Hampton, VA to Coinjock, NC (Thursday, 10/19)
It was the mad dash of boats at 0-dark thirty that would continue for the entire day. As we left the docks at Bluewater Yachting Center, so too did at least 10 other boats – mostly sailors. All had the same idea in mind to get through Norfolk and get to the Great Bridge Lock. Once outside of the harbor, they all headed the “short cut” route to Norfolk. However, not wanting to have to slow down to pass each of these slower boats (so we don’t rock them with our big wake), Captain Mark took us the longer – but certainly faster route into the harbor in Norfolk. It was a very calm and beautiful morning and we got to see an awesome sunrise.
Here we passed lots of military vessels in the yards, as well as other industrial boats loading and offloading their wares. As we passed Norfolk Navy Yard we could hear first reveille, and then the playing of the Stars Spangled Banner over the loudspeaker; no kneeling here. The water was calm and there was no one near us at this time.
However, soon we came to the Gilmerton Lift Bridge which we can clear without requiring it to be opened. But there is a railway bridge (Norfolk Southern #7) immediately afterwards that was down for approaching trains, so we had to wait. Unfortunately, so did the other 10 or so boats (including a huge yacht and a big sport fisher) that required the opening of the Gilmerton Bridge.
Normal protocol is to wait your turn, but since we were the one boat that could get through the first bridge, we slowly approached the front of the line. There a sailboat (who was first) attempted to block anyone from “cutting in” by turning their boat horizontally as the railroad bridge was lifting. However, Captain Mark was too quick for the other captain and was able to pull in front of him and get us through the first bridge and eventually the railway bridge while it was still opening. We were first through, and it allowed us to take off and not have to slow down for the sailboats for the run up to the lock.
We had a reason for wanting to do this. We had to stop and get fuel at “Top Rack” marina – known for its great fuel prices. We were also afraid the yacht and/or sport fishing boat would be going there too and we did not want to have to wait behind either of them to get fuel; a process that could take hours. Also, we were trying to get to the lock for the 8:30 entry so we could be in the 9:00 opening of the Great Bridge Bridge (GBB). The lock and bridge work together as they are so close, but the GBB only opens on the hour.
We stopped at Top Rack for fuel and filled the tanks, hoping we won’t have to do so again until we reach South Carolina where it is really cheap. During our 20 minutes tackling this familiar task, we watched all the power boats cruise past us and some of the sailboats too.
We finished the fueling and headed towards the lock, just 3 miles south. Now it became an issue of how many boats would fit into the lock, and how many would have to wait an hour on the next opening. Of course we were able to pass a few of the slower boats, but the jockeying for positions had already started and by the time we arrived in queue there were at least 20 boats waiting. Not all of us would get into the lock and unfortunately we were one of those unlucky ones. So we had to wait, motoring in place with several other power boats and a slew of sailboats. And some of those we passed along the way had caught up to us. This had us reminiscing about the long (4 hour) waits we encountered on the western rivers during our Great Loop Adventure in 2015.
Eventually, at 9:30 we were able to get into the lock, along with 15 other boats. It is only a 2’ drop so it takes no time, but of course you can’t get far until the GBB opens on the hour.
Shortly thereafter, we were able to get through the GBB too and able to take off. It ended up being 3 other power boats in front of us, and one behind us (a Sabre), all in a hurry to now make the next bridge (Centerville Bridge), which open on the half hour only. Along the way we had to pass some of the slow boats that we had already passed once today, but were in the first lock down, and we had to make sure the railroad bridge in between stayed open – it did. We arrived at the bridge, but still had to wait 10 minutes for it to open. And that is how it went for the next bridge (North Landing) too. Finally, we were through all the encumbrances between us and Coinjock.
We crossed the Currituck Sound without incident, but again having to slow down to pass many sailboats and trawlers that were ahead of us. This was like I-95 traffic with only one lane of traffic open, and everyone heading south for the winter. Adding to this mass migration is the fact that a secondary route (The Dismal Swamp) has been closed since last October when hurricane Matthew did so much damage to it, that it cannot be used. The Army Corps of Engineers is working to get it re-opened, but for now it is impassable. So all the slow boats that usually take that route were now on the same “freeway” as us.
And of course, most of these same boats were arriving into Coinjock all about the same time. It was a mad house and as we expected. Several boats went to Midway marina (across the canal from Coinjock), and several did not stop, pressing on for another destination south – something we probably could have done as well.
We were told to continue past the main (1200’) dock to the south dock where they would put us and one other boat. Initially this did not make Denise happy as it is a hike to the bathrooms and restaurants, and the internet signal was very weak. Later, however we enjoyed being far from the noise of the bar and got to see more stars as we did not have as much light pollution.
Once we settled the boat we went and checked in at the marina office. Here we could see on their big dry erase board that more boats were still due in, they were going to be full up for the evening. Afterwards, we walked the long 1200’ dock to see the boats. There were several yachts, a handful of trawlers, and a dozen or so sailboats that were rafted up 2-deep; a definite full house tonight. We walked back the boat to clean it and get showers, thankful we were not asked to have someone raft to us.
We had made reservations for dinner at the restaurant, but they were not really necessary. Unlike in the spring when we were here, tonight the restaurant was not full at all. Either we were too early, or the boats headed south were eating onboard as there is nowhere else to go. Our table was nicely decorated and we had a good meal, but not their notorious prime rib (we feel is over-rated). By the time we left the place was filling up, but it would not be the crowds we had seen in the past.
