23. Dismal Swamp Canal to Ocracoke

Dear Glenn fans,

I’m so sorry. I made a little mistake this week in telling Glenn that I would not be posting my weekly blog writing. I’m tired, I said. I’m boring, I said. So he, too, didn’t write a report. Then, I changed my mind. I wrote up the post. Now it looks bad for him, but it’s my fault.

yours truly, a.



Monday 13 NOV

Netzah is dripping with wetness this dark morning on the aptly named Dismal Swamp Canal. We spent the night tied up to a dock at the head of the DSC in Deep Creek, VA and will motor its entire length today crossing the state border… most of it in the rain. We leave early to catch the opening of the next lock, 22 miles away, at 11:30AM, otherwise we have to wait until the following opening at 3:30PM.

The Dismal Swamp Canal is a deep water canal dug for the inland passage of boats primarily for freight transport. It is part of the (Atlantic) Intracoastal Waterway which allows for a much easier and safer route of transportation than the open ocean. The most fascinating (and heartbreaking) part of its history is that the canal was completely dug by hand by slaves. It took 12 years and, now that I see its width and length, must have been sheer physical hell in the humid, swampy summers of the American south. The official record talks about “hired slave labor.” Of course, this means it was the slave owners who got paid, not the actual laborers, but the reaching phrasing tries to imply otherwise. Did Jeff Sessions wrote this copy? It’s glaring these days to read literature that still upholds the patriarchy’s tilted spin. I suppose that’s one advantage of living in this hyper vigilant moment – maybe the only one.

We motor. Though the motoring is easy as the canal is completely straight and flat, it’s not very enjoyable. First, because it’s loud. Sailing with the wind is such a peaceful way to move that this rough version, by contrast, is agitating. Second, we are moving through a dense amount of duckweed. Robert, the lock operator in Deep Creek, told us that since the canal has been closed this year (for maintenance) the duckweed has grown with greater abandon the usual. This tiny floating vegetation is mostly not a problem, but he did warn us to keep an eye on our temperature gauge in case we get a clog in our water intake. We do not worry because our intake is three feet down, well below the surface of the water, where the weed floats.

About half way through the canal we pass the Visitor’s Center and suddenly see a small bridge, we hadn’t known about. It’s in the lowered position. A tiny ripple of panic runs through us as we approach and rush to figure out who to call to lift it for us. Number, number, where are you? Who should we call? Who should we call? I fret. We are moving at a pretty good pace. And then, our message is received telepathically, the bridge magically lifts. Whew. Someone was watching.

BTW, some of you French readers may be asking why are we using the ICW? Good question. We are here because the cold-weather storms in the Atlantic at this time of year can hamper our southerly movement. We can move much more consistently (and safely) on the ICW right now – especially around Cape Hatteras. Plus, at the moment we are trying to get to Beaufort, NC to get some boat maintenance and to head inland for a Thanksgiving meal with family. Don’t worry, we’ll be back out on the ocean in no time. Look for us in the Atlantic post Thanksgiving.

We arrive at the South Mills lock at 10:30AM. Good, we’re early, we think. Until, that is, we feel the strong current pulling us forward. We try to anchor, but the muddy bottom will not hold us in place. For the next hour we have to hover in place using the motor. This is more of a nuisance than difficult as we drift forward, then motor back over and over. To add to the tension, we keep trying to reach the lock operator to let him know we are there, but are not receiving a response. At 11:30 the gates open. We motor in and loosely tie up to the starboard side. The lock operator, as if hired to be a complete opposite of the last one, says exactly zero words to us and proceeds to drop the water level. When we are almost at the bottom I notice that the engine exhaust is sending out smoke. I call Glenn over. At first we think it’s the chilly air temperature making the exhaust visible. Soon though, we (ha! Like I would know anything about this…) Glenn realizes it’s exactly what Robert told us, we have a clogged water intake and it’s overheating our engine. Glenn takes the cover off the engine and sees the filter basket overflowing with duckweed. He starts scooping it out. In the meantime, we reach the bottom of the lock and the front gates open. We now need to start motoring forward to get to the draw bridge, which the same operator will open, but Glenn is still scooping and trying to get the channel that brings in the water clear. Ava and I start our panic dance as we sit and sit. Glenn finishes the job and starts the engine, but no water comes out of the exhaust. It’s still clogged. Ava and I continue to hold on to our lines at the bottom of the lock, eight feet down. Glenn goes back to the engine and continues to clear the pipeway. At this point, to get my mind off it, I look at the gates behind us and notice a gush of water leaking into our area. In the span of three seconds I construct a disaster scenario that has us being swept into the side wall by a giant tidal wave when the back gates breach. In front of me Glenn tries the engine again. It works. We quickly undo the lines and motor forward through the gates. Whew. In retrospect, this whole operation probably took thirty seconds, but my brain likes to mess around with time when it’s pressured. Everyone, I’m sure has had this experience. On a boat it’s just more frequent.

We arrive in Elizabeth City in the early afternoon. We tie up to a city dock and take a rest. In the evening after dinner we find a pub to hold our first book club meeting. We are reading The Catcher in the Rye as a family. We have split it into four parts and are discussing the first part tonight. I am so curious to reread this book as it has such a significant place in my (and America’s) memory. I am also interested in reading it with Ava, who will encounter it for the first time. The evening does not disappoint. We talk for at least an hour and never lose pace.


