We did part of the Great Loop, from Mobile Bay north. Instead of going north at Pickwick Lake we hung a right and followed the Tennessee river to Knoxville. One of these days I'd love to do the whole loop, but I'd want to do it in a trawler. I got tired of worrying everytime we went under a fifty two foot bridge with our fifty one and a half foot mast. This is the whole loop; the story is below:
Mobile bay to Knoxville May 2005
Wow, what a trip. 12 days, two rivers, lots of lakes, nineteen locks, some canals, 850 miles averaging 7.2 miles per hour, miles and miles of wilderness, giant barges, and a creek with gators. I'm still getting my land legs, when I close my eyes or sit still I can feel the room moving. I've moved the boat some 1200 miles now myself, and lived on it for a total of around 50 days. It seems I've segued into being a cruiser and didn't even notice. If we'd gone south we'd be in Costa Rica or someplace. I'm beginning to feel like it's our boat. I went down last night to get the dingy and it felt familiar, which wasn't the case for a long time. It was all to much, too long distance and too intimidating, to really get a grip on. Of course, looking over the credit card statement sure brings it home. Boats are exponentially more expensive than they appear. But what a feeling. Now I've done 1200 miles with a cranky, dirty, and unprepared boat. Imagine how far I can go with a clean, stocked, well maintained, and well prepared boat. Here's the trip home…
Sunday, May 1 st .
Max and I left Knoxville in yet another rent-a-car headed for Fairhope, Alabama. The boat was at Eastern Shore Marine, on the (duh) east side of Mobile Bay. Sue dropped off Bill in the evening and our crew was assembled. I was not impressed with Mobile bay or Mobile. The bay is nice on the east side, Fairhope is a beautiful southern town with live oaks and lots of Spanish moss hanging from giant branches, but the west side is all refineries, barge docks, and shipyards. Interesting, but not attractive. The water was a brown soup too, not something you'd want to swim in. We raided a grocery store for supplies and loaded the boat.
Monday. Fueled up, watered up, and headed out. As we went past Mobile we saw a lot of huge ships being worked on and shipyards everywhere, but no real waterfront. Chattanooga has about the nicest waterfront along the river that we saw. Once you leave Mobile in some ways you're on your own. The next real city you go through is Chattanooga, a long long ways away. In Florida and the Gulf there are marinas, West Marines, TowBoat US, and all kinds of support systems for sailors. On the river there's fuel docks and a few places to get chips and that's about it. We anchored bow and stern for the night in Bates Lake, a narrow offshoot of the main river. Nothing but wilderness already. Nice evening watching the stars come out. 54 miles today.
Tuesday. Left at first light. Cold and clear. No fog, which is good. Settled into a routine on the trip, I ran the first hour, then we traded one hour shifts each until all three of us had done one hour, then we went to two hour shifts. That gave us time to eat breakfast, clean up, and get ready for a two hour shift. Then we had four hours off. We passed a 30 footer going to Chicago, single handing. Saw an eagle, of which we saw several this trip. Very little traffic of any kind, just river and more river. Cleared our first 52 foot bridge. Since I have a 51 foot mast, this was a matter of some concern. I wasn't sure how accurate the markings on the bridges or in the chart book would be, but it turns out they were all right on. Bill loaned us his underwater scuba cam and we mounted it on the masthead so we could see if we were going to clear the bridges. It worked great. As long as we could see under the bridge we knew we would clear. We also cleared our first lock today, after which we fueled up at Bobby's Fish Camp, last chance for fuel for 100 miles. The lock master was a good ole southern boy who said he'd been running the river on tugs for 56 year, and running the lock since. Had an accent thick as molasses and cheerful as anything.
Bobby's place makes rustic look like modern art. A few run down buildings hiding from the sun under giant live oaks covered with Spanish moss, some rusty fishing boats, and a small restaurant. It looked like Huckleberry Finn would fit right in here. So we fueled up tied up next to a nice couple on a powerboat who were stopping for the night. We went on up a few hours and anchored in Okatuppa creek. The guide book said is was a good spot, but it was too small and shallow for us. So we backed the boat into the creek just enough to get the nose out of the river and anchored bow and stern. It was so narrow you could just about spit to the banks. Two local guys walked out of the woods and stood on the bank and talked to Max about the fishing there, they said they'd seen a gator there on occasion. Let's hope gators can't climb into sailboats. 67 miles today.
