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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Swamp Tour - Friday 3-30-2012 - Caught in the Storm!

Hoping to beat the wind, we all woke before daylight and pulled anchor. This would be our last day on the boat, and even though it had not been a perfect trip, we all agreed that the time had passed by too quickly and none of us were ready for it to end. The boat’s trip meter read an even 150 miles so far.

The water was smooth and the wind was calm as I nosed up to the Five Rivers dock to let Glenda and Abby off to walk Daisy. I put on a pot of water to make coffee for Glenda and hot chocolate for Abby, and we headed out of Sardine Pass onto the Blakely River. We idled along until the sun started showing itself and the coffee was ready, then we revved up to about 5 mph as we went under the Mobile Causeway and entered the North end of Mobile Bay at 6:50 am.

The weather service was calling for scattered thunderstorms all day, but a check of the weather radar on Glenda’s phone only showed light rain throughout the bay. Even though the weather looked calm, I made the decision that everyone would wear a lifejacket until we got to Gulf Shores. That would turn out to be a good decision. As we started down the Eastern Shore, staying about a mile offshore, the wind and waves slowly increased.

About  9:00 am the Weather Service issued  a report of a severe thunderstorm with hail, 45 knot winds and heavy seas near the West end of Dauphin Island, tracking East at 10 mph.  I figured that we had about 3 hours before the storm would affect us, but by 9:20 the waves had increased in size and frequency to the point that I made the decision to seek shelter.  We were just South of Point Clear, and the GPS showed a small creek directly to our Southeast, so I turned and took the waves at as much of an angle as I was comfortable with. The creek was very narrow, but luckily it was bulk-headed as it ran between two houses, and we were able to tie to the bulk-head and get out of the wind. Unfortunately, between the two houses, we could not get the weather radar on our cell phones. The house on the bank we tied to appeared occupied, but we didn’t see anyone there. The other house was still under construction.

We stayed for about 30 minutes and decided to try it again. We untied and headed back into the bay, but it only took about 10 minutes to realize this was a mistake.  I turned the boat around and headed back to the creek. This time, as I entered the creek I blew the horn, and we went past the bulkhead and tied up at the resident’s boathouse. Abby and I then walked up to the house to let them know why we were there. The young lady who answered the door could not have been nicer, offering us dry towels, sodas, and allowing us to come in and look at the weather radar on her computer. Abby autographed a copy of her book and gave it to the lady for her 4 year old daughter.  Based on the radar and our limited view of the bay, we left at about 10:55 am and headed toward Gulf Shores once again. I hadn’t heard an update on the Dauphin Island storm, but figured we were well north of its path. Glenda phoned Jay and Liz and told them to meet us at the Weeks Bay Bridge. We were not going to try to get all the way to Gulf Shores.

About 11:15 I overheard two tug boat captains on the radio discussing the storm. They were on the Mobile ship channel, about seven or eight miles west of us. One of the captains said that the winds were at 45 and he could not see the front of his barge for the rain. About 30 seconds later, we were hit by a wall of wind and waves that seemed to come from nowhere. I estimated that the winds were about 30-35 knots and the waves were over 6 feet, and it happened so fast I didn’t have time to think!  Luckily there was very little rain in the front edge of the storm, as I worked to keep the bow headed into the waves and wind. My fear was that if the boat turned sideways, the wind would catch the tall cabin and flip us. I fought the waves for about five minutes (it seemed like an hour), as I tried to make headway toward the shore to one of the long piers that are in front of almost every house on the Eastern Shore. I finally realized that I wasn’t making any progress, and the waves were getting even bigger.
I’d never had the Knot-So-Fast in a heavy following sea before and it was really scary to think about testing it in 7’ waves and 35 knot winds, but I really didn’t have much of choice at that point. I thought about the low freeboard at the stern and the flat surface of the transom, combined with the two small scuppers for drainage in the cockpit. I was sure that if we got struck directly from the rear by a big wave, it would; a) toss the boat sideways and allow the wind to roll us, b) fill the cockpit with water and swamp us, or c) both.

