Holden Beach, NC to Norfolk, VA

Dismal Swamp 2

The Dismal Swamp

Claud & Lori

Paula, Claud and Lori Efird

4/28 – 5/6/16  Summary:  After Paula got close enough for Lorenzo to jump to the dock, we took a northerly heading on the ICW. Ten days on the dock in Holden Beach had put us behind schedule, so we needed to move faster to make up for lost time. We made it to Carolina Beach by day’s end where we were taken to dinner by Claud and Lori Efird, friends from a river trip.

In the morning, we took a short walk to the beach before heading towards New River Marina and cheap fuel. It was late in the day so after filling up, we spent the night on the fuel dock with the stipulation we would be gone by 6:30 AM. The next morning found us headed to Oriental, partway across the Pamlico Sound, where we anchored for the first time in a while, followed by another anchorage the following night in Belhaven, rafted up in the rain with Chuck and Joyce Truthan who had just completed the loop.

Paula’s first docking

The following day, we spent several hours crossing the wide-open Alligator River followed by Paula’s very first docking with a stern entry into a slip at Alligator River Marina. We planned to move out early, but thunderstorms and bad weather forced us to stay another day as the next leg was also a lot of open water.

Tom & Paula on boat

Our boat from Elizabeth City harborcam

The next morning, the weather was a bit better so we slipped our lines to cross the Albemarle Sound to Elizabeth City, one of the friendliest cities we had visited, and Paula did another stern-in docking at the Elizabeth City free dock. The boat was parked at the Elizabeth City Visitor Center with its own “harborcam.” Friends in Phoenix and NC could see us waving to them from the back of our boat! (Can you see Tom in the red shirt, pictured right, waving at you from our aft deck?)

We spent the afternoon exploring Elizabeth City, biking along the waterfront neighborhood with some beautiful homes. We passed one of the most beautiful B&B’s we have ever seen!

Eliz City B&B

Pond House Inn

The next morning, after the Elizabeth City Bridge opened for us, we headed towards the Dismal Swamp, a combination of river and man-made canal. We had hoped to see lots of wildlife, but it was dismal and overcast , and we saw very little in the two days it took to get through the swamp. Halfway through, we spent the night on the free face dock at the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center (we like free) and again got some exercise biking to the small community we had passed a few miles back.

We timed our morning departure to make the opening of the next lock, and exited the Dismal Swamp just south of Norfolk, VA. A few miles south, after another lock, we took a slip at Atlantic Yacht Basin to leave the boat and return to Phoenix to make sure the house had not burned down during our 7-week absence.  With few exceptions (like our days in the Dismal Swamp), the weather during the last 7+ weeks couldn’t have been better.  Not once on anchor did we have to run the generator for heating or cooling, and most days, the temperature was just perfect.

We hope to be back on the water mid-May, after Tom fixes the holding tank. (You will have to read the details below to get that story!) Here is where the details begin, so it’s a good time for you to go back to doing something productive. Thanks for getting this far.

Joyner Marina

Joyner Marina

Details – After finally leaving Holden Beach on 4/28, we proceeded north hoping to stop at Wrightsville Beach to meet friends, but there were no marina vacancies. We stopped short at Carolina Beach and stayed at Joyner Marina (interesting because Paula went to school at UNC, called “Carolina” by those who live in NC, and the name of the dorm she was in for 4 years was Joyner). Joyner Marina was a delight – clean, great dock help, free laundry and pump out. The only down side was that we opted to spend the night on the face dock and got rocked a bit, but that was our fault.

River friends from our very first Canyon Ministries trip in 1997, Claud and Lori Efird, drove down and we got to catch up with them and have a delightful dinner. They are still just as much fun as on the river trip!

CB Walk

Tom on boardwalk at Carolina Beach

The next morning, we did a short walk to the beach on a boardwalk which crossed the marsh, caught a surfing contest, and then were off on a 48-mile day through an area with nice homes, some open marshes and lots of nesting ospreys, one bald eagle, and for the first time since April 15, 5 dolphins. A good fuel price lured us to stop at New River Marina where we ended up spending the night on the fuel dock because we were their last customer and it was getting a bit late to continue on.

