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Thursday, September 19, 2013


ICW Dismal Canal

Norma Huss, today’s guest, calls herself the Grandma Moses of Mystery. She published her first novel just before reaching her 80th birthday. She has since written and published several other books. She stops by today to talk about sailing the Intracoastal Waterway and the Dismal Swamp Canal during Hurricane Hugo. Learn more about Norma at her website. 
Sailing the Dismal Swamp Canal to Hurricane Hugo
When our group of sailboats headed south in 1989, we didn’t plan on meeting a hurricane. Our month-long plan was to sail the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) from Baltimore, Maryland, on Chesapeake Bay through the Dismal Swamp Canal to Morehead City in North Carolina before we turned back for the return trip.

My husband Dick and I sailed Cloud Nine, our 36-foot Cape Dory, accompanied by young friends Cathy and Bill. We joined an informal cruisers’ group and sailed south to Norfolk, Virginia. There we passed the United States Naval Station with sightings of lots of ships including an aircraft carrier and a submarine. We anchored overnight near the Norfolk city marina before entering the 51-mile Dismal Swamp Canal. The slowest boat in our group made only four knots. That’s four nautical miles per hour, a bit more than four miles on land. And, with two locks to raise or lower us eight feet and slow us down, it would be a long day.

There’s a lot of history about the entire ICW, but especially for the Dismal Swamp Canal. As we motored past trees, the branches sometimes nearly meeting over our heads, we appreciated the serenity of no commercial traffic, and the closeness of nature. But as we looked at that heavy stand of trees, we realized that in the late 1700s, this area was swamp land, murky and hidden.

But our young country needed a way to transport goods overland before the advent of railroads and highways. The Dismal Swamp Canal was built entirely by hand, using slaves from nearby farms who worked with saws, axes, picks, shovels, and back-breaking labor. The canal was begun in 1793 and opened in 1805. Originally the canal had five or six locks and was only deep and wide enough for flat boats or rafts. In 1829 it was widened and deepened. Today it is rated to handle boats with a six foot draft, but there have been a year or two, or three, since we traveled the canal, that it was closed due to shallow water.
anchored out

After we left Dismal Swamp Canal and continued south on the ICW, we heard about a storm, Hurricane Hugo, heading toward South Carolina. We couldn’t turn and head north with enough speed to outrun a hurricane. We headed west to Bath, NC. Our entire group tied up to a dock near a small marina, sat on the lawn, and plotted. We would strip sails and everything exposed off our boats. We would put out anchors, and tie down the boats to each other and the dock with our heaviest lines, rather like a spider web. And we did. After we had everything shipshape, the marina owner came over.

“You don’t know it,” he said, “but there used to be a wood mill here.” Since anchors couldn’t hold in a bottom of shifting wood chips, he recommended anchoring out in the waterway. He even volunteered to ferry us back to land so we could stay in the local bed and breakfast during the storm. Most of us took him up on it.

We spent a very worried night, listening to the news telling us that Hurricane Hugo was heading west. We didn’t like that one bit. However, come morning, we discovered the hurricane had shot straight through and gone so far west we were well to its east, and except for strong winds, completely out of it.

sunset on the way home
Later, after putting out boats back together, we saw damage at our next stop at a New Bern, NC, marina. Boats had sunk in their slips. One boat had bounced up and down against the deck until the friction had rubbed a hole in the bow of the boat. In South Carolina, the damage was extensive, with boats piled up across roads from the waterway, and into city yards. Five years later on another trip farther south, we stopped at a marina that had only opened that week after finally repairing all the damage from Hurricane Hugo.

That adventure didn’t scare us away from boating. That sailboat was our first, but we subsequently had two more boats, both tugboat-style cruisers. And, my love of boating inspired the amateur detective in my latest mystery, Death of a Hot Chick. She loves everything about boating, even polishing teak.

Death of a Hot Chick
A Cyd Denlinger Mystery - A young widow trying to survive, a ghost with an agenda, and the boat they share.

Violent death comes suddenly to Smith Harbor, the Chesapeake Bay fishing village with intertwined and lasting relationships.

Cyd Denlinger wants to forget her late, philandering husband, keep her family from running her life, and regain her commercial boat captain's license. What she doesn't want is to be involved with an old flame OR a ghost. But the nagging ghost offers a trade that’s hard to resist.

"Find my killer!" she demands. In exchange, Cyd will own the boat Snapdragon. Easy for a ghost to offer something she can't use. Not so easy to solve a murder with too much help from family and friends. Not too safe either, especially when Cyd wonders: was the killer's target his victim, or her boat.
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Rose Anderson said...

I can only imagine the damage. Interesting post, Norma.

Jo-Ann said...

You hooked me. Being a sailor I had to download your book right away and I'm looking forward to reading it.
Jo-Ann Carson

Norma Huss said...

Thank you Lois for inviting me to guest on your blog.

Rose, the damage was incredible. Our boat also survived a hurricane in our Maryland slip, and my husband went through another hurricane in a similar fashion while helping a friend bring his boat home.

Jo-Ann, I hope you like my book. (Personally, I think it's wonderful, but then, I wrote it, and I wouldn't have let it go unless I did, right?)

E. Ayers said...

I live near the Dismal Swamp and it is beautiful. Sounds terrible but it's not. I've walked along the Washington Ditch to Lake Drummond plenty of times.Often packed a lunch to eat by the ICW. Now that road is gone, thanks to another hurricane. The main road now bypasses that lovely spot. In place of the old road, is a walking/bicycle path. The area is rich in history and full of ghost stories such as the Lady on the Lake.

You were lucky not to get caught in a heavy storm. I'd love to cruise the ICW and see it from a boat. What a marvelous experience it must have been!

I'm so glad you stopped by Lois' blog and I can't wait to read your book. You are such an inspiration. It's never too late to do what you love.

Nancy Adams said...

What an interesting journey! Love the name "Dismal Swamp" and appreciate hearing about the waterway's fascinating history.

Clamo88 said...

Thanks for the lovely trip down the Dismal Swamp Canal, Norma. You were lucky to have missed Hugo's wrath and yet close enough that it gave you the chills and anxiety that Mother Nature can wreak.

I look forward to getting to know Cyd Delinger!