Norfolk & the Start of the AICW

The mouth of the bay is nearly 100 nm from my home port on the Patuxent River, so it isn't often that I have the opportunity to cruise this part of the bay.  Most of these opportunities have been on off-shore races and cruises where we just transited the area but did not stop and explore.  These trips included two Annapolis-Bermuda Races (1986, 1988), one Annapolis-Newport Race (1989), one cruise to Bermuda (2001), and one cruise to Newport, RI (1981).  My other off-shore trips from the Bay used the C&D Canal and Delaware Bay as the route to the ocean.

In 1992 I did sail with several other boats on a visit to Norfolk.  We spent two nights anchored in Willoughby Bay; had the opportunity to watch several Navy warships, including the aircraft carrier Eisenhower, return from the Gulf War; and toured the Norfolk waterfront. 

In 1980 I helped deliver a friends 38' sailboat to Hilton Head by way of the Atlantic Intra-Coastal Waterway (AICW) which officially begins at Hospital Point on the Elizabeth River in the heart of Norfolk.

In 2005 Mike Repass and I passed through Hampton Roads on our way to Fort Pierce, FL via the AICW and an offshore passage.

In 2007 Bob Calt, Christie McGue and I stopped briefly in Little Creek, VA when returning Sarah from Europe via Bermuda.

From 2008 through 2011 I have transited this area on repeated trips between the Chesapeake Bay and points further south.

Scroll to the destinations below, or click on the active areas of the map above for more information on the few places I have visited or plan to visit in this area.

Willoughby Bay
Willoughby Bay is the first small boat anchorage within the Hampton Roads - Norfolk.  The bay is located immediately inside the Ft. Wool peninsula.  Follow the marked channel to the anchorage behind Willoughby Spit.  The bay is well protected from all but the NE.  The bay is also directly behind the main U.S. Navy docks, so you get a nice view of the ships of the Atlantic Fleet.  There is also a medium sized marina on Willoughby Spit.
The drawbacks to this anchorage include the shoaling of the entrance (stay as close to midway between the red flashing mark and the small green buoy), the noise from the Navy helicopter facility on the south side of the bay (usually stops around midnight) and the less than perfect holding ground.  I dragged my 43 lb Bruce anchor in spectacular fashion here in 2008, and ran hard aground at the entrance in 2009, and had to get Tow Boat/US to haul me off the shoal.
Still I keep stopping here when transiting between the Chesapeake and the AICW because it is the most convenient anchorage.
Little Creek, VA

Little Creek is the only deep water harbor with significant marine facilities outside of Hampton Roads at the bay's entrance.  Lynnhaven Inlet, just outside of the Bay Bridge Tunnel Complex has many facilities for power boats and is the sport fishing center for this area, but the inlet is very shallow and I believe there is a fixed bridge at the entrance.

In any case, Little Creek is a very convenient place to stop either before entering the ocean at the start of an off-shore trip or upon returning from off-shore.  The creek (which is anything but little) is dominated by the huge amphibious warfare base run by the US Navy.  On entering the creek only the starboard shore appears to be not part of the this naval complex.  Immediately to port on entering is the facility used by the Navy's hovercraft.

Civilian marine facilities are in the first branch to starboard on entering.  There are several very large marinas along this shore with a full complement of services.  There is no place to anchor in Little Creek and other than the convenience of the marine facilities, I am not aware of any attractions that would make one want to stay overnight.

I have stopped in Little Creek to take on fuel and supplies before heading into the ocean on two occasions.  I also stopped in Little Creek on our return to the bay from Bermuda in 2001 to have a faulty engine water pump replaced and once more in 2007 to clear in with Homeland Security.

Elizabeth River

The Elizabeth River is the entrance to the Atlantic Intra-Coastal Waterway (AICW).  Mile Zero of the AICW is off Hospital Point, where the Elizabeth River branches. 

Below are some picture from my first trip down the AICW in 1980.

First Time on the AICW, 1980
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Crossing Albemarle Sound
Heading across Albemarle Sound with Ian Tyson at the helm.  Ian and I were delivering Ted & Ginny Von Zielinski's Little Harbor 38 from the Chesapeake to Hilton Head, SC.  We left Solomons at the end of October and encountered moderate snow storms on our way down the bay.  The first night we anchored in the Piankatank River, the next night we took a slip in the marina off Hospital Point at Mile Zero of the AICW
The next day we headed down the AICW.  By late afternoon we were approaching the Albermarle Sound.  All day we had been riding a northerly wind down the Elizabeth River, through Great Bridge, Currituck Sound and Coinjock.  As there were only a few hours of daylight left we could have (and probably should  have) anchored for the night and crossed the sound the next day.  However, we were impatient to get to warm weather and wanted to take advantage of the favorable winds.  When we entered the sound the wind was blowing 20 -25 kts. out of the NW.  The only other boat on the sound was this ketch.  Like we they were heading for the Alligator River on the other side.  It appeared they had taken the Dismal Swamp route to Elizabeth City. Click on picture to view at full resolution
Ketch Crossing Albemarle Sound
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Surfing Across Albemarle Sound
With the main furled and the genoa partially furled we were hitting consistent 9's and 10's on the knot meter.  Albemarle Sound is very shallow and can kick up a nasty chop when the wind is blowing.  Fortunately because we were sailing down wind the chop was on our quarter, and other than requiring constant attention at the helm caused us no problems.  We would not have been wanting to be crossing the sound from south into this wind and chop.  By the time we had crossed the sound and entered the Alligator River it was pitch dark.  There is a swing bridge a few miles into the River.  The bridge tender must have seen us entering the river, and he timed the opening so we didn't have furl the genoa and stop sailing.  We surfed through the open bridge at about 8.5 kts. with the bridge tender whooping us along.  The down side of this late crossing is that we had to anchor in the lower reaches of the Alligator River which does not offer much protection from a north wind.  We anchored behind the closest thing to a protective point of land we could find on the chart and spent an uncomfortable night bouncing at anchor.
In spite of the bouncy anchorage, we were able to celebrate the independence of Ian's native country of Antigua.
If we could have made it another 9 or 10 miles up the Alligator river and around the bend we could have had a peaceful anchorage (picture on right) with the rest of the snowbird fleet.  However, the Alligator River is strewn with unlit marks and obstacles.  We decided we had taken enough risks with someone else's boat for one day and just endured an uncomfortable night. Click on picture to view at full resolution
Anchorage in Alligator River
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Alligator-Pungo Canal
After the Alligator River we entered the Alligator-Pungo Canal for miles of straight line motoring.
The AICW is crossed by an almost countless number of bridges most of which were swing type bridges shown on the right or bascule lift brides.  At this time (1980) there were very few fixed brides across the AICW.  I believe many of these mechanical bridges were destroyed or severely damaged by Hurricane Hugo in the late 1980s, and many of them were subsequently replaced with fixed bridges. Click on picture to view at full resolution
Onslow Beach Swing Bridge
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Carolina Beach, NC
This is a shot of Carolina Beach, NC on cool wet morning in November, just before we got underway for Charleston, SC.  It doesn't look like this anymore.
Our final stop before we reached our destination was Beaufort, SC.  We spent the night tied to the fuel dock then departed the next afternoon for a short sail down Port Royal Sound to Hilton Head. Click on picture to view at full resolution
Beaufort, SC