We are in a great marina in Sarasota FL celebrating Thanksgiving 2021. Our assigned parking spot is in amongst the “Big Girls”.
Over the past 3+ weeks we have traveled into and across portions of the Gulf of Mexico and along the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway to quite a few ports, including Panama City, Pensacola, Apalachicola, Crystal River, Tarpon Springs, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota, and several others. It has been a wonderful journey filled with playful dolphins, Blue Angels, manatees, yummy seafood of all varieties, interesting walks and the occasional company of good friends.
And we are thankful for all of it it ….pleasures-both big and small, our family, friends (new and old), our health, our boat’s great running condition and all the workers everywhere who supply goods, services and knowledge to make our life and everyone’s life possible and better.
We are winding down this leg of our journey soon. We’ll check out Venice this coming Saturday, then head to Cayo Costa (a FL state park accessible only by boat) to anchor out for 2 nites and then on to Ft. Meyers to visit with family and friends for 3 days. Within a few days after that, ’tis Grand will be hauled out and stored under cover on the hard until we return next spring. A new coat of bottom paint to repel the barnacles will be applied before she’s launched for the 2022 run up the Atlantic coast. We are looking forward to seeing family and friends back in WI by mid-December. Zeke is dreaming of running free in Cable Woods and leaving his leash behind on the boat for several months!
We’ve been cruising the “Rivers” for about 6 weeks now and are nearing the end of that phase of our journey. We have learned much, enjoyed many fair weather days, met new friends and endured a few hiccups requiring some boat maintenance.
Our confidence in picking good anchorage spots and our anchoring skills have greatly improved as we’ve had to “drop the hook” a considerable number of nights on these rivers. The shallow water depths on the Illinois, the heavy commercial boat traffic on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and the rural, remote location of much of the TomBigee Waterway has meant marinas were often scarce. The Land Between the Lakes (Kentucky Lake) and upper Tennessee River were exceptions – there are great state parks with marinas on those stretches in addition to beautiful coves for anchoring.
We spend a minimum of 12 hrs per day outside..its where we eat most of our meals, drink our morning coffee, have an afternoon beer and/or evening glass of wine. We always drive the boat from the fly bridge and have only been driven to the inside lower helm by short spells of rain on 2 occasions. On nearly a daily basis we’ve enjoyed sunrises, sunsets, and moonrises. We’ve passed through more than 2 dozen locks (one with an 87-ft drop), rolled past the “Arch”, tugs with our names, the White Cliffs of Epes, wanna-be castles, a variety of landscapes, and today in Mobile AL…cargo ships too large to fathom.
Old feedmill still standing out in Kentucky Lake.
White Cliff of Epes in AL. Formed at the same time as the White Cliffs of Dover in the UK.
Our favorite surprise on this leg was a chance to meet up briefly with our friend Bunkie who was traveling back to Cable from visiting family and friends in TN. She texted us to say she was stopping in Paducah for gas, were we in the area? Indeed!! We were about 2 miles away from pulling up to the city docks for the evening after 4 nights of anchoring out on the Mississippi and a hard upstream pull on the Ohio. It was a brief, but spectacular visit as Bunkie had to drive to Milwaukee yet that night!
Our worst surprise was finding out we had a leak or disconnection in our fresh water system 2 days before reaching Paducah and all of our fresh water (200 gallons) for dishes, flushing, washing up, etc had slowly emptied into our forward bilge and been pumped out into the Mississippi. Fortunately, we always fill and carry along 8 gallon jugs with fresh water for drinking. So we survived, used buckets of river water for flushing and some dishes stacked up in the sink until Ned quickly replaced a hose connection after a bike ride to the local Lowes in Paducah.
Zeke, our ever present companion, probably misses his daily runs in the Cable Woods or North End trails, but he is adapting to boat life too. He knows the anchoring out routine and pleads with us to lower the dinghy and head to shore once we’ve set the hook. He prefers river water over our clean water for drinking and has mastered the descent to the dinghy and reboarding the boat without knocking Ned or I in the water (so far). People in marinas and outdoor restaurants all love him and will remember his name and friendly manner long after they forget us! In fact, he made many new friends last nite when he broke out of the boat by opening the lever handle door and met us at the marina restaurant where we we were enjoying a patio dinner. Needless to say, he was invited to stay by the staff and received pets (for his naughtiness) by several other diners!
Tomorrow we move onward to the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway! A new landscape, to be sure. We’ll get a crash course in learning how to read and use tide/current charts to avoid running aground, smacking other boats while docking (Dave and Kasse T!!), Or tipping our boat over during the nite if we tie off too tight and the water drops 3-4 feet! And Zeke will learn that salt water is not for drinking!
