Of the myriad of choices Loopers have on this 6000-mile journey, there is probably more discussion and angst expressed over the decision as to whether to cruise around the Big Bend of Florida, which is shallow and rocky, or cut across the Gulf 180 miles from the Carrabelle vicinity to either Tarpon Springs or Clearwater. We chose the cut. There being a large field of crab pots* upon sight of land on the other side, one must make the approach in daylight, and preferably late enough in the morning that the sun in not blinding, since it is a south easterly route. Walking back that time table, one calculates that at 8 to 9 knots, one needs to allow 20 hours to cross, which means leaving harbor around 3-4:00pm, cruising overnight, and arriving at one’s destination around noon.
We caravanned with three other boats. Watching the cloak of darkness fall around us stirred up feelings of awe and vulnerability, even with our perfect weather window, the flat seas, the straight route, and the minuscule chance of anything intercepting our path. Steve and I took turns at the helm, an hour-and-a-half on, an hour-and-a-half off. We buddy-checked by radio every 2 hours and reported on conditions more often as needed. While the cabin was warm, steering the boat from below while standing for 20 hours was out of the question, so we bundled up in layers upon layers, topped with our foul weather gear and stood watch with autopilot from the more exposed fly bridge. I was grudgingly warm enough if I tucked my nose under my scarf, but this is not something I want to experience with any regularity!
As well-prepared as we were, each boat experienced its own drama at some point during the night. We watched the lead boat wander off course, as it lost electric power and its ability to steer for perhaps 10 minutes before they identified the problem and were able to correct it. Theincident which affected us happened after dark as we were beset by fog. With radar the fog should not have posed a problem, but Steve suddenly lost the GPS track on the navigation screen and becamedisorientated. The problem with buddy-boating is that it creates obstacles to hit in such situations, and we had a near miss, as a red light** flashed across our bow and then disappeared into the fog. Steve jammed the boat into reverse to avert a collision, and I, now awake from a nap below, saw two loop-de-loop tracks in the lower nav station and quickly had a sense of what had happened. We learned later that the skipper of the “near-miss boat” was also having technical issues, and with his nose buried in his iPad, he was totally unaware of the near disaster. All’s well that ends well, and we are wiser for these experiences—wiser and very grateful.
We were greeted at our destination at Turtle Cove Marina in Tarpon Springs by Loopers assisting with our lines. We wonder if there is any other activity in which one has a ready community nearly everywhere we land!*** We were invited to docktails at 5:00, and after changing into SHORTS (yay!) and washing the salt off Pearlie, we crashed for a couple of hours.
Dock tails were fun, with unapologetically liberal folks from Wisconsin and Utah…and quieter folks from Alabama. One guy who worked in the State Department asked Steve if we’re readers and wondered if we would read his novel. As much fun as we had, the snacks were mostly stale chips, and so we scoped out a lovely Greek restaurant and shared a Greek salad (traditional, with a hidden scoop of potato salad in the middle–yum!), a gyro, and baklava cheesecake (evidently, the Greeks invented cheesecake, too!), and I savored a thick, muddy Greek coffee.
Tarpon Springs still today is the largest Greek settlement in the U.S. The sponge industry moved northward from the Keys, by 1900 Tarpon Springs was the largest sponge port in the US. The Greeks, having depleted their sponge fields, set their sights on the vast supply in the Gulf of Mexico. In the next few years they brought experienced divers, and by using rubberized diving suits and helmets, were able to increase the harvests. By 1905 over 500 sponge divers were at work, utilizing 50 boats, attracting sponges traders in silent auctions and supporting industries, such as restaurants. For the next 30 years, the sponge industry out of Tarpon Springs was the largest industry in Florida, larger than the citrus industry or tourism, and Tarpon Springs became known as the sponge capital of the world. Fortunes shifted quickly when a blight in the 40s nearly wiped out the sponge fields. Finally in the 80s new beds were found, and sustainable sponge harvesting started booming again. The Deep Horizon BP oil spill also posed a major setback for the shallow beds around the Big Bend area, where the most desirable Wool Sponges grow, but they, too, are gradually recovering. Steve and I couldn’t resist the pitch: luxurious natural sponges—antibacterial, sustainably managed and harvested, lasting 5 years, a way to support local industry, light and highly packable for schlepping on the boat…. We bought a sackful! On our final evening in Tarpon Springs, we met our Gulf crossing partners to celebrate and debrief. It was a spirited evening, and we look forward to running into these good folks again.
