It amazes me that we have been on this journey for 46 weeks and that we are coming down the home stretch. The past couple of weeks have been some of the most difficult, psychologically. As we traveled the Loop in Florida and up the east coast, we saw Loopers here and there, had docktails with some of them and shared experiences upon occasion. There are just so many options for places to visit and explore that we end up pretty well spread out due to our individual preferences. Once we hit Chicago and came down towards Joliet, we became part of a flotilla. The members of the flotilla change daily owing to: the top speeds each captain is willing to push his/her craft, to the number of days the crew wants to stay in a particular town, or heaven forbid due to mechanical issues that must be addressed, which can sometimes be lengthy.
This pack mentality can be trying. We like to travel through undisturbed waters hoping to catch glimpses of wildlife along the way and have been rewarded with deer, turkey, beaver and eagle sightings. In a flotilla, we have been first a lot of the time because as Jerry says, “If you ain’t the lead dog, the view never changes!” The odds catch up with us though and often a faster boat will overtake us and become leader until he disappears around the bend of a river.
We leave Columbus marina at dawn with just two other boats and lock through at dawn without a hitch.
The journey for the day is pretty easy; there’re only patches of debris rather than great islands of it and there are sticks as opposed to whole trees in the water. We find out that we cannot lock through the last lock that we wanted to because the anchorage below it will have a dredge working through the night, making it impossible for us to anchor there. So, we pull into Sumpter anchorage with our two buddy boats and it is a calm and lovely place to spend the night, just a few miles up from the lock.
We call the Hefflin lock the next morning, acting as point person for our three boats, and the lock master informs us that he has a barge in the chamber and another one coming up river in a bit. “Call me back in 20 minutes and we’ll see whether we will be able to lock you through or not.”
That isn’t very heartening and we relay the disappointing news to our friends. When we call back, the lock master says, “Come now or wait 3 hours, your choice!”
Dang! We all scramble to get our anchors up, get the glass cleared of fog (at least it isn’t ice this morning as it has been the past couple of mornings) and get into the river, knowing that there is a barge that will be coming out of the lock towards us.
The fog is so thick we really can’t see much. We contact the barge and he says he can see us but we can’t see him until he emerges, like a ghost, from the fog. It looks like he is going to mow us down and he’s telling us to take him on the two which means starboard to starboard but we can’t see any room between his starboard and the bank.
He keeps saying that he is moving over for us and finally daylight appears between him and the bank though fog is still swirling around it. We quickly move to that side and pass him safely. Creeping along, we are able to get into the lock and we lock through as the fog lifts for good.
The rest of the ride is serene and pretty, with gray clay hoo-doos and interesting white cliffs beside parts of the river.
After a long day, we pull into Demopolis Marina and it looks like homecoming. We recognize 99% of the boats here either from being with them or from the Meets app that shows where Looper boats are. This is not good because it means that we will all be trying to get out of the marina and through the lock at the same time in the morning.
We meet up for docktails, appoint a spokesperson to coordinate with the lock master and call it a night. We are not looking forward to the next couple of days because they are LONG river days with no marinas anywhere along the ride, which means at least a dozen boats all trying to fit into the small and limited anchorages that do exist.
The day dawns with thick fog and the lock master says to wait until he calls us. He can’t see the lock from his building that is right beside it and his lock is closed due to fog. He estimates a 7AM lock through but repeats that we are to wait. At 7 the marina comes alive with engines roaring to life and a mass exodus is immediately underway, even though we haven’t heard from the lockmaster. The fog is thick but we can see about a quarter mile and then it lifts. The lead boat calls the lock and he is NOT happy that we already have 9 boats on the river. “I guess y’all didn’t understand what I said when I told you to stay put until I called you!” he says. After some moments of radio silence, I guess he feels that we are less safe on the river because he tells us to come ahead and he will lock us down but he insists on each boat giving him its name and registration number before we enter the lock.
The fog thickens even more and now all that we can see is the boat ahead of us as we approach the lock. The lock master comes on the radio instructing us to stay on the left descending bank or we will miss the lock and go over the dam in the fog and we wouldn’t be the first boat that has done that! Can this get any more fun!?!?!?
The answer to that is a resounding YES, it can!
We lock down and exit, nine boats in single file. Coming around a corner there is a tug side-pushing a barge into the bank, meaning his prop wash will and does throw our boats sideways towards the bank but we are now all pro’s at dealing with this situation and adjust accordingly. Then we proceed into literally zero visibility as the fog swallows the boats ahead of and behind us. We can see NOTHING. Well, I can see that my eyes are deteriorating because I can see a LOT of floaters against the fog but that’s it!
We slow down and Jerry is steering by the I-pad chart plotter without any visual cues. It is reassuring that he has done this many times while piloting an aircraft on instruments alone but it is still unnerving driving forward into nothingness. I go up on the bow to watch for debris and the boat ahead of us until I can finally point him out to Jerry.
