The Great Loop – America: 3

Mariah II Branches Out – Part 3 of 3

(You can listen to this via podcast here)

Bidding a sad farewell to the dramatic Canadian scenery, we ease our way back into the States and pick our time to go south along Michigan Lake.  While the wind gathers spirit, Penguin Jack (our dinghy) has been surfing behind us and trying to overtake Mariah, skewering violently.  Ropes snatch for the last time and have yanked lose the towing line.  We shift Mariah around to search for an eight-foot boat in a 300-mile long lake.  Fortunately, PJ’s bright green paint catches our eyes and we fight the growing waves to salvage the wayward dinghy.  Having been born in a brothel (long story), PJ is clearly independent and lacking in any manners.  The white-knuckle ride that is our boat makes the retrieval challenging.  Eventually, with skillful boat manoeuvres and ungraceful lurching, we reclaim our rebellious dinghy.

Abruptly, the winds hold hands with the freshwater and heaves the waves higher, the clatter of shifting equipment, plates and books is making me cringe.  Noel gasps through the stinging, horizontal rain to re-tie the prone mast that is trying to break free.  An upbeat version of the “Turkey Trot” at fairgrounds, that is our deck, makes the journey to the bow, precarious.  Noel relies on his flexing knees, his earned balance and a bit of luck while he weaves a spider’s nest of nautical knots to secure the heavy lump of timber.  At last, rocking and rolling into a safe anchorage we turn to the task of “mucking-out” the boat.  It is surprising how changing the dynamics of the boat, by dropping the mast, so radically changes its performance.

Challenging Chicago Performance

We arrive in Chicago at 2 am on the first day in September, after a couple of moon-lit dashes down Lake Michigan.  The towering, opalescent city lights welcome us into its still bay.  The next morning, bureaucrats turn us away from the shore, we cannot step onto land from the anchorage area; we have to go into a marina.  As budget-conscious cruisers (read skint), we take advantage of being dumb foreigners and sweet-talk the marine police into allowing us to dock at their private jetty, while we explore Chicago’s sights.  Actually, the best way to see Chicago is via boat, puttering through its tall, adolescent and mature buildings, watching the rat race, scurry by.  This is the beginning of an entirely new adventure, heading south in mid-west America.

Puttering through Chicago
Puttering through Chicago

Barging Through!

From Chicago City there are two routes, we opt for the Sanitary and Ship Canal that offers superior scenery.  This leads to the Illinois River.  Not too far into the Canal there is “barge city”, my words for a place where there are 200 ft long barges parked bow to stern, as far as the eye can see.  The channel between leaves just inches leeway for any traffic.  As I squint through our tatty binoculars I am convinced a barge is heading our way, I cannot see a clear way ahead.  With little time, we squeeze into a small gap, dwarfed by huge, rusted monsters.  From behind the wall of barges around us, a 15 pack monstrosity glides past.  This thing, with the tug pushing it along, is over a quarter of a mile long and 100 ft wide!  We are a little awestruck at the captain’s deft handling.  We wait until four of these monsters have gone by and slowly poke out our nose.  After a mile, we catch up with yet another behemoth.  Politely we ask if we can overtake (knowing the mile marker you are at is a necessity at all times).  You always wait for the captain’s permission to pass and always do as he asks.  After umpteen ‘pardons’ and whispered “what’d he say?”, we finally grasp his southern drawl, he gives the signal, we up the revs and start overtaking a boat over 1200 feet long.  Halfway alongside, we see an approaching barge is static, tied to a bank, but we will not fit the three of us alongside, the throttle receives an extra shove.  With our mind leaping from “yes we’ll make it” to “no we won’t” and the throttle receiving abuse that matches our thoughts, we slip through just before we create a unique type of boat concertina.

Barge City!
Barge City!

The Mighty Mississippi

We have been chatting about it for months, with a giddy blend of trepidation and anticipation we cross the threshold onto the famous Mississippi River.  We have only heard negative experiences about this part of the trip, but we like to make up our own minds.  This corridor of commerce runs, in total, for over 1700 miles from Minneapolis, MN to New Orleans, LA.  We traverse just 250 miles of this fast-flowing, muddy water, where often you see historic paddle-wheel boats gliding past. The current is with us, but it is running fast, giving us an extra three knots, good for speed, bad for mistakes.  At our time, there is little information available for this section, so for the first night we find our own anchorage.  Tip-toeing off the channel (the charts have no depths) we find enough room to anchor.  With the new ‘trip line’ tied on securely with a floating fender, I drop the anchor and miraculously the knot unravels and I watch in wonder as our fender takes off on its own.  Without thought, Noel and I grapple to fix the outboard onto the dinghy and I jump in, feeling like Jane Bond on a mission to rescue.  We have anchored behind a submerged wall (a wing dam) which is giving us a little reprieve from the dominant current, however the fender has built up some speed.  Scooping up the fiend in a heroic fashion, I turn just before reaching the unforgiving current of the main channel.  I rev the two horsepower outboard hard, the engine coughs and I a pray.  Somewhat late, my mind decides to offer some thought.  If I were caught in the current, in the main channel, our small outboard would not cope, I’d be whisked off down the Mississippi with only PJ for company.  I up the revs more and am shaking by the time I reach Mariah.  What a foolish thing to do, risk my life for an old fender!

