By John Simons
Our Great Loop adventure took one year and covered 6,500 miles. We departed from Waukegan Harbor in mid-September 2015 and, after making a series of left turns, returned to Waukegan Harbor in September 2016. Our crew consisted of John and Priscilla Simons and Dale and Andy Arnold.
Hundreds of “Loopers” make this trip each year. America’s Great Loop Cruising Association conducts seminars to help Loopers prepare for the adventure.
You can read part one here.
Grand Rivers ≫ Paris Landing, KY
After cruising the Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland Rivers, Loopers welcome the sight of Green Turtle Bay, a large, full-service marina.
Just a short drive from the marina, Patti’s 1800’s Restaurant and Settlement is famous for its signature 2-inch-thick pork chops. Make sure you have an ample supply of adult beverages before arriving in Grand Rivers, Kentucky, which is in a dry county.
After three delightful days at Green Turtle Bay Marina, we fueled up, pumped out and headed out. We crossed over from Lake Barkley and the Cumberland River to the Tennessee River and Kentucky Lake via the Barkley Canal. Then we cruised 41 miles to the Paris Landing State Park.
Tuesday in Paris (ooh la la) was crazy chicken night at the Paris Landing State Park restaurant. We enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet for $8.75, with a discount for those over 62. The buffet had every kind of chicken imaginable: smoked chicken, fried chicken, chicken livers, chicken tenders, chicken and dumplings, chicken noodle soup and shaved chicken in the salad bar.
After being on the boat for more than two weeks, we realized we’d forgotten to bring a few things, but there was nothing I needed to buy. I have so much more “stuff” than I need. So far, three t-shirts, two pairs of shorts and a bathing suit have met my needs except for the one day I needed a sweatshirt and socks.
Paris Landing ≫ Counce, TN
Our next stop was Pebble Isle Marina in New Johnsonville, Tennessee. We had a few extra days to spare before we needed to arrive at the Looper Rendezvous at Joe Wheeler State Park in Alabama, so we spent two days at Pebble Isle Marina before cruising to Mermaid Marina in Decaturville, Tennessee. We spent two days at our next stop, Pickwick Landing State Park, and enjoyed sightseeing at nearby Shiloh Battlefield.
Fourteen people aboard six boats attended the Looper happy hour at the Pebble Isle Marina. The marina provided trays of appetizers that were more than enough for a meal.
The other Loopers were all travel-hardened, not new out of the box like us. They had all been up the East Coast and through Canada over the spring and summer. We traded boat cards, a business card each couple carries with their contact information. Most have a picture of the boat along with an email address and phone number.
One also had a picture of the owners, which makes it much easier to identify them in the future.
Most of the talk revolved around the best marinas visited and extreme circumstances encountered such as tides, currents and locks. They warned us not to get used to paying $1 per foot for slip fees, as East Coast slip fees range closer to $3 per foot.
Our next port, Clifton Marina in Clifton, Tennessee, was a cozy little harbor. They fitted us in along with John Winn (Four Winns founder), his buddy boat and the trawler Dream Catcher, which we had seen several times along the way.
The two ladies who run the marina also serve as cook and hostess in the restaurant. When we were there, they served a spaghetti dinner. We were close enough to the restaurant to order and have them deliver the food over the starboard rail.
The next day, we cruised to Grand Harbor Marina in Counce, Tennessee. We thought getting a covered slip would be good to keep us out of the sun and rain, that is, until our satellite TV wouldn’t work. Live and learn.
Counce ≫ Rogersville, AL
We had three locks to transit before we arrived at the Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville for the Looper rendezvous.
We planned to stop at Florence Harbor Marina in Florence, Alabama, before going to the rendezvous. Fortunately, we called for a slip reservation because all the Loopers had also decided to stay the night in Florence before transiting the final two locks in the morning. We had to tie up our 50-foot boat in a 30-foot slip, but we had power. One of the most useful items we bought was a double 30-amp pigtail for the power cord. When we cannot get 50-amp power, we can tap into two 30-amp outlets to run power on the boat.
Although it rained overnight, the following day dawned bright and sunny. Dale and Andy went on a morning walk, while I called the Wilson Lock and asked the lockmaster how traffic looked for the day. He said he had 10 pleasure craft entering the chamber, and after a down-bound commercial tow, he was closing for the day to conduct maintenance. Yikes! I called Dale and suggested a hasty return to the boat.
I unhooked the power cord and reeled it in, returned the dock steps we borrowed from a boat down the dock, untied the port dock lines and started the engines. Dale and Andy returned and tossed off the remaining dock lines. We had 20 minutes from the time I made the call to the lockmaster to go three miles up the entrance canal for the lock. Turbo diesels don’t fail me now!
Fortunately, only one small fishing boat was in the canal. We slowed way down to pass him before blasting off again. When we arrived at the lock, the other 10 Loopers were waiting for us. We rafted up to Chasing 80 and rode up 93 feet in the lock to the top of Wilson Lake.
We stayed with the herd for the 14-mile cruise across Wilson Lake so we could transit the Wheeler Lock together. We assumed the lead boat was in contact with the next lock and setting the pace to arrive when the lock was open. So far, we hadn’t heard any chatter on the Looper VHF channel 71.
After waiting an hour tied to the outer lock wall, we locked through with the other 10 Loopers. From there, we had only a few miles to travel to the Joe Wheeler Marina for the fall Looper Rendezvous.
