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Snagged in the Great Dismal Swamp

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by Bradd Wilson circa 2002

Maeve and I are fortunate enough to be among a relatively small group of Canadians who live aboard and travel in their sailboats, plying the waters from Ontario or the Maritimes annually to the warmth and sunshine of Florida and the Caribbean.  For most of us, this involves not only ocean passages under sail but stints of motoring the intra-coastal waterway along the American shore and also an inland stretch to avoid the perilous waters of Cape Hatteras. The latter stretch from Norfolk to Elizabeth City, can be made either the high-speed route through Coinjock and Currituck Sound or the “road less travelled” where this story takes place – the Great Dismal Swamp.

The Great Dismal Swamp canal was built a little over 200 tears ago which makes it the oldest man-made canal in the USA, (although Canada has some older).  It was constructed by George Washington following his term as president to transport logs for shipbuilding from the inland Cyprus forests to the seaports of Norfolk, Beaufort, Newbern and the like. This is a strikingly beautiful waterway with abundant wildlife along the shores. 

Branches, vines, kudzu and fallen trees overhang the narrow ditch and as night falls the Spanish Moss, swamp gas and ghostly shapes of ancient Cyprus trees give the swamp an eerie feel which has given rise to numerous spooky tales of the Great Dismal.

Here is our own modern tale.

We left Elizabeth City early one April day headed for the Great Dismal Swamp timing our departure to reach the South Mills control lock at 09:00. The depth of the canal and swamp is controlled by a lock at either end and they have three scheduled openings per day.  The Pasquatank River leading to the lock is fairly long and winding – longer in fact than I had estimated, and on this day both fog and current conspired against us.  Try as we might, we just couldn’t quite make the lock on time. We arrived at five after nine and the lockmaster advised us that we’d have to wait two hours for the 11 o’clock opening!

We’re supposed to be cruising.  We’re supposed to be taking it easy, smelling the roses along the way.  My wife reminds me constantly that we’re NOT supposed to be rushing to meet schedules and arbitrary itineraries.  But the old 9 to 5 “rat-racer” in me is hard to change.  I’d planned our day and now for the sake of 5 minutes all those plans went down the drain.  So we picked a spot in the middle of the narrow canal where the trees didn’t overhang too much, the bottom didn’t rise too abruptly, the wind wouldn’t swing us around too much and anchored Sampatecho to wait out the two hours.  Besides, I could work on some of the ongoing maintenance required in this sort of travel.The depth of the canal and swamp is controlled by a lock at either end and they have three scheduled openings per day.  

Busy hands made the time fly by and in no time, the lockmaster had opened the lock and was calling us to get in or we’d be waiting for another 4 hours for the next opening.  I set aside my tools, started the engine and ran forward to weigh anchor while Maeve took the helm.  The anchor chain sang through the gypsy as it came up through the murky Guiness-coloured water, then suddenly stopped!  The chain was guitar-string tight and NOT moving another inch – snagged!  I eased the chain, Maeve swung the boat around and we tried again to no avail.  The lockmaster called again and we pleaded with him to hold the lock while trying everything possible to free our anchor from the clutches of the swamp bottom. Maeve drove the boat forward and I’d take up whatever slack was available.  We gained inches at first, then feet and finally the anchor was visible!  I couldn’t get it completely free of the water because of the weight of “something” suspended from its flukes. But we could turn and slowly make our way toward the lock!

I stayed on the bow as the water ran past and rinsed the mud off the big mass hooked on our anchor and revealed a washing machine! Someone who couldn’t be bothered taking it out to the dump must have thrown it into the canal.  Someone who didn’t care about pollution or littering or the boats that might get snagged on it.  The square housing had rusted away but the enameled drum and aluminum drive pulley and stainless steel shaft remained and the point of our anchor was now tightly embedded between the drum and pulley swinging like a pendulum from the bow of our boat.

“Hey Captain” called the lock master in his southern (take-all-day) drawl, “You’ve got a washin’ machine a hanging from yer bow”. 

 “Thanks very much” I replied, acknowledging the obvious, “I knew that”.

“Well don’t be droppin’ that thing off in my lock, son.  It’ll jam up the gates.”

So, the mangled, muddy mass swung back and forth and the gates closed, the water rose and the next set of gates finally opened.

South Mills is a quaint little southern town but since the Civil War, there hasn’t been a whole lot of activity here, unless you count the stock car races on Sunday nights.  By now the brilliant April sun had burned off the fog and it seemed like everyone in town had lined the canal to see if there were any boats passing through.  That would be us and they were not to be disappointed.  We made our way slowly through the gamut to prevent our “hitch-hiker” from damaging the bow.  As we passed, like a receiving-line, each and every one of them felt compelled to comment. “Hey Buddy, Didja know you’ve got a washin’ machine ahangin’ from yer bow?” “Hey Mister, Whatya doin’ with that washin’ machine up there?” or “Yo, where y’all goin’ wit my Maytag?”  We smiled and waved and motored stately through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Finally, we cleared the lift bridge that separates the north end of town from the seclusion of the Great Dismal Swamp, the first opportunity in what seemed like an eternity where we could address our conundrum.  How to release a 75 lb motor, pulley and mud-filled drum from our 60 lb anchor?  First I tied up the anchor and twisted, pulled and pried on the unwieldy contraption – no go!  Then I tied up the washer, dropped the anchor and wiggled, jiggled and poked at the anchor – no go!  

Finally, I climbed into our brand new inflatable dinghy to work on the mess from water level with the anchor secured and a line from deck relieving enough weight from the washer to allow movement.

 I pulled, then lifted then pulled with one hand while lifting with the other.  Then finally, the bond seemed to break, the drum twisted and my dinghy popped around in response as the mass shifted producing a pop followed by a loud “sissssssssss”.

The confounded machine had sliced a gash in our new dinghy!!! This meant WAR!!


As the forward section of the dinghy hissed and slowly collapsed around me, I wrestled with the drum and managed to tip it to empty the mud and water.  Now significantly lighter, I smashed at the pulley whacking it with our boat-hook until it flipped over the anchor rode covering me with mud and slid free of the anchor.

My knuckles were bloodied, my clothes torn and muddied, our dinghy and my ego similarly deflated but at last we were free from the devil washing machine.  With the drum now empty and upright, it slowly floated away into shallower water, water too shallow for me to retrieve it.  It was a floating menace.  Our plans to traverse the entire canal and spend the night in Norfolk were no longer attainable but we limped on 4 miles to the Visitor Center dock to lick our wounds.

A good night’s sleep works wonders.  Next morning, we patched the dinghy and cast off around 11:00 bound for Norfolk.  Once again we were enjoying the serenity of this tranquil canal when off to port, lurking in the bushes behind some exposed roots and vines, I spotted it. I shouted to Maeve in disbelief, “There’s a washing Machine in the bushes!!”

“Our washing machine?”  she replied.

Somehow, it had floated itself up-stream 4 miles to settle in ambush for the next unsuspecting Canadian cruiser travelling through the Twilight Zone also known as The Great Dismal #Swamp.

I was speechless.


Over the years as live-aboards on our sailboat we’ve collected countless stories in our logbook. You may have read some of them in sailing magazines over the years. We are working hard to bring them to you on our blog “Pearls from our Ships Log.” More than stories, you can find hard earned tips and advice. We are happy to answer any questions you might have about cruising along the Eastern seaboard. Leave us a comment or email us from our contact link!

Fair winds, Maeve & Bradd (or Mad & Brave!) Wilson

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