AYH to Mobile

Aqua Yacht Harbor to Mobile AL.

We were up at 5AM, cold and dark outside. I exit the pilothouse and climb the few steps up to the boat deck to remove the stack cover. Dry stack exhaust systems have many wonderful characteristics but on this particular boat one does not want rain to pour into the exhaust pipe. The next time you start the engine it will spew oily soot out all over your clean white boat and the neighbors too. Not a pretty picture. So, every time the engine is shut off we place a cover over the exhaust to prevent such a nightmare. Should you forget you will have to deploy the “soot sock”. The previous owner used a Nomex bag that he slipped over the exhaust pipe to catch the soot upon startup. I found this wanting in many ways and devised a cheap, lightweight, and effective sock out of some HVAC parts (see Boat Geek section for details). I remove the cover and return to the pilot house and begin our “pre-departure checklist”. Like an airplane this boat is complex enough to require a checklist. It covers engine room engines, stabilizer, fuel selection manifold, covers, electronics and configurations, route selection, monitors of various sorts, dockside duties like unplugging the shorepower cord, etc. This takes maybe 15 minutes but is invaluable. All is well and the checklist is completed. The sun is rising on a beautiful crisp Fall day as we back out of our slip at Aqua Yacht Harbor for the last time and turn South to enter the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.


The “Tenn-Tom” was a government project meant to promote commercial transport from most States East of the Mississippi to the Gulf, control flooding, and create recreational waterways. It required the construction of a 30 mile canal connecting the Tennessee River and Tombigbee Rivers and 12 locks and dams and the reservoirs behind them, new bridges, roads, etc. Entire towns were displaced, graveyards moved, lives disrupted. Today, recreational use of these resources probably surpasses commercial use. For us, transporting Tivoli to the ocean means making this 450 mile trek down the Tenn-Tom for the 4th time. So, the novelty has worn off but, nevertheless, this is a lovely trip. The Fall colors are beautiful, the weather couldn’t be better, and Tivoli hums along at a stately pace.

Prior to departure Deanna was cleaning the pilothouse windows and I noted that smashed bugs are not a problem in trawler-land. We don’t go fast enough to smash a bug. Butterflies outpace us. You have to enjoy smelling the roses to appreciate this type of boating. And that is exactly what we do while underway. We have time to view the passing countryside, wildlife, birds, people, other boats. We have the opportunity to take photographs or to simply pass some time reading, listening to favorite music, etc. Of course, one of us is at the helm at all times keeping the boat in the well-marked channel, monitoring boat systems, fuel consumption, electrical consumption, etc. We do engine room checks every two hours to ensure all is well and to detect any potential problems early. We also change the source of fuel to keep the boat in trim during these checks.

Time passes surprisingly quickly considering the pace. At the start of this trip one has to pass through 5 locks, each of which can take an hour. We’ve “locked through” probably 50 times over the years and have refined our technique to the point where it is pretty easy. But it is still impressive the enter the lock chamber at Bay Springs Lock, have the massive doors close behind you, and fend the boat off the concrete walls as the water is lowered 84 feet…8 stories. We were in Panama some years ago and visited Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal….boring, each lock there only raises ships 20 feet or so….the entire passage across the Canal raises one 80 feet or so, less than the single lock at Bay Springs. We pass through this lock and 2 more the first day stopping at Midway Marina. Second day, another 4 locks before we tie up at Columbus Marina. Third day another two and a beautiful moon-lit night on the “hook”. And so it goes, lock after lock, mile after mile of wooded shoreline and the occasional tow boat and its tow.