We covered 65 miles on 5/1, our longest day ever, since we had to be off the fuel dock by 0630. It was overcast and dreary and Paula drove through very congested boat traffic at Morehead City. We began our Pamlico Sound crossing and anchored in Oriental. A short dingy ride to town provided wonderful fresh veggies and free cruiser bikes from the Inland Waterway Provision Company. And we also learned about cackleberries. Have you ever eaten a cackleberry? (You have, you may just not know it. Click here for the answer.) Oriental was a nice small town with some beautiful houses. We completed the day with a good seafood dinner at M & Ms (as did 3 high school prom couples in a 35 foot limo), with M & Ms for dessert, of course.

Our route required crossing two more sections of the Pamlico Sound before anchoring in Belhaven. Gold Loopers Chuck and Joyce Truthan on Insanity, who we met via radio during the crossing, rafted up with us. We got some tidbits about the loop from them as we enjoyed conversation and docktails on our aft deck. Chuck even volunteered to give us a Coast Guard vessel safety check, but we were 1 light bulb short of passing (no comments, please). Seemed the aft nav light had shorted and nothing Tom could do would light it up. Another repair for the list.

Sunning turtles

After a short walk around Belhaven in the morning, we were off again. Belhaven used to be a favorite stop for boaters on the ICW, largely due to a wonderful smorgasbord offered by a local restaurant. (Boaters love to try new eateries.) Now closed, Belhaven has some beautiful old homes and remains very friendly to cruisers, but we found it not to have much draw for us.

The day included the open water of the Pungo River before going back into a long straight stretch of the ICW ditch where we saw sunning turtles and another bald eagle. Then it was out into the big water of the Alligator River. One very unprofessional boater in a fast boat (with no radio contact) passed us so close at a high speed he rocked bottles out of our galley cabinets onto the floor. Of course, he didn’t respond to our radio call after the event either. He’s going to hurt somebody one day!

Bow at ARM

Paula’s first slip docking

Paula did her very first docking with a stern entry into a 19’ slip at the Alligator River Marina. (The boat is 14.5’ wide.) She said she was as nervous as her first “solo” (what one’s first landing is called after the flight instructor says, “OK, take it around by yourself this time.”) The dockhand said he would have never have known it was her first docking, by which you can appropriately surmise she didn’t hit anything.

The Alligator River Marina sat right on US 64 in the middle of nowhere between Manteo (the eastern-most town in NC at the Outer Banks) and Columbia, NC. (Who knew there was a Columbia, NC?). Interestingly, US 64 also goes right through Paula’s hometown of Asheboro, NC about 250 miles west.

We awoke on 5/3 to thunderstorms, heavy rain, and reduced visibility. There would be no boating for us that day, but it gave us time to catch up on the blog and other things. By afternoon, the sky had cleared enough to take a long walk over the Alligator River Bridge (2.5 miles long) for some exercise. We stopped at the bridge tender’s hut, and although we could tell he was in there, he would not respond to us knocking on the rail or waving in the window. Perhaps bridge tenders prefer to be hermits.

The next morning was another overcast day with rain in the morning, but we had to get moving. Our longest sound crossing, the Albemarle Sound (almost 30 miles across) was on our horizon. Almost our whole day was open water. Though slightly choppy (it’s only about 20’ deep), it could have been much worse. We were glad to enter the harbor at Elizabeth City and the free dock at Mariner’s Wharf Park. Paula was really happy to see 2 other boaters standing by to help catch lines as she did another stern-in entry to a slip 1’ narrower than at Alligator River.

Tiffany Glass 1

Tiffany lamps

Tiffany Glass 2

Tiffany bunny (just for Gail)

The Visitor’s Center was only steps away, and we loaded up on ideas for the afternoon, beginning with sushi for lunch. We walked through the Museum of the Albemarle which had a very good display of the history of the development of the area and a beautiful traveling Tiffany glass and art exhibit.