  I glanced at the VHF radio button that sends an automated distress signal and made a mental note of exactly where it was on the radio. As the boat went up on the crest of each wave the prop came out of the water and the engine raced. When it hit the bottom of the trough each new wave pounded over the top of the boat. I could see out of the windscreen for only a split second between waves before the next one covered us again. If I’d had time to think about it, I would have worried about my epoxy joints and all the places I decided to save by using a few less of those expensive silicon bronze screws. Even with less than perfect joints, the boat held together, and actually felt very solid!

Finally I saw that the distance to the next wave seemed a little longer than the others, and as we crested I listened for the prop to bite again and turned hard to port. The boat turned on a dime and I pushed the throttle forward and straightened up the boat as the next wave approached. I braced for what I thought would be a major impact at the stern, but the impact never came! The wave slowly slid under us as the stern floated high on it – no splash, no jerking of the boat! I was then able to angle toward the shore and target a gap between two piers about a half mile away.  The ride now was not smooth, but it was much less scary than before. The boat handled predictably in the following sea as we turned and went between the two piers. My relief was short-lived though, as I noticed that the pier to the south had no decking – just bare pilings, and the pier to the north of us was of a strange design with a single row of central pilings and supports that spanned from the edges of the pier down at a 45 degree angle to the water. There was no way we could tie safely to either pier.

I turned back and went north again, looking for a suitable pier to tie to. A few houses up I saw a lady on her front porch waving to us. The pier in front of her house had a covered enclosure and the north side of the pier looked like it was low enough for an emergency docking. We made it to the pier and tied two lines as fast as we could. Glenda got onto the pier and tried to keep the boat from pounding against the pilings while I adjusted the fenders. The homeowner came out and verified the wave height by telling us that the Knot-So-Fast was going completely out of sight between waves!  That would put them at a minimum of about 7’.

Once we secured the boat, we called Jay, who was now at Weeks Bay, and gave him the address where we were. He arrived a short time later and Liz drove Glenda and Abby back to our house at Ft. Morgan to retrieve the trailer. Jay and I took the boat 7 miles back up the bay to the Fairhope City boat ramp, arriving there at 1:15, and waited for Glenda to bring the trailer. I didn’t completely relax until the boat was tied down on the trailer and we were back on the road to Ft. Morgan.
Safe at Fairhope's city boat ramp, waiting on Glenda and the trailer.

Since our ordeal, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what happened. I feel very fortunate that we came through it, and very stupid for putting us in that position.  Glenda and Abby did not seem to be affected by the incident, and they both claim they never got scared! I offered them an old quote I heard a long time ago. I don’t know who said it but it is very true:

 “If you manage to stay calm and keep your head when all those around you are losing theirs, you obviously do not fully comprehend the circumstances!”

 From Glenda:

 Off we headed bright and early Friday morning - ok well not bright but early.    The plan:  beat the storms that were coming from the west.  The wind warnings were over and now we just had to worry about squalls lines.  I still think we would have been fine.  But Tom was doing the piloting and it appeared to be stressing him to say the least.  For the 1st almost 2 hours we just battled bouts of heavy rain.  We were listening carefully to warnings of a thunderstorm headed east from Dauphin Island.   The wind dramatically increased within just moments causing waves to rise up and over the bow of our brave little boat J Of course Tom was doing just fine but he seem to think just any moment now a massive wave was going to turn of over.  We took shelter first in a little canal between two houses.  It appeared to have passed.  I still think it had, but the water was still terribly rough and if we had continued we would have had about 3 more hours of rough travel and I don’t think our captain was up to it.  He made the call and God had everything in place for us:  A lady watching us through her binoculars that provided her hospitality, a strong pier, and a friend willing to come to pick us up.  Tom trembled at the thought of putting Abby, myself and Daisy in danger.  I ask if he really believed God would let us die before it was our time?  Well maybe not but I suppose we could have gotten really wet. 