In the “old days” meeting a tow-boat could be a challenge or downright dangerous if you happened to be on the wrong side of the river in a tight turn. Today AIS technology gives you plenty of warning of their whereabouts and any other commercial shipping as well. Tivoli is also equipped with AIS and it is in use constantly. In spite of these advances tow-boat encounters are among the hazards of river travel. We had two close encounters in one day; Demopolis to Bashi Creek. In one situation the tow passed too close for comfort as we were wedged between it and a green can navigation marker defining shallow water. The second situation was even more nerve wracking. Two tows meeting on a curve with Tivoli in the middle; passing the first on the “one-whistle” and the second on the “two-whistle” requiring crossing in front of the first tow with precious little time to avoid the oncoming second vessel. We had to push Tivoli hard that day to make the distance needed to Bashi Creek and to handle the traffic….a whopping 10 mph at a whopping 5 gal/hr fuel burn. We are fortunate to have the “speed” for these kinds of circumstances.

In addition to marinas along the way there are innumerable anchorages where one can spend a quiet evening “on the hook”. Warsaw Cuttoff was such a place. Deep water, large enough to accomodate many boats, full moon on glassy water, reflections of Fall colors. There are also regions of the Tenn-Tom where there is no choice but to anchor out as there are long stretches of waterway with no other place to stop, and the anchorages are not so appealing. Especially South of Demopolis on the Black Warrior River. One can motor for 50 miles along that stretch and not see a farm light or much sign of civilization. Finding a good anchorage is a challenge; we tried 2 locations along the river before anchoring a third time in Bashi Creek. This is literally a creek, about twice the width of Tivoli and with overhanging trees. I had anchored here before with smaller boats; probably should not have put Tivoli in there. I thought we would leave with branches and leaves on the deck but the anchoring went well, though I was forced to put together our stowed Fortress anchor and deploy it off the stern to keep us from swinging into the trees.

A delightful aspect of cruising is the people you meet. Folks from all walks of life enjoy the boating lifestyle and most we encounter on this trip were doing “The Great Loop”. The Loop takes you from Florida up the East coast on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal into the Great Lakes, through the Great Lakes to Chicago, down the Illinois River to the Mississippi, into the Ohio River, then South up the Tennessee River to the Tenn-Tom, down the Tenn-Tom to the Gulf, back to Florida….some 6000 miles and a wonderful trip. We very much enjoyed the company of many of these intrepid travelers; restranteurs, dentist, helicopter pilot who flew Reagan and Carter on Marine-1, etc. All “doers” – out there enjoying life at the fullest. The comraderie is delightful.

Here, and points South, is where the river is also particularly convoluted. One can watch the smokestack of a power plant appear on the left, then behind you, then on the right, then on the left again for what seems like hours until it finally disappears from sight. Eventually, the river and swamp give way to the hustle and bustle of the city of Mobile and, after 7 days of river travel, you are in salt water on Mobile Bay, headed down the ship channel.

This is a striking transition from the tight spaces and shallow waters of the Tenn-Tom to the wide open expanse of Mobile Bay. We had a decent weather forecast and opted to make the run from Alabama Cutoff, our last anchorage on the Tenn-Tom, to a marina in Orange Beach, AL called The Wharf. This was a mistake. Halfway down the 20 mile long Mobile Bay the Coast Guard was posting small craft warnings. Wind and seas grew to 4-6 feet with a short 3 second period….and following seas at that. Under these conditions the autopilot tends to wander so we hand-steered the boat in these rough waters for 2-3 hours before turning East on the ICW. Now, the seas were broadside but the boats motion much better; another 10 mile slog eastward to protected waters off the Bay. By now it is dark. We used all the instrumentation at our disposal to navigate the last 7-8 miles to our mooring at the Wharf Marina; FLIR, chartplotters, radar, etc. We tied up, plugged into shorepower, and collapsed – exhausted…a 108 mile, 12 hour, arduous day.

Tivoli is free at last; back on the ocean she was born to travel.

2 thoughts on “AYH to Mobile”

  1. So glad to hear about your trip so far. Sounds like you faced some challenges but I know both of you and Tivoli are up to it. Miss you guys but so happy that you are on your great adventure.

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