Death of a dream, Dismal Swamp Canal and Bizarre Virginia

Day Nine Following the North Star to Massachusetts

We reached Belhaven and anchored in a pleasant spot outside of the channel. After taking the dinghy ashore, we walked to the nearest supermarket for lettuce and hamburger meat, a six-mile roundtrip. The town of Belhaven was pleasant, if isolated. People in cars gawked openly at us as we walked down the road, either because they didn’t know us or because we were so bedraggled in appearance. After an unsuccessful attempt to obtain free beer at the marina’s regatta festival, we grilled up some burgers back on the boat and went to bed.

Around midnight the wind rose and a spectacular storm descended upon the harbor. We battened down the hatches against a whipping rain and prayed that our anchor would hold as winds of 30-40 knots tore across the water and lightning lit the sky more often than not. The morning saw the wind retain the greater part of its force, unfortunately right in our teeth, and we motor-sailed out into Alligator River via a string of wooded canals. We passed under a bridge and headed for the shelter of Durant Island, only 10 miles from the Roanoke Island, site of the “Lost Colony.”

In the morning, we passed through Albemarle Sound and made for Elizabeth City, a hamlet of reasonable size but limited interest on a Sunday. Everything was closed, and as we searched the streets in vain for an Irish pub, England v France kicked off. We left Elizabeth City early and made our way toward Norfolk, Virginia, 50 nautical miles distant. This should have been one long day, but fate had other plans.

The route twisted and narrowed into a waterway called “Dismal Swamp Canal,” and a more apt moniker could hardly be imagined. Dismal, surely, for its 30+ miles were walled with sickly trees, and few signs of civilization or interest. Swamp, assuredly, as we were assaulted by a species of yellow fly with a vicious bite. Canal, hardly, since it was some fifteen feet across and pounded our boat with roots and stumps hidden beneath its murky waters. The coup de poing was reaching the Deep Creek Bascule Bridge and discovering that it would not open until the next morning. We anchored in the canal, and the flies converged upon our ship like Oprah on a Christmas ham. We put a sheet over the doorway, killed all of the flies in the cabin, had dinner, and went to bed.

Next morning, the two motor-yachts and four sailboats started their engines around 8:15, in anticipation of the 8:30 bridge opening. We passed through and into a lock, where the fellow manning it gave a speech about how it would be shut down for good in the fall, unless we wrote to our senators. The Canadian family in the sailboat ahead of us was fortunate to be spared this spiel. On the strength of our experience in the Dismal Swamp Canal, it’s unlikely we’ll be advocating its continued maintenance at the annual expense of John Q. Taxpayer’s $400,000. We were prepared to come away empty-handed, but found a small space in front of a couple of other boats.

When we went ashore to check in with the town’s Dockmaster, we were warmly welcomed and given a map and recommendations on where to go and what to see. Buoyed by the positive experience, we moved our dinghy over to the correct dock. As we approached the pier, we observed Reeny, the Dockmaster, eerily smoking a cigarette underneath a bridge and watching us row in. Immediately we reassessed our first impressions of the place. We decided that although we may have entered a town of vampires or the twilight zone, going to the library was worth the risk. A semi-successful visit was highlighted by my buying James Joyce’s “Dubliners” for a dollar on the way to the library, and lowlighted by Aaron’s e-mail account refusing him access.

We returned to the boat, lounged around for a while, then went to a bar, Marker 20, and split a pitcher of the place’s micro brewed beer. It tasted fine and the air was mild with a pleasant breeze after the sun fell. We watched “American Psycho” on board before turning in for the night.

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