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A Bay sailor takes on the ICW

By David Benedict

As a longtime Chesapeake Bay cruiser, I have found there is also terrific sailing on an Intracoastal Waterway cruise. We found it last year on the rivers and sounds that join segments of the ICW between the Chesapeake Bay and Beaufort, N.C.

By the third day we had logged our longest distance, sailing my 31-foot Hunter sloop some 52 miles close-hauled in strong westerlies on a single tack, all the way from Elizabeth City, down the Pasquotank River, across Albemarle Sound, to the end of the Alligator River.

Our next-longest sail was some 48 miles on a sweet run and reach from Hatteras to Manteo, N.C., across the northern end of Pamlico and Roanoke sounds. A circumnavigation of this loop in the ICW can provide a stimulating two-week cruising experience.

The ICW offers a different type of cruise from those I’ve done on the Chesapeake Bay. I’m into single-handed sailing, but this time my brother-in-law, Carl, opted to join me on this 14-day excursion south of Norfolk, Va., taking the western ICW branch down through the Great Dismal Swamp and returning via the eastern branch at the end of Currituck Sound. My intention was to make this a one-time cruise to find out what was there — and we thoroughly enjoyed what we found.

The road ahead

The challenge of the cruise was navigating 10 narrow channels of the ICW, passing under or through some 22 bridges (fixed, bascule, lift and swing types), traversing almost two dozen rivers and creeks, and four different sounds.

Cruisers have to expect to do almost as much motoring in ICW channels as they do sailing on both open and constricted waterways. As it turned out, during our trip of over 520 miles, we averaged 20 miles per day under sail and 17 miles per day under power.

On the return north we actually sailed twice as much as we motored. I found this to be a decent balance, made possible by generally good weather (only two half-days of rain), and very favorable winds. A key to our success was deciding to take the ICW’s western branch south from Norfolk, and the eastern branch coming back north. This enabled us to make the most of the prevailing southwesterly flow, making for the best crossings on Albemarle and

Pamlico sounds.

Close quarters

The diversity of this cruise was quickly apparent in the first three days. Carl and I left Seaford Yacht Club on the York River the beginning of the last week in May and sailed under nice westerlies to Hampton Roads, where we motored past the Norfolk Naval Base to our first anchorage across from downtown Norfolk, adjacent the Naval Hospital near “R-36” where there’s ample water on the western bank of the Elizabeth River. Coming down the shipping channel to Norfolk we encountered a Naval cruiser bearing down on our stern, a nuclear submarine coming directly at us up the channel (surrounded by small guard boats that kept us out of the way), and a swiftly moving container ship that caught up to us so fast, he had to “horn” us out of the way. When we spoke on the VHF, the captain claimed he could not see us from the bridge at the stern because all the containers on deck blocked his view hundreds of yards off his bow. Every cruise has new lessons.

The second day we got under way a little after 6 a.m. in order to get past the six bridges across the southern branch of the Elizabeth River. Jordan Lift Bridge did not open during the rush hour, in this case 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. I had thought it was just a one-hour opening delay from 7:30-8:30 a.m. Second lesson: Check out all opening times before leaving on your cruise or use the latest charts.

Through the swamp

The adventurous part really began as we entered the Great Dismal Swamp ICW canal at the Deep Creek lock around 11 a.m. We hit the opening time just right (the lock only opens four times a day). Here vessels are raised 9 to 10 feet to the level of the canal that then runs 23 miles as straight as an arrow to the Pasquotank River. This western ICW canal is decidedly different in character from the eastern branch. I had never seen such dark brown water created by the tannins from swamp foliage. And the narrowness of the canal, with an occasional overhanging tree limb or floating log, means a skipper has to keep a keen eye.

