Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tollhouse Pancakes on the Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp has always been a place of mystery for me.  I've driven alongside en route to the Outer Banks and longed to explore it from the inside. This was my chance! By boat!

We left the public pier at Hampton, cruised past naval warships, and entered the Intracoastsal Waterway (ICW) just after the Norfolk shipyards.

Passed through a couple of railroad bridges (usually open, but look left and right for oncoming trains!) and waited for the last opening of the day of a major highway bridge, the Gilmerton Bridge, at 3:30 pm.

At the fork, we turned right, into the route less traveled. (Others, including deeper draft boats, go the "safe" route.)  We're in this for the adventure.

The Dismal Swamp Canal was begun in the late 1700s by George Washington, to connect Chesapeake Bay with Albermarle Sound. The virgin cypress were logged for ships, the cedars for houses. Agricultural goods were moved from southeastern North Carolina to Norfolk. Runaway slaves traversed the swamp along the Underground Railroad.

We spent the night at the first canal lock, waiting for it to open in the morning.

Up at sunrise to sip tea, start up the diesel, and lift anchor before the lock opened.

We tied up to the side of the lock, followed instructions from friendly lockkeeper Robert Peek. Life jackets on. Throw up lines to be secured on top of the lock wall. Stay alert.
The gates behind us closed and the lock flooded, lifting us about 8 feet. Note the height of the boat in relation to the wall in the before and after photos. 

While still tied up to the lock wall, we were invited off the boat for a pancake breakfast at the lockkeeper's house!  All boaters welcomed. 
After pecan and rum-raisin pancakes with maple syrup, we continued down the straight, narrow waterway.
At Mile 23, with me at the wheel, we hit an overhanging tree with the top of the mast--yikes! Gotta be more careful and look up as well as ahead and to the sides. 
Other than one sailboat that came through the lock with us, we have the canal to ourselves all day.
Crossed the state border. No change in the scenery! Narrow black water, wildly overgrown with vegetation. 

Stopped at Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center for a picnic and decided to spend the night. The welcome center is...very welcoming!  They have a book exchange for boaters, a comfortable lounge with easy chairs and wifi (where I am now), and waterway guides.

Took an 11-mile bike ride on a trail alongside the canal; free bike loan, courtesy of the welcome center! North Carolinians are very hospitable.

Later in the day, more boats showed up to spend the night--all waiting for South Mills Lock, five miles south, to open tomorrow morning.
These two days on the swamp have been a blast. Less work, more play. I'm finally feeling retired.
We could have made it all the way to Elizabeth City today, at the end of the canal. But why hurry? The sun is shining, the air is warm, we have plenty of food and water. And we're retired!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Middle Virginia

The Northern Neck--land of conservatives and mega-churches—is kind to boaters. The tiny town of Deltaville sticks out into Chesapeake Bay on a slim peninsula. There is a grocery store, a Dollar General, a West Marine boating supply store, and a dozen marinas and boatyards. Not much entertainment if you’re not a TV fan.

Pope and the advance crew (his brother and a friend) holed up on a dock at the Deltaville Yacht Club, where I met them with the car, coming aboard for a 36-degree night huddled in jackets and sleeping bags. The crew had endured a gusty, miserably cold race down Chesapeake Bay in 30-knot gusts and temperatures in the 40s. The boat flew down the bay at 7 knots—unheard of for our heavily laden, wide-beamed boat. After all, we have 1/10 of our worldly possessions aboard! As I mentioned in an earlier blog, in order to overcome homesickness, I brought more than my share of creature comforts along—to Pope’s chagrin:

* My favorite frying pan. Here I am, tied up in Deltaville, making French toast on an electric hot plate. I LOVE docks with electricity.
* A dozen books, three jigsaw puzzles, and 20 music CDs.

* Netbook for writing and blogging.

* CDs of my favorite musicians.

* Rum, quinoa, and of course, chocolates (a farewell gift from my good friend Lisa).

The bay had taken its toll on our jib (the front sail), leaving some major rips and tears. My first morning on the boat, as the advance crew headed back to DC with the car, Pope and I bundled the sail into town to a local sailmaker, who patched it up for under $200. A bargain! And lucky to find him! Of course, that is only the start of a long string of expenses for repair and maintenance. We can’t afford to be na├»ve about how much this trip is going to cost. Whip out the wallet at every opportunity. Here is Pope re-installing the jib on the roller furling. it's a big sail.


Having taken advantage of the generous (free) hospitality of the yacht club for one night, we felt obligated to move to a real marina for a second night in Deltaville--expensive at $1.75 per foot of boat. However, the showers were pristine, and included hair dryers! Bikes were included! I took several rides into town for provisions and for fun. The marina had a boaters’ lounge with internet, a book exchange and sailors sharing stories about the Exuma Islands, where we are headed! Recycling bins! And...a lettuce and herb garden for the boaters!! I highly recommend the Deltaville Marina at Jackson Creek.
We reluctantly moved on to Hampton, tying up at the Public Pier, and again staying two nights while Pope tried to fix the fuel guage (which still showed full after 58 hours of motoring) and installed a water intake filter to prevent duckweed in the Great Dismal Swamp from clogging our engine. I borrowed a bicycle and headed for the market for eggs and apples to supplement the rum and chocolate.

This is getting to be a habit—staying two nights in one place. I do enjoy the leisurely pace. It almost feels like retirement!  I like sitting still at marinas and docks and having electricity and showers.  And it's easier to get repairs accomplished when you can grab a courtesy bike and head over to the hardware store.

Today, we leave civilization and move into the wilderness, starting our traverse of the Great Dismal Swamp canal. I don't expect to get Internet for a couple of days.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Why Take to the Seas?

