Tuesday, July 12th – Fulton, MS
We woke early on Tuesday and pulled out of the marina before 6 a.m. One of the local boaters, Kojak, had come by MemoryMaker on Monday evening to bid us farewell and wanted us to be sure to blow our horn as we left the next morning. So, as we passed by his boat, Dave gave the horn a couple of quick blows. We saw him waving from inside his boat; he yelled a “good luck…have a safe voyage” as we passed him.
We were both excited about leaving, but unaware of what we would find when we headed on down the rivers. As it would be, luck was with us for the entire day. We went through 7 locks, each of which dropped us about 30 feet. The locks on the Tombigbee are large and easy to transfer through. They have bollards to loop a line around; then the bollards and the boat float together as the water is released from the chamber. With the exception of a couple locks, we were able to drive into the locks as soon as we arrived.
The first time we had to wait was in Columbus. The lockmaster said he had just lowered the chamber for a northbound dredge outfit and that it might take 3 or 4 cycles to get him through…but the towboat wasn’t even at the lock. David asked if we could tie up to wait. We were instructed to pull in behind a big round concrete structure. It was a challenging spot to tie to…but we got in. There was a set of steps that led up to the locking area. If you walked up the steps, you could only walk a short distance until you reach a locked gate. David got back on the radio and asked if he could get off the boat, and walk up the steps to watch the locking process. It’s a big ‘no, no’ to get off your boat at a lock. Surprisingly, the lockmaster ok’d it and even ended up coming over and unlocking the gate and talking with David. It was starting to rain by now and after some conversation with the lockmaster, he agreed to take us down after the first transfer.
Our second wait was even shorter. About 4-5 miles from one of the locks, we caught up with a tow pushing 6 barges. We passed him…and he came on the radio talking to the lockmaster saying “doesn’t that captain know the rules. He’s just going to have to wait.” David came back on and said he was just trying to get out of the towboats way…and that we’d wait by the lock for a transfer. When he asked the lockmaster how long it would be, he replied, “unless you can get the captain of the towboat to let you go first, it will be a couple of hours. Dave then proceeded to “beg”, not really, but the towboat captain said it would be ok for us to go first. That’s very uncommon since commercial vessels have top priority in the locks, recreational vessels have the least.
Demopolis, the next largest town, was 185 miles from Fulton’s Midway Marina. We did not expect to be able to make it in one day. When we left, we planned to stay at Marina Cove, which was about ½ way to Demopolis. We arrived at Marina Cove about 12:30. However, almost as soon as we tied up at Marina Cove on their fuel dock, we made the decision we were not staying there. There were only 5 or 6 boats tied up, room for lots more. The owner met us and literally jerked the midship line off the boat. He said “that line won’t work, there’s no cleat to tie it to”. Dave told him the line would be fine, but he just kept ripping at it…We kind of stood back and did not argue. Then, there was this cat on the dock. While David was fueling, the owner kept pulling handfuls of hair from it…the cat was sneezing, rubbing against our legs, not a pretty sight. Then to cap it off, as David was finishing filling the gas tank, it did its normal spitting of a little fuel. It always does this as it’s getting near full. The guy yelled, “that’s it…stop”. When Dave told him that was normal for the boat, he did not seem persuaded and said with an assertive voice “stop fueling now”. He was not a friendly person. So, we paid him for the fuel and left.
Marina Cove is located right before the Bevill Lock. Right as we were exiting their channel, we passed by the steamboat Montgomery, a paddle wheeler that was used at one time for removing debris and downed trees. The boat has now been restored as a working steamboat. Sitting on the banks behind the Montgomery is a beautiful mansion that houses the Bevill Visitor Center. It is filled with historical exhibits about the waterway. We had planned to visit both places…if we’d stayed at the Marina Cove.
