…is how a fellow sailor we met described the Intracoastal Waterway (“ICW”). After our action-packed week visting family, friends, and historical sites in Washington, DC, it took about a week to get back into the groove aboard EXIT. There were days coming down the Chesapeake when we were the only boat that we could see which, along with the cold and rainy weather, contributed to a sense that we were late making our way south.
We were actually lucky with the weather all the way down as we had predominantly northerly winds that allowed us to (mostly) sail from Annapolis down to Norfolk. Norfolk is the largest naval base in the world, and while sailing (slowly, against a strong current) into the harbor we spotted a U.S. Navy submarine being escorted out to the Atlantic. The next morning, as we made our way to the top of the ICW, we passed a huge number and variety of Navy ships: aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, hospital ships, guided-missile frigates, etc. The scale of these ships and of the base itself was awesome, and I found myself thinking about how frightening it must be to be on the receiving end of this massive force. Unfortunately it seems that they are not well-suited to the asymmetric conflict in which we now find ourselves.
Diana Holmes, my sister-in-law Lindy’s mother, lives in Virginia Beach. She was able to come meet us in Chesapeake, VA, and ended up joining us for an extremely enjoyable trip through the Deep Creek Lock near the beginning of the Great Dismal Swamp Canal. Soren, Elsa and I retrieved her from a park just outside the lock and we had a quick lunch in the cockpit before the 13:30 lock opening. We were the only boat to lock through, which allowed Robert Peek, the extremely loquacious Lock Master, to give us his full attention.
Mr. Peek has been the Deep Creek Lock Master for the last 21 years and I think that he relished the audience that we provided. He regaled us with a history of the canal’s construction, including the story of Marcus Grandy, a slave who had proposed purchasing his freedom from his owner by working on the canal’s construction. The digging work only paid 2 bits (12.5¢) a day but he also hauled cargo and cut shingles at night to augment this meager income and after 3 years, had earned the $600 required to purchase his freedom. The owner took the $600 and sold him to another master. Grandy made the same offer to this new master and after three more years had again amassed $600. Unfortunately, the same thing happened, this new master taking the $600 and selling him to a new owner, this time a French-Canadian trapper, who was working the swamp. Undaunted, Grandy again offered to purchase his freedom and after three more years, was finally able to buy his freedom from the French-Canadian, who honored the agreement. Grandy spent the rest of his life working in the Great Dismal Swamp, earning money to purchase the freedom for the rest of his family. The Commonwealth of Virginia recently named an area road after Grandy, which seems like a fitting tribute (and a good start).
When the Lock Master heard that we were from the Bay Area, he told us of a trip he took to San Francisco when he was a teenager, accompanying his father to a Mended Hearts convention (for survivors of heart attacks). It happened to coincide with the Gay Pride parade, and he was flabbergasted by the crowds. Entering his hotel room, he said to the African-American housekeeper that he “couldn’t believe” what he had seen outside. She replied: “I know. Isn’t it wonderful that there’s a place people can feel comfortable just being themselves?” He, a young, unworldly southerner, found this response to be devastating, changing his outlook on tolerance for the rest of his life.
The Lock Master’s house was decorated with large shells brought to him from the Carribean by northbound cruisers. When Elsa asked what kind they were, Mr. Peek said conch (pr. “conk”), proceeded to pick one up and serenade us by playing one like a trumpet, moving his hand in and out of the aperture to control the tone. (Peek actually makes a cameo in this New Yorker story about an eccentric canoeist who, like us, was attempting to make his way from Canada to Florida.)
Once the water level was raised about 10 feet we could pass through the lock — a process that, with all of voluble Mr. Peek’s stories and Q & A, took about 90 minutes. We tied up to the Elizabeth docks on the canal side, Diana departed, the kids ran around in the park’s playground, and for dinner we ordered a comically large pizza that was delivered right to the boat. Despite being one of the shortest distances that we traveled, this ended up as one of the most memorable days so far.
After breakfast at the Lock Master’s house the following morning, we made our way down canal to the Great Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center. We hiked on a boardwalk through the swamp, on a sandy path along the canal, and returned through a fecund forest, full of brambles and hanging vines. The swamp is fed by springs that filter through the roots of the trees in the swamp, resulting in a tannin-stained dark water. The kids remarked that it looked like we were motoring through root beer.
We made it through the downstream lock the following afternoon (the extremely taciturn Lock Master was the diametric opposite of Robert Peek) and after an overnight stop at Elizabeth City, merged back into the main ICW in Albemarle Sound. We were able sail a bit down Albemarle and into the top of the Alligator River. Our anchorage at the top of the Alligator River – Pungo River Canal felt remote (the first time in a while we hadn’t had cell service contributed) and the terrain was incredibly foreign, like a river in Africa. We started out all alone, but during the course of the afternoon, four other boats came in to anchor. We barbecued turkey burgers for dinner that night, and it felt like we were back to having an adventure again.
The weather continued to cooperate, allowing us to unfurl the genoa and either motorsail or actually sail, helping us exceed the titular six miles-an-hour. We ran aground (or, based on the preferred phrase from John McPhee’s Looking for a Ship, “touched bottom”) once, having misread some red and green buoys at a channel entrance, I ran us up on a shoal. Luckily, EXIT’s shallow draft allowed us to slide over the top of the sand bar and keep going. Summer Daze, a smaller sailboat with a deeper draft just behind us, wasn’t as fortunate and was still aground as we passed through the Onslow Beach Bridge.
A shortish day down the wide Cape Fear River brought us to Southport, NC, where we departed on a overnight passage to Charleston, SC. We delayed for one day to wait for the weather to warm up a bit and made good time, reaching Charleston just after daybreak. Another overnight passage around Georgia landed us in Fernandina Beach. We sailed wing-on-wind with a poled-out genoa for most of the first afternoon and then, as we were trading off watches at 11:00, having motored overnight for 14+ hours, Linda noticed white smoke from the engine exhaust. When I checked the engine temperature it was climbing and no water was coming out the engine exhaust (this is bad). We shut the engine down and Linda sailed in light air while I tried to diagnose and fix the issue underway. We were tantalizingly close to the St. Mary’s River channel entrance. When I checked the raw-water strainers in Charleston in advance of our departure, they were full of silty mud (possibly the result of a shallow anchorage in Southport). I thought that maybe the mud had migrated downstream and was clogging the cooling system, but as I traced it through from the raw-water strainers to the pump and the engine heat exchanger stack, everything was clean. Around 15:00, wanting to get in before dark, we called Towboat U.S. (covered this time, since we joined in the wake of our Cape May engine issues) and landed at Amelia Island Yacht Basin just before sundown.
And now, your moment(s) of zen…