New Orleans to Mobile to Demopolis, and back to Mobile

It turned out that Ian had been harbouring a secret desire to travel on a Greyhound bus, and he thought that our journey from New Orleans to Demopolis, where we had left Carina, presented an opportunity. No buses or trains go to Demopolis,  but that didn’t deter him. We could take the bus to Mobile, and then hire a car.

As it happened, the Greyhound bus left New Orleans at 8 o’clock in the morning, which might have impaired our enjoyment of the night before. But there was a Megabus at 11.30, a much more congenial departure time. He booked online, with an air of self-satisfaction, before we left home. The total fare, for us both, for a two-hour bus journey, came to $12.50.

I related this to our friend Jacks.  She regarded me with consternation and then burst out laughing. Other young-ish friends reacted similarly, although my attempts to find out what exactly was the problem with Megabus were unsuccessful.

I was impressed by the fact that Megabus had a meeter- and- greeter at the bus station. But his role wasn’t confined to meeting and greeting. He eyed my bag with suspicion, and took it away to be weighed. Ian’s bag, by definition, weighed several kilos less, but I was only half a pound over the 50lb limit, so I was let off with a warning.

It was true that we didn’t quite fit the Megabus demographic, being the only people on the bus over the age of 35. But the seats, although hard, had plenty of leg-room, and there was free WiFi, which is more than you can say for the Transpennine Express.

I didn’t use the WiFi much though. The bus was a double-decker and our seats were upstairs, so we had a good view as we crossed Lake Ponchartrain and the bayous as we passed from Louisiana through Mississippi and finally into Alabama.

The bus stop at Mobile was a bit of a surprise. We’d imagined that the bus would stop in a bus station, and that there would be toilet facilities and possibly  even a café where we could get some lunch before picking up the car. But it was just a bus stop on the freeway, and we regretted not having used the ‘facilities’ on the bus.

We took an Uber to the Enterprise car hire office, only to find a hand-written note on the door, ‘closed till 2.30’. It was only 1.45 and there was nowhere to sit and no restaurants or shops in sight.

A mechanic came out from the shed behind the office, bringing me a chair, and explaining that there had been a security breach with Enterprise’s computer network, and all branches had been told to shut down till 2.30 while it was sorted out. So we had to wait, but eventually we were on our way north and eventually, we ate lunch, somewhere in the rolling hills of northern Alabama.

Ian thought he was on a roll after his success with Megabus, and had suggested the Econo-Lodge in Demopolis as a suitable overnight stay. But he quickly realized he was pushing his luck, and we had a comfortable night at the Best Western Plus instead.

The next day we went to Demopolis Yacht Basin to have Carina put back on the water. 

Carina in the hoist at DYB
Nearly in the water

Once this was done, we crossed the river to Kingfisher Marina where we were going to spend a few days sorting the boat out before starting the 200-mile journey down the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers.

After the rodent experience in Illinois, I felt some trepidation about getting back on the boat. But the mousetraps we’d left were untouched. There was a bit of mould here and there, but that was easily dealt with. The weather was fine and dry, so I was able to air the bedlinen and we didn’t need any more nights in the hotel. We celebrated our return to the boat with dinner at the Red Barn Restaurant, reputedly Demopolis’ best, and where we’d had a good meal on our last visit.

Our last trip had been punctuated with disasters of varying severity and expense,  so we were dismayed when Ian noticed fluid leaking from a hose on the steering column. It was all a bit too déjà vu. His initial attempts to remove the leaking hose proved futile, and we thought we were in for another repair bill. But he made a renewed effort the next morning, this time successfully. We had to wait till Monday to get a new hose made at a car repair shop, but it didn’t really matter. We needed the time to provision the boat and check everything  was functioning, because we’d be anchoring out for 3 nights in remote areas before we got to a marina at Mobile .

It was grey and cool when we left the next morning. Fred, Kim, Trenella and their staff at the Yacht Basin had been kind and helpful to us and I was still grateful to Anna-Marie at Kingfisher for her uncompromising advice back in November, when the water in the Tombigbee had risen to flood levels and the amount of debris in the river would have made it a dangerous passage, and she’d told us not to go.

Ian looking pleased to be back on his boat

It had been the right call. Everything happens for the best.  If our journey in the fall on the Tenn-Tom had been spoiled by cold and rain, once the first cloud had dissipated on our first day, we had clear, unbroken sunshine all the way to Mobile. Spring comes early in Alabama, and the trees which had worn their autumn golds in November were now showing the first new leaf of bright green.

It’s only about 100 miles as the crow flies from Demopolis to Mobile, but the river meanders and loops its way down to the delta. Sometimes the bends are quite sharp, and a large tow will appear from apparently nowhere, and quick avoiding action has to be taken.

There were only two locks between Demopolis and Mobile. The first one, Demopolis Lock, was just round the corner, and proved to be the first snag. We’d got up early to make the most of the day, but when Ian rang them to let them know we would like to pass through, the message came back that a large tow needed to go through first. And repairs were being done, and we wouldn’t get through till 11.30.

Inside Demopolis Lock
Looking back at Demopolis Lock and Weir, the river still turbulent

The delay getting through the lock meant that we wouldn’t get to our planned  anchorage at Bashi Creek before dark, and we had to anchor instead by the shelter of the Route 10 bridge over the Tombigbee River. The important thing was keeping out of the way of the tows which pass through all night. We set two anchors and kept the cabin light as well as the anchor lights on. As darkness fell, Ian spotted an alligator looking for its dinner.

During the winter, the river level at Demopolis had risen to 80’, 40’ above normal. We could now see the evidence of this in the terraces of sand that had been deposited along the riverbanks.



Tow suddenly appearing round the bend

Setting the anchor at Route 10

Close-up of the river bank
The table set for dinner on our first night on the boat
Sunset on Route 10

We anchored out each night, the second night at Okatuppa Creek in the Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge, and the third at the Alabama River Cut, where a short canal links the Tombigbee with the Alabama River. The only place we could have tied up was Bobby’s Fish Shack, but off-season it’s only open from Thursday to Sunday. Apart from one boat which left Demopolis at the same time as us, we didn’t see a single other pleasure craft. We passed through another lock at Coffeeville, but through no towns or settlements.