This was a wonderful trip and I can’t wait for our next adventure!

From Abby:

Today is Friday. We had to get up really early 'cause there were storms coming off of Dauphin Island. After we got started, GG was going to cook her a cup of coffee and she cooked me some hot chocolate as well. We had to come across the bay, and the bay was really rough! So we got a little bit far and there was a little “slip-in” that went between one house and another, and we honked the horn to let the people know we had to stay there because of the storm. We stayed there a little while, then we got back out of the slip, but it was still too rough so we went back in the slip. This time we went up to the house to see if it was OK if we stayed there. The lady said it was fine, and she showed us a radar of the storm. 
A little bit later we decided to go back out again, and pretty much the whole time I was playing my DS [video game].  This time we had to stop again because the water was rough. There was a lady watching us through binoculars and she said “I would see you go up and then I would not see you, then I would see you, then I would not see you!”  We pulled up to her dock and the boat was banging up against it. She had a little dog name “Bell”. We had to get out of the storm so we called GG and Papa’s friends Jay and Liz, to come pick us up there. We gave them the address. Me and GG rode in Liz’s car back to the beach house and Mr. Jay wanted to ride the boat with Papa to get it out of the water.  Daisy went with them, not us, and Daisy ended up throwing up on the boat! Papa said it was because she probably missed us, being out there without me and GG.  Then we went to the beach house and that was it!

This trip was FUN!  I’m sad the trip ended, but I’m also glad the trip ended. It’s funny how that is. The trip was fun overall!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Swamp Tour - Thursday 3-22-2012 - Waiting out the wind, Abby's book carried in the Cypress Gift Shop!

There was a small craft wind advisory in effect until this afternoon, so we made the decision to stay put at Five Rivers and try to get across the bay on Friday.
The Five Rivers dock provided a safe harbor for the day, sheltered from the 30 knot winds on Mobile Bay.

Abby was content to walk the nature trails and visit the museum and nature center, taking a break from all-day boating. We took a walk to the Cypress Gift Shop, which is about ½ mile from the dock, where I bought a great book about the history of the Delta area called “Gone to the Swamp”.  The gift shop manager, JoAnn Hocutt, told me that she was interested in seeing Abby’s book and possibly carrying it for sale in the shop.  This was exciting for Abby (and me), and we promised to bring JoAnn a copy later in the day.

We walked across the street to Maeher State Park, where we explained to the ranger that we were stuck due to the weather and needed a place to get a shower and wash clothes. We were offered the use of showers and the laundry, just by paying the daily entry fee of $1.00 each! With the rain threatening just to our West, we walked back to the boat and got all our dirty laundry and shower supplies and headed back to Maeher Park. We stopped by the gift shop again and Abby left a copy of her book. When we were all showered and our laundry was in the dryer, Glenda and Abby headed back to Five Rivers while I waited on the clothes to dry.

It was sprinkling rain when Abby and I walked back to the gift shop for a souvenir that she wanted. As soon as we walked in JoAnn said “I need 20 copies of Abby’s book”, and went on to explain that the copy Abby left earlier had been sitting on the counter next to the cash register, and several people had picked it up as they were checking out, asking if it was for sale!! Needless to say, Abby and I were delighted to hear that, and I promised to send her 20 copies as soon as we returned home.

Jay Gordon, our former Small Group Pastor, called to say that he and his wife Liz were going to be coming through the area on Friday and would stop by our house in Gulf Shores.

