Sailing on the Mississippi

December 20, 2012
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As a kid, I had always loved to travel. We used to meet my grandparents in the Bahamas every year for the holidays. When I was about 14, I realized there was a water route from our house, in central Missouri, all the way to the Bahamas. Since then, I had always wanted to make the journey by boat, and sail around the Bahamas. I’ve talked about it for many years, and finally, after I had saved up some money, I decided to make the trip with my child hood friend Greg.

Beep! Beep! Beep! The sound of my alarm clock woke me up. As I opened my eyes, I felt the bed begin to sway beneath me. It startled me for a second before I realized that I was on a boat, (a sail boat I might mention). Beep! Beep! Beep! My alarm clock went off again and I hit the snooze button in the hopes of getting a few more minutes of sleep, but before I could drift off again, the loud, blaring horn of a passing barge made me jump out of bed. When my alarm went off the third time, I threw on some mostly clean cloths and went out to the galley for breakfast.

As I stepped out of my cabin, I saw that my single man crew, Greg, had already started eating. After going through the food lockers a few times, finally realizing no new food is going to appear, I settled for some cold cereal. As I headed up to the cockpit, I saw that there was no wind, and it would just be another day floating down the Missouri river.
“Yea know,” I said. “I’m beginning to question whether putting a sailboat on a river was a good idea.”
“Yea, but I’m sure it’ll work well on the gulf.” Greg responded.
I went back down to help Greg clear up breakfast and look at the charts. I made a note to get more milk at the next marina, which we hit the next day. Greg also pointed out that we should merge onto the Mississippi river today, and with the added width, we may be able to sail a little bit.
After securing everything down and closing the hatches, we untied from the shore and set sail. Well, as much as you can set sail without any wind. It took us a little while to get into the flow of the river, but the remainder of the day was pretty uneventful. When we got close to the merge, I had to go down to look at the charts and see what passage we were going to take. It looked simple enough to just merge right onto the Mississippi. To actually go about doing such a task was a little bit harder. When we were getting close we saw a tug boat. Everything seemed fine so we decided to merge in alongside it.
“You want to just pull up alongside it?” I asked.
We were moving at about the same speed, just in front of the tug. I started to turn into the new current, which to my surprise was moving a lot faster. With the little bit of surprise, I lost my senses for a second. I got back to reality when Greg took the helm from me. In the time I had gone, we had started on a course directly toward the cargo that the tug was pushing. With the barge loaded down so much, we hadn't seen the barges the tug was pushing, and now we were about to hit them. I grabbed the morning rod and ran up to the front of the boat. By now the barge captain had seen us and was blaring his horn. I pushed on the barges just as we were about to hit them, pushing us away. The barge didn't even budge because it was so heavy. For a second there I thought we might have wrecked our boat, but I was relieved to see that no damage had been done, and we were both ok.
We pulled into the marina just before sunset. We were still in the outskirts of St. Louis so we found a small restaurant and had a meal. A young man with a scruffy red moustache came up to us during dinner.
“Hey fellas,” The man said. “I overheard you talking about your journey down to the Abacos and I was wondering if I might join you?”
“And your name might be?” Greg responded.
“Oh, um sorry. My name is Al, Al Castillo,” he responded.
“Well, Al, I don’t see much harm with you tagging along. Might I ask why you're wanting to go to the Bahamas?” I responded.
“Well, I'm looking to start a life of bone fishing, and I don't have anyway to get down there. So when I heard that you guys were headed there, I jumped!”
“Ok, well we're headed out tomorrow at 7 am. sharp, so if you’re there when we leave, you've got a spot on the boat.” I responded.
“Thanks guys. I really appreciate it and I’ll be there at 7.”
Al walked away and we finished up our dinner. “Shouldn't we be a little more careful when picking people up?” Greg asked.
“Well, I figure there’s two of us, and it didn't really seem like he could take us both down. So I think we’re OK.” I responded.
