Monday, November 29, 2010

America's Best Dressed Boaters

The Dragonfly's crew is in State College today and tomorrow!  In upstate NY the rest of the week. We'll be back on the boat Friday.  In the mean time, we're catching up on blog posts.

Having trouble reaching us?  Email  slowboatcruise@gmail.com

This is what it feels like to be on Mobile Bay
When we first announced we were making this trip, many of the crew's friends asked her, "Where do you keep your clothes?" This question being code for, "That boat is so small! You can't possibly pack much! How will you stand it, wearing the same clothes day after day?"

Yup, ladies, fashion-wise, being on a boat is boring. It's not like the days when you went "yachting" dressed in white from head to toe; alas for the days of jaunty French sweaters in a nautical stripe and Jackie O sunglasses.

We took what amounts to a backpacking wardrobe: A small selection of easy-care fabrics in dark colors.  And full-body raingear.

 But look on the bright side: When your options are limited, you don't waste time figuring out what to wear.  (And there's no full-length mirror, so if you look terrible, you'll never know!)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

“How do you lock your boat?”

(Guest blog from Bill). When we bought her, we couldn’t lock Dragonfly’s stern doors from the outside. To secure the boat, we’d latch the stern doors from the inside, walk forward through the boat, and exit through the (lockable) galley doors into the canvas-enclosed bow. There, we would unzip the canvas, wiggle out, rezip, and go ashore. Not too inconvenient, at least when tied to a long dock wall in some cute little town on the Erie Canal, with the bow and the stern both accessible from the dock.

Since we left the Erie Canal, it has usually been easier to exit and enter the boat at the stern. At marinas, we generally back the boat in between finger docks and position the stern against the main dock. This geometry makes it easier to socialize with other dockside boaters, and facilitates loading and unloading supplies and gear.

But to enter the boat when it was locked up, we still had to come in through the bow at the other end of the boat, which, depending on where we were, might mean traversing a slippery exterior walkway in the dark, with the deck pitching up and down in the surf, pirate cannon-fire all around, sharks circling beneath—you get the picture.

I grew up in Apulia Station, New York, a village so rural that, when I was a child, not only did we not lock our doors, some of our neighbors would walk into the house any time of day without even knocking. The only time that we locked the car was zucchini season, to prevent people from leaving oversize garden squash on the seat as gifts. (Actually, that’s not true; that’s a story I stole from Christine Cunningham about Bennington, Vermont. But I’m sure she stole it from someone else, so feel free to use the story yourself.)

Anyway, with my rural background, the way that I proposed to deal with Dragonfly’s security shortcomings was to sometimes leave the stern door unlocked. “Honey,” I’d say to the First Mate, “we’re just going to the end of the pier. There’s no need to lock the boat.” After all, from the Apulia Station perspective, locking the boat is like publicly announcing, “I don’t trust you people in this marina/at this dock/in this town.” Why would you do that? Your neighbors are the people who look after your house when you’re away.

Cynthia grew up in urban Springfield, Massachusetts. When she was a child, her neighborhood was still relatively charming and safe, but by the time the two of us met, the “neighbors” who would walk into a house in her hometown neighborhood without knocking were leaving with the valuables. So the fact that Cynthia has a different personal-comfort security threshold is understandable. “Honey,” she would say to me, “everything we need to survive for the next 12 months is on the boat. Can we please lock up?” From a Springfield perspective, leaving our doors unlocked was like offering free job-training for miscreants and felons.

Figuring out how to lock the stern doors was challenging. Unlike a conventional house door, the two steel doors swing out and an abutting roof hatch (which clears your head as you descend the stairs) slides forward. So three different moving parts must be secured. And because we might still reboard from the bow, it was important that the exterior locking system not prevent egress. In a fire on a boat, you want as many exits as possible.

In hindsight, the solution was pretty simple, even though it took weeks of head-scratching. We drilled a hole in one of the exterior steel tracks on which the roof hatch slides. To lock the boat from outside, we slide open the roof hatch, reach down into the boat, and secure the steel doors. We then slide the hatch closed and put a weatherproof padlock through the hatch-slide hole (see photo). If people are on the boat with the padlock in place, the roof hatch won't slide, but they can still open the steel doors and exit. So the arrangement is both secure and fire-safe. The only downside to the system is that when we leave the boat, we have to attach a padlock to the hatch slide. I usually try to shield this activity with my body so that our marina neighbors won’t think we don’t trust them.