We’ve been rollin’ down the Rivers (Illinois and a tiny bit of the big Miss) for a little over a week. After Joliet, we Stopped in a marina in Ottawa IL for 2 nites and found the sculpture memorial for the “Radium Girls–America’s Shining Women” (an interesting read about early corporate America’s greed and disregard for its employees) and the Tangled Roots Brew Pub.
Next stop at the “Wall “in Henry IL also included a history lesson. The wall is part of the first lock and dam on the Illinois River. Commissioned in 1870, it’s no longer functioning in that capacity, but was a great overnight stay with new owners that are very helpful and personable. Rafts of pelicans and a flock of Pekin ducks entertained us and Zeke at dusk and early morning.
After the next night’s anchor out behind Lower Henry Island, we went on to Peoria where we tied up for a night at a free downtown city dock w/ electric service. Good food ((Blue Duck Barbecue) and craft beer (Rhodells) and live outdoor music in the evening near the dock to boot! Peoria was a very dog-friendly town…. it was a cool blustery day and Rhodells even invited us to sit inside their establishment w/ Zeke!
Later, after studying maps and taking into account the extremely low water levels in the Illinois River, we realized we’d have no more marina options available until we reached the Mississippi and that we’d be anchoring out 3-4 nights to get there. Anchoring out entails finding a safe (out-of-the-navigation-channel) location to drop anchor and spend the night w/o electric, restroom, shower, fuel, pumpout, wifi, etc services. So…. We backtracked 6 miles to the Illinois Valley Yacht Club (IVY) to get a pump out and replenish our drinking water supply, and get a shower. It was a great overnight stop and as the Club has a dining room and full bar, I enjoyed a good brandy old-fashioned (first in many months) on the precise day Tony Evers designated as “Wisconsin Brandy OF Day”!
After leaving IVY, we had fine anchorages at Quiver Island and Valley City (basically just a wide spot in the river behind a RR bridge w/ 4 other boats). The third night we were able to tie up at Mel’s Dockside Restaurant w/ two other Looper boats (no services for an overnight stay) but an easy on/off the boat to get Zeke to shore for duty and play. (Anchoring out involves 2-3 dinghy rides to shore for Zeke and lots of gray, fine mud/silt accumulating on our boat deck, dinghy and shoes). Often Zeke is instructed to swim back to the boat to clean him off a bit! Another bonus to staying at Mel’s was the extraordinary catfish fillets and fritters we enjoyed!
The lower Illinois River was surprisingly scenic with fewer barges, limestone cliff backdrops and several interesting older man-made structures that have become part of the landscape.
Tonight I’m writing this from the Alton Marina on the Mississippi where we’ve been since Sunday afternoon and will be until Friday morning. We’re staying a few extra days to catch up on some boat maintenance and avoid being caught up in an onslaught of Looper boats (20+) traveling downriver with no marina and few anchorage options for the next 3-5 days due to dredging operations and lower water levels. Because of Covid and the lock closures on the Illinois River last year, the number of”Loopers” is probably twice or more what it’s been in previous years. We enjoy the company of traveling with a few boats, but not an armada! (In the Nebo photo below each Looper boat is represented by looper flag emblem and boat name.) Many are enroute to a Great Loop Rendezvous event in mid-October on the Tennessee River or doing side river trips on the Cumberland or Tennessee River to visit Chattanooga, Nashville, Knoxville, etc. so that should spread things out a bit also. We are fully fueled now and ready to spend Friday thru Monday anchored out on the muddy Mississippi and Ohio Rivers until reaching Paducah next Tuesday.
We enjoyed our evening under the Chicago skyline lights spending time with our son Brian and grandson Oliver. Had a nice dinner on S Michigan Ave and they came back to the boat to chat more and help us take down our stay sail mast so we’d fit under the city bridges. So good to see them!
Friday morning we had a 3-mile trip north to the lock separating Lake Michigan from the Chicago River. The lock was easy-peasy even for a novice like me. And then…15 minutes that I’ll remember forever! We traveled through the skyscrapers and hustle and bustle of the morning city and Riverwalk all by ourselves on. Not another moving boat in sight! Caught a few pics and then saw family members on the Clark Street bridge who came to wave and capture our experience…pretty awesome!
After the city excitement, there were lots of industrial sights and smells, RR bridges that had to lift for us and a few locks before arriving at a “free” city wall tie up with electric service in Joliet late in the day. The wall was rougher than I imagined, but we managed a decent landing and tie up before noticing a small boat in front of us struggling to do so.
