Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On to the Black Warrior

Days on cruise:  221
Distance traveled:  90.1 miles
Travel time:  9 hrs, 20 mins
Total trip odometer:  4,910 statute miles
Tuesday’s distance is in the “top 5” for this Loop, and it was not our plan for the day. But the wind was high all afternoon and we decided anchoring wasn’t what we wanted to do in that kind of weather.
At 7:15 a.m. we called the nearby lock to check on its’ status, and they informed us the tow Chippewa was pushing his barge load into the lock “right now”, and if we’d hurry up we could lock through with him.
Cathryn was still in pajamas, Bob was dressed, and we hadn’t had breakfast, but we raced into action, and 15 minutes later were tied up to Chippewa, the same tow with whom we locked through the day before! It perhaps says something about our experience level that we could do this “fire drill” without making any mistakes.
This time Chippewa had barge loads that spanned the full width of the lock, for the full length, so we had to tie directly to his tow boat at the back, which made us nervous as we’ve heard disaster stories about boats that got banged around by a tow’s prop-wash. The Captain of Chippewa confidently answered our questions about how he’d do this without  damaging our boat and gave us specific directions about what to do at every point. What a guy!
Check out the size of our black dock line compared to Chippewa’s blue one. Our black line is wrapped around the cleat 5 times in the photo below!
Today’s trip on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was another circuitous, winding route with a surprising number of tows and barges headed both up-bound and down-bound.
Unlike the past few days, we started seeing clusters of homes along the bank again; all were built on stilts to protect from flooding. The bright yellow and orange Fall leaves we saw further north are not present here.
A deer swam across the river in front of us, a small doe who safely made it to the other shore.
We began seeing large rafts of floating plants. They don’t look like lilies, and we need to find out what they are. But it made for some tricky navigating to get through without picking up any on our props.
Late in the afternoon we passed the White Cliffs of Epe’s, an attractive stretch of chalk cliffs near the town of Epe, and geologically similar to the White Cliffs of Dover in England.
The formation below reminded us of Mount Rushmore if you don’t look TOO closely.
At 5:00 we arrived at the official end of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, at the confluence of the Black Warrior River. From here the official name is the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, though for the whole 450 miles from the Tennessee River to Mobile, most people just call both segments the Tenn-Tom for short. We arrived at Kingfisher’s Marina at Demopolis, Alabama and parked near Looper friends. This marina has golf carts for boaters to use to get to the office 1/4 mile away.
We spent three hours on Blue Heron with Craig and Barbara, Joe and Edie (of Seaquel) and of course sweet Joey and Bailey, the yellow labs who travel on Blue Heron. So nice to see them all again. They’re leaving in the morning, and we’re not, so we hope to re-connect in Fairhope, AL on Mobile Bay in a couple of weeks.
It continues cold at night (30s), sunny and warmish in the afternoons (60s) and very windy in the afternoons. Boreas, the Greek God of the north wind, looked kindly upon us as we docked, and the wind died down just long enough for us to get settled in our slip before showing his ferocious face again. Whew!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Things That Go Bump: The Morning After

Days on cruise:  220

Distance traveled:  54.2 miles

Travel time:  7 hrs, 55 mins (incl 2 locks)

Total trip odometer:  4,820 statute miles

We didn’t write all of yesterday’s story on yesterday’s blog post because we wanted to sort out “outcomes” first.  Yesterday afternoon when we learned we’d have to wait to get through  Aberdeen Lock because of tow-barge traffic, we  changed plans and headed into an anchorage at Blue Bluffs, recommended by friends.

The side channel leading into this anchorage is shallow but clearly delineated by red and green markers approximately 60 feet apart, more than a dozen all together. We slowed the boat to keep an eye on depth, bumped one engine at a time into forward gear so we could travel approximately 1-2 mph, and OUCH!  Halfway through the channel, definitely in the middle of the markers, not out of the channel, we heard “bump” and “bump” and “bump”. Adrenaline rush accompanied by a few bad words followed! We never saw what we hit as it was fully underwater, but presume it was a deadhead that had floated into the channel recently, as friends Jim and Sharon on Blue Angel were there only two weeks ago and had no problems in the channel. The red and green markers are barely visible in the photo below.


We worried we might have prop damage, so we called Jim on Blue Angel (our unofficial mentor) and asked what advice he had to offer. He described in great detail a safe but unmarked alternate channel out of that anchorage that would not require us to travel over the deadhead again.

