Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Crossing Mobile Bay

 In my last entry,  we had stopped for the night at mile 9.9 of the Mobile River. Yes, it was no longer the Tombigbee, it had changed names at mile 45. We  were now about 5 miles to civilization.  The change is immediate and drastic. You go from a beautiful estuary to an industrial port very quickly. 

We had 47 miles to get through Mobile, across the bay and join with the Inter Coastal Waterway (ICW) and head up Portage creek to the Wharf Marina. Yes, we had reservations at a marina. After only setting foot on dry land once in the previous 7 days, I was looking forward to it.  I was also looking forward to the possibility of raising our sails out in Mobile Bay. 

We were ready to go at dawn and headed out of the anchorage. It was a beautiful sunrise.

Sunrise as we pulled out on the river. It looked like a beautiful day ahead. 

In just 5 miles, we started passing barges moored along the river.  Then we were in the middle of downtown Mobile.  We had a large cargo ship with a tug on both sides that was coming into port. We slowed a bit and moved around them. It is amazing how quickly things change.  Then we passed the high rise buildings and many other large ships and buildings. We had timed the tide correctly and had a 2 knot current behind us. We were moving along at over 7 knots over ground. 

All of a sudden we have ocean going vessels on both sides and industrial docks along the river.

Kim took this shot from the bow after we had passed this large transport ship with two tugs pushing it into place.

Approaching downtown Mobile and the large buildings.

The cruise ship docks still unused due to COVID.

I  had checked the weather when we arrived at Big Bayou and all looked good to cross the bay. Mobile bay is very shallow and can get nasty if the wind and current oppose each other. We were expecting a nice 8 knot breeze out of the east.

When we hit the bay we were surprised to see 15 to 20 knots. We raised the sails and SHIFT went to work.  She handles that kind of breeze with ease. We were ripping along at 7 knots and the engine off. I loved it, but it didn't last. 

SHIFT doing what she does best.

It felt so good to get the sails up and test everything out. We would need them more in the future.

After an hour and a half the wind diminished and clocked around to right on the nose. Oh well, we had to put the sails away and fire up the engine.  We motored across the now calm bay and up Portage creek. 

We first stopped at the fuel dock and filled up with 26 gallons of diesel.  That means we did the 260 miles on 34 gallons. Not bad. Many of  the power boats that we were traveling with were burning about a gallon a mile. We then went to our assigned slip. 

It was the most difficult docking maneuver I have ever done. The marina is very tight and a huge Hatteras Yacht was tied up right behind us. I  had to pull into the empty slip next to mine and back out and approach from another angle. We got it done, but I am not sure what I would have done if that other slip wasn't empty. 

This was our slip at The Wharf Marina.

We were kind of in a hurry to arrive because some great friends were going to be there.  Bob and Rox were in one of the restaurants watching their beloved Green Bay Packers play. We were able to invite them on board for a catch-up conversations and go have dinner.  It was great to see them and be back on land.

The next day we made plans with our RV friends Dick and Cathy. They have been staying in Gulf Shores in the winter time the past few years. They had a big family Thanksgiving planned. Over 20 people in Cathy's family had rented a beach house and were enjoying the gulf coast for the week. They invited us over for dinner. 

They rented the light blue house just to the right of the walkway. 

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset on the beach.

Our stay at the Wharf was only two nights. The price was over $100 per night. That seems that overpriced marinas that are hard to get a reservation, will be a common theme on this trip. I was very nervous about getting out of our slip. The wind was blowing about 15 knots our of the east when we were ready to go. I decided I would ask for some help. They sent 3 guys to help. We needed all of them to make the move out without hitting that big yacht behind us. We made it safely and then motored down Portage Creek 7 miles to Ingram Bayou. It was a beautiful and protected spot. We loved it there. And the best part is that it was free. 

This is more like it. Beautiful nature and quiet.

As evening approached the wind died off and the water calmed to glass.

It doesn't get any better than this...or does it?

When we thought it couldn't get any better, we had dolphins join us. They swam all around the boat for a private show. We saw them a number of times during the 3 days and 2 nights we were there. 