Anchorage at Okatuppa Creek
Morning at Okatuppa Creek
Approaching Coffeeville Lock
Pelicans at Coffeeville Lock
Leaving Coffeeville Lock



Limestone cliff at Lovers’ Leap

The river widening out as we approach Mobile

Suddenly we hit the Mobile Shipping Channel. We’d done the 200 miles in four days,  which was a record for Carina, helped by the river current southwards to Mobile. Everywhere there were tows, barges and big ships. One of the ships hailed us from what seemed like half a mile away, to politely suggest that it might be better if we passed him on starboard, rather than on port, as he needed to come into the dock. As we passed him, he wished us a good day and a safe trip.

Cochrane Highway Fixed Bridge, Mobile

We tied up at the transient dock at Dog River Marina, 10 miles south of Mobile. It had been a long day and the shipping channel had been stressful, but it was good to have the rivers behind us. It was a bit late in the day and the marina staff had gone home, but Jim and Lynn, whom we’d met at Demopolis, were on the dock next to us and helped us tie up.

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Another 48 hours in New Orleans

Being back in New Orleans felt good. We knew where we were going.

We didn’t have to do that thing of wandering around a strange city, furtively glancing at Google maps on our  smartphones, trying not to look like tourists, not knowing whether we were walking east or west and suddenly being surprised at the appearance of a famous landmark or geographical feature where we least expected them. On our first trip, I’d been confidently walking towards what I imagined was Lake Ponchartrain, only to find that the expanse of water  I was looking at was actually the Mississippi River.

The Hotel St Pierre, where we stayed in November, had sadly moved itself out of our price range. So instead, we stayed at the French Market Inn on Decatur Street.  It was nice enough and the staff friendly, but it wasn’t in quite the same class as the Hotel  St Pierre.

Before dropping us off, Kamal, our Lyft driver, had presented me with a string of emerald green New Orleans beads, and recommended the Cafe Beignet for lunch. It was just across the road from the hotel, and as there had been no refreshments on offer on the flight from DC, going there seemed a good plan.

The cafe was busy and crowded, but we got a table and listened to Richard Scott on keyboard. It set the mood nicely.

At the Cafe Beignet

Richard Scott playing the Cafe Beignet

Afterwards we wandered down to the riverfront.

Monument to the Immigrant on the riverfront
Steamboat Natchez

On an impulse, we took the Canal St Ferry across the Mississippi to Algiers Point, one of the oldest parts of New Orleans. We wandered the old streets which, with the church on the green, were a quiet contrast to the bustle and tourist-y feel of the French Quarter.

Houses in Algiers Point

By this time we craved tea. We passed two promising-looking establishments, but they had both closed at 3 o’clock. We had to have beer instead, at the Old Point Bar, which claims to be the oldest bar in New Orleans. Neither the interior nor the exterior appeared to have undergone much up-dating, but as we were finishing our drinks, some women appeared with trestle tables which they proceeded to set up at one end of the room, with piles of plates, cutlery, several large cooking pots, and some mild disagreement about what should be put where. It turned out that it was Taco Tuesday, and they were obviously expecting a crowd. Apart from the tacos, the scene could have been any village hall in England.

Old Point Bar, Algiers Point

We walked back along the levee towards the ferry point. There had been lots of rainfall and river flooding during the winter and the river level was still very high.

New Orleans from Algiers Point and the Mississippi in flood
Morgan St, Algiers Point
Canal St at dusk

On the recommendation of the lady on the front desk at the hotel, for dinner we went to Coop’s on Decatur St. There was a ‘line’ of several people, and when we finally got a seat, it was a perch at the bar. The food was good, but it was a relief to get away to the Spotted Cat where the Smoking Jazz Club were playing.

The next day we went to the Old Ursuline Convent, founded by French nuns in 1726. In 1824 the convent moved, and the original buildings are now a museum and a wedding venue. But the beautiful chapel is still used as a church.

In the garden of the Ursuline Convent
The Convent courtyard
St Mary’s Church, Old Ursuline Convent
Royal St, near the Ursuline Convent
Cornstalk Hotel, Royal St

On the way we had spotted the Cafe Amelie, in a lovely courtyard off Royal St. But we’re still not really in tune with how early Americans seem to eat, and we arrived at 11.45 for lunch, only to be told there would be a half-hour wait for a table. So we went down the road to the rather cheaper Petite Amelie instead.

Cafe Amelie, Royal St

We had thought about doing a swamp tour. I had always wondered what the bayous were like. But there seemed something a bit perverse about paying a lot of money to go on a boat trip, when you were going to spend the next 8 weeks doing your own boat trip.

So after lunch we walked to the Treme to see the Louis Armstrong Park

Louis Armstrong Park, Treme

Congo Square, Louis Armstrong Park

Congo Square was where enslaved and free people of colour were allowed to gather on Sundays and play their own music, the roots of New Orleans jazz.

The park turned out to be rather smaller and less interesting than it seemed on the map, so we took an Uber to Audubon Zoo in the Garden District.This turned out to be an inspired choice. The zoo was beautifully landscaped, and one area was a Louisiana swamp.

Flamingos, Audubon Zoo
Elephant Fountain, Audubon Zoo
Anteater
Louisiana Swamp
Alligator!

We took the streetcar back and had dinner at the rather quieter Evangeline Restaurant on Decatur, before going on to the Starlight Lounge where Tuba Skinny were playing.

Tuba Skinny at the Starlight Lounge

In the morning we had time for one last walk by the river before leaving for Demopolis. The Cathedral Basilica of St Louis made a stark outline against the cool spring sunshine.