Our first night at the Dog River Marina in Mobile, we ran some errands, returned after dark, and met the night watchman, Oscar. We chatted with him for quite a while about the community, the marina, and our boat, enjoying his perspective and his southern drawl. But although Oscar's job includes looking after the security of the marina and the boats therein, we were still taken a little aback when he asked us point-blank, “How do you lock your boat?”

The First Mate and I stood there for a few seconds, trying to figure out how to respond. What a strange question. Does he want to hear the whole saga of how we secure the hatches? And just exactly why does he need to know? Would it be neighborly to tell him all about it? He’s obviously a trustworthy person; after all, he’s the night watchman.

After opening and closing my mouth a couple of times, I came up with the right response. “Just fine,” I said, “We like our boat just fine.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving from SlowBoat

Thankful for  sun on the panels
Can I NOT be thankful for spiders?
SlowBoat is docked in Mobile Bay while her crew flies home for Thanksgiving.

We wish you a very happy Turkey Day.

Check the blog over the break for a guest essay from the Cap'n!

We're thankful for  . . .

Throne Room

I DO have more photos that will wrap up our trip down the Tenn-Tom Waterway. But first, a digression.

Jim F writes: "Hey Cynthia, you've described the Dragonfly pretty well to date but you've avoided the "potty" issue.  Do you have a marble bathroom? . . .  or a bucket?"

The hundreds of soldiers stationed at Fort Gaines during the Civil War shared this 10-seat latrine.
A channel to the sea provided the flushing action.
Jim, thanks for taking the plunge to address this delicate issue.  Hold your nose and here goes.

The first thing I can tell you is that our boat bathrooms are NOT like the bathroom we visited yesterday (photo above)  at Fort Gaines, on Dauphin Island, south of Mobile.  

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Goin' Mobile

We anchored Thursday night on the Tensaw River, near some rough-hewn fish camps, and early Friday morning we set out on the last leg of our journey down the Tombigbee River.  

We were a mere 12 miles north of Mobile Bay and we marveled at the mostly unspoiled landscape: a bald eagle perched at the top of a cypress snag, a raft of pelicans foraging in a little cove bordered by palmettos.

Mirage? No, Mobile.
We started to see evidence of civilization:  dumpsters, one, then another, then another, mangled and mashed and shoved into the mud on shore.  After days of anchoring out, we joked about how convenient this was for boaters with a boatload o' trash.  But we held on to our Glad bags. (We figure the dumpsters were carried up river during a storm or hurricane and never retrieved.)

Then we spotted an incongruous sight:  an elegant spire, rearing above the marsh grass.  It was the top of a skyscraper.  The city of Mobile was just ahead.

Monday, November 22, 2010


What creatures lurk beneath the placid surface of this marsh?
Years ago we took our children on a trip to Maine.  As we drove north along the New Hampshire coast, the Cap'n turned to the kids in the back seat.  "I predict we'll see a moose as soon as we cross the border," he said.

"Oh, sure, Dad."  Eyeballs rolled.

A few minutes later, there was the shiny green and white road sign:  "Welcome to Maine."  And just past it, another sign, the yellow "warning" diamond with the black silhouette.  "Moose crossing."

More groaning and derision. "A picture of a moose doesn't count, Dad!"

Right at that moment, a young moose shambled out of the woods by the state department of transportation storage barn and moseyed across the short grass at the verge of the road.

That incident earned the Cap'n legendary status for his ability to commune with and predict the appearance of wildlife.  And his prowess continues.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Our Redneck Education Continues

Where we've been staying the past week--anchored in
 side channels off the main river, overhung with bald cypress
Our little burst of riverine internet access was a false alarm . . . we immediately cruised out of whatever zone we were in and have been unplugged till today.  And today, we are actually in Mobile, Alabama. But before I tell you about our trip through Mobile Bay, dodging ocean liners, I'll catch you up on where SlowBoat has been cruising since our last post, when we left Demopolis, Alabama.

That was a week ago Sunday. We were in the Demopolis Lock with five big white trawlers, choking on diesel fumes,   eavesdropping on the lockmaster as he chatted on the radio with the captain of the towboat waiting downstream to enter the lock.

