Anchoring out and we reach the Gulf of Mexico!

222 Days Looping
3,822.0 Nautical Miles Total (4,398.3 Statute Miles)
309.5 Nautical Miles This Week
37 Hours Underway This Week
8.3 NMph Average Speed
5 Locks This Week, 154 Total Locks

Monday – Nov 18th – 56.8 NM – 2 Locks – To: Sumter, AL
We left the Columbus and continued our trip south. Our destination for the night was an anchorage at the Sumter Recreation Area. We had two locks to do, so we had a couple of back-up anchoring locations just in case.

Our first lock of the day, Columbus Lock, was right outside of the marina so we called them before we cast off and were told to be there at 7:30. We cast off at 7:15, and were ready and waiting at the lock at 7:15. Just before 7:30, a work tug pulled out from next to the lock, and as soon as he was clear, the gates opened and we were given the green light to enter. We had to dodge a few nasty logs in the lock but the drop was nice and quick.

After exiting the lock, we had a nice cruise down the river past a few tows, and a famous landmark, the phone booth on the side of the river. It’s just sitting there on the riverbank! The bald eagles were out looking for breakfast and we saw quite a few.

Just before noon, we reached our second lock of the day, the Belvil Lock. This lock has the Tenn-Tom waterway visitor center. Unfortunately, they don’t have any docking for boats so that you can visit! We did get to see the last Paddle Wheel Army Corp of Engineers maintenance boat which is on display in front of the Visitor Center. We had called ahead and were given a 12:00 lock through time, so we had taken it slow and timed our arrival so that we wouldn’t have to wait. Just as we approached, the doors opened and we were able to lock right through.

The doors on the locks are steel with horizontal reinforcing beams. As the water goes down, small pools of water catch in these beams. The herons have figured out that fish get caught in these pools and are easy picking. It’s fun to watch them fly down and walk back and forth looking for tasty snacks. As the water goes down, and exposes another beam, they fly down to the next level and check that one! Smart birds!

After the lock, we made good time down the river. We went by a large scrap metal recycling facility. As we passed they were unloading a barge, and as they energized the huge magnet, we could see the compass deflect about 25°! We had some more great views of the rock outcroppings and passed a few more tows. At 3:15 we reached our anchorage for the night. R-Pad one of the boats traveling with us is a small catamaran with outboard engines. It only has a 2 ft, draft so they went in first and called out depths for the rest of us. There was plenty of water and and were all anchored by 3:30. Because we were at anchor, we had dinner on the boat and called it an early night as we planned an early departure and another long day.

Tuesday – Nov 19th – 46.8 NM – 1 Lock – To: Demopolis, AL
We had a spectacular sunrise, and the anchor had held perfectly. No middle of the night wakeup calls from the anchor alarm, and we had a nice tight swing pattern. We had planned on an 7:30 departure, but ended up leaving at 7:45 as Zoey, R-Pad’s dog demanded some extra shore time. We lead the way out of the anchorage, and again headed south.

We only had one lock for the day the Heflin Lock, which was just an hour down the river. When we called ahead they said to just slow down a bit so that they could fill the lock. We took our time, and when we arrived around 8:30, they were ready for us and opened the doors as we approached. This was another 30 foot drop, and we were heading out just 15 minutes later.

We passed through Epes Alabama and the famous “White Cliffs”. These chalk cliffs where deposited about the same time as the White Cliffs of Dover in the UK. They were beautiful, and because they are soft chalk have been heavily sculpted by the river.

We made good time the rest of the way to Demopolis, AL. Demopolis is a major stopping point on the Tenn-Tom Waterway. The tugs fuel up here, there is a large marina and boatyard, and it’s the last full services until you reach Mobile. We arrived at 1:30, and settled in. In the evening, we used the marina courtesy van to go into town for dinner. We had a large group and couldn’t all fit, so the rest of us took an Uber. Dinner was good, and we pretty much closed the restaurant. When we’d finished, one of the waitresses husbands offered to give us a ride back to the marina. We jumped into the back of his pick-up and got a bumpy ride back to the marina.