Rogersville ≫ Columbus, MS
At the end of the Looper Rendezvous, we retraced our course for two days until we returned to Counce. That’s where the Aqua Marina is located and the entrance to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which we would take to Mobile.
While it’s not a good idea to have a formal schedule due to weather and other unknowns, we intended to be in Mobile around Oct. 30.
Then we planned to cruise the Florida panhandle. Our boat insurance prohibits us from entering the Gulf of Mexico until Nov. 1 due to hurricanes.
We traveled on the Tenn-Tom Waterway for the next several days. The total trip distance to Mobile is 450 miles, 234 miles of which is on the Tenn-Tom.
After stopping at Safe Harbor Aqua Yacht marina, we connected with a group of Loopers who’d accepted us into their herd. We tied onto a long end dock with 10 other boats and chatted with a few Loopers we’d met along the way, including some who’d been at the rendezvous.
Panda Bear, Saddie II and Elizabear invited us for docktails, and we discussed transiting the locks together. Saddie II and Elizabear have big dogs onboard so finding an anchorage with a boat ramp or dinghy dock was imperative.
The herd departed at 9 a.m., planning to anchor out for the next two nights, and we tagged along. The slowest in the herd, Panda Bear, led the way at his top speed of 6 mph.
Our engines cried out to be set free to run at the high rpm for which they were designed, but traveling at 6 mph was the price we had to pay to run with the herd. We decided to give it a few days before determining if this was the best approach for us.
The herd anchored in Cotton Springs for the night. It took us 5.5 hours to go 36 miles. Changing Latitudes can cruise that distance in a little over an hour.
We transited four locks: Whitten, Montgomery, Rankin and Fulton. We’d only planned to transit three, but we were so timely getting through the first three that we decided to transit one more, which shortened our trip to Columbus Marina the next day.
It took us 9.5 hours to transit the four locks and cruise 36 miles at 6 mph. Our giant turbo diesels protested like hobbled racehorses. We decided to split from the herd after transiting two locks the next day and then meet up with the group at Columbus Marina.
We anchored in the “Pool” just above the Wilkins Lock in Smithville, Mississippi, at mile marker 376. Our anchorage had a lovely dinghy dock that is perfect for walking your dog.
The next day we transited the Amory Lock and the Aberdeen Lock with our fellow Loopers, before we split off and headed to Columbus Marina at 28 mph to blow the carbon out of the engines. We arrived a few hours ahead of the herd, fueled up and pumped out. Our slip had so many water hyacinths, they should have included a lawnmower with each slip rental. The locals call it salad. We cruised through the salad to get to the marina and into our slip.
Columbus ≫ Demopolis, AL
The next day, we anchored in the oxbow just below the Heflin Lock at MM 265. We attached a trip line to the anchor in case it got caught on one of the millions of logs still on the river bottom. The trip line gets tied to the back of the anchor, so it can be pulled in the opposite direction of how it was originally dug in. We also tied on the smallest of the round orange teardrop fenders as the float.
The next morning, we started to haul the anchor but couldn’t see the round orange fender. I had followed the sailor’s creed that if you can’t tie the right knot tie a lot of them. We looked on both sides of the boat, but the fender wasn’t there. We assumed it had come untied and floated downstream. If we had found it, we would have had to launch the dinghy to retrieve it. As Dale and Andy hoisted the anchor, up popped the round orange fender. Somehow overnight it had gotten caught under the boat. Another mystery solved.
Our next stop was Demopolis, Alabama, at MM 216.
We stayed there for two nights. Demopolis Yacht Basin is the last marina before we arrive in Mobile at MM 0. The marina offers a free loaner car. To pick up the loaner car from the dock, we had to drive the loaner golf cart a mile around the marina’s perimeter to the fuel dock to pick up the keys to the loaner car.
We fueled up at Demopolis Yacht Basin. The fuel dock has two sides: one for pleasure craft and one for commercial towboats. We took on 120 gallons, and the towboat took on 25,000 gallons. If you want to purchase fuel where there’s good turnover, this would be the place.
Demopolis ≫ Fairhope, AL
From Demopolis, we cruised on the Black Warrior Waterway, the southern section of the Tombigbee River from Demopolis to Mobile.
After cruising 98 miles, we spent the night at the legendary Bobby’s Fish Camp at MM 118. Just below Bobby’s Fish Camp is the Coffeeville Lock at MM 116. Once we transited the Coffeeville Lock, we were in saltwater with tidal flows. That was a whole new experience.
One night, we anchored near the confluence of the Alabama River at MM 52. During our last night on the rivers, we anchored in Big Bayou Canot at MM 16—only 28 miles from our next port, Fairhope, Alabama. We dropped the hook up a small tributary off the Black Warrior River. The cruising guide warns: “The owls at night may scare you the first time you hear them. You will swear there is a wolf barking in a tree near you.”
Completing our rivers voyage, we reached the Gulf of Mexico and docked at Fairhope, Alabama, on the east coast of Mobile Bay.
In our next installment, we cruise from Mobile along the Florida Panhandle across the Gulf of Mexico to the west coast of Florida. From there, we head to Key West and the Bahamas. The adventure of a lifetime continues.
John Simons is a member of Waukegan Sail & Power Squadron/20. He has his USCG Masters License 100 ton. In 2015–2016, John and his wife, Priscilla, cruised 6,500 miles on America’s Great Loop aboard their 2002 Cruisers 4450 Motor Yacht Changing Latitudes. John is a yacht broker with weberyachts.com. His blog is at bit.ly/CFJGreatLoop.