The Cathedral Basilica of St Louis and Jackson Square

Natchez and New Orleans

 

The upside of not being able to get all the way to Mobile as we had planned,  was not only that Ian could make a new door for Carina, but we also had time to go to Natchez, the oldest town on the Mississippi River, and drive along part of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a designated scenic route. Fred and Kim at Demopolis Yacht Basin had very kindly let us use the apartment in the marina shower and laundry block, which made the last few days much easier, and warmer. It was still very cold and Carina isn’t at all well insulated.

 

Demopolis Yacht Basin – the fuel dock at night

The beam from a tow can just be seen on the left of this photo.

Demopolis to New Orleans via Natchez and the Natchez Trace

It took us rather longer than we had anticipated on our last morning, to get all the little jobs done and it was lunchtime by the time we’d finished. So we had lunch at Smokin’ Jack’s BBQ restaurant on the outskirts of Demopolis. It was the day after Thanksgiving, which had been quite a strange day for us, being on the outside looking in, with everywhere quiet and most shops closed for at least one day, and many for two. We hadn’t realised that there was a potluck Thanksgiving Lunch going on over at Kingfisher Marina and we were sorry to have missed it.

Smokin’ Jack’s was quite busy with local families eating out. People in Alabama seem super-friendly. Everyone smiled and nodded to us as they came in and went out, as if we were regulars and they saw us in there every week.

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Smokin Jack’s BBQ, Demopolis

It was perhaps unsurprising that a BBQ restaurant should have an assortment of ornamental pigs on display on the counter.

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Smokin Jack’s BBQ, Demopolis

They had a Coca-cola thing going on too.

The Natchez Trace  is an ancient trail which was used for hundreds of years by Native Americans. It links Natchez, on the Mississippi River, with Nashville, on the Cumberland River. Now, there is a 444-mile road, the Natchez Trace Parkway, as well as a walking and cycling trail which follow the historic route.

Driving along the Trace, a tree-lined single carriageway road with little traffic, was a completely different experience from driving on the multi-lane Interstate. But the weather hadn’t finished with us. It had been cold, but sunny, for the last few days, but half an hour after leaving Smokin Jack’s, we found ourselves in a torrential rainstorm and wondering what we should do if we saw a tornado coming. But we were worrying unnecessarily, and the rain eased off as we reached the rest area at Lower Choctaw Boundary, established in 1765 to mark the eastern limits of the old Natchez District. It was also the site of John Gregg’s Provisions store, which supplied travellers going north to Tennessee. 

Natchez Trace  at Lower Choctaw Boundary

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We stayed in the Grand Hotel in Natchez, situated on a bluff high above the Mississippi River. We didn’t have far to go for dinner, as the hotel was next door to Bowie’s, a bar and restaurant where there was a benefit gig for a local man who had been injured while felling a tree. The band were good and we even had a dance, but the noise levels were a bit of a challenge to our elderly ears.

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At Bowie’s

The next day we wandered along the river front and through the town.

Old Cotton Warehouse, now Bowie’s Tavern

 

The start of the Natchez Trace

 

Natchez has more than 1000 antebellum houses, more than any other town in Mississippi.

Rosalie Mansion

The first European settlement in Natchez was Fort Rosalie, founded by the French in 1716 and named after the Countess of Pontchartrain. The mansion was built next to the fort, on the bluff overlooking the river, by Peter Little in 1821 .

The Mississippi River at Natchez, looking north

Smith-Bontura-Evans House

This house was built by Robert D. Smith, a free African American, as his residence and to house his carriage and transport business.

Parsonage

The Parsonage was also built by Peter Little, for his wife to use when entertaining visiting Methodist preachers.

Uptown Grocery

But even Natchez had its failed businesses.

Old South Trading Post still going strong

 

Merchandise on offer at Old South Trading Post

 

Texada, the oldest brick house in Mississippi Territory and the oldest Capitol Building in the State of Mississippi

 

The Natchez Coffee Co

 

Barge on the Mississippi River

It felt quite exciting to be approaching New Orleans at last.

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When we got there, it was warm, humid and cloudy. We ventured out into the French Quarter and wandered down to the river. It’s vast. And if we thought Ole Man River was tricky up near St Louis,  we were just glad we hadn’t had to bring Carina down to New Orleans. 

Riverfront, the French Quarter

Garden behind the Cathedral Basilica of St Louis

We’d had some advice on where to go and what to do in New Orleans. A must-do was the Preservation Hall, where every night since 1961 there have been 4 45-minute concerts. So we walked to St Peter St and joined the long queue to get in – you can only buy tickets in advance for a few seats. We waited for 20 minutes, but were unlucky. The couple in front of us got in, but they were the last. The hall has a capacity of about 80 people. We could wait and be the first to be admitted to the next show, an hour later, or we could come back the next night. 

In the queue for the Preservation Hall

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It was too early to eat, so we went to Pat O’Brien’s next door and had cocktails in the patio garden , a Sazerac for Ian and a Hurricane for me. Mine had 4oz of rum in it and I could hardly walk afterwards. 

Hurricane

We had quickly noticed that New Orleans has its own pronunciation of some words, with the emphasis being placed on the second syllable rather than the first. As in, New Orleans, not New Orleans. Our hotel was in Burgundy St, but the young man who took us back there from the Enterprise Car Hire place  had corrected us. It’s Burgundy St, not Burgundy St. 

This caused a sticky moment when we went for dinner at Gumbo Shop, down the road from Pat O’Brien’s on St Peter St. 

Our pleasant waiter dutifully explained the daily specials to us. One of them came with rice and  what sounded like pakarns. 

‘Sorry, could you just say that last one again?’

He looked at us with  well-practised patience: ‘It comes with rice and pakarns.’

We looked at each other and tried again. 

‘Pakarns?’

‘Yes. Pakarns. Like small nuts.’

Light dawned, with some relief. He meant pecans. Or pakarns, as they’re obviously known in New Orleans. 

 

We stayed in  the Hotel St Pierre in the French Quarter. Our room was in Gabriel Peyroux House,  accessed from the main hotel across a narrow, plant-filled passageway. Peyroux house was built in 1780 and in 1965, Louis Armstrong stayed in the room next door to ours. The main hotel had a gracious ambience.