Anchoring just before turning into the Ohio River
Anchoring just before turning into the Ohio River

 Hurricane Ivan gives us a lift

The Mississippi is one of the most exhilarating cruises so far.  The clean sandy beaches, parks and lush vegetation possess an unexpected beauty.  Along the way we find some decent rest stops, out of the channel, out of the current and away from the commercial traffic.  We are approaching the Ohio River turn-off and poignantly end our trip along the Mississippi.  “Hurricane Ivan is heading for Mobile, Alabama”, the radio updates us on the relentless hurricanes that are only a few hundred miles away.  Being inland, we feel safe from the awesome winds, however when hurricanes move to a large expanse of land, the rain comes.  “I’m standing here near the Tennessee River, watching pleasure craft and yachts break free from there moorings and crash into bridges” gasps the commentator on the radio, fully in tune with my horror.  The Tennessee runs into the Ohio, our next river.  The Ohio is running at three to four knots current – against us.  That means our average speed would be a monotonous 1-2 knots.  Luckily, there is a protected, pretty anchorage just before the raging river, near a town named Cairo.  We sit here for a long week, waiting for the Ohio River to calm.  We tackle jobs on the boat and trips to the town are every other day.  The outing to town is a marathon.  We dinghy ashore, climb a ten foot muddy bank, trek a mile across fields overgrown with a mesh of weeds.  Mozzies are fearsome and wage a full-on war.  We then climb a levee bank, which is ideal Rattle Snake foliage and ultimately reach a gravel road.  We are now halfway there.  The rest of the journey is a bit easier and after dragging our push-bikes (and many sock burrs) thus far, we are able to enjoy a ride.  Loaded on the outward journey with bags of rubbish, and all our groceries homebound, it makes a somewhat challenging exercise.

Flood Water Fracas

With floodwaters still rampaging down the Ohio River, we prepare for battle and turn into the thick brown, debris ridden river.  Our speed slows to a monotonous 2 knots, while we play dodgems with the floating trees.  The Ohio River houses two locks, which raises us up higher, away from sea level.  However, water levels are currently that high, we motor right over the top of the locks, walls and all!  At the second lock, while going over the top of the huge superstructure, we stop dead in the water.  Our hardworking Yanmar is pushed to the red as an enormous tug boat, thrusting 15 barges, creeps up our rear.  As the barge crawls nearer, we stare at the land that is not moving by and the Yanmar starts screaming, not much before I do, when Noel has the bright idea of tacking.  Weaving left to right we break through the current and the shore starts moving along again.  We continue on and motor for long days, trying to get through this laborious section with haste.  When we reach Tennessee, we’ll start going down-hill with currents flowing south, the same direction as us, into the Gulf of Mexico.

Tom Who?

After the Cumberland and Tennessee River we enter the last stretch of the system that will lead us south into Mobile which is just east of New Orleans, into the Gulf of Mexico.  The Ten-Tom Canal connects the Tennessee River with the Tombigbee River, being our very last freshwater canal.  The locks appear newer and quieter in the Tenn-Tom,  the waterway is sparsely populated and we take delight in watching the majestic Blue Heron’s sit in the almost naked trees that are now dappled with the promise of spring.  Succumbing to ‘landlubber problems’ in an extended visit to the UK, we find ourselves three months behind our trip in the US.  But this unforeseen setback has its bonuses. We have witnessed autumn’s hand at work, each day and now the hints of spring filter in, it is a remarkable gift to see.  Anchorages along the Tenn-Tom can be tricky without a good pilot.  Enchanting creeks look perfect, but the muddy waters hide the depth that is at times, just inches.  The few marinas along the Tombigbee are first-rate and reasonable.  Nearing the end of the rivers we are becoming complacent with the beauty and are keen to put our mast back up and use the silent wind as our propulsion.

Warmth in the chilly deep south

The cold nips at our extremities, a price we pay for completing this trip at the end of winter, but the cloak of warmth of the ‘deep south’ wards off the chill.  We live, for a while, in Demopolis, Alabama, experiencing the way of life at first hand, while we work on Mariah in preparation for the Pacific Ocean.  To us, this is what travelling is all about, not the latest tourist attraction, but the people, the culture, the feel of the place.  The locals instantly accept us and their welcoming smiles are contagious.  We easily slip into their ways and their rhythmic accents.  Listening to their voices is like pouring dark molasses from a warm drum, thick, rich and leisurely.  You can hear the melodic beat of country music beneath their day to day conversations.  We know their laid back attitude is absorbed deep into our hearts when we tentatively think about making a decision tomorrow.

And Finally Florida

With our sails aloft we glide into Florida and our last stretch of this magnificent adventure.  It feels a bit like coming home to your favourite comfy chair.  Leaving the rivers and entering back into the ICW brings a familiar feel and the comfort of smelling the ocean.  We can see the hard, tenacious work Floridians have done to repair their pretty state after the bashing of ruthless hurricanes.  Unfortunately, we can witness the telltale signs that remain, submerged boats, dismasted, left for dead.  Bright blue tarpaulins streaking along the horizon, covering roofs that have taken flight – a carpenter’s dream.  We are back in saltwater and tides and are elated to be able to dip into clean water that tightens our skins with its sharp chill.

An honor

It has been an honor to be able to do this trip, watch the seasons come and go and see parts of the world we knew nothing of.  This kind of journey is an experience as a whole, not just hopping from one place to the next – it is the preparation, research, learning, trying new things, romance, escapade and yes, it is about the good yarn at the end of it all.  Our heads are starting to think Panama Canal and Pacific Ocean, our hearts are – and will be for some time – in America.

More pictures here.

The full story here.

Acknowledge to artist of the great music featured in the background of the Demopolis section: When I’m Merry And It Is by Speck (c) copyright 2018 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Stefan Kartenberg. Thanks for allowing us all to enjoy your funky sounds.



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