Wednesday – Nov 20th – 0 NM – 0 Locks – In: Demopolis, AL
Our original plan was to stay one day in Demopolis, but on the way Pura Vida III had an issue with an alternator. We decided to stay an extra day so that they could have one overnighted. I was due for an oil change and as it was a nice warm day, I took advantage and changed the oil and fuel filters on the boat engines and generator. This is pretty much an all-day job and it was close to 3:00 by the time I finished up. The last step is to get rid of the old oil, filters and dirty wipes. The parts department at the marina has a disposal area, so I got a dock cart and loaded up the bag of filters and wipes and the 7 gallons of old oil. As I was walking past one of the other looper boats “PIA” (from Heidelberg Germany), I noticed oil bottles sitting on the dock and I asked Peter if they were getting rid of the old oil. He was, so we both hauled our oil up to the top of the dock, loaded it onto the (very rickety) loaner golf cart, and drove the 1/2 mile to the Service Center and dumped our oil.

As we were driving back, we met Chris who was walking back to the Service Department with his new alternator in hand, seems that it was the wrong one. I dropped Peter back at the marina and turned around to pick-up Chris and give him a ride back. It was going to be two days before he could get a replacement alternator, so he decided to have it shipped to Mobile instead. The boat runs fine as long as you run the generator so that the electric battery charger keeps the batteries charged.

A number of other Looper and non-looper boats had arrived throughout the day, so we were not able to get the courtesy car for dinner. Greg and Allison from Destination had made a run to Walmart, and on the way back stopped and picked up a couple of buckets of chicken and we all got together on Pura Vida III’s flybridge for dinner.

Thursday – Nov 21st – 84.5 NM – 1 Lock – To: Silas, AL
Our destination for the day was Bobby’s Fish Camp, about 85 miles away. We only had one lock but it was the Demopolis Lock which is very busy. We had called the night before and were told that a 6:00 AM lock through was our best bet. We were up at 5:00 and called the lock, they told us to be there at 6:30 AM. We started to get ready, and they called back telling us to be there for 6:15! It was just a short ride to the lock and we made it right on time. We did end up having a short wait (I think just because they can), but we were in the lock and ready to drop by 6:30. There were 7 boats, as we left the Marina, one boat, a small sailboat called the lock and said that they were getting fuel and would be there shortly. We ended up waiting another half hour for them to show up and get tied up. The lockmaster who was not friendly to begin with, was irate with them, especially when they tried to tie up to the one point that they told us NOT to tie up to. It was 7:00 by the time we were lowered down and exited the lock.

The river in this area is very twisty and turny, there are a few switchbacks where you travel two to three miles and end up less than 1000 feet from where you were! There are also a lot of sandbars so you have to watch the channel carefully. As the day progressed, it warmed up, and we moved upstairs to the flybridge for the first time since we’d hit the rock back up in Canada! It was nice to be up with a view again. We passed a number of barges and overall made good time.

At 4:00 we reached Silas Alabama and Bobby’s Fish Camp. Bobby’s is a small restaurant and R/V Park. They are the only resturant on the river with permission to serve “Local River Caught Catfish”, given all of the chemical plants, old landfills, and industrial installations we’d seen on the way down the river, we’re not sure that that’s a good thing. I guess if you like catfish with 3 heads or two tails it’s okay! Bobby’s is a MUST stop on the Great Loop. It’s just a 150 ft dock right on the river, so the most they can hold is 3 boats our size. What they do is to raft you up, (tie one boat to the side of the other) and they have been known to go 4 or 5 boats deep in season!

When we arrived there were already two boats there, R-Pad and another non-looper boat. The other thing that Bobby’s is known for is cheap fuel prices, so we hung out in the river staying out of the way of tugs while Pura Vida III topped off and tied up, then we moved to the dock and filled our tanks. It was dark by the time we finished and they told us we could stay where we were, so only R-Pad had to raft up.

We all walked up to Bobby’s for dinner. The staff is a hoot! Most have been there for years, and they are very personable. Some ordered the optional “Farm Raised” catfish, Brenda had some stuffed crab, and I opted for the Ground Steak. “What’s Ground Steak” I asked, “well, it’s steak that’s ground” the waitress explained, “comes with gravy and mashedtaters”, yes, that’s one word! 😉 The food was good and the local pie was even better! Our waitress even ran home to get some ice cream to go with the pie. Talk about service!

