28 Days Aboard

When I first started this little blog, I’m pretty sure my intent was to update it each day with some info about the events of the day, where we were, what we saw, etc.   I had intended to use it as a way to both share our experience with friends and loved ones and to use it as a journal of sorts to help me remember the details of the trip.

Motoring down the Dismal Swamp Canal

Unfortunately, I soon realized that running a business from a cruising sailboat while making our way south occupies a heck of a lot more of our time than I had counted on.  It’s hard to wear both the “Captain” hat and the “President” hat and I sometimes fear I’m not doing a great job at either.  But hey — we’ve made it this far and we aren’t out of business!

We’re often underway just before the sun rises and we plan to be “somewhere” before dark each night.  Offshore in the ocean, overnight passages are a fantastic and enjoyable way to cover lots of miles.  You just set the autopilot and sort of relax.   But now that we are in the intracoastal waterway, there’s just too much to hit at night.  So we try to be anchored or in a marina before sunset.  I’m pretty exhausted after a day’s run but before bed it’s time to review the weather and plan the next day’s run.  Before you know it, it’s time to set out again.

The days are getting shorter and we generally are only getting around 40 or 50 miles a day in on a good day which is about the norm.  We are also spending much more time in places than I thought we ever would.  I apologize for not posting as much as I would like.  I’ll use this post to sort of catch up and bring you up to speed on our travels so far.  If you’ve read this much and plan to continue, then strap in… This is going to be a long post.

We really enjoyed Norfolk, VA and spent a few days in this cool city at the Waterfront Marina.  We indulged ourselves on great food and drinks and I even got a much needed haircut.   Cindy walked to the Chrysler Museum of Art and we did some provisioning using Amazon Now.  You just order your groceries or whatever you need and within 2 hours it shows up.  We put our slip number on our order and they delivered to the boat!  

Norfolk’s Battleship Wisconsin

One night in Norfolk as I was walking Willow back to the boat after her evening bathroom trip when encountered 3 river otters on the dock in front of our bow.  They sat there unafraid for a few moments as we drew a bit closer.  Then they dove off the dock into the water.  As Willow and I made our way down the finger pier to board Mavis, one of the otters picked her head up out of the water and peered over the dock only about a foot from Willow.  They were nose to nose for about 10 seconds when the thing jumped up on the dock and chased Willow down the pier!

Leaving Norfolk on a cloudy day.  Railroad lift bridge.

So after a few relaxing days in Norfolk it was time to say goodbye.  We were at the official Mile 0 of the ICW and it was just 1234 miles to Key West, Fl.  So we sailed off on a dreary morning down the Elizabeth River to the Dismal Swamp Canal, passing lots and lots of the ships of the mighty US Navy in various states of readiness.  Across from the marina was the General Dynamics facility where they do all sorts of work on these mighty vessels and the work continued around the clock!

BAE’s naval shipyard on the Elizabeth River.

When I last wrote, I was describing the Deep Creek Lock at the northern end of the Dismal Swamp Canal and Robert the lock master.  After our brief visit with him, we set off down the Dismal motoring through the duckweed floating on the surface.  Shortly after getting underway I realized the engine coolant temperature was about 10 degrees warmer than it usually is.  I monitored it for a bit until I saw the temp begin to climb even higher so I shut down the engine and let the boat drift in the narrow channel of the canal…  It’s about 60 feet wide and our beam is 14 feet so there was plenty of room on either side but our mast really needs to stay in the middle in many stretches as tree limbs hang over parts of the channel.  We were cautioned to avoid letting our mast make contact with the trees because it’s a good way to end up with snakes on board!

After shutting her down I went to check the raw water strainer.  It is very common to overheat in the Dismal Swamp Canal due to a water intake clogged with duckweed.  As expected, I found some weed in there and cleared it out but it didn’t seem like enough to cause the engine to overheat.  After firing her up, she wasn’t pumping enough water and she promptly got hot. Not wanting to sit there in the middle of the canal drifting from side to side in the gentle breeze I found that if I ran the boat at very low RPM she would maintain about 190 degrees.  Warmer than usual but not hot enough to cause any trouble.  I ran this way for 7 miles to Douglass Landing which was a convenient dock to tie up to and sort things out.  I opened up our raw water pump and found that our impeller had lost 3 of its blades.  The blades ended up in our heat exchanger causing a blockage.  Even if the little impeller missing 3 blades was able to move enough water to cool the engine, the missing blades were blocking water flow almost completely.  About an hour after stopping we were back underway.  My theory about what happened is that the duckweed blocked the water flow enough to cause the pump to run dry and destroy the impeller.  It’s also entirely possible that it was just time to replace it.  I had changed it in the spring before sailing North but we’ve put some good hours on the engine since then.