St Pierre Hotel and Peyroux House, Burgundy St

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The passageway between the hotel and Peyroux House

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The hall and breakfast area

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The lobby

 

The next day, the weather had changed again and we had bright, but very cold, sunshine. We wanted to see more than the French Quarter and took the streetcar down the long, straight, tree-lined St Charles Avenue to the Garden District. This is where the elegant old houses and mansions were built in the American style, in contrast to the European influences in the French Quarter.

Ian had made sure, from the website, that you could get change on the streetcar. We needed 2 daily passes at $3 each. He proffered a $20 note. ‘We don’t give change.’ There was no arguing with her. The only way we could get change was to be given a token which we could subsequently use in the system. Since we were leaving the next day, that wasn’t going to work. We were obviously those irritating tourists. We had a $5 note. A lady behind us in the queue  pressed some coins into Ian’s hand. The kindness of strangers, again.

Junction of Canal St and St Charles

Garden District, New Orleans

Coffee break in PJ’s, Magazine St

We wandered round the Garden District, marvelling at the grace and style of the houses. Then we went into Lafayette Cemetery on Prytania St. The lady in the hotel had told us it was a cool place to go, but I was a little surprised at how many other tourists were there. It was clearly a destination.

 

Tiled road signs

Waiting for the streetcar on St Charles

St Charles Avenue

Audubon Park

Audubon Park

We went into Audubon Park with the intention of visiting the zoo, but found it was closed on Mondays, so had a brief look at the park and then went back to the hotel. Suitably revived with tea, we got in the queue again for Preservation Hall.

This time, our perseverance was rewarded.

The Preservation Hall is like nowhere else. Founded in 1961, its purpose is ‘to protect, preserve, and perpetuate Traditional New Orleans Jazz’. It doesn’t have a bar and you’re only allowed to take in bottles of water. Nor are you allowed to take photographs. There are only about 40 seats, and everyone else has to stand. The atmosphere was  like a cross between a British village hall and, despite the lack of alcohol, an 18th century tavern. We listened to Leroy Jones and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  It was unforgettable.

The British lady we had met in Columbus had recommended Mr B’s Bistro. We came upon it by chance and ate there. It was a bit more up market and expensive than the restaurants we usually frequent, but it was the last night of our trip. We convinced ourselves that we deserved it. Then we went on to the Spotted Cat on Frenchman.

Royal St at night

Dominick Grillo at the Spotted Cat

We had a few hours in the French Quarter the next day before leaving for the airport. We’re looking forward to being back in the Spring!

Jackson Square and the  Cathedral Basilica of St Louis

The Cabildo

Corner of St Peter St and Chartres St

Jackson Square

Royal St

Latrobe Park

French Market

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Demopolis – should we stay or should we go

We arrived in Demopolis after 3 days of more or less continuous rain, which was not really what we had envisaged when we were happily anticipating this trip.

Demopolis stands at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers, and our plan was to travel a further 200 miles down the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile on the Gulf Coast, and leave Carina there for the winter.

There are no marinas between Demopolis and Mobile, and not many places, apart from Bobby’s Fish Shack, where you can anchor or tie up. It was going to take us four days to do the whole journey, so we needed two or three days to re-provision, get the laundry done and have a look round Demopolis.

On Saturday we got the bikes out for the first time on this trip. Since getting them in 2015, we’ve acquired some proper bikes at home, and in comparison our $130 folding jobs from Walmart seemed clunky and inefficient. But we needed the exercise after sitting on the flybridge all day for 3 days.

It’s not far to Demopolis downtown from Kingfisher Marina and we passed  Bluff Hall, which dates back to 1832.

_MG_0001 (2)Bluff Hall

Bluff Hall

 

_MG_0003 (2)Rooster Hall

Rooster Hall

Rooster Hall is on Demopolis Public Square and was built in 1843 by the Presbyterians of Demopolis. After the Civil War, it became a courthouse. It then became an Opera House, sometimes featuring performers from New York or New Orleans. It has since been the city hall, a fire station, a meeting house and auditorium, voting station, and an office building.

_MG_0002 (2)N Walnut Avenue, Demopolis

Walnut Avenue, Demopolis

We stopped at the Mustard Seed Gift Shop, on the corner of the square, where Ian noticed that coffee was served. Coffee shops seem to be rather few and far between, and after 20 minutes’ cycling, we needed coffee.

We went on to Gaineswood, a plantation house on the south side of the town. It was designed and built by General Nathan Bryan Whitfield, using slave labour, with construction starting in 1843 and taking nearly 20 years to complete. It’s now operated by the Alabama Historical Commission as a historic house museum. Paige, the director, greeted us and was interested to hear we were from Northumberland. It transpired that General Whitfield was a third-generation immigrant, from the beautiful Whitfield estate in Northumberland, about 30 miles away from where we live. He wasn’t actually a general, but had inherited the title from his father. Paige told us that one of the general’s descendants had gone to Northumberland hoping to visit  Whitfield Hall, and was disappointed to find that it is still a private residence and not open to the public. He was talking about this in the village pub and was overheard by the present owner, who gave him a conducted tour of the estate.

 

_MG_0004 (2)Gaineswood

The back door, Gaineswood

Dining room

General Whitfield appeared to be the sort of man who could turn his hand to anything, and he not only designed and made the silver epergne for his dining table, but made it specially high so that his guests could converse with each other across the table and still see each other easily. He then went on to make the special cabinet with the rounded front, on the left of the photo, to store the epergne in when it wasn’t in use.

Music room

He also made the pianola-type instrument on the left of the photo.

Front entrance hall

The slave quarters

Sunday was fine too, so we took the bikes out again and rather overstretched ourselves with a 14-mile ride out to Foscue Creek Park and the Spillway at Demopolis Lock, on the Black Warrior River. It was particularly arduous for me, since after wondering for some time why I didn’t seem able to keep up with Ian, we realised that one of the brakes on my bike was locked on.