*Crab pots are cages set out and tended by fishermen which are marked by a floating ball attached to the cage by a rope or wire. In these waters, they literally catch stone crabs, but boaters use the term “crab pot” generically, meaning any sort of fish or sea life trap. Tangling your prop in one of these can ruin your day.
**A red light is the port side (left side facing the bow) navigation light. Seeing the red light in front of us meant that the boat was crossing our path from our right to left and communicated to steer right to go behind him to avoid colliding.
***How do folks know we are Loopers? Well, we all sport a burgee, a pennant on our boats. One Looper has said that the burgee is better for meeting people than a puppy. Loopers also stay in touch! We added our name to the “Class of 2019” through the daily online forum, and one of the newest technologies for tracking Looping boats is through NeBo. A lot of folks watch to see who is coming into harbor and are ready to lend a hand. Others keep track of fellow loopers who they want to remain in touch with through NeBo. If you are interested in watching our progress, you can download the app and…ask Steve to coach you.
Immediately upon leaving Fairhope, the dolphins greeted us, three of them crossing our path and then playing in our wake. We entered the Gulf Intra Coastal Waterway (GICW), and the landscape changed; we’ve left industrial Mobile and entered the playground of the Southeast. While, we still encounter commercial tows, white sugar beaches, and beautiful homes and condos with their water toys at water’s edge, line the coast. A short 20 miles later we arrived at Barbour Marina near Orange Beach, a lovely marina with nothing around.
The next day again, the dolphins greeted us and cormorants escorted us another 20 miles on a gorgeous, sunny 63-degree day east to Pensacola, where we slipped at Palafox Marina right downtown. We are finally in Florida! Here we hunkered down for a stormy day spent indoors at the highly-acclaimed Naval Aviation Museum. In the last few days, I had discovered that I left my Drivers License at home, and I discovered that it is absolutely imperative to have a government-issued photo ID to enter the naval base. This meant that Steve went to the museum alone, and I spent the afternoon doing things that I have trouble finding time to do when Steve is around. Steve’s report of the museum is that “there were lots and lots of planes.” 😂 I heard as much about his conversation with his cab drivers as I did about the museum.
Another 45 miles east found us in Fort Walton Beach. A number of military bases around here have been closed, but it seems that there are still a lot. As we cruised through “The Narrows” by Santa Rosa Island, planes took off and landed, and a cadre of 8 helicopters hovered. We arrived at Two Georges Marina at Shalimar, and one of the dock crew helping with our pump out saw that we’re from Indiana and told us his grandfather built the grain elevators and started the public library in Shipshewanna! Small world.
The sixty miles to Panama City was beautiful cruising, but we wished we had gotten an earlier start. Scenery turned from upscale residential to remote again, trading the red clay of Alabama for sandy, eroded banks. We eked into Lighthouse Marina just as the sun was dropping behind the horizon. This area having been heavily damaged last fall by Hurricane Michael, we feel lucky to have found any marina open. It was fun to be greeted by Dale and Merna Hartwig on The Journey, who spent a month (!) at Dog River, and we joined them for appetizers and lively conversation at the marina restaurant, Grand Marlin. Dale having been a hospital administrator, we had lots to talk about besides Looping.
TV images of hurrican damage came to life as we observed the scenes.
White City was a short 40-mile hop. We were sobered by hurricane devastation and felt an eerie absence of wildlife on a stretch in which the trees were snapped off and uprooted. White City, named for the Chicago’s Worlds Fair “White City” and both founded in 1893, boasts a population of 3700 and has a “ghost town” history. After a shyster named Colonel Meyers came to town, took down-payments for a land scheme, and collected residents’ savings for a promised bank, he disappeared. Scamming is not new. The next year, the area suffered a big freeze which wiped out all the crops and destroyed the local economy, scattering the desolate little community. 😭 We chatted for quite a while with a fellow who is living aboard his boat here at the free dock. He weathered the hurricane here with minimal damage to his boat, but after the 5-foot surge, his boat was left sitting on the pier. He said that recovery in this area has been heroic and, as a retired electrical engineer, he is amazed at the quick return of services. Still, he says that nearly half of Panama City was destroyed and will be recovering for years.
High tension line work
Now to the other side of the ICW. Yee hah!
