47. A Great Dismal Thanksgiving

Greetings Adventurers! It’s been a very long time since my last post. A thousand apologies for the gap. As I’m sure you’ve surmised by the title, I’m quite a long way behind at this point. We’ll need to break out the ol’ wayback machine to pick up the action where we left off. Everybody pile into the DeLorean.

Sylphide and I ended up spending three nights at Salt Ponds. I spent most of a day in a rental car making a trip back up to Deale, where some packages had arrived days later than they were supposed to. There wasn’t anything particularly interesting or important in the shipment, but I figured I might as well grab them before I got too much farther away. So much for free shipping, I guess.

The rest of our stay in Salt Ponds was spent relaxing and taking care of all the boring and mundane chores that keep things moving along. I filled the water tanks, took out the trash, and restocked the galley. I might even have clipped my toenails. Thrilling stuff. Careful, don’t fall off the edge of your seat!

Eventually we were ready to shove off. We did so early on the day before Thanksgiving, and made our way out into the Chesapeake, which we wouldn’t be seeing again for many months. It was a fine last look, though. The weather was fair, and the trip was as comfortable as it was quick. Before we knew it, we were rounding Old Point Comfort, and entering Hampton Roads.

The world’s largest naval base was soon taking up most of my eastern horizon. There were a whole bucket of carriers in town, the Nimitz class Dwight D. Eisenhower and John C. Stennis, and the newer Gerald R. Ford. There was the usual festival of of Arleigh Burke Class destroyer/workhorses, and a sprinkling of Ticonderoga Class cruisers for extra flavor. I even caught a few fleeting glimpses of submarine conning towers. Neat.

A little farther down the line, and the warships got fewer and farther between. We started to see more characters from the supporting cast. The oilers and supply ships, the RO-ROs and the hospital ship USNS Comfort. You might remember that one from such television programs as ‘the news.’ She was the one who went to New York during the height of the pandemic scare last year.

The harbor was it’s usual bustling self. There were a few fellow cruisers out and about, and the workaday tug fleet was out tuggin’ an’ shovin’. My new AIS earned it’s keep when one of the tugs called me by name over the radio to work out some passing arrangements. It’s so much more civilized and professional when the conversation doesn’t have to start with ‘uhhhh, callin’ the sailboat northbound off the ol’ Billybob Dock, this is the tug Mumblemumble, wher’n ya headin’ skipper?’ When he just calls ‘Sylphide,’ I don’t have to spend thirty valuable seconds standing there thinking ‘Wait, I’m not a sailboat… is… is he talking to me? Where the hell is the old Billybob Dock? What did he say his name was? Mulva?’

With that crisis averted, we safely passed each other, and carried on with our respective missions. Up ahead, I could just start to see the shapely stern of the USS Wisconsin sticking out around the corner. After checking the calendar to see what time it was, I found I had plenty to waste, so I decided to amble over to her and see how close I could get. As It turns out, ‘very’ is how close I can get.

She was all decked out for Christmas, her guns looking slightly less intimidating covered with festive wrapping paper. I told one of the passing caretakers I thought so, and he advised that as long as I didn’t scratch her paint, I had nothing to worry about.

With that detour successfully completed, I continued up the Elizabeth River. The traffic thinned as I got farther from downtown Norfolk, and the only bridge that could stand in my way, was tipped up when I arrived.

Soon, I reached a significant fork in the road. If I continued up the main channel, It would lead me toward Great Bridge, Atlantic Yacht Basin, and Coinjock. This is the route I’d taken the last two times I’d come through. The alternative route was a hard right turn into a much skinnier and shallower channel, ironically named Deep Creek. This would lead me through the Great Dismal Swamp.

I took the hard right, for no other reason than ‘eh, why not?’ I’d never been there before, and there wasn’t anything on the regular route that I’d really miss. I’d heard mixed reviews about the Dismal Swamp route. People seem to either love it or hate it. It’s got a much lower speed limit, capped at just five miles per hour, and it has a habit of being blocked by downed trees or excessive duckweed. The intel that I’d gathered said that there were no such hazards ahead, so the coast was clear.

I arrived at Deep Creek lock at around three in the afternoon. The lock wouldn’t open for a while yet, so I followed the friendly lockmaster’s advice, and threw a line around one of the dolphins below the lock. I took the opportunity to Windex the last of the Chesapeake salt off the windshield, and get everything ready for some tie-ups. With the engine shut down, the place was profoundly quiet. I took a seat on the sundeck, and absorbed the beautiful weather, and the beautiful scenery. It was a really lovely spot.

Eventually the time came, the lock opened, we waded in, and threw out a couple of lines. After I’d gotten used to the serenity, the sound of my spluttering exhaust bouncing off the lock walls was offensively loud, so I turned the noisemaker off, and enjoyed a nice quiet lift. I graffitied the lock wall.

Just above the lock, there’s a nice wooden dock with room for maybe three Sylphides to tie up for free. Fortunately there was only one of us this time, so we had the place to ourselves. There’s no power or water, but the price was right, and the scenery quite pleasant, especially in the fall.

