Winter on the Intracoastal Waterway: Swamps & Canals

map of great dismal swamp section of the intracoastal waterway
Great Dismal Swamp

Forgive Us, but the Term Intracoastal Waterway is Foreign to West Coast Lives.

Even when we visited Virginia in 2009, the ICW didn’t make an impression. We’d taken a side trip then down to Kitty Hawk, NC. Along the way we stopped to walk along an interesting slough that trickled under overhanging oaks. What was this thing? Not small enough to be a creek, too small to be a river, perhaps an irrigation ditch?

Later, in 2012, when we began to plan to move east and cruise down the coast, we finally learned about the Intracoastal Waterway and realized that the ditch we’d walked beside was the Dismal Swamp Canal, part of that very watery trail. We could go through that little puddle in our boat? Cool!

Dismal Swamp History and Facts

Portsmouth and Norfolk straddle Mile 0 of the ICW. About eight miles south of there, the waterway branches into canals with separate sets of locks. The older of the two is the Dismal Swamp Canal. It passes through the Great Dismal Swamp, a place that you’ve probably never heard of, which figures in more history than you might think.

  • George Washington first conceived the idea of draining the swamp for farm land. (Wait – in a completely undeveloped country they needed more farm land? How did modern planners miss that memo?)
  • He surveyed the route of the canal
  • Slaves dug the canal – and because they came to know it well …
  • The canal became an important part of the underground railroad. Hah hah! Unintended consequences. Take that evil slave owners.
  • The Union tried to blow up the locks and, in the battle of South Mills, the Confederacy stopped them, saving a vital transport line for troops, and a pleasant recreational route for modern boaters. Thanks Confederacy! (First time I ever said those words.)
  • The novel and movie Show Boat, are based on a floating theater that used to ply the waters of the canal.

One more detail about the canal: it has a controlling depth of six feet. That means the Army Corps of Engineers regularly makes sure the center of the channel is at least six feet deep. Hmmm. Did they do that last week? Is it due to be done next week? Inquiring cruisers, with keels five feet deep, want to know.

The Not So Dismal Swamp

Our depth sounder, set to let us know when we hit water shallower than ten feet, beeped at us incessantly for the 40 miles of the Dismal Swamp Canal. We learned to tune it out, but cringed at its intrusion in this quiet place. We kept hitting reset to shut off the alarm.

The morning we set out from Portsmouth was still and beautiful and the first thing we saw upon entering between the canal’s narrow banks was a turtle sunning on a half sunk log. Wildlife! Southern wildlife.

The Deep Creek lock was our first lock and we were glad to be alone as we weren’t sure how to tie off to the bollards. In my hurry I tied a knot by accident that turned out to be really effective.** The tender was patient with us, and seemed quite happy to have someone to work the lock for, though perhaps we’d interrupted his game of solitaire. The Deep Creek bridge lay about a mile beyond the lock and we had to call ahead to arrange an opening. I asked the lock tender if he knew what time it opened. “Soon as I get there,” he said, then jumped into his truck and raced us to the bridge.

Stayed that night at the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center. Which I’m willing to bet is the only rest area in the country that sits between two highways, one paved and one water. There’s a dock along the wall of the canal where boats can tie up for free for the night. A really nice arrangement.

Across a foot bridge is a nature center with boardwalks through the swamp and trails through the woods. We walked both. The trees and vegetation were all new and different and we lost track of time. The ranger had to come out and find us because it was time to raise the bridge for the night. Both she and the bridge tender had to stay late because of us. We cost the tax payers extra. Sorry.

Okay, A Little More Dismal

The next morning was drizzly and it continued all day long. So the swamp can sometimes be a little dismal. But it was still gorgeous. We were glad to see both sides. It wasn’t cold, but it was too wet to take decent pictures, so my first cypress swamp was not well chronicled.

Elizabeth City

We dried out in Elizabeth City and then, headed over to the Museum of the Albemarle. Unlike most local history museums, this one is huge, in fact we knew we were almost to E. City when we could see its green roof over the trees of the swamp. They’ve got some great artifacts, arranged by eras in an interesting and fun way.

Tom called our friend Jason to chat. The conversation went like this:

Hi Jason.

Change your oil.

But …

Change your oil.

Thought I’d wait until …

Change your oil.

So first thing in the morning we changed the oil. Jason is also our mechanic, and we don’t ever want to have to tell him we burned up the engine.

With oil out and filter off Tom found that our spare filter didn’t fit. The closest auto parts store was two miles away. Walking that would shoot the morning, so we couldn’t make the crossing of Albermarle Sound in the light breeze forecast for that day. As long as we had to take the walk, we decided to provision. Along the way we stopped at thrift stores looking for John D. MacDonald Travis McGee books (required reading for Florida bound cruisers) and ran across Recycled Reader, the second best used bookstore I’ve ever seen.