Wednesday. Up anchor at 5:18 am. You couldn't get me out of bed at 5 am to save my life at home, but on the boat we go to bed about dark and when the sun comes up I'm ready to get up too. A little foggy, with a clear crescent moon shining in the blue black sky. Dark spooky riverbanks slide by as we get moving. Later that morning we passed Jay W and his wife coming downriver, they are members of our yacht club and are retired and headed south. We chatted for a while on the radio as we passed. He also has a 51 foot mast and he said he cleared all the bridges coming down, and I was able to tell him that we'd cleared all the bridges coming up, so we both were clear the rest of our trip. Good news. We pulled in at Demopolis to change crew and get fuel. Max and Bill had to leave, and George and Kevin were coming on. This was a big complicated project, not only all the boat stuff but arranging schedules with all the guys and making it work. They were all great about it and it all worked out, even as we made changes at the last minute along the way. I was extremely lucky to have such agreeable guys to help out, ‘cause I sure couldn't make this trip by myself. Not to mention the great company, we spent a lot of time talking about everything under the sun and some things beyond it. Kevin played his mandolin every day so we had live music! Either Gretchen or I will have to learn to play something, I don't think she'll want me banging the drums all day on a boat. 93 miles today.
Thursday. I can tell my planning is off a little. We're already a day behind. I didn't take into account two things, the current we're fighting and the time it takes to get through the locks. Even the fast ones delay us close to an hour each, and there's 19 of them on the way. The current here below the Black Warrior river is almost two miles per hour, and the boat cruises at eight. So we're only making six over the ground, even while running the engine hard. Once we get upstream it'll get better, but it's sure cut down our daily mileage. Guess I better tell Gretchen to tell the boss I'm definitely going to be late. We had to wait on barges four hours this evening, so we didn't clear the lock until well after dark. We found our way into a small marina with flashlights, no fun, and tied up for the night. In the morning we waited till 7:30 for fuel but they never showed up so we scooted. We'll get fuel later. 90 miles today.
Friday. The river switches back on itself like crazy down here. At one point we were 1000 feet from the river on the next loop, but it's about three miles away by water. This redefines the meaning of patience. River travel, like almost all water travel, is a different world than what we're used to with our air-conditioned cars and high speed interstates. Like most of mankind outside the states, and most of mankind's history, you travel at a pace that allows you to see and absorb the world as it passes by. You travel on the whims of the weather, and you dress accordingly. We bundled up in the morning and were in shorts in the afternoons. This is what it was like a hundred years ago. It's not how many miles you make a day, it's how you make them. Sure, I could find faster ways, I could buy a plane ticket from Knoxville to Mobile and back again and do this whole trip in a few hours. But time folds in on itself on a trip like this like taffy on a taffy machine. And I like it.
We're playing tag with a couple of tugs, if we beat them to the lock we go through first, but most of today they've beat us, so we have to wait until the get through, which takes hours. Nice guys on the radio, though. What a life, running up and down the river all year long. These barges are three wide, 90 feet, and in places the river is only about 120 feet wide. I'd hate to have to snake one of those things through here. Fueled up at Columbus Marina and back on the river. Cleared the Aberdeen lock in twenty minutes, he had the doors open for us. Man, I wish they'd all go this smooth!
We ran out of daylight and had to anchor next to the channel, tucked behind a spit of land so a barge won't run us down. 71 miles today.
Saturday. Man, it's Saturday already? Pulled anchor at 5:50 in fog. Gotta go, we just heard the Pascagoula tug on the radio clearing the lock we just cleared last night, and we've gotta stay ahead so we can get through the next lock first. It's too foggy to go, but Kevin is on the bow watching for anything and I'm watching the gps and the depth finder really really close. After an hour or so the sun burns away most of the fog. At 3:45 we clear the last lock on the Tenn-Tom. A few more miles and we'll be in the Tennessee river! We drop the anchor at 6:50 in Bear creek, a nice big area with homes along the bank. 82 miles today.
Sunday. Up anchor at 5:50 and underway. Beautiful morning, as most of them have been. Waited five and a half hours at locks today, so we didn't get in much travel time. Pulled into Bay Hill Marina for supper and the night. Once again we got in after they closed and left before they opened, so we just slept tied up to the fuel dock. We go past Huntsville, Al, and reading the guide book I realized what a big space museum they have here. I didn't realize it was so close to Knox. Definitely going to have to make a weekend trip down to see it. Getting excited, we're actually getting close to home. 62 miles today.
Monday. Pulled out at 5:18. Pulled into Goose Colony Marina at 7:30 PM to fuel up and switch crew again, Max drove down from Knoxville and Kevin and George have to leave. We're about 40 miles south of Chattanooga. Already the landscape is changing, we've got hills around us now. It's beginning to look like Tennessee. Chattanooga will be the first city we actually go through. We went past Huntsville, not through it. That's the way it's been since Mobile. The marinas have been pretty nice, I've showered in a couple and they're nice and clean and everyone has been very friendly. 91 miles today
Tuesday. Shoved off at 7:08 after filling up. The boat is doing well on fuel, even pushing the current. After we pass a lock we have no current for a long ways, until you get close to the next lock. Then, if they're letting water out, which most of them are, the current picks up again. But nothing like we saw below the Black Warrior. The scenery is spectacular here, cliffs, rocks, homes. We got rained on today for the first time but all it did was wash the boat off and make for some awesome cloud formations. If you're going to run the river the Tennessee is definitely the part to see. The Tenn-Tom has nice places, but it's also got a lot of pretty plain running.