This morning when we left the anchorage following Jim’s advice (which worked great!), we learned there was a tow pushing barges heading into the lock a mile away, and another one coming the opposite direction, meaning we’d have to wait a long time. Cathryn called the first barge, Chippewa, and asked if we might lock through with them. This is not a usual practice, but barges that are not red-flagged (those carrying hazardous/flammable cargo) have the option of letting others lock through with them or not. The Captain of the Chippewa was amenable and told us to let him get his 100-foot-wide load settled in the 110-foot wide lock, then we could come in and tie onto a spot in the barge that was only 70 feet wide and his crew would tie us on to ride through with them.  NICE!

While Chippewa was busy getting into the lock, we ran Next To Me upriver (wrong direction of travel) so we could run up the speed and determine if we had prop damage by checking for unusual vibration.  Woo hoo:  NO VIBRATION!  That means whatever we hit didn’t hit hard, and didn’t damage the props which are the lowest point below the boat.

Looper friends Gary and Christelle on Time and Tide report that they hit deadheads four times on the Tenn-Tom and had no damage, so we’re hoping if we have any further hits, we’ll have the same result. Meanwhile, we’re pleased to have this one behind us.

The photos below show how close the barges are to the wall of the lock (left pic) and the barge to which we tied with tow behind (right pic). These barges were carrying coal. Here’s a shout out to the Captain and crew of Chippewa for being generous and helpful getting us through that lock!


Scenery for the rest of today was pleasant.


We began to see more houses than we’ve seen in several hundred miles.


Huh? WHY is there a pay phone on the shore out in the middle of nowhere??? Presumably it’s not a working phone?


Late in the afternoon the wind was so high we decided not to anchor in our planned spot as there were whitecaps there. So we pulled into Pirate’s Cove Marina in Pickensville, Alabama (we’ve crossed from Mississippi into Alabama for the last time), a small marina with friendly folks who helped us tie up in the high winds (20-25 mph) and hook up our electrical cord.

We borrowed the marina’s courtesy car and drove to see the local sights. Sadly, both are closed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, so we were able to walk around but not take tours.

The Snagboat Montgomery was our first stop.


An impressive looking vessel, and as folks who’ve had recent experience with underwater snags, we appreciate the work of such boats.


This Antebellum-style home is actually a replica constructed in 1985, but serves as the Visitor’s Center for this town and the Snagboat Montgomery. Sadly, it too was closed so we only walked around outside and peeked in the windows.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Weather Improves; Still Cold!

Days on cruise:  219
Distance traveled: 36.5 miles
Travel time: 6 hrs, 28 mins (including 3 locks)
Total trip odometer: 4,767 statute miles
At 7:30 this morning four boats at Midway Marina simultaneously slipped their lines and headed south on the Tenn-Tom. We were the only Loopers, and the others were Noble House (a 50-foot Ocean Alexander from Michigan, piloted by a professional captain moving the boat to Fort Lauderdale), and The Thomas B (a 42-foot Nordic Tug from Florida, headed south for the winter), and Sundancer (a non-commercial  “shrimp boat” beauty). It was only a couple miles to the first lock, and they really appreciate it when recreational vessels (those of us who are not tugs pushing barges) coordinate our travel to lock through together. So we did. All day, through 3 locks.
It was 36 degrees when we started our day, but unlike yesterday, the sky was clear, blue and sunny. Woo hoo! We started off on the flybridge with gloves and jackets, but only a couple hours later were shedding layers rapidly, and eventually were in short sleeves, if not shorts and flip flops.
Earl on Noble House took and gave us the photo below of our boat in a lock.
The Tenn-Tom scenery today was pretty uniform until the last few miles.  Attractive enough, but not spectacular. Easy traveling and so nice to have sunshine again!
Later in the afternoon there were bright yellow wild flowers growing along the shore. There was also lots of debris and deadheads to dodge too.
After about six hours, and approaching the Aberdeen, Mississippi Lock, we were behind a tow with barges that meant we’d have to wait an hour or more to lock through. We were sort of tired and sort of not wanting to go on to the next marina 20 miles further, so we pulled into Blue Bluffs anchorage, previously recommended by friends Jim and Sharon on Blue Angel.
We took an afternoon walk through an adjacent campground and returned to the boat to sit on the sundeck and watch the full moon rise to the sound of owls and coyotes. We are the only boat here. Peace.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Tenn-Tom

