By Linda Mangelsdorf
While looking at a map of Corps-maintained waterways in an Army Corps of Engineers office, Fred Mangelsdorf discovered a short black line representing the Monongahela River, running south from Pittsburgh into West Virginia. The year was 1994. “Someday, I’m going to go to West Virginia by boat,” he said. Someday arrived in 2012.
When Fred and I met in 2003, our early conversations centered on his desire to cruise inland waterways. A lifelong boater, he’d owned a 23-foot sailboat in Cape Cod, and while living in New York’s Hudson Valley, he kept his 37-foot houseboat in Rondout Creek off the Hudson River.
My boating experience included paddling Girl Scout canoes, being a member of the Wednesday crew on the Hudson River sloop Woody Guthrie and spending several summers crewing on a 42-foot ketch in Long Island Sound.
Who knew that two years later, Fred and I would be married and chartering a trawler to join the District 16 cruise in the San Juan Islands after the Portland, Oregon, Governing Board Meeting? That trip convinced us that 1) we could love living on a boat and that 2) trawler speeds are fast enough when the waters are unfamiliar.
The search for a suitable trawler took us to Mirage Manufacturing in Gainesville, Florida. In February 2007, we agreed to purchase a 37-foot Great Harbour and make it our home for two years, after which we’d vote on whether to continue cruising. The rest, as they say, is history. The vote was unanimous, and we continue to enjoy cruising aboard our 572-square-foot floating home with occasional stop-offs at our condo in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley.
In March 2008, we picked up the boat on the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville and began cruising the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Long Island Sound and the Florida Keys.
From January 2009 until February 2010, we did the Great Loop. On the western, or river, side of the loop, we left the Mississippi and traveled 35 miles up the Ohio River to Paducah, Kentucky. From there, we turned south on the Cumberland River to complete the loop but vowed to return to the Ohio.
The Journey Begins
By the spring of 2012, we’d talked so much about our West Virginia-by-boat trip that friends from the Great Harbour Trawler Association decided to join us on our trek. As often happens when cruising together, we’d meet and part, pass and meet again, but the three Great Harbours—Young America, Lazy Dolphin and Carolyn Ann—were together in Morgantown and Charleston, West Virginia.
To reach West Virginia by boat, you must transit the Ohio River. Getting to the Ohio presented no logistical problem. Starting from Marathon in the Florida Keys, we crossed Florida via Lake Okeechobee. Next we made an overnight crossing of the Gulf of Mexico from Tampa Bay to Panama City in the Florida Panhandle and then went on Mobile, Alabama. As we moseyed up the Mobile, Black Warrior and Tombigbee rivers and through the Tenn-Tom Waterway (the largest Army Corps of Engineers project in American history), we realized that we were, in fact, heading to West Virginia by boat!
The Ohio proved to be much more user-friendly than we’d anticipated. Formed at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Ohio curves southwesterly to empty into the Mississippi River. While we knew that dams and locks had been built along the river, the swift currents we’d feared were nearly nonexistent. The locks effectively created large lakes, and while the power of the Ohio shouldn’t be underestimated, we’d chosen a year with light winter snows and nearly absent spring rains.
The trip up and down the Ohio proved to be one of the most economical we’ve taken. Here’s a little math: The Ohio River trip from Paducah to Morgantown and back covered 107 days. We were off the boat 29 days and paid marina fees while away. Of the remaining 78 travel days, we anchored free 15 times, tied up at a free town dock 24 times and paid for dockage only 39 nights. By East Coast standards, most dockage fees were very low, $25 being common.
Designed to serve the commercial towboat traffic, the Ohio’s locks can accommodate tugboats (tows) pushing anywhere from one to 15 barges moving freight up and down the river. For our recreational vessel, locking proved uncomplicated. Nearly all the Ohio River locks had six floating bollards on each wall. You choose a bollard, loop a line onto it, cleat it off amidships, and ride securely up or down. Only once did we choose a bollard that stuck and stayed in place as the water began to drop. As we reached for the line to free it, the bollard corrected and with a “clunk” began the smooth ride down. Problem solved. On the smaller, non-bollard locks, the procedure usually involved holding a line proffered by the lockmaster. Helpful and friendly, the lockmasters made the passage a pleasant one.
The number of towboats moving day and night, carrying loads of coal, limestone, and various other products to and from coastal waters never ceased to amaze us. The AIS receiver on our boat allowed us to “see” tow boats before they came around bends into view. With AIS, we could use our VHF radio to hail the tow by name; alert the operator to our presence, direction of travel and size; and ask for passing instructions. We found the tow operators to be uniformly courteous, professional and interesting to talk with.
After a free stop at a downtown Pittsburgh marina, we headed south up the Monongahela and 120 miles later tied up in Morgantown. We’d reached our goal! After toasting our accomplishment with Joe, Kathy, Randy and Barb, we toured the town and reversed our course!
Located at the mouth of the Kanawha River, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, was one of our favorite stops. We were tied up at the free docking wall (with 50 amp electrical service) when American Queen, a stern-wheel paddleboat, brought a bevy of tourists to town. During trolley rides, we learned about the beautiful waterfront’s historical mural as well as the Mothman museum and statue. The Point Pleasant River Museum and Learning Center boasted a million-dollar simulator where Fred pretended to drive a towboat with barges. The reality was amazing. You’d swear the floor tipped as the boat turned on the 180-degree screens.
Traveling up the Kanawha, we stopped at a free dock with 50 amp power in Charleston, toured the state capitol and enjoyed a baseball game. With a sternwheeler rendezvous planned for later in the week, the stately old boats were everywhere.
Our United States Power Squadrons friends, new and old, played a large part in our enjoyment of the trip. We networked with friends in both Pittsburgh and Charleston, and we took a side trip up the Beaver River north of Pittsburgh, where Fred met with members who wished to complete their Inland Navigation Certification. Fred held a Saturday morning class for that purpose. In Louisville, Kentucky, the USPS Port Captain introduced us to prospective Great Loop cruisers and gave us valuable tips about that wonderful city.
Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia. Cities, towns, villages, industry, crops, mining, fracking and people. Strong people, fascinating people, stories of heroic pasts and courageous plans for a bright future. Mounds, museums, quilts, crafts, murals and urban legends. Our cruise had something for everyone.
This trip tops the list of our most enjoyable cruising experiences to date, and we recommend it to anyone looking for a water-level view of the amazing American Heartland!
D/Lt Linda R. Mangelsdorf, JN, and her husband, P/D/C Fred Manglesdorf, SN, are members of New York’s Mid-Hudson Power Squadron. They live and cruise aboard their 37-foot Great Harbour, Young America.