The Mississippi

At first we were excited to enter the Mississippi River, learn its ways, start a new chapter, become one with Ol’ Man River. I even sang the song “Old Man River” to the XO in my finest baritone. We soon got over that romantic crap. After two days we couldn’t wait to get off it. Why, you ask?
First of all, the current is swift, roiling, unpredictable, and dangerous. Just put the boat in gear and you’re careening along at faster than normal speeds, which actually turned out to be a blessing because we got through it in just 3 days.
Then there’s the tows. I don’t know why they call then “tows.” They’re tug boats pushing as many as 42 huge barges in front of them. These guys are everywhere, they take up the whole channel, and they’re slower than us. Since they have very little maneuverability we always call them on the radio and ask how they want us to pass.

A tugboat pushes barges down the roiling Mississippi. They work all hours of the day.

Wing-dams are everywhere as well. These are piles of rock put on the sides of the river to channel the current into the middle. Sometimes you can see them, sometimes not. They could be submerged just under the surface and they’re not marked.

Standing on a wing dam doing my wing dam dance.

Finally, there are no docks, fuel, or services of any kind for pleasure craft, except for one just south of St. Louis.
Hoppies Marine Service is a few barges strung together on the side of the river. It’s the last fuel stop for well over two hundred miles.

Hoppies Marine Services in Kimmswick, MO. It’s not pretty, but if you don’t stop here for fuel, you might not make it to the Ohio River.

Ginger Lee at Hoppies.

After Hoppies we tied up to a lock wall on the Kaskaskia River. It was off the Mississippi and very calm.

The Kaskaskia Lock. If you ask the Lockmaster nicely, he will let you tie up for the night.

The next night we anchored in a small inlet called The Little Diversion River. Also off the Mississippi, and very calm as well.

Anchored with two other Loopers in the Little Diversion River. The red boat is Miss Norma, the larger boat is Shangri-La.

After that we anchored behind Boston Bar. It was our last night on the perilous Mississippi River. We both breathed a sigh of relief when we made that left turn onto the Ohio River. It was like sanity had returned to our lives. SOCOBO 11/17/17

At anchor at Boston Bar. There was a wicked thunderstorm later that night.

 

 

The End of the Illinois Waterway–Mile 00.0

“Uh-oh. There’s transmission fluid in the bilge water.” I said, trying not to sound alarmed.
“That’s not good,” the XO said.
“We gotta check it out right away,” I said. “We need the closest anchorage.”
As luck would have it, we were within a mile of one. I tucked Ginger Lee behind an island and off the main channel into a small waterway with the unenviable name of The Dark Chute. Almost immediately, the XO started chanting the name with spooky, Bela Legosian overtones.
“THE DAAHHK CHUUUTE,” she moaned.
As if on cue, a large grey and black cloud moved in overhead and blotted out the Sun.
“THE DAAAAHHK CHUUUUUUTE,” she moaned again, this time with extra vibrato. Rain spattered the windshield.
“Maybe I’d better start checking things out before she congers up the devil,” I thought.
I lifted the engine covers and hopped down in between Castor and Pollux, our two Lehman diesels.

Castor

Standing between the engines.

I did my usual thing when trying to figure mechanical stuff out, just poke around until something makes sense. In this case, after finding transmission fluid all over the area of the dip-stick, but not anywhere else, I focused my attention there and pulled that dip-stick out. When it came out way too easily, I knew I had the problem literally in hand. The darn thing was loose! It’s supposed to fit tight enough to seal. The transmission had disgorged almost all of its life blood out the dip-stick tube! A simple fix, but jeepers, if I hadn’t stopped to check it out, the transmission would have run dry enough to destroy itself.

The loose dip-stick.

We continued on to Grafton Illinois, the last stop on the Illinois Waterway. Mile 00.0.

Grafton, Il. The end of The Illinois Waterway, and the beginning of the Mississippi.