We both jumped off the boat and onto the wall to see if we could help the 2 older men complete their tie up. That’s when I saw that one of the men had fallen overboard and was clinging to a rope coming off the front of their boat. He had no life jacket on and was not really attempting to climb out. His boat partner was not responding to the man in the water at all. Ned jumped on the boat and went to offer his hand and assist and I sought help from folks on adjacent boats as the guy in the water was not responsive to Ned other than saying he couldn’t use his right arm.
A younger couple on another boat tied to the wall came immediately with a large U-float jacket but the guy in the water would not put it on. The younger woman jumped in and helped get it under his left arm. She then pushed him up from below as her husband pulled on the guys shirt and belt to hoist and roll him into his boat. He seemed to be in shock and was not responsive to any questions. And still, his boat partner did not seem to grasp the gravity of the situation. We had called 911 and several police and ambulance came to take both of them to the local hospital. The person who had fallen in looked to be in very serious condition.
So it went from being a spectacular start to our day to nearly witnessing a man drown. If we had not gone to help them tie up their small boat, who knows when the boat partner would have called for help or been alarmed enough to raise our attention? As it is, we have no idea how long he was in the water. If the woman had not jumped into the water when she did to support him with the u-float and found the strength to push him up enough so that he could be lifted into the boat, who knows how much longer he would have been able to hold onto the bow line?
Later we learned that the 2 men did not really know one another. The boat owner has some physical, mental and communication issues caused by strokes and had picked up the man who fell into the water earlier that day near Chicago to help him follow a portion of the Loop Route. The guy who fell in the water fractured his right arm and did not return to the boat. The boat owner is continuing the trip on his own for now. Between the tugs/tows/barges, very low water conditions, locks and other pleasure boats on the Rivers, communicating is key in several situations daily. We hope he stays safe…
I’ll get to the main topic in a minute, but first an update on our location… We crossed the Lake from Frankfort to Algoma on Thurs 9/2 and then made a succession of stops at Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Port Washington and Racine. The marinas were fine, but mostly filled with commercial and sport fishing boats rather than sailboats and leisure craft. We missed the smaller, more picturesque and convenient towns on the north western MI shoreline (Northport, Charlevoix, Leland, Frankfort, etc). Grocery stores thus far in WI have been miles away near I-43 or on the far outskirts of towns.
We stayed 4 nights in Racine and rented a car to make visiting family and restocking supplies easier. My 93-yr old mom, my aunt, Megan and family and Madison friends visited us at the boat and it was great fun. Today we headed to Winthrop Harbor IL and our next destination is Belmont Harbor (adjacent to Lincoln Park north of the Chicago loop) where we’ll take down our mast and bimini to get under all 22 bridges going thru downtown Chicago enroute to Joliet IL (via the Illinois River) on Thursday.
I am feeling somewhat ambivalent about saying farewell to the Great Lakes (until next year). The vistas, shoreline scenery, sunrises and sunsets, and multitude of destination options have been spectacular. But the need to be constantly aware of the wind/weather/waves and make daily decisions regarding “go or no go”, and dealing with Zeke’s anxiety on rough seas has been stressful.
Some have compared our travels to a 4-month “road trip” but it is definitely not comparable with respect to heeding weather warnings, having confidence in (but constantly monitoring and listening to) your boat’s mechanical performance or with respect to “drive time”.
We start the day heating water for our pour-over coffee and listening to NOAA marine forecast, checking several marine weather websites, making a decision whether to move on or stay put and checking fluids, clamps, belts, etc before turning on the engine. While enroute, we lift up floor boards and look at spots where we’ve fixed leaks, repaired or replaced hoses, check various engine parts and the stuffing box with an infrared temperature gun and make sure the bilges aren’t accumulating water every 30 minutes or so. AAA can come to your rescue if you pull over on the roadside, but safe pullover spots out in 400 feet of water in Lake Michigan or Superior may be miles away. We do use “auto-pilot” at times but one of us is always at the steering wheel watching for other boats, fishing buoys and off-shore shoals.
Finally, we usually travel only 4-5 hours per day, which means we’re almost always at our destination by 2pm. This gives us several hours to walk and explore new towns nearly every day. It’s a rare day when my Fitbit registers less than 12-13,000 steps! Whether we have a late afternoon brew on the boat or at a new brew pub, or whether we eat out or dine in, we are enjoying the trip, meeting new people and learning something about the boat, our surroundings or ourselves every day.
The next portion of our journey, “the Rivers” -Chicago, Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, TomBigbee, etc) may have fewer weather issues and destination choices, but we suspect the enjoyment and learning experiences will continue!