Cruising from Chicago to Mobile means 1,300 miles of adventure
Written by Ed KuklaPart of cruising is the ability to be flexible. We relearned this boating rule of thumb yet again on a trip last year, casting off from Detroit with plans to head east and then south on the Erie Canal. But the onset of Hurricane Irene soon nixed that plan! At the last minute we decided to head west to Chicago instead and run the rivers south to Mobile, Ala.
The route south from Chicago to Mobile meanders from the Chicago River, or Cal-Sag (Calumet-Saganashkee) Canal, southwest to the Illinois River. From there it’s farther southwest on the Illinois to the Mississippi River, and then south to the Ohio River. On the Ohio you head upstream about 50 miles to the Tennessee River, which then leads you to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a canal that connects to the Black Warrior River. The Black Warrior empties into the Mobile River, which then carries you to Mobile Bay. The full trip adds up to about 1,300 miles.
We cruise on a 42-foot sailboat with a 5-foot 6-inch draft. The first task for this trip down the rivers was to pull the mast, since low bridges in Chicago limit boats to a 19-foot air draft. This required more choices: truck the mast or carry it on deck? In the end we decided to truck it. We’re keel-stepped so the mast is 64 feet long, and the general consensus among experienced sailors is not to have a pulled mast over- hang the fore and aft by more than about 5 feet—it’s not something easy to deal with if maneuvering gets dicey. We were fortunate to find a group of sailboats via the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association to share the load. The total trucking rate was about $3,000, but splitting that with seven boats made it an easy decision. Crowley's Yacht Yard on the Cal-Sag Canal in Chicago is well set up to handle un-stepping and prep for shipping, or you can do the prep work yourself, as we did.
So that made us a powerboat just like everyone else, although we drew more than most. The more you draw, the more issues you will face. Having said that, we cruised for a few days with a 65-foot schooner that drew 8 feet, and he made it to Mobile just fine. The rivers themselves are maintained to a minimum depth of 9 feet for commercial traffic. It’s the anchorages and marinas that can sometimes be an issue for deep-draft vessels.
Speaking of commercial traffic, there’s lots of it for most of the trip. We found it fascinating, entertaining and occasionally intimidating, though in reality that last part was only in my mind. The river pilots really don’t want to run you over—too much paperwork! The Cal-Sag Canal gets some ocean-going traffic but the 19-foot air draft limits them. Mostly we encountered tows and barges. “Tow” is a bit misleading, as they don’t typically tow but rather push the barges. Many of them push huge sets of barges, up to three wide and six long. I highly recommend learning the lingo of tow captains. They’ll speak of a “one-whistle pass” or a “two- whistle pass” to indicate whether they want to pass on port or starboard. Nobody uses real whistles any more but instead calls the instructions on the VHF. All in all, communication with the tow captains was easy, pleasant, informative and often very amusing.
It took us 25 travel days to reach Mobile from Chicago. We typically motor at around 6.5 knots in flat water, but since most of this trip was downstream our speeds ran as high as 12 knots on the Mississippi and never below 7 any- where else, except for that brief run upstream on the Ohio, when we slowed to around 5 knots. This was in October, so we had about 12 hours of daylight for each cruise. We never ran at night but did depart at first light a few times. Miles per day varied widely depending on the distances between our stopping points and whether or not the locks slowed us down. Pleasure boats are at the bottom of the hierarchy at all locks, so you may have to wait to get through. Most of our lockings were quick, but a few times we had multiple-hour delays.
For going through the locks, we traveled with four large fenders covered with cutoff sweat-pants legs that we tossed at the end of the trip. Most times two fenders on one side were all we needed, but if it got windy or the waters started to swirl it was good to have extras. VHF communication is imperative with the locks, and we found that having two radios helped. We left one on the channel for the tows and the other on the channel for the locks. We had a lot of trepidation over locking, but it was really quite easy. Just take your time entering, tying and departing the lock.
We found a wide variety of facilities along the way. There are plenty of marinas, and a few towns offer free docks. Most of the marinas have courtesy cars, which makes provisioning easy. The Alton Marina on the Mississippi had first-rate floating docks, a pool, hot tubs and the nicest marina bathrooms I’ve ever seen. At Midway Marina, we were invited to the Halloween party, and it was great to see the kids, big and small, getting dressed up. Hoppie's Marina on the Mississippi south of St. Louis is just six barges tied to the riverbank, but it’s the last fuel stop for 250 miles, so it’s a must for most boats. It is close to the pretty little town of Kimmswick, and chatting with the owners, Fern and Hoppie, is a special treat.
While staying at Green Turtle Cove, we visited the revitalized warehouse district in Paducah, Ky., and were impressed by all the restaurants, art galleries and shops. There’s also a terrific quilting museum. Our final destination of the trip was Turner Marine, where our mast awaited us. Turner did a great job of helping us become a sailboat again, and they hosted a fantastic Thanksgiving pot-luck luncheon.
For trawlers, sailboats, and anyone moving less than 10 knots, there will be a few stretches of the trip where no marinas are available, so be prepared to anchor overnight. The tows run all night, so the first requirement is getting out of the main channel. Another issue is finding good depth out of the channel. We managed to find places to anchor, even with our 5-foot, 6-inch draft, but it wasn’t always easy. Do your research in advance via guidebooks and online resources, and communicate with other travelers ahead of you.
Regarding communications with the rest of the world, we found cell signals almost all the way down. The 3G network for internet was less common, perhaps about half the way. All the marinas we visited had free Wi-Fi available, except Hoppies. Some of the longer days got a bit tedious at the helm, finding good anchorages took some doing, and the first few locks we went through were stressful. But in exchange we saw many miles of beautiful scenery and lots of wildlife, met some very nice people and enjoyed much that the local culture had to offer. All in all, we found the trip extremely pleasant and plan on doing it again someday.
Auhor Ed Kukla and his wife Chris departed Detroit last fall on an open ended cruise aboard their sailboat, S/V Freedom. Ed has been using his 25 years experience as a cinematographer to produce short music videos on their cruise; here is one of the river journey: View their video: Cruising Chicago to Mobile