Sad though we were to depart St. Louis, we knew we needed to start making miles down the Mississippi. Just out the chute, we traveled through the large lock we’d visited a few days earlier. With the swift current at our stern, we arrived at Hoppies Marina in Kimmswick, Missouri by early afternoon. This is no ordinary marina. Hoppies, named for owner Fern Hopkins, is three old barges cabled to stone on the banks of the Mississippi.
Fern and her husband grabbed our lines as we turned our bow back into the powerful Mississippi current, leaving us facing upstream and port side tied to the bollards. While handling our lines, practically whipping into place a figure eight knot on a make-shift cleat with one hand and pulling in our little riverboat, Fern puffed on a cigarette.
Fern has kind blue eyes, and her smooth Missouri-accented voice belies her constant smoking. Fern knows this river. And all the ones leading down into the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe she was once a river captain driving tows up and down these turbid waters. I’m near certain she was born on the river. I’m positive she’s got the best advice for civilian-types like us.
Every day at 1600 she holds a river guide session, in a canopied area on her downstream barge. A tattered couch, a few bar stools and a plywood coffee table serve as the classroom. During the session – where Fern talks and smokes and you listen and cough – she explains the ins and outs of the mighty river. Where to anchor. Where a bend creates such turbulence it’ll turn you 90 degrees in a snap. How the tow captains like to move massive loads, up to five wide and ten long, around bends. She knows the mile numbers by heart for each obstacle or opportunity on the river. Fern is an institution on the river, worth a chapter in someone’s book.
We heard the day after we departed four barges broke loose and were headed down-river at five knots, careening off the left then right bank like a package of rusty pinballs. These were the runaway barges Fern warned us all about. Barges that break loose from their steel cable tethers. We heard from another boater that the four boats tied to the Hoppies barges were sitting ducks and when word came on the marine radio in the form of a Coast Guard warning, Fern’s husband got into his 20-foot skiff and drove upriver just as the barges were approaching. He apparently put the flat-nosed bow of his small craft on the side of the first barge (at great peril to himself) and thrust it to one side just enough so that it missed peeling open the pleasure boats tied-up at Hoppies like a can-opener. Though runaway barges are rare, they can wreak havoc quickly endangering life, limb and property, until they come to rest on a bank or bridge abutment or are corralled by other working tows. Fern’s husband didn’t think much of his efforts, offering, “It wasn’t no thing.”
Lucky for Muddy, we didn’t meet any runaway barges; but, we had to pass or overtake plenty of tows on the river, not always as simple as it sounds. After a good day’s run with nearly four knots of current pushing us along, we made a turn into the Kaskaskian River, where we hoped to spend the evening tied to a lock wall in this Mississippi tributary. Since a tow (with no barges) was in the chamber and locking up as we arrived, we waited in the big water of the Mississippi. We turned into the current and gave just enough power to hold ourselves still and maintain steering. The lock master said we could enter the river and wait near the dam for the tow to exit. We radioed back that we’d follow his instructions.
Just then, the tow in the chamber, with its pilothouse just peering above the lock walls, called on the radio, noticing we were right of center and closer to the downstream markers. He said to stay clear of those markers because of low water and lots of recent shoaling. Just as he called out the warning we bumped the bottom and were stuck in the muck’s sticky grasp. We also had the power of the Mississippi pushing on our beam and further toward the downstream bank. While we could see deep water just ahead of us, I remembered our friend Dennis Fox’s saying that the way to get off…is the same way you got on.
So we powered-up in reverse and tried to wiggle the bow with our hydraulic 25-horsepower bow thruster. After ten long seconds, we were off but still sideways to the Mississippi and sailing quickly toward the banks. We swung the bow into the current fast as we could using our engine and rudder. We were back in the big water and safe again. The tow captain suggested we wait until he exited and follow his tracks into the lock. We did as he suggested and all was good.
The lock master was helpful and allowed us to tie up on the outer lock wall for the evening, something you can’t do on the locks on the Mississippi itself. The lock master said there was so much shoaling at the entrance to the Kaskaskian River that they had a dredge scheduled for the following day to clear the way for the tows. We were continuing to see the effects of cruising just a little later in the fall than most – lower water levels in all the rivers. Every few days we’ve been reminded to be prepared to act calmly and quickly on the water. We also enjoyed a cool evening in a beautiful and quiet setting – not a motorized vehicle within miles – just us, nature, and the lock.
Next morning we set-off for an anchorage called Little Diversion channel, further down the Mississippi. While a whitewater rapid in the spring, this time of year it’s barely a creek, probably seventy-five feet wide and about maybe seven feet deep in the center. We powered our way out of the Mississippi and into the creek entrance. On our depth sounder we saw about a foot beneath our keel. Creeping forward we felt the mud grab us. Again! We backed-off the mud without much difficulty and then carefully spun the boat 180 degrees, while making a big muddy mess below us.
Two fisherman watched, not a single change in expression between them. We wondered if we were scaring the fish toward them or just spoiling their peaceful afternoon. Either way, we’d give them more than a big fish story to tell their grandkids when they got home. Since Fern had warned us that river levels could drop a few feet overnight, we decided we didn’t want to spend the season in that spot if it did drop.
Time for Plan B. We motored on and got to our back-up anchorage, called Boston Bar, just as the sun was setting. The guidebooks warn about rocks, just below the surface, near the entrance of this semi-protected spot. Well, when we arrived, the rocks were plenty out of the water, silhouetted against the quasi-channel into the anchorage. With the daylight quickly disappearing, we decided it wouldn’t be safe for us to tempt shallow waters and nearby rocks in the dark.