Part of what made the dock as pleasant as it was, was the park right next door. There’s a parking lot running parallel to the dock, with a thin row of trees between them. The lot was mostly vacant while I was there, with a couple of notable exceptions.

The first was when a car came in and parked in spot farthest from the picnic area, and nobody got out. A short while later, another car pulled in next to the first car. These were the only two cars in an otherwise abandoned lot, as far away from anything as possible, and about fifty feet from me. The second person got out, and got into the first person’s car. Being a little nosier than I ought to be, I may or may not have sneaked a peek with my best binoculars. Well, let me tell you, those fellas were really enjoying each other’s company. Ahem.

Well, I… didn’t see that happening today.

About an hour after the two uhhhhh….. lovebirds? I guess? had left, was the second notable arrival. A police car pulled in and parked about in the same spot. He didn’t get out for a while, but when he did, he came right out to the dock, and up to me. I couldn’t imagine what this might be about, but I wasn’t super comfy with the situation. Most of my experiences with police officers in the past had left me in a bad mood, so I was nervous. Was he going to ask me about those dudes noodling?

He didn’t. He asked how I was, and where I was from, and where I was heading, and whether I lived on the boat, and what kind of boat it was. He told me he’s always wanted to do what I was doing, but with his job and his family, he couldn’t. We talked about all of the sailing channels we both watched on the YouTubes, and commiserated over working night shifts. We carried on with this exceedingly pleasant conversation for a good fifteen minutes. I casually asked him about the neighborhood we were in, and whether I should be nervous spending the night there. He said no, and that it’s rarely ever more trouble than some bored kids smoking pots in the park after dark.

Before he left, he asked if I needed anything, a ride to the store maybe? He seemed to genuinely mean it, and I was honestly a little dumbfounded by his kindness and generosity. My inner nine year old even got a little excited at the prospect of riding around in a police car. I thanked him profusely, but I didn’t need anything. It was such an unexpected random act of kindness, and it made me feel silly for having such defensive instincts earlier.

The rest of the evening was quiet and comfortable. I slept well.

I got an early start the next morning in an effort to catch the first opening of the Deep Creek Bridge at 08:30. While I warmed up, I watched and listened to another cruising boat make their way through the lock behind me. It was Mikado, a nice looking fifty-something foot pilothouse trawler with a curvaceous canoe stern. I’d encountered this good ship and crew back in the spring when they’d moored next to me at Coinjock.

When they were clear of the lock and lined up behind me to wait for the bridge, I gave them a call on the radio to say hello. We had a gam on channel 68 for a while about the usual cruiser things. Where are you coming from, where are you headed, that sort of thing. They wished me a Happy Thanksgiving, which I’d nearly forgotten about, and they invited me over for a slice of pie if I decided to moor up next to them down the swamp at the visitor center. It was all very lovely, until the bridge operator broke in and told us to ‘quit bullshitting and pay attention!’ So we did.

He let us through, presumably with blood vessels bulging out of his neck, and we found ourselves on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal. This is the oldest continually operating man made canal in America, according to Wikipedia. It took twelve years to dig out of the swamp by hand, and opened in 1805. Apparently the whole thing was George Washington’s idea.

Aside from being an historic engineering marvel, it’s also quite beautiful, especially with the brightly colored fall foliage in all it’s glory. The canal is narrow, with steep banks, and tallish trees right up to the water’s edge. That, combined with the arrow-straightness of the 22 mile waterway, made me feel like a rubber duck in a rain gutter. Even on a gray and overcast day, It was a joy to throttle back and plod along at five(ish) miles an hour through the root beer colored water.

Along the way, we passed the old Superintendent’s house, thought to be the oldest structure on the canal. We also passed the SWAMP COMMANDER. No idea what this is, but I think I’m going to insist that I be addressed as SWAMP COMMANDER from this point forward, thankyouverymuch.

Eventually, we reached the South Mills Lock near the bottom end of the canal. We’d left Mikado and their pumpkin pie far behind by this point, and had resolved to make it to Elizabeth City before dark. So we had the lock to ourselves. The man-made part of the ditch met up with the Pasquotank River not long after the lock, and the channel started snaking around as much as the rest of the canal hadn’t. This part was definitely still wild, and complete with some cheesy hollywood fog machine effects, was decidedly swampy. It was very clear now where the Great Dismal Swamp got it’s name. It reminded me of the Waccamaw River in a very good way. Turns out I’m one of the people who really likes the Great Dismal Swamp Canal.

Elizabeth City eventually hove into view, and I lassoed myself a dock behind a restaurant supply warehouse. I know that sounds glamorous, but it wasn’t my favorite spot. There were a couple of reefer trucks idling in the parking lot all night, and the whole place was behind a fence and a locked gate. At least it was secure. It was also free, which is better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Really though, I had everything I needed. It was wet and gray outside, but I was warm and dry and comfortable. I had enough internets to have a zoom visit with the family. I was even able to find some takeout, though I had to crane it over the eight foot fence with my biggest boat hook. It was a poor substitute for a homecooked Thanksgiving dinner, but I didn’t have to cook it, and that always tastes great. I had a lot to be thankful for.

Swamp Commander, Out.

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