Monday, April 30, 2012

Chesapeake, VA

Days on Cruise:  38

Miles today:  15.0

Travel Time:  2 hrs, 49 mins (Locks sure slow you down)

Total Trip Odometer:  1,054 statute miles


We left the Dismal Swamp Feeder Ditch dock this morning and completed our trip on the Canal by traveling through the Deep Creek Lock, our second lock of more than 100 locks we’ll do by the time this journey is complete. This time we were accompanied by two other trawlers (above), one current Looper and one “Gold” Looper, meaning they’ve already completed the Loop. We haven’t seen them previously or since.


The photo above is of the “Superintendent’s Home” of the Dismal Swamp Corps of Engineers, right on the shore of the Canal.  We assume this is the Superintendent’s home historically, but not currently? We hope not!

We arrived at Top Rack Marina in Chesapeake, VA and bought diesel fuel for $3.79/gallon, the cheapest price we’ll see for quite some time. We’re staying at their docks tonight as we need to get the new sender for our starboard engine tomorrow morning at Carter Machinery, 8 miles away. We debated taking a cab there, or renting a car, but Cathryn sweet-talked the young dockhand here at the marina into picking it up for us tomorrow morning on his way to work.  We’ll pay him for his time and gas, of course, and he was thrilled to get the extra work, but it also saves us lots of hassle and time.

So everyone cross your fingers that Bob’s installation of the new sender tomorrow morning is uneventful, and that it’s the only source of issues from our “high oil pressure” day on the Albemarle Sound.  Thanks!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Play Day

Days on Cruise:  37

Today’s distance:  4.5 miles

Travel Time:  1 hr, 23 minutes

Total Odometer:  1,039 statute miles

We slept well at the free Dismal Swamp Visitor’s Center dock last night. One thing that surprised us, as we’d never heard it from other Loopers or read this detail on any Looper blog we followed in the previous year, is that the Visitor’s Center is adjacent to a 4-lane divided highway! It’s not a terribly busy highway, but we were still surprised to have the Swamp noises sometimes overwhelmed by the highway noises. Only one other boat was at the dock.

This morning we pulled our bicycles out of the guest stateroom where they live when we don’t have visitors and went for a 10-mile ride to the town of South Mills.  Turns out it’s a tiny town, with not a lot there besides the Lock and Bascule Bridge we traveled through yesterday, but it was a pleasant ride, the first half of which was on a bike trail immediately adjacent to the Swamp. And it felt good to get off the boat and get some exercise.





After the bike ride, we cast off our dock lines and moved 6 miles further north on the Canal, at idle speed in order to keep a watch for deadheads, and minimize any damage if we hit any. No problems.

We saw a snake in the canal, the first of several!


Shortly before we finished our brief cruise, we crossed the state line into Virginia:  State #5 on this journey!


After 6.3 miles, we pulled over to this 20-foot Corps of Engineers dock and tied up for the night. Our boat is more than twice as long as the dock, so we’re hogging all the space, but we set out lines and fenders so anyone else hoping to stay tonight can raft up with us (tie to our side).


Looks like a pretty nice spot to spend the night, huh?


The Corps of Engineers could use some Marketing assistance. Immediately across the Canal from tonight’s dock is something called the “DSC Feeder Ditch. in actuality, it’s a 3-mile long side canal leading to Lake Drummond, which has a dam at the junction with the side canal and is used to regulate the water level in the Dismal Swamp Canal, to keep it at regulation depth even in dry weather conditions.  Can’t they come up with a nicer sounding name???


We dropped the dinghy into the water and traveled up the Feeder Ditch, which varies in depth from 3 to 16 feet, is narrower than the Dismal Swamp Canal, and not suitable for large boats. It also has lots of tree debris and deadheads, so navigating requires constant attention, especially in an inflatable dinghy; wouldn’t want to puncture it.

See the turtle on the log? Another  Swamp wildlife critter! Again it sounded like an aviary on this stretch (with no highway noise, yea!!), though we weren’t able to positively identify any birds other than Cardinals since we didn’t have our bird book on board the dinghy.


