Alton Marina is at mile 202 on the Mississippi, while the Junction of the Mississippi River to Ohio River is at mile zero. From Alton Marina, we teamed up with a flotilla of power boats (identified by their official AGLCA burgee as ‘Loopers’) who were heading south and leaving early the next day. Just near the Alton Marina is the Melvin Price Lock. A group of seven recreational boats has a better chance of going through than a lone boat. After a short time, all seven boats managed to tie up in the lock and were through by 7.30am.
The Mississipi River works its way through the corn belt and agricultural heartland of middle America through to New Orleans in Louisiana. Our guidebook states that around 60% of the World’s grain is carried down the Mississippi, with 30% of the World’s grain passing through the Melvin Price Lock.. The traffic is busy with tugs and barges, while floating casinos, some brightly painted to disguise dilapidation, are tied to wharfs. One of the largest tows we’ve seen so far was one tug pushing 35 barges; roughly the equivalent of a football field!
Our trip downstream along the Mississippi is a swift section just over 200 miles long. This is Mark Twain’s ‘Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn’ country. Once through the Mel Price lock the current is fast and as the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi we flowed along at between 8-9. At mile 175 is the Chain of Rocks lock, the second and last lock we go through until we reach Cairo, Illinois and the junction of the Ohio River. Once through the canal and lock we again join the Mississippi River, and flowed down the river this time between 9-10knots! There is nowhere to stop at St Louis so to visit this town you’ll need to do it from Alton or Grafton.
The St Louis waterfront is alive with industrious activity – excavators and dump-trucks filling up barges on both sides of the river; a variety of factories or manufacturing plants filling up the gaps. St Louis’s famous stainless steel Gateway Arch – the tallest man-made national monument in the U.S. – gleams in the sun while riverboats wait for tourists on the waterfront below. Some miles downstream as the number of barges thinned out, the scenery improved to limestone bluffs, tall trees and grand houses looking down on the muddy river. From Blue Heeler we can only see the sandy banks and high waterline, with little idea of what lies beyond them.
With the fast water flow and high barge traffic, anchoring on the Mississippi has its challenges. To reduce erosion and keep the flow to the centre of the river, wingdams (or groins) are placed at strategic bends to deflect the water into the sailing line of the river. In some places large whirlpools are formed causing the boat to slew. Work on the river systems is undertaken by the US Army Corps of Engineers. In some cases anchoring is possible behind these dams, but boaters risk running aground as eddies swirl within them. This year the pool, or water level, is slightly down on previous years so finding enough depth for our 6′ keel was problematic. From feedback on ActiveCaptain, information from Skipper Bob’s guide and some anchorage information in the Waterways Guide, we identify the most suitable places to stop for the night and hope the water levels were deep enough.
Later that afternoon Wayne steered to get off the fast flowing Mississippi, crabbing the boat sideways towards the Kaskaskia River entrance where would dock the boat, a short way upriver at the small lock. Immediately in, the water was calm and deep enough. Within minutes we’d tied up to the concrete dock on the eastern side of the lock/downstream. That day with the strong current we managed to do 73nm in nine hours – an average of eight knots! We haven’t travelled that fast since the Aghulas Current on the east coast of South Africa.
Before leaving this calm spot the following day, we had to wait half an hour for three tows going upstream to pass the river mouth. If in doubt as to which way to pass a tow, you’ll often hear the directive ‘On the one’ or ‘One whistle’ – which means to pass port-to-port, while ‘On the two’ or ‘Two whistles’, means passing starboard-to-starboard. Often the tows are so long and require the whole river to manoeuvre without small pleasure craft getting in their way as they sluggishly, but effectively, push the barges upstream. Once they had passed by our anchorage we re-entered the strong flow of the Mississippi, this time with the revs backed off for a slower trip to our next stop.
Our next anchorage 59 miles further was the Little River Diversion at mile 48. The entrance to the Little River Diversion on the RDB (right descending bank) isn’t marked and would be difficult to spot in fog or rainy conditions. Another group of Loopers had overtaken us that day and were also heading to this anchorage. At the river mouth Wayne reduced the throttle but we were still floating along at 6knots. Once level with the entrance he turned and steered Blue Heeler upriver, ferry gliding, or crabbing, across the strong current. The boat started going backwards against the stronger flow. I called out the depth, speed and a few choice expletives while Wayne throttled hard to move us forward. As the downstream bank loomed closer and closer the depth held at 9m but we were still gliding diagonally towards the rocky bank. At that point Blue Heeler’s speed increased ever so slightly – 1kn; 2kn then 3.5kn – and we began making headway into the river mouth. I let out a big breath while Wayne was as cool as a beer on a hot day!