As the rain subsided, we decided that another meal at the Oyster House sounded good, so we motored up the Blakeley and back down the Apalache once more. When we finished eating and started toward the boat, the owner of the Oyster House was standing near our boat. He said he’d been wondering who owned it, and asked lots of questions about it. The news that the Oyster House was Abby’s favorite restaurant and that she had mentioned it in her book brought a big smile to his face. As we were about to cast off he reappeared and asked Abby if she wanted an Oyster House t-shirt, and he let her pick one out and gave it to her!  We should have given him a copy of the book, but it didn’t cross my mind until we were gone. I’ll try to remember to do that next time we are close. The round trip was 10 miles, which was the only mileage we put on the boat today. (I think we walked almost that much too, though.)

Just before dark we untied from the Five Rivers dock and anchored out again in Sardine pass. We made plans to get an early start across the bay the next morning and try to get as far as possible before the winds picked up. The weather forecast was calling for scattered thunderstorms, which we hoped we would be able to dodge as we headed back to Gulf Shores.

From Glenda:

Ok were back at 5 Rivers and I really do like the place but I’m feeling a little tense about the weather situation.  I’m uncertain about when we are going to be able to get back across the bay.  But I know Tom knows better than I do about what he thinks he and the boat can do so I guess we will sit here for the day.  It was hard to tell if we were going to get caught in the rain or not but we took the chance and walked from the boat to the gift shop.  I suggested we cross the street to Meaher State Park and see if we could take a shower.  You know I’m not one to appreciate the solar shower like Tom does.  The park ranger was very nice.  We showered and washed clothes all morning.  Abby and I hurried back across the street before the clothes were dry because it looked like it was going to storm.  It only ended with another small sprinkle.  I worried I was going to gain weight on this trip, but with all this walking I think I’ll be fine even with “Buddy Bars” for breakfast J  The employees at the facility have been wonderful.  Full of useful and fun information that Abby and I both have enjoyed.  You know you don’t have to look really hard to see God everywhere, you just have be expecting him!

From Abby:
Today is Thursday and we woke up and watched the ospreys. We went back to Five Rivers and a little later we gave the lady at Five Rivers Gift Shop a copy of my book, and I signed it for her. She was going to read through it and see if she was going to sell it. We came back later to get a key chain that I liked and to see if the lady wanted copies of my book. And she said that two people have already asked if it was for sale, and so she ordered 20 copies of my book!! She also gave me the key chain free!
Abby in front of the Cypress Gift Shop at Five Rivers.

Today we also needed a shower, so we went across the street to a place called Maeher Park. The man there, instead of making us pay $30 for a camping spot, he only made us pay $1 for each of us. Since he helped us out, we gave him a copy of my book too. We took a shower, washed our clothes, -- took care of that stuff.

For lunch today we got to go to my favorite restaurant, The Oyster House. We met the owner. He had been walking through the restaurant, trying to decide who owned the little red tugboat, and he just kept walking by us. Obviously we didn’t look like we owned a little red tugboat! He just asked us if our food was good. He didn’t ask us if we owned a little red tugboat. Finally he found out it was us, and GG and Papa told him this was my favorite restaurant, so he bought me a t-shirt from The Oyster House!  And ………. that’s it.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Swamp Tour - Wednesday 3-21-2012 - Dead Lake, Big Bayou Canot and the Gas Canal

Wednesday 3-21-12.
A little after 7:00 this morning we untied from the cypress tree, pulled up the stern anchor, and headed across the narrow lake to the Delta Marina dock. Glenda and Abby went to the bathroom to wash up, then took Daisy for her morning walk. I went into the office/store to try and get some clarification on their rules for transient boaters. The attendant, a very nice lady who I had not seen before, really didn’t have any answers either. She apologized for the mix-up and offered that the manager and the superintendent would be in later. I declined the offer to wait and talk with them, but instead left my phone number (note: after more than a week, I haven’t received a call from anyone).  Just before leaving, I asked her if there were canoes available for rent, as indicated on the website. The answer was that canoes were “tippy” and not really suited for use in the Delta. The canoes had been moved to another park. To say that our experience at the Mobile County operated facility was disappointing would be an understatement, but we decided not let it interfere with what had otherwise been a great trip.