On arrival at the head of the Feeder Ditch, we found a small dam and were surprised to learn there was also something they call a “trolley”, otherwise known as a Marine Railway, which can be used to transport a small boat around and over the dam to the higher level water of Lake Drummond. For those of you who know us personally, you know that Bob worked to establish the light rail system in Seattle, built lots of public works projects, and bought trolley buses, so this felt like a teeny, tiny throwback to his career days!


This trolley moves so slowly it took 10 minutes for our boat to climb the tiny hill from the canal, then descend to the water on the other side of the dam. A boat trailer on rails, pulled by a twisted steel cable on a pulley driven by a diesel motor. Sort of like the San Francisco cable cars?


Heading out toward Lake Drummond the path narrowed even further and became so blocked by debris that it was like navigating an obstacle course to get through.


Lake Drummond is pretty, entirely remote, and very quiet. We didn’t see any other boats when we were out there.



Just before we left to do our Feeder Ditch trip, a group  arrived at the dock where our boat is parked – a family with 4 young kids and a few other adult friends, and they all kayaked up the Feeder Ditch to Lake Drummond. Those kids were troopers!  When they returned to the dock, the Mom, Sarah, got back in her kayak to practice some kayak rolls!  We heard splashing outside right next to our boat and went to see what was going on.  Here she goes!  One of the guys in her group goaded her into doing repeated rolls so he could videotape her, and she did about 6 in a row, declaring she was dizzy afterwards. She climbed up our swim ladder and got back on the dock via our boat, much easier since we were blocking all the dock space!


It was great to take a day to play in benign, if cool, weather. Tomorrow we head for Norfolk, Virginia to try to find a replacement sender for our starboard engine to see if that solves the oil pressure problem we had in the middle of Albemarle Sound two days ago.

By the way, we were vindicated in our decision to make the crossing that day (Friday) in sort of marginally high (for us) winds. It turns out Saturday was EVEN WINDIER, so if we had decided to wait, we’d probably still be sitting at the Alligator River Marina amongst the omnipresent flies and mosquitoes.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Dismal Swamp

Days on cruise: 36

Miles today: 24.0

Travel Time: 4 hrs 12 mins

Total Odometer:  1,033 statute miles



The name of this post in no way reflects our mood. That is, in fact, the swamp’s name. But it certainly seems it might reflect the mood of the folks who first built this canal!


We left Elizabeth City, N.C. before 8am to catch the scheduled opening of a 12-foot high bridge. The kind bridge tender opened it as soon as we arrived, not making us wait for the official opening.



The serpentine Pasquotank River looks different north of Elizabeth City than the southern portion coming up from Albemarle Sound yesterday: almost completely rural, increasingly narrow with every passing mile, and nothing straight about it! It sounded like we were traveling through an aviary as we quietly ticked off the miles at about 5 mph, though we actually saw few birds. There was always plenty of water beneath the hull, and no sand shoals or ocean inlets, no wind, nothing to cause any stress.


We arrived at the South Mills Lock shortly before the scheduled 11am opening, our first Lock!  We re-read some notes we’d taken regarding how to handle passage through a lock, called the lockmaster on our VHF radio, attached locking lines and fenders to hold us safely and securely against the wall, and entered our first lock.


While it was interesting, it was also anti-climactic, as we’ve heard lots of people express fear about the chaos of traveling through locks. Maybe it was because there was only one other boat besides us. Or because the lock only lifted us to water that was 8 feet higher. Or because the lockmaster was friendly and helpful in setting our bow and stern lines.P1000491


It took about 20 minutes for the lock to fill and raise us to the next level, then the doors opened and off we went, into The Dismal Swamp.


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This 22-mile Canal, in its’ first incarnation, was an investment idea designed to sell timber and improve the transportation of goods between Virginia and North Carolina, and George Washington was one of the original investors. Slaves dug the canal by hand over 12 years, and it opened in 1805. Its’ life as a busy transportation corridor had many ups and downs over the ensuing years, and in 1929 the U.S. government bought it for $500,000. Designated a National Historical Landmark, it’s the only facility in the country that greets folks at a Visitors Center who arrive by both highway and historic waterway. About 2,000 boats travel the Canal each year, and 600,000 folks arrive by automobile.


