Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Joliet to St. Pete (Oct 8 to Nov 21)

We left Joliet early the next morning.  During a nearly 11 hour cruising day, we went about 67 miles, but also through 4 locks for a total drop of about 120 feet.  It was a nice October Saturday and we were far from being the only boat on the water.  It seemed that they were all going north, though!  We pulled into the Spring Valley Yacht Club shortly before sunset.  It was not really as roomy as we had expected it to be, but we fit in and the folks were friendly - offering to re-locate a boat and helping with our lines.  When Joe plugged us in to their power, though, it wouldn't pass into the boat.  Not a big problem since we didn't need a/c or heat.  We decided to go up to their little bar/restaurant for dinner instead of running the generator to cook.  Turns out they don't actually serve food, but they had menus for places that would deliver and upon learning that the power wouldn't work, they said we wouldn't have to pay for dockage.  So, we had a few cheap glasses of wine, a good pizza and conversation with some of the regulars at the bar.  When another boat arrived, blocking us in, the captain said they probably wouldn't be spending the night - they were just going to the bar.  He told Joe to wake him up when we wanted to leave if he did spend the night.  When we got up in the morning the boat was still there and there was no sign of activity.  We had a leisurely breakfast and pretty soon saw someone moving around.  The captain said he'd expected us to wake him up, but he was grateful that we hadn't - evidently they'd had a good time at the bar!
That day was a relatively short trip to Peoria where we stopped at the town dock.  The signs say you need to feed the meters - but they'd obviously not been operational for a while.  It also appeared that you were not supposed to stay overnight, but we'd been told that "everybody" does it.  We did.  No problems.
Our main reason to stop there was to see some of Joe's family who live about an hour away.  We had missed his Aunt Kay's 90th birthday by about a week, but cousin Danny brought her, his wife Sylvia and his sister Margy to meet us for lunch.  If Joe and I could be in that kind of shape at 90 we might still be living on the boat!  Amazing woman.
The rest of our trip down the Illinois,  the Mississippi,  the Ohio,  the Cumberland, to the Tennessee was relatively uneventful.  This is the part of the loop that gets bad press.  It's not really bad, you just have to appreciate different things.
One that we don't see other places is evidence of the extreme changes in the water levels.  Along this stretch we often see boats and barges sitting on dry land along the shoreline.
The clearance gauges on the bridges are also a bit daunting.  The current water was about 20 feet below the gauge.  The gauge runs from a clearance of 55 down to 30 feet - which would be an increase in water depth of about 45 feet.  Hard to believe the level can go to those extremes.
But then we see the houses along the way up on high stilts.  Even some up on banks that seem high enough are built up higher.
 We saw one house that was unique.  It was small and sitting on the ground.  There was a tall post at each corner.  It had been built so the whole house would float up with the rising water.  Why walk up a long stairway all the time if it only floods occasionally?
Another thing we enjoy is seeing the tow boats and their big loads.  It is a bit intimidating when you see a tow pushing 30 barges at you.  In order to be sure we stay out of their way we need to communicate with them to negotiate a pass - being where the tow captain wants to put his barges is not a good idea.  Generally, the captains are professional and courteous.   We've even contacted a few that were downright chatty.  The names can also be interesting - like Leviticus, here.
And then there's the scenery and wildlife.  In some areas, there are barges pushed up all along the banks, or places to load and off-load.  Not very pretty - but sometimes interesting.
St. Louis is the only big city on the river in this area and unfortunately there is no convenient place to dock to see it.  The arch is impressive as we go by, though.
But there are also long stretches that are rural - with limestone bluffs along the shore and even the start of some nice fall foliage.
And Joe is constantly on the look-out for bald eagles.
It seems that almost everyone who does the loop stops at Hoppie's Marina.  Fern, the proprietor, gives boaters advice on the current river conditions - where to anchor and, at least as important, where not to anchor.  Two years ago we missed this stop, although Joe did speak to Fern on the phone.  Not ones to make the same mistake twice, we stopped.  Not exactly high quality, but Joe had a nice chat with Fern and I walked into the little town of Kimmswick, MO. Known for its old log houses, Kimmswick might be three square blocks, but  I've never seen such a concentration of cute little shops anywhere else.  I only hit a couple, but I know why people like this stop.
Going down the Mississippi we really made good time.  We were actually going more than 10 miles an hour!  Hard to imagine such speed.  Then we turned onto the Ohio River, against the current and dropped to about 6 miles an hour.  There are only two locks on the part of the Ohio that we travel on.  These are big. busy, commercial locks second only to the Panama Canal in tonnage locked through in the western hemisphere.  When the water is high enough there are wickets that can be lowered so you don't have to go through the lock - just cruise right over the dam.  That worked for us on the first lock, but the second one had a lot of barge traffic lined up.  We moved off to the side and anchored and were able to lock through first thing the next morning.
We had really been pretty lucky with the weather.  It had been cooler than normal, but with the sun out during the day, the boat warmed up nicely.  Then we hit a couple of cold, rainy days.  We don't run the heat while we're cruising, so I was less than comfortable for a day or two.  The good news was we didn't have to much locking in the rain.
We'd been cruising long days, usually leaving near dawn.  When we got onto the Tennessee the air and water temperatures combined to make fog every morning.  It was hard to complain about having a leisurely breakfast and leaving the dock sometime after nine when the fog had burned off.
Our insurance won't let us go below 31 degrees latitude (about 30 miles north Mobile) before November 1 and Joe wanted to get new bottom paint on Carolyn Ann before we got back into salt water, so we stopped at Aqua Yacht Harbor at the north end of the Tenn-Tom for that and some other maintenance work.  Aqua is a good stop for work because they let you stay on the boat, don't charge for dockage if you're having work done, and have courtesy cars available.  The part I don't like is that they think a few of those skinny little sticks will hold the boat up - although, I guess they were right.
 At any rate, Carolyn Ann was filthy when they pulled her out.  While the other work was being done, Joe and I washed, waxed and applied Phenomenon.  The coat of Phenomenon, which is easy to apply, seems to make cleaning easier.  She looked so good it was a shame to put her back in the water to get dirty again.
While we were there, we met Frank and Fonda on Irony - a steel, 60' Florida Bay Coaster.  It's a massive boat with 4 state rooms and 4 baths - with travertine tile showers and marble topped vanities - and grantite counters in the kitchen.  We had a good time getting to know them and their dog. Buster, and will undoubtedly cross paths again.
Since we had the use of a vehicle, we made some trips for re-provisioning and also visited Shiloh.  After a short film, we toured the battlefields by car.  Near the end of our tour, we found out you can buy a dvd that takes you through the park chronologically.  That would've made for a better experience, but it was still  an interesting and moving experience.  The casualty numbers are just staggering.
Our stay at Aqua ended up lasting more than a week, but Carolyn Ann was clean, her engine valves had been adjusted and her drip-less shafts had again become free of drips.
From here to Pensacola, where we planned to make a brief stop, we'd travel about 530 miles and go through 12 locks with a total drop of more than 400 feet.  We started out with the Whitten Lock and its 84 foot drop - the biggest one we'd come to.  After four locks in about only 30 miles we stopped for the day with three other boats we'd been in the locks with.  There are limited facilities along the way and there are lots of boats moving south at the same time, so you take what you can get.  Smithville Marina boasted proximity to two good restaurants - one for catfish, the other a steakhouse.  The four of us took up all the transient dock space, the rest of the marina being filled with small, dilapidated house boats.  Maureen (Duddon Pilot) dubbed it the Bates Marina ala Psycho's Bates Motel.  The owner showed up to take our money and said we could use the car to go to the nearby restaurant.  Seven of us piled into the six-passenger car which had a lot in common with the marina house boats!  We made it to the restaurant - which may have been the former two combined in one.  Surprisingly, the catfish and steaks were quite good.  It all made for a memorable stop.

