signs marking the old canal road pockmarked with bullet holes. With Sohund secure, we collected some dead branches along the banks of the surrounding swamp and lit a fire in our homemade wood-burning stove. Outside, bare trees silhouetted by a full moon loomed overhead.

The next morning cold, crisp dawn broke over the stillness of the swamp, and as the land heated up a teasingly light breeze kicked in. “There’s wind!” I exclaimed, untying the boat as soon as Sean returned from his morning walk.

Thus began another day of working hard for every mile. My emotions vacillated between the awful fear the wind would die altogether and the joy of ghosting along at 2 knots or less. Eight hours and eight miles later we reached the Great Dismal Swamp Visitor Center and State Park. As we tied Sohund up at the dock we saw the first other boat we’d seen in three days. “You’re legends of the waterway now!” The helmsman called to us with a fist pump. We waved and shook our heads, laughing. For days afterward I’d repeat these same words using my best pirate accent, at the same time enthusiastically shaking my fist.

Unfortunately, the network of trails and solitude of the park provided only a short reprieve from the chore of sailing and sculling, as the attendants at the visitor center were soon urging us to keep moving. Thus it was that a mere 48 hours later, and in spite of the fact the wind was wrong and there was still plenty of room at the dock, we left.

From the park we had five miles more to go, all of it upwind in a channel a mere 100ft across. Short-tacking wasn’t an option. We sculled whenever the wind was wrong or the direction of the canal put us into irons, inching our way toward the lock in South Mills, where we would lock down back down to the level of the adjoining Pasquotank river. Suddenly we stopped dead in our tracks. Were we aground?

That was unlikely. We were still in the middle of the channel, where the controlled depth was 8ft, and Sohund draws only five. We were surrounded, though, by weed.

“Too bad this isn’t watercress,” I said as we began chopping our way through with the oar and a boathook. This was alligator weed, an invasive species that proliferate in wetland areas in this part of the world. Finally, we freed ourselves only to drift toward the canal bank, where our mast became caught in a tree. Now we truly were aground, albeit only slightly. Working the sculling oar we were eventually able to break free from the branches overhead and the muck below.

The lock was now in sight, but our troubles were far from over. We met more alligator weed, not just an island, but a sea of it. We ended up having to use the anchor to kedge ourselves in the last three hundred feet.

“I got to hand it to you,” the lock operator said in a deep Southern drawl. “Most people have a hard enough time getting through with an engine.”

“Thanks,” I managed to mutter, exhausted.

Unfortunately, even after locking through we still had a long way to go before reaching open water again in Albemarle Sound. And in the end, we had to wait out yet more headwinds for days in South Mills, an economically depressed town seldom visited by cruisers. The meat selection at the local grocery store would have satisfied only the hungriest of zombies, and we were out of fresh food.

Still, we did it. We proved it could be done, both legally and respectfully, without overstaying our welcome at any point along the way. So, for anyone wondering—can you, in fact, sail the Dismal Swamp Canal without an engine? The answer is, yes. Whether or not actually doing so is such a great idea, I leave up to you.

Sohund at anchor with her sculling oar hanging over the transom 

Sohund at anchor with her sculling oar hanging over the transom 

Sculling a Keelboat

Borrowing methods from the ancient Chinese sculling oar, a line is attached from the handle of the oar to the deck. Keeping the line taut at all times grab the handle and proceed in a push, pull motion. Vertical in the water the blade needs to sweep from side to side, angling to about 60 degrees on each side to create a forward motion. 

Story and photos by Emily Greenberg

May 2021

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