Today the waterway is kept at a controlled depth of about 10 feet between the locks at each end, and as warned, we hit one submerged deadhead (log), though we were traveling at idle speed, and no damage was done. We called in the location of the deadhead anyway so it can be removed by the Corps of Engineers who maintain and manage the Canal.


The Dismal Swamp Visitors Center is only 4 miles up from the South Mills Lock, and we stopped to tie up at the free face dock for the night. There were a few scattered showers in the afternoon, but during a dry period we crossed the Canal to the State Park and walked the boardwalk through the Swamp. It was quiet and pretty.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Rose Buddies at Elizabeth City, NC

Days on cruise:  35

Miles today: 37.9

Travel time:  4 hrs,  57 minutes

Total odometer: 1,009 statute miles


After we left Albemarle Sound (whew!  see below) and continued 15 miles north on the Pasquotank River, we arrived in Elizabeth City, NC under mild, sunny skies and calm water. Along the way we passed the nation’s largest balloon manufacturing facility (above), where balloons ranging from spy camera platforms for Afghanistan to cartoon balloons for Macy’s Thanksgiving parades are made.


Elizabeth City LOVES boaters and treats them accordingly.  On their downtown waterfront boardwalk are a dozen or so boat slips, and several hundred feet of bulkhead wall, at which boaters are allowed to tie up for free!  There’s no electricity or water, but there are showers a block away (which we won’t use as our shower suits us fine) and trash cans in the park. Nice!


At 3pm we heard a knock on our hull (how people notify you they want your attention at the helm door), and there stood Charlotte from the Elizabeth City Visitors Center to invite us to a “welcome party” of wine, cheese and roses at the city dock a block away. She explained that anytime there are 5 or more boaters in their free slips, they host such a party and tell us about the things to see and do in Elizabeth City. 


So at 4:30 off we went to the City dock adjacent to the Visitor’s Center office. Charlotte and a former mayor filled us in on their charming town of 15,000 inhabitants, gave us a glass of wine, crackers and cheese, and each couple got a rose, cut from the rose bushes a few yards away, contributed by the original Rose Buddies who began this tradition in 1983. We were told they host about 60 such parties each year, generally from late April through mid-October. Wow!



Ode to Twins

No, this is not an announcement that Ryan, Mackenzie or Adrienne (our three adult children) are expecting twins and we’re about to become grandparents.  Nor is it some kinky idea Bob came up with today. More on this topic later.

We awoke to cloudy skies, cool temps, and calm waters at Alligator City Marina, then consulted various weather sources and considered our options over coffee. The weather sources said a small craft warning remained in effect until 11am, and winds on Albemarle Sound were forecast to be 15-20 mph with gusts to 25.  Additionally, the forecast for tomorrow (Saturday) was for lighter winds and gusts, and no small craft advisory. What to do? Wait or go?

Our dilemma revolved around the fact that today’s winds were to come from the north (the same direction we’d be heading), while tomorrow’s winds were to come from the east. We liked the idea of lighter winds, but didn’t relish another day wallowing in beam seas and gyrating through 25-30 degree swings in direction on auto pilot. So . . . we went for it, knowing that winds out of the north (Boreas) meant we’d be heading directly into the wind and therefore the boat might “buck” like a horse from bow to stern, but it wouldn’t wallow side to side, the dreaded motion.


We cast off our lines at 8:00 am, and the approach to the Albemarle was not bad. Thirty minutes later we found ourselves in high winds with 3-4 foot seas, which would have scared the cr-- out of us in our 27-foot boat back home, but “Next to Me” is a seaworthy old Gal who handled it well, despite the bucking that made us brace ourselves in the helm seat so we wouldn’t fall off.  There are no markers to guide the way across the Albemarle, just compass headings derived from the chart, and at our speed (9 mph) we expected it to take 2 1/2 hours to get to calmer water.  We were not able to see land at the center of the Sound, and waves broke over our bow and onto to the lower windshield as well as the flybridge windshield.