Making friends with Butch Magee, the bartender and owner of the coolest bar in Grafton called The Bloody Bucket.

The Bloody Bucket.

We stayed in Grafton for a week because the Army Corps of Engineers closed the Mississippi River until November 1st. Yeah. They can do that. They have that much power.
There were more Loopers here at one time than we’ve previously encountered our whole voyage. That would be a total of three boats. All stuck here for the same reason, but it’s a great place to be stuck.  SOCOBO 11/9/17

Stuck in Grafton with fellow Loopers Chan and Jeanne Priest

Along the Illinois Waterway–Part Two

After escaping Ottawa and the flooding Fox River, we headed south towards the first available marina. Hopefully one with floating docks because the whole Illinois Waterway is experiencing high water and high currents. Logs and all kinds of debris were creating quite an obstacle course as we got a push from the current down river. We were flying at 11 MPH.

Floating debris.

En route, I called the Spring Valley Boat Club and was welcomed with open arms.

The Spring Valley Boat Club fuel dock.

The Spring Valley Boat Club is a private facility, but they invite transients to stay at the fuel dock. There is probably room for 2 boats. When we arrived, a couple of members helped us tie up.
“You’re welcome to full use of everything,” one of the guys said. “The bar, the showers, bathrooms, pump out, everything.”
“You had me at bar,” I gushed.

The awesome bar and the awesome bartender Nora. We arrived just in time for Sunday football!

Ok, on the same day, we went from escaping a scary flood, to having pizza, beer, and Sunday football on a big screen TV. I wanna move into this place, but we have to keep moving south. It’s starting to get chilly at night.

Bye bye Spring Valley Boat Club.

We travelled on to Peoria, Illinois. At the Eastport Marina, we fuelled up, pumped out, and stayed the night.

Eastport Marina, near Peoria, Illinois.

“The wickets are down!” I exclaimed after talking to the Lockmaster on the phone. This is big news! The next lock a few miles away is a wicket dam. This means that in high water situations, like we have now, you don’t have to go through the lock. You simply drive around it. It’s like a free pass!

Leaving industrial Peoria.

Going around the lock (on the left side of the photo) and over the wickets.

Passing a huge tow. They were doing 7, we were doing 10. It seemed like it took forever.

Passing the family we met in Ottawa on Love and Luck.

Again, en route on the Waterway, I called The Tall Timbers Marina in Havana, Illinois. A guy named Bob answered.
“Good morning. Do you have room for a 32 footer,” I asked.
“Sure do. C’mon in. I wont be there, but make yourself at home. Call me when you get settled and I’ll give you the gate and WiFi code,” he said.

Settled in at the Tall Timbers Marina.

We decided this was a nice place to stay long enough to get a couple of packages delivered.

Package number one, a new windlass from Good Automatic Windlass Company in New Jersey. The tired old one shown one next to it.

Package number two,  high-tech headsets from Cruising Solutions. They allow the XO and I to have constant two-way communication during docking and stuff. The clunky old, static filled ones shown on top.

Convicts working on the Havana Common.

It was a great 4 night stay in Havana, Illinois. Everything a boater needs is within walking distance.
We left on a warm sunny morning, cruised 35 miles, and anchored behind Bar Island.

Anchored behind Bar Island. It’s really isolated and quiet.

Good news! The wickets are down for our next lock in La Grange. Yay!
Once again, we sailed right over the wicket dam and cruised 39 miles to another anchorage behind Buckhorn Island. That means we have one more long cruise to mile 0 and the end of the Illinois Waterway. Jeez! I was just getting used to this waterway and all its peculiarities.

Twilight at anchor behind Buckhorn Island.

