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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.

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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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