Saturday, January 7, 2017

Inland Rivers Recap

As I promised a bit earlier, here is a summary of our "rivers" trip spanning the second half of 2016. If you are joining us from a link on one of the Great Loop forums, welcome. For our regular readers, bear with me while I catch some folks up.

Sunset on the river.

We've always wanted to do "The Great Loop," a circle trip that typically involves cruising north up the east coast of the US to the Hudson River, thence to Troy, New York, thence via one of four alternative routes to the Great Lakes. After cruising the Great Lakes, loopers make their way to Chicago, Illinois and ultimately via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi.

Holiday lights in Vicksburg.

The Illinois empties into the Mississippi upstream of St. Louis, Missouri, and loopers proceed downstream to the confluence of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. Above Cairo the river is known among rivermen as the Upper Mississippi, and from Cairo to the Gulf of Mexico it is the Lower Mississippi. The distinction is more than just a name; mile numbering starts over from zero at Cairo on the Upper Mississippi. Also, the Upper Mississippi is controlled and regulated by locks and dams, whereas the Lower Mississippi flows unimpeded all the way to the Gulf.

A map showing all the alternative Great Loop routes.

At the confluence of the Ohio, loopers have a choice to make. Continue downstream on the Lower Mississippi all the way to New Orleans, a trip of some 865 statute miles, or else push upriver on the Ohio to the Tennessee River, locking up to Pickwick Lake, and then taking the "Tenn-Tom" route south through Mississippi and Alabama to Mobile. I don't know if anyone keeps statistics, but I am going to guess that over 99% of loopers take the Tenn-Tom route, and most cruising resources steer loopers in that direction. Nevertheless, the Lower Mississippi is considered a Great Loop route, and most literature on the subject depicts both of these two alternative routes.

Locking through.

While completing the Great Loop was on our original boating to-do list, long-time readers will know that when we conducted our boat search, many things were higher up the priority list, chief among them the seaworthiness and range for transoceanic voyaging. Vector met almost all our tick boxes, but, sadly, since the addition of a hard-framed flybridge top during the previous owner's tenure, she is too tall to complete the loop as depicted above. Our air draft is 27' and there are a number of bridges between Troy, New York and Alton, Illinois that are 20' or lower, no matter which route is selected.

One of many evening meals on the aft deck.

We've already done the entire east coast portion of the loop, from the Florida Keys all the way to Troy, New York, where we had to turn around before reaching the 20' bridge just after the lock. And this spring, we did the Gulf portion of the route, but in "backwards" sequence from the typical looper, starting in the Keys and going counterclockwise all the way to Mobile Bay.

Fall color on the Tennessee.

The rest of this post concerns our trip from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans, Louisiana by using both of the alternative western loop routes. From the convention center dock in Mobile we proceeded upriver on the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers and the Tenn-Tom waterway, and then downriver on the Tennessee and the Ohio to Cairo, Illinois, in exactly the reverse direction from a typical looper. Because this is the route that most loopers also take, I call this the "Great Loop Route" portion of our trip.

Knoxville, Tennessee. The "high" point of our trip.

Upon reaching the Tennessee River, we also opted to make a "detour" off the Great Loop route, going upriver, round trip, to Florence, Decatur, Huntsville, Guntersville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville, all the way to the headwaters of the Tennessee. The boat spent a month in Decatur while we traveled to California and Virginia for various business, and we spent over two months in Chattanooga due to medical issues. Together these three months skewed the numbers for the overall trip. I call this segment the Knoxville Detour. Many loopers also do part of this trip, typically as far as Joe Wheeler State Park in Alabama.

Chattanooga, our home for two months.

Once we finished the "normal" great loop segment by reaching the Mississippi, we took the road less traveled and proceeded downriver for 865 statute miles to New Orleans, Louisiana, where we've been for a couple of weeks. I call this the "Lower Mississippi" segment of the trip. At some point we hope to do the ICW between here and Mobile, thus "closing the loop."

Vector's travels on one map. You can clearly see our "southwest loop" at left, with the finger going out to Knoxville. This is entirely generated by GPS tracking on our plotter, not made after-the-fact. You can also see our excursion up the Hudson as well as our Maine and Bahamas trips.

I've compiled some statistics for each of the three segments and the trip as a whole in the table at the end of this post. Overall we spent just shy of six full months, although three of those were spent at the dock as noted above. We put 340 hours on the engine and 2,200 nautical miles (2,500 statute) on the odometer. We fueled the boat twice, once in Carrabelle, Florida (235nm before Mobile) and once in Paris Landing, Tennessee. I don't have a way to be precise here but I would say we used about 1,200 gallons of diesel, and a little over 100 gallons of that went to 171 hours of generator operation.

Walking in Memphis.

We locked through 27 times (and drove past one more lock that was not operating), and went from sea level in Mobile to 813' above sea level in Knoxville, finishing at four feet above sea level in the Mississippi at New Orleans. One final lockage, not counted in the totals, at the Industrial Canal in New Orleans, brought us the rest of the way back to sea level.

Life on the big river.

