Dismal Swamp canal

The Dismal Swamp Canal gives Chesapeake cruisers one last shot at the Bay cruising feeling.

by Diana Prentice
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller

The Chesapeake isn't stingy on great cruising grounds. Each summer, Randy and I are spoiled by dizzying diversity and sheltered tributaries as we tour the Bay aboard our sailboat Strider. And by the time we head south in the fall, we've got a list full of new spots we want to explore next season. But on our way out of the Bay we have one last choice to make.

We can either sail out of the Chesapeake's mouth into the jaws of the Atlantic, or we can choose to enjoy the first leg of our annual trip south in the ICW, also known as "the ditch." By choosing the ditch, we have one last chance at Chesapeake-style cruising.

Last fall, pushed along by a brisk northerly, we made Deltaville our last Chesapeake port of call for the season. Then, propelled non-stop to Hampton Roads by said fantastic breeze, we continued through the Elizabeth River's gauntlet of bridges with daylight to spare.

Once under I-64's high span, we reached the point where the two southbound Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (the proper name for the ICW) routes connect. These more or less protected paths are the routes of choice for thousands of snowbirds starting their journey from Norfolk's Mile Zero all the way to Miami. Our final Chesapeake decision then was whether to take the popular main route or the one less traveled--the straight-and-narrow Dismal Swamp Canal, which has all the natural beauty and lore of the nearby Chesapeake.

We eyed the Army Corps of Engineers' posting on a large fixed navigational aid: The Dismal Swamp Canal was indeed open for business. Since it is affected by deluges and droughts and has a minimum controlling depth of six feet, the canal is often closed, and notifications of the waterway's status appear at both its northern and southern entrances. In addition, in low water years the Corps may reduce the number of daily lock openings from four to two (or even suspend them altogether) to better manage the refuge's water levels. And tropical storms bring down trees, often closing the already constricted path.

Strider's six-foot draft notwithstanding, we opted for the Dismal Swamp and took a sharp turn westward to Deep Creek, which wiggles away from busy, congested Norfolk and Chesapeake, Va. After two short miles (around ICW Statute Mile 10.5) through a nice, quiet residential area, Deep Creek ends at the entrance to the Canal at the Deep Creek Lock.

Under normal conditions, the last opening of the day for both locks--Deep Creek and South Mills, which is at the other end--is at 3:30 p.m. We were much too late for the last opening of the day, as was another sailboat that was already anchored near the closed gates. The next opening would be at 8:30 in the morning, so we settled down for the night a few hundred yards from the other late-comer, dropping the hook mid-channel in a wide spot in the creek.

The next morning, before the scheduled opening, more boats appeared, and we weighed anchor to ease into the queue. The last of the eight boats to enter the lock, we handed our lines up to congenial lock tender Robert Peek, who slipped them onto bollards above us on the eastern wall. I looked across the lock to admire Peek's distinctive patch of banana trees, reflecting both his green thumb and whimsy. The eye-catching lock-side garden reminds cruisers where they're heading and where they've been. Northbound travelers have contributed many a conch shell to the garden as well.

Peek said that four other boats were still a couple miles away, and asked if it would be okay to wait for them. We and our laid-back consorts said we were more than happy to wait. When the Johnny-come-latelys straggled in, Randy and I signaled to a young couple on a tidy little sloop out of Baltimore, that they were welcome to raft to Strider's starboard side. Soon, with everyone secure and chockablock in the lock, water rushed in, eventually reaching its optimum level eight feet higher. Half an hour later the gates began to part to let us into the canal.

All engines came alive except one--the outboard belonging to our conjoined new buddies. Luckily for them, they were already in a hip-tow with Captain Randy, certified with a USCG towing endorsement. After the others had exited the lock, Randy steered our two boats through the gates, and this time their outboard fired up; it had only flooded. We released lines, bidding fair winds to one another.

After Peek had let us free, he headed to the nearby drawbridge on the canal, ready to halt traffic and let the herd through. With two locks and two drawbridges on the canal, each lock tender operates the respective adjacent bridge. We sped up a bit to catch the pack and transit through the bridge, then throttled back to our preferred Dismal dawdle. 

While the Corps clears the canal of obstructions it knows about, swamps and submerged debris just go together. Strider's generous keel occasionally bumps over unseen logs lurking in these dark, tannin-tinted waters. "Thunks" can be unnerving, even potentially damaging, but we've learned that if we keep a nice dilly-dallying pace and allow boats in a hurry to pass us, we generally have an uneventful, enjoyable passage. The slow pace keeps the keel higher in the water. Fewer thunks.    

Less angst, as well, since we now know that attempting to navigate the 50-some miles between Norfolk and North Carolina's Elizabeth City in one day only transforms a calm cruise into a tension-filled race to keep to the timetable. There's a lousy illusion, too, that when we're the only boat in sight, civilization is farther away than it really is.

As we made our way through the canal, mirror-still waters reflected the shoreline's changing colors. But the banks only hint at what thrives in this densely forested, 110,000-acre wetland. Unfortunately, our tall rig occasionally breaks this charming spell--as we have to contend with overhanging tree limbs.

With an eye on the sky for low-hanging branches, we putted the tree-lined path to our destination for the night: the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center at mile 28, just beyond the North Carolina state line. By the time we arrived around noon, the 150-foot courtesy dock was already full, but we were soon waved over and invited to raft up. Yes, it was our Baltimore-sloop friends, returning the favor. Greeted by several other crews we recognized from the morning's cozy lock-through, we socialized on shore beside a patch of cotton plants, one of the center's small plots of regional crops.

Later, after stretching our legs on the canal-side nature trails, we joined forces--and appetizers and drinks--at a covered picnic pavilion for a cruisers' happy hour. It was a satisfying end to our last Chesapeake cruise.