We left Buckhorn Island on another unseasonably warm morning. The sun was shining and the current was strong and in our favor. Suddenly, the bilge pump light came on. This is not so unusual for a boat with 4 stuffing boxes that are actually designed to leak a little in order to lubricate the prop and rudder shafts as they turn. But this time the bilge pump stayed on a little too long. I immediately opened the bilge access door to have a closer look.
“Uh oh.”
“What’s up?” the XO asked.
“There’s transmission fluid in the bilge water…” SOCOBO 11/3/17

 

Along the Illinois Waterway–Escape from Ottawa

The Illinois Waterway starts at the end of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and meanders its way to Grafton, Illinois, where it meets the Mississippi River.

The busy part of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Downtown Chicago. We fit under all the bridges except one.

Train lift bridge on the Sanitary Canal. We couldn’t fit under this one.

Onward.

Mile 303.4. The beginning. Heading south, or downbound, the miles will count down to zero.

We travelled the whole 303.4 miles.

The electric fish barrier. Designed to keep invasive species of fish from getting into Lake Michigan. There is a big problem with Asian Carp.

We stopped in Joliet to take advantage of the free wall. Nearby and across the river is a huge casino called Harrah’s, but since we’re not gamblers, and the town had nothing else to offer, we decided to leave in the morning.
We met Captain Lee, who was also tied to the wall. The dude is lucky enough to have a job delivering all kinds of boats. He gave us a lot of useful information about the waterway and the locks.
“When docking, always point your bow into the current,” he advised. “That way the debris that floats downstream won’t collect under your swim platform.”
I wish I knew that before. We had to clear pounds of salad and sticks from our props before we left.

Pointed the wrong way at the Joliet free wall. There was electricity, but no water.

We spent a rainy couple of nights at Spring Brook Marina. They had a courtesy van which we used to “provision up”.

They also had a very nice restaurant right at the marina.

When we arrived in Ottawa, Illinois, there were no boats on the free wall. Yay!

Ottawa free wall with electric, no water.

Ottawa morning.

The next day a family of 5 and their dog pulled in behind us.

Catamaran Love and Luck behind Ginger Lee at Ottawa Landing.

Ottawa, Illinois has everything a boater could need, and it’s just a few blocks away from the dock. We did laundry, found the good sandwich pub, the liquor store called “The Package Store,” and the supermarket. When our toilet clogged, I found the hardware store and bought a 20 foot plumbers snake to unclog the pipe. Lots of stuff going on in bustling Ottawa. We planned to stay longer, but the dock was situated at the intersection of the Fox and Illinois Rivers, so after a night of soaking rain, the water level rose nearly 4 feet! Logs, trash, and even whole trees were rushing down the Fox and careening off our hull and running gear. The banging and scraping reverberated terribly inside our cabin. It soon became obvious that the whole dock would be underwater before noon. We gotta go! Our neighbors in Love and Luck hurriedly untied and left. We did too. SOCOBO 10/27/17

Love and Luck at low water. By the time we left, that dock was almost underwater.

Around the Mitten Part Two. Lake Michigan

On a beautiful sunny morning, we cruised west through the Straits of Mackinaw, our northernmost point on this trip. It’s the end of Lake Huron, and the beginning of Lake Michigan.

The XO pilots Ginger Lee through the Straights of Mackinac.

The Mackinac Bridge. The longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere. Those that live on the northern side in Michigan’s upper peninsula are called Upers (pronounced Yewpers). Those that live on the southern side are called Trolls because they live under the bridge.

There are so many memorable ports on the eastern shore of Lower Michigan.

After coming down Michigan’s eastern shore, we crossed the bottom of its namesake lake from Burns Harbor to Chicago. It was one of those trips that seemed to take forever because we could see the windy city looming in front of us for the whole 4 hour ride.

Chicago Looms.

Chicago looms closer.

We hooked up to a mooring ball in Monroe Harbor. It was very close to the city and offered wonderful skyline views.

Sailing school in Monroe Harbor, Chicago.

We took a dinghy tour, had a late dinner, then drinks on the aft-deck as the sun set and the city lit up.

Dinghy tour.

Dusk in Chicago. Drinks on the aft-deck.