As we traveled further south, the water was up from the rains from Hurricane Dennis. The current was strong…in our favor. There was a lot of floating debris that was being washed in from the creeks and other waterways that were spilling into the Tombigbee. The challenge of traveling the waters littered with trees, limbs, half-submerged logs, and other floating debris took most of the enjoyment out of the ride. Water hyacinths were floating with the current and you were never sure what else might be attached to the weeds. The water was extremely muddy.
The banks of the river along the Alabama shoreline were pretty. The trees stood very tall. We did not see many homes. Most of the ones that were there were built on stilts. There were still a few mobile homes and a few older river cottages. We even saw mobile homes erected on stilts. But, for the most part, the homes were newer and quiet large.
The Black Warrior River comes into the Tennessee Tombigbee at Demopolis and increases the towboat traffic. We reached the fuel dock about 5:30 – 11 ½ hours after we left Midway. The last hour we traveled in light rain…which made dodging the debris even more challenging. We fueled…got almost 2 miles per gallon…with the aid of the current. Went to dinner at the restaurant at the marina and spent some time talking with one of the dockhands, who strongly suggested we not try to travel any further south, because of the debris and high water for the next couple of days. We were also told that the water was up 34 feet at the next lock and that the currents would be stronger. Jimbo, the young dock guy had personally hit something with his new boat a couple years ago when the water was high and the boat had taken on water. We were also reminded of the next storm, Emily, which is now part of the picture. We came back to the boat. Dave spent some time looking at charts and we went to bed, unsure of whether we’d travel on Wednesday or not.
Wednesday, July 13th – Demopolis, AL
Wednesday morning David called “Bobby’s Fish Camp” …the ONLY place where fuel can be purchased in the 200+ mile stretch between Demopolis and Mobile. Turns out, they still do not have electricity…due to Hurricane Dennis. So, we couldn’t get fuel…the decision was made. Bobby’s was hoping they would get their electricity back on in the afternoon. Until they do, we can’t go anywhere. Dave spent the morning in the clubhouse watching the weather channel and found out Emily is not going to influence our trip. About noon, we took the courtesy car into Demopolis. Rode out to the dam and to a bridge well beyond the dam so that we could see the water. The debris was still very heavy…but we think we can slowly pick our way through as soon as Bobby’s Fish Camp gets electricity.
Keith, one of the dock hands, told us about a farm on the outskirts of town that decorates their fields using round hay bales. They create different characters every year. We found it and thoroughly enjoyed seeing what they’d been able to do with rolls of hay. We were told later that Southern Living had done a feature article on it. David got another treat while he was hanging around the fuel dock. Towboats fuel, take on water, and other provisions at the dock in Demopolis. He hinted around about touring one of the boats and was told by one of the crew that security measures prohibited them from letting anyone board. After that guy left, Allen, off the Edith Tripp towboat offered a tour of the engineering area of the boat he was working on. It was quiet interesting. This particular boat just had a single engine, 16 cylinder supercharged diesel cranking out over 1800 horsepower. The oil filtering system for the engine alone was almost as big as a 55 gallon drum. The boat had a dual rudder system and single propeller, probably a little over 6 feet in diameter. He explained that the crew worked three weeks on/three weeks off. While on the boat, they work continuous 6 hour on/6 hour off shifts. Each boat has its own cook aboard whose duty it is to have meals prepared at 5 a.m., 11 a.m., and 5 p.m. Without being specific he said the pay wasn’t all that bad considering you really only work ½ year with the 21 day on/21 day off system. It was nice to get to know a little bit about how they worked. The Demopolis Yatch Basin sells a lot of fuel to towboats. There is almost always a towboat at the dock filling up and taking on supplies. Jimbo, who works the fuel dock evenings here has been a wealth of information. If he doesn’t know the answer, he knows who to call to get it. He told us his largest fill up was 15,000 gallons and that guy was just topping off his tanks. Some of these towboats carry over 30,000 gallons of fuel. Almost all of their underwater area is taken up with fuel tanks.