The canal was surveyed back in 1763 by George Washington, completed in 1805, and was threatened with closure on the canal’s 200th anniversary before the federal government stepped in with nearly $500,000 for dredging and maintenance. It would be a shame to lose access to this historic and beautiful wildlife preserve. Check out the Dismal Swamp Visitor’s Center Web site at

We found we could just make the end of the Dismal Swamp canal in time for the last lock opening at 3:30 p.m. at South Mills, if we got started from the northern end by 11 a.m. A typical cruising speed for my sailboat’s diesel is around 7 knots. Be forewarned, there are two bascule bridges inside the canal at both locks and the lock master has to operate both of these bridges along with the lock. When we reached the southern end of the canal, we had to wait until the lockmaster allowed the northbound boats to proceed through the lock first, and then attend to the bridge opening so that we could pass through the lock going southbound. Going southbound at this time of the year is preferable because most of the traffic is coming north for the summer from Florida.

A surprise visit

Past the South Mill lock we entered the narrow northern reaches of the Pasquotank River. The waters of the Pasquotank were also so dark brown I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face when I took a quick dip that evening at our anchorage just off Goat Island, about eight miles north of Elizabeth City.

The next morning, our third day out, we just cleared the bascule bridge at Elizabeth City in time for the 7:30 a.m. opening. I called the bridge master on the VHF to alert him to our intention and he kindly delayed the opening a couple of minutes so we could make it. That was a fortunate start to the day. We did some reprovisoning of ice and groceries while tied up at the city park’s public bulkhead just beyond the bridge. Then we sailed our longest single tack for the next eight hours, averaging a good 5 to 6 knots, to the end of the Alligator River.

We shared a small cove with another sailboat, anchoring just inside “R-46.” It was a peaceful evening until around midnight when a squall hit hard and almost blew the dinghy off the foredeck. The NOAA forecast did not indicate any such weather was in the area, but I guess you always need to be ready for a blow. Unfortunately, I had not taken the time to lash down the dinghy since we were using it for a wind scoop over the forward hatch.

Carl and I had been pushing pretty hard the first three days of our cruise (over 140 miles), so we broke up our remaining cruising distance to Beaufort (about 100 miles) into smaller segments over the next three days. This was quite doable because we would be traversing a variety of creeks, rivers and sections of the ICW to reach Beaufort. This gave us the chance to enjoy a bit of southern hospitality in Belhaven and Oriental, N.C. Our first landfall was for lunch at Belhaven, docking at the River Forest Marina located to starboard just behind the town’s breakwater. The Manor at the marina was not serving lunch and graciously gave us the use of a car to drive into Belhaven for a great seafood dinner at the Helmsman Restaurant.

A taste of civilization

After some rollicking good sails down the Pungo and Bay Rivers, on reefed jib and mainsail in 20-knot winds, we arrived the next day at Oriental, which locals say is the sailing capital of the Carolinas. The area boasts more than 3,000 boats but only some 800 residents, and claims to have as good winds as Newport, R.I., the sailing Mecca of the Northeast.

We took a slip at the Oriental Marina and Inn and enjoyed their pool, tiki bar and the first really ample shower in five days. Our solar shower on the deck and head shower in the cabin have their limitations. We also had an exquisite seafood dinner at the Oriental Steamer. We did actually cook out on the boat, but found the landside meals a great change of pace.

We learned of a few good anchorages during this part of the cruise. The night before reaching Oriental we anchored in Eastham Creek, right off Goose Creek and just south of the Pamlico River. It’s a very quiet, well-protected overnight spot.

When arriving at Oriental, cruisers should keep in mind they have the choice of checking out the free public dock (three boats maximum up to 48 hours) just across from the marina where we docked, or dropping the hook in the small basin adjacent the Oriental Yacht Club.

Kindness along the way

Having cleared the last bascule bridge cruising south, we arrived in Beaufort in the early afternoon of our sixth day, and found placing our Bruce plow anchor difficult given the 50 boats already in the boat basin across from Front Street, the main tourist drag of the town.

If this location felt overly populated, all we had to do was enjoy the view across from the town’s waterfront and take in the pristine beauty of the Rachel Carson Preserve, an uninhabited, sandy barrier island that I explored along the shoreline for its birds, flowers and wild horses.