The small river had plenty of depth and enough room for a few boats. Besides us was the yacht Isabella, plus five motor cruisers, some which were rafted to each other. Out of the current we settled in for a quiet night’s rest.
The power boats (which are a combination of trawlers, cruisers and any other vessel that isn’t a yacht) left early the following morning as they’d planned to travel farther than us. At mile 8 from the Ohio/Mississippi junction was our next anchorage, the Boston Bar. The reviews in ActiveCaptain indicated a depth of 4m but as the water is slightly down this year, we weren’t entirely sure how much depth we would have and didn’t want to hit dirt against a 4knot current. Wayne turned upstream and crabbed the boat against the current and we began to travel sideways towards the bank. Directly downstream of us was a huge bridge so one false move and there were two massive bridge pillars to dodge. Creeping forward the depth was no less than 3.5m and within a few minutes we were anchored out of the strong current. With eddies moving us around, we threw out a stern anchor that night to keep us straight.
Next day we left just after 7am and Isabella was right behind us. Our plan was to get as far up the Ohio River and try to get through one of the two infamously slow locks, as a result of construction works. Not long into the trip Kurt on Isabella called us to say that he had major problems with his engine. Dodging the deep whirlpools on this stretch of the river, we crabbed across to the Angelo Towhead upstream of the Cairo Highway Bridge. Once anchored, Wayne went over to lend Kurt some tools. This spot was actually an easier anchorage to enter than Boston Bar. Except for the current (which would be fine as long as your anchor held) it’s deep enough (4m) and far away from rocks and bridge pylons. The problems were too much to fix so Kurt called BoatUS for towing assistance. There wasn’t anything we could do to help them so we said farewell and continued on our journey.
Once out of the muddy Mississippi the current in the Ohio wasn’t too great and perhaps no more than 1.5knots against us. This section is extremely busy with tows. By 12.00pm we were two miles from the Olmsted Lock which is currently under construction and will replace the smaller and slower locks 52 and 53. Another flotilla of seven Loopers came up from behind us. After an hour or so, an escort vessel guided us all through the open gates of the Olmsted Lock onto Lock 53. One of the boats behind us called us on the radio to request we speed up to stay in formation. Obviously he didn’t realise that as a sailboat our engine can’t do much more than 5 knots against a current. Wayne invited him to overtake us but we met him at the lock anyway.
The instruction for Lock 53 with seven power boats, one yacht and a tug was to float inside, ie: not to tie up. With bow thrusters thrusting and nine vessels keeping well off the walls and each other, after an eternity the old lock opened. “And they’re off”, just like a horse-race the group of Loopers motored out of the lock and sped into the distance, leaving us in their wakes, literally. We putted along for a few more miles and found a nice spot out of the channel to drop the pick. Here we had a good night’s sleep with little to no current to push us around. By 9am the next morning, Isabella had already been towed to the Green Turtle Bay Marina some 60 miles from where they broke down. We weren’t even half way.
Tuesday. With only 12 miles to reach lock 52 we thought we’d probably have to wait a short while then get through after lunch. As it turned out, at 10.30am we arrived at the lock and the lockmaster said we would have “a few hours” to wait. We waited. And waited. By 4.30pm Blue Heeler and two power boats made it through the slowest lock in the world – six hours later. With little daylight left, we’d already picked out a spot five miles farther at the junction of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. The area called the Cuba Towhead, was a quiet place to drop the anchor for the night.
Continuing the next day our two choices were to travel upstream along the Tennessee River until we reach the busy Kentucky Dam, or head 12 miles further up the Ohio River, then up the quieter Cumberland River until we pass through the Barkley Lock into Lake Barkley and head west into Kentucky Lake. Given the wait of the day before and the likelihood of having to wait for hours at Kentucky Dam, we decided we’d take the longer, but more scenic route up the Cumberland. Each lock (Kentucky and Barkley) has a 57′ lift with floating bollards.
As it turned out we had to wait two hours at the Barkely Lock, but there’s a nice spot to anchor under the dam until the lock opened. By 5pm we were through the lock and on our way a mile or so until we reached a small bay south of the popular five star Green Turtle Bay Marina near to the small town of Grand Rivers. There are a few marinas in the area and while some offer five star services, we don’t require anything more than water, electricity, some wifi and clean bathrooms.
The distance between Chicago to Mobile Alabama along the waterways is around 1300 miles and we’ve reached almost halfway in two weeks. After travelling sections of the Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, and Cumberland Rivers, we will stay a while in the lakes area around Kentucky and Tennessee to enjoy some Southern hospitality before moving farther south along the Tennessee River and Tombigbee Waterway.