Days on cruise:  218

Distance traveled:  56.4 miles

Travel time:  6 hrs, 23 mins (8:10 incl 3 locks)

Total trip odometer:  4,730 statute miles

The Tenn-Tom is 450 miles from the Tennessee River to the mouth of Mobile Bay approaching Mobile, Alabama 14 miles further south. It’s actually comprised of segments called the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (234 miles to Demopolis, AL) and the Black Warrior-Tombigee Waterway (217 miles to Mobile), but given the mouths full those names represent, and lacking interest in distinguishing between the two, everyone calls it the Tenn-Tom.

With the exception of Georgian Bay and North Channel on Lake Huron in Canada, this is by far the most remote segment of the Great Loop. Even those Canadian segments are closer to “civilization” than this. The first third wanders through the northeastern corner of Mississippi, then crosses into Alabama for the balance of the distance.

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In 1946 Congress authorized funds to dig the segment  connecting the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee River, but it was quite controversial, so it wasn’t until 1985 that the ribbon was cut and it was open for business. More dirt was moved to build the Tenn-Tom than to build the Panama Canal, and in today’s parlance, this project would certainly be called “pork” at a cost of $2 billion. This is the Waterway that allows boaters to cruise from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico without risking life and limb on the Mississippi River with all those tows pushing barges through levees which hide all views.

Shortly after leaving Pickwick Lake at the confluence of the Tennessee River and Tenn-Tom, one enters the Divide Cut, the man-dug segment that’s 24 miles long, 280 feet wide, and lined with riprap along the shore.


Gray skies, cold temps (40s to 50s) flocks of birds, and one wild turkey filled the view.


We found ourselves traveling with two other boats, neither  Loopers, and transiting three locks (the Whitten, Montgomery and Rankin) together, including the 85-foot drop on the second one of the day. We actually had a bit of trouble controlling to boat against the wall until the lock doors closed because the wind was so strong. Good thing Bob is stronger than Cathryn and willing to handle lines in such cases! He’s developing callouses on his hands from line handling.


By mid-afternoon the wind picked up, and we passed through cypress swamps, some with dead trees, others still alive and prettier.


Late in the afternoon we approached Midway Marina where we decided to spend the night as it was too cold to anchor out as planned.


There’s a Halloween Party at the marina tonight, but after a full week of Rendezvous and other non-stop socializing, we’re too tired to participate. We’re not “costume” people in any case. The forecast calls for another week of cold weather before the sun will re-emerge and temps will rise a bit, so we may spend more time in marinas on this stretch than we would otherwise. Fortunately, charges are uniformly $1.00/foot per night, so half the price of most places on the Loop.

What Happened to Fall???

Days on cruise:  217

Distance traveled:  43.8 miles

Travel time:  4 hrs, 41 mins

Total trip odometer:  4,590 statute miles

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Three weeks ago we arrived in Chattanooga to pick up Bob’s sister Lynn and her husband David from Seattle to join us for a week on the boat. Coinciding exactly with their arrival, Summer weather ended and Fall arrived, bringing rain, gray skies, high temps in the 60s and lows in the low 50s.  Today:  Winter arrived! Why was Fall so short? After spending 8 1/2 months following Summer around North America, we’re in shock to find ourselves unable to wear shorts and sleeveless shirts with flip flops. We don’t expect any sympathy, but still.


We spent this morning seeing the sights of Florence, AL, a surprisingly delightful little town. First we stopped at Ivy Green, the home (above) where Helen Keller grew up and was taught by Annie Sullivan to understand sign language which opened up her world.


This is the water spout where she had her first “Ah ha!” moment, connecting the letters W-A-T-E-R spelled into her hand with the idea of the water flowing over her palm.



Next we stopped by the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed  Rosenbaum House built in 1939 in the Usonian style. The original family occupied this home until 1999 when the City of Florence bought it and turned it into a museum. Over the years we’ve seen and toured several Frank Lloyd Wright homes, and found this to be our favorite so far.

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No photos inside, so this is a “found” picture of the living room.

At noon we slipped our lines and headed west to travel the last bit of the Tennessee River. On departure the weather was sunny and mild, but it soon became gray, rainy and cold. Nonetheless conditions were fine until the last couple of hours when the temperature plummeted, wind began howling and the waves grew to 2-3 feet consistently; not enough to be scary, but unusual conditions on a RIVER!