At 7:30 we headed South. We took the early morning ride down Dead Lake slowly, enjoying the quiet. The lake is plenty deep, but I had to keep a lookout for the numerous logs that were partially submerged. When you imagine the Delta area, the pictures that come to mind are exactly like the views of Dead Lake in the morning – with a peaceful but somewhat eerie feel.
Dead Lake is beautiful early in the morning - with almost a mystical feel.

The clean spot to the left and behind the navigational bouy is where the alligator use to be. He was quicker than my photographic skills.
At the end of Dead Lake, instead of turning to port and entering the Mobile River, we continued straight onto Big Bayou Canot, where we saw the biggest alligator of our trip. He was sunning on a log which was part of a pile of logs and debris that had collected around a navigational bouy, and he slid off into the water as we approached. I guessed that he was probably 8’ long.
I got a chuckle when I noticed the burglar bars on the window of this structure.

We continued down the bayou until we reached the gas canal, which is within sight of the CSX Railroad bridge. The bridge has a normal clearance of only 7 feet, so we could not squeeze under it. This was the site of the terrible Am-Trak derailment that occurred at 2:45 am on September 22, 1993 when a tug and barge mistakenly turned off the Mobile River onto the Bayou in heavy fog and struck the bridge.  47 people were killed that night, and 103 others were injured.
Entering the gas canal from Big Bayou Canot.

The gas canal, obviously a man-made pass, is about 80’ wide (minus overhanging trees) and runs perfectly straight for about 3 miles, connecting Big Bayou Canot and the Mobile River. It’s depth ran from 10’ down to 5.5’ in places so we had plenty of depth. There were, however, 3 or 4 spots where fallen trees had snagged additional debris, requiring us to weave our way though very narrow passages. The pipeline on the North side of the canal was overgrown with tree roots completely enveloping it in places, providing evidence that it was placed there many years ago. As we neared the end of the canal, a tug and barge passed by, headed up the Mobile.
The other end of the gas canal - at the Mobile River.

We came out of the gas canal and got our first sight of the Mobile River CSX bridge.  In 2010, when we took the Knot-So-Fast down the Alabama River from Montgomery, we had come down this same section of the Mobile. The bridge at that time was a pivoting “swing” bridge, but now there was a new “lift” bridge structure in place. I radioed the bridge operator, who told me that construction was still in progress and that I would have to wait 30 minutes for the bridge to be raised again. I told him that I thought we might be able to get under it (the marker board showed about 9’ clearance), and that we would ease up to it and see how close we were.  With Glenda in the cockpit watching the anchor light (our tallest point), I slowly pulled the boat up to the edge of the bridge. There was a stiff breeze from the South, so I knew I could back away quickly if Glenda saw that we couldn’t make it. As it turns out, we had about 6” to spare as we passed under.

Another mile down the Mobile and we turned to port into “the cut” which took us Eastward to the Tensaw River, just North of Gravine Island. We went around Gravine on its West side, then went South on the Apalache River where it splits from the Tensaw. The wind had now picked up considerably, with 2-3 waves. This made for a slightly bumpy ride, but was not a cause for concern about our safety. About 2 ½ miles down the Apalache, we entered a wide part of the river, where the Apalache and Blakeley Rivers divide around “Big Island”, the Blakeley going due South and the Apalache taking a South-South West course. In a matter of seconds, the wind seemed to double in speed and the waves increased substantially. Every wave was sending water over the bow as I yelled for everyone to put on their life jackets. Luckily there was no rain, and in between waves spraying the wind screen, I did get a clear enough view to keep the boat headed into the wind and waves. After about 10 minutes of this, I was able to enter the Apalache River and by hugging the Eastern bank, we were sheltered from some of the wind. We followed the bank as close as we could and still maintain good depth, until we got to Pass Picada. In the Pass, we docked at the Bluegill restaurant to refuel our stomachs and my nerves.  We had a great meal and talked to several other diners who were curious about our boat. (Although no one said it out loud, they were probably wondering why we were out in that kind of weather, too!)