Lockmaster: "Got a flock of snow buzzards comin' out, captain."
Tow captain: "I see 'em, I see 'em, looks like a little ol' herd o' turtles, comin' out of that lock."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Do You Speak Redneck?

We've been running down the Tombigbee River toward Mobile, in the heart of rural Alabama . . . apparently an internet-free zone.  That's why the blog has been silent the last few days.  With a shaky, tentative connection, I'll try to start catching up. Photos to come!

Last week, as we prepared to leave our snug harbor at the marina in Columbus for the run down a (mostly) wild stretch of river to Demopolis, a rumor was going round.  "With so many 'Loopers' headed downstream," people said, "the river's gettin' mighty crowded!"  

"I hear the anchorages are completely full by nightfall," one person told us. "You could be left with nowhere to stay for the night."  

"The marina at Demopolis only lets boaters stay one night,"  said another, with a worried frown.  "Going to be hard to re-supply and fix up your boat for the run down to Mobile."   

But once again, our funny little boat demonstrated the perverse power of going slow.  This past week we found beautiful anchorages--side channels, pretty little coves decked with bald cypress and palmetto, completely deserted.

I think what happens is that these other boats, which can easily go 50 to 90 miles in a day, consult the same guidebooks and tend stop in the same places.  We, on the other hand, go a paltry 15 to 25 miles day (we can do 50 if pressed, but it's a grind!)  So we are in effect forced to stop at the little-visited places . . . or find new anchorages on our own.

One night we DID share an anchorage with other boats--in a bay by a park called Sumter Landing. But there was plenty of room for all seven large vessels. It was a spontaneous party.  All the  boats rafted up (tied together, side by side), making it easy to visit back and forth. (Chapman's Boating Etiquette for rafts: Always ask permission before you step across someone else's deck to reach a boat further down the line.  And while you are making the crossing, eyes forward and down. The crew or the boat may be in deshabille, but you notice nothing.)

Boat culture also dictates you carry your drink of choice to cocktail hour (many boaters have this down to a science, with stylish plastic or metal wineglasses and mini-coolers for re-supply) plus a snack to share. The conversation flowed as if we'd all know each other for years. We laughed and laughed.

Finally, on Thursday, we came to Demopolis, a town of about 22,000 souls founded in 1818 by refugees from France who tried (and failed) to create a little Eden blooming with grapevines and olive trees.  Wonder of wonders, instead of limiting us to a single night, the dockmistress cheerfully obliged our request for three nights dockage.  (OK, maybe that was because she could fit our skinny canal boat in a space too narrow and too shallow for most big trawlers.  Demonstrating yet again the greatness of canal boats.)

During our days in Demopolis we did boat chores--change the oil and the various filters, stock the cupboards with food and take on water, wash the boat. (A clean boat is a happy boat!) The Cap'n saw his first alligators--lifelike rubber beasts, eight feet long, in the parking lot outside the marina restaurant, where Sam Adams is a "premium import."  We ate spicy, rich jambalaya and practically licked the plate.  

One day we hopped our our bikes to visit the city's two antebellum mansions-turned- museums.  Gaineswood is "Alabama's most lavish plantation house" and the creation of General Nathan Bryan Whitefield, a boy genius and passionate fan of Greek Revival architecture who turned the family's original "dogtrot" log cabin into the wedding cake pile you see here. (He also build the Whitfield Canal, to drain his farmland.  We're always interested in canals.)  

The tour guide painted a vivid picture of a multi-talented and energetic man (successful farmer and businessman, self-taught and able architect, musician, composer, artist) but made no mention of the slaves who worked for 18 years to build the place.

Bluff Hall, another white-columned confection perched on a stretch of white chalk bluffs, is rumored to have been the inspiration for the plantation house called Lionnet in the play "Little Foxes," the best-known work of Demopolis native Lillian Hellman (whose great-grandfather Isaac Marx was the town's first Jewish settler). 

On our way to Bluff Hall we noticed a modest Jewish synagogue in a residential neighborhood. Our guide at the mansion (a striking black woman, elaborately dressed in a gold jacket, long black skirt and high-heeled boots) also made no mention of the slave labor that built or maintained the home. She told us the town's small Jewish population now travels to Tuscaloosa, an hour away, to worship, but the local Episcopalian church maintains the synagogue out of respect for the town's diverse heritage.