Our raw water impeller with the blades and ROCKS I removed from our heat exchanger!

The duckweed is so thick in parts of the swamp that Willow got fooled.  We had jumped into the dinghy to go on a short run to pick up some groceries and had to run though some very thick weed.  Willow, perched on the bow, her nose in the air thought the duckweed was dry land and jumped off.  The look on her face was priceless as she emerged covered in green wondering WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED!

What the heck happened?

I’m realizing how quickly my mood can change out here.  One minute I’m on top of the world, living our dreams, exploring new places and looking forward to the day’s adventure.  The next minute I’m worried about being stuck in the swamp.  What if it’s something serious?  Is this where the adventure ends?  An hour later I’m back on top of the world.  It’s been said that when cruising, the highs are high and the lows are low.  It’s like everything is magnified out here for some reason.  I’m also realizing that the feeling I have at the helm changes very quickly depending on the weather.  Obviously if the winds and seas are high and we are hanging on for dear life we aren’t going to be calm and relaxed but I’m talking about something much more subtle.  A few days ago, while sailing on the Chesapeake, I realized that I was not feeling calm and at ease the way I would normally feel in 10 to 15 knot winds and 1 to 2 foot seas.  Then, after a few moments passed, a large cloud moved just enough to allow the sun to light up the bay, the boat and my face.  The winds and seas were exactly the same but suddenly I felt confident, happy and just calm.  Until that moment I don’t think I ever realized how much of an impact the sun (or lack of sun) had on my state.  I’ll try to be more aware of this in the future.

After getting the engine cooling sorted out we chugged along through the beautiful Dismal Swamp Canal on our way to our next stop which was just a few miles down the canal.  The Dismal Swamp Visitor Center was just over the North Carolina line and we crossed the border with a happy little dance.  New states mean we are actually going somewhere!  We had been traveling at a snail’s pace for about a week, intentionally slowing ourselves down as we waited for our insurance company to green light us to go below Cape Hatteras.  The swamp in North Carolina looked exactly like the swamp in Virginia.  But it was nice to be in the Carolinas.  Looking at our charts, however, revealed that we would be in North and South Carolina for a long time!

We arrived at the visitor center’s free dock and quickly tied up to the pier.  There was room for about 3 boats and there were two already docked.  After docking up about 6 more boats which were close behind all pulled up needing a place to stay the night so we rafted them up and crammed everybody in for a comfortable but cold night in the swamp.

We had been enjoying 85 degree weather about a week before and the low that night hit 34.  There was no power on the free dock and we didn’t want to run our engine or our generator so we piled on the blankets and got as cozy as possible.  I started the engine at 6am the next morning and heated things up nicely before departing for the day’s trip to Elizabeth City, NC.

9 boat raft-up on the Dismal Swamp Canal.

The Dismal Swamp Canal was opened in 1805 and runs 22 miles from Chesapeake, VA to South Mills, NC.  We thought it was beautiful and despite our overheating ordeal I would take this route again but AFTER exiting the canal in South Mills, the scenery got epic.  Our route took us down the winding  Pasquotank River through dense forest with tall cypress trees just growing right up out of the water everywhere.   Those few hours on the Pasquotank between the lock and Elizabeth City, NC were some of the most scenic miles we have covered.  Photos just don’t do it justice.  

Cypress trees on the Pasquotank River

Arriving at Elizabeth City we tied up at the Mid Atlantic Christian University’s free dock.  We were greeted by some of the fellow cruisers we had met in the swamp and by Dan and Cathy who’s gorgeous and well-travelled sailboat graces the dock.  They work for the university and immediately ran over to help us get set up.  Lending us a long line to tie off to a tree on the shore and even opening up the showers in the gym for us.  Cool people indeed. 

Due to a gale that would make crossing the Albemarle Sound less than pleasant to say the least, we spent 3 nights in Elizabeth City.  We had dinner with some some new cruising friends and discovered some great little spots for food and drinks in this tiny town.  We also walked two miles and back to a Food Lion and did some provisioning.

After leaving Elizabeth City we motor-sailed for a few hours across the Albemarle Sound until the wind shut off.  It would blow 4 or 5 knots from just about every direction so instead of watching the headsail flop around like a wet blanket. I took it down and we motored down the Alligator River, through an interesting swing bridge and down to the Alligator-Pungo Canal.  Along the route to the canal the skies were full of fighter jets making low passes and maneuvering. 