Elez Cith Slip

Elizabeth City slips

Elizabeth City was billed as “The Harbor of Hospitality” and we definitely agreed. While out riding the free loaner bikes from the Visitor’s Center, we had a driver (who saw us stopped with a map in our hands) actually turn around to ask if she could help. A little girl doing gymnastics in her grandmother’s yard let Paula help her with her cartwheels and back walkovers. On our Historic Walking Tour of both the commercial and residential districts, teenage boys stopped us just to converse and ask where we lived. We found Elizabeth City, indeed, to be wonderfully friendly.

Eliz City tour

The Robinson House

One of the houses on Main Street, the Charles O. Robinson House, was built in 1914, one of the state’s finest examples of the “Southern Colonial” (Neoclassical) style. (We learned a lot about architectural styles on the tour from a well-written pamphlet on the historical homes in Elizabeth City.) This house had remained in the family, and walking on the porch that day was the friendly granddaughter (in her 90s) of the original owner who waved us up for a chat.

Paula in DS

Paula, all bundled up

There are 2 water routes through northern NC – the Virginia Cut and the Dismal Swamp. Guess which one Tom wanted to do. Right…the Dismal Swamp, of course. With another rainy overcast day, we pulled out of Elizabeth City early to make the opening of the Elizabeth City Bridge before rush hour and make our way toward the canal. The weather, already dreary for days, had also taken a turn to cold. We were bundled in extra layers – thermal underlayers, long sleeve shirts and jeans, fleeces, plus Tom in 2 coats!

Tom, looking for wildlife

The first to propose the advantage of making a channel to transport goods from the Albemarle Sound in NC to Norfolk, VA was Col. William Byrd II in 1728, but he canal was not begun until 1793. It was dug completely by hand, mainly by slaves hired from nearby landowners. By 1796, worked halted due to the huge overrun of project estimates. The Dismal Swamp Canal finally opened in 1805 and is the oldest operating artificial waterway in the US.

15 miles ahead we had to wait 1.5 hours, as the locks on the Dismal Swamp only opened 4 times a day. But the worst thing was the lack of wildlife. Tom had been looking forward to ‘gators, otters, snakes, turtles, and birds, but all he got to see was 1 snake and a few birds! Paula thought they had holed up for the winter. (Well, it felt like winter!)

Paula's first lock

Paula’s first lock docking

Paula drove into her first lock, the South Mills Lock, and we rose 10’ into the Dismal Swamp. By shortly after lunch, we pulled into the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center, the only Welcome Center in the US to service both vehicular (I-17) and boat traffic. Our free dock was a little difficult with no one around to grab lines, but we got it done. Free bikes at the Welcome Center provided some great exercise about 9 miles along the paved path and we rode all the way back to S. Mills just in time to see 4 other boats, some which had been with us in Elizabeth City, come under the S. Mills lift bridge.

Dismal Swamp bike path

While on our bike ride, we saw a sign for strawberries, so went to the Williams Strawberry Farm & Little Bitty Bakery to buy some. Unfortunately, the rain meant no strawberries were for sale, but…they had ice cream. As soon as our cups were scooped and just as Paula was about to pick hers up, Tom abruptly said, “Wait, don’t eat that!” He had just discovered his wallet was on the boat and we were penniless! Though Linda could have dumped the ice cream back in the tubs, she gave them to us free and we had some great conversation as we embarrassedly ate her delicious homemade ice cream. (Turns out she grew up in friendly Elizabeth City.) Thank you, Linda!

Dismal Swamp Face Dock

Dismal Swamp Welcome Center face dock

Paula & Boomer

Back at the docks, the 4 boats had all joined us. After greeting each boater, gathering boat cards and telling them we would send pictures of their bridge passage, Paula borrowed Lee Morgan’s dog Boomer and we went to see the Dismal Swamp Visitor Center on the other side of the canal with exhibits about the swamp and take Boomer for a walk on the swamp boardwalk. (Paula even gets a “dog fix” on this trip occasionally.)