This morning's Philadelphia Inquirer notes that when we ring in the year 2011, Americans will start to celebrate a whole lot of 150th anniversaries relating to key events during the Civil War.  OK, at the Pennsylvania battlefield in Gettysburg it's called the Civil War, but here in Demopolis it's "The War Between the States," according to the brief town history published in a glossy pamphlet distributed by the Chamber of Commerce.  

Besides these indicators that we're in a different cultural region,we notice that we now stand out for our funny accents. When we order lunch at a restaurant, or pay for groceries, the pretty young girl in the apron looks at us quizzically and says, "Scuse me?" We're working on speaking slowly as well as traveling slowly.

Speaking of groceries, I'm having a blast sampling the regional differences.  The Food Fare back in Aliceville had no granola in the cereal aisle, but you could chose from about 15 different brands of grits. (Then once you chose a brand, you still have to decide, quick cooking or stone ground? cheese flavored? butter flavored?)  In the canned food aisle, garbanzo beans were not to be had, but you could get purple-hulled peas and pigeon peas, not to mention canned turnip greens (plain or spicy.)

We left Demopolis yesterday morning under gray skies.  The air was heavy with wet mist that didn't quite turn to rain.  Five other big white boats left the marina at the same time, and as we approached the Demopolis lock, three miles downstream, each boat radioed the lockmaster in turn, so he would know how many boats were coming and could think about where to place us in the lock (it depends on the length of the boat).

Monitoring the radio we overheard this conversation.  Boat:  "Demopolis Lock, Demopolis Lock, this is pleasure craft Andiamo."  Lockmaster: "What's that? Andamo?  Adamo?"  Boat: (laughs)  "Andiamo.  It's Italian for 'let's go.'"  Lockmaster:  (whistles)  "Cain't y'all find the words for that in Redneck?"

In Demopolis I had stocked up on crawfish tails and the makings for jambalaya.  Dinner that night was quite a treat.

Friday, November 12, 2010

What IS It?

What's in those yellow wrappers?
Welcome to "What IS It?, the occasional quiz feature of the SlowBoat blog.  Today's challenge involves one of the big barges we've been seeing all along the inland waterways.  

The Need for Speed

Our dinghy--an Adirondack wherry--can be rowed faster than the Dragonfly can cruise with its diesel engine cranked to the max.  So we always joke that, when we feel the need for speed, we just get out and row.

Lately, the conditions have been perfect for rowing.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The White Cliffs of Epes

On our trip down the Tenn-Tom, our guide and guru is a slim little book, The Tenn-Tom Nitty-Gritty Cruise Guide, by Fred Myers, an experienced local boater.  Besides the usual data on marinas, anchorages, locks and dams, the guide alerts you to notable sights along the way. Like the White Cliffs of Epes.

What IS It?

The SlowBoat Nov. 3rd What IS It? Quiz asked you to identify some colorful, soda can-shaped floats. We spotted a whole raft of them blocking our path in the "Divide Cut" section of the Tenn-Tom Waterway.
When a catfish bites, the noodle tips into a vertical
position.  (It's like ice fishing, without the chillblains)

Being egg-headed former biologists, we thought the floats must mark some kind of science experiment or environmental survey. We thought the guys in the boat at left might be state biologists.

We hollered over, "What are these floats?" And the guys rolled their eyes and said, "Fishin' noodles."

Well, that didn't enlighten us much, but Herb Smith would have nodded in agreement.  Herb correctly identified the cut-up bits of "swim noodles" as "jug-fishing floats."

If you still don't know what they are, you must be a Yankee, and you should check out the "Fishin' noodle" links above to see fishing noodles in action!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Singing Bollards of the Tenn Tom

Giving new meaning to the
expression: "Call me UP"
We started the day about 50 miles north of Demopolis, Alabama.  Never heard of that town? Yup, this is a lightly populated area.  That's why blog posts have been scarce--internet's slower than our boat. To catch a cell phone signal, it helps to stand on the roof.

Our trip down the Tenn-Tom takes us through a lock or two each day.  The crew is now proficient at lassoing floating bollards.  She can flick a loop of rope around that metal post from 6 feet out and haul the end in fast, like a cowhand roping a calf.  OK, a slow-moving calf.  But still.  

SlowBoat's official "make and model" is "Lock Master." Each time we pass efficiently through a lock, we high five and intone that Flash Gordon theme song from the band Queen, "LockMaster! ah-ah . . .  savior of the universe."