Last stop, Carrabelle! We experienced a nail-biting pass of a huge dredge just past Appalachiacola. Already a narrow channel in which we dinged a prop on our northerly trip in June, the dredge operators did little to assist us in our pass, and we fought to get to deeper water when our depth alarm sounded. Dolphins accompanied us now and again as we crossed the wide-open waters of Appalachiacola Bay and St. George Sound and we sighted a bald eagle. A tiny burg of 1300, with more people inside the local state penitentiary than living on the outside, Carrabelle, too, was hit hard by the hurricane. We found the brave little town to be rebuilding industriously and its inhabitants to be friendly. The coast line has a communist Soviet Union look, with grimy buildings, missing shingles, ramshackle piers, and clutter everywhere, but there are cute pockets in town.Moorings Marina serves breakfast every morning to their guests, a couple notches more delicious than Holiday Inn Express fare. We met Gabe, a congenial Looping 11-year-old, who was walking his dogs and then met his parents at breakfast. And a big, long breakfast it was! Gabe came over in the afternoon and invited us to their boat for dinner, a casual, grilled pork chop dinner. Gabe’s dad was raised in the salvage tow business and has been on the Gulf in every condition imaginable, and he builds dragsters—he is an engine man! It is fun to hear his stories, and those of his friends Len and Terry, who have cruised all over the world for 40 years. We also met Gold Loopers Alan and Sherry Johnson on Sea Jamm,joining them for lunch at the cute Carrabelle Junction Cafe and then scoped out the glass bottle house, built by a local artist from wine bottles and mortar. Unfortunately, the artist was not around to give a tour, and the skies were cloudy, so the colors did not sparkle. Our to-do list includes installation of the engine compartment vent with its new louvers, laundry, frig defrosting, hair cut, group trip planning, and provisioning before our Gulf crossing tomorrow.
We departed Dog River with a flurry of last minute tasks, one of which was to visit the shop of outboard engine repairman to get a lesson on the tricks of this old and unusual Mercury engine. Paul hadn’t found anything wrong with it, but he was also testing it in a 50-gallon oil barrel. Not learning anything particularly new, we thanked him and loaded it into the courtesy truck, uncertain that anything will change its poor performance. And so we departed Dog River with a couple of repairs yet waiting for the right time, the right parts and equipment, the right frame of mind, and the right budget allocation.
We cruised directly east across Mobile Bay, feeling vulnerable as we crossed the heavily-trafficked shipping lanes and recollected sobering stories of other cruisers’ close calls with huge commercial vessels. A short cruise of 20 miles landed us in the tiny and beautiful town of Fairhope, Alabama, dubbed America’s most romantic town. Founded in 1894 by a group of 28 people, 9 of which were children, it was a socialist community based on the Single Tax Theory of economist Henry George. The town’s proximity to Mobile was strategic in developing their trades. Also notable in Fairhope was the formation of an organic “no fail” school in which the well-being of the entire child was valued and much of the learning was hands-on. This school continues today as a private school and is able to avoid the testing climate by side-stepping state accreditation. The town today continues to be a pocket of intellectualism and progressivism in a very conservative state, and more published authors live here per capita than anywhere else in the United States.
We called an Uber to go into town and were greeted by streets lined everywhere with blooming red tulips, cheery daffodils, and cool dusty miller amid sprinklings of pansies, dianthus, and sweet alyssum. We savored brunch at Julwin’s, “Baldwin County’s oldest restaurant where country cooking is a tradition and customers are our passion,” spent a pleasant hour at the historical museum with friendly docents, and walked out on the long community pier. Dessert at Sandra’s, whose coconut cake has been featured in Southern Living Magazine beckoned us, and then we retraced our steps all the way back to the pier for my lost scarf—sadly, still a necessity these cold days. After browsing some boutiques in the attractive business district, we hit the market for garlic, and the two bags of provisions we exited with precipitated our return to the boat. Come evening we took a short dinghy ride to Sunset Point, a local favorite which has been featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.” The seafood lettuce wrap and the mahi mahi fish and chips did not disappoint, and even though we did not need it after our afternoon cake, we had been told not to miss the key lime curd. Essentially a piece of pie turned on its head in a jelly canning jar, it was topped with a deliciously crisp Grahm cracker crust. So delicious.
