Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In Lieu of BoatCam

We needed a place to pause while we observed the holiday of Yom Kippur, so we spent four nights 20 miles south of Saint Louis, tied up at the most famous marina on the Mississippi--Hoppie's Marina in Kimmswick, Missouri.  

"Hoppie" is Captain Charles Hopkins, who at 80-something still has a mop of white hair and the smile and demeanor of a young boy.  He has an interesting personal story--he worked with his dad as one of the last river lamplighters, back in the days before there were electric lights to illuminate the river mile markers by night. 

Charles and his wife Fern have run this place for years.  Fern is more the public face of the operation. She combines a gentle manner with firm command as she instructs boaters where--and how--to land and tie up against the strong river current. 

Fern's  "conference room"
Most places that claim the title "Marina" these days seem to offer the waterside equivalent of hotels--you sleep on your boat, but everything else is calculated to pamper.  

Some of the marinas we've stayed at have had swimming pools and even hot tubs; boater's lounges with easy chairs, TV and air conditioning; "ship's stores" and restaurants; and "bathhouses" where you can lock yourself into your own personal bathroom for a luxurious shower.   

Every conference room needs an inspirational poster
 Hoppie's has none of these amenities. It's a chain of three rusty old barges, roped together and tied with steel cables to the rocky riverbank.  The decks of the barges show evidence of sprucing up--a wooden shelter over the ice machine is freshly painted--but they're also littered with old ropes, and tools, and random unidentifiable wooden and metal bits of things, and old plastic joint compound cans, and faded bits of carpet.  

The river has deposited a thick layer of black mud over the stony river bank, and periodically chunks of mud fall off, with a loud splash.

And yet this a wonderful place to stay.  I'm guessing pretty much every boater who is travelling the Great Loop stops in here.

For one thing, this is the last fuel stop for 107 miles.  (Not an issue for us, but for some gas-powered boats, that can be close to the limit of the cruising range.)  For another thing, this is the only marina for the next 228 miles--so if you are a SlowBoat, or just like to go slow, you are going to be anchoring out for several-to-many days after this stop.

A tip: In the morning, don't leave the dock till that far point of land is visible through the fog.
The river giveth mud
The river taketh away mud
But the main reason boaters stop: Fern is famous for the daily briefings she offers, laying out the locations that are safe for a pleasure boat to anchor out for the night.  There's a little shelter in the middle of one of the barges, next to the spiderwebbed fuel pump, where some old lawn furniture with faded floral cushions is clustered around a battered coffee table topped with an ashtray full of butts.  This is Fern's conference room, and around 5 PM you wander over to join the other boaters who are spreading out their charts and paging through their guidebooks.

Fern tells you, just a bit sternly, how to stay safe around the big towboats--stay to the inside of the channel, get on the radio and let them know you are coming.  And mile by mile, she lays out the places that make safe anchorages.

"How about outside of Metropolis?"   "Oh, you've been reading your guidebook," Fern laughs.  "Don't do that.

"That place is no good anymore."

Noted, duly noted.

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