This was the end of the stretch that involved re-tracing our steps for the 500-mile round trip Chattanooga side-trip. Tomorrow we’ll begin new territory again.


We stopped at Grand Harbor Marina for fuel ($3.89/gallon) then moved two miles down Yellow Creek to Aqua Yacht Harbor for the night. Right after tying up the boat, Boyd (an Aussie) and LynnAnne arrived for a visit. We met Boyd in Norfolk 17 months ago at our first Rendezvous, but only met LynnAnne at the Rendezvous this past week. They’re great folks who are re-building much of the Loop boat they bought and hope to begin their Loop next year. Ten minutes later John and Carol, also owners of a 42’ Jefferson who recently finished their Loop, arrived at our door and came aboard to join the visit.

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Later we went to “Freddy T’s” for dinner with John and Carol and swapped Looper and 42’ Jefferson stories over pork chops and catfish. They’re nice folks, and we’re glad we finally got to meet them after first connecting with them online in Canada, but continuously leap-frogging each other along the way.

If the weather’s ok, we’ll begin our 450-mile journey down the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway tomorrow. This area is often described as the most remote of the entire Loop. Marinas are infrequent on this leg (the last one is 119 miles before Mobile, AL), and we’re told cell signals and internet are sporadic. So we may not post as regularly in this stretch, or call family and friends other than in Demopolis, the only real city along the way. More on the Tenn-Tom later.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Rendezvous Whirlwind

Days on cruise:  216

Distance traveled:  21.3 miles

Travel time:  4 hours, 42 minutes (incl two locks)

Total trip odometer:  4,630 statute miles

Tuesday and Wednesday we attended a number of Rendezvous seminars. Some provided detailed information about upcoming segments of the Loop we’ll travel. Of particular interest was the overview of the Gulf of Mexico crossing, describing alternatives, weather conditions, cautions and other information related to this 170-mile trip, 50 miles offshore at the greatest point. This, along with the stretch in the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey shore seem to be Looper’s greatest areas of concern.


We also attended technical seminars on Boat Electrical Systems and Maintaining Your Boat’s Structure. We were astonished at some of the things we learned, even though we’re 75% (geographically, not in terms of time) through our Loop! It was extremely useful.

We continued to have folks drop by the boat to take another look or ask questions, and just as we were extremely grateful for all the assistance and information Loopers gave us when we were Wannabes, we tried to give this year’s Wannabes all the help they sought. What goes around comes around!


Late Wednesday afternoon we had fun watching Looper Dinghy Races (above) off the back of our sundeck, though we didn’t participate. We learned that dinghy motor size doesn’t matter! We had thought our 4hp dinghy motor couldn’t possibly participate in a dinghy race against dinghies with 10 or 25 hp motors. Turns out the rules were: each dinghy must have two people aboard; the one at the tiller is blind-folded and must operate the dinghy only by following voice instructions from the other person on board, while operating in REVERSE! They only had to travel about 200 feet, round a mark in the water, and return – one dinghy at a time, and the results were timed, as dinghies were not racing simultaneously. But it was hilarious to watch, and you could tell some of the crew found it frustrating when their captains seemed not to understand or follow their instructions, or the captains felt their crew gave poor instructions. What a hoot!


Later still we went aboard Jackets II, our friends Stephen and Charlotte from Jacksonville, for cocktail hour along with folks from 3 other boats docked near them (above). Charlotte makes Killer Margaritas; probably the best we’ve ever had! The ten of us proceeded to sit together at the final Rendezvous dinner, and we laughed so often and so hard our sides hurt.  What a group!

We enjoyed meeting the folks on this converted lobster boat, below, Betty L. We took a tour and it is a marvel!


Thursday morning at 8:30 Jack and Sara, the folks from Indiana who plan to buy our boat in March, arrived onboard. Bob and Jack dropped into the engine room to do a “daily fluids check” and Cathryn and Sara reviewed lofty issues like how to operate this marine toilet, how to set up the stove to operate properly and how to start the engine.


An hour later we slipped our lines, and the four of us began a journey down the Tennessee River. Along with 5 other Looper boats, we made it through the Wheeler Lock (48-foot drop) with little delay, then traveled almost 20 miles to the Wilson Lock (94-foot drop, the biggest of the Great Loop), with six other boats this time.