Dog River Marina is not very beautiful, but it is a highly respected working marina, and that’s what we needed—more work! The quote for hauling out and waxing was much more competitive than Turner’s Marina, which is next door and only slightly more attractive. William buckled right down and started waxing and buffing our 40-foot, 2 story boat with a tiny, 8-inch buffer. Sometimes he started at 10:00, sometimes he quit at 3:00, but he got ‘er done.The river crud is now gone and Red Pearl is beautiful and gleaming once again. You have gotten the drift by now, that there is always something to fix on a boat, so while we were there we had some other things fixed—a loose prop, new underwater zincs (which work like the anode rod in water heaters), a locker hinge, the shower sump, the outboard engine… 12 days at Dog River!… I admit to having momentary thoughts some days of what I am missing and could be doing at home, but those have been fleeting.
Mobile is a working river city which becomes a magical fairyland at night. One night we stumbled onto a nicer place than we planned on the 34th floor of a bank building, Dauphine’s. (Dauphin(e) is a very popular name for streets and such down here—like Washington up north. Meaning “dolphin,” it was the title given to the heir apparent to the throne of France from 1350-1791 and then again in 1824-1830.) As we approached our table, we were stunned to see the guy at the table next to ours sporting a large, holstered hand gun in plain view. We breathed easier after he left, and enjoyed the night time view of the river and a memorable dinner. On Steve’s birthday, we grilled lovely New York Strips, which sister Holly had given Steve for his special day. His birthday cake, a Walmart pound cake, however, fell short of his traditional Red Velvet Cake; and we were reminded by a happy birthday text from Susan, Steve’s first nurse at Hudson, that the Mint Brownie office treat tradition was also broken this year. (He owes you, Susan!)
As we waited at Dog River, we went to New Orleans twice, first for a day with looping friends Mike and Brenda Finkenbinder from St. Paul, and then for a few days while Pearlie was “on the hard” (as opposed to in the water). With Mike and Brenda we started at Cafe du Monde for Beignets— elegant, square dough-nutty pastries, totally ensconced in powdered sugar which drifts everywhere as they are ingested. Accompanied by signature cafe au lait blended with chicory, we were armed for the morning with quick energy!
From there we visited Jackson Square, with Knock-Out roses a-bloom and the architecturally and culturally important St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans being a very
Catholic city. Adjacent to the cathedral is the Presbytere which houses a moving Hurricane Katrina exhibit, and an upstairs Mardi Gras exhibit. What a different world this is! From there we found lunch at Napoleon House whose 200-year-history was marked by its being offered by its first resident, also the mayor of New Orleans, to Napoleon as a refuge during his exile in 1821. Napoleon never made it there, but the name remains, and the cafe is currently run by a member of the Brennan family, a name well-known in the restaurant business in New Orleans. Classical Music is played—mostly Beethoven, who was a devotee of Napoleon—and graffiti enhances the rough, old walls. The food was lovely, but the experience was awesome!
From there we made a sashay down the 6-block French Market, a must-do—but only once—and then hopped in the car and drove around the Garden District, settled by the American Creole, to admire beautiful estate homes there. Back in the French Quarter, we found a cute boutique cafe advertising BACON with happy hour drinks. Over a bottle of wine we snacked on a BASKET of bacon, and then another (!!!) along with other appetizers. Even the tired drive home did not blunt our fun conversation, which ended a full and happy day. Mike and Brenda will spend February at their timeshare in Hawaii, so we look forward to connecting again later in the spring.
Steve and I returned to New Orleans on Monday, Jan. 21, after hoisting Red Pearl out of the water. We could have remained on her on the hard, but heat and air conditioning units on boats are water-cooled, so when they are out of the water one has no heat, and night temps in the 30s quickly nixed this option. After inspecting her bottom paint, props and zincs, we rented a car and headed for New Orleans again.
We found the B and B that Steve had reserved and were met by the owner with puzzlement. Finally she found our reservation for a week hence. Being a new owner and eager to create positive buzz on her booking website, she upgraded us to a lovely big suite. Some mistakes are just lucky….others, not so much. We walked to the Frenchman Street and found a lovely Italian fish dinner at Adolfo’s, good live music next door at Spotted Cat, and an enticing art fair in the alley between.
On Tuesday we went on a New Orleans Food History Tour. We ate cracklin’s, savory beignets, duck confit croquettes at Sobous, pralines and bacon pecan brittle at Leah’s,
Duck confit croquettes
and tasted dozens of house-made pepper sauces at Pepper Palace. We ate muffulettas at Little Vic’s Sicilian Trattoria and learned that the Po’boy served as 2 meals for a working man—a 16-inch Italian bread sandwich filled with French fries and slathered with beef gravy. A Po’boy now can be 4-inches to 32 and stuffed with anything from blackened shrimp to deli meat, but it is always dressed with mayo, lettuce, tomato and pickle.
