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The Little Loop

Find a Little Loop of your own

Find a Little Loop of your own

There’s a reason they call it the “Great” Circle Route: It takes a great amount of time, a lot of preparation and at least a fair bit of money.

Read the other stories in this package: The Great Loop - the great escape   The Great Loop Q&A  

So where can you go if you want a real voyage but — like me — you’re a working stiff with only a little time, a little money and a little boat? Find yourself a “Little” Circle Route. Even if you have just a week, exploring new territory in a small boat practically guarantees a big adventure.

Ours was a 140-mile five-day loop that started in Norfolk, Va. We headed south on the Elizabeth River, through the Dismal Swamp Canal to North Carolina and Albemarle Sound, where we rejoined the main Intracoastal Waterway and headed north, passing through Coinjock and Currituck Sound on our way back to Norfolk.

Our vessel was Bearboat, a beamy, “mature” but sturdy 26-foot Island Packet sailboat that draws less than 3 feet with the centerboard up — ideal for the skinny waters we would navigate. The expedition was undertaken in mid-May, carefully timed to beat the bugs and heat that arrive by Memorial Day.

Starting at Zero

My crewmember, Brooks Howell, and I completed final provisioning on an overcast Sunday morning and set out from Tidewater Yacht Marina in Portsmouth, Va., directly across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk’s Nauticus/Waterside complex. We swung by red lighted buoy 36 — better known on the ICW as Mile Zero, the starting point for the 1,095-mile inland waterway that stretches to Key West — and headed south. Immediately we entered an amazingly dense military/industrial region that for miles fills the riverbanks with massive factories and power plants, heavy machinery, and lots of warships, freighters and barges.

There’s little time to play tourist here because of the commercial and recreational traffic, heavily armed patrol boats standing picket duty around the many Navy vessels on both banks, and the bridges that must be transited. There are nine bridges, both railroad and highway, in the first seven miles, two of which closed as we arrived and slightly delayed our passage.

Just beyond the I-64 bridge, the Elizabeth River ends and the scenery begins to change dramatically for the better. This marks the junction of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal: the main ICW, heading east and connecting to the North Landing River and Currituck Sound — and the Dismal Swamp Canal — heading west and connecting to the Pasquotank River and Albemarle Sound. Both routes rejoin about 50 miles to the south in Albemarle Sound and are practically the same length, but each has a wonderfully different character.

The not-so-dismal Dismal

Upon starting the Dismal Swamp Canal route, the development and noise soon faded away, as we floated into quiet, lush woods. We reached the Deep Creek Lock at the northern end of the canal shortly after noon, tied up to a piling, and waited for the 1:30 p.m. lift. We took it as a good omen that the gates opened just as a thunderstorm ended.

As Bearboat slowly floated up the lock’s 8-foot lift and reached ground level, we noticed a beautiful array of Caribbean shells in front of the lockmaster’s house — gifts from the many snowbirds who use the Dismal Swamp Canal each season. Since the Dismal has a controlling depth of 6 feet, the lockmaster asked his routine question for all vessels passing through: “How much do you draw?” Told less than 3 feet, he gave an unexpected reply. “With that depth you can go up the feeder ditch” — the narrow channel to Lake Drummond, the source of the canal’s water.

Some 11 miles later we reached Arbuckle’s Landing at the junction of the feeder ditch. Trusting the lockmaster, we cautiously turned in. Only 30 feet wide (our beam took up a third of that), about 3 feet deep, and 3 miles long, the feeder typically is used only by kayaks or canoes, and leads into the remote and jungle-like heart of the freshwater Great Dismal Swamp. This is no place to get stuck: There’s no tide to lift you off a mud bank, and you can’t call for help, because cell phones and radios can’t get a signal.

Tree branches that reach across the feeder ditch eventually twisted Bearboat’s masthead windvane into a useless piece of modern art. At one point a water moccasin swam across our path, unimpressed by our presence. But we kept nosing along, monitoring the depth sounder, and eventually reached the Lake Drummond spillway — a wonderful little park with a dock, picnic area and self-serve electric railway that lifts small boats up into Lake Drummond.

Syrup-red swamp water, tinted by cypress trees and natural tannins, gushed through the spillway and into the ditch. After a brief respite we carefully turned the boat around and headed back down the ditch, branches and twigs raining down every time our rigging tickled the canopy overhead. “First boat I’ve ever been on that needed a rake,” Brooks muttered, as he swept the greenery off the deck. Back at Arbuckle’s Landing after our detour, we tied up to the tiny dock just as daylight ended and another rain shower began, and fired up the stove for dinner.

The next day we entered North Carolina, dropped through the South Mills Lock at the end of the Dismal, and entered the winding Pasquotank River where the scenery broadened out and homes, farms and channel markers reappeared. That evening we tied up at the free municipal dock at Elizabeth City, arriving in time for the daily wine and cheese reception the famously friendly town puts on for visiting boaters.

Although the Dismal Swamp Canal has a negative reputation among some cruisers, we found it easy, unique and wonderfully uncrowded. The canal’s mirror-black water had far less flotsam than the main ICW, and blooming honeysuckle on the banks perfumed the entire 22-mile passage. With dense vegetation on both banks, it’s like passing through your own peaceful forest.

Turning the corner

Early next morning we set off down the main stretch of the Pasquotank, in scenery much like Chesapeake Bay’s. On the western shore we passed the Coast Guard’s main East Coast air base and a massive, domed dirigible hanger. Upon reaching Albemarle Sound, we raised the sails for the first time. Shortly before noon we turned the corner off Camden Point — the southernmost edge of our Little Circle Route — and entered the main ICW, sailing up the North River.

This stretch of the ICW is completely different from the Dismal Swamp Canal. It’s the back side of North Carolina’s barrier islands, with wide horizons, lots of marshland and occasional forest, and extremely shallow water peppered with crab pots. Needless to say, sticking to the main channel is important. Although delightfully undeveloped, there is considerable vessel traffic.

Our stop this day was Coinjock, in a land cut that links the North River with Currituck Sound. We tied up at Midway Marina, which had two notable assets: Crabbie’s, a dockside restaurant that serves genuine North Carolina pulled-pork barbecue (a vinegar-based regional delicacy never to be confused with tomato-based Texas beef barbecue) and dockside hot tubs. Watching megayachts cruise by 50 yards away is much more fun when you’re getting a water-jet massage in a comfortable soak.

The following day we pushed through Currituck Sound and up the North Landing River to the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal and Atlantic Yacht Basin, one of the biggest marinas on the ICW. No cruise would be complete without at least one engine problem, and this is where we had ours, where it luckily was soon fixed.

On our last day we caught an early opening of the Great Bridge (Va.) Bridge and Great Bridge Lock and slowly motored back into civilization, the factories getting bigger and machinery getting heavier the farther north we went. Soon we were passing the Dismal Swamp Canal junction marker again. About an hour later we formally closed our weeklong loop back at Mile Zero in the Elizabeth River, where our Little Circle Route began.

Steve Blakely is an editor and freelance writer in Washington, D.C.