Wednesday, November 16, 2005 - Florence
Going through locks is one of the unavoidable realities of traveling from Tennessee to the Gulf of Mexico. Wheeler was our fourth lock, with another 13 to go. The general procedure is to radio the lockmaster before you arrive so he or she can prepare the lock and you can judge how big a hurry you should be in to get there and wait if the lock is already in use. The lockmaster will sound a horn and a traffic light will blink green when it's safe to enter. Then the trick is to get your boat up next to a floating bollard in the wall so you can loop a line around it. If there's any wind in the lock this can get tricky fast. We like to have a single line from the bow to the stern that we loop twice over the bollard. As the big doors close, we take positions with our boat hooks to fend off the slimy walls as the water, bollard, and boat all begin to drop.
At Wilson, I didn't get the boat close enough to the bollard and we had to power back and forth for a minute trying to grab it. Perhaps we were just tired and cold after waiting three hours for a series of three 250 foot barges full of benzene to lock up and reassemble. Once again we were locking through at sunset and facing arrival at our next stop in darkness. The Wilson lock is the deepest on the river (reputed to be 97 feet) and is unique because the upper lock door slides up and down in a submarine fashion rather than opening and closing like cabinets.
A couple of miles downstream we turned hard to starboard to enter the Mystic Harbor Marina in Florence. I had called to alert them we were coming, but by this time the office was locked and no one was to be found. We snugged the boat in next to a building where we had found an unmetered AC outlet, desperate for shore power to fuel our electric heaters because temperatures are forecast to drop into the 20's tonight. From what we can see from here, Florence is going to be a fun stop.
Annie says: I am the cowgirl that gets to lasso the floating bollard as Rodger pilots the boat close. The bollard floats in an eighteen to twenty-four inch recess in the wall. Not always an easy target. Between problems with the rope getting twisted and the boat drifting away from the bollard, I have been known to let loose a few expletives. I have come up with a plan to try a different method. It involves a boat hook and some controlled friction. We'll see how it works.
Thursday, November 17 - Florence
Friday, November 18 - Aqua Harbor
The interesting sights along the river downstream of Florence included a number of small unmanned johnboats flying diving flags operating in the shallow water on the edge of the channel. The divers were working the bottom and often, it seemed, pulling the boat along behind them. What were they finding down there?
Saturday, November 19 - Midway Marina
Montgomery Lock was just five miles past Whitten, with Rankin Lock another eight miles further. The lockmasters at both of these had the locks ready, open, and waiting for us when we arrived, so we got though with little delay. Midway Marina was just four miles further, and we arrived just in the nick of darkness after a 54 mile day. Fortunately, dockmaster Pat Sisson was there to help guide us in. For $30/night for our boat (about the going rate so far, except for Wheeler State Park which was half that) this place has everything, including a warm "cruiser's lounge" with a shower, games, laundry, cable TV, and wireless Internet. The outdoor hot tub is steaming and ready to go, although Annie expressed doubts about using it in this weather. We ate catfish at the restaurant and then it was off to the lounge for laundry and Internet (didn't succeed at the latter).
Sunday, November 20 - Aberdeen
Aberdeen was a good stop because the facilities are basically a standard convenience store (in fact, the store is right there on a highway), although we were surprised when the store closed soon after dark. We didn't purchase any fuel, but heard the prices were among the lowest around at $2.17/gallon for diesel (we had paid up to $3.50/gallon elsewhere). Laura was delighted to be visited by M.C. (Marina Cat), who came aboard and was under the Walker Bay dingy, walking across the hatch over Laura's bed in the morning. She was later lured into the cockpit but (probably wisely) declined to come below.
Annie says: What a great day. We saw an eagle, a wild turkey and the first great egrets on the trip. The three locks we did today had a different quality than the others. At each of the locks the lockmaster would walk out to inspect the gate after it closed us in. This was not done at any of the previous locks. The lockmasters also insisted that we all wear life jackets. Again something that had not been stressed previously. Then there were the eerie sounds. The bollards creaked, groaned and screeched in their wells as the water dropped. Combine the sounds with the echo effect of the lock and it felt like we were in some sci-fi movie.