After the oil change, we motored over to Lamb’s Marina on the other side of the bridge to get fuel. On our return, a helpful fellow was on hand to catch our lines. He turned out to be quite a character. OMG the stories! He’d done everything but free the slaves and cure cancer. We finally got away by saying we had to go to the library before it closed. As we were walking across the parking lot a woman stopped us and warned us that that guy was just a bum who wanted tips. “He pries on boaters.” Still not sure whether her mispronunciation of preys was due to her southern accent or Archie Bunkeritis.

There may be a story in this disconnect. Elizabeth City is famous for The Rose Buddies, a group that welcomes boaters. In the summer they’re quite active, giving roses to visiting boats, hosting parties. But in the winter there was just this one guy, and one woman who didn’t like what he was doing.

Jibing Albemarle Sound

Sailed out of Elizabeth City with a forecast for 10 -15 mph winds in the area of Elizabeth City and 15 – 25 across Albemarle at Alligator River Bridge. Like the other big shallow bays north of it, Albemarle Sound was described as horrific when the wind is up and I was nervous.

The winds built and big waves came at our stern. Then half way across the sound we got hit with a gust and a big wave at the same time and they spun us 180 degrees in an unplanned jibe. (A jibe is when the stern crosses a wind coming from behind the boat, as opposed to a tack, which is when the bow crosses the wind coming from in front of the boat.) Things fell off shelves and out of cupboards. I hate it when that happens. Tom reefed right away and we took down the jib. Another lesson in why we should reef early and often. We also began to suspect our wind gauge may not be as accurate as we’d like.

Once inside the arms of Alligator River the wind settled down. At the entrance to our next canal – the Alligator – Pungo Canal – we passed mile marker 100 and did a high five. At anchor behind red marker 46, we drank a toast to survival, then conked out at cruiser’s midnight – 9PM.

Beaufort Within Reach

Between the AP canal and our destination of Beaufort lay the towns of Belhaven and Oriental, along with the Pamlico and Neuse rivers, both of which, like Albermarle Sound, kick up rough in the wind. And we had wind. The run from Belhaven to Oriental was a challenge. Tom steered the entire time, convinced I was too much of a weenie to handle the wheel. He was worn out by the time we arrived. But the town made it all worthwhile.

As soon as we tied up at the free dock, a guy came over with a big grin and said, “You guys were flyin!” We were puzzled until he told us he was on the big trawler that had passed us in the canal south of Belhaven, and then had watched us keep up with him down Pamilco Sound. With his big boat and powerful engines he’d only arrived half an hour ahead of us. We felt pretty spunky about that.

While in friendly Oriental, we watched the Seahawks squeak by the 49ers. Sigh. Looked like we’d have to watch one more football game.

From Oriental we sailed into 20 knot winds and headed up the Neuse River quick as we could, seeking the shelter of Adams Creek Canal. In this very narrow channel with shallows at the edges we first saw the typical boat storage method of the region – lifts that hold boats above the water.

We arrived in Beaufort (boe fort), NC in stiff winds under sunny skies and anchored in Taylor Creek, right across from the public dinghy dock. With what appeared to be derelict boats all around, Sunshine looked better than she had in a month. Looking around at the motley assortment of boats, we began to wonder about the politics of anchoring and installing private moorings. The dockmaster didn’t want to engage on the topic. I imagine he’s caught in the middle of the town council fight between the gentrifiers who want less than pristine vessels banned from their expensive views, and those who champion the rights of the individual to anchor where they damn well please.

We had just enough daylight to walk around the waterfront. Beaufort is charming, and fits my idea of a southern town – verandahs everywhere. And the ceilings of most of those verandahs were fitted with fans. For a girl from temperate Washington state, where summer starts July 5th, ends Sept 5th and includes few days over 80 degrees, the concept of an outdoor fan was strange.

Beaufort – Almost Paradise

The next morning was warm enough to be outside in shirt sleeves. For a few minutes. The wind was blowing and was forecast to blow harder, as another cold front was moving in. But for one day we had 61 degrees, so we dinghied out to Carrot Island, part of the Rachel Carson Reserve, to see if we could find the wild horses.

There were great shells out on the seaward side of the island, gorgeous big clam shells that looked like pink and gray tartan, gnarled oysters, black oysters, cockles, scallops and horseshoe crabs. I walked barefoot in warm sand, put my toes in the ocean. Tom said it felt like a summer day at Washington’s Ocean Shores. The water was warmer, y’all.