Later in the day, Dave called Bobby’s Fish Camp and they now have electricity. We made the decision to go on down the river tomorrow. Come to find out two other boats were planning to leave the next day also.
Thursday, July 14th – Demopolis, Alabama
It was 9:30 before we left and this day would be one of the most challenging days we have had on the trip. The debris was much worse than what we’d traveled through to get to Demopolis. We had the currents in our favor, but the water was so high that in many places the markers in the river were totally submerged. It was truly an obstacle course. Bobby’s Fish Camp is 96 miles from Demopolis. It took us over 6 hours to travel. The last 40 miles we had to travel at nearly an idle. The last hour or so we also had to travel in the rain, which made dodging the limbs even more challenging. We had some help from the white egrets in terms of seeing and identifying the floating debris. The current was so stiff, that they rode the larger pieces. Apparently, it was an easy meal for them. They were able to free the logs of the bugs and ants that couldn’t escape because of being in water.
Bobby’s is simply a 100 foot floating dock with fuel and a restaurant. When we arrived, Karen Lynn was already tied up. The owner of Karen Lynn, Bud, had left Demopolis earlier that morning. He was traveling with his brother Larry. They met us and helped us secure the boat in the stiff current. After we got tied, Dave got in the water to check to see if anything had got sucked up into the intake openings. He had to put on his life jacket and tie a rope to it to hold himself in the current. While David was in the water, the boat “My Way”, which was also in Demopolis made it to Bobby’s. The six of us went up for Bobby’s famous catfish and thoroughly enjoyed it.
No shore power electricity at Bobby’s Fish Camp…so we opened all the port holes and the cabin door, made sure the cockpit was screened in good, turned on the fan and slept without air-conditioning. We had considered running the generator, but it rained about dark and cooled things off. We slept really good without the air.
Friday, July 15th – Coffeeville, AL (Bobby’s Fish Camp)
Untied about 7 a.m. We were 2 miles from the last lock that we had to do on the Tombigbee. When we arrived, we had to wait for the lockmasters to change shifts. From the storms, the water was up 34 feet…so, instead of dropping 30 feet, we only dropped 4 feet in the lock. When we exited the lock, it was a total nightmare. They had the dam wide open. The water looked like boiling water with debris swirling around. The current was at least 5 knots. With the water being so high, the markers were covered. On several occasions, we saw the markers floating down the river or resting on the side of the shoreline. The current was so strong that the markers were pulled up and relocated or just held under water. Instead of having a 200 foot wide channel, it looked twice that wide. Water was way up on the banks; the trees were in water. You could sometimes see the water rushing over something and occasionally a marker would pop up from the swirl. Birds were still resting on the floating logs.
About the only traffic we saw on the water were the towboats. There weren’t many homes nor businesses along the lower end of the Tombigbee waterway. It was another very challenging day. Lots and lots of drift in the water. Sometimes we were able to get on plane; sometimes we had to just crawl through the debris. It was very intense traveling. For a few minutes, we thought our trip had stopped for the day at the Fourteen Mile Railroad Bridge. It has a 4 feet vertical clearance. When David radioed for an opening the bridge tender told him he was having trouble with the bride and trouble with the trains and he didn’t know if he could get it opened for us or not. David said “Does that mean the bridge is closed indefinitely?”. He replied “I guess you could say that.” After he talked with us for a few minutes and found out where we’d been and where we were going, he said he’d try to get us through after the next train, which appeared momentarily. After the train passed, he was able to get it opened far enough for us to get through.
Not long after that, we entered into the Mobile ship channel…nothing but ships and tugs everywhere. Pretty soon, we were taking spray over the bow from the chop in Mobile Bay. David said he was never so glad to see salt water in his life and he likes fresh water. Our charted course to the Eastern Shore Marina took us about 10 miles across the choppy Mobile Bay where we were luckily able to get in, get fuel, and an oil and filter change before they closed for the day. A shower, some supper and a good nights rest… and we’ll be ready to head across the Florida Panhandle in the morning.