Friday – Nov 22nd – 50.1 NM – 1 Locks – To: McIntosh, AL
Friday morning we woke up at 6:00 for a scheduled 7:00 departure. When we looked out, we knew we were not going anywhere. The fog was so thick, that we couldn’t see across the river. We listened to the radio and the tows were also all pulled over to the side of the river. We checked with the lock which was just around the corner, to see what sort of backup there was and he said that there was one down-bound and two up-bound tows before we could go through and he was not locking anyone until visibility improved.

So, we settled in to wait. About 8:00 the first upbound tow was locked through and we watched him appear and disappear in the mist. Shortly after the fog started to lift and we could see across the river. The down-bound tow (going in our same direction) came through, and at 9:00 the lock called us and told us to move down for lockthrough.

When we got to the Coffeeville Lock, we went right in and made the short drop. This was our LAST LOCK for the trip! (unless we decide to go through Lake Okeechobee) With our last lock on the Tenn-Tom and our last lock for the trip behind us, we headed toward Mobile Alabama.

Like the prior day, there were a lot of twists and turns in the river to negotiate, we passed a number of tows. The banks became more and more sand bluffs and the overall depth of the river decreased. The closer to Mobile we got, the more industrial it became with larger power plants and steel and chemical facilities.

At 3:00 we reached our stop for the night, and anchorage in a small lake off the river. Again we were fortunate to be traveling with R-Pad, who went in first and checked depths for us. We wound our way up a small creek about 1/4 mile and then it opened up into a small lake. R-Pad checked and there was a relatively small area with enough depth to anchor in.

Now that we were below the last lock & dam, we were back in tidal territory for the first time since the Hudson River in New York! Pura Vida III dropped anchor first, then we pulled up next to them and dropped our anchor in the other direction so that as the tide changed we wouldn’t swing around and get stuck in the shallows.

R-Pad went over to the bank to let Zoey out for her evening constitutional. When Tom stepped off the boat, he sank up to his knees in mud! He described it as the consistency of peanut butter. He got back on the boat, and hosed himself off, then they went down the channel looking for somewhere firm enough for the dog to do her business. They did find a place that was only slightly mushy, and then joined us at anchor. We spent the night with the three boats rafted up.

Saturday – Nov 23rd – 46.5 NM – 0 Locks – To: Hurricane, AL
Saturday we decided to sleep in as we didn’t have any locks to worry about and we were going to be anchoring out again, so no need to get in early to “see stuff”. It was raining in the morning, and we decided on a 10:00 departure. About 9:00 the last of the rain came through, and we had just finished breakfast. The anchors had held just fine all night, but around 9:30 a strong gust of wind came through and swung the boats almost 180 degrees, pulling the anchors right out! R-Pad ended up almost in the trees, and Pura Vida III was in very shallow water. It was just one quick gust, and we decided rather than trying to sort things out and re-anchor, we’d just head out. Since we were all still hooked together, I used our thrusters to move us sideways into deeper water. R-Pad untied and headed out to find a place for Zoey to have her “shore time”. We pulled up our anchor and detached from Pura Vida III then headed out of the anchorage. The tide had come in, which made for deeper water but covered up some of the logs and branches we had seen on our way in.

All three of us made it out of the creek and into the river without incident, and just before 10:00 were headed downstream again. R-Pad found a boat launch to let Zoey off, and we continued past toward the Tensas River Cutoff, our anchorage for the night.

Again the river was very windy with lots of switchbacks and more and more industrial installations along the banks. In Barry, AL we passed a huge steam power plant and a large metal recycling center.

At 3:00 we reached the CSX railroad bridge near the Tensaw River cutoff and Big Briar Creek which was where we planned on anchoring for the night. The bridge was up as a couple of barges had just come through in both directions, and we were able to follow them before they closed it. We went about 1/2 mile beyond the bridge and as we were turning into the Tensaw River cutoff, they were closing the bridge for a train. We went about a mile down the cutoff, and turned onto Big Briar Creek. We anchored first in a wide spot in the creek, and then Pura Vida III pulled up along side facing the other direction, dropped their anchor and then we rafted together. This gave us an anchor in each direction again to allow for current as the tide changed so that we would not swing into the main channel. There was some small fishing boat traffic so it would not have been a big issue, but when it comes to anchors, the more the merrier!