We follow him about 3 miles until the fog lifts for good and we have a nice day – even warmer than yesterday when we put on shorts for the first time in over a month! We are happy campers again! We take the lead and travel almost a 10-hour day, making it to Bobby’s Fish Camp just as the sun is setting. We have decided to run long days to get to Mobile in two overnights rather than the usual three.
Even though it is now dark, Jerry adds “comfort fuel” because, while we have enough fuel to reach Mobile, we have been having to run faster than we normally do because of the short days and fewer hours of sunlight that we have to reach our destinations.
Bobby’s is a fun old place, founded in 1956 and full of old Coke memorabilia and taxedermied wonders. It would have been nice to arrive early enough to enjoy “the world’s best fried catfish” but the kitchen is closed and we opt to lift a glass with our friends to celebrate the fact that we will encounter our very LAST LOCK of the trip in the morning!
We get a very early start because there is no fog at all the next morning. We are all doing the happy dance as we go through the LAST lock of our Loop at Coffeeville.
We are now in tidal water again and so must account for tidal movement as we plan how far we can travel in a day. The day we left, our friend, Steve gave us this advice, “Don’t ever drive where there are birds walking,” which has stood us in good stead. On this river it is a little tricky because it appears as if the birds are walking in the middle of the river channel. Upon closer inspection though, they are actually standing on floating flotsam and fishing from there. We figure it must be like hunters in duck blinds. The prey can’t see you if you are camouflaged!
The tide and current are a constant two knots with us and so we are able to make good time to our last anchorage at the Tensaw River. We toss our anchor in and it immediately grabs fast against the current. We monitor its hold for a while to make sure we are secure and when we don’t move at all, we breathe a sigh of relief and relax. We end up with 3 other boats anchored in the river behind us and the current makes it look like they are under way and throwing a wake – that’s how fast it is.
Moon Dance at anchor!
This is why I love anchoring out. It is quiet and so peaceful as the water gently moves the boat back and forth against the anchor rode. We sit on the front deck in the warmth of the setting sun and an orchestra of crickets warms up, punctuated by the haunting “who-who’s” of a pair of owls calling to one another. The three-quarter moon is rising and life is good.
After a sound sleep, the final 6 hour run into Mobile is a piece of cake. We are so excited to see cypress trees swinging with Spanish moss and palmettos around their bases. FINALLY, we are back in the land of civilized climate! We have now enjoyed three sunny days in a row, with no rain for a couple more and I think that’s a record for the last couple of months!
We enter the Port of Mobile and are overwhelmed. We didn’t expect it to rival Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Norfolk but it does. There are container ships from almost every continent in the world, naval vessels galore and some things we have never seen before like a mobile dry dock for repairs to BIG boats!
We clear the port and enter Mobile Bay – we are back in the Gulf of Mexico and dolphins arrive to make us welcome – we haven’t seen any in half a year and it is thrilling to be back in the Gulf! Shrimpers are everywhere, followed by clouds of hopeful pelicans and seagulls.
We arrive at Turner Marine with perfect timing. We pull into our slip and get secured and set up just as a shrimper arrives across from our slip.
He is selling fresh caught shrimp to people who are on a list. They have come from restaurants all over the area. I ask if there might be enough for me to get some and the old man directing the operations assures me that there should be enough once the pre-orders are filled. We hustle back and grab our cooler and I buy 7 pounds of HUGE shrimp for $6 a pound (IF you could get these at home, they would be at least $15)! I am so excited!
Our friends from France arrive shortly afterwards and we discover that it is Gilles’ 61st birthday. We make a date to celebrate together. I will bring the shrimp and Gilles declares he will cook them! I marinate the shrimp in some olive oil, garlic, salt and cayenne pepper and when Gilles pulls them off the grill they are succulent and fresh and fantastic!
I made a coffee cake for our breakfast and it doubles as a birthday cake since we are all too tired to make anything else. It is a marvelous celebration with very good friends. I think it was a good birthday for Gilles especially since he celebrated his 60th birthday sailing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (they are on a 4 year, around-the-world journey!
The day before Thanksgiving dawns bright and chilly but warms up quickly which is great because Turner Marine is throwing a fried turkey Thanksgiving feast for their staff and all who are in the marina. While many boats are here while their crew have gone home, more are here with full crews aboard and we join about 3 dozen other Loopers for a fantastic meal. All have brought sides which are excellent and the man who made the eggnog is truly a master. I don’t even like eggnog but this was delicious!
After a week of great meals with friends, we are ready to go home to meet our new granddaughter, celebrate the wedding of our nephew and catch up with friends and family. The boat is tidied and we will rent a car tomorrow to drive home for a few weeks. The plan is to return to the boat in mid-December and bring her home to Tarpon on Epiphany if weather and mechanical allow. We are truly thankful for the people and places we have gotten to know this year and for the blessing of being able to take this trip at all. We are also thankful for the family and friends we will reconnect with when we are home.
More in a couple of weeks as we resume our final leg of the Loop!