December 3-5, 2017
Now that we had started moving again, we felt the squeeze of wanting to make up for lost time and keep pushing forward. The decision to bypass the Dismal Swamp was, without a doubt, disappointing. However, if this meant avoiding a high potential for more problems, it seemed like truly a small price to pay. Better to stay flexible and adjust when necessary than to try to force something or feel compelled by an itinerary.
In the big picture, the change in course was only short term; both routes converged at nearly the same place only a few days to the South anyway.
Our new route immediately provided another first for us – we had to go through a lock system. As the Great Bridge Lock was only dropping us about six inches in water level and wasn’t much longer than a football field, it was a pretty benign baptism. Still, the procedures and process had to be sorted out and filed away in our brains for future reference.
A short test run of only five miles put us at the dock of Atlantic Yacht Basin where we opted to pay for a rare overnight tie up on the dock. Marinas, when strategically utilized at reasonable rates, allowed for occasional major pit stops. Top ups on diesel, petrol and water, holding tank pump-outs, could be done on the fly. But plugging into shore power to fully charge batteries overnight, “luxurious” showers, laundry facilities, and easy access for provisioning and/or exploration were all benefits of the overnight stay.
We could have sworn we saw the flashes of small explosions while we were tied to the bulkhead of the lock earlier, and we passed what appeared to be a Revolutionary War re-enactment in progress just before the marina. Turns out we should have delayed our luxurious showers until after heading into town. We arrived just as the Revolutionary War re-enactment was finishing up. Oh well…we still managed to catch the annual Christmas Parade that evening. With nearly a hundred floats participating, it was remarkably large in scale for what appeared to be a quite small community.
Over the course of the next four days, we pressed forward somewhere between twenty and fifty miles each day. The wide open expanse of the Chesapeake Bay, with its’ countless stretches of accessible smaller bays, rivers, and creeks, had given way south of Norfolk to narrow channels lined with endless markers to navigate through.
Even larger bays and rivers oftentimes were only one or two feet deep for miles outside of the dredged channels which had to be followed carefully on the charts.
The leisurely five knot pace we were traveling through the water at allowed us to enjoy the scenery around us. The brightly fall-colored trees which had blanketed the Maryland shoreline were becoming more interspersed with pines. Occasionally, dolphins would pass by; and there were always a fascinating assortment of birds. Strangely unique pelicans, looking like prehistoric pterodactyls in flight, now became as common to see as the the majestic osprey and bald eagles just north.
But, one eye always had to be kept on the channel, making sure we didn’t wander astray or misinterpret a marker that had been moved to indicate recent shoaling. Staying inside the channels and constantly monitoring the depth gauge became a relentless chore. Fortunately, our timing this late in the season of South-bounders seems to have minimized the amount of other boat traffic we have had to deal with.
After splurging for a marina at Atlantic Yacht Basin, we wanted to rely solely on our anchor (the cheapest method for overnight accommodation at our disposal) for a while.
One of the real challenges in traveling the ICW is planning your route so that, by the end of the day, you wind up at a location with adequate anchorage – regarding both location and space. A really small anchorage area, which can be foiled by poor holding or even another boat arriving first, leaves few options as the sun is setting. Without fallback options, having to pay for a marina slip becomes a costly prospect over time.
So we generally try to find wide open spots that assure us of plenty of space to put out lots of chain, or allow ourselves plenty of time to sort out a few possibilities once we arrive and can accurately see for ourselves.
However, every now and then, there just aren’t many ideal options. You either pull up well short of your intended progress, try to push extra hard to make a location, or simply try to get a sense of a descent possibility and just wing it…
Our night anchored on North River was one of those “wing it” options. We reached a point by the end of the day where we only had about an hour of sunlight left and a long stretch ahead with no options to anchor at. Coinjock, about as far as we hoped to get, had a marina but we were bound and determined not to pay. So, once we reached Coinjock, we decided to press forward. We didn’t think we had far to get to the end of the channel, where North River looked promising.
We were fortunate to have rolled the dice. Thirty minutes later, as the sun was disappearing over the horizon, we had just finished setting anchor. Aside from one other sailboat in the distance, the only sign of human existence anywhere out in the darkness were the red and green flashing of navigation markers. It was here that we also had the striking privilege of witnessing an incredibly large, orange hued “Supermoon” rising on the horizon.
The North River feeds into Albemarle Sound. We had heard warnings that even light winds could cause rough and sloppy seas on Albemarle Sound, and the forecasts looked ambiguous over the next few days. Though it extends for fifty miles east to west, we would only be having to cross fourteen miles from north to south.
Not wanting to stop our forward momentum, we made for Mateo in what turned out to be exceptionally good conditions and enjoyed finally having our depth gauge continuously hover around twenty feet without having to stay in the confines of a dredged channel along a straight highway of green and red markers. It was a welcome change as we said goodbye to Virginia and crossed into North Carolina.
Departing Mateo, after a quiet night at anchor, our eyes would widen as we entered Pamlico Sound, which dwarfed Albermarle Sound in size. It is the second largest ICW estuary after the Chesapeake Bay, and has a reputation for potentially being one of the roughest bodies of water to navigate on the ICW.
We were fascinated with the idea of getting to the Outer Banks, a long and incredibly narrow strip of barrier islands facing the Atlantic Ocean that extend from Virginia all the way into North Carolina.
However, shallow depths throughout the northeast area of Pamlico Sound made it seem more logical to head for the western side. Wyesocking Bay was nearly fifty miles away and made for an extremely long day; but it would offer us good protection if forecasted winds came to be.
There, we again found ourselves sharing the entire bay with only one other sailboat. A small group of houselights well off in the distance did give us a visual reference that night (it’s surprising how disorienting it can be when you are swinging at anchor if you don’t have something on the horizon to use as a reference).
To be fair, we could have dragged hundreds of meters in any direction and not done anything more than possibly touch the bottom.
Cold fronts moving through did kick up some wind; we were grateful to be in such an open area.
On one hand, there is something to be said for closed in, protected spaces that help to control exposure to wind and waves. But, for Kris and I, it’s usually a no-brainer. We are both adamant in preferring to put our trust in the equipment. With the 55lb Rocna anchor properly set into the bottom and at least a hundred feet of 1/2” chain, Exit will sort herself out and ride even gale force winds comfortably. A small, protected private bay is one thing; however, we’ll take an open bay with endless room to swing over a crowded and tight-packed marina any day.