While we enjoyed the history lesson of how brunch was invented by Madame Tujaque at the eponymous restaurant and stood at the oldest bar in the United States, we could enjoy neither the legendary brisket which comprised the second course for the brunch she served, nor the gumbo at upscale Tableau. The name “Gumbo” is derived from the West African word for“okra,” and is considered the perfect coalescence of food traditions from the melting pot of New Orleans society: okra from West Africa, roux from the French, the New Orleans version of French Mirepoix using celery, onion and green pepper, filé powder from Native Americans, extensive use of seafood, cayenne and chili pepper from the Spanish, and sausage from the Germans. We were So. Full. That evening we were looking for music! I was scoping out the deals; Steve was scoping out Preservation Hall. Preservation Hall tickets were a little pricey and we walked away, but as we sat in a fancy hotel bar, where the drinks were overpriced in order to pay the mediocre musicians, we agreed to go back and pay for Music! What we experienced in that tiny, historic shack was such joy! The venue looks like a beat-up, low-ceilinged one-room school house, with 8 wooden benches in the center of the room, a few along the walls, and standing room in back, accommodating perhaps 100 people. The upright piano is open with the hammers exposed. With Jazz Clubs coming into being in the 50s, Preservation Hall boasts founding in 1961. (Yikes! How old we are!!!)
The musicians play 45-minute sets, and guests line up on Bourbon Street for each one, with instructions to go potty at nearby bars and to byob, as these amenities are not offered. As guests file in, payment is cash-only; the French Quarter is very much cash-based, with ATMs all over, even inside the door of nice restaurants. We were not disappointed with the 8 musicians who entertained us that night. Now, I remember when I was a music student way back in the 70s that attending a recital was a requirement for many students on campus, and we would find boxes of “revues” of our recitals in hallways for us to enjoy. They usually said things like, “She wore a long blue dress and looked very sad….” At the risk of stooping to that level, I’m going to describe what I saw visually, because…well, I don’t understand Jazz very well, and we didn’t know or even remember any of their names. No photos were allowed. The old alto sax player was iconic, by the introduction and reception he received. The trumpet player, a cool young “kitten,” dressed to the nines in colorful solids, had brain-busting high notes coming out of his head. The trombone player was a jolly round fellow, who loved to flirt with the first row, extending his slide full out at ladies or sweeping the entire front row on his deep, earthy, and jovial glissando. Always a smile on his face, he boogied while he sang and had perhaps the best time of all of us. The piano player was a minimalist but his long, solo improvisatory rendition of “Amazing Grace” amazed even me. The bassist and the drum player were great; the percussionist was not in our line of vision and was the only musician to not play a solo. And then there was this interesting gender-neutral guy, a second alto sax, whose personal mystery made it difficult for me to focus on his art. He and the trombone player were the only hatless dudes, the others sporting derbies and tams and turbans and such. We recognized a few tunes, but mostly we were enamored watching the interactions of these guys whose spontaneous creation was so soulful. And when Steve enquired about attending a second set, the manager offered that we could stay as her guests. Sometimes you get lucky…other times, not so much.
Wednesday we went to the National World War II Museum, the most popular attraction in NOLA—who knew?! Perhaps I should devote as much blog space to this experience as to the music, but I cannot. Our focus on the exhibits was distracted by following up on boat work, our hunger, and a general overwhelm at the magnitude of this horrific world event. 65 MILLION people died, a number which, of course does not include those who suffered injuries that changed and shortened the trajectory of their lives. We lingered through the introductory exhibit, watched a great “4D” video, had lunch, learned that our boat was not going to be returned to the water that day, took in the Road to Tokyo exhibit, which we knew very little about, had dessert, and spun through the Road to Berlin. My biggest takeaway was an uneasy feeling about Pearl Harbor: The American version of history is that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was entirely unprovoked, but I have to wonder if the moving of the naval base from San Diego to Pearl Harbor just the previous year was not seen by the Japanese as an act of aggression, especially as the US cut off oil trade with Japan. Steve was impressed by the transformation of the US military from a size similar to Belgium’s at the beginning of the war, to one that mobilized and utilized a huge work force, military and non-military; at one point, a war plane was produced every 90 minutes. We were emotionally exhausted by our day and went back to our room to rest, eating a late repast at a charming and tiny vegan hole in the wall, which I would love to be able to frequent. The artichoke cakes (a la crab cakes) were amazing, as was a huge kale salad with walnuts and mango. Yum!