Black Warrior River at Foscue Creek Park

Taking a break

You know you’re in the southern States when you see the Spanish Moss hanging from the trees.

More Fall colours

The Spillway Falls, Demopolis Lock

Swamp Cypress roots

We knew the weather was going to change again and that the earliest we’d be able to leave Demopolis would be Thursday. We were in for 3 more days of rain and a spell of very cold weather, with temperatures barely above freezing. On Monday, heavy rain fell continuously. Anna-marie, the Dockmaster at Kingfisher Bay, asked us when we planned to leave and looked at us in a concerned way when we said Thursday. She said the river level was going to rise by 20’, and would carry on rising because of all the rain that was falling upriver. The river would be full of logs and debris. And if we got stuck, because a log had damaged the propellor, TowBoat US wouldn’t come out and rescue us until the river had returned to normal levels, because it would be too dangerous. And that could take days.

That did it, really. The prospect of inviting more damage to the boat, and more expense, and possibly being stranded in a dangerously flowing river was enough to stimulate some lateral thinking.

Kingfisher Marina has a sister establishment at Demopolis Yacht Basin.  They are adjacent to each other on the river. Ian investigated the possibility of leaving Carina there for the winter. It turned out that we could have Carina hauled out, and stay on the boat while working on her, for what seemed like very reasonable charges compared with the marinas in Mobile.

Carina is an old boat, and if we’re being honest, she is really a fixer-upper. In the five years we’ve owned her, Ian has dutifully kept up with all the maintenance jobs on the engine, and the rest of the mechanics. But there’s lots about the fabric and fittings that could be improved. Our problem has been that we’ve never seemed to be anywhere where doing much fixing up seemed a possibility, and all our time has been spent either on the water, or exploring the surroundings.

Ian had long wanted to build a new door for the port side, ever since we had visited Jim Zevalkink in Michigan and seen his amazing workshop. The old door had obviously suffered from water getting in long ago, and was rotten and badly stained. Ian had variously patched it up but it looked a mess. So here in Demopolis Yacht Basin was a perfect opportunity and we had time to use it. But we still felt sad that boating was effectively over for this year.  It felt as though we had hardly got going.

But our decision seemed vindicated on Tuesday, when an experienced boater addressed a gathering of Loopers in the marina lounge and said that the river was too dangerous, and  that it would remain so for a week. It was also very cold. The temperature hardly rose above freezing, and the small fan heater which we have on the boat, which is great for taking the chill off the air when it’s a bit cold, was no match for the wintry conditions.

The marina had a courtesy car and the local shuttle bus would also come and pick people up at certain times. So we went out to the big local hardware store for materials and Ian ventured into a barber shop for a long overdue haircut.

In the barber shop, Demopolis

On Thursday morning at 7.30, with frost on Carina’s railings. two lads came over from the Yacht Basin to help us get the boat taken out of the water. They were encased in thick padded body suits, wellingtons and balaclavas. We were rather less well protected from the cold, and I was glad that at the last minute before leaving home, I had packed some cashmere fingerless gloves and a fleece beanie. We crossed the river and Carina was carefully lifted out of the water in the big  travel hoist. We were welcomed to the yacht basin by Kim and Trenella and plied with coffee and cookies in the office while we waited for Carina to be taken to her place on the hard standing.

We got a hire car the next day, which made life a little easier. We tried a couple of the local restaurants, Foscue House and the Red Barn, which were both good, and discovered Simply Delicious, a local bakery where we indulged ourselves with coffee and cinnamon rolls. They had managed to transform the interior of a modern, plain brick building in a shopping mall into somewhere with a downhome, country-style atmosphere.

Simply Delicious Bakery, Demopolis

We had a stroll along the Bigbee Bottom Trail, near Demopolis Lock.

Bigbee Bottom Trail

The new door took a few days to complete, and wasn’t without setbacks. But it’s now in place and looks really good.

Work in progress

Carina and her new door

We’re leaving tomorrow for two nights in Natchez, the oldest town in Mississippi, and then on to New Orleans before flying home.

We’ll be back in the spring with the aim of crossing our wake in Clearwater, FL and acquiring the prized Gold Looper flag for Carina.

 

 

 

The Tenn-Tom Waterway: Aqua Yacht Harbor to Columbus and on to Demopolis

Second time around, our departure from Aqua Yacht Harbor was uneventful, and we managed the 54 miles to our next stop at Midway Marina, without mishap. We slipped quietly away from the dock early in the morning, and were off down the Divide Cut, the first section of the Tenn-Tom. This is a 25-mile, man-made, long straight section of the waterway which links Pickwick Lake and Bay Springs Lake.

The Divide Cut

Bay Springs Lake

 

Below Bay Springs Lake, a series of 10 Locks takes the Waterway down to Demopolis.

 

The first six locks, which are fairly close together, comprise the Canal Section.

The first Lock is the deepest. Jamie Whitten Lock, named for a local politician, is 84’ deep.

Jamie Whitten Lock

Jamie Whitten Lock

Midway Marina is halfway down the first flight of six locks.

Tree stumps at Midway Marina

Assistant dockhand at Midway Marina

As we left Midway, it was a beautiful day with the Fall tints lighting up the river banks.

Fulton Lock

Coming up to Glover Wilkins Lock

After Amory Lock you come into the River section. Here, the waterway broadens out and the remaining four locks are more spaced out. There are lots of oxbow lakes where the waterway has been cut through, and in some of them you can anchor. We stopped at Acker Lake and the next day went on to Columbus.

near Acker Lake

Fall colours near Acker Lake

Coming up to Aberdeen Lock

We intended to have two nights at Columbus, and leave early the next morning with a group of Loopers to get through the nearby John Stennis Lock all together. But on the second night we ventured into the town centre to eat at Huck’s Place, generally acknowledged to be the best restaurant in town. It was certainly very good. The town centre looked interesting, and on the way back to the marina, our Uber driver recommended a visit to Waverley Mansion, an antebellum house a few miles out of town.

