Frugal’s fine, but “free” is our favorite four-letter word. This month let’s cruise the Dismal Swamp Canal, along what easily can be a free-dock-every-night route from Norfolk to Albemarle Sound.
Longer, skinny water and too many logs, you’ve heard? Well, don’t rule out the Dismal Swamp until you weigh the facts. After all, most boaters who try it return year after year. Only 3 miles longer than Virginia Cut, it’s a more peaceful, scenic trip through a unique area with no commercial traffic. Unless it’s an exceptional drought year, the Dismal Swamp canal carries a minimum of 6 feet. (Latest updates are posted at www.dismalswampwelcomecenter.com, or call 252-771-8333.) And, despite the occasional much-publicized forum rant, this route has no more debris than any other wooded portion of the ICW.
The route is especially popular in the fall, when foliage peaks and the insects are gone. But whether spring or fall, it’s so popular you may have to raft at the most in-demand courtesy docks. What a great way to meet other cruisers headed in the same direction!
Most ICW travelers tend to rush, timing the two locks for a two-day trip. You shouldn’t plan on going fast (the entire canal is no-wake, to prevent erosion of this historic landmark), and our advice is to actually slow down and stop more. It may be only 45 miles to Elizabeth City, but we suggest taking several days. If you feel pressured for time, you can always speed up during the subsequent leg through Albemarle Sound and the Alligator River-Pungo River Canal, where a “good” overnight stop is a roly anchorage overlooking leaden water and distant dead cypress trees.
So enjoy the scenery and serenity while you can! You won’t find a more welcoming community than the Dismal Swamp Canal and its main port of call, Elizabeth City. Plus, all overnight mooring along this route—with the exception of two affordable marinas (Lamb’s Marina and Pelican Marina)—is free. Here are several highlights of our frugal faves, describing three free docks, one anchorage, and one marina.
West of the Deep Creek Lock in Chesapeake, Virginia, lies a well-maintained courtesy dock known as Elizabeth’s Dock (Dismal Swamp statute mile marker (STM) 10.7 at 36°44.74N 76°20.49W). Donated by a local resident in memory of his wife Elizabeth, it welcomes 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 stanchions are locked. The park has picnic tables and portable toilets. A grocery store, pharmacy and a couple of casual restaurants are nearby.
The highlight of the dock 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 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. Ask him to share a story of the Dismal Swamp’s history or play a tune on one of the many conch shells given to him by cruisers.
You haven’t done the Dismal if you haven’t stopped at the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center (STM 27.8 at 36°30.41N 76°21.34W). This cruising community landmark is a unique stop, since 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 take advantage of all the nearby activities. The Welcome Center, located in a well-maintained park, provides courtesy bikes for its canalside paved bike path into the small town of South Mills. Or walk across the pedestrian pontoon bridge (the only pontoon bridge on the ICW since the retirement of the Sunset Beach Bridge) to Dismal Swamp State Park. They have an interpretive visitor center, a lovely 1-mile nature boardwalk to see the true swamp (with dry feet!) 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. But camaraderie is high at this friendly stop. 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 not, feel free to organize one!
GOAT ISLAND ANCHORAGE
Goat Island Anchorage often suffers the fate of a tweener. Located in a spacious oxbow behind Goat Island (STM 43.8 at 36°20.58N 76°13.25W), it’s only 16 miles from the Welcome Center and only 7 miles to Elizabeth City. Because it falls between these two popular stops, most cruisers pass it by.
But what a perfect anchorage: It’s wide, deep, scenic, quiet and protected. And, by stopping here for a night, you’re more likely to time a midmorning arrival to snag a slip at the courtesy docks in Elizabeth City.
It’s fun to dinghy or kayak 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, consider that they offer four free docking locations. 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 allocating at least two nights for Elizabeth City.
The most well-known courtesy docks are located right along the downtown waterfront (STM 50.9 at 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 are fresh water, daytime restrooms and free town Wi-Fi, but no electricity. You can check to see if the slips are occupied using the harborcam at www.ecncweather.com/harborcam.php.
Catamarans and large trawlers often use the bulkhead at Jennette Brothers, a food service company just north of the Elizabeth City bascule bridge (STM 50.7 at 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 weren’t going to happen anyway!
Another option for wide or larger vessels is Elizabeth City’s courtesy bulkhead at Waterfront Park (STM 51.0 at 36°17.83N 76°13.08W). This location is right across from the new Museum of the Albemarle, impressive and 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 (STM 50.6 at 36°18.19N 76°12.98W). This small waterfront college provides eight finger slips right along the ICW, with very deep water, for boats with up to an 11-foot beam. The slips are basic (no water or electricity), but are within an easy walk to downtown.
Southbound, Elizabeth City is where you’ll stage, awaiting the right wind and sea conditions to cross Albemarle Sound. If you’d like to stay longer than the city dock’s 48-hour limit, or if you want electricity and showers, Pelican Marina is an excellent option.
Pelican Marina is located just across the small harbor (STM 51.4 at 36°18.03N 76°12.71W). It’s a no-frills, cruiser-friendly marina at a $35-per-night flat rate (including electricity, fresh water, restrooms/showers and Wi-Fi). A short walk over the bascule bridge and you’re in the heart of town!
FRI, LIBRE, AND GRATUIT
Free, free and free. As Steve Atkinson, former Mayor of Elizabeth City asks, “Do you detect a theme here?” At this price, why not try the Dismal Swamp? We’re confident you’ll enjoy these frugal favorites and this truly unique locale. The canal, envisioned by George Washington and hand-dug by slaves, is a National Historic Landmark and the oldest operating man-made waterway in the United States. It’s yours to experience, for free.
In the next installment Mark and Diana Doyle look at frugal faves through North Carolina. The cruising couple manage On the Water ChartGuides Foundation, offering “almost free” cruising and anchoring guides for the Intracoastal Waterway (www.onthewaterchartguides.org).