Thursday we treated ourselves to a lighter subject—Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras starts on Kings Day, January 6 and culminates on “Fat Tuesday,” which is March 5 this year. Essentially, it is a billion-dollar party and tourist attraction. Images most of us see might come from the prestigious Rex Krew parade and Masquerade Ball; but there is a quasi-caste system of dozens of Krews around New Orleans, and the suburbs and villages in the area grab a piece of the action too, with a parade or two every week during the season. During the parades, the spectators become participants, calling, “Hey Mister, Throw Me Something,” to which they hope the response will be a tossed string of beads, a plastic cup, toys, or doubloons. Each float rider and throw-tosser spends his own money for the opportunity to be a rock star for a few hours, anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. We toured the main facility where floats are made for Mardi Gras, Disney, and advertising campaigns, ranging in price from $100-1000 per square foot. This year’s Mardi Gras theme is Orpheus, and the floral motif abounds. The Props, the decor that embellishes the wagon, are made from stacked and carved 4-inch slabs of styrofoam and old pieces are often repurposed for subsequent use, perhaps with a different hair style. More permanent—and more expensive—props are made from fiberglass. Pixie is a relatively new robot who aids immensely in the fabrication of 3-dimensional designs, she being named after founder Mr. Kearns’ indispensable administrative assistant. We were helpless to curtail our photo-taking, so here is a passel of color-saturated snaps from that fun morning. One of my favorites is the “Eat More Chikin” Chick-fil-A billboard cows.
That afternoon we returned by streetcar to the French Quarter to tour a couple of historic homes, the Hermann-Grima Home and the Gallier Home, and we gained insights into the social strata of NOLA in the 19th century and the privileged way of life in the city with slaves, through the transition to the Emacipation.
We saw a meal that had been prepared totally over a kitchen fire and talked with these energetic ladies who do this on site every other Thursday. They described a dinner that would have been comprised of at least 3 courses and was timed during the two to three hottest hours of the day. We heard about the financial ruin of the Hermann family when the cotton market in Europe collapsed, forcing them to sell their home to the Grimas and live their remaining years with their daughter and son-in-law in social obscurity.
We saw in the home of architect Gallier one of the earliest bathrooms with running hot water and flushing toilets, beautifully crafted from walnut wood. We were reminded that even prominent families had diminished opportunities for their daughters to marry after the Civil War. Of the Galliers’ four daughters, only one ever married; they did, however, have education, work, and income that shaped their lives and offered relative independence. We left the French Quarter for the final time feeling that we had a good sense of the culture, at least in that area of New Orleans.
We have word that Red Pearl is ready to float again, and we will return to Mobile in the morning, hoping to shove off for new sights in the afternoon.
We traversed southerly (emphasis on the “erly” part, as the river is very snaky) on the Black Warrior Tombigbee Waterway, what was to be three long cruising days with no opportunity to set foot on dry land until we reach Mobile, Alabama. We felt a bit of anxiety, the rivers being fast and the journey even more desolate than normal, due to current flooding conditions.
Steve’s NeBo app reads:
6:23 Started voyage at Demopolis Yacht Basin
6:36 Arrived Tombigbee River
7:16 Departed Tombigbee River
7:16 Arrived Demopolis Yacht Basin
8:04 Departed Demopolis Yacht Basin…
Despite having checked with the lock master first thing this morning, we were bumped by 2 unforeseen commercial tows. Rather than “tread water,” we returned to our slip for a few moments, chafing at the bit, as we had a 70-mile day ahead of us and daylight is of the essence. But once we got the high sign to return to the lock, everything went smoothly. We found our remote anchorage at Bashi Creek, a well-protected spot, and all went well until the 4th and slowest boat in our entourage arrived. He broke with conventions of courtesy and safety and attempted to squeeze between boats already anchored, setting his anchor on top of ours. If we could have moved, we would have, but he was on top of our 100 feet of chain and rafted to the stern of one of the other boats, rendering us totally impotent over our destiny. This is the first of this type of ignorance and lack of courtesy we have experienced, but everyone has their stories. Darkness fell, and the only sound was the faint whir of Fourth Boat’s generator all night.