So we decided to stay another day.

The journey to Waverley wasn’t without incident. What our Uber driver hadn’t told us was that the mansion was some distance away along narrow, country roads. It should have taken about 20 minutes, and after driving for half an hour through forest interspersed with the odd tract of farmland, we suspected that the satnav might have led us astray. Google maps confirmed this, but even when we were on the correct narrow country road, we still couldn’t see anything resembling an antebellum mansion.

Things were getting a bit tense. We had to get the car back to the marina by 12, and if we didn’t find the house soon, we wouldn’t have enough time to see it properly. It wasn’t quite a disaster in the making, but there was certainly the potential for a minor domestic, with unspoken blame being cast equally on the one who had programmed the satnav, versus the one who had insisted on the expedition in the first place. Eventually, we came to a country park and just before a dead end at the water’s edge, I caught a glimpse of white down a rough track through the trees. There had been no sign indicating the house’s location.

A young man was sweeping leaves in front of an imposing house. It turned out he was the guide, and we had just enough time for a tour.

Waverley Mansion

Jimmy told us he was a history graduate and he was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the house and its history. He had worked for the owners for 10 years.

The house was unusual. Two wings led off a central octagonal entrance hall, topped with a cupola. The upper storeys had balconies overlooking the hall.

Waverley was built in 1852 by Colonel Hampton Young. He named it because Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels were his favourite books. He and his large family came from Philadelphia MS and lived in a log cabin nearby, while the house was being built. In the Civil War, the Union armies didn’t get as far as Columbus, so there are a number of antebellum houses in the area which escaped destruction.

After Billy Hampton Young, the last surviving son, died in 1913, the house was effectively abandoned, the heirs being unable to agree about what to do with it. It became derelict and a favourite haunt of high school and college students.

In 1962 it was bought by Mr and Mrs Robert Snow. They did much of the restoration and repair work themselves and furnished the house with beautiful antiques.

 

Central Hall, Waverley Mansion

Library

Dining room, with a portrait of Mrs Snow above the fireplace

Bedroom,  bedspread knitted by Mrs Snow

Drawing room

Mr Snow died aged 91 in 2017 and the house and contents are now for sale. It is registered as an historic building and the hope is that an organisation will buy it and preserve it for future generations.

Front driveway and garden

In the afternoon we went into the town. It was a bit disappointing. It wasn’t as lively as it had been the night before, and sadly, a number of businesses seemed to be closed down. We did have a look in the Arts Centre though, where an impressive photography exhibition was being staged. We wandered round the tree lined streets looking at the lovely old houses.

House on 3rd Avenue

3rd St S

On 3rd St, as we walked past, a lady opened her front door and called to us. Apparently it is obvious that we aren’t Americans, and she wanted to know where we were from. It turned out that she was a British exile, having moved to Columbus from Birkenhead in 1979. We had a long chat on her doorstep. She hadn’t been back to the U.K. for a few years and she said talking to us had made her day.

3rd St S

Tennessee Williams’ childhood home

Scarecrow on 5th St – a local custom

Main St

5th St

Columbus Marina at dusk

We left Columbus the next day. We knew that the weather forecast for the next few days was miserable, but we needed to get going. There were only two locks to go through, and it wasn’t raining very hard at that point, so we didn’t get too wet. But it was a pity that we only saw this beautiful stretch of river in cloud and rain.

We anchored at Windham Landing, and the following day at Sumpter Recreation Area.

Tom Bevill Lock, with an egret looking for something to eat

Leaving Windham Landing

Mile 272

There are some quite sharp bends on the River Section, and a couple of times large tows took us a bit by surprise.

Crimson White appearing round a bend

Sumpter Anchorage

There was another thunderstorm in the night and we were woken by brilliant flashes of lightning, claps of thunder and heavy, lashing rain. The last stretch to Demopolis was over 50 miles and as it’s now dark by 5.30 (November seems nearly as miserable in Alabama as it is in England) we got an early start and were away by 6.45. But it was bad timing.

Howell Heflin Lock was 3 miles away. Ian hailed them when we got within a couple of miles, only to find that a tow was just about to lock down in front of us. This meant waiting, ie hovering about in the channel, while the lock emptied and then filled up again, so we lost about 40 minutes.

At Epes and at Mile 234, 18 miles from Demopolis, we passed spectacular white cliffs.

The geology of Alabama is complex and the white rocks along the Tenn-Tom are fossiliferous, clayey, sandy glauconitic limestones laid down around the  Eocene Period around 50 million years ago, in warm, shallow seas. Thanks to my friend Elizabeth Capewell for this information.

By the time we got to Kingfisher Bay Marina at Demopolis, it was raining hard again and we were grateful to Anna-Marie, the dockmaster, for finding a covered slip for us. Demopolis is the last marina before Mobile, more than 200 miles away, so we planned to have a few days stocking up and having a bit of a rest before tackling the last, difficult stage of this year’s trip. What we didn’t realise at that point was that once more, Fate and the weather had decided to overturn our plans and that Carina would be staying in Demopolis for rather longer than we had anticipated.

 

 

 

The Tenn-Tom Waterway: Aqua Yacht Harbor and Back

I didn’t mean this blog to be a long, introspective, self-pitying catalogue of all the mishaps that have befallen us on this part of the trip. Really.

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Leaving Aqua Yacht Harbor #1

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Flying the flag of the American Great Loop Cruisers’ Association on the Tenn-Tom

But when we realised, two hours out of Aqua Yacht Harbor down the Tenn-Tom Waterway, that hydraulic fluid was leaking from the lower steering helm and that we would have to turn around, go back, and get it fixed with no small loss of time and money, it felt as though we had reached a very low ebb.

Coming on top of everything else that has gone wrong on this trip, I felt that things were out of control, and that shrugging it off, going with the flow, and accepting that stuff happens, no longer seemed an appropriate response. Wallowing in gloom was much more comforting, even for an innate optimist with a belief that most things usually happen for the best.

