Sleeping was difficult the night of July 31st, and the music blasting from the band had nothing to do with it. Neither did the thunder rolling in the distance. I knew the next few days were going to bring a lot of change and I was leaving a saltwater world that I loved. But, I knew that with hard work and determination, I would be back soon.
It hit me pretty hard pulling out of Dog River, heading east into the blinding sunrise. It was my last day on saltwater and by the end of the day I would be over 30 miles inland. After entering the main channel I pointed the bow towards the busy port of Mobile. It is rather intimidating being on a 30 foot sailboat and navigating your way through the lower portion of the port. There are many large ships moored for loading and unloading cargo as well as many repair facilities. After what seemed like an eternity, the ship traffic vanished and only the occasional fishing boat would blast by. I was in the river.
The river wound its way back and forth and I was surprised to see water depths well into 40 and 50 feet deep. I traveled until about 2 p.m. when I set anchor in a side branch in 25 feet of water. Tows did not travel this route; however, I still stayed to one side of the creek and deployed my stern anchor to be on the safe side. Shortly after getting everything set I noticed a branch in the distance that seemed closer than before. There was a very slight current, less than 0.5 knots, and I could tell the branch was headed my way. Then, upon closer inspection, my stomach lurched as I realized this “branch” was a tree that was longer than the boat and about 18 inches in diameter. Before I could act, the tree had come alongside the boat and the roots, which were still attached, had gotten tangled into the stern anchor rode. I managed to get the tree spun around but it was still tangled in the anchor rode. I was able to reel in some line and then dump the line as fast as I could to try and get the rode to sink off the roots. It payed off, and right as I reached the end of the rode the log rolled and slowly drifted towards the Gulf.
It wasn’t much longer before a thunderstorm began forming above me. Imagine that. Fortunately the worst of it went to the west of me. The next day left me attempting to make over 70 miles, one lock, and arrive at Bobby’s Fish Camp before dark. I awoke at 0430 to prep the boat for an early start. When the sliver of first light appeared all I saw around me was fog. I had to make good time the whole day in order to make it through the lock before dark and the thick mist surrounding me was not a good start to the morning. I slowly raised both anchors and motored towards the main channel. I fought thick pockets of fog limiting my visibility to the bow of the boat until about 0730. My main concern was confronting a tow in the middle of the channel so I slowed to a comfortable speed close to the bank. Fortunately my AIS system was a major asset for the trip. I was able to see where the big boats were and plan accordingly. Eventually the fog lifted and the old Yanepillar was able to be brought up to an acceptable cruising rpm. I eventually approached a small tow measuring 2 wide and 3 long. When they are on an open waterway they can keep their speed up. However, every twist in a riverbend they approach requires coming almost to a complete stop to power the heavy cargo around the narrow bends and shoals that make up the smaller river systems. And when you are on a sailboat trying to make a schedule you have only one choice; to pass them on the straight away. Passing a tow aboard a slow moving sailboat feels similar to passing a semi truck in a clown car. I do feel compelled to say that all the tow captains were courteous, helpful and easy to communicate with along the trip.
After racing the tow towards my destination clouds once again began to form and thunder rolled in the distance. O.k., these storms were really getting on my nerves. With no good options for anchoring I pressed on. The wind came first, then the blinding rain and lightning. After about 2 hours of storms The weather cleared and I approached my first lock and dam. The only locks I have previously transited were in France and much smaller compared to the locks I would be passing through on my journey North. When entering a lock you run a line from your bow and stern to a single large floating bollard. You never want to tie onto this bollard in the event it becomes stuck and drags your boat down with it.
I entered the Coffeeville Lock and began talking to the lockmaster, Will. He was looking into getting a sailboat and we chatted as the boat slowly inched its way up to a new elevation.
He also gave me lots of good information regarding the locks and a few helpful hints. 15 minutes later the gigantic doors opened and I was able to make the short distance to Bobby’s fish camp. Bobby’s Fish Camp is the only place to dock between Demopolis and Mobile. There is also a restaurant by the dock which is open Thursday through Sunday. Unfortunately they were closed the day I arrived, but I still wanted to check the place out. I have read a lot about the place and was also looking forward to tying up to a dock after getting soaked by the thunderstorm. The amenities aren’t much, and the dock isn’t exactly top of the line, but it gets the job done. The hospitality you will receive is unsurpassed and I highly recommend visiting. Although they were closed they offered to make me some dinner. I declined because I had plenty to eat up onboard but I spent the evening talking with the family. Really cool folks. I did however make one mistake when I got back to the boat and that was leaving the mosquito hatches out. I had quite a few that made it inside and kept me swatting until I fell asleep dreaming of another adventurous day.