With overcast skies and rain in the forecast, we were on the river at 07:30. But depite the cold and occasional drizzle, we cruised uneventfully with companionable radio banter and observations shared. We passed Bobby’s Fish Camp, still flooded with no way from the dock to the restaurant. It certainly was not the usual hopping cruiser’s party stop, but rather deserted and lonely.
Suddenly two floating sticks in the water (we literally dodged sticks and logs all day) became the ears of a couple of deer “hoofing it” across the river in front of us. They were strong swimmers, but they must have had desperate need to risk fighting the 4-knot current of this swollen river.
We negotiated our final lock of this river system. Coffeeville Lock was nearly a non-event with a drop that barely registered a few feet, again, due to the high river. From there we left fresh water and entered the brackish wash, heading to the salt water of Mobile Bay.
We located our second anchorage on Three Rivers Lake easily before the sun dropped, but anchoring was a challenge, with an apparent mash of soaked leaves on the lake bottom which was difficult to hook. By the time we dropped anchor a fifth time and were finally secure, the sun was dropping fast. Despite anchoring being the most rigorous exertion of the day, leftover pot roast, kale salad, and Apothic Inferno never tasted so good. And, as I spent the day sneezing and blowing my nose, and felt mellowed by wine and Zyrtec, I called it a day at 8:00. I don’t even know when Steve tucked in beside me.
We convoyed with just one other boat today, the other one having taken off as we poked our noses out at the cold morning. After a reverent viewing of the morning sunrise, we raised anchor at 7:15 and headed out of the protection of Three Rivers, past Boat Four, which found us after dark last night and appeared to be yet fast asleep.
Skies continued to be overcast, and it was cold, so we stayed inside at the lower helm all day. The river speed abated as we neared Mobile and the telltale signs of an industrial river at work appeared. At one point there were 49 tows on our AIS cue! Some of them were not working, but we passed every single one. Right in the heart of Mobile we encountered a huge freighter being pushed downriver by 4 tows. Passing this guy was an adventure, as the churn of all those engines created an eddy that made steerage a challenge and gave us a pretty wild ride in the limited width of the river.
Once in Mobile Bay, we said, “‘Til we meet again,” to our companions who headed east while we headed west across the chop toward Dog River Marina. While her red hull disguises the mustache on her bow from tannins in the rivers, she still deserves a haul out and a good cleaning. We’re going to hunker down here for a bit and explore terra firma!
We awoke before dawn to Steve’s alarm. It was 0 Dark Hundred, time to get up and at ‘em, but our cabin thermostat read 55 degrees, and the fact that my nose was cold verified that reading. The momentary reflection that Steph and Luke and their housemates in Boston keep their thermostat at this temperature in the winter did not make me any more eager to roll out of bed. But a few moments later and once again on the river, we were reminded how beautiful early morning is, and the sunrise did not disappoint. Three miles downriver, locking through at Heflin was delayed by a gate that required 45 minutes of persuasion by the lock master to close.
While we sat there, the other pleasure craft in the lock hailed us on the radio, and this being the boat which shared the anchorage with us last night, we invited him to join us for dinner in Demopolis tonight. We cruised most of the 50 miles at the lower helm, but the last 10 were pleasant on the flybridge once we dressed in winter layers—fleece, down, cashmere, pashmina. We laughed at our attire, remarking that this was never our image; “Chase eighty,” is the Looper motto. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful day under a cloudless blue sky, and at least our sun glasses were congruent with our preconceptions!
Arriving in Demopolis, we pulled up to the fuel dock in front of which was a couple feet of floating debris. Steve recognized the attendant as the son of the marina owner, the son having helped us with some engine repair work in September.
Steve: Are you Matt?
Matt: It depends…
Steve chatted with him about our dinghy engine which still is not working well after dropping nearly a “boat unit” repairing it in Kentucky, and Matt affirmed one thing that we suspected, that something about our gas can, the lines, or the connection were “sheee-it.” (Matt’s word, not mine.) We bought a new venting gas can from him and he helped us transfer the fuel from old to new. One might hope that’s the end of that story…. but it’s not. Steve had to row back from the test run, so this saga is to be continued.
Red Pearl having been slipped here during the summer, it was good to see Kingfisher Marina “super” Anna Marie again and her 3 beloved dogs which she loads onto her golf cart several times a day for their necessary ablutions.