Here, pleasant and helpful people continued to grace our presence. In the middle of the night, due to a changing tidal current, our boat “kissed” our neighbor, name Three Sisters, an impeccably maintained 60-foot classic wooden schooner. The captain was immediately into his dinghy pushing us apart and then personally taking us to a permanent mooring that had just become vacant for a secure anchorage for the remainder of the night. And other nice things continued to occur. Since Eastham Creek, I’d had a major problem with my dinghy outboard stalling above idle. We had tried to get it repaired at several marinas but nobody wanted to bother with such a small job, even up in Oriental.

While we were visiting the Maritime Museum at Beaufort, I learned they would loan me the use of a van so I could take my outboard across town to another marina that could provide repair. One very kind and highly skilled mechanic at the Town Creek Marina named Michael said he would take the time — late that Saturday afternoon on a Memorial Day weekend — to break down my engine and clear up the problem, which turned out to be a very dirty carburetor and fuel tank. We happily motored the dinghy back to our mooring early that evening.

A beautiful run

The best part of this cruise was yet to come — sailing up Pamlico Sound and visiting the Outer Banks. After returning to Oriental we did the 128-mile run in three days, stopping at Ocracoke, Hatteras and Roanoke Islands. The winds were as fantastic as we had hoped they would be on our return, sailing all but the 20 miles that was devoted to motoring in the channels running into safe harbors.

The most perfect sailing day was the splendid run and reach from Oriental to Ocracoke (about 47 miles), ending up in a most exquisite anchorage, Silver Lake, the basin adjacent the town of Ocracoke.

We celebrated our arrival with a swim, a pound of freshly steamed shrimp for dinner and a marvelous sunset and near-full-moon rise.

The next day we had a fine walk to the historic (1823) Ocracoke Lighthouse, the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the country, and enjoyed the New England-like gray shingled buildings in this quaint-looking fishing village. The experience was close to paradise.

The rest of the cruise was just as upbeat. At Hatteras we were directed by a considerate boater to anchor down the narrow creek to port as you enter the breakwater, where we found perfect protection in 6 feet of water. Here we used a second anchor to keep us from swinging into the narrow channel or touching bottom in the shallows.

We rented bikes and explored the town, and found our way to the Atlantic for a very pleasant swim off the public beach in water temperatures that were near perfect. We also had a tasty grouper dinner at the Breakwater Restaurant located at O’den’s Dock.

After enjoying a picture-perfect sunrise the next morning, we completed the second-longest sailing day, some 54 miles to Manteo, N.C., on Roanoke Island. We had the best winds for a perfect reach following the channel all the way up Roanoke Sound to just outside Manteo.

We once again paid for a slip at Manteo, which provided both excellent shower and laundry facilities in a relatively new shopping plaza. We celebrated this leg of the cruise by treating ourselves to a night at the local summer theater, a professionally performed musical and dramatic recounting of the “Lost Colony” on Roanoke Island, the first English settlement, which disappeared after 1588. This annual production has been operating for the last 67 years and is well worth attending. The actor Andy Griffith got his start there, and still lives in the area in retirement.

A grand welcome

The final legs of our cruise took us from Manteo across Albemarle Sound to Broad Creek, a little-known pristine anchorage at the entrance to the North River, suggested by a sailing couple we had met at the Manteo docks. From Broad Creek through the cut at Coinjock, N.C., to the end of Currituck Sound, up the North Landing River to Pungo Ferry, Va., where we anchored at “G-41” to ride out the remains of a nor’easter. Then from Pungo Ferry through the eastern branch of the ICW to the Great Bridge lock, and on to Hampton, Virginia. Finally, from Hampton back to our home base in Seaford on the York River, arriving at noontime on the 14th day of our grand adventure.

Sharing this cruising experience with my brother-in-law was a real delight. As we motored up the Hampton River for our last night at the Hampton Yacht Club, we heard a volley of cannon fire coming from the impressive replica of the 16th-century Dutch frigate, Kalmar Nyckel, in port for Hampton’s Annual Blackbeard Festival.

We smiled and agreed this was a perfect way to announce our arrival and the conclusion to a varied and stimulating two-week cruise. n

David Speare Benedict, 71, who has previously written about his single-handed cruises up the Chesapeake Bay for Soundings, sails the Bay aboard his 31-foot 1985 sloop, Caper II.