Chicago night scene.

The next morning, however, was overcast and grey. The wind shifted and we rocked and rolled unmercifully on the mooring. It was almost impossible to sleep.

Day one.

Day two.

Cloudy and yuckie.

I made a reservation for the next 2 days for a slip at DuSable Harbor Marina, a much calmer place behind a second breakwater, and we were better able to enjoy our time in the awesome city of Chicago. SOCOBO 10/20/17

Docked in calm DuSable Harbor.

 

Around the Mitten. Part One. Lake Huron.


The lower part of Michigan is shaped like a mitten, so when a person from Michigan wants to show you where a particular place is, he, or she, holds up a hand and points to it. Sort of like what I do when talking about Cape Cod, only I hold up my arm. My fingertip is Provincetown, the elbow is Chatham, bicep is Dennis…well, you get the idea.

The Mitten and all the ports.

Michigan has a great system of ports that create a sort of marine highway. The next destination is never more than about 30 miles away. It’s a really good system that we got used to and fell in love with.
Did you know the state of Michigan has more boaters than anyone, anywhere? It’s true! They love their boaters; they take care of their boaters; they even spoil their boaters, and it shows.
The XO and I travelled The Mitten from Brownstown to New Buffalo, pretty much the whole thing, and every moment was very, very nice.

Bascule bridge in Port Huron.

Michele and Dale, our good friends, proud residents of Port Huron, and owners of matching Black Oak Arkansas tee shirts

Dinner party at their home. I got pretty lit and fell off my bicycle on the way back to the boat.

After leaving  Port Huron, we stayed 3 nights in the port of Lexington, mostly because of poor conditions on Lake Huron. The Great Lakes can kick up 12 foot waves and we definitely don’t want to be in them.

Bad weather.

We found the pub and consoled ourselves with drinks and sandwiches. The XO is convinced that she had found the perfect Reuben.

Marina pub.

After the weather cleared, we headed out for the port of Harbor Beach, but our port engine–who we call Pollux–busted a fan belt on the way. Luckily, Port Sanilac was near, about 2 miles away. I called the Harbormaster and explained the situation. She gave us a slip that was easy to pull into on our one engine. I changed the belt, got a spare one from the marina parts store, and had a nice visit to boot.

Port Sanilac Morning.

The Last Loopers

We started this Great Loop trip relatively late. Just taking care of business at home, but we left as soon as we could. So far, the number of other loopers we’ve seen we can count on our thumbs. Heck! We’re not even seeing a lot of boats. But it’s okay with us. We like it that way.

Lonely Ginger Lee.

It’s getting late in the season, and all the walls, docks, and marinas are pretty much empty. How often have you gone into a marina and they ask you where you prefer to dock? It just doesn’t happen.
“A quiet spot,” is my standard answer. “We like our privacy.”
“No problem. Put it anywhere you want. You’re our only guest.”

Far out on the end slip.

We got held up by the weather in a few places. In Ohio it was Geneva and Cleveland, in Michigan it was Muskegon and New Buffalo. All lovely places, but we probably wouldn’t have stayed so long but for the marine conditions. We just don’t cruise in big waves. So this is our trip, such as it is.

Empty marina.

 

The only guest.

We always dock bow in. It’s more private and the view is usually better.

Bow in.

New Buffalo, MI. The only boat.

Are we the last loopers for the season? I don’t know for sure–someone has to bring up the rear– I only know that I like it.

 

Bye Bye Lake Erie

I’m going to miss Lake Erie. It’s a fine piece of water that has given me many indelible memories. That long jump from Sandusky Bay to the Detroit River was bittersweet. Jeez! We had just gotten used to the ways of the little Great Lake, and all the peculiarities that make Lake Erie what it is: the harbors, the weather, the winds, and yes, even the bugs. Heading north up the Detroit river, we realized we have to learn a new system in a new state, and a new lake. Michigan and Huron.