By the time we finished visiting at the Bluegill, the wind had subsided a little. Having a little more knowledge about how the waves behaved at the North end of Big Island, we were able to take advantage of the island’s trees and avoid the most windy areas. Rounding the point again, we noticed a huge osprey nest with two adults standing watch nearby.

At Five Rivers, we visited the museum and nature center again (Abby never gets tired of it). Then just before dark we untied and motored a few hundred yards unto Sardine Pass and anchored out under a slight bluff. Since the storms which were located in Mississippi were forecasts to reach us during the night, I put out my regular “fortress” type anchor, then had Glenda pilot the boat about 100’ to the right and put out the heavy “river” anchor. Backing away until the wind had us swinging between two tight anchor lines, I felt comfortable that we would stay put for the night.
Osprey with the "fresh catch of the day" - live mullet!

Directly in front of us was an osprey nest on a man-made pole and platform, and as the sun went down, we watched as one of the osprey pair ate what appeared to be the remainder of a frog. Moments later the 2nd osprey arrived with a large mullet, which was still wiggling! We watched as that one took a bite from the mullet, then glanced as us, then took another bite. It repeated that over and over until it was just about dark, then it flew away with the now dead mullet. We did not see either osprey return to the nest during the night.
Playing with my camera settings, I got this photo at 7:35 pm. The glow on the right side is lights from downtown Mobile.

I let Abby sleep in the V-berth and I stayed up most of the night, watching the radar on my cell phone and listening to the weather radio. Amazingly, the line of rain and storms seemed to dissipate between downtown Mobile and where we were, 10 or 15 miles to the East. All we ever got was a short shower about 2:30 am.

Total mileage for Wednesday (Day #4) was 34.  

Glenda Says:

Wednesday, day 4.  We left Delta Marina relatively early and headed back into the quiet swamp.  I’m telling you if you have the chance find a way to take a little of this trip.  It is so easy to forget the modern world as our little 9.9 engine quietly glided us through the swamp.  We saw another alligator slide into the water from his sunning spot on some logs.  At the end of Big Bayou Canot there was a fixed railroad bridge that was too low for us to go under so Tom took a gas line canal.  It was narrow and very surreal.   Abby and I got on the bow again and we could hear the rustle as creatures moved through the brush.  We were none too certain we would not have to turn around, as there were numerous sections that looked blocked by debris but we were able to get through it.  It just made it more excitingJ  Just before we came out on the Mobile a huge tug and barge passed by.  On the Mobile the wind was up and the ride to 5 Rivers was a little choppy.  We ate lunch at the Blue Gill.  The servers at the restaurant enjoyed looking at the boat and we got a 10% boaters discount on lunch.  I told them to pray for us as we headed back out onto the big water to 5 Rivers.  We hung around till almost dark and then anchored out just past 5 Rivers.  We had the perfect spot to watch a couple of nesting Ospreys return to their nest with the living supper.  This is the real world.  Tom insisted that Abby sleep with me and he stayed up most of the night watching the weather.

From Abby:
Today I mostly played with my DS, except when we went in the gas canal - I rode up on the bow of the boat with GG. We thought we would see and alligator in there, but there wasn't much in there. I guess it was too narrow and the alligators were scared.  There were lots of places with sticks and stuff in our way, and we had to get around them without scratching the boat up. This morning we came from Dead Lake Marina. They have a really nice marina, but they won't even let you sleep on your boat there, so we had to anchor out. We were hoping that they rented canoes there, but they stopped becasue they were too dangerous.
Tonight we got to stay at Five Rivers again. We anchored out again. Right above us is an osprey nest, and we got to watch them with a mullet that was almost too big for the osprey to be carrying! While it was still flopping the osprey was eating it! We shined the spotlight on the shore and saw a possum.