Twenty six years ago, Shane and I moved to Norfolk, VA. He was stationed there in the Navy and we were newlyweds fumbling our way through life at the time. Fast forward to the current day and here we are again. The circumstances are much different, as is the landscape. We keep driving up and down the streets looking for anything familiar as though time stood still and nothing changed. But my memories of this place are blurred and I’ve decided to let it go and start again. There are new and different memories to be made!
After a longer than expected trip back to MN for Thanksgiving, we packed up our van (and Loki) and made our way back to Norfolk where we’d left Rhythm. Most of the trip was uneventful and resembled our usual road trip affair, lots of music and podcasts, random “trying to eat healthy but failing” snacks and copious amounts of dog paraphernalia. In northern Virginia, a storm was brewing and we made the bad decision to push through it and try to get to Norfolk on night two. We were anxious to get back home after being away for a month. Bad decision. What should have been a three hour drive turned into eight while driving through a huge snowstorm. Being from Minnesota, we’d been through them before. Unfortunately, many of the folks on the road were less familiar with the snowy conditions. To be fair, this would have been bad even by seasoned, Minnesota standards. The temperature hovered around freezing so a thick layer of ice had formed under all of the blizzard like snow that was falling as we drove. Pine trees collected the weighty mess until they gave out and bent right over into the three lane highway which became a series of one and two lanes. To top it off, I think we only saw one snow plow the entire way so it was really just a fend for yourself situation. We all slalomed down the highway very slowly trying to avoid contact with each other while the overly confident fellas in their four wheel drive trucks whizzed by in the left lane, only to be seen later fully buried in the ditch. We lost count of the ditch dives and wondered how long they’d be sitting there waiting for a tow…. We banked our luck and decided that slow and steady was the way to go.
We finally arrived at our Airbnb which would be our temporary home for the next few days as we got Rhythm ready to return to the water. The first place we booked wasn’t quite as described but the management company was kind enough to move us to another unit which was absolutely perfect and right on the beach. We loved it so much, we stayed an extra few days!
Back at the boat, Shane was busy replacing our transducer (tells us how deep the water is under the boat) which had died on our way to Virginia. There was drilling and wiring to be completed before we could add the new component, so after his daily meetings, Shane would head to the boatyard and whittle away at the projects. I took advantage of having a full sized kitchen to myself and had fabulous meals waiting for him when he came home. The day finally came when we would have to give up the long hot showers, flushing toilets, free laundry and fast wifi to move back onto our beloved boat. It may sound like a such a sacrifice but honestly, it just makes me appreciate them more when we do have them! And the tradeoff is a no brainer for us 😉
By this time, it was mid-December and we were just a week out from the arrival of our son Ethan, who would be joining us for the trip to our next destination of New Bern, NC. We cleaned, de-mold and mildewed, stocked up and stowed. Ethan arrived on Christmas Eve. Shane and I have never been much to gear up for holidays. If we hadn’t had kids, I doubt our home would have ever donned a Christmas tree. The boat therefore, was less than festive looking for his arrival but he didn’t care and we were all excited to spend the next week and half together.
When we lived in Norfolk years ago, I used to go to a park of which I couldn’t remember the name of (big surprise) so with a bit of time and some Googling, I found out that it was called First Landing State Park. Shane and I had gone searching for it one of our first days back and happily discovered that is was just as I’d remembered it. The trails meandered through a forrest of bald cypress draped with Spanish moss and the knees of the bald cypress poked up through the swamp below.
On Christmas Day, Ethan and I took off to explore the park once again. Having a son who is studying forestry in college made for a much more interesting hike than I’d ever had before and I was way overdue for some mother-son time with my youngest. This place was like Disneyland for him and as we walked, he pointed out every seed pod, pine cone, leaf and needle. I learned more than I could have imagined about the foliage around me that day.