As we tried to eat lunch, Loopers came knocking on our door in succession, introducing themselves, visiting and telling their stories, and our to-do list went undone. Finally we had a moment to break free and run over to Bella Roma to introduce ourselves to Brian, our dinner companion, whose last name we never got. He gave us a tour of his beautiful probably-60-foot, 4-stateroom yacht, and we enjoyed visiting over a glass of wine. We enjoyed more companionable conversation over dinner at the local favorite, Red Barn. A professor of psychology at Vanderbilt, he also implements assessment programs for industry, and shared about his experience with Vanderbilt Medical School and Nursing School. We learned that he supports his yachting habit by offering 3-hour charters, both in Nashville and in St. Pete which is where he is headed. It was a delightful evening.
We have heard that the river continues to be so high and fast that even Bobby’s Fish Camp has removed their pier and is not serving their iconic fried catfish. There being no other civilization on the 200 mile stretch between Demopolis and Mobile, everyone stops at Bobby’s! Stories abound about boats rafted up 4-abreast and boaters traipsing, albeit apologetically, across the decks of several boats to get ashore during high season. As we anticipate heading out into this winding wilderness, we’ve decided to give ourselves an additional day at Demopolis to organize and attend to some chores on the boat and enjoy Mexican dinner at Las Fuentes, a great place we stumbled onto last June. We’ll travel with three other Looping boats, and after a final powwow in the Kingfisher laundry room, we have a plan.
July 6, 2006-November 15, 2018 With gratitude to Oliver for his noble and gentle spirit. Companion in “empty nest” and during lonely call nights; eager and athletic frisbee competitor; courageous hunter of chipmunks, toads, and snakes; and enthusiastic welcoming face—and tail—to dozens of violin students. Thanks for the laughs and the cuddles. Missing you, Buddy.
January 8, 2019
This afternoon finds us back at the previously ill-fated Sumpter Recreational Area near Aliceville, MS, where Steve had a miscue with our anchor windlass last September and had to find a ride to an ER for stitches. We return on our way back down the river system to loop around Florida this winter. It is a beautiful spot, and we welcome the opportunity to replace those memories of fear and vulnerability with positive ones. And what better day to do it! It is 74 degrees under a mostly blue sky strewn with wisps of mares’ tails and a shiny golden ball that makes us squint and of which we have some vague memory. We shed our long sleeves, shoes and socks and are lounging on the flybridge, pretending for one hour that lounging is all we have to do, before a scurry, albeit a low-key one, of stowing things from our recent return to the boat and dinner to prepare. The enviable scene is short-lived, however, as tomorrow the high will drop 20 degrees, and rain is forecast for the week end.
So, where have we been since Thanksgiving? Well, mostly back at our “dirt home” in Goshen. After our wonderful Thanksgiving during which our five adult kids and my amazing 92-year-old dad were with us, we returned to the boat. Not having been on the boat for more than 30 minutes, I received a phone call that Dad was in the ER and was thought to have had a heart attack. Three hours later, having learned that his troponin levels had increased, we decided to return to Indiana, a 1400-mile roundtrip. Dad was released from the hospital several days later, and as he continued to have angina, we decided to stay put. We had not anticipated celebrating Advent in any of the traditional ways this year, but that’s precisely what we did: we put up a tree, attended festive dinners and concerts, entertained and socialized, and even spent a week end in Chicago for an opera at the Lyric. Christmas Day was a quiet one with the honor of hosting our three parents. They were good and congenial company for each other, but it was a very different Christmas without Mom, without our kids, and missing Oliver.
Dad’s heart seeming to stabilize through the holidays, we started thinking about resuming our Loop. Good friends Wishart and Mary Bell offered to schlep us down to Mississippi, and the thought of their joining us for a couple of days on Red Pearl was compelling. On Jan. 5 we packed all of our kitch, a big cooler and 2 new counter stools, into their Honda CRV; and with four drivers it was not difficult to make the drive in one day. It was a production to figure out how and where to park their car a day’s journey downriver so that they could join us for a leg of the trip, catch up with their car, and drive home from there; but with the assistance of a rental car and the marina courtesy car, we made it happen. Wishart and Mary were great help, lovely companions as always, and the perfect folks to help us discover some perameters that make it work to have overnight guests aboard our little boat. We had great fun and look forward to their visit again, as well as others of you, our friends, too. So this is a tentative invitation: Bring your sleeping bag, a towel (we do have guest sheets and towels, but this made it so much easier!) and boat shoes, and we will see whatever is in the vicinity through the “back door,” water-side. We will watch sunsets and sunrises over the water, share and ponder one another’s stories, joys and challenges, and eat well! Do consider a visit!