Over the din of our diesel engine I would hear them approaching and crane my neck to watch the free airshow.  The planes (Hornets I think) passed pretty close overhead a few times at around 150′.  There’s a bombing range on the bank of the Alligator River and I hear this area gets really crazy sometimes when various reserve units rotate in to practice unloading their ordinance.

The Alligator-Pungo canal has no locks on either end and is ridiculously straight and narrow.  Along the banks there are stumps of trees just above and just below the waterline.  I considered what I would do if we had engine trouble here.  There’s really no place to stop for miles and miles.  Fortunately this was not an issue for us.  As we exited the canal the sun was beginning to set.  For the last 5 hours or so we had absolutely NO mobile signal at all.  We intentionally carry devices from various providers to use as mobile hotspots with the hopes that if one didn’t work, another would.  For many, many miles our phones were useless.  You realize how much you depend on the internet when suddenly it’s gone for a bit.  As I’ve said before we NEED a connection in order to operate our business and finance this grand adventure.  So I scanned the charts and found a marina about 5 miles ahead that offered WIFI.  We had intended to anchor out for the night and there were lots of nice spots on this gorgeous evening but we didn’t know if and when we would get service back so we opted to hail the marina and see if they could take us.

About an hour later we were tied to the dock at the lovely Dowry Creek Marina outside of Belhaven, NC.  Although we still had no cellular service the marina’s WIFI was useable — barely.

The next morning we chose to depart this marina and go about 5 miles further to the little town of Belhaven. 

There we found excellent connectivity and planned to spend the night before setting off for Oriental.  Unfortunately, while tied up at Belhaven, another Gale popped up and offered us 35 knot winds to cross the Pamlico Sound to the Neuse River so we ended up staying two nights at Belhaven.  We were almost stuck there for 3 or more nights.  We had one good day of sailing forecast before more crappy weather was forecast.  The forecast called for a day of light winds and sun followed by 1 day of heavy rain and 35 knot winds with 50 knot gusts followed by one more day of 30 knot winds as a nor’easter moved though the area.  We wanted to leave Belhaven but didn’t want to get caught out so only after having a reservation at the Oriental Marina and Inn did we set off.

But before leaving we had some very important business to take care of.  While on the Alligator River, I discovered we were not alone.  Somewhere (probably in the Dismal Swamp) we had picked up an uninvited stowaway.  I found some mouse droppings near my electrical panel and promptly freaked out.  We are sleeping, cooking, eating, showering, shitting and living in about 450 square feet of living space…  There was no room for a disease-carrying rodent to be scurrying around!  I resolved to get some traps as soon as we made port.  In Bellhaven I purchased 8 traps…  4 glue traps and 4 snap traps.  We tore apart the entire boat, emptying all of the storage holds and putting our food into plastic bins for safekeeping until we knew we were rodent-free.  We discovered that something had chewed into a 35 pound bag of dog food which we had stored in a compartment under a seat.  After setting some traps and leaving Willow on board, we went to dinner with John and Martha from As You Wish, a trawler heading south.  We had enjoyed their company in Elizabeth City and were happy to see their boat pulling into the marina.  After a nice dinner we returned to our boat to find a tiny field mouse stuck to a glue trap.  He was cute.  But I confess I got some satisfaction watching him try to pull his little chest up off of the trap.  

We left the remaining traps out for a few nights and I’m happy to report that Mavis is free of rodents. 


As I write this it’s pouring outside here in Oriental.   Cindy, Willow and I are warm and dry inside Mavis’ comfy and rodent-free saloon.  Yesterday we walked around a bit.  It’s been 45 days since Hurricane Florence came through here and there are still huge piles of debris.  Everywhere you look there are people working on repairs and you can hear power tools up and down the streets.

I’m getting a little stir crazy in here but tomorrow, after the rain stops,  I will stretch my legs and maybe do some exercise.  I also need to change the engine oil.  It’s amazing how quickly the engine hours rack up when you’re cruising.

Here are some stats.

We have travelled 600 nautical miles since leaving Long Island on 9/29.

We have put 87 hours on our engine and burned approximately 58 gallons of diesel.

We are currently at mile 185 of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

We’ve sailed on oceans, bays, sounds, rivers, creeks and canals.

We saw a high temperature of 87 back in Deltaville, VA and a low of 34 in the Great Dismal Swamp.

We have killed 2 birds and one mouse since leaving.

That’s it for this monster catch-up post.  I promise to try to blog more frequently in bite-sized chunks from now on.

Capt. Frank