Monday, November 21 - Marina Cove
Tuesday, November 22 - Sumter Landing
As I write this, we are rafted up with Living Well, having traveled some 40 miles down river in our Marina Cove Convoy. The trawler Integrity led the way to Sumter Landing anchorage, but backed out after two attempts to enter saying they had hit bottom twice with their four foot draft. Negotiations produced no other suitable anchorage, so Pelican tried the entrance and got through, followed by Catnip II, which was initially repulsed but sped through on her second attempt. Eventually everyone was inside but the deep-draft Seaductress. The forward-looking sonar simply showed a wall in front of us, but keeping our speed up we plowed in, dragging bottom for around 100 feet before getting into the deeper water of the basin.
We were aground once already this morning. We were aground three times at Aberdeen. We were aground for three days at Ditto Landing. And now we are running aground on purpose.
Wednesday, November 23 - Demopolis
Dinner at the restaurant here was great (best catfish filets I've had so far on the river). We all enjoyed a tour of Wind Dreams and heard tales of Jerry's other long-distance cruising boat, a jet ski he has been known to ride hundreds of miles. There are lots of very interesting boats here at Demopolis, a cruisers lounge, etc. but we decided that we will push on tomorrow into the unknown. After the Demopolis Lock (only one more after that and we're finally at sea level!) there are no real anchorages, so Thanksgiving should be even more interesting than usual this year.
Thursday, November 24 - Bashi Creek
The trouble with bridges is that they always look way too short from the cockpit. So every time one appears on the river's horizon you get out the chart book, check the heights, then scan with the binocs for any markings on the piling to reassure yourself. The railroad lift bridge at Naheola, mile 173.5, was showing around 48 or 49 feet. The top of our mast is 49 feet above the water, with wind instruments and VHF antenna adding another two feet. We hadn't been worried--all we had to do was get the bridge tender to lift the thing--but repeated calls on the radio went unanswered. "I don't believe they man that bridge unless there's a train coming," the captain of the towboat Seldon Hurtt told us. Train cars were sitting immobile on the bridge, it was Thanksgiving afternoon, and clearly no one was going to open the bridge.
Here we are trying to figure out how to get under the railroad bridge. Looks pretty hopeless, huh?
Thanks for Gloria from Living Well for this photo.
Soon Steve and Gloria arrived on Living Well to assist. We tried leaning the boat over by hanging a water-filled Marlin, our Walker Bay Dingy, from the boom, but the little boat couldn't be made heavy enough for the task. Steve climbed the trestles of the bridge and confirmed that we were just barely too tall. I climbed the mast and removed the wind instruments. We tied Steve's larger dingy to the boom, concentrated all our physic energies on leaning as hard as we could, and slowly drifted back under the bridge. The top of the mast and VHF antenna scraped underneath and we emerged on the other side, the antenna bent but the rig otherwise undamaged. Annie and I were exhausted, and the delay had cost all of us the daylight advantage. We navigated the last hour in darkness, relying on radar and spotlights to find Bashi Creek, an anchorage that was reputed to have shoaled to four and a half feet at the entrance. A lucky break: the shoal was gone, and we rafted up in a tie-across with Living Well in ten feet of water. Even without the traditional tofu turkey, our Thanksgiving meal was a feast. We had much to be thankful for, but especially for Steve and Gloria, who had been kind enough just to take us under their wings and then quite literally had saved the day. When all was said and done, we had set a new record of 71 miles for the day, including one lock and one uncooperative bridge.
Annie says: I baked my first cake while underway today. I wasn't sure how it would turn out, but was quite pleased with the results. It's been two weeks since the last grocery shopping, so fresh ingredients are becoming scarce. That's not to say we are going hungry. For Thanksgiving dinner at Bashi Creek we had Fri-Chik, stuffing w/ gravy, yams and green beans. After all the brouhaha earlier today we had huge appetites and there were almost no left-overs. Who else can say that about a Thanksgiving feast?
