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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.

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.

 

Socked in by fog next morning, we chuckled when we heard the power yachts firing up in front of us. Scott put on another pot of coffee. The river and its notorious fog require patience. We take our cue from the tow pilots: If you can’t see both sides of the banks, don’t even think about moving. When the pea soup dissipated into the dreamily trailing wisps some call “Indian ghosts,” the Coffeeville lockmaster began taking boat names and assigning positions. Thirteen vessels locked through mid-morning; Chip Ahoy lassoed a bollard on the wall, and Another Dawn rafted up to us for the ride down to tidal waters.

Menou and Another Dawn were waiting for us as the sun set on Three Rivers Lake, a tree-lined anchorage off the main river. Both buddy boats had their anchors down, positioned stern-to-aft for maximum balance and holding. They motioned us in to tie alongside. Captain Scott got a break from anchoring, but not from providing the entertainment, favoring us with toe-tapping tunes on his guitar. Dick and Dixie added Cajun flair to Happy Hour, plying us with gumbo. Down below, Dixie opened up her treasure chest of handmade jewelry, urging Dawn and I to pick a piece as a keepsake.

There was plenty of water below us. Chip Ahoy requires at least 5 feet. Traveling with two boats of considerably shallower draft took all the stress out of anchoring. Truly, it pays to have friends in low places!

The tow pilot who ran aground on a protruding shoal near the Tensas River the following day was probably wishing he’d had another pair of eyes on the sounder. With permission granted, we nosed around the firmly planted barge configuration and continued to Briar Creek. This bonafide hurricane hole is a haven of solitude, save for anglers in high-powered bass boats, lifting a hand in salute as they zip by. Again, we rafted three up. Al did dinner honors, serving Jamaican jerk chicken.

As we cautiously picked our way through the bustling, intimidating Port of Mobile and out the wide shipping channel into the brown water of Mobile Bay, I blew kisses to our river companions as they steered to Dog River for mast-raising. Fleeting meetings and partings are a common, cherished part of the boating life. Somehow, somewhere, you may meet again.

Chip Ahoy’s bow pointed in the opposite direction, toward Fly Creek, where a hot shower and laundry at Eastern Shore was the first order of business. A sun-shower rinse on deck had been too chilly a prospect in fleece weather. I won’t say we were rank, but neither one of us smelled fresh as a daisy!

We heard y’all had a mild winter. Same here. Frost bit the decks once, in Carrabelle. After that it was smooth, sunny and at times downright sweaty sailing down to the Keys and back to the mouth of the Mobile River.

The 36-foot Willard Trawler Damn Tootin’ left Eastern Shore a day ahead of us. Walt and Nancy have been running the Gulf Shores-to-Demopolis circuit for several years. Veterans of long East Coast passages, the couple says they’ve found everything they need in Alabama: Good food, nice people, pretty scenery and sweet serenity. When it comes to heading upstream, “We don’t move ’til the pool stage is at 10,” Nancy notes. “It’s just not worth it to go any earlier.” When river stage finally dropped to normal, the couple postponed their trip for two more days due to a mid-April heat wave. “We can stay here on our dock with a great view of the bay and sunset and enjoy the breeze, or sit up in Bayou Canot sweltering while the bugs bite us.”

Unlike the pack mentality that typifies the downstream jaunt, Chip Ahoy’s upriver junkets are most often solo. My favorite new companion in April 2012 was the 439-page paperback edition Cruising Guide to the Tennessee River, Tenn-Tom Waterway and Lower Tombigbee River by Marian, Thomas W. & W.J. Rumsey. First published in 1991, this work is a true gem, stuffed with reams of useful river navigation tips and data, as well as poetically written passages on regional and natural history. The banks, bluffs and creeks seen seven times previous were viewed in a fresh light as we pictured the skirmishes, ambushes and expeditions of early settlers who populated these shores in days of yore.

While some guidebook phone numbers and marina listings are outdated, many of the terms on our up-to-date navigation charts were defined. The Woodyards on various bends and stretches supplied the steamboats traveling from landing to landing. Those long-ago trips fraught with perils took two to three weeks.

The mating rituals of flapping herons and the darting brown swallows seeking a nesting spot in Chip Ahoy’s scuppers further entranced us. An explosive boom against the port stern shocked us out of reverie near the Barry Steam Plant. Chip Ahoy collided with a submerged log in mid-channel. When we lifted out in Demopolis, we were greatly relieved to see no permanent damage done.

On the stretch to the Coffeeville Lock, I was startled by a large, sleek head rearing up out of the water next to the boat. A 6-foot Eastern Diamondback rattler locked eyes with me before streaking away toward a humungous sand deposit on the opposite shore. The Rumsey guidebook says the creature is “a good but reluctant swimmer” that prefers “sandhills with stumpholes.”

Near Bashi Creek, which we learned to correctly pronounce as “Bash Eye,” we spotting a grinning alligator basking on a mud bank, pearly whites shining in the hot sun. We were surprised to see we’d caught up with Damn Tootin’ anchored in the creek. It’s too narrow for Chip Ahoy; we prefer to anchor catty-corner on the opposite shore from the recreation area dock, finding good holding on the sand bottom.

From Bobby’s Fish Camp up, there are few listed anchorages. But I no longer fret over where to stop for the night. We just go bar-hopping, river-style! Numerous straight, sandy stretches present a myriad of potential anchorages. The friendly, knowledgeable towboat captains, lockmasters and bridge tenders have never let us down. At the Jackson Railroad Bridge, the tender recommended dropping the hook at Lower Prince Landing. Positioned off the channel between two bridges on a straight stretch, the boat was visible in both directions. On the final night of our journey, the Alice Parker and the Pascagoula gave us the thumbs-up “inside the greens at Besteda Bar,” where we found 6 feet of water close to the sandy shore. “You’ll be safe there, buddy, no worries, just light it up,” assured the Pascagoula captain after we passed him at Rembert Landing. “You’re fine, bud,” assured the Alice Parker.

After a long wait for a succession of tows to pass through, we locked up at Demopolis the next day, arriving at the yacht basin fuel dock in mid-afternoon. Dockmaster Trinella greeted us with a “welcome home” hug. After a relaxing evening in our slip, we packed up sails and prepared for lift-out to the boatyard, where Chip Ahoy awaits her next river adventure. We’ll see y’all on the flip side!

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