Just about the time we hit the middle of the Sound, we noticed the oil pressure on the starboard engine was unusually high. Bob looked at the gauges on the lower helm to see if they matched (they did), and checked in the engine room to see if anything looked obviously amiss . . . nope!

Now what?  Cr—! So we fell back on calling our now dear friend and old standby in troubled times, Chris Caldwell (of Captain Chris Yacht Services who trained us back in January) and asked for advice.

How many of you know from experience that Olive Oil tastes waaaaay better than Engine Oil??? Cathryn does! Chris advised us to immediately shut down the starboard engine and continue to Elizabeth City on the far side of the Sound on only one engine.  Hence:  Ode to Twins!  We’re so happy to have twin engines, as this is the second time in 5 weeks that we’ve had to continue to our destination under the power of only one engine.  In both cases we would have needed a tow to get to port if we had a single engine. And in both cases we were in what, at least for us, were heavy seas, not a place we’d want to be while waiting for a tow boat to come get us while we had no power.

Chris walked us through some possibilities: water in the engine oil? diesel fuel in the engine oil? color change or bubbles in the engine oil? smells like diesel? tastes like diesel?  HUH???????? Yep, he said if we couldn’t smell whether or not there was diesel fuel in the engine oil, we could taste a tiny bit to check.  Cathryn has a better “sniffer” and taste buds than Bob, so she got elected. Nope, tastes like engine oil, not diesel. If she gets sick tonight, we’ll suspect why. Ha!

Bob called Andrew, the guy who changed our oil last Monday in Morehead City to inquire whether he knew any diesel mechanics in Elizabeth City (today’s destination). Andrew inquired why we needed a mechanic and offered his own ideas on what might be the problem, including the possibility it was just the sender that transmits information to the pressure gauge. 


Bob descended into the engine room while Cathryn remained at the helm (still underway mid-Sound on one engine) to see if he could figure out whether it might be the sender. And guess what happened? He found it probably was the sender (yea!!!). But while focusing on the starboard engine, he either got bounced, or maybe just leaned back into the  alternator belt.  Suddenly he felt a pull on his t-shirt. The belt had grabbed it and was trying to rip it off his back! Bob leaned forward and got away from the belt. It turned out that pieces of his shirt were stuck in the belt, while others got shredded and ended up becoming red fuzz on the engine room floor.  Some of it smoked up the engine room, and the rest ended up in the air filter that Bob later vacuumed up. Yikes! Bob reported back at the flybridge that it looked like a hamster cage down there.  Too bad no photos of this part.


Finally, proceeding at 6mph instead of 9mph (one engine versus two) we reached the north side of the Albemarle Sound, the leeward side, and the waves subsided, winds calmed and life looked pretty darn good again. We took off our inflatable life vests and jackets and started smiling at each other again.

Throughout this whole exercise, we were sometimes physically uncomfortable, and sometimes perplexed or frustrated, but never scared.  That’s testimony to how much we’ve learned and how much confidence we’ve gained in our boat and ourselves in the past couple of months.  We are happy to have Albemarle Sound in our rearview mirror. And happy to have twins!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Making Headway

Days on Cruise: 34

Today’s mileage:  61.1

Time cruising:  7 hrs 24 mins

Total odometer:  971 statute miles

It was cold, cloudy and calm (yes! no wind!) this morning, so we cast off at 7:45 after spending 15 minutes rinsing down our anchor chain as it came up out of the thick MUD bottom where we’d anchored. Secure stuff, but messy!


We were pleased to finish the remaining stretch of the Pungo River and enter the Alligator-Pungo Canal, a 20-mile man-made canal that connects the Pungo and Alligator Rivers, under calm conditions.


We found the Canal to be more interesting than we expected. It’s only 75 yards wide, and both shores are shallow with lots of stumps and snags where trees used to grow but the shoreline has been eroded by boat wakes. Staying to the center of the narrow dredged channel is essential. We had no trouble in this stretch.

Next up: The Alligator River does not strike us as a “river”. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, all rivers other than the Columbia are long, narrow things in which the water usually runs fast and canyons are often on both sides. Not so in this part of the country. The Alligator River is 3-5 miles wide on average, and shallow enough that winds over 15 mph make it uncomfortable to travel in a trawler.