It is so hard to get good pictures of dolphins. 

There were a number of dolphins in this pod including a young one.

This one came right along the side of the boat.

The water was clear enough to see them swim under the boat.

While we sat in Ingram bayou, I watched the weather forecast. I had been watching for a weather window to sail to the east. That means we need a north or west wind. We were thinking about sailing 40 miles to Destin or maybe 70 miles to Panama City or 100 miles to Port St. Joe. All of these would then require us to go inland to Apalachicola and then on down to Carrabelle. That would set us up for our planned Gulf of Mexico crossing from Carrabelle to Tarpon Springs. That trip would take us about 24 hours. The problem is that the wind comes from the east most of the time, so you have to wait. 

We had a window that looked good. It would start with a strong North wind on Friday, November 26th. The interesting part was that it was going to stay out of the north for two days until it then got very quiet for 2 days. I asked Kim how aggressive she want to be. She looked at me and asked, "Can we make it all the way to Tarpon Springs in one shot?".  I was shocked that she wanted to consider doing that long of a crossing. We are talking about over 48 hours non-stop in the open Gulf of Mexico. I kept watching the weather and planning a multi option strategy. 

What would we do? I will tell this story in my next entry.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Trip to Florida Day 4, 5 and 6

 In my last entry, we were anchored at mile 78 of the Tombigbee river. We had a secure spot and had our friend David across the river from us.

We had a night with interrupted sleep, but awoke to a foggy river. David wanted to make miles, so he headed off into the fog. We later heard on the radio that his motor failed at mile 26. He had to be towed to Mobile. We waited and thought about our plan. We decided that we were getting tired and would like to take a day off. We looked at our options. One of the anchorages that we have used on every one of the three previous trips up or down the river was only 15 miles away at mile 63. There was also a very good anchorage at mile 53. We were thinking that we wanted to stop at mile 16 after that to wait for good weather to cross Mobile Bay.

By around 7:30 am, it looked clear enough to go. It was still a bit tough as we moved along and Kim went to the bow to keep a look out. We use our “marriage savers” to communicate, and I find it very helpful. By 9:00 the day was bright and sunny with little wind. Another beautiful day on the river. We had to make a number of tight curves, but there was only one tow that we had to pass and that went smoothly. We passed mile 63 and decided to keep going to 53.

I looked at the forecast and there was a mild northern coming in the next day with 10 to 15 knot winds out of the north. That sounded like another reason to hold up for a day. We pulled into the Alabama river cut-off at mile 53 and dropped the anchor. The anchorage runs NW to SE. I decided to buy some insurance and not only drop a stern anchor, but got the dinghy down and rowed to the bank and wrapped a long line around a tree.

Looking off our stern in the Alabama River cutoff anchorage at mile 53.

Our view off the bow.

We stayed very secure for two nights and got some much needed rest. We were way out of the river and could only see the passing tows. We had another sailboat join us the first night, but we were alone for the second.

A Tow passing our perfectly calm anchorage. The wind that was forecast, never came.

It was now day 6, Saturday November 20, and we were ready to head on down the river. We looked at our options and normally stay at mile 16.6, but there is a good anchorage at 9.9. Many boats use the Big Bayou Canot at 9.9. There is a lift railroad bridge at 14 that has to be up for us to move down the river. We decided to get that bridge behind us and head on down to 9.9.

The captain at the helm. I spent a lot of hours there, but Kim certainly did her part.

A passing tow

I think the cypress trees are beautiful. This is another indication we are getting close to the coast. 

Lots of cypress knees.

The anchorage at 9.9 is a very famous spot for a very bad reason. It is the site of the worst Amtrak disaster in the history of the rail service. On a foggy night on September 22, 1993 a tow with barges missed the turn and entered the Big Bayou Canot. It then hit the rail bridge on the far end of the anchorage. Shortly thereafter an Amtrak passenger train derailed and fell into the bayou. 47 people died in the accident. If any boats had been in the anchorage, it would not have been good. The good news is that now they have much more sophisticated electronic navigation with GPS making this a much safer river.