It’s impossible for me to be that close to the beach and not walk along the sandy shore. The smell of the salt water draws me in and for this girl, raised in the midwest, I never pass up the opportunity to visit the shore when given the chance. So I had to give my “tree loving” son a taste of that as well and we ventured out for a stroll along the beach. We were surprised at how many other people had chosen to spend Christmas just as we had.
While Ethan and I were off exploring and catching up, Shane hung back with Rhythm and installed his Christmas present to himself, a shiny new helm station. It was a fabulous Christmas for us all and we chose to top it off together with (way too much) food from a local Chinese restaurant!
The next morning, Ethan picked the sleep out of his eyes and we left just after sunrise heading around Norfolk and into the Intracoastal Waterway.
From Norfolk, there are two routes that you can transit to get to the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. We opted for the one that took us down the Dismal Swamp as there were far less bridges to contend with. There is a lock at the beginning and the end of the river which help control the depth throughout. Unlike the locks in the Erie Canal which will run all day (7am-5pm while we went through), the locks on the Dismal Swamp only empty and fill four times a day. They are there to specifically keep the water level at a controlled depth and the fact that watercraft can use them is really secondary to the mission.
The lock at the North end of the river is the Deep Creek Lock. The famous lock master Robert Peal will keep you company with a history lesson that lasts almost exactly the amount of time that it takes to fill the lock. He’s been tending that lock for (forever??) and knows an abundance of information about everything from George Washington to cruising the islands. And when your history lesson rolls to and end and the lock is filled to the brim, he sends you off with a little song that he plays on one of the conch shells in his extensive collection.
Overall, the Dismal Swamp reminded me of the Erie Canal in that really, we were just motoring down a river and trying to avoid logs. We definitely enjoyed the view and we took Lockmaster Robert’s advice and chose a remote park to dock the boat for the night. It was in a gorgeous stand of pine trees and had an old road that went on as far as we could see in either direction which made a perfect track for Ethan to get in his run for the day.
The Dismal Swamp is around 40 miles long but because we started in Little Creek, VA, it meant that we couldn’t make both of the locks in one day which is why we chose to spend a night along the river. The next morning we started out with the goal of making the 11am lock at the southern end where the lock master also had some great advice, though he wasn’t nearly as chatty.
The approach into Elizabeth City, NC was challenging. The winds were funneling out of the southeast across the Albemarle Sound, which meant that they landed conveniently at Elizabeth City. This is not what you want when you are trying to dock a boat. There are several city slips that are free for the night but they are just slots with pilings and there are no docks which means we have to back into the slip. Not a problem when the weather is good. Not good when the weather is bad. We opted for the other choice which had us up against the city wall. It sounded like a great option when we chose it but there again, were pilings along the wall and waves crashing up against it which pushed us all around and made it nearly impossible to get to the wall and tie off. Because of the pilings, the only place to put our fenders is exactly at the point where it will hit the piling which was also not ideal. After a couple of times circling around, our son with the long legs took a leap to the wall and secured a line while I fumbled for the second one and Shane tried to keep us near the wall without letting the waves crash us into it. After a bit of scrambling, we were tied off, fended off and ready to decompress. Overnight, the wind and rain fell off and we awoke to a much better view. It’s amazing what a gorgeous sunrise will do to change the situation!
After the long break away from Rhythm in the fall and our strictly motoring trip down the Dismal Swamp, we were elated to spend the next day sailing. The whole day. All of it. On a sailboat! Imagine that! The fog was crazy thick that morning and we couldn’t see land in any direction. The sun was bright in the sky but the dense fog made it look eerily vacant and we didn’t care, we were sailing. Eventually, the fog passed and we had the kind of sailing day that people write songs about. It also gave us a chance to finally try out our self steering gear which was sooooo awesome! It’s like having an extra person on board who takes the wheel so we can relax and just trim sails.