Again we cruised from dawn - some very chilly dawns! - and often to dusk.
 It took us eight days to get to Pensacola.  If they could straighten the river out, we could probably make it in half the time!  Besides being time consuming there's another problem with all those curves.  There is a lot of barge traffic and the channel is often narrow.  Coming around a curve to be suddenly faced with barges and no place to go is no fun.  Joe was often thankful for our AIS receiver. Commercial vessels are supposed to have AIS which sends out a signal showing their location to anyone with a receiver.  With our receiver we could effectively see around the corners and slow down if necessary.
The river runs south through Alabama, winding through some pretty remote areas - often out of cell range (oh, no!).  Most of the time it's lined with forests.  Occasionally we pass small groups of houses - mostly hunt or fish camps.  There is a section with white bluffs of rotten limestone that undulate along the shoreline.
As we move farther south, we start watching for the signs - Spanish moss, palmettoes, cabbage palms, dolphins, Blue Angels.  Yes, that's right.  As we approached our intended anchorage at Ft. McRae across from Pensacola Naval Air Base, the Angels were performing their annual homecoming show.
They even had fireworks for us later in the evening!
Our renter was kind enough to let us spend a few days tied to the dock behind our house.  It was great to catch up with our neighbors, friends and family in the area.
The weather wasn't cooperating for a Gulf crossing so we worked our way east on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway until we reached Carrabelle, near Apalachicola.  Joe checked the weather forecasts and buoy reports frequently as they seemed to change hourly.  Finally, mid-day on Sunday - a day or two earlier than we'd originally expected - he decided it was time to go.  We knew it wouldn't be the smoothest crossing ever, but it the conditions didn't seem ready to improve anytime soon.  As we started to ready Carolyn Ann for departure, several other boaters decided to follow our lead.  We've always crossed by ourselves in the past, but ended up with five other boats crossing with us this time.  We left Carrabelle about 1pm on Sunday and arrived at Treasure Island near St. Pete about noon on Monday.  In the past we've had some ideal conditions, but this time was certainly less than ideal.  It was definitely not a comfortable trip, but not bad enough to be scary either.  We were glad to reach our dock on Treasure Island where we were greeted by Randy and Barb (Lazy Dolphin) who plan to spend at least part of the winter here also.
We had a couple days to catch up on our sleep before beginning the holiday season with Thanksgiving at our niece Lisa's with her husband, son and parents and our son, his wife, and our number one grandson, Alex.  It's nice to settle in for while and we're looking forward to winter visits from several family members.
Not sure yet what next year will bring  - other than we'll be heading north somewhere.

There are more pictures on the picasa site: http://picasaweb.google.com/joseph.pica

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