In order to continue down the ICW from Elizabeth City, you must first cross the Albemarle Sound. With a depth of about 15 feet, this can be a nasty bit of water if the wind is over 15 knots because of the chop that builds up, and people have been known to wait for quite some time to get the right weather window.
It had been pretty windy in Elizabeth City on Saturday but the winds were supposed to die down and be 10-15 knots on Sunday. Monday was supposed to be even lighter, but a weather system was going to move in later on Monday with strong winds for several days. Given that, we decided to head out on Sunday and hope for the best. The wind direction was going to be mainly behind us, so we hoped that would help.
Pretty much everyone had decided to leave on Sunday morning and we all headed out within a 1/2 hour of each other. This was our coldest day yet with temperatures in the upper 40’s so we were glad that it was sunny. We were chilly, but the sun made a big difference on our dark colored foul weather gear.
As we entered the Albermarle Sound the water was fairly flat. The wind started to build but it didn’t go much over 15 knots. The chop increased as the wind did, but with the wind and waves behind us everything was fine. It was easy to see how you would NOT want to be out there in sportier conditions, however.
Once you cross the Albemarle Sound you enter the Alligator River, which is another stretch of water that can build up large waves if the winds are from the north or the south. In this case the wind was primarily from the north, but again, it was behind us so it was o.k. We dropped the anchor in a fairly protected spot along with several of the other boats that had left that morning and considered ourselves lucky that it had been an uneventful day.
I have to say, this was one of my least favorite days in that most of it is very exposed shallow water. Now that we’ve experienced this leg we can see the importance of waiting as long as necessary for a similar (or better) window.
After a very peaceful night in the anchorage we were up at sunrise to continue on to Belhaven, NC.
We had been without any cell service since entering the Albemarle so the plan was to check the weather as soon as we had a signal and, if the forecast hadn’t changed, stop at a marina until the next two weather systems had passed. The ICW continues from the Alligator River to the Pungo Canal and then into the Pungo River. We had a good, uneventful motor and almost six hours later we were tying up at Belhaven Marina in Belhaven, NC.
Belhaven Marina was fantastic. It had good wifi, free laundry with detergent and dryer sheets (!), and free unlimited hot showers in impeccably clean bathrooms with supplied towels, soap, and shampoo. Gregg (the manager) and Brad (the owner) were both so friendly and helpful, and they were great guys to simply hang out and chat with. When we needed to fill our two jerry jugs with diesel, Brad told me where we could go get it and gave me his car keys. “Try not to leave too much rubber on the road” he kidded. It’s a top-notch marina and we highly recommend it.
As for Belhaven, what can I say? On the surface it seems like a typical small town. Located on North Carolina’s Inner Banks, it’s 1.6 square miles with a population of about 1,700 people. Downtown has a new cruisers lounge in the Chamber of Commerce, several restaurants and shops, and Riddick & Windley, an Ace Hardware store.
Belhaven flooded in September during Hurricane Florence, with practically every downtown business receiving four feet of water. Surprisingly most have already reopened, however, with a few more coming over the next few weeks.
This on-the-surface description, however, doesn’t do it justice. There is a feeling in the air in Belhaven. It’s clear that everyone is working together with a common goal to ensure that it continues to be a great place to live. People support the local businesses in downtown, and there are several annual community events that receive enthusiastic support.
Belhaven is a place where everyone says hello as you walk by, or waves as they drive by. Pause when you say hi, and you will enter a relaxed, lengthy conversation with a resident.
Belhaven is a place where as you walk to the grocery store, a woman pulls over to give you a ride, then gives you her cell phone number and insists you call her when you’re finished so that she can drive you back. Yes, this happened to us and we are not the only ones.
Belhaven is a place where when you peek through the window where the annual Toy Trains of Belhaven event is held in December and see that they are setting up, you’re still invited in. You learn how the people who run the event have been working daily for the past two months since Hurricane Florence, tearing the walls back to the studs (remember, there was four feet of water in the building), rebuilding and painting before they can then start setting up the display for this free event which drew over 2,000 people last year.
You learn about the event, what the final display will look like, and get a demonstration of the trains moving around the track that has been set up so far, smoke coming out of the little engine’s smokestack. You also learn that the building used to be the firehouse and police station, you see where the old fire engine bay used to be, and you get to see the former lockup.
Belhaven is a place where the second time you enter the Gingerbread Bakery/O’Neill’s Snack Bar they recognize you. The third time you’re treated like a regular. You ask what dry limas are and you get a description along with an offer of a sample to see if you like it (we did, and I ordered it as a side to go along with my BLT). Everything you eat there is fantastic. Cheese biscuits. Bacon, egg, and cheese on a biscuit with hash brown casserole. Beef and vegetable soup and grilled cheese on a cold, rainy day. Chicken salad wrap with homemade potato chips. And of course the aforementioned BLT with a side of dry limas.
Belhaven is a place where Riddick & Windley has just about everything you could need. A fellow cruiser told us that he went there to purchase something small, realized he had forgotten his wallet, and was told just to simply take the item and come back later to pay for it.
I’m doing my best to do it justice, and likely failing, but I hope it’s obvious that we were completely charmed by Belhaven and its residents. We spent five nights here waiting out weather before reluctantly moving on. The night before we left we went to the annual “Come Alive with Christmas” event with a craft fair, groups singing on the corner of Main & Pamlico Street, a live nativity scene, and open houses at a few of the retail shops. It was great, just like the town itself.
There is no doubt that we will be stopping here again next spring, the following fall, and every subsequent year as long as we’re cruising. Honestly, I could see myself living here someday. It’s special. The bar has now been set very, very high, but if this is what small towns in the south are going to be like as we continue down the ICW, we are in for an amazing treat.