By George F. McCanless, Jr.
(reproduced with permission of Mainsheet, the Catalina and Capri Owners Magazine)
Webmasters Note: This is an excerpt of an excellent article George submitted. Please contact me if you would like an unedited copy. It is an excellent story.
In the Beginning
In November 1997, my wife Christel and I bought a Catalina 320 new out of the box. This is the story of bringing her from Mobile, Alabama, north up the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway to the point where Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee all come together. Then we turned east on the Tennessee River and brought her to our marina on Guntersville Lake near our home in Huntsville, Alabama. The trip consumed most of December 1997.
Sea Trials: Easy Street was in the water and looked beautiful. Christel had brought a bottle of champagne for the christening. We poured a little over the bow and wisely drank the rest. Pat gave me a seaman's knife that turned out to be most useful. Joyce supplied a US flag for the stern. For the flag staff, I used the handle that I was able to unscrew from the boat scrub brush. Not too elegant, but it worked.
Ric Johnson came aboard to take us out for our sea trials, but we almost did not make it. As it turned out, we were on the bottom! Easy Street has a wing keel which only draws four feet and three inches. With much pushing and shoving we were able to get out of our slip. This was our first time to go aground. Harold described this as flirting with the bottom.
Our first stop was a fuel dock where we filled up with diesel. We then motored out into Mobile Bay and finally Ric put up the sails. That was a great experience! Christel took the helm and pushed the sailing speed to over five knots. Ric immediately noticed that she was turning the wheel the wrong way. He said, You are a tiller sailor. This would be the only time we would have the sails up until we got the boat to Guntersville Lake. Our whole trip would be entirely under power.
Coming back from the sea trials, we again hit bottom trying to get back into our slip. We gave up and went over to the maintenance dock. This was our second time to go aground. Ric said that he had never seen the water down that much, and we soon learned that low water would give us problems again and again.
Tuesday 12/2: We left Turner's Marina at 7:45 am. Our spirits were high as we began our adventurous journey. We headed out the Dog River channel to the ship channel in Mobile Bay. We went into the city of Mobile in tandem with a barge tow and a fuel barge. We got to Government St., where the tunnel goes under the river at 11:00 am. This is mile zero on both the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
From Mobile we proceeded up the Mobile River. This part of the world is slow moving water and swampy looking land giving it the look of the bayou country of Louisiana. There is so much water that there are almost no roads through here, except for major highways just passing over head. There are no signs of anyone living here. In his guide, Fred Myers described the region this way, North of Mobile, land and water have been duking it out for eons, without either having a clear win.
After Mobile, the only signs of life, except traffic on the highway bridges overhead, were a couple of barge tows that we met coming downstream. We finally got to our first anchorage about twenty miles above Mobile. We turned to starboard and entered Lizard's Creek, and things began to go wrong. The creek had a pretty strong current. We attempted to put out an anchor heading upstream. This was complicated by the fact that we had our stern anchor stowed in the forward anchor well which messed up the bow anchor line, or rode. I was at the helm and managed to overrun the anchor line. When we set the anchor, the boat rotated 180 degrees completely out of control. We had wrapped the line one-and-a-half turns around the wing keel, counter-clockwise looking down. The boat wound up heading downstream, with the port side against a tree lined bank. Darkness was coming on. We tied the port stern to some branches and the bow to a tree. We were safe for the night.
Friday 12/26: At Ditto Landing, Christel went in and paid our bill, and at 9:00 am we cast off. We passed by Painted Rock Bluff. When the early European settlers came into this region, many of them came down the river. One of the landmarks was an Indian drawing, or glyph, on this bluff. The nearby Paint Rock River takes its name from this ancient Indian art work.
When we were about four miles downstream from Guntersville Dam, Christel called the lockmaster. He told her to call back when we got to the arrival point, although we could not make out much of what he said. We got to the sign about a quarter of a mile below the dam that said Arrival Point, and Christel called. In about a half an hour, the gate opened. Obviously, the lockmaster had done nothing to get the lock ready for us. We headed into the lock, even though there was a red light up on the wall that leads to the lock. As we moved in closer, we saw the green signal light. This is confusing, having a permanent red light where a boater reasonably looks for a signal light. Christel wanted to practice acting as crew so that just the two of us can go through a lock some day on our own. She placed the line over the floating bit and scored a bull's eye on her first try.
On leaving the lock, we entered Guntersville Lake. This was familiar water as we had sailed here for 13 years. We passed Honeycomb Creek, Brown's Creek, Guntersville bridge, and Guntersville State Park. Then we turned to port into the channel to Anchorage Marina. The well marked channel was followed for almost a mile. A few times, the depth sounder indicated we only had a foot of water under the keel. As the marina was entered, we got into low water. Fortunately, there is no current and little wind. Since I was afraid of going aground, I did not swing out and approach our slip head in. Instead, I went in close to the stern of the other boats in their slips and turned into our slip at the last minute. The crew was told to man the boat hooks and prepare to fend off. Miraculously, Carol MacMillan was walking down the dock, took a bow line, and pulled us into the slip.
We were home at last. It was only been possible due to the dedication of the crew. They are truly wonderful people. Nan and Christel both had sore ribs caused by accidents on the trip. But we made it! Harold and Pat had brought along a bottle of champagne. However, I was too exhausted to celebrate. I told them we would get together in a few days and celebrate.
So what does it all mean? Were we just three over-the-hill guys trying to act like boy scouts? No. It was more than that. Easy Street had left Dog River in Mobile Bay on the morning of December 2. We were at home at 3:00 pm on December 26, 1997. A distance of 599 miles had been traveled, 15 locks traversed. We had risen 590 feet above sea level. We went aground 11 times and had our standing rigging caught in trees once. It had been an arduous 25 days, although Easy Street was docked eight of these days.