We were not back at the boat long before we decided to go to bed early. It had been a tedious day and we were exhausted. Tomorrow we would leave early to get ahead of the slower boats currently tied up to the long dock. Now we were happy we were on the south dock with no other boat to encumber our planned early departure.
Dowry Creek Marina near Belhaven, NC (Friday, 10/20)
Maybe there were 5 boats ahead of us leaving at the crack of dawn. We were off the dock as soon as there was a hint of daylight. We wanted to maximize the advantage of being ahead of all the slower boats so that we would not have too many to pass once we got into the confines of the Alligator – Pungo Canal. We were also trying to time the opening of the Alligator River Bridge so that we could get through it before the traffic stacked up there.
As soon as we pulled away from the dock we could see the fog hanging on the shoreline, just past the Coinjock Bridge.
As we continued through the marshes along this part of the ICW, we saw patches of fog and then a glorious sunrise on the eastern side. Once the sun had come up, most of the fog had lifted and the timing could not have been more perfect as we were entering the Albemarle Sound.
The passage across the Albemarle was uneventful and we made good time. We entered the Alligator River, made our way through the Alligator River Swing Bridge, and out into this large body of water that reminded us of the Indian River through Cocoa. The river is wide but only has a narrow channel in which to navigate, as it is shallow (3’). We made good time through this area as there were few vessels to pass and we could cruise at 20 kts.
Shortly thereafter we entered the man-made “Alligator – Pungo Canal”; used to connect the Alligator River with the Pungo River. This is a fast and protective way of transiting south without having to go into the Pamlico Sound. Had we not been heading to Belhaven and New Bern we may have considered going the Pamlico River route through Manteo like we did going north. The canal itself is not very wide, and is tree-lined the whole way with its banks looking like FL waterways. Here we passed only one boat (“Oceanis”) the whole time, and transited the area without incident.
Once through the canal we entered the wide Pungo River and it was not long afterwards that we approached the Dowry Creek Marina. It is easily recognizable from the ICW as the three-story building is located on the hill above the marina.
We received instructions for a side-tie on the main dock, and “Thomas” assisted us in tying up the boat and connecting our power.
We finished getting the oat all settled and then went to the marina office (located on the second floor) to check in. We immediately signed up to use the loaner car for that evening so we could go into the town of Belhaven for dinner, and to explore a bit. As luck would have it, no one else needed the car, but we had offered to take any other cruisers with us if they wanted to go. The loaner car was one of the benefits of this marina and why we chose it over the other marinas in downtown.
One of the other nice things about this marina was they have free laundry. They have two washers and dryers, and one of the washers takes quarters. However, the marina leaves a bunch of quarters on the top of it and you just use these as necessary. Denise took advantage of the free laundry while Mark washed the salt off the outside of the boat.
While waiting on the laundry to dry Denise sat out on the porch overlooking the marina, and its spectacular view. Here she met “Mack” who lives in the apartment on the 3rd floor. He and his wife have a house in town that was flooded and FEMA made them raise it, so they are in the process of rebuilding. The house is due to be completed in November and they are going to put it on the market and sell it; they have grown accustomed to the smaller confines and want to downsize. She also learned that he is involved with a restaurant right on the ICW south of Southport and suggested we consider staying there if our timing works out; they have a free dock if you get there late enough in the day.
In the afternoon a 96–foot (Broward) motor yacht (“Crown Jewel”) pulled in behind us and we had a chance to talk to the crew. There were 3 aboard; the captain and his wife (chef and steward) and a first mate. They were all very nice and we enjoyed talking to them about heading south for the winter. The owners are from New York and will spend the winter in Florida.
That evening we used the loaner car to drive into the town of Belhaven; about a 10 minute drive. The route took us through a very nice neighborhood near the marina, down a two-lane road to the highway, then a turn to the next highway, and finally into town.
The downtown itself is very small (one third the size of Park Ave. in Winter Park), but they have two great restaurants and we had to choose between the two. We decided on “The Tavern at Jack’s Neck” and were not disappointed. The food was great, and the entire restaurant decorated in carved wood was beautiful.
After dinner we drove around the town, but it was getting dark and we were not able to see too much. On the way back to the marina we noticed how really dark it was, especially on the two-lane road back to the marina. But in that darkness, we saw the beauty of the area and the millions of stars that were in the sky. No light pollution here at all and it was spectacular. Add to this the backdrop of the now very calm ICW and Pungo River and it was like paradise. This is why we cruise.
Once back at the marina we returned the loaner car and found the office still open (way past 7 pm). The owner (Neal) was there with his son and Mack, and we had a chance to talk to them. Neal is looking to sell the marina as it is his “fun job”, but still takes way too much time away from family. He is a pharmacist by trade and he owns 4 pharmacies (Walgreens-like) in the area called “O’Neil’s”. Yup, his real name is Neal O’Neil. If it wasn’t too far from our home, we could have considered this as a project.
A little bit more about the Dowry Creek Marina. This is a great stopping place for cruisers with a large lounge area and a pool. The lounge has a kitchenette setup and is great for hosting “docktails” and other gatherings, especially when the weather gets bad. It is also a great place to kayak or paddle board as there are lots of little canals and tributaries to explore. If we had more time we would have easily stayed here a second night.
Here are some pictures of the place: