Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cruising the Dismal Swamp Canal

Open Sesame.
After a very hearty artery-clogging breakfast at Colonial Restaurant (where all the locals eat), MicMac requested a 9 a.m. opening of the Elizabeth City bridge and slowly meandered up the rest of the Pasquotank River. It's a pleasant hybrid of the Chickahominy and Waccamaw rivers. The only things in abundance (in addition to water and trees) were mistletoe and turtles. We only saw one water moccasin (identified because it swims with most of its body above water), one cormorant, one osprey, and one fishing boat.

After about 18 miles, the waterway got very narrow, thanks to George Washington, William Byrd (of Westover Plantation fame), and some guy named Turner for whom Turner Cut is named. The other boats on the Elizabeth City docks left early and we had the lower section of the infamous Dismal Swamp Canal all to ourselves. Kind of eerie and serene.
Tranquil Dismal Swamp

This 22 mile canal is the oldest continually operating canal in the United States. Now a National Historic Landmark, a National Civil Engineering Landmark, and on the National Register of Historic Places, the Dismal Swamp includes a new visitors’ center (that we visited after tying up to their dock for the night) and is part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program
The South Mills lock opened (and closed) just for MicMac. The lock we had gone through in the Virginia Cut on our way south had a minimal few inches of difference. But the water level in this one changes about 8 feet. As we floated out of the lock, two powerboaters who didn’t know about timed openings arrived.

“Dismal” it is not—unless you come here in buggy hot July or August. But hey, it’s upper 90s right now. A breeze makes all the difference. I wonder what it was like when George surveyed it in 1763 (so they say) or when the hundreds of slaves cut and dug through here for 12 years, ending in 1805. Now the Corps of Engineers keeps it dredged and free of flotsam and fallen trees.
South Mills Lock opens for MicMac.

Gentle Bens
There are only two other boats with us on this free dock. Free is OK, but AC would be great on this first really hot day of our trip. Tonight we’ll watch for black bears after dark. Pete is cooking mahi mahi tonight and I understand that they like that, and the Visitor Center log indicated that some had been spotted here this week. NOT these friendly chaps.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The "Rose Buddies" of Elizabeth City, NC

On “crab watch” across Albemarle Sound to Elizabeth City, NC

We lucked out on our return crossing of Albemarle Sound today. No major wave action or high winds to make it fearsome; just more crab pot floats concentrated in one body of water than we’d ever seen. It was an obstacle course of the worst kind and we had to keep all four eyes (or eight eyes including sunglasses) open all the time.

Was Goodyear Blimp born here?
Blimp City
As we headed into the Pasquotank River (related to the Piankatank?) to Elizabeth City, we noticed a huge structure to port. A huge blimp next to it reminded us that we had read in the cruisers’ guide about this “blimp factory” being here since WWII days. It seems that the blimps of that era greatly reduced the number of German U-boat sinkings along the NC coast. Now all blimps except for the Goodyear one are manufactured here.

Elizabeth City Legends
We had read so much about the welcome mat that Elizabeth City lays out for cruisers and were anxious to experience it. I’m happy to report that the “Rose Buddies” legend of hospitality continues.

Although Elizabeth City was founded in 1793, it wasn’t that important economically until the Dismal Swamp Canal was completed in 1805. That’s when the area planters and lumber companies got their link to the port of Norfolk, and commerce thrived. It's a city on the cusp of their Renaissance to to speak. LOTS of old commercial storefronts and historic homes. There's a humongous walking tour if you're gung-ho. Pete and I were only mini gung because it was kinda hot today, so we only walked around a small bit of the town, plus visited the Museum of the Albemarle--that includes a cool exhibit about the nearby Coast Guard aviation base (largest in the US). They've had their hands full lately overseeing the oil leak in the Gulf.

Nearly another 100 years later in 1983, the complimentary (as in free) city docks were built and cruisers (who love anything free) began to arrive. Two long time residents, Fred Fearing and Joe Kramer (may they rest in peace) started hosting free wine and cheese parties for visiting cruisers and giving roses to the “First Mates.”

Dave Thomas and his wife are "Rose Buddies."
Dave Thomas, a friend of both Fearing and Kramer, is now the “Senior Rose Buddy.” He and his wife now come by when the Elizabeth City Area Visitors Bureau lets him know that 5 or more boats have arrived. Dave warmly welcomes everyone and briefs cruisers on what to expect on the Dismal Swamp Canal. At least he did tonight since all of us were heading north. Dave's been offering this volunteer sevice since 1986! Talk about devoted!!!!

The ex-mayor, Steve Atkinson, also gave us heads-up on the local restaurants, wine tastings, free concerts and classid movie nights, Saturday farmers market, and Museum of the Arbemarle (also free though they accept donations). He's quite an ambassador for the city too. Elizabeth City Convention & Visitors Bureau Director, Charlotte Underwood, warmly welcomed all of us as well.

Roses are still given to the wonderful first mates at the end of this party. Small town hospitality never felt so warm and genuine. I asked Dave if he’ll hand the Rose Buddy baton to anyone some day, and he assured me that there’s someone in the wings.

This was only the second Rose Buddy party this year since they only hold it when 5 or more boats are in the slips. Guess we’re on the front end of the snow bird parade north. Hope you can be so lucky.

Southern NC Hospitality
Cruisers will also meet the very super-friendly Sam, a WWII vet (not many still with us) who has unofficially appointed himself dockmaster. He stops by every afternoon around 2 to greet the cruisers. I asked him if he'd be staying for the "party," but he said "No, I go visit an elderly lady in a nearby nursing home every day from 4 to 4:30 because no relatives visit her." That's the kind of folks who live in Elizabeth City.

After the Rose Buddy wine and cheese, we headed to a yummy dinner at Cypress Creek Grill.

Elizabeth City deserves this self-proclaimed nickname, "Harbor of Hospitality." Sometime ya just gotta toot your own horn.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Now at Alligator River Marina

Rain throughout the day, and nothing too remarkable in the Pungo River-Alligator River Canal except for one Stevens tug and barge and some wild turkeys. Too dreary for photos.

We passed  Mile Marker 85 today. Wow, only double digits to Norfolk! Staying again at the Alligator River Marina where Miss Wanda herself helped us tie up. They have a strong signal Wifi connection here too. Our BVM (Blessed Virgin Mobile) has not been getting signals out here in the NC boonies for the last few days. I'm lost without my internet umbilical cord.

Captain Pete just phoned the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center to confirm that they have enough water for a 5' draft boat. So tomorrow we'll cross Albemarle Sound and stay in Elizabeth City tomorrow night. All the powerboaters at Dowry Creek were talkin' scare stories to us yesterday about bent props, etc. But we're not listening to them. We came south in the Virginia Cut, and really want to experience both Elizabeth City's hospitality and the Dismal Swamp.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Mile Markers promise home soon

Mile Marker 200 on the ICW
The ICW in North Carolina has mile marker signs indicating the miles to Norfolk. That is real incentive for us to tackle some longer motor-sailing days. This voyage has been terrific, but it's feeling great to be getting closer to home. Only about 180 more miles, so less than a week to go! Key West, by the way, was at Mile Marker 1250.

After leaving Surf City, we had great southwest winds and were able to use those big white things on our boat. With the sails up and a current that was with us for a change, we were flying to Morehead City at 6-7 knots all day. We had stayed in Beaufort, the cutesy touristy town with lots of fine restaurants and bistros, on the way down and opted for a change this time because we had two pounds of shrimp that needed to be consumed soon.

Would you dine at an Unsanitary Restaurant?
Morehead City is a major NC port city and a sport-fishing mecca. Not too many sailboats in the Morehead City Yachtbasin marina. But the town is famous for its "boat to table" seafood restaurants. Where else would a restaurant called “Sanitary Restaurant and Fishmarket” be a big success since 1938?

Sanitary landfill is a misnomer as well!

The “Reelin’ for Research” fishing tournament and fundraiser for the children's hospital was ending, and the testosterone-laden fishing crews were heading in with their wahoo and dolphin. Lots of hoopin’ and hollerin’ on the docks as they weighed their catches. Little kids got into the act too.

Wow, that's an impressive catch.
There were a few open antique stores and gift shops within walking distance of the marina, so I had enough to keep me happy as Pete took a long walk.

There’s still a lot of nasty looking orange and red “stuff” on the radar heading our way (caused tornados in Arkansas and flooding in Tennessee) and the winds were very favorable, so we bypassed Oriental yesterday, instead anchoring much farther north in Campbell Creek last night.

Record-breaking highs yesterday along eastern North Carolina and an approaching front encouraged us to think marina for tonight. The 15 knot breezes kept us cool in our anchorage last night. But AC tonight will be even better.

I spotted Bum’s Rest with the binoculars and radioed them as they were heading to Oriental. We met them last January before they headed to the Bahamas with Sheet Music, and have been following each other on our mutual blogs since then. “It’s a small world after all” on the water. Perhaps we'll meet up farther north. We're planning on taking the Dismal Swamp route home--if there's enough water in it.

Examples of upcycling
We stayed in Dowry Creek Marina in Belhaven, on the advice of Stu and Claudia. What a nice place. I loved the upcycled items that showed real creativity. Have you ever seen such a large hummingbird feeder? And what a great use for old Crocs!

We reserved their loaner car to go into Belhaven's "downtown" after we got barnacles off the dinghy (sounds like a nasty venereal disease, doesn't it?)

Just got back after a 30 minute drive in which we saw only one interesting sight: an old guy on a bike that was too small, peddling slow past the huge newly-plowed fields with his knees out at about a 45 degree angle from the bike. Belhaven has one nice little restaurant, Fish Hooks, where we enjoyed a tasty dinner last October. But it's the definitive sleepy little NC town. No, not town; how about village or hamlet?

Had to get back to the marina anyway for showers and the dock happy hour at 5:30. Jeez, it's hot today.

"Surf City, USA"

Surf City Buddies
Shades of Jan and Dean . . .
When we left Southport, our next destination was Surf City (the North Carolina one, as opposed to the West Coast's). Do NOT plan on using this marina's showers—unless they replace the mildewed shower curtains. Yuck! Thankfully, we had plenty of water for showering onboard.

We chose Surf City and the Beach House Marina so we could again get together with John and Patti Suggs because we always have a great time with them. After docktails on MicMac (Patti is now very experienced at climbing onboard!) and a yummy dinner with them at Daddie Mac’s, they drove us around Surf City and to their home to view all their "yard art." Patti is really into frogs. This town reminded me of the Jersey shore of my childhood, or more recently the Keys. Mostly residential, and no mega highrises. The kind of town where everyone gets to know all their neighbors along the canals in no time.

We chatted with Pelican’s Captain Bob for a short time. He has also been on an October through now cruise down to Key West (and also the Florida west coast). His Sailing Life blog is great, so I’ve added it to my blog links on the right. His Pearson 42 was quite a bit faster than MicMac, so he blew by us the next morning as we headed north to Morehead City. Maybe we'll meet him again the next time we're in Long Island Sound.

Interesting "yard art" along the ICW
I had to take another photo of a "scenic wonder" along the NC ICW. Talk about yard art and a great sense of humor!