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Up and Down a Not-So-Lazy River

Join two snowbird boaters from Michigan for a run down the Tombigbee and Mobile rivers into Mobile Bay and beyond.

Spirit of Whitby on its merry way toward completion of America’s Great Circle Loop.

Spirit of Whitby on its merry way toward completion of America’s Great Circle Loop.

By Cyndi Perkins

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Yoo-hoo! Hello up there? Yep, you, crossing the Alabama Highway 10 Bridge. Do you see the sailboat with a guy on the bow holding up a cell phone? That’s my husband, searching for a signal. Me? I’m the lady in braids, steering the ship.

We don’t wish to distract you from your driving. But a toot on the horn would brighten our day. We promise to wave back. It’s been a while since we’ve seen any sign of human life, or been in cell phone range. So, we’re kind of excited.

Skipper Scott and I are Michigan snowbirds. In November, before the flakes fly, we flee to LA (Lower Alabama). We keep our 32-foot Down East sailboat, Chip Ahoy, in Demopolis. It’s the perfect staging area for a run down the Tombigbee and Mobile rivers to Mobile Bay. From there, we gunkhole along the Gulf Shores, thread the Florida panhandle, cross the Gulf of Mexico to Florida’s West Coast and sail along in leisurely fashion to the Keys.

But first, the rivers. Depending on pool stage, weather and occasional but inevitable delays for commercial traffic at the Coffeeville and Demopolis locks, it takes us four to five days to make it downstream. Heading back up in the spring gets even more interesting. It’s not uncommon to wait two weeks for the proper conditions as dictated by our two river gurus, Fred and Ed. Fred is the head man at Demopolis Yacht Basin, while Ed is the Big Cheese at Eastern Shore Marina in Fairhope. The only year we didn’t heed Fred and Ed’s advice, it took us six days to slog upriver, Chip Ahoy’s full keel fighting strong current as we dodged rafts of debris.

These days, if Fred and Ed say “hold up until the rivers settle down,” we do. Both Demopolis and Eastern Shore are delightful places to wait, especially the latter, now that the new Kingfisher Marina is up and running. The Demop crew was digging out the in-ground swimming pool in April nearby the brand-new cruisers’ lounge, bathhouse and laundry. Can’t wait to try it out!

There’s plenty of human company on the rivers each fall, what with migrating snowbirds like us and a gaggle of Great Loopers fresh from their rendezvous at Joe Wheeler State Park. We were Loopers once — actually, twice — earning our America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association (AGLCA) “master looperate” degree.

Most visiting cruisers take the river route once and vow “never again.” The 216 miles between Mobile and Demopolis can be daunting. Fuel stops are few and far between. Full-service marinas are non-existent. Much of the shoreline is remote and uninhabited.

Eight times and counting, the winding ramble is never the same. We’ve grown to love it.

On our first downstream passage, the seeming lack of available anchorages was terrifying to me. Sailing isn’t realistic; we rely on our 30-horse diesel engine. Welcome to life at 6 miles per hour, tops. Even leaving early, we are going to arrive late, using every available hour of light. Wedging into a fully occupied anchorage is not an option.

So, it was our pleasure in Fall 2011 to travel in company with just two sailboats, masts down but crew spirits high. Dawn and Al, warm and wise-cracking New Yorkers aboard their 39-foot C&C Landfall Another Dawn left Demop the same morning we did. We shared some spectacular sightings on the first leg of the trip — two black boars, two bald eagles, two deer, a coyote, several herons and a pair of chattering kingfishers — calling it a night upon reaching Barron’s Landing. Barron’s, the site of Old Lock 2, is a mere notch in the river. Tying to trees on the shoreline ensures that your boat won’t swing out into the channel. Those towboats don’t want to run you over; the rule of thumb is to “park” as far off the “road” as possible and display a super-bright white anchor light.

The next day’s stop was Bobby’s “Premium” Fish Camp. I added the “Premium” sticker after dock rates and restaurant prices were hiked in recent years. We always vow to try the Okatuppa or Turkey creek anchorages that guidebooks list in this sector, but we always end up dropping $100 at Bobby’s instead. Truth be told, Lora Jane’s catfish dinner, complete with fresh coleslaw and hush puppies, is a mighty tasty break from the galley. Fuel is available, and in 2011 we discovered another exciting innovation: shore power at the dock.

Here, we met Dick and Dixie of Menou, hailing from Lake Arthur, La., where they were headed after completing the last leg of their Great Loop. Initially, we three had all the dock space a body could hanker for. That changed as dusk fell, with a total of 12 boats nosing in for a night’s stay. Bobby, who passed in 2010, never turned away a boater seeking sanctuary. Daughter Lora Jean adheres to his golden rule. We stacked the boats in like poker chips, Chip Ahoy sliding back to nestle up to Another Dawn while the shallow-draft Menou, an Island Packet catamaran, tucked into the corner off the T-dock. A Camano Troll named Spirit of Whitby, with some friendly Brits aboard, lashed to Chip Ahoy’s starboard side. Bumpered against the wake of passing tows, the entire flotilla headed to the restaurant. Along the way, I paused for a prayer at Bobby’s gravestone overlooking the water he knew and loved so well.

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