Lake Erie on a calm day.

We made an overnight stop at a tiny marina in Brownstown, our first of many ports in Michigan. I had made a reservation the day before, but when we arrived, the attendant was strangely unaware of this. He put us in the slip reserved for lifting boats out of the water.
The next morning was dreary, grey, and cold as gun-metal.
“That’s what you get for leaving me”, Lake Erie said. “Come back. You know you like me”.
I ignored the voice in my head and started the engines. We cast off the lines and headed north.

Sharing the road with some big friends.

The plan was to blast right through to Detroit, but the weather was getting worse.

Bad weather. Driving by radar.

Within two miles of Keane’s Marina, our destination in Detroit, a wicked thunderstorm engulfed us. We quickly tied up to a wall at Millikan State park.

Tied to a wall at Millikan State Park. The XO seems unconcerned as a tremendous thunderstorm rages on.

We thought we could stay on that wall overnight, but after a couple of bad wakes slammed us against it, we headed out to our Detroit destination as soon as the weather cleared enough to navigate.
Keane’s Marina in Detroit, featured a hot tub, which almost made up for the bad music that they played 24/7 through tinny speakers.

Keane’s Marina in Detroit.

In the clearing Detroit morning fog, we fueled up, pumped out, and headed off across Lake St. Claire, to an unusual and unique area called Harsen’s Island, where all the neighbors houses are connected by a series of canals.

Harsen’s Island canal.

The market on a canal.

Proprietor Jim.

Ginger Lee at the South Channel Yacht Club, Harsen’s Island.

We had an enjoyable two night stay on Harsen’s Island. It had a sweet, laid back Caribbean feel, but if you’re planning to stop there, be sure to bring drinking water. The only water available is pumped from the lake, and not safe for drinking.

Harsen’s Island Morning.

Harsen’s Island is one of those places that captures your soul. The only two local people I had conversations with both said essentially the same thing: “I fell in love with it the first time I came here, so I stayed”. I believe such a thing is possible, because I felt it too. I could live here forever!
Ah well, It’s not like I haven’t said that before, but we have many miles to go, roughly 5,000, so once again, I ignored the voice in my head and started the engines. We cast off the lines, and continued north to Port Huron.

 

Swarmed in Sandusky

I will preface the following story with this statement: “You can’t make this stuff up.” Okay? So here it is.
We spent a lovely night anchored in Lorain Harbor, Ohio. It was a very quiet anchorage next to the bones of what was three major manufacturing companies: The American Shipbuilding Company, The United States Steel Mill, and the Ford Motor Company that manufactured such epic vehicles as the Thunderbird, Torino, Mercury Montego, Mercury Cougar and Econoline vans. I say bones because none of that stuff is there anymore. Talk about de-industrialization. Lorain practically invented the word. Shipbuilding stopped decades ago, but The U.S Steel Mill left in 2005, then Ford pulled out last year in a UAW dispute. That’s a butt-load of jobs that vaporized. How could you not feel sorry for these guys? Lorain, Ohio was a manufacturing powerhouse! Now all the wharves are barren and everything is closed. But I digress.

Sad, empty wharves.

Lorains beautiful lighthouse.

The cops came by to say hello.