That evening, we had to run the generator for a while to provide some heat as it was still cold and rain had begun to fall again, throwing an extra blanket on the bed to stay warm through the night. In the morning, we said goodbye and left the others at the dock as we made our way to the next Dismal Swamp lock. By the time we got there, it was pouring rain once again.

Welcome to VA

Welcome to VA

We crossed the state line into VA and waited again for the next bridge and lock openings at Deep Creek. Finally, 2 miles further, we were out of the no-wake Dismal Swamp and made a turn south at the Dismal Swamp-Virginia Cut intersection toward the Atlantic Yacht Basin marina. Once there, Paula made yet another stern-entry into an even 1’ narrower slip (only 17’ wide). Fortunately, we were at the very back of the property with no wind and no current. She says she doesn’t want any spaces any narrower! Two dockhands lined her into the shed once she had it lined up.

(I [Tom] asked Paula how many dockings she had to do before we quit mentioning it in the blog and she told me, “Not yet.” She heard you love to read about ugly dockings and mishaps and she hasn’t had a really difficult one yet – the kind where we scare ourselves to death and only in hindsight can we laugh about it.)

AYB Shed

Atlantic Yacht Basin shed

At AYB, we were under a big tin shed and had to lower our antennas to fit in. No sooner were we tied up with electricity connected than we remembered we needed to dump our head’s holding tank. Hopefully, no problem; many marinas have a boat that comes alongside and does that. But…not at AYB. The pumpout was at the fuel dock on the other side of the marina. Paula just about cried. Two hours later, after Paula had driven out of the slip back around to the fuel dock, she once again sterned-in to the slip, this time with only 1 dockhand. Now all that was left was cleaning the boat for our departure back to Phoenix for a while.

Holding tank

Isn’t this going to be fun?

Later that evening, Tom found some water in one of the V-berth lockers. As he explored its origin, he made a really grim discovery, a leak in the holding tank and several inches of blackwater in the bilge! Now he was looking at a really “fun” project. And it was late afternoon and we were scheduled to catch a flight home the next morning. Tom shook his head, mumbled to himself, pondered the options, and all he could see were dollar signs. With no idea of how to resolve the issue, we just went to bed. At 1:00 AM, he awoke with an idea. Since the leak was in the top of the tank (it leaked because we had overfilled it), maybe he could pump it back into the now-empty tank. He got up and spent the next 4 hours rigging an old bilge pump to pump the bilge back into the tank. (Needless to say, we won’t be using that pump again.) He was then able to “flush out” the bilge with fresh water and turn his attention to addressing the source of the problem. He found it was leaking both through and around a stainless steel inspection plate. (The toxic contents had eaten holes right through the plate in several places, one of which was about 3/8 inch in diameter (red arrows), as well as having destroyed the caulking around the edges.) After cleaning it up a bit, he decided it should be fixable without a great deal of work and returned to bed. But, of course, a new holding tank is now on the list.

We got up early to get ready to catch a cab to the airport. Before we left, Sparky the electrician (that’s really his name) stopped by to look at the generator to be fixed while we were away.


7 weeks of mail

The cab came at 9:15 and we were off for Phoenix. We caught the first flights, thanks to a very helpful ticket agent, and were home in time for dinner. The pile of mail was a bit overwhelming, but other than that, all was well on the home front.




  1. This is really a fun read, thanks for sharing. I am wondering, did you know these boats need this much maintence? Good thing you are a FIXER. Paula, nice docking. When I dock my sons 25 footer in the narrow marina, I am petrified. Ony pumped the dock once though. Bob

    • Well, yes. But one hopes the maintenance comes in under maintenance budget. Overall, good; but this put a dent into it.

  2. Great info. Dismal swamp is…..like, dismal! I was in Va Bch last week. Wx was terrible. Hope it’s better for you.
    Steve is out on BGII with family for a daysail and to watch The Blue Angels practice.
    All The Best
    /s/ C Flack

    • Hey Flack. Would be fun watching the Blue Angels practice from the aft deck. Will you or the boat be in the area next week?

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