Then we walked through a field of tiny cacti and I got their spines stuck in the soles of my flip flops and had to change to my boots. A little pissy about having to pluck thorns from my feet, in true explorer style, I dubbed the depression where they grew the Devil’s Cauldron.

Tom found the horses finally, when we were heading back toward the dinghy. Three of them were grazing on the bank of Taylor Creek. A guy pedaled by on a floating bike. Then a flock of pelicans flew by. A little while later I came up on deck and watched dolphins.

That night Tom put out a second anchor, Bahamanian style – one anchor upstream and one anchor downstream. This is the prescribed anchoring method in Taylor Creek because of the tight quarters and swift current. It was our first time to use this arrangement and I slept like a baby, not feeling the current at all.

So here we were in Beaufort, far beyond our planned destination of Chesapeake, VA. but still short of our real goal of all flip flops, all the time. Would this be the place to stay for a while? Could we work on the boat here?

Another Attack of Winter Hits the Intracoastal Waterway

That night the storm arrived as predicted. More wind than we’ve had at anchor – 35 knots at least with gusts over 40. Sunshine sailed around her anchors all night. Sometime around 3 AM we found that the Fortress, our back up anchor, seemed to have dragged and threatened to tangle with the main anchor, which could cause both of them to foul and fail. So Tom wanted to pull it up. After considering methods, he opted for the lowest stress and went out in the dinghy, pulling himself along the anchor line. I held a tether and then pulled him back. The Rocna held with both wind and current headed in the same direction. I worried about what would happen when the tide changed and the two forces were opposed.

The boat closest to us broke loose and washed up on the shore of the island.

It was hard to sleep.

Just trying to stay warm.

Almost paradise indeed.

At noon the next day it was 40 degrees and we no longer felt like ill-fated polar explorers, so decided that that evening we’d go ashore and get social at Backstreet Pub, the locals and sailor’s dive bar we’d heard about. But when the time came the wind was still harsh, and we didn’t feel comfortable leaving the boat. But the next day the weather finally settled down and we were able to go grocery and propane shopping. I stayed home and worked on a few things while Tom went out on the island again and took pictures of the horses. He even found a foal.

But that was the end of reasonable weather. It snowed and sleeted and blew all the following night. We woke to extreme cold, lots of wind, a world covered in icy snow and … only one can of propane left to run our little heater. Started calling around looking for someplace that had propane. Stores were not open. Even the grocery store didn’t open all day. I worried about how that foal would do in the cold.

The streets of Beaufort were a sheet of ice. Only the Backstreet Pub was open. There there was a roaring fire and nice people to talk to, but one of us had to stay on the boat. With little propane left and no place to buy more, we gave up and headed for the dock. Which was easier said than done. We chipped an inch of ice off the wheel, engine controls and cleats in order to access them. The dock lines were frozen in coils and had to be massaged into workable shape. Jumping down to the ice coated dock was a dicey affair. I managed not to slide into the water.

When Ace and Piggly Wiggly finally opened a couple of days later Tom walked up there to get propane. I melted snow for wash water, pioneer style, as the spigots were shut off. The laundromat was open so I took advantage of the easy access and did a couple of loads.

And so we sat in Beaufort for days and days and days during this winter storm that had the entire Atlantic coast in irons. Beaufort is a great town in a beautiful, setting. But we were still intent on escaping winter, so once the ice melted we couldn’t wait to haul up that anchor and continue south.

But we had one more thing to do before leaving town. On the evening of February 3rd, we headed over to Backstreet Pub to eat bacon wrapped stuffed jalapenos (yowza!) and watch the Seahawks, our hometown team,  beat the Broncos. The game was weird, but the food and company were great.

The next morning, weather and previously scheduled events out of the way, we hoisted anchor and headed for Charleston.

If anyone knows what the red knot I tied at the Deep Creek Lock is, please let me know. Otherwise I will christen it the Nancy Bartlett and submit it to

Next installment – Winter on the Intracoastal: Creeks & Rivers

Read other posts about the Escape from New England

Narragansett Bay

Warren RI to Point Judith RI

Long Island Sound

Christmas Cruise: Point Judith to Westbrook

Christmas Cruise: Westbrook to Stamford

Christmas Cruise: Stamford to Mamaroneck

Christmas Cruise: Mamaroneck, NY to Jersey City, NJ

New Jersey Coast

Christmas Cruise: Jersey City to Manasquan

Chutes and Ladders in Atlantic City

Red Nun 2CM I think I love you

 The ICW

Winter on the Intracoastal Waterway: The Big Bays

Winter on the Intracoastal: Creeks & Rivers


Similar Posts


  1. Nicely written, Nancy. I enjoyed your unique observations. Sounds like you and Tom are enjoying the cruising life despite some of the icy cold weather.

Comments are closed.