We left the next morning for Sandusky, Ohio, a resort town in western Ohio that features the largest roller coaster amusement park in the world. The weather was really nice, the waves less than a foot, the winds light and variable. We were just cruising along southern Lake Erie, minding our own business, not bothering anybody, Then it happened. A thing I never considered. A thing I never thought was possible. We were swarmed by flying insects!
We first noticed a bunch of bugs on the lee side of the boat.
“Okay”, we said, “it’s just a few insects getting out of the wind.” Then there was a bunch more on the other side of the boat.
“Hmm. That’s odd”. Suddenly they were everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE! We quickly shut all the windows so the cabin was okay, but bugs soon blackened all the windows. But the aft deck was wide open and the little devils collected there by the millions. By the time we reached Sandusky Bay, bugs were and inch thick on the carpet. Odd that most of them were dead, but thousands were still buzzing.
I tried going out onto the aft deck with a big towel, I figured I could swing it around and shoo the live ones away but I was instantly covered. They dove for my mouth, eyeballs, ears, and nostrils. I gagged–almost puked– and ran back into the salon, coughing and spitting up bug guts. They had invaded every uncovered surface of the outside of our boat. Like our barbecue grill, straw hats, ditch bag, and dock lines. The inside of our walking shoes, which we kept out on the aft-deck, were filled with writhing, smelly, winged insects. It was absolutely disgusting. After anchoring, we regrouped, masked our faces with dish towels, put on hats, and went back into battle armed with swinging towels and a wet/dry vacuum. It took two solid hours to clean everything up enough to inhabit the aft deck. I emptied the vacuum a dozen times. If you squished these bugs, they would leave a black stain, so we had to either brush them off or vacuum them up. After some research, we discovered we were not the only unfortunate victims of the bugs called Mayflies.That is my unforgettable memory of Sandusky Bay, Ohio. SOCOBO 9/22/17

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Lake Erie is a Bully

Lake Erie became the tempestuous lady I’ve heard about. High winds and 5 foot waves are not very appealing for our 32 footer Ginger Lee. I’ve always said that if the conditions on the water suck, we stay in port. Well it happened to us in two places on the lake so far: Geneva, OH., then in Cleveland. It’s a good thing both ports were very nice.

Geneva State Park Marina.

In Geneva Ohio, among other things, we did laundry, took a cab to the grocery store, and cycled to the honky-tonk-ish section of town called Geneva-by-the-Lake. It was filled with arcades, fried dough joints, ice cream huts, and biker bars.

Biking through Geneva-by- the-Lake.

By the fourth day, Lake Erie had finally calmed down enough. hallelujah! Love Geneva but had enough.
We continued west along the southern shores of the lake to Fairport Ohio, and anchored behind a huge stone breakwater.

The XO swims in wake filled Fairport Harbor. The beautiful, newly renovated lighthouse is in the background.

Many local boaters anchored here to swim and enjoy a gorgeous summer Sunday. Nobody seemed to notice all the big express cruisers tearing through the anchorage at full speed and creating massive wakes. When we took a dinghy ride into town, a 40 foot Sea Ray headed right for us at full speed. He passed several feet in front of our little 12 footer. All we could do was hang on for dear life as his wake sent us airborne. The guy continued on toward the jetty, knocking down paddleboarders and kayakers. I know it’s not a no-wake zone, but c’mon, have some common sense and courtesy.

Fairport Ohio is very industrial.

The next morning, we headed west towards Cleveland.

Approaching Cleveland.

We settled into a small private marina called The Forest City Yacht Club.

The Forest City Yacht Club.

This is the calmest marina anywhere. Just outside its breakwater were awful lake conditions.

We were the guests of an awesome marina with the cleanest, air-conditioned showers, and a sweet swimming pool. The club members were very friendly as well. They even gave us a free nights stay!
After 3 nights in paradise, we decided to make a run west, but Ol’ Erie bullyed us once again with a nasty north wind that whipped up 3 foot waves that smashed into us broadside. After only 5 miles we couldn’t take it anymore. We ducked into the last westward marina in Cleveland. Fortunately they had one transient slip available.

The Last Slip in Cleveland at the Edgewater Marina. Check out the angry skies over Lake Erie.

Two more nights in Cleveland were well spent. There is a lot going on.

This a bike friendly city.

Cleveland scene

Awesome waterfront.

Downtown marketplace.

Finally, after 5 nights in Cleveland, the weather changed and we made our plans to leave  in the morning and head west towards the port of Lorain. Hopefully, Lake Erie will be nice to us. SOCOBO 9/15/17

Clearing skies over Cleveland Ohio.