Friday, November 25 - Old Lock #1
After roaming all around Bashi Creek taking photos, I pulled our anchor and set Living Well free so we could all continue downriver. We meandered down the river, still unwinding from the long day before. Seaductress pulled over at the famous Bobby's Fish Camp for some fuel, but found no one at home--just a note, "Will be back sometime after lunch today," on the door. But Bobby was soon back and after a short chat we took on 19 gallons of diesel (some of which I managed to spray all over myself while filling a jerry can), then rushed off to catch up with Living Well at the Coffeeville Lock. We felt like fools rushing out of a place like Bobby's, which begs for a more leisurely pace, but a tow was waiting at the bottom of the lock.
After a total of 54 miles we rafted up bow-to-stern with Steve and Gloria at Old Lock #1, an anchorage that can sometimes be too shallow but was kind enough to keep a constant eight to ten feet of water beneath us all night.
Annie says: We passed through our last lock today. We finally get really good at something and we are leaving it behind. I saw a coyote today. At first glance, I thought it was a small deer, but the binoculars proved it to be a coyote. A first for me. This last section of the river is interesting in its desolation. We pass a fishing camp or small fishing boat every once in a while, but mostly it's just us on the winding water. And boy does it wind. After all the straightening that was done on the upper Tenn-Tom waterway, you could get dizzy on this lower section.
Saturday, November 26 - Alabama River Cut
On the river again around 9:00 this morning, we seasoned travelers of the river negotiated the twists and turns and towboats with ease, until off in the distance the Jackson railroad lift bridge loomed, a scant 30 feet above the water. "Railroad bridge, railroad bridge," we radioed, "this is the southbound sailboat Seaductress" and then held our breath. A second later the bridge answered and soon began rising. With no more locks, just one more railroad bridge at mile 14 (this one a swing bridge that apparently must open for everyone) sits between us and the Gulf of Mexico.
We made 48 miles before anchoring in the Alabama River Cut, a scant 52 miles from Mobile. It was still daylight, not even 4:00 PM. It almost felt like cheating, finding an anchorage before dark.
Pop the champaign--the first leg of our crusing life is complete. After 26 days, 730 miles, and 121 hours on the engine, we are tied for the night at the fuel dock at Dog River Marina, Mobile. There are boats and sailors of every shape, size, and insurabilty everywhere here at Dog River: Kyle, Kathy, and Dory the Cat on a Tartan 30, about to depart for Belize...Doug on Misty Blue...Steve and Gloria's friend Fish, who has apparently lived all his life on the water. Fish was living on an Irwin 27 until he was given, for free, a Compac 27 with a big hole in its side that had been underwater for two weeks after Hurricane Katrina; he raised the boat, managed to save the engine, cleaned out the mud, and is now living aboard and investing heavily in fiberglass futures.
Everyone says they are glad to be off the river and back into the real world of salt water. As for us, we were downright nervous on the pelican-infested vastness of Mobile Bay, where we powered into a choppy two foot sea through the ship channel. We'd left the anchorage at the Alabama River Cut around 7:30 AM and passed all the milestones listed in the Myers Guide, including a large alligator sunning itself on the banks (Myers didn't actually give a mile mark for this, but had dropped hints). After passing beneath the towering Highway 90 bridge, we'd meekly powered down the ship channel past mammoth hulks of steel loading and unloading, past Waterway Mile 0.0 at the Mobile Convention Center (no place to dock there, which is a shame), past two gigantic hulks aground at Little Sand Island and out into what to us looked like the open sea--Mobile Bay. Dog River is jammed with boats, but the marina and its residents have been most accomodating so far.
Our plan is to rest, then rent a car if we can and visit Annie's family in Hurricane-torn Mississippi, then return and make plans for the next leg of our life and journey on the water.