Jack and Sara were interested in EVERYTHING about this journey: boat operation details, driving and navigating, locking procedures, sights along the way, you name it! These are smart, inquisitive folks (she’s a college professor; he’s a helicopter pilot), and we enjoyed answering all their questions to the best of our ability. We’re pretty convinced Jack will find operating this boat lots easier than flying a helicopter, and Sara is completely game for whatever comes!


Mid-afternoon we pulled into Florence Harbor Marina, had lunch together on the sundeck, then said our goodbyes so they could drive back to Indiana and home. What a fun and special day it was! We were sad to say good-bye after such fun together the past few days.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Big News

Days on cruise:  214

We’ve sold the boat!  Well, not really.  But sort of.  And no, we’re not quitting the Loop before we finish!


Last May at the Great Loop Spring Rendezvous in Norfolk, VA (above) Curtis Stokes, the boat broker who helped us buy Next To Me, introduced us to clients he was working with to shop for their Loop boat, Jack and Sara from Indiana. He said he wanted them to see an example of an “older” boat in good condition, and would we mind showing them ours?


So we gave them a tour. They liked it and asked Curtis to help them find a 42’ Jefferson.  He subsequently took them on two boat shopping trips, and in the end, they liked Next To Me better than other 42’ Jeffersons they saw. So after driving to Green Turtle Bay in Kentucky to see Next To Me again a few weeks ago (above), Curtis brought us an offer from them to buy our boat when we finish the Loop. There is a signed Purchase and Sale Agreement in place, and when we get back to Fort Pierce, Florida, they’ll conduct a survey and sea trial, and assuming she passes their inspection, Next To Me will get ready to do the Loop a second time. See the happy current and future owners below!


Jack and Sara are wonderful people, and we’ve enjoyed spending time with them here at Joe Wheeler. Yesterday afternoon we opened our boat for over 2 hours for Looper Crawls, sort of like an Open House for all the folks here who are Looper Wannabes. More than 40 people came aboard and toured the boat, and Jack and Sara were  onboard  listening to  comments  and questions from others. One couple told us they’d been following our blog and considered talking with us here about possibly buying the boat; we introduced them to Jack and Sara instead.

Last night’s Rendezvous dinner, with 250 people in the dining room, included introduction of all the Looper Wannabes. Below is a list of some things they said, as reported by Great Loop Association staff:

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As we listened to folks describe their excitement and fears while planning for their Loop, it reminded us of how we felt at our first Rendezvous 18 months ago. It’s interesting to consider how much we’ve learned in the past two years. 

Take a look at the paragraphs below, excerpted from our post on this blog written in August 2009  (click here for our August 2009 post ) as we completed a 700-mile one-way trip with friends on their 60-foot  trawler, traveling up the Inside Passage from Washington state to Ketchikan, Alaska.

“We’ve developed a huge amount of respect for the kind of people who make a journey like this, not as guests like we’re doing, but as a couple who captain and crew their own boat. The remoteness of much of the waterway makes it mandatory that anyone who expects to do this successfully must have a dependable boat (is there such a thing?) or a set of skills Bob and Cathryn cannot ever imagine acquiring. Greg is a knowledgeable mechanic, knows how to do wiring and plumbing, and is a jack-of-all-trades. He and Terry understand navigation, including information about water, tides, currents, wind and weather, and how they affect travel. They manage to balance their adventurous spirits with appropriate caution.

They’ve often made this trip alone, without the aid of additional crew, which looks like a major under-taking to us due to the extended cruising time.

Our conclusion, based on this trip, is that we would not be comfortable making this kind of trip without someone with a great deal of experience on board, without at least trying a shorter trip first. Whether in a new or old boat, a break-down of any kind could result in being stranded, or even grounding on the rocks in a remote location with help very far away.”

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Does that sound like the same people who have now traveled 4,600 miles, through 17 states, on all kinds of water in every condition imaginable, and survived, happily?

How far we’ve come, both geographically and in terms of skills and self confidence, surprises us. Doing the Loop has given us great pleasure, but also a chance to recapture the sense of adventure and ability to grow intellectually that we didn't expect to experience at this stage of life.

So, now with the boat more or less sold, we have to start spending a bit more time answering the question we get almost daily from others: “What’s next?”  It’s going to be a challenge to find something that equals our current adventure.