Florence, AL to Demopolis, AL

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One of the cautions we have heeded from veteran Loopers is “Never have a schedule!” But we also say “Always have a plan. That way you know what you are deviating from!” We can attest to the veracity of that saying, especially in the last six weeks.

Our original plan, when we started out from St Paul, MN, was to be in Mobile, AL, by Thanksgiving. That got amended when we decided to go up the Cumberland River to Nashville, TN, and then decided to go up the Tennessee River to Chattanooga, TN. The new plan in the middle of October was to get to Mobile, AL, in early December, just after Thanksgiving. After Louise’s operation, we did have an item on the schedule, which was to be back in Florence, AL, on the morning of December 20, 2018 for the 6-week follow-up doctor’s appointment. Florence is a half day car ride from Mobile so we really just needed to be in Mobile by December 16, 2018, which would give us time to pick up the car and travel up there. Piece of cake, or so we thought.

We left Aqua Yacht Harbor in Iuka, MS, on December 4th after arranging for new bottom paint, work on the electronic entertainment systems, other minor repairs, and having new light filtering hatch covers made for inside the boat. (The pilot house can get pretty warm with the sun beating in, and the canvas work is just superb.)

We made the right turn from the Tennessee River into the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, heading south. The Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway (popularly known as the Tenn-Tom) is a 234-mile-long manmade waterway that extends from the Tennessee River to the junction of the Black Warrior-Tombigbee River system near Demopolis, AL. The Tenn-Tom Waterway links commercial navigation from the nation’s midsection to the Gulf of Mexico. It was originally proposed in the mid 1800’s and underwent a succession of proposals (and lack of funding) up until 1972. Under construction for twelve years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tenn-Tom Waterway was completed in December 1984 at a total cost of nearly $2 billion. For much of the way, we cruised in what was essentially a big, rip-rap lined, manmade channel.

2018-12-04 12.10.31 a typical view of the rip rap channel on the tenn tom
A typical view of the rip-rap channel on the Tenn-Tom.

Our first stop was at Bay Springs Marina in New Site, MS, followed by Smithville Marina in Smithville, MS, on Wednesday December 5th. In two days, we had transited 4 of the 10 locks on the Tenn-Tom. Many of these locks were so close together that the lock master of the upstream lock would call the downstream lock and tell them that we were coming. We were traveling in the company of several other Looper boats when we left Bay Springs, but left them behind mid-day on the 5th when they pulled into Midway Marina in Fulton, MS. We had also planned to stop there but it was barely noon by the time we arrived, with beautiful weather, so we pressed on. Smithville Marina was probably one of the worst maintained marinas we have been to, with holes in the docks and ramp landings, shaky tie ups and broken cleats, no lights at night, and electrical connections that were so shoddy Lenny refused to put us on shore power.

We were well positioned to complete 3 more locks the next day and tied up at Columbus Marina, Columbus, MS, on Thursday December 6th. By our calculations, including a 2-day stay to refuel, provision, and do laundry, we would be in Mobile on December 16th, with plenty of time to make that doctor’s appointment on December 20th. (Good thing we had that plan with the fixed date, so we could know what we were about to be deviating from!) The Columbus Marina is one of the best we have stayed at, and we were conveniently tied up to have easy access to the boaters’ lounge and the laundry and shower facilities. Columbus is large enough to have good grocery shopping and a vibrant downtown, festooned for the holidays. So, we decided our 2-day stop would be here. We used Uber to get around easily.

2018-12-08 14.21.10 huge flag being blown about at columbus marina - we stay put in wind like this
A huge flag being blown about at Columbus Marina; we stay put in wind like this.

Thanks to the weather, 2 days turned into 4 days. We don’t mind the rain so much, but a blustery wind made travel much more difficult. The weather didn’t improve until the morning of Tuesday December 11, 2018, when we left Columbus in company with Wild Goose (Barry and Carol Sullivan) and headed downstream towards Mobile. We were very close to the John Stennis Lock and Dam, so we stayed at the marina until they told us to “come on down.” We were greeted with the unexpected sight of a lock stuffed from side to side with water hyacinths. Not the small, pretty ones that probably came to your mind, but big, fibrous mats that made it almost impossible to tie up. Lenny had to move from one side of the lock to the other and use Then Again like an icebreaker to clear a path for us. We were certainly happy to clear that lock, even though the flow on the downstream side was so turbulent it looked like a washing machine with too much soap!

We passed through another lock and anchored out in Sumter Recreation Area, a calm, quiet bay about 4 miles from the next lock on the Tenn-Tom. Lenny was able to use the dinghy to successfully row Chip and Dayle ashore, where they enjoyed being off lead on the wooded trails. This was the first time the boys were in the dinghy, but they did fine.

The weather had been clear, although nighttime lows were in the mid-20s. The morning of December 12th we awoke to ice in the cockpit. Our plan was to get with the Wild Goose, call the lockmaster, hopefully not have to wait very long, and be on our way to Demopolis, AL. Except our engine Did. Not. Start. We tried it for a while with no luck. We could not get cell service but Barry and Carol could, so they called Boat US for us to arrange a tow the next day. Barry and Carol decided to stick around with us for the day and, in the middle of the afternoon, we tried the engine again and It Started! We kept shutting it down and restarting it and when it continued to start every time, we called Boat US again and called off the tow. Lesson 6: Even if you think you don’t need the tow after all, keep them coming just in case.

