Martin Fuller and partner Stephanie discover the atmospheric Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway from Albemarle to Chesapeake in Virginia

Stephanie and I had left Cape Verde on the 6 January 2020, on a blustery and wet morning almost exactly six months before arriving at Elizabeth City in North Carolina, USA, writes Martin Fuller.

For the early part of our passage the pandemic had hardly featured at all but from the Turks and Caicos Islands northwards, restrictions began to bite; however, we were fortunate to be able to enter the USA in Miami.

We moved steadily north, reaching North Carolina almost on schedule in early June 2020. From here, we planned to take the Great Dismal Swamp route on the Intracoastal Waterway from the Albemarle Sound to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia.

We were heading towards Canada and Newfoundland on our 39ft Sadler, Starlight, on a three-year circumnavigation of the north Atlantic and had been enjoying some wonderful cruising through the Caribbean before creeping up the US east coast, keeping one step ahead of the pandemic all the way, as the US states were gradually easing their initial COVID-19 restrictions.

We had decided to take the Dismal Swamp Canal on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW) rather than the more open and slightly longer Elizabeth River route from the Albemarle to the Chesapeake due to its reputation as an atmospheric and historical shortcut.

Infamous canal

We had read a lot about the slave history of the southern States as we travelled north, and the Dismal Swamp had figured strongly as a key point on the slave ‘underground railroad’ as well as a refuge for runaways due to its impenetrable swamps, which prevented the slave hunters’ dogs from tracking them.

This combined with the very name ‘the Dismal Swamp’ had made it a must-visit location on our route. The 22-mile canal was dug in 12 years by slaves, working in horrific conditions, to provide a shipping route that avoided the notorious and storm-ridden passage around Cape Hatteras on the initiative of George Washington in 1793. He, and his investors, had hoped that the swamp, once drained, would provide a viable settlement and income source.

However, the company soon turned to the more lucrative option of logging and timber extraction, which subsequently devastated the swamp’s ecosystem.

Before the days of refrigeration, this amber-coloured water was coveted for long voyages, for its antibacterial properties

The canal is shallow and narrow with one bend and one lock at each end. Silting had already caused us problems on the AICW so we contacted the US Corps of Engineers, responsible for the canal’s maintenance, before committing ourselves to the route. They confidently confirmed that the centreline of the canal was indeed maintained at 6ft – very reassuring given our 5ft 6in draught.

Into the swamp

Our transit began at 0830 on 4 June at Elizabeth City where we entered the 11-mile stretch of the Pasquotank River in beautiful sunshine and almost no wind. With negligible current against us we were able to motor quietly upstream entering a new world where the trees and foliage, alive with insects and wildlife, closed in and provided an almost magical backdrop as we glided over mirror-like water with no other humans in sight – it was totally unlike anything we had encountered to date on the passage and it was very special.

Beautiful cedar, gum and juniper trees draped with mistletoe and Spanish moss crowded the banks. With ospreys nesting and fishing around us, it was an enchanting introduction to the swamp. And despite the rapidly shallowing water, and negotiating an unmarked cul-de-sac, by midday we
were scraping our way into the South Mills Lock entrance.

Despite reassurance of a 6ft centreline depth, the canal had shallow patches including at South Mills Lock

Our journey into the wonderful wilderness had begun. We were now surrounded by dense foliage, almost joining overhead, and with the aroma of the damp swamp surrounding us, the arrow-straight canal drew us onwards.

Sadly, Interstate 17 now runs along the eastern bank of this section, making a noisy neighbour, but despite this we saw deer feeding on the banks, a myriad of small turtles basking on logs and plopping into the water as we approached, butterflies and mayflies clung to the rigging and one beautiful but deadly Cottonmouth snake – also known as a water moccasin – swam past us in the murky brown water.

These snakes are almost blind and hunt by sensing vibrations, hence its attraction to the boat. We discovered that the amber colour of the water was caused by the tannic acids from the bark of the surrounding juniper, gum and cypress trees, which prohibit the formation of bacteria; this made the water a highly-prized commodity on sailing ships.

Venomous cottonmouth snakes were attracted to the boat as they hunt via vibrations

Before the days of refrigeration, it was put in kegs for long voyages as the tannins’ anti-bacterial preservation qualities would help to keep the water fresh for a long time.

Dank and humid

Now, enveloped in the damp, humid, windless atmosphere with the sun’s rays piercing the canopy, we slunk and snaked steadily along the millpond-calm surface, avoiding overhanging vegetation and bumping and scraping our way north as the depth regularly failed to live up to the predicted 6ft.

By mid-afternoon we reached halfway and tied up at the canal’s heritage centre. Sadly, like most facilities, it was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. In the still air the mosquitoes descended so we decided to push on as the Dismal Swamp was beginning to live up to its name and we were glad to reach the end at Deep Creek Lock just before sunset, completing the transit without seeing another vessel.

Crossing the swamp was a memorable experience but perhaps not for the reasons we had hoped and we saw only a fraction of the wildlife that inhabits the area. However, it was very atmospheric and has earned its place as a very interesting part of our Atlantic passage.

Martin Fuller and his partner Stephanie left Pwllheli, North Wales, in 2019 on a Sadler Starlight 39, to sail round the Atlantic bound for Greenland.

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