“Captain, when the gates open, and you see the green light, enter the chamber and come to the starboard side. Have two long lines ready at the bow and stern.” Such is our entry into Deep Creek Lock. Ours is the only boat locking through and we feel pretty special that the Army Corps of Engineers would devote so much effort to little ol’ 17-foot Go-Cat and crew. The gates close, and the water rises up, up, up. We take in the slack of the lines as we ascend the walls of the lock chamber. Eight feet above the waterway we just left astern, the gates are open, and we’re released to the Dismal Swamp Canal. The root beer-colored water makes it clear (pun intended) that we’ve arrived. 

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Transiting locks in our 17-foot Boston Whaler. 

Our destination for the night is Lake Drummond, or more accurately a small campsite close to the lake at the end of a three-mile long “feeder ditch” off of the main Dismal Canal. In the meantime, we’re reveling in the beauty of this cool, sunny, day and this wild-feeling place. 

We departed on this adventure at dawn from our home port of Locklies Creek on the Rappahannock River. We proceeded via the open water of the Chesapeake to Hampton Roads. Luckily the wide expanse of Mobjack Bay was relatively easy going; not too choppy as it’s prone to be. We paraded far up the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River on our way to Deep Creek. We couldn’t help gaping at the many warships based there and were also entertained by all the industrial marine activity. We were wide-eyed in wonder, the kids in us shining through.

dismal swamp canal
Planning for this trip has been in the works for a long time. 

Small Boat Odyssey

It’s early spring and my brother Kit and I once again find ourselves on a self-sufficient small boat odyssey. It promises all the elements of a good adventure including of course discovery, discomfort, hilarity, and a bit of the unknown. We’re aboard my Boston Whaler Montauk 17 Go-Cat (visit proptalk.com/delmarva-loop-17-foot-boston-whaler to read about last year’s adventure). Our intention is to complete a counterclockwise loop comprising the historic Dismal Swamp Canal, Albemarle and Currituck Sounds, and the normal ICW Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal. Navigating the Chesapeake from our place on the Rappahannock to Hampton Roads and back is a bonus extension of the voyage. 

We’re settled down at our campsite deep in the swamp. It’s chilly; we’re wearing just about everything we brought. As consolation there’s not another soul here, and that includes mosquitoes. We have the place to ourselves. We got fancy and brought a small single-burner stove this time, so we savor hot beef stew with random fixins’ like cheese and crackers and apple sauce. Later, we study the stars before bedding down cozy. I awake several times during the night, amazed at not only the silence and the brilliance of the stars above, but how heavily dew-soaked my sleeping bag is.

dismal swamp canal
Kit’s sleeping setup is draped across the bow, and it looks pretty comfy, considering. 

“Ugh it’s cold. Rise and shine!” is the mutual call to arms at dawn. Oatmeal and bananas are featured on the breakfast menu, and then we hustle to pack up and get underway into the fog of early dawn. We retrace our track along the feeder ditch back to the main canal and turn south, cruising at a stately and mandated 5.5 knots. It’s gorgeous; we love seeing the early signs of spring. We see several majestic bald eagles. Our first stop of the morning is the Dismal Swamp Visitor Center, where we meet some friendly folks and learn about the history of the Canal. Surveyed by those famous chaps George Washington and William Byrd in the 1700s, the 22-mile-long canal opened in 1805. It’s the oldest man-made waterway in the US in continuous use.

The lock at South Mills is situated right in the middle of the sleepy, friendly village. We have some time before transiting the bridge and lock there, so we dry our damp things, spreading them out in the sun on a grassy lawn. We even refill one of our fuel jugs at the local gas station a few steps away from the boat.

It’s a while later and we’ve left the South Mills lock astern; we have dropped down the eight feet of water level we had gained earlier. From this point to Elizabeth City, NC, we run the Turner Cut and the drop-dead-gorgeous stretch of Pasquotank River. The ancient-looking bald cypress trees lining the river are adorned with healthy bunches of mistletoe. We cruise the smooth water at 3200 RPM which yields about 18 mph, and the boat seems alive and happy beneath us. Kit and I are certainly feeling the joy, so lucky to be out here experiencing the magic.

dismal swamp canal
The author (left) and his brother Kit. 

We stretch our legs along the Elizabeth City waterfront, and we meet some interesting characters curious about our voyage. Before setting off again we dive into a sumptuous spread of a picnic lunch on the greening lawn of a waterside park.