Emerging from the Canal into the very wide Alligator River, where the ICW markers change sides (red and green colors on opposite sides from where they’ve been the past day or two), plus day markers set 2-3 miles apart, meant we had to both peer through binoculars and work on navigating as we made our way. The wind came up as the day wore on, and in the end we were back to wallowing, with 25-degree swings in orientation even on autopilot. If you try to walk around the boat under these conditions, you feel drunk at best; or at worst you take a fall, but fortunately when this happened to Cathryn she fell into a cushy chair on the sundeck, so no damage done. Does this look like a river to you?


After completing the 20 miles on the Alligator River, we asked for an opening of the 14-foot clearance Alligator River Bridge, then headed for the Little Alligator River/Sandy Point anchorage. During the 30 minutes it took us to get there, the wind came up and shifted to the west, so by the time we got there we couldn’t imagine anchoring, as it was so wild, with no protection against winds from the west! But we enjoyed seeing the duck blinds on the route to the anchorage.


Deciding to back-track a mile and head for the Alligator River Marina, Cathryn donned a life vest while she went on deck to put out 4 dock lines and fenders on each side, not being certain whether we’d be heading into a starboard or port tie. This was the first time either of us put on a life vest to go on deck, but the conditions were sufficiently rough that we considered the possibility of a “man” overboard. We were very happy to enter the calm basin of the Alligator River Marina where we’re tied up for the night at another inexpensive marina, hoping the winds will cooperate tomorrow and allow us to make the Albemarle Sound crossing, one of the five crossings on the Great Loop route that can pose a challenge for all cruisers, depending on the weather.

At 9:30 pm all is calm, so we’re hopeful about tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Dodging Cold Fronts

Day’s on cruise:  33

Today’s journey:  71.2 miles

Moving Time: 7 hrs, 57 mins

Total Odometer:  910 statute miles


We finally figured out that if we were going to wait for the high winds and cold fronts to go away, we might just as well buy a place in Morehead City.  So we developed a different strategy.  While some days it just blew like stink all day, other days it started out calm and got very windy in the afternoon.  So today we got up at 5:30 a.m. and left the dock at 6:30, at least an hour and a half earlier than our “normal’ start time. It was calm, and the water was flat as glass for the first few hours.


Our “sister ship” below passing us at high speed! Ha.


By 9 o’clock we were entering the Neuse River, sometimes referred to as the “Nice Neuse”, sometimes as the “Nasty Neuse”.  This river is 5-10 miles wide, and shallow, so if the wind comes up, it can get very rough.  Especially if the wind is coming up your transom or on the beam. This morning it was the Nice Neuse when we started out. But by the time we left it 20 miles later, it was well on its way to transforming into the Nasty Neuse.  All in all, our timing was excellent.


We left the Neuse and entered a canal for another 10 miles, then the Pamlico River. The scenery was pleasant if unexceptional.


This river was only 3-5 miles wide, and we traveled about 10 miles on it.  We had 3-foot seas which wouldn’t have been bad at all, except they were on our beam, so we wallowed the whole way.  We basically stayed in our seats the whole time given the rocking and rolling the boat was doing. We weren’t nervous, but it was uncomfortable.


About 2:30 p.m. we pulled into Belhaven, N. C. having covered 71 miles!  We set the anchor (on the first try, using our new and improved technique courtesy of Jim and Mark) and then promptly took a nap.  The weather tomorrow is expected to be a bit windier, but we’ll be traveling in more protected waters. The plan is to do another early start, but only go 50 miles.  That will stage us for the next day’s crossing, Friday, of the Albemarle Sound. This  body of water is reported to be more problematic than the Neuse, but Friday’s winds are currently forecast to be lower than today’s, so we hope if we get another early start, it will go smoothly.


But, plans are made in jello here on “Next To Me”.  Maybe we’ll follow this plan, maybe not.  If the weather is worse, maybe we’ll just stay put.  If it’s better, maybe we’ll go someplace else.