It was Saturday, so no one could come out till Monday, to see if it was just a leaking seal or something more serious.

It was. Dave came and said we needed a new helm to stop the leaking, and we would have to source one for him to fit. This comes under the costing-an-arm-and-a-leg category of expenditure, but, ever resourceful, Ian went on the Internet and managed to find a reconditioned one at considerably less expense than a new one would have been. We paid for expedited shipping so it arrived the next day for Dave to fit on Wednesday.

In the meantime, the hours hung rather heavily. My usual method of working off frustration is vigorous polishing of the brasses, but Ellen McArthur-style, I had run out of Brasso. Mopping the floors and polishing all the woodwork had to suffice. The WiFi wasn’t that good so checking social media was rather tedious, having to wait longer than five seconds for posts to appear. I was reduced to staring at the laptop, deleting most of the 1500 emails that had somehow accumulated in my inbox.

The marina had a courtesy car which we could use for two hours at a time. So we could go out, but not very far. We went to Corinth, 15 miles away across rural Mississippi, to the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center. This was a purpose-built facility and very well done, focusing on Corinth’s strategic importance in the war, and the battles of Shiloh and Corinth, in which many thousands of men on both sides were killed in action. Outside, there was a water feature with engraved stones, commemorating events in American history.  It was moving, and saddening.

Annoyingly, the weather was bright and sunny and would have been perfect for boating. Instead,we drove out to Pickwick Lake State Park, near the lock, but it’s mainly for boating and picnicking, with no walking trails, so we sat and watched a flock of geese on the water.

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Pickwick Lake State Park

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Pickwick Lake State Park

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Pickwick Lake State Park

Opposite the marina, a little further along the main road, a narrow road led up a hill through the woods, so we went for a walk up there instead. Scattered among the trees were a few houses, some modern and well-looked after, and others more modest. We attracted the attention of a gentleman busy sweeping the fallen leaves from his front drive, who came out and chatted to us. We got the impression that not many people here wander about in the woods for the fun of it.

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Little house in the woods, Iuka

Dave came back and fitted the new helm on Wednesday, so we were good to go. But the next stage involved a 25-mile journey down the  ‘Divide Cut’,  a long straight passage where the waterway was carved out of the rock and where you can’t anchor. We didn’t want to be doing that in the heavy rain and winds which were forecast for the next day, so we decided to stay at Aqua Harbor till Friday and enjoy the journey in better weather.

We went to the small town of Iuka, where the old Tishomingo County Courthouse is now a small museum. On a wet Thursday morning, we were the only visitors and Jeff, the director, gave us a guided tour.  His knowledge and insight gave us a much better picture of the history of the area than we would have gleaned if we’d just gone round by ourselves.

IMG_4226 (3)TishomingoCouthouse Museum

Tishomingo Courthouse Museum

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S Fulton St, Iuka

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The Old Tishomingo Courthouse, Iuka

The restaurant at the marina was open on Thursday evening and we deserved a treat. This time it took the form of Cajun-spiced red fish, followed by Mississippi Mud Pie.

That night, it poured down and Carina rocked on the waves washing against the dock. The extra day at the marina was a price worth paying for the knowledge that we were safely secured in the storm.

We had a very early start on Friday morning, because as well as the long passage through the cut, there would be locks to go through too.

The sky was grey and overcast, but this time the cloud had a silver lining.

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Leaving Aqua Yacht Harbor #2

 

 

Paris Landing to Aqua Yacht Harbor – Boating for Beginners

So the take-home message from this week’s blog is, just because you’ve parked your boat safely in a delightful anchorage, the sun is shining, the water is sparkling, there’s no one else around, you’ve had a nice dinner, and no adverse weather conditions are forecast, don’t imagine that adverse weather conditions won’t suddenly materialise when you least expect them, with unfortunate consequences for your boat and yourself.

We had a lovely week with the family. On the way, we had an overnight stop at Wytheville, just over the border in Virginia, but it rained all the way from Wytheville to Haymarket, and disappointingly, our view of the Blue Ridge Mountains was obscured by heavy mist. 

But on the way back it was different. Crisp autumn sunshine lit up the tree-covered slopes which were still only just beginning to show their fall colours, in the mountains where Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia all meet. The Great Smoky Mountains dominated the view as we drove through north-Eastern Tennessee. 

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The Great Smoky Mountains from US 321

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We stopped at Johnson City and just down the road from the hotel was the intriguingly named Cootie Brown’s Restaurant. The young woman on the front desk couldn’t recommend it personally, but other guests had raved about it. 

The exterior was not particularly inviting, looking a bit like a post-war prefab. 

Inside, the tables and chairs were painted a bright distressed yellow and were almost fully occupied with people enjoying good home-style food. They didn’t do wine, but the Sam Adams  seemed more appropriate anyway. There wasn’t a frie on the menu and my side consisted of an interesting combination of artichokes, whole bulbs of roasted garlic, roasted red peppers and spinach, garnished with crumbled blue cheese. Another one to try out on our unsuspecting friends when we get home. And our meal wasn’t expensive. 

All was well at Paris Landing, but not for long. On the Saturday night we anchored at Rockport Landing, where an oxbow lake forms a sheltered channel away from the main river. We had it all to ourselves. 

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Paris Landing to Densons Island

The day started overcast but gradually brightened.

012 (4)Just south of Paris landing

Just south of Paris Landing

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Richard Creek, Mile 89

Moderately strong winds were forecast for late afternoon, but they came and went. Frost was forecast for the next morning, but nothing else of note. 

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Near Rockport Landing

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The anchorage at Rockport Landing

Around midnight, we were woken by a noise on the deck. Ian went up and secured the little steps that we use to get on and off the boat. 

Ten minutes later, a much louder bang had us leaping out of bed and throwing our coats and life jackets on over our pj’s. 