We arrived to find one other boat at anchor is a very wide area well off of the river. We dropped our hook and for the first time on this trip did not drop a stern anchor. The current will change in this area due to the rise and fall of the tides in Mobile bay. We started pointing one direction and then by morning  we all had swung around and we pointing in the complete opposite direction. We are certainly getting close to the coast and salt water. Three other boats joined us for the night making a total of 5. There is plenty of room and we all enjoyed a quiet and restful night.

In my next entry I will write about the Mobile Bay crossing and sailing. Come back to see how that goes and I will talk about our plan to get to south Florida from there. At some point we have to cross the Gulf of Mexico. How much will we bite off at one time?

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Trip Down the Tombigbee River Day 2 and 3

 We awoke on day two of our trip from Demopolis,  Alabama down the Tombigbee River to Mobile after a  restless night.  I  started out sleeping well, but then our anchor alarm went off.  It must have received a bad GPS coordinate, because we had not moved at all.  I pretty much laid there the rest of the night thinking about all that was left to come on this trip. We only had a couple of barges pass us during the night.

By 5 am I was done trying to get some sleep, so I got up and got ready to depart. We were moved down river in a light fog well before sunrise. 

Can you see the bald eagle in this picture? 

The fog quickly burned off and we had a beautiful day to travel.  We were hoping to make it to Okatuppa Creek at mile 124.

I had a friend send me this picture of us on day 2. I understand that he lives at mile 164 and posts images of passing boats on the internet. 

SHIFT Cruising down the river at mile 164

Here are a few other shots we took on the cruise down the river:

Passing this guy on the "2". I talk to them on the radio to get passing instructions. a 2 is a Starboard to Port pass. A "1" is the opposite.

That is a lot of horsepower there.

We saw lots of wildlife in this part of the river. I got the big camera out to take pictures of the many alligators we saw on the bank sunning themselves. We also saw Bald Eagles, Kingfishers and many other birds. It was a beautiful day.

Want to go swimming?

There are advantages to going slow. You get to have the time to take a few pictures.

We made good time and were about 5 miles from our anchorage when we were passed by two of the boats that were with us the previous night.  As we approached,  we saw they once again had selected the same anchorage. It is pretty tight in Okatuppa Creek,  so we decided to try another spot just across the river. The alternate worked out perfectly. It was much easier to get set and we had no overhanging trees to be concerned about. 

The beautiful end to day 2.

Another very large boat came in just after dark, but gave us plenty of room. He ran his very quiet generator all night, but his boat was lit up like a Christmas tree.  We had nothing to worry about with him there. Even so, I still didn't sleep well. 

We were up and moving on day 3 at just after sunrise.  We had thick fog on the water,  but we needed to get about 8 miles down the river to the Coffeyville lock.  As we approached,  it became clear the lock chamber would be stuffed with boats.  We decided to wait and pulled into Bobby's fish camp that is two miles before the lock.  Bobby's is the only place from Demopolis to Mobile to get fuel.  I thought we could make it,  but I have enough things keeping me up at night.

Shortly after we we arrived I talked to the lock master and he told me it was going to be a while.  There were 3 tows coming through and commercial traffic gets preference. 

As we left the anchorage that morning, I had noticed the bow lights were not working.  We have battery powered backups, but I took the time at Bobby's dock to try to fix it. It turns out it was a bad bulb. Kim dug through our spares and found a replacement. All fixed. That became important later in the day.

We finally cleared the lock at close to 11 am. 

Going down in the Coffeeville lock.

Looking up at the mast really shows how far we dropped. We were now at sea level.

There was no way we could make our planned anchorage at 63, but we should be able to make it to our bailout, called Sunflower Bar at 78. We put the hammer down and tried to make 6+ knots. Ok, go ahead and laugh power boaters. 

Our batteries have been doing ok, but not great. We have 4, 6 year old AGM batteries. We do everything we can do to minimize amp draw when we shut the engine down for the day, but we have to run refrigeration. While the engine is running we can do whatever we want.  Showers require us to run the water pump that uses significant juice. So, have you ever taken a shower in a moving vehicle? Yep, day 3 was shower day while motoring down the river. 

