Sunday, September 9, 2012

Parties, Barges, Person in the Water and Hoppie’s: Interesting Times Indeed!

Days on cruise:  170
Distance traveled:  58.5 miles
Travel Time:  6 hrs, 46 mins moving (9 hrs, 26 mins total)
Total trip odometer:  3,643 statute miles
Last night (Saturday) was a little crazy. There were a couple thousand folks at the Grafton Marina for the rock ‘n roll bands and roasted pig, and most everybody was seriously drunk.   Despite the draw of live music we chose to spend a few hours on the dock with 7 Looper friends from Time and Tide, Teasa and Flying Free, a happy reunion. 
A “pirate ship” came into port.
Gary, Joanne, Angela and Henning were part of our fun evening. Oh, and Daniel’s knees on the right.
At 7:10 am, less than 14 hours after we arrived, we left Grafton Harbor Marina and spent the next few hours navigating our way through two locks and a zillion tows pushing barges.
We’ve previously described AIS (Automatic Identification System) which alerts us to upcoming tows-barges, their direction and vessel name. Below is what it looks like on our chartplotter screen, in this case showing 7 tows-barges in a short distance, which was common throughout the day. Each one requires an assessment of whether they’re up-bound or down-bound, moving or anchored outside the channel or tied to shore, and their identification. If they’re moving, we call them on the radio, tell them where we are, and find out on which side they wish us to pass, or whether they want us to wait until they travel through a bend in the river, in which case they’re usually taking up the entire marked channel.
Below is where the Chain of Rocks Canal, on the left, leaves the Mississippi River.
To the right is the Mississippi River which is shallow and full of rapids; the canal allows you to bypass this  segment.  (So, has anyone noticed Bob’s new wide angle lens in the last couple of posts?) Instead you get to contend with an over-population of tows-barges that becomes confusing at times, though they’re almost all polite and helpful when called on the VHF radio.
More than once we came to a stretch of canal completely blocked by a tow-barge that was sideways in the channel, for reasons we don’t understand. We’d call on the radio and wait until they gave clearance to pass or moved out of the way.
Canadian Looper friends Gary and Christelle on Time and Tide were not far behind us most of the day, shown below as we passed one of the tows that had almost completely blocked the Canal.
After passing through two locks fairly expeditiously, and as we were about to pass downtown St. Louis, Missouri at  noon, we heard a Coast Guard announcement on the VHF radio that there was “a person in the river” and thus the Upper Mississippi River was being shut down between miles 180 and 175 in order that a search for the person (body?) could be conducted. How sad! No boats were allowed to move in this section until such time as the closure was lifted. Oh no! We were at mile 181 with the current carrying us down-bound at 4 knots! What to do? 
We spotted a tow-barge tied to the shore, Baxter Southern, and called him on the VHF inquiring whether we might tie up to him to hold us in place for the duration of the closure? He agreed as long as we promised not to step off our boat onto his barge. He sent two guys out to catch and tie off our lines, and the wait began. Pretty soon Time and Tide and Say Good-bye (a boat we’ve heard of, but not met) came along and joined us tied to the barge.
After two hours, the Coast Guard announced the river closure was ended because they didn’t find a person in the river.  Hmmm . . . no telling what that was all about!
Shortly we came to St. Louis, Missouri on the right shoreline. The weird thing about St. Louis is that it has NO facilities on the river for boaters: no marinas, no dock to tie to even during the day, nothing.  Weird.  There is The Arch, but no way to get there without docking 20 miles away, renting a car, and driving there on roads. So we skipped St. Louis.
A couple hours later we pulled into Hoppie’s Marina, a legend in these parts. Hoppie and Fern took over this marina from Hoppie’s parents who built it in 1934. Because the river is so wild with current and other hazards, typical marinas can’t survive here. Instead, Hoppie’s Marina is made up of three long barges tied to the shore by cables with a fuel dock.
Fern is famous for her 4:00 afternoon briefings, educating boaters like us about the idiosyncrasies to come further down the river including infrequent anchorages, fuel stops and hazards. Nobody in their right mind would miss Fern’s briefing!
Here’s the group gathered for Fern’s briefing, taking notes and asking questions. Fern is a “tough cookie”, a sweet woman, and a hero in these parts.
The evening ended with a dinner gathering in a nearby shed on the barge where barbecue was served by Hoppie and Fern, and all the boaters brought a side dish to share. Nice!

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