An hour or so later, we heard R-Pad calling the bridge to open up, and they arrived a short time later and rafted up to us. We did a potluck dinner on the boats, Brenda made a corn chowder, Angela made some curry and rice, and Connie made grilled sausages. We all met on the frog and had a great dinner.

Sunday – Nov 24th – 24.8 NM – 0 Locks – To: Mobile, AL
Overnight the wind came up and at 1:00 AM the anchor alarm went off. Between the tide and the wind, it spun all three boats sideways. Our anchor slipped some, but re-caught. I was up most of the rest of the night, not trusting that we wouldn’t slip again. I stayed up in the salon and cat napped waking up about every 30 minutes to check our position. In the end I could have gone back to sleep, as once the boats re-settled, we didn’t drift any more.

The morning dawned bright and clear with no fog. We took our time pulling up the anchors as ours ended up under Pura Vida III and Pura Vida III’s ended up under us. We got everything sorted out and headed out of the anchorage and back to the main river.

We only had 24 miles to Dog River Marina our next stop, and it was only 8 miles to Mobile Harbor. Once we turned back onto the main channel, we had a few miles of swamp, and then the Mobile skyline appeared in the distance. We saw our first “salt water” pelicans since New York, and of course another Bald Eagle! We passed Big Bayou Canot where in 1993 a barge took a wrong turn in the fog and hit a rail bridge causing an Amtrak train to plunge into the swamp. 47 people died, and over 100 more were injured. The area in front of the bridge was one of our other anchorage choices, we gave it a miss!

We passed under the Cochrane-Africatown USA Bridge, and into Mobile Harbor. Mobile Harbor is very busy. This is where the ocean going freighters transfer their cargo from and to the barges, also there is a large Navy yard where they repair and refit guided missile warships. As we went through the harbor, we had to dodge a couple of tugs working with a large car carrier, and past the “Nina and Pinta” replicas that were at the dock at the convention center. We cleared the last container port, and were into Mobile Bay! Phew, this was almost as bad as Norfolk, Virginia!

Once we cleared the harbor, we were into Mobile Bay and we got our first glimpse of the Gulf of Mexico in the distance! Mobile Bay is very shallow, so it’s important to stay in the channel. In order to get to our marina in Dog River which is about half way down the bay on the West side, you have to follow the channel 6.5 miles due south, then turn back north-west for 4 miles to follow another channel into the Dog River. It’s frustrating because you can see the Marina as soon as you exit the harbor, and it looks like you should be able to cut straight across, however the charts show the depth at 1-3 feet in many places.

The open water in the channel with minimal chance of sticks and logs did give us a chance to open up the engines and blow out the carbon build up from days of running slow, so we made quick time. We did have to slow down for a couple of fishing boats, and their pelican entourage. We pulled into Dog River Marina and called in for our slip assignment. We were told to go to the end of the channel and take either of the two open slips. We went in and saw that the slips they had directed us to were both covered. I called back and asked what the height of the slips were and was told “I don’t know, I’ve asked the owner to measure them”. We’re 23 ft tall with the mast up, we pulled up to the slip and it “looked” okay, so we slowly backed in. We would have been fine, but our wind speed anemometer sticks up just a bit higher, and it caught on one of the cross braces and we heard a crunch. We stopped and pulled forward a little, no big damage, just one of the fins snapped off, an easy fix. We got the boat tied up. We remembered that we were in a tidal area and the dock hand who helped us in said that we were at low tide and that the tide was about 8-10 inches. I took a look, and at 10 inches, the anchor light at the top of the mast would be between the roof beams, but still have clearance. When we went to check in, we asked about moving to another slip, but the marina was full up. I lowered the boom which gained us a couple of inches and we decided to just watch it. As the tide started to come in, it was obvious that by high tide, the mast would be sticking through the roof! It seems that we were on a King Tide, and the tide was not 8-10 inches, but 1.5 to 2 feet! By this time, the mast was between roof beams so pulling the boat out was not an option, our only option was to lower the mast to avoid damage to the mast and the roof. So, I broke out the winch and lowered the mast part way down so that we didn’t have to worry overnight.

After not getting a lot of sleep the night before, I was beat, so we just had a quick dinner on the boat, and turned in early.

NEXT WEEK: Thanksgiving and sightseeing in Mobile Alabama