That evening, we arrived in Manteo, NC. The marina was located right downtown complete with a boardwalk, a park filled with families and an almost Disney-like main street. It was such a perfect night and the town was buzzing with people enjoying the weather. We toyed with the idea of staying an extra day or two but when we awoke the next morning, it was cold and rainy and the shiny glow of the town from the night before had worn off a bit. It was still lovely but we had no reason to hang around, especially since it was a Monday and everything is closed on a Monday. It had become a ghost town.
There are plenty of things that I’d spent little time considering before we bought the boat. Shallow water was one of them. I’d read about the shoals and “thin water” from my cozy couch back in MN but until we actually started moving, I didn’t realize what a BIG part of my day it would become. The approach to Manteo was the most challenging so far in this regard. So much so, that the maze of bouys and markers that zig zag you into the harbor need decoding to understand. When I called to confirm out slip reservation for the night, the harbormaster volunteered to talk us through the maze as we entered. Luckily, when we left, we just followed our track on the chart plotter and slowly crept out. This thin water made our plan for the next day pretty much impossible. We’d hoped to continue down, just inside of the outer banks to Ocracoke, NC. I’d had trouble finding a marina there that was open this time of year and as I started to read on about the area, I realized that our five foot draft was just simply too deep for much of the waters in the Pamlico Sound. We quickly settled on plan-B which meant backtracking across half of the Albemarle and motoring down the Alligator River. We were hoping for another fabulous day of sailing but unfortunately, it wasn’t going to happen. Those damn winds!
That night we stayed at a “marina” at the mouth of the river. It was really a gas station/marina/cafe with a small kitchen where a fry cook would prepare fast food for you at your request. The odd little setup was quite charming and indicative of the more remote areas of NC that I remember from visiting years ago. The marina part of the property had a double wide trailer with restrooms, showers and laundry. So this place had pretty much everything a cruiser would need for an overnight stay.
We headed down the Alligator River and through the Pungo River to settle in at the Dowry Creek Marina in Bellhaven. I’d chosen it for the convenient location and we were very pleasantly surprised by this sweet out of the way place. This marina was hit hard during Hurricane Florence, just after the family who now owns it had taken possession. They are working very hard to continue the improvements and cleanup work. We almost considered staying an extra day or two (again) because it was so peaceful there but the cell service was non-existent and with Shane’s job, it is vital. We chatted with the owners of the marina, saw pics of the damage during the hurricane and took a long walk through the country while Ethan was on his nightly run.
Our plan for the next day was to make it to Oriental, NC. We figured that we could leave before sunrise as the exit from this marina was straightforward. If we pushed, we should be able to make Oriental before dark and we’d heard such great things about this quintessential sailing town. We also hoped to give the boy at least one more day of true sailing before he headed back to the frozen tundra for college but again, it wasn’t looking up for us at that point.
The weather was nasty with strong winds coming from (you guessed it) right on the nose! Surprisingly, we made good time, actually great time and instead of entering Oriental Harbor, we rounded the corner and continued on with the intent of making it all the way to New Bern before dark. Per our general brand of luck, there was a sailboat race on the Neuse River that day, directly in the path of our straight shot up the river. We had the option of going out of the way to get around them which was hard to tell exactly where that would be. Option number two was to go right through the race, which we did. I’m pretty green so I’m not sure if this was bad form, but Shane, who does race assured me that it was no big deal as long as we didn’t slow anyone down or cross their path to closely. As we neared the peloton of boats heading perpendicular to us, Shane gauged the timing and then just before we got there, took a slight turn, raised the main and Rhythm did what she does best. She was cooking and we breezed though that group of boats as though we were in the race with them. Now all we had to do was get past the next marker before the boats got there and we were clear. We had a bit of an advantage as we were motor-sailing, meaning we had our sails up as well as the motor running, to give us the kick we needed to safely stay clear of everyone. I know we weren’t in the race but after that little run, I can definitely see why people enjoy it!!
We spent a greater part of the next three hours motor-sailing up the Neuse. Had we not been trying to get to New Bern for the 5pm bridge, we’d have sailed in silence the whole time as it had turned into a gorgeous sailing day.