I “slept in” until 7a.m. the next morning and made an actual breakfast. I was only going to cover a short distance because there wasn’t much as far as anchorages and I only found one that looked promising. Well, as promising as promising could be. The stretch between Bobby’s and Demopolis doesn’t exactly have anything remotely resembling an anchorage. Fortunately the river is slightly wider here and carries depth close to the shoreline. Normally anchoring alongside the river is no big deal. I found a nice place on the backside of a bend about 50 feet off the shoreline in 8 feet of water. Bow anchor out, then the stern anchor, and then what do you know, another thunderstorm. This one was particularly nasty looking and my lack of internet and phone reception made it frustrating not knowing what the storm line was up to. I had confidence in my bow anchor knowing the conditions it had held before, However, my danforth is somewhat unpredictable especially with shorter than preferred scope due to the close proximity to shore. My biggest fear was dragging because of a beam sided heavy wind blowing me into shallower water, or worse, into the trees. The wind rolled through like I was becoming accustomed to and then came the rain, and lots of it. Fortunately both anchors held well and I was able to relax for the night. I saw a tow approaching on the chartplotter AIS and called him on the VHF to warn him of my location. I always like to radio the tows to make sure I am out of their way. He acknowledged and said I was in a great spot and wished me luck with the rest of my journey while continuing their journey south loaded with coal. I only had one other tow pass me in the night or at least I only remember the cabin being lit up like a extraterrestrial encounter once. The lights on the tows are big, like really big, which is good when you are the little sailboat sitting slightly off the main channel. They can light up my world all they want.
The 4th day upriver would get me to Demopolis,Al and fortunately without any storms! It is also a good fuel up point. I recommend fueling first then going to the transient dock. The fuel dock is almost a mile away from the marina. Fortunately they have golf carts to get around the property. I was surprised to see quite an arrangement of cruising boats in Demopolis including a motorsailer I had been following since Marathon. The facilities at Demopolis Yacht Basin are amazing and even include a pool, very nice clubhouse and bathhouse. I would have loved to stay a few days but I was on a mission to make Columbus, Mississippi by the weekend to meet Emily and my parents. Even though a stop at Demopolis may be necessary to refuel and restock, I highly recommend staying here before heading south towards mobile.
After reluctantly leaving the other cruising boats waiting out the hurricane season I maneuvered north through what seemed to be a minefield of debris made up of everything from sticks to trees. I covered about 50 miles before arriving at a really nice anchorage off the river. As I was entering the narrow channel I was greeted by a herd of cows playing and cooling off in the water about 20 feet from the boat. I went a short distance past them deeper into the creek and set both hooks for a beautiful night of sleep with lightning dancing across the the sky in the distance.
The next day led me through more locks that left me exhausted by the time that I arrived at the Columbus Marina. I followed the channel in and felt a small bump making my way past the fuel dock. When entering and exiting the marina be sure to stay about 25 feet from the fuel dock for deeper water. I tied up alongside the giant lily pads on their transient dock and spent the rest of the day celebrating and trying to intake as many calories as possible to make up for the lack of eating the days prior. It is difficult to get food from below while underway in a narrow channel and it is only compounded when making long distance travel days. I was averaging about 50 mile days heading upstream. Some days I covered over 70. Emily was driving down, parents in tow, to meet me the next morning and deliver my dad to help me through the upcoming locks until our final destination: Kentucky Lake.
My experience of the river up to this point left me rather disappointed. Hot, muggy weather, no wind–except for the daily storms that blasted through each evening–and no blue water. Granted, my experience also consisted of rushing to make mileage and getting blasted by weather and 100 degree heat every day. My advice for those on river stretches of the Loop: take your time. This goes along with cruising in general. Deadlines are sometimes a necessary evil, but if you can avoid them, do so. In my case, the deadlines I had set were actually a blessing in disguise, because otherwise I would have ended up battling the weather that flooded southern Alabama and Louisiana.
The next afternoon, Emily pulled in just in front of the Columbus City Marina. As my parents got out of the car, she ran up to me and I pulled her up into a hug and swung her around. Though Emily and I both love traveling, we also both understood that in order to be able to keep traveling, more hard work would be necessary. Luckily, Emily loves her job–even though it’s definitely not the 9-5 variety–she puts in over 55 hours most weeks between planning, grading, and extracurriculars. But, in order for her to keep working where she does (and for her to be able to keep those summers off for travel) our homebase will continue to be in the midwest for now.
This summer, we had the chance to take our time; we spent over a month in the keys, a week traveling north, and then 3 weeks in Sarasota. And sometimes you have jump back in the saddle, lay on the spurs, and hold on. It is just the nature of things when you are living life on the run. The next post will outline the trip from Columbus,Mississippi to Kentucky Lake and all the craziness that has ensued since stepping foot back on dry land. Stay tuned.