Hello, newcomers! Welcome to my blog about travels down the coast and to the Bahamas in a good ‘ol boat named Echo II.

A good ol’ boat, according to my salty—er, that is, experienced—sailing partner Pope, is an historic hole in the water into which you pour new money. On the other hand, he swears that newer, more modern boats have similar abilities to suck your accounts dry.

If you have a self-trained handyman/mechanic on board, like I do, the expense is slightly less significant than the blood (literally), sweat, tears, time, and energy poured into repairs and maintenance. Pope has learned diesel mechanics and plumbing; replaced the fuel and water lines; rewired the 12-volt circuits; cut his hand open on a hose clamp; and sprained his ankle on the dock.
I sewed custom pillows and blankets, created mosquito screens, and packed a household into 100 square feet. Every night, I recreate the bed, under which we store items used during the day, and  unpack and repack the galley (kitchen) when we start and stop.
We both work on sails and dock lines and haul anchors.
You’re probably wondering, why would anyone want to live on a boat and put up with all that work? Not to mention the risk of falling overboard or breaking down offshore. 

Pope’s answer: meet new people, see new places, have an easy-going lifestyle, take lots of naps. (In between boat repairs.)

Amber’s answer: You can go to places accessible only by water. My first ride in a sailboat was across Chesapeake Bay. As a former backpacker, I immediately understood the value of getting away from traffic jams. When we chartered a boat in the British Virgin Islands a few years later, I was sold-- at least on the concept of sailing to tropical islands, sipping rum cocktails, and meeting up with other sailors at tiki bars.

Of course, the reality is not quite as romantic. Yes, those photos show attractive places to which we've sailed. However, there is no air conditioning, and the mosquitoes come on board at dusk. There’s a good reason why those beautiful islands with white sand beaches are deserted: no-see-ums and sand fleas. My legs are covered with bruises from lifelines and ladders. The engine balks when you need it most, and leaks antifreeze or diesel fuel at other times. The head (toilet) malfunctions and backs up. The boat leaks…in multiple places that so far have proved impossible to track down.

Crisis is a constant companion. In between, we meet people and see places accessible only by water. The romance is tempered by hard work.

That’s my story, anyway.

Pope sees it differently: The same trips consist mostly of sunrises and sunsets and idyllic roaming around attractive islands. In between, there are a few challenges that allow him to test his ability to spear the beast.

Together, the pessimist and the optimist are heading south for several months on an old boat, living in a confined space. We will try to accommodate--and appreciate--each other's perspectives and enjoy the ride. Stay tuned to this space for the fun and foibles of our long journey.
P.S. I've been asked how to post comments on this blog and receive a notification when I have posted something. My limited understanding is that you have to download and use Google Chrome. I invite you to check in periodically, watch my Facebook page, and email comments to me, via my home email or the one connected to this blog (see profile), and I'll consider making the comments public.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Packing Up and Casting Off

I begged for a few more days to finish packing, sewing custom sheets, getting my financial records in order, and spiffing up the kitchen for the house sitter. Not one to sit on his laurels when an adventure is in the offing, Pope headed down Chesapeake Bay without me, accompanied by two alternative crew members. I'll catch up in a day or two.

Wise move on my part!  The winds gusted to 30 knots, the reefing system needed re-jiggering, and the jib (front sail) tore on the second day out. Our good ol' boat flew down the bay at 7 knots--phenomenal for such a heavily laden vessel. After all, many of  our worldly goods are on board. I'm not one to survive without a lot of creature comforts; bad enough to live without my hair dryer, refrigeration, and a bathtub! Air conditioning? Open the hatch, let the breezes flow!! Heat (as someone asked me last week)? Bundle up in your fleece and knit cap.
In the end, we had to sacrifice several essentials to the limited-space gods. My guitar, much to my chagrin. Just isn't room on Echo II, unlike that luxury yacht we chartered in British Columbia. Our big spaghetti pot, Pope's favorite cooking vessel. Doesn't fit on the mini-burners. Our entire galley (boat kitchen)--forks, olive oil, and all--is confined to the 4 square feet shown here. Sink left, cooler center, stove right. Where to store beans and rice? Under the bunk. Where to chop carrots and measure oatmeal? On your lap.
(By the way, take note of the ladder stretching down from the companionway--the opening from the outside cockpit to the interior cabin; more on that in a later blog.)
I'll be meeting the boys in southern Virginia tonight, turning over the car for the backup crew to return to the National Capital while Pope and I continue toward Great Dismal Swamp--and the adventure of a lifetime. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Bahamas Bound

Well, folks, we've come full circle. I started this blog with news about purchasing a boat to sail down the coast and over to the Bahamas this fall. The time has come!

Pope and I are working flat out, frantically, to get the boat and house ready to leave in mid-to-late October. Right now the boat and house are chaotic, crowded, and characteristically messy. Tools, spare parts, and equipment everywhere. I'll wait until things get cleaned up and organized (if and when!) and the boat is packed with useful everyday stuff--beans and rice, shampoo and sunblock--to display before and after photos. Pope is proud of his re-creation of an old used boat, 37 years old and formerly owned by a priest--very appropriate that he turned it over to the Pope for resurrection in heavenly waters.

We have renamed the sailboat "Echo II," a tribute to "Echo," the boat his father lived on after his first boat sank (with Pope aboard--but that's another story, for a winter day).

Stay tuned at this website in late October or early November for the first installment of Echo II's journey down the Maryland and Virginia portion of the Intercoastal Waterway, starting with Chesapeake Bay then the Great Dismal Swamp. Will post a notice on my facebook page when I publish a blog post.

Thanks for viewing!