We’d traveled 270 miles over the last few days, 74 miles that day and we were finally at our home for the next couple of months. We were so excited to get settled, explore the town and reconnect with our family who live there.
Before we could settle in though, we needed to retrieve the van from the marina back in Norfolk. I rented a car, loaded up Ethan and Loki and we left bright and early in the morning for a roundtrip adventure back to Virginia. Since Shane wasn’t in the car with us, Ethan and I enjoyed several hours of disco music while pondering the state of the world. You can’t beat a long, uninterrupted conversation with a hopeful college aged kid! I wish I knew that much about the world 😉
We successfully retrieved the van, returned the rental car and redistributed the mess in the back seat for the scenic route back to New Bern. I hadn’t been to the outer banks of North Carolina since we’d lived here and now seemed as good a time as any to take the drive. It would add an extra two hours to our trip to New Bern but we figured it would make for a nice road trip and we took the road less traveled down memory lane. Aside from the light rain, it was fairly uneventful but unrecognizable. We drove down the coast and back over to Roanoke Island where we’d been just a few days before in Manteo. We were almost halfway across the Alligator River Bridge when my dashboard lit up with warning lights, none of which I’d seen before… and they were flashing. I could only take that as a sign that whatever my car was trying to tell me was really, really important and not just the usual amount of important. I gripped the wheel and crossed my fingers just hoping to make it across the super narrow, very long bridge with no shoulder. I just wanted to get to the other side without the car dying and causing a huge problem! Ironically, just at the tail end of the bridge was the Alligator River Marina where we’d stayed just three nights before. We rolled in and pulled out the owners manual which I’m positive was written by the same person that does the instruction manuals for Ikea. Ethan and I flipped from front to back of the manual trying to figure out what was amiss. We finally deducted that it was possibly some sort of valve thingy or maybe something having to do with the oil but regardless, we were supposed turn the engine off. We still had about an hour and a half left of the trip which came to an abrupt halt. After spending about an hour calling back and forth with Shane and trying to search for a tow truck and auto shop, Loki threw in her two cents and informed us that it was nearing dinner time.
Shane managed to procure a tow truck that would be to us in another hour while Ethan made his way into the gas station/marina/cafe for some fried food and sugary sustenance. I called Enterprise and arranged for someone to meet us at the fixit shop. The van was left with the tow truck driver who graciously offered to finish up for us and the guy from Enterprise got us back to the rental car just as his coworkers were turning off the lights for the day. Glass half empty, glass half full, whatever… with a three hour delay and a stop at Food Lion to get some food for Loki, we were on our way!
So back across the island, the bridge and gas station/marina/cafe we went. Fog was starting to build when we happened upon the yellow sign that read, bear crossing next 20 miles. I kept thinking “now what?”. Dense fog, check. Rain, check. Semi-trucks tailgating me down winding country roads, check. We got it all. And when we finally landed back at the boat, we found Shane peacefully relaxing and reading a book and enjoying his time alone. What was intended to be a scenic day trip had finally ended after just over 12 hours. We were done. We were in New Bern for only two more days before Ethan caught his early morning flight back to MN. Every time I had to run an errand, I’d ask him if he wanted to ride along. “Nope, I’m good with the whole not being in the car thing for a while”… Noted.
Occasionally, Shane and I will stop and reminisce about where this all began. Sometimes, it feels like we’ve been out here for so long and other times, it feels like we’re just getting started. I suppose both are true. It all just depends on the length of the journey. I mean, if we look back to our life way back when we first arrived in Norfolk all those years ago, the journey is long and yet sometimes, it seems like it was yesterday. So much has changed and then nothing at all. We still feel like two kids trying to figure it all out and fumble our way through the fog. It also feels like we’ve come a long way since we left Detroit but in many ways our journey has just begun. We plan to go so much further, one day at a time, one week at a time, one adventure at a time.