As I topped off the water tanks on Sunday morning, I could see my breath. That’s as sure a sign as any that we were in the wrong place. With long johns underneath a top layer, topped off by a jacket, we pulled from E-dock at 8:30 for what we expected to be 34 hours or so of straight sailing. If calm is what you like, you could not pick a better weather window than this for a two day journey southward. Winds remained less than 5 knots all day, and the best the Chesapeake Bay could muster was a light chop. This means we motored, rather than sailed, but we generally don’t mind when we get conditions as benign as this.
During the first part of the day, there was a lot of traffic, consisting mainly of fishing boats and day-sailers. This diminished as we moved further south and as the day wore on. By sunset, we had passed the southern bank of the mouth of the Potomac River and remained on a heading of nearly 180° (due south) for the rest of the night. During the afternoon, the bright autumnal sun had warmed things up a bit, such that I could strip down to shorts and a t-shirt for a couple of hours. But as soon as the sun approached the western horizon, the temperatures plunged and back on came all the layers which had been discarded hours earlier. With not a cloud in the sky, we watched the great orange ball of fire known as our Sun slowly slink beneath the curvature of the earth. The high during the day was around 65, but the low during the night would be in the low 50s. Fortunately, the wind and the seas are expected to continue to play nicely with us.
The night watch was to be divided up in our usual fashion, with Cindy taking 8-11, me taking 11-2, Cindy taking 2-5, and me back in the helm from 5-8. Unfortunately, the schedule turned out to be nothing like this. I had failed to take into account the expanse of Hampton Roads harbor. It takes hours to transit from the base of the Chesapeake through downtown Norfolk/Portsmouth. Cindy stood watch from 8:00-10:30 (I couldn’t sleep at all and therefore shortened Cindy’s watch), and then I stood watch from 10:30-Midnight. I then woke Cindy up to do watch again since I had a feeling I would be awake for much of the time once we reached the Hampton Roads area. I was right. I would not sleep again from that time. The harbor is one of the busiest in the country (second to New York, I think). Between the lights, which were everywhere, and the ubiquitous shipping traffic, I was required to stay at the helm with Cindy to assist. She did really well, considering the challenge with which entering such a busy harbor at night presented us. Our new autopilot was acting up as well, which added to the stress.
Just as the sun was rising, we had passed under the Gilmarten Bridge and entered into the Dismal Swamp Canal. Since we were slightly early for the Deep Creek Lock opening at 8:30, we tied Beatitude to the dock of Chesapeake Yachts for about 45 minutes. The preceding eight hours had been demanding and arduous, but that’s a part of this lifestyle. Our good friend and mentor, Captain Roy, said recently that we are not on a vacation, but an adventure. It really is true. Cruising is not all tropical beaches, swimming in beautiful clear waters, reveling in spectacular sunsets, and sipping cocktails in the cockpit. A good portion of what we do is very challenging, which only multiplies the reward and sense of fulfillment that we feel as we travel. To think that we’ve taken Beatitude from the Tampa Bay area to the Exumas, all the way up to Nantucket — and now heading south again — is a joy to us both. It makes the sunsets and beaches all the more enjoyable.
Once we had slipped through the northern lock on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, we began our roughly 20-mile journey down the narrow, shallow, man-made body of water once known as Washington’s Ditch (as I mentioned a little over three months ago when we passed through going northward, George Washington once owned much of the Great Dismal Swamp). The water was completely calm and the scenery was drop-dead gorgeous — anything but dismal!). Wow! Although quite cool for most of the day, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. We didn’t see much wildlife in the canal itself, but once we proceeded through the southern lock and made our way down the Pasquotank river, we saw a variety of animals. A water moccasin zig-zagged his way through the water and out of our wake. Scores of turtles sunned themselves on rocks and logs, taking awkward plunges into the river as we passed by. A graceful blue heron and a magnificent bald eagle flew along the river as we approached. I unfortunately took out a couple of tree limbs which overhung the canal, sending some kind of explosive fruit crashing onto Beatitude’s deck, staining it with different shades of purple.
At 4:30, we made our way beneath the Elizabeth City drawbridge, and by 5:00, we were tied up to the Elizabeth City Free Dock which abuts a pretty city park. It’s not quite as nice as the free town dock at Mariner’s Wharf at which we tied up before but, hey… it’s free! Since the winds did not look favorable today, we’re spending a day recovering and relaxing in Elizabeth City before continuing our journey to the islands. Over the last two days, we covered what took us five days to cover on our way northward. 191 miles down, and a few more hundred to go!