When we began our trip, we joked that we were "emissaries for the canal-boating culture." We're on a mission to convert the American public to the delights and glories of canal boat travel.  We feel we are starting to see results from our mission.  This has to do with the matter of fenders.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In Lieu of Boat Cam

"Where ARE you?" That's the first thing anyone who calls us on the phone asks.  Well, it was cold and misty this morning at Pirate's Cove, the little marina just before the Tom Bevill Lock in Pickensville, Alabama.  We docked there yesterday, having spent Saturday night anchored out in the "Hairston Cut-off," a side channel about 12 miles upstream.
Where we stayed: Pirate's Cove.  Can you find the canal boat in this picture?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Southern Fried Pizza

We stayed for two days at the marina in Columbus, Mississippi. The town does have a Saturday farmer's market. But it shuts down for the season at the end of October.  So I bought groceries at a conventional store.

Even when I shop at a supermarket, I'm trying, on this trip, to look for "local" products. My theory:  Local brands have been transported a shorter distance than national brands, reducing the amount of fossil fuel consumed.  

Friday, November 5, 2010

On the Verge of a Biofuel Breakthrough?

Wednesday we cruised past a dock where Scott Paper has a shipping terminal. On the bank was one huge pile of sawdust and another huge pile of bark mulch.  Nearby a crane was stacking tree trunks with as dispatch, ends butted neatly like soda straws in a dispenser.

As we cruised towards Columbus, Mississippi, I checked the local paper to see what I could learn about sustainable energy projects here.  Apparently I had just missed a local Rotary Club meeting where the speaker proclaimed that "Mississippi is poised to become a national leader in renewable energy production."  And the reason:  The state's abundant timber.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Beautiful Boondoggle

Most daymarks are mounted on land, not rock cairns
A rock cairn (see photo at left) marks the turn from Pickwick Lake (part of the Tennessee River) on to the Tennessee and Tombigbee Waterway.

The Tenn Tom doesn't look like much at first glance.  Construction was completed in 1984, and 26 years is not a whole lot of time for nature to reclaim bare earth.

So on the initial section, the 27 miles known as the "Divide Cut," it's clear you are traveling a canal. The banks are even and neatly leveled, plastered with rip-rap (small boulders that discourage soil erosion).  Industrial-style cement walls border the occasional causeway that admits water from a small tributary creek. Grass, weeds and some small trees have grown on the sloping banks, softening the impression that you're traveling the water equivalent of an interstate highway.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What IS It?

Periodically, this blog invites you to ponder some of the odd and unusual things we spot. On Sunday we started a new phase of our voyage when we entered the Tennessee and Tombigbee Waterway, a man-made waterway--not old, like most U.S. canals, but opened in the 1980s--that connects the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers. Running due south, the waterway gives commercial and recreational boats an alternative to cruising down the Mississippi River on the way to the Gulf Coast.

 Anyway, coming around a bend this sunny Sunday, we spotted a field of colorful floats, nearly obstructing the channel.  Each one was about the size of a Coke can, and each was brightly colored: blue, pink, yellow, Kelly green, lavender.  There was no sign to indicate whether it was safe to pass by.

So What IS It? (Or, What ARE They?)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Are You Feeling Loopy?

"Looper."  It sounds like a kind of pesky forest caterpillar.  But that’s the name for boaters who are travelling the route called "The Great Loop."

We just spent three days at the “fall rendezvous” of the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA)--an event held every year at Joe Wheeler State Park in Rogersville, Alabama.  

The Cap’n sends this guest blog about the experience.

The docks and lodge at Joe Wheeler State Park in Alabama
We joined about 200 other “Loopers” for lectures, workshops, demonstrations, and social events. Participants included people like us, who are currently looping (most arrived by boat), plus Looper “alumni” who have already completed the trip and folks who are planning (or fantasizing) about some day taking a year to circumnavigate eastern North America. Also on hand were boat brokers, marina managers, and marine supply dealers.

For Cynthia and me, some of the most useful sessions dealt with specific reaches of the journey, like the detailed orientation to the Tenn-Tom Waterway given by Fred Myers, the author of numerous books and articles about inland waterways. The first mate was mightily excited to learn that, once our boat reaches the salt waters of the Gulf, our spider infestation will disappear.