How far do we have to go to get warm in December?
It was a sunny 78 degrees when we pulled Ginger Lee into Fairhope, Alabama. I really thought I had my answer. We were all tee shirts and shorts, bare feet and umbrella drinks on the aft deck. Yee ha! The deep south! The next day the temperature never made it out of the forties. The next night was twenty-two degrees. Then there was a storm. The day after that it snowed. We were there for six days and never turned off the heater.
Apparently, Fairhope was not far enough. We moved on.
Flora-Bama was nice and sorta warm. Not shorts weather, but I was able to stick my bare feet into Gulf Coast sand for the first time.
It was the same story in Pensacola, Florida. The days were gorgeous, the people friendly, the raw oysters awesome (so I hear), and to top it all off, they sold beer and cigars right at the end of the dock. Still, we couldn’t open the windows, and we needed to use our heater at night. It was excellent long-sleeve shirt weather, but not warm.
It wasn’t until we docked in Panama City that we could finally open windows and hang out in shorts. No heater was needed at night. It was great. Then the fog rolled in.
Believe me, there are worse places to be stuck in port. We met some very nice people and really enjoyed the special ambiance that only a historic working port can provide.
How far do we have to go to get warm in December? As far as beautiful Panama City, Florida. SOCOBO 12/22/17
“How is your trip going?” The XO asks. She is, of course, referring to the Great Loop. It’s not the first time she has asked this question.
“It’s your trip too,” I answer this time, knowing full well that it is my dream trip. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it without her. So that sort of makes it her trip too.
“Yeah, I know. But I wanna know about your part.”
“It’s great! Beats workin’.”
“Is it like you expected?”
“Hell no. Nothing about this trip is anything like I expected.”
“Well for one thing, I thought we would have trouble finding places to stay, but that has never been the case. In fact, everywhere we go, we are usually alone, marina or anchorage.”
“Maybe people are avoiding us,” the XO kids.
“Ha! It is odd though. We don’t usually run into the people we meet more than a few times. Maybe our pace is different,” I reason.
“Or our taste in ports is.”
“That’s true. We tend to avoid the popular places. Prefer a good working boatyard over a glitzy destination marina. There’s nothing better than a deserted out-of-the-way anchorage.”
“It’s the Great Loop. We can only go so far off the beaten path, but you’re right, we have different tastes than most boaters. What else is not expected?”
“I didn’t think it would be so cold. I though we would be fighting the heat. We’ve only air-conditioned twice and we’ve heated hundreds of times. I’m totally unprepared clothing-wise. I only brought one thermal shirt; I still have no gloves; I had to buy a wool hat and a fleece jacket, and keeping enough heating fuel on the boat is a problem.”
“The warmest day we’ve had so far had been way north, like somewhere in Michigan, and the coldest day was in the deep south near the Gulf of Mexico in Fairhope, Alabama. It actually snowed for the first time in decades!”
“What about you. What surprises you about this trip.” I ask.
“Besides the fact that fresh vegetables don’t last more than a day, I thought it would be more relaxing. Some of it is kinda frightening,” she answered.
“We do Summer trips on Ginger Lee all the time. It’s not so scary. Well, not all the time,” I countered. Boating is, and always will be, somewhat dangerous. Stuff can and will happen, no matter how well you prepare.
“Ya but living on the boat has taken it to another level, but so far, most of the water stays out of the boat; I’m starting to relax a bit. In fact, by the time we get back home I’m gonna be so relaxed you’ll have to pour me into my job!” SOCOBO 12/16/17
No one knows where they came from. There was no hailing port on their 48 foot ketch “Mystic Sun”. Even the boat itself was mystery. It must have arrived Sunday night while we slept. Kudos to the crew for navigating in such a wicked fog, and for docking without waking my wife, a light sleeper with a keen sense of hearing. In the morning we awoke and they were there in front of us.
The Mystic Sun has precious little free space on the above decks. It’s packed with all kinds of stuff. From our vantage point behind them, I saw dozens of items. Some that belong on a boat, some that might belong on a boat, and some that have no business being on a boat at all.
I can only imagine what it’s like inside. I sipped coffee and wondered about that and about Mystic Sun’s sailors. I didn’t have to wonder very long. Through the diffused morning sunlight, partially obscured by the rustic wooden pilings of the old dock, I watched as three of them appeared in the haze. Females. Fairly young. Like feral cats they preened and stretched in the warm sunlight. One spotted me and disappeared like smoke. Then the other two disappeared as well. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Did I just see that? Naw. I need more coffee. That’s all. Yes. At that time I believed there were only three, although I could’ve been mistaken, given the nature of all true ferals, who shun the light and skulk in the corners of existence, not so much out of fear, but more for survival in a fearsome world.