2018-12-12 06.28.02 sunrise wednesday morning before we found out the engine wouldn't start
The beautiful sunrise that greeted us Wednesday morning before we found out the engine wouldn’t start after all.

We wished we had known that lesson, because when we tried the engine at 8pm, it didn’t start. We gave up at that point and figured we would get the tow the next morning. Lenny went over to Wild Goose, where he could get cell reception, and once again called for a tow. The tow boat would not arrive until mid-afternoon, so we told Barry and Carol they didn’t need to wait for us and we would catch up with them in Demopolis. While waiting for the tow, Lenny noticed that our anchors were dragging and was trying to figure out how to prevent us from going aground, given that we had no engine to move us and re-set. If Barry and Carol were Angels One and Two, the young duck hunter was Angel Three as he showed up about 30 minutes later to launch his john boat. He was able to drag us into a better part of the anchorage, and we could get cell reception at last!

Boat US showed up at about 4pm and we were hooked up and underway in less than 30 minutes. It was really cold and rainy, and the tow boat was an open Boston Whaler with a young couple on it – her first time doing this. We stretched our hot meal of pork chops, mashed potatoes and green beans to feed the four of us, and later dispensed hot chocolate. We transited the lock under tow and arrived at Kingfisher Bay Marina (Demopolis Yacht Harbor) in Demopolis, AL, in the early morning hours of Thursday, December 13th. Not knowing what our mechanical issues were, we paid for a month (cheaper than weekly) and have been tied up ever since. We will be here for awhile longer because of the flooding on the Tombigbee River. We are about 5 days away from Mobile and may make it there by mid-January. This is also an excellent marina, and we have attended both a Christmas Eve Pot Luck and a New Year’s Eve party. Many of the other boaters here are Loopers and we will begin to coordinate our future travels with them. Only 2 more locks until we get to Mobile. (Oh, yeah, and a matter of a flood to wait out. One of our planned stops is underwater right now and there is no alternative.)

One place we really wanted to visit was Birmingham, AL, and we were able to do that by car in conjunction with Louise’s doctor appointment. (Everything is just fine; no more follow-ups needed.) We spent 3 nights there, and our first stop was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. We both grew up in the same small town in western New York state, and most of the exposure to these horrifying events was courtesy of the evening network news. (Louise is that much younger than Lenny, and one of the few times it makes a difference is when we share our memories of those “current events.” Lenny remembers the seriousness of the situation, but nothing really registered with Louise at that time.) It’s a beautifully curated museum with films, exhibits and actual vehicles and structures from the mid 1960’s, including Martin Luther King Jr’s actual cell from the Birmingham jail, and the firebombed bus from the Freedom Riders.

2018-12-21 13.33.22 comparison of white vs black classrooms at birmingham civil rights institute
A comparison of white vs. black classrooms in the 1950’s at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

We finally understood how important the Courts were in advancing the cause of desegregation and the Right to Vote. Many cases were detailed in their intents and results: it was a lot of reading, and we were there for over 3 hours. The institute is across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church where 4 teenage girls were killed in a bombing. (Setting off bombs in people’s homes and at their churches to express displeasure at what the blacks were striving for was all too common in those days.) We compared this museum to the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, OH, that we had seen prior to our loop adventure. This was another piece of our education into this part of American History.

Birmingham was also known for its iron and steel factories. The statue of Vulcan (Roman God of the Forge) was created for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and now towers over the city from the top of the hill. Its visitor center provides the early history of the city, and a visit to Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark allowed us to walk through a decommissioned iron works to view all the machinery used in the process of making iron.

We also made a side trip to Selma, AL, with two purposes. One was to drive over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday” where marchers heading to Montgomery from Birmingham were confronted by armed police and snarling dogs as they trod the road down the far side of the bridge. We imagined how our stomachs would have dropped, as we came over the crest of the bridge and saw the angry mob. These were shameful times in our history and they should not be forgotten or minimized.

2018-12-30 13.39.38 selma natl voting rights mural on far side of edmund pettus bridge
Selma’s National Voting Rights mural on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Our second purpose was much more joyful. We met up with one of Louise’s IBM work mates, Karen Thompson, and her daughter Hannah in Selma. Karen’s family lives in Montgomery, AL, and she was there for the Christmas holidays. She was a part of Louise’s team of remote project managers, and she and Karen had never met face to face until then. We were all blessed to enjoy a meal together and catch up on what was going on in our lives.

We’ve been on this journey for almost 200 days and have faced many challenges and been blessed by beautiful scenery, kind people, and a much better awareness of this part of the country. We are looking forward to the next set of adventures.

Our Trip So Far

As of Monday January 1, 2019…

  • Days: 199
  • Locks Passed Through: 52
  • Miles Sailed: 2,507
  • Engine Hours: 323
  • Gallons of Diesel: 1018

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Karen R. Thompson says:

    WOW!!! Such an awesome trip thus far! I love the fact that you are taking time to gain insight on the cities you visit. Soaking up all that history and charting new paths. AND,,,I made the blog!! It was a pleasure and honor to meet you both…safe travels as you continue your voyage. We love you and Happy 2019!!!

  2. Jan Eck says:

    I love reading about your adventures and commentary. We are living vicariously through your travels. We had a great time in Mobile-sorry we missed you. jan and pat

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