Jeff would probably be proud of me. „At crank of dawn“, was his foreseeable answer to the question, when to start for the next leg on our way down the Mississippi and up the Ohio. And many days going down the Ten-Tom Waterway and the Tombigbee River to finally reach Mobile it was even earlier than that when I pulled up my anchor.
Time became critical cruising the Great Loop now that the season is considered to be over. The days are short and often they start with patchy fog that loiters around silver glowing shorelines cutting the usable time or speed to half. So, the pale shimmer of my twin color bow light often was the only light in many anchorages along the way. When possible I tried to anchor close to a lock, so I could start at the first sign of a bluish shimmer in the eastern sky and be already downriver at sunrise. But not only on a few days I started enthusiastic leaving my anchorage in light fog just to find my self slowed down to idle speed behind the next bend, blowing the fog horn and calling on the radio for possible traffic every half mile. Sailboats are at an advantage on those days: „Southbound Sailboat at Mile 262“, I was called on the radio at one point. The captain of a tow spotted me before I did: „I can see your mast above the fog“, he said and about ten minutes later the black steel bow of two barges broke out of the gray not much more than fifty yards in front of me. It would have required sort of a quick response if I had not already moved to the bank as far as I could after his call and he confirmed that I am good where I was.
For the last part of the Loop and my final US inland passage from Pickwick Lake down to Mobile at the Gulf of Mexico, it is about 450 Miles. In the short daylight thirty to maximum forty miles a day turned out as a good pace. I kept my personal travel rhythm: „Three days on run, one day of fun“. This way I calculated slightly more than two weeks down to Mobile. On days I left early I finished my work often shortly after noon. That was necessary, because I needed spare time before sunset to find a suitable anchorage.
That was one of the few real challenges cruising this part of America on a six feet draft sailboat in early winter: The Rivers were lowered to be able to take on more water from snow and rain in the north. Maintained to nine feet it was not problem in the dredged channels. But that dredging often causes a bar along the channels. Many places I would have been fine to anchor in were impossible to get to to due to these bars.
„Skipper Bob“, the equally loved and hated but simply only guide for this river stretch I know of is mainly written for powerboats. It seemed to me that depth is not of concern for those contributing most of the places to this book. If given, depth were mostly far from realit. Sometimes it was deeper, but generally my keel hit bottom way before reaching the announced „anchor in 10 feet“ spot.
Wherever I dropped anchor for another night I found myself in a more and more remote wilderness. Houses quickly became rare as soon as leaving a town. It takes one hand to number the amount of boats I met in the last 400 miles. And the phone died within a day using up all it‘s power to search for a network to connect to. The one or two barges I met became pleasant encounters.
The shorelines quickly vanished in a thick brownish and green forest. The Rocks along Pickwick Lake slowly turned to yellow sand, washed to steep cliffs by higher waterlevels. Besides a few hills here and there the land slowly became a more and more flatened swamp.
I planned for two major stops: Demopolis, half way down was supposed to be the first and as it is the last place for provisioning and fuel for more than 200 miles no one just goes through here. It also was the first place I met Loopers again. Even some of which I thought to already be down way more south.
The beautiful „Memsahib“ had stopped here to fix some engine problems before heading down: „I don‘t want to be stuck with that at Bobby‘s Fichcamp“, Paul chuckled about the upcomming remoteness we all are heading into. The Camp was the only place according to Skipper Bob to dock or find a chance to refuel before reaching Mobile.
The second longer hold up was planned for a river: „Big Bayou Canot“. It was the last good stop about 16 Miles before reaching Mobile. Depending on when I get there I wanted to spend a few days before finishing my personal Great Loop. Some days to rest, and not at last safe some money which I otherwise had to spend in a marina. And the last weeks in Northern Alabama had been way more expensive than I ever wanted them to be.
I stopped more often. And the first unplanned one was the day after I left Demopolis: With a broken fuel pump I limped into an unused arm of the river. The engines high pressure pump was strong enough to pull some diesel to keep it running. Not fast and probably not for long. It was the worst place to have something like this happen: No phone service, out of VHF-Range to anybody, but fortunately equipped with a shortwave radio. Paul, still in Demopolis, volunteered immediately to get a pump and bring it to me as soon as he will head down the River or hand it to the first one who will.
Preparing to spend a few days where I was. Joshua appeared in an open skiff, huge engine, some rifles, fishing gear and duck hunting equipment in it. „Yo go‘n to stay here?“, he asked. My pump problem ruined his plans to hunt where I got stuck and after telling him about it things only took minutes: His phone worked here and when I learned his name we were already on the way, flying over the river to buy a new pump.
It was one of these moments in a cruising life, where I speechless remember how often I have been helped out by great people. He called it the „River Code“: „Never leave someone stranded on the bank“. Maybe it is a karma-thing but it works among fisherman on the Tombigbee as it does for sailors in the mid atlantic: Giving a hand to someone you just met minutes before and be sure someone totally different will do the same when you need the help.
The weather added more unplanned stops on the way down here: Like when approaching Columbus and frost was forecasted for the following days. I preferred a sustainable shore power over the ice on deck I had already encountered some mornings.
The last lock of my river trip was 120 miles inland. On the other side of this journey it had been „Lock No. One“ near Troy on the Hudson River that separated the tides from the river. Here it was „Coffeeville Lock“. And the tide behind it was almost unremarkable. Only about a feet it did not even change the flow of water, just slows it down slightly.
This way saltwater stays out of the river and barely floods the mangrove forest along the final miles. Millions of creeks and shallow cuts between flat land mark the beginning of „Mobile River“.
Finally instead of tows and barges more and more bulk carriers and huge container ships take their space along the walls of Mobile sea port. „Back among real ships“, I chuckled and waved back to a crewman on a chinese cargo ship.
Then the fine line of a sharp horizon opened in front of me. I am back at sea level, back at the open ocean.