Begging to be Done

Planning for this trip has been in the works for a long time. Perusing the charts over the years, it’s grabbed my attention as a trip begging to be done. Finally, I shifted into make-it-happen mode, and here we are. Not everyone feels the appeal of cruising in a small open boat but… what can I say? It’s thrilling to me, which may not say much about my intelligence. I will say however, that with proper planning and experience and an outlook of gratitude, it can be great fun. A ridiculous sense of humor and willingness to experience guaranteed discomfort is helpful, too.

The open water of Albemarle Sound beckons from Elizabeth City and its choppiness is nothing we didn’t expect. We rock on through the afternoon, bearing southeast and meeting up with the standard ICW route. We turn north at Camden Point and head up the North River. We visit the inviting outpost of Coinjock, and plan to spend more time here next time. The going this afternoon is spectacular. It’s bright, breezy, and chilly. We wear foul weather gear over down jackets and long johns. 

dismal swamp canal
There’s a strong feeling of remoteness out here.

There’s a strong feeling of remoteness out here; there’s hardly any other vessel traffic. We reach the expansive Currituck Sound, which entertains us not only with its beauty but with its feisty, substantial seas on our starboard beam. It’s yet another opportunity for Go-Cat to show off her seaworthiness. Finally, we welcome the more sheltered waters beyond, and we settle into a fine run as we ruminate and study the charts as to where we’ll camp for the night. After all, the day is winding down, the sun is on its descent. A side creek in the vicinity of Pungo Ferry beckons and soon we’re anchored and enjoying our plush surroundings. I’m not talking about the accommodations of Go-Cat, about which it would be a stretch to describe as “plush.” But the cove is luxuriously protective and there’s an abandoned dock nearby where we’ll fire up the stove for some more Go-Cat stew. 

But yeah, things are rather basic aboard my little Whaler. I’m sleeping on the floor in the stern, surrounded by the extra fuel jugs, water bottles, and porta-john bucket. Kit’s sleeping setup is draped across the bow, and it looks pretty comfy, considering. For rain we can rig tarps, but thankfully there’s no precipitation forecast for the next day or so.

Of course, we try to pick favorable weather windows for such maritime endeavors, but we never really know so we prep for unpleasant conditions as best we can and accept the inherent limitations in voyaging in an open boat.

dismal swamp canal
The author at the helm of Go-Cat.

The next morning, we continue northwest in the beautiful Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal. There are draw bridges to be opened for us and the huge Great Bridge Lock to be transited. We follow into the lock chamber a salty old tug and the 70-foot barge it’s pushing, and we feel rather small next to it.

We close the loop at Deep Creek, back at the junction of the Dismal Swamp Canal, and return to Hampton Roads via the Elizabeth River. As we enter the open waters of the Chesapeake, we’re treated to the sight of a nuclear submarine entering the harbor, flanked by Navy police boats with blue lights flashing and looking menacing. We laugh about how those guys probably have Go-Cat in their sights as we motor by, ready if we misbehave in any way. We play it straight.

We cruise up the Chesapeake for home at 18 knots, sea conditions in harmony with our course, the Merc 115 purring like a kitten. We aim for New Point Comfort Lighthouse, once kept by our great great grandfather. We tie up there for a short break and picnic of sardines and crackers, cookies, cheese, and oranges. Fit for a king, as they say.

dismal swamp canal
Cruising past New Point Comfort Lighthouse.

We contemplate our cruise as it winds down. Although only a few days in duration, the trip encompassed so much. The natural beauty of tidewater Virginia and North Carolina, of course, but also some fascinating history and culture and just the sheer joy of navigating, piloting, and life aboard little Go-Cat. And the people we met. From the helpful and courteous lock and bridge tenders, the local fishermen, the couple on their trawler four weeks outbound from Florida, friendly Kathryn at a yacht basin in Portsmouth, to various other characters we encountered on our waterway wandering. There’s so much that’s made the modest voyage richly rewarding for us.

During the remaining hours we’ll be running from a rising gale, pressing particularly hard into the wind on the last leg up the Rappahannock to Locklies Creek. By then we’ll have 240 miles under the keel since our departure. It will feel good to lie in my own bed that night, listening to the moaning wind, happy to be off the stormy Chesapeake and feeling especially cozy. There will be another boat adventure before long, but for now I’m pleased just to bask in the afterglow of this one.


By John W. Robinson