I ducked low on my seat so as not to be seen. One of them soon appeared on deck. She had white blonde hair, cropped close except for the bangs, which swiped below yellowish brown eyebrows, like the young actress in Kevin Costner’s movie “Waterworld”. She quickly peeled a small orange citrus fruit, possibly a tangerine, fed on it, and tossed the rinds into the fast-moving river. They floated by me down river in the quick current. Fascinated, I went outside onto the dock for closer observation, and maybe to say hi, but was startled by the fact that suddenly there was no longer anybody on the deck, and there’s unintelligible sounds emanating from the inside the old sailboat. It’s like a chant that repeats over and over. I couldn’t make out any specific language.
“What’s that noise”? the XO asked from inside our boat.
“It’s them”, I whispered. “The feral girls”, my body blocking my pointing finger.
“Yes. Girls. Living in the wilds of the waterways. Look”.
Suddenly, another feral emerged from the companionway. Taller than the first, with short dark hair, dark eyes, shorts and navy blue tee-shirt. A quick hop and she was off the boat, bare feet padding down the dock. Just before she reached the turn, she faded away like heat waves coming off a hot black-top road. Or did she simply turn the corner out of sight? I couldn’t be sure.
As I refilled my coffee cup, another climbed the stairs into the daylight. She’s older, possibly 15, with dirty blonde pony-tailed hair, faded skinny jeans, and off white Keds. She sat aft on the ornate wooden railing. After peering into a white cell phone for a solid 10 minutes, she grabbed three tangerines and expertly juggled them to the delight of her younger feral sis, who was climbing up the companionway stairs.
At first I thought there were only three, but as I sat sipping java, a confirmed sighting of a fourth occurred. This one had long dark hair and wore a long dark overcoat. She possessed the air of an established older teenager. By her interaction with the other ferals, and the way they followed her movements, I deduced that she was the pack leader. With one swift, agile movement, she leapt off the boat and onto the dock. I heard no sound when her feet hit the old wood, and like her pack-mate, she walked down the dock and faded away in a haze a microsecond before the turn. I know I saw that.
“You’re letting your imagination run wild again”, the XO said.
“If you look at them too long they disappear. Like smoke”.
“What? They’re just living on their boat, like tons of people”.
“I know what I saw”, I said.
The XO didn’t look skeptical; in fact, she laughed. We often make up stories about people we see and don’t know anything about. It’s simply a fun way to pass the time, but I wonder. Where did they come from? Where are they going? How are they surviving?
Later that day, shortly after sunset, when the moon began its slow glowing rise, we heard the strangest sounds. The same rhythmic chanting over and over that increased in volume, louder and louder. It was impossible to ignore. Suddenly there was absolute silence, equally impossible to ignore. When we heard a large watery sound like that of a person falling off a boat, we jumped up to investigate. But there was nothing there, no splashing, no wake, and no Mystic Sun. There was no evidence of anything, just the dim moonlight reflecting off the grey brackish waters of the Dog River. SOCOBO 12/9/17
We find ourselves on a boat on a year-long journey. “Remote from all the cares of the people of the land.”We float on our own private island, and remain responsible to keep it that way. Floating that is.
The first rule of boating: Keep the water out of the boat.
If we pay diligent attention to our jobs as caretakers of Ginger Lee, she will take good care of us. That’s our hope anyway, but so far we are safe and comfortable.
Here’s a look inside Ginger Lee.
We knock on wood often, and light candles for good luck. We try our best not to offend Neptune. It sounds silly but it calms our souls.
We travel from port to port at less than 8 MPH. It takes most of the day to go 40 miles. If we like a place, we stay awhile, if not, we leave in the morning.
There is no particular schedule or destination. That in itself is a luxury and a wonderful way to be. So we embrace this adventure as best we can, because after this trip is over, we may never be that way again. SOCOBO 11/24/17
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.
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.
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.
After Hoppies we tied up to a lock wall on the Kaskaskia River. It was off the Mississippi and very calm.
The next night we anchored in a small inlet called The Little Diversion River. Also off the Mississippi, and very calm as well.
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
“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.
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.
We continued on to Grafton Illinois, the last stop on the Illinois Waterway. Mile 00.0.
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
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.
En route, I called the Spring Valley Boat Club and was welcomed with open arms.
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.
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.
We travelled on to Peoria, Illinois. At the Eastport Marina, we fuelled up, pumped out, and stayed the night.
“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!
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.
We decided this was a nice place to stay long enough to get a couple of packages delivered.
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.
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.
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.
“What’s up?” the XO asked.
“There’s transmission fluid in the bilge water…” SOCOBO 11/3/17
We travelled the whole 303.4 miles.
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.
When we arrived in Ottawa, Illinois, there were no boats on the free wall. Yay!
The next day a family of 5 and their dog pulled in behind us.
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