We were doing well until we came to a railroad bridge at mile 90. The bridge closed just before we got there and did not reopen for over an hour.  I tried to anchor there for the night, but couldn't get the anchor to hold. When the bridge finally opened,  we went even faster.  Now up to a whopping 6.6 knots.  The computer was saying if we maintained that speed we would arrive a half hour passed sunset. I hate to arrive at a new to us anchorage in the dark. We had our now working bow light making us visible and legal as we motored along. As the sun went down,  a beautiful bright full moon rose. We could actually see pretty well as we anchored on the right descending bank in Upper Sunflower West in 10 feet of water. I was happy to shut it down for the night. The new engine really did it's job.

We were shocked about an hour later, when a boat we had met in Demopolis arrived at our anchorage. I talked to David on the radio to help him find a safe place. 

We were just 30 feet behind a green bouy that marks the channel.  Kim stood watch while I tried to get some sleep. It was another restless night as we monitored the radio and alerted passing tows to our presence. 

We were now 140 miles down the river and only 78 to Mobile bay. We were watching some incoming weather and I was feeling pretty tired. Come back for my next entry, where we continue our trip down the river.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Real Time Update and Finally Leaving Demopolis

Real time update: We are now in Orange Beach, Alabama. We made it down the river and through Mobile Bay safely. I have had a hard time keeping up with blog posts due to limited internet connectivity, so the one below is the first in a series that I have written but not posted.  I have decided to post some pictures and updates on Facebook more in real time and then update the blog as I am able. Let's go back to Monday, November 15th...

We waited until November 15th to leave Kingfisher Bay Marina in Demopolis, Alabama for many reasons. The main one was the volume of boaters heading south. We were very concerned that the limited anchorages would be full, and make it difficult to find a place to safely spend the night. It was also hard to leave because of the many friends we made in the two extended stays we have made at KBM. It also didn't hurt we were paid up until the 17th. We still believe it is the best place to  escape the hurricanes along the gulf coast. 

SHIFT ready to go from our slip at KBM in Demopolis and a beautiful sunset.

I went to the captain's meeting the night before departing.  There was a large group planning to depart the next day. We  decided to skip the first locking of the day. There was just too many boats and it was also very foggy. I also did not sleep well thinking about the journey and had I forgotten something? Pretty typical for me. 

We said goodbye to  Fred, the owner of KBM, and his staff and pulled out of the marina at 8:00 am. We made the 3 mile journey to the lock and waited for our turn to enter. It was just us and one other 27 foot boat that is doing the great loop called Mickey.

A beautiful day and beautiful fall colors as we waited for the lock at Demopolis.

The Foscue Creek COE campground that we stayed at 3 years ago before buying the boat. 

The lock has a drop of 45 feet. When we got to the bottom we looked up and saw the top of our mast was at the top of the wall that we could look over just minutes before. All went smoothly and soon we were on our way down the river. We had a relatively short day planned of about 41 river miles, which are statute miles. We travel at about 5.5 knots, which is about 6 mph. That is very slow, but it does give us the opportunity to see lots of wildlife and beautiful fall colors along the river.

We had already dropped about 2 feet.

Down we go!

A look up the mast. A 40 foot drop.

Just as you exit the lock you can look to your right and see the cascading waterfall.

A note here about the new prop. It is working as I expected,  but I think it is negatively impacting our fuel economy.  I plan to consult with the manufacturer to see if some tweaks are in order. I can't wait to go sailing with it to see if we can get more speed under sail.

We made the trip to mile 177 without incident. When we approached our planned anchorage we noticed 2 other boats were already there.  The good news is that there was plenty of space for us to safely anchor. Another boat even joined us just before sunset.  We did not see a single barge(called "tows" around here) all day, but had 5 pass us during the night. Each one gave us a pretty good rock, and woke me up,  but the anchors held well and we both got plenty of needed sleep.  

Calm spot for our first night on the river.

Looking down the river at dusk

The 4 boats in the anchorage under a near full moon. 

In my next entry I  will write about the second day of our trip and maybe the 3rd. They have been some long days, but we are making good progress to open water.