Time for Plan C, motoring down the Mississippi and then up the Ohio at night, to the next anchorage – one we knew was deep and wide. We turned on our running lights and did our usual check to be sure everything was lit up. Our port running light (the red one) wasn’t on, though everything else checked-out. Hmmm. So, now in the dark, with the engine in forward and at idle speed Keenan climbed atop the pilothouse to perform minor surgery on our port-side navigation light. Daria went into our spare bulbs pack and found the matching 12 volt bulb, and quick as can be Keenan used the screw-driver on his multi-tool and extracted the burned-out bulb and inserted the new one. At least we were all lit up. We cheered a little cheer.
All just in time for us to turn off the Mississippi and up the Ohio River at Cairo (pronounced Cay-row in these parts), Illinois. And also just as the sun set and everything went dark. With our senses heightened and all four of us in the pilothouse, we watched our radar and AIS closely. We dimmed all our instruments to protect our night vision and turned on our red chart lights. The kids also had powerful spotlights on either side of the pilothouse, and Jennifer and I each had binoculars on our eyes every few seconds.
I’m guessing the Mississippi-Ohio river junction is the busiest on the Great Loop. It was when we arrived anyway. It’s a sea of movement all times of day and night. Not just up and down the river, across it too. We saw factories on one side and staging areas on the other. Dredges, anchored barges, mooring cells, tows moving back and forth. And everything on shore was lit up. The factories have near-blinding white lights shining on their facilities, and that light can easily disorient a sailor. We didn’t hail any shore facilities and ask if they preferred a one or two whistle pass though.
Just past midnight we reached a wide point in the Ohio we’d heard from other cruisers was an excellent anchorage. With Keenan at the helm and Daria and Jennifer holding spotlights, we dropped the hook. We backed down and set the anchor, made a bridle to lower the angle of our all-chain rode, effectively giving us more scope. We not only turned on our anchor light, we lit our spreader light (more of a flood light that illuminates our entire upper deck) and took our two handheld spotlights plugged them in and put one forward and one aft and set them on strobe for the remainder of the night. We wanted to look like a Christmas tree full of white lights on the side of the river. The four of us collapsed into bed and slept our soundest sleep in a long while.
Up at dawn, we made our way to our second lock on the Ohio. The wind was kicking up and above 20 knots. We entered the lock with a sailboat and the lock tender asked us to move forward in the chamber to make room. Only problem was there weren’t any bollards forward in the lock. The lock tender took our long lines and wrapped a mid-ship and a stern line around two fence posts and handed the lines back to us. This was our first of nearly one hundred locks where we had to do this while locking up. The lock tender said we looked fine with the two lines securing us. I knew better, I really did. Still, I said OK.
The lock tender signaled the lock master, who began to fill the lock. The turbulence was wicked. We could feel Muddy Waters being pushed away from the wall. With the lock half full and millions of gallons rushing into this contained area, we were surging forward and our bow was being ripped away from the wall at the same time. We couldn’t tighten the mid-ship line because of the forward movement. Then we heaved backward and outward. Within seconds, we were twenty feet from the wall, with incoming water pushing our bow farther out and nearly to 90 degrees.
I yelled to Jennifer and the kids to release the two lines before we flipped around completely or before someone got tangled in the lines of a turning boat. Keenan’s line was snagged in the fence post, and I reached for my serrated knife to cut the line. Before I got to it, Keenan freed the line with a powerful snap that sent a wave down the line. We were free in the chamber. Time to go for a drive in a filling lock chamber.
The lock master called on the radio and calmly said, “Skipper, you’ll need to be on the wall as we fill the lock.” I’d like to think I responded in an equally calm voice on the radio and said that we agreed with his sensible recommendation. I’m not sure what cotton-soft words I spoke back into the microphone between trying to handle the wheel, clutch, throttle and bow thruster and give instructions to Jennifer and the kids. We were in the center of the chamber, and it took everything we had to keep Muddy Waters from ramming the walls and the sailboat behind us. We probably looked like a cork floating on a pot of boiling water. We seemed barely in control of Muddy’s movements and were perpendicular to the chamber walls.
After nearly five minutes of trying unsuccessfully to turn the boat forward, we finally went for broke, hit our max RPMs, and turned the boat in the lock, just missing the lock wall with our bow pulpit. The kids and Jennifer spent all five minutes lowering all our fenders and holding on tight. We were able to hold the Muddy parallel to the lock wall, about twenty feet off, for another minute and by then the lock was nearly full. The turbulence slowed and before too long the lock master was opening the gates.
We steamed straight out and saw a half dozen barges upriver on the banks, waiting their turn to lock down. We could have ruined a lot of schedules and cargo deliveries. Once we caught our collective breath and thanked the Krogen deities for designing this powerful vessel, I called the lock master to let him know we hadn’t intended to push off the wall early but that we’d gotten blown off the wall because we weren’t properly secured. My fault. He said he saw exactly what had happened and understood. Once again, we all sat in the pilothouse and assessed what we (the royal we, since this really meant only yours truly) had done wrong. And as usual, we learned a lesson but didn’t dwell. Just keep moving.
We then ran farther up the Ohio, pushing against its near three knot current, then up the Cumberland River and finally arrived at the oasis of Green Turtle Bay marina, pulling in just as the sun was setting. We were greeted by the distant scream of “Hey, there’s Muddy Waters!” coming from Sebastian and Paisley, our kids’ Looper friends aboard Inconceivable. It was a welcome cheer, and the four kids tied-up Muddy Waters themselves, braided our lines, and quickly rigged-up our water and electric.
The stretch from Chicago to the Cumberland River was filled with adventure for all aboard Muddy Waters. Other than our visit to St. Louis, we had small-town experiences. We enjoyed the scenery and have great admiration for the tow captains and crews that ply these waters, helping make the wheels, er props, go ‘round for the American economy. We also now understand why cruisers find this to be one of the most challenging parts of the Great Loop.