Tuesday 14 NOV

Today we get to know Elizabeth City better. It’s a small city that has a good location for trade traffic. It is at the top of the Pasquotank River and the form of its banks (like a giant side pocket) make a very good harbor for boats moving into or out of the canal system. At the height of freight transportation by boat, Elizabeth City was economically thriving. Today however, it is somewhat depressed with many rundown storefronts available for lease. We get the feeling that we could rent oodles of space here at a good rate. Glenn likens it to Ypsilanti, but without the hip factor.

We start the day at a cute bakery called The Flour Girls (good pun!) where we have delicious pastries. Glenn calls his blueberry scone, and you will remember he lived in London for a summer, the best he’s ever eaten. He gets a second one. I have a cherry pie-let which is also amazing and Ava has something she raves about too, though I can’t remember what.

We spend the day drifting around the town looking at the architecture. There are some beautiful homes and even a few mansions in the old downtown. There are small institutions sprinkled throughout and the commercial area which is centered on the town “square,” a park along the waterfront where our boat is docked. The public docks here are free (yes!) and there is a nice newish and very clean bathroom building alongside. (Showers: $5!!!) It’s a great situation that I wish every stop had. Second best thing in Elizabeth City: Chai Frappés!


Wednesday 15 NOV


But not before I go to The Flour Girls and pick up some pastries, natch.


Thursday 16 NOV



Friday 17 NOV


We arrive at Silver Lake, the harbor on Ocracoke Island, in the early afternoon. We dock at the National Park Service’s docks ($1.25 / foot or $48.75 per night) where there are toilets but no showers. 😦


Saturday 18 NOV

Glenn and I head out in the morning for a long beach walk. Ava doesn’t join us because she is a teenager “doesn’t like sand on her feet” (wha?) To get there we have to get out of town on route 12 and walk a bit north to the airport road. There we take turnoff no. 70 to the beach. We turn and walk through the soft sand trampled in truck tracks to get to the water’s edge. We walk south for a couple of miles. This landscape is so familiar, says Glenn. This isn’t the first time we’ve been to Ocracoke. When we were first out of college and couldn’t afford beach vacations (can we now?), Glenn and I used to come to the NPS campsites here, where we could pitch a tent (almost) on the beach. It took us something like 13 hours to drive from Philadelphia, so we would leave pre-crack-of-dawn to arrive before the sun set to make the tent set-up easier. We spent our days on the clean empty beaches, swimming in the warm water, and fishing, mostly unsuccessfully. In the evenings we would cook out, maybe play a game and then into the tent for sleep. It’s funny. On those trips, like our present one, we lived a majority of our day outdoors. And then like now, it was rough. The environment was extreme and relentless. When people hear that we are sailing and living on our boat for a year their eyes get wide at the thoughts of, I don’t know, luxury or something. But luxury is easy. The privilege of this year is that this is hard.


Sunday 19 NOV

Today the wind blows hard again. This is why we are stopped in Ocracoke, despite the nostalgia, for so long. We wake up late and go to a local café for some writing time and beverages. I have a hard time eking out this blog this time. Maybe I’m bored with it, I think. Are you bored with it? Instead of writing I spend a good amount of time petting a sweet little dog named Teddy, who I fall a little in love with. Then, on the way to lunch at Eduardo’s taco truck Ava and I discuss good dog and cat names. We both like Rupert for a male dog and Georgette (Georgie or Gigi for short) for a female cat. She also likes Galileo for a cat, but I find this too cumbersome. I like Roberta (Bobbie for short) for a female dog. Glenn, not asked, chimes in that he likes the name Glenda. OK, cuckoo.

On our way home we stop off at the local fish market. It will only be open one more week this season. We get some flounder for later and consider ourselves lucky to not miss out on such freshness.


Tomorrow we leave for Beaufort where we will leave the boat for a week for maintenance and head inland for a Thanksgiving feast in Hendersonville. We will be there for a bit, so call us if you’re close and we can hang out. If I don’t see you ‘til then, have a great Thanksgiving.


Dismal Swamp Canal, some duckweed, before it got real bad


Dismal Swamp Canal raingear


Elizabeth City, NC
Elizabeth City, NC
Elizabeth City, NC
Elizabeth City, NC
Elizabeth City, NC
Elizabeth City, NC
Elizabeth City, NC
Elizabeth City, NC Departure breakfast from The Flour Girls
“This here’s the best damn scone I ever did have. Yeeehaw!”
sunrise at Long Shoal River, NC


Ocracoke beaches, more truck tracks than people tracks
Ocracoke colors
Carlos and Patricia
Ocoke_Glenn ahead_BLOG
bye, Glenn
When in Rome… Hush Puppies and Fried Okra
Ocracoke colors
“I don’t like sand on my feet.”

3 thoughts on “23. Dismal Swamp Canal to Ocracoke

  1. Happy Thanksgiving dear
    Svnetzah family. Enjoy your ground time but don’t forget the high winds and happy fans await you 😍😍😍


  2. I still love your blog so don’t you dare stop writing. And it’s not boring at all! Your descriptions are so vivid, I feel like I’m there with you. Your photos this time are especially good.

    I’m so happy that you, Glenn and Ava are spending some wonderful quality time with me and the rest of the family in Hendersonville. What a great Thanksgiving this year!!


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