We spent 69 nights on the hook, and made 66 stops altogether including at docks. On the Lower Mississippi segment of the trip, we docked only one time, in Memphis, for two weeks. Nevertheless, we were also able to stop in New Madrid, Caruthersville, Osceola, Tunica, Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, and Baton Rouge. We skipped shore visits in Osceola and Tunica for lack of interest; only Natchez was a disappointment, inasmuch as weather did not permit landing there on our visit (we were very late in the season).

Across from Paducah, Kentucky.

While I regret not having the time to go upriver on the Cumberland, Ohio, Arkansas, or Red rivers (due to the three months of unscheduled downtime), there is no part of this trip that we regret doing. Many people tried to talk us out of taking the Mississippi from Cairo to New Orleans and we are very glad we did not listen -- it was a beautiful trip, rich in history and eye-opening in regards to commerce. We had no trouble piloting, navigating, or stopping where we wanted.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Fuel, fresh water, and waste capacity can be an issue on this leg for some vessels. A fuel range of some 300 miles and water and waste capacity of three weeks are required, but that is within the operating envelope for many cruising boats and perhaps most cruising trawlers. Even at low water we had no trouble finding anchorages, and with more tankage it would be possible to proceed at an even slower pace if desired.

Anchored with the big boys.

Along the way we had the usual sorts of problems any boat will have over six months. I replaced an anchor light, repaired the tender, changed impellers, adjusted valves, and other sundry chores. During some of our downtime I tackled some major projects, adding inverter-powered heat and air conditioning to the pilothouse, automatic fire suppression in the engine room, and a new vanity sink in the master head. Life on the water, same as always.

Steamer Natchez in our New Orleans anchorage.

If this is your first visit, we document each and every anchorage and dock at which we stay with a Google Maps link that can be found in-line in each post. I also usually share a little about each stop and might mention a restaurant or two or maybe even a store of note. There are also tons more photos, of stops, anchorages, and locks. If you are planning your own trip, those posts can be found by monthly archive using the drop-down in the sidebar. Posts appear in the blog in reverse order. The dates for each segment are as follows (all 2016):

Mobile, AL to Pickwick Lake, 20-Jun to 3-Jul
Pickwick Lake to Cairo, IL, 29-Oct to 8-Nov
Cairo, IL to New Orleans, LA 9-Nov to 15-Dec
Round trip Pickwick to Knoxville, 4-Jul to 28-Oct

I'll do my best to answer any questions; please post them in the comments. Here are the stats:

Great Loop
Number of days 23 119 36 178
Statute Miles 750 873 910 2534
Nautical Miles 652 759 791 2202
Up lockings 12 6 0 18
Elevation change up 414 399 0 813
Down lockings 3 6 0 9
El. change down 124 399 286 809
Number of stops 21 28 17 66
Nights at anchor 19 29 21 69
Nights at dock 4 90 15 109
Engine hours 109 135 95 339
Generator hours 56 64 51 171


  1. Wonderful blog! Enjoy it very much. My question involves Odyssey -- it is a big, tough, ocean-going single engine trawler. Do you think it has turned out to be a good choice for river and inland cruising as well?

    I would think a twin-screw, less cumbersome boat might be easier to dock and transit locks but I am interested to hear if my assessment is incorrect. You clearly have cruised successfully to date!

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Big, heavy, and single-screw has not been any sort of problem for us. If anything, our displacement lets us anchor in places and conditions that many lighter vessels would find uncomfortable. There is an art to maneuvering a single screw, and I'd like to think that I've mastered it after some 14,000nm and 2300 hours at the helm. That said, we spent 45 hours or so training with a professional skipper when we bought the boat.

      Ease of docking and locking is more a matter of skill and experience than vessel maneuverability or number of screws. We've watched highly maneuverable twin-with-thruster express cruisers come into locks and not be able to grab a bollard to save their lives; it typically takes us less than two minutes to get secured. I would make an exception for single-handers -- some boats make that process much easier than others.

      Our draft is a different matter. At right around six feet in cruising trim, there are definitely places we can not go. We looked at lots of trawlers with 4.5-5' draft and those would certainly have opened up more anchorages and marinas to us, but so far that has been a minor inconvenience. And as I mentioned in the post, our air draft keeps us off the upper portion of the loop -- for now.

      The great inland waterways of the US are all maintained to at least a depth of 9', so if the waterway is open, we can get through.

      While I occasionally lament that I do not have another half a foot or so under the keel, I never wish for more engines or a lighter boat. Ever.

      BTW, the boat's name is Vector; Odyssey was our 40' bus that we were living in when we started the blog. We're still on an epic voyage so we kept the blog name.

  2. Great blog. Glad you had a great trip. I'm also happy that you went all the way up the Tennessee to the source. Most Loopers miss that scenic section of the river.

  3. Hi, I met Louise over on my quilting blog and finally got around to getting to know her on her blog. I went to college at RPI in Troy NY, many years ago. My dad worked for the corps of engineers, and I got to travel through that lock once when he did an inspection. I also lived in Knoxville for a few years when I was a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Lab. Your adventure looks like great fun.


Share your comments on this post! We currently allow anyone to comment without registering. If you choose to use the "anonymous" option, please add your name or nickname to the bottom of your comment, within the main comment box. Getting feedback signed simply "anonymous" is kind of like having strangers shout things at us on the street: a bit disconcerting. Thanks!