The water is getting clearer as we go, here it's a translucent green that reflects the mountains and trees like green glass. Beautiful.
Tied up to the city docks at the Chattanooga aquarium in a short downpour. It's a cool place, but not such a hot place to tie up. After the last ten days of wilderness this feels like New York city. Cars, sirens, people walking along the dock talking, some goof even threw a golf ball that bounced down the stairs and landed on the dodger. We walked up to a TGIF and ate supper. Felt like a stranger in a strange land. (Well, to be honest, most of you know I feel like that all the time anyway. This just reinforced it.) 75 miles today.
Wednesday. Untied and shoved off at 6:15. As we waited for the next lock to open Sue and Bill hollered at us from the bank! What a nice surprise. They were in Chattanooga to dive on the new aquarium and stopped by the lock to see us. Max and I spent the day like all the rest, taking turns at the wheel and watching the scenery. There's a bunch of nuclear power plants here, it seemed like around every bend in the river was another one. Going under the power lines was a little unnerving, they have hundreds of high-voltage lines hanging across the river, and from a distance they sure look low. There are so many wires a small plane would get caught in them like a bug in a spider web.
On Bill and Sue's trip up they saw a barge carrying RV's. People would park them on the barge and sit in lawn chairs and watch the scenery go by as the barge delivered them to Chicago. We didn't see that this trip, but someone told us that guy had quit hauling RV's and built condos on his barges. Like a river-going cruise ship of sorts.
Pulled into Blue Springs Marina and fueled up. Back in home waters now, I've sailed here before. Gretchen, Reese and Rich are coming down to make tomorrow's run, while Max has to go back to work. So they'll get to go through a lock, and it's one of the highest with an 84 foot rise. 85 miles today.
Thursday. Dang, I'm actually going to make it. Wow. We shoved off at 6:45 in light fog. When we got to Thief Neck cutoff the fog got really thick so Richard had to go to the bow and keep a lookout while I drove by gps. You could just see the shore so I paralleled it as much as possible. Once the fog burned off it was a beautiful day. We cleared Loudoun Lock at 1:15 and now I'm really in home waters, just a few bends ahead is home. I told the lock master we were sure glad to see him, he was the 19th lock since Mobile. He radioed back and said there were 20 locks, we had one more to go. He was just kidding. I told him if there was, we were going to go on to Gatlinburg.
Of course here is where I get lost, I took a bay for the river and had to turn around and retrace our route a bit. We are definitely the biggest boat on the river up here, except for the houseboats. I like the idea of a houseboat, but they burn a lot more fuel than we do, and if I had one I'd soon find myself bored with the same old places on the river. We did see the 150 foot powerboat the guy who owns Ruby Tuesday owns, it was anchored on the river a while back.
Finally we came around the last bend and saw the club. Bill and Sue were there to greet us, and I had our parade flags rigged and blew the air horn as we came in. I spun her around and tied up to the guest dock and the voyage was done.
It was a good trip, but it'd be fantastic if you weren't trying to make as many miles a day as possible. I won't do that again unless it's helping a buddy with their boat! Going down will be a breeze, going with the current we can just let the engine tick over instead of running full blast. It's pretty quiet at 2500 RPM, but getting loud at 3000 or more. It would be great to wake up with the sun, have coffee and breakfast in the cockpit, and then get underway. Taking time to sightsee along the way would definitely be the way to go.
I was amazed at the amount of wilderness left in this country, especially it being the eastern half which is the most densely populated. We traveled for 12 days and saw fewer people and houses than you usually drive by in a day. Miles and miles and miles of empty riverbanks. Near some of the towns there were a few fishing shacks along the river or some homes, but that was it. If you follow the river on a map you'll see it passes through great tracts of emptiness where there aren't even any roads. It was amazing. It's all scrub forest, but at least it's not condos and pavement. We didn't see a lot of wildlife, just some deer, turtles, the eagles, lots of birds especially when we passed through the Hiawassee bird sanctuary, but no gators.
Now that it's done I feel like I've climbed up a step and now I can see a little further. If I can do this, it just proves anyone can do just about anything if they set their mind to it. Seems like the secret to doing, learning, is just to do it.
It sure looks strange to see the boat, which we still associate with Capt Dan and the Florida Keys, sitting in our slip at the Concord Yacht Club. It's the biggest boat there, and probably about the biggest sailboat for a few hundred miles in any direction. Kind of intimidating. The care and feeding of a cruising sailboat is not something to undertake lightly.
I'm not even thinking about the next step, all I want to do now is clean up the boat and tinker with it the rest of the summer. No major projects for now. For that matter, I'm done with major projects for a while. I just want to spend some weekends on the boat and enjoy.