Carina was bashing on a channel marker which we didn’t remember being there before, and was dangerously near the rocky shore. It was very cold, very dark, the winds were  strong and howling, and suddenly Carina was being tossed about in waves which had come from nowhere. 

The diagnosis was that the anchor had slipped, and it was only then that we remembered the words of wisdom and experience in the Captain Bob Guide, ‘the anchorage is relatively narrow and you may want to set a stern anchor’.

We hadn’t set the stern anchor. It had seemed a quiet and peaceful location and the stern anchor is very heavy and a faff to drop.

But now it seemed like a good idea. First though, we needed to reverse Carina away from the errant channel marker and to a safer position. Once we’d done that, and it seemed that the bow anchor was firm again, Ian dropped the stern anchor. Unfortunately, in the darkness and the panic, neither of us remembered that the engine was still in gear, and for the second time in a month, we had a rope wrapped round the prop. 

The boat was now firmly anchored and there was nothing to be gained by continuing to battle the elements. We went back to bed but found it hard to sleep with the winds howling and the worry of how we were going to extricate ourselves from this particular predicament. 

The next day all was calm and the sun shone, though the air was freezing. Ian was out of bed at 6, but I refused to emerge from under the covers. I saw no benefit in tackling the situation before the air had warmed up a bit and we had had breakfast. 

Eventually we went out and had a look. The plan was to lower the dinghy and try to reach the rope beneath the prop with the long boat hook, and lift the anchor that way. Miraculously, and after a lot of effort, Ian succeeded and we had the anchor back on the deck. Of course we still had the problem that the rope was entwined round the prop, and we had to get that off somehow. 

52 years ago I was Swimming Captain at school. No doubt that was what Ian was thinking of when he mused that actually the water was not that cold and I might like to dive down and take a look. Predictably, this met with a John McEnroe-type response but in the end I gave in, took off my many layers of warm clothing and put my swimmers on. 

He was right that the water didn’t feel cold at all. Relative to the air temperature, that is. But although I could feel the rope on the prop, I couldn’t stay under the water long enough to untangle it. 

We resorted to cutting the rope as close as we could to the prop. Then we tried the engine. Amazingly, it worked and Carina moved, so we were able to make gentle progress down the river to an anchorage at Denson’s Island. This time, we set the stern anchor. 

_MG_0001 (2)A few miles south of Rockport Landing

A few miles south of Rockport Landing

_MG_0006 (2)Evening at Denson's Island

Evening at Densons Island, the end of a long hard day

_MG_0008 (2)Morning at Denson's Island

Morning at Denson’s Island

After Densons Island, we moved on to the marina at Clifton, and then on to Diamond Island, and through Pickwick Lock to Aqua Yacht Harbour.

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South of Densons Island, the countryside became a little more hilly with limestone outcrops.

_MG_0013 (2)Outcrops at Beach Creek

Outcrops at Beach Creek

We had a couple of nights at Clifton Marina, borrowing the courtesy car, which was in reality a creaking pickup truck, to go to the small town to do laundry and reprovision. The only grocery store was Dollar General, which as the name implies, doesn’t strive to be high-end. Our previous experience of DG was that it sold masses of snack food, processed frozen food, hardware and not much else. So we were pleasantly surprised to find good quality fresh fruit and vegetables on offer, and the frozen salmon we got for dinner was fine. Apparently the stocking of fresh produce has only happened within the last few weeks, so I hope it continues. 

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The CocaCola truck

On the second night two more boats joined us in the marina – Angela and Bob on Aqua Vision and Vicky and Bob on Virginia Hawkeye. We all went for dinner in the little bar in the marina and swapped stories of our various misfortunes. We’ve realised that conditions in the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers are much worse now than when we were there only 3 weeks ago, with water levels higher, and masses of impacted logs blocking the channel. Vicky regaled us with her account of setting off one morning in slightly misty weather, only for thick fog to descend, and getting completely confused and suddenly realising they were going upstream and not downstream. 

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Angela and Bob leaving Clifton Marina on Aqua Vision

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Vicky on Virginia Hawkeye

 

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Near Clifton Highway Bridge

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Limestone at Mile 169

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Near Mile 182

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Open country at Mile 182

  There was a little mist and fine drizzle as we left the anchorage at Diamond Island, but we rather optimistically assumed that things would brighten up. They didn’t. The rain and wind steadily increased and reached their high spot just as we had to negotiate Pickwick Lock, where the Tennessee River is dammed to form Pickwick Lake.  Ian always prefers to tie up on port, so I had put all the fenders out and was standing with my midline ready to lasso the bollard on the wall. 

We approached the wall but not closely enough. In the corner of the lock we’d been directed to, there was a particularly strong wind blowing us away from the wall. I’m not very good at moving targets and my attempt at rope-throwing failed miserably. We reversed, and tried again. And again. This went on for a while, before the lockmaster suggested turning around and tying up to the opposite wall. This worked, as the wind was blowing us into the wall, but we then had the problem that we were facing the wrong way to get out of the lock. A 9-point turn didn’t go well so Ian ended up having to reverse Carina 300 yards out of the lock. Steering in reverse is difficult, but we made it eventually, but not before the crew, who had to stand on the back in the rain watching out, got very wet. 

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Disgruntled crew at Pickwick Lock

We left the Tennessee River a little further down Pickwick Lake and entered the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the Tenn-Tom for short, which links the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers. 

The waterway was first proposed in the late 1700s by French settlers, and engineering investigations were done in 1874. But the project was deemed impractical and although further studies were carried out at various times, it wasn’t until President Nixon finally approved it in 1971 that construction began in 1972. The Waterway was completed in 1985 at a cost of $1 billion. More earth had been moved than had been moved in the construction of the Panama Canal. 

We got to Aqua Yacht Harbor, where we were given a covered slip, which meant we didn’t get too wet walking in the pouring rain to the restaurant for dinner. The next day, Glen, a local diver, came and removed the rope from the prop. It had been twisted several times round the prop and he had to cut it to get it off. There was no way that I could have done it, and that made me feel a bit better.