We walked back to the boat and packed up for the night. Just like normal I took the front V-berth (the largest bed at the front of a small boat) and Greg took the back berth under the cockpit. I wondered for a second where this new Al guy would sleep, then I remembered that the couch doubled as another bed. I decided that if he was more trouble than he was help, then I would leave him at the next marina.
The next morning we started packing up to go. I was trying to go kind of slow to give Al time to get here. At about 6:55 we were all ready to cast off. We sat around for a few minutes, but then decided we had to go. We cast off from the dock, and just as we were about to pull away, Al comes running down the dock and jumps on. Al’s jump set us away from the dock, and then we were under way.
The next few days were fairly uneventful. Al proved to be very useful. He knew a lot about river sailing and got us sailing a few days, because up until then we had just been motoring.
A few days later, we were out of milk because we hadn't seen a decent marina for a while. Dry cereal was breakfast this morning.
“We should hit the Mississippi border today” Greg said.
“Yea, I've heard of some bad weather down there,” Al responded.
“Do you think that will be a problem?” I asked.
“No, I don't think so. But we should keep our eyes open just in case.” Al responded.
We started down the river at a nice slow pace. There was a pretty good wind so we decided to try to put the sails up. We sailed for about an hour until the wind got too strong. The wind started picking up, and fast. Waves of mist came with the wind. The sails were down by now, and we started scurrying around to close the hatches. The deck started to get slippery and we had to hold on to not fall off. We all decided it was best if we stopped as soon as we could. Al took the helm, as he had the most experience.
There’s no marina for another 50 miles, so we need to find somewhere else to tie up!” Greg shouted.
By now the waves of mist had turned into waves of rain, and the wind kept picking up too. All of us were drenched in our cloths, and squinting to try to see through the sheets of rain. There was definitely storm coming, and it was going to be a big one.
“There,” I shouted over the wind. “There’s a small dock, it’s only about 20 feet but it should be enough to tie up!”
I could see the swaying of the trees along the shore. The wind was tearing through every thing. If we missed that dock, we would be launched onto the bank, and my boat would be destroyed.
“Ok, lets hope it’s solid!” Al responded. “ I'm not going to be able to slow down very much. Greg if you take the back, and Michael; if you take the front, I’ll come up along side and you guys tie up.”
Greg and I both took our positions and got ready. Al came in pretty fast so we’d have to get it right the first time. I threw my loop around the pole and held on. I held on for a second to get it let the boat stop moving. The force of the river’s current and the added wind made it so I had to use all my strength to keep the boat from floating away. Finally I managed to get the rope tight, and tied. Greg was just finishing as I looked up. I went back to the cockpit to talk to the other guys.
“We need get off the boat,” I said “I’ll be safer and we might be able to find some shelter.”
They both agreed, so we hopped off and went to see where we had arrived. It looked like there was a small farmhouse just a few hundred feet down river, and nothing else in every other direction.
“If you guys want to start heading toward that house, I’m going to just check on the boat one last time!” I said, still yelling over the howling wind.
The guys started walking, and I went back to check on the boat. I pulled the ropes a bit to check that they were tight. As I pulled the front rope a big gust of wind hit me. I almost fell forward into the water, but luckily I caught hold of a pole. The boat on the other hand was ripped from its ropes and sent flying downstream.
I started running down stream along the bank. Greg and Al saw the boat and started running as well. After about a hundred feet we stopped running.
“There’s really nothing we can do. The boats going to end up along the bank somewhere and we’ll just have to wait and see where.” Greg said.
“He’s right.” Al responded, “But what we can do is walk to that farmhouse and see if they've got a spare bed.
We headed toward the farmhouse and tried to get a good night’s sleep. Maybe tomorrow I would try to find my boat, then we could continue our journey to the Bahamas. My boat may be gone, but that doesn't mean I can't sail to the Bahamas; I’ll find another one, or I’ll hitch-hike down there. This isn't storm going to stop us for good, I’ll find a way.

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