Cumberland River Junction to Hardin, KY


Another early morning start, heading up the Cumberland River. The Cumberland is a gentle, winding and very scenic river. We definitely recommend this route for the scenery.

Our modern GPS’s are extremely accurate, but we’re still often using chart (map) data created by men wearing buckskins while paddling canoes. Watch where you’re going and verify visually what you see on the screen. Here the chart says we’re on land, but we weren’t. Had we followed the chart, we may have been.

Every bend in the river revealed more beauty. What a place! We just cruised along and took it all in. There were interesting bluffs and rock formations everywhere, mirrored by the calm water. It was fun to watch our ripples as we motored along as if we were the only people on the river.

There is still barge traffic here, but we didn’t see any moving all day. We did come across some barges being loaded. With some rocks the size of washing machines, and not all of them landing in the barge, we gave them a respectfully wide berth.

Of course we were only doing enough of the Cumberland to get us to Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, so our time on the Cumberland was short.

Before we knew it we were approaching the Barkley Lock and Dam. A somewhat new experience for us, we’d be going UP this time. 57 feet of up! Here’s Kristi using the boat hook to keep our bow off the wall. I’m doing the same at the stern. Powerboats with straighter sides seem to lie against the wall with as much prodding.

After our ride up, we found ourselves on Lake Barkley. We tried to anchor in a little cove, but after three tries we gave up. Locals later told us that particular cove is a bit of mud over solid shale. No wonder we were dragging. Frustrated, we took the cut over to Kentucky Lake and headed for Kenlake Marina.

Kenlake was very accommodating, even charging us less when they found out we wouldn’t need electricity. At 75 cents a foot per night, Kristi made a command decision and booked us for two nights.

Metropolis, IL to Cumberland River Junction

At first light we were heading farther up the Ohio River, bound for the Cumberland River. The current was gentle and we were making almost 6 kts speed over ground. Did you ever see something and just know that it was designed by a man? We had one of those moments not far from Metropolis.

The day was fairly uneventful, other than meeting a few tows. The Ohio is wide, with little current though,so drama was at a minimum. One of the more unusual sights was this old river boat, being torn apart for salvage.

We stopped for the night at a place called Cumberland Island Towhead, just half a mile from where the Ohio and Cumberland rivers meet. In the still water we saw hundreds of fish (we think Asian Carp) feeding at the surface.

We did some beer drinking… uh fishing. She caught and released a couple small catfish. We generally just relaxed and watched the sunset.  The perfect end to a relaxing day.

Sitting well out of the channel in a beautiful protected anchorage. Watching the setting sun as the tows go by. This is why we made this trip.

Grays Point, MO to Metropolis, IL


Another early morning departure. We had anchored, once again, in a muddy river bottom, so Kristi had a mess to clean up. The hose you see is our “raw water washdown”. It pumps water from around us so we don’t use our good water for things like anchor and deck rinsing.

Once we headed out into the strong Mississippi current we would be committed. There could be no stopping, so we made a Security call on the VHF as we left Little River Diversion to warn any boating traffic on the Mississippi that we were about appear. No problem, since it turned out no one else was around, and we made our way downstream.

By now we were seeing eagles all day, but each one was still a thrill. We love seeing these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.  “I guess he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly.” – John Denver.

Still on the Big Muddy for a bit, Tom continued to quarrel with theriver over who was steering the boat. So much so that we started to think something was wrong with our steering.

With fast current comes high turbulence and steering was a full time job. While countering the swirling water, we also had to watch out for debris, sometimes whole trees; and deadheads, almost invisible floating just under the water. Channel markers get moved out of position and even do a magical disappearing and reappearing act!

The upside to all that current is speed! We were doing 218 miles of Mississippi River in just two half days and a full day. Notice the Speed Over Ground (SOG) at 12kts (13.8mph)!

Around noon we made a sharp left turn onto the Ohio River. Suddenly steering was easy again, and our speed dropped to normal sailboat speed of 6-7kts.

We decided to stop at Metropolis. We read about a good anchorage between the casino and bridge, near an old boat launch. Perfect, we thought, we can land the dinghy and go see the big Superman!

What we found was a homeless camp next to the ramp, so we decided  not to leave either boat unattended. After anchoring bow and stern, to insure that we wouldn’t swing into shore or out into the river we were treated to another beautiful sunset. With the mighty Mississippi behind us, we were looking forward to some easy cruising and beautiful scenery ahead.


Batteries Replacement Day

Today, we replaced our “house” batteries. These batteries are to us, what the electric company is to “normal” folks. They store all the power from our solar panels, and supply ALL of our electricity for lights, information, entertainment, and even cold beer.

What does this picture represent?

500+ pounds of batteries pulled out of a hole in the floor and moved to the salon (living room). Then carried up a seven step ladder to the cockpit (driving area). Lifted from the cockpit and moved to the aft (rear) deck. 250+ pounds of batteries then lowered five feet into the dinghy (little boat) because it took two half mile trips to get them to shore. Once ashore, lifted from the dinghy and placed on land. Finally, 500+ pounds of batteries loaded into a car.

After a 4 hour round trip to Miami, reverse the procedure to get 500+ pounds of batteries back into that hole in the floor. (Add some depletion of bank accounts and wrangling of very thick electrical cables).

Please don’t get me wrong, we love this life, but it’s not all about sipping umbrella drinks and watching sunsets. Sometimes it’s about overcoming obstacles and being as self sufficient as we possibly can.

If you’ve read this far hoping for techie details, Pearl Lee uses 6 volt golf cart batteries wired in series pairs to give 12 volts.  We have four 12 volt pairs, each rated 215 amp hours for a total of 860 amp hours. These are broken  Our new batteries are Sam’s Club labeled Duracell but actually made by East Penn.

Kimmswick, MO to Grays Point, MO


We left Hoppies early, with some apprehension after our crash landing the day before due to the swift current. Everything went smoothly, Pearl Lee driving hard up current as we crabbed to mid-river to miss wing dams just down river from us. A quick 130 degree turn and we were motoring along with a 5 – 7mph boost from the current.

We were bound for an anchorage near a lock just up the Kaskaskia River, but plans can change.

Being on the mighty Mississippi makes steering our sailboat, uh, interesting. Of course we had lots of tow and barge traffic to contend with. Even Fern, at Hoppies, says she can’t understand them. Here’s my version, just to give you an idea.

It’s OK though, we can always make out “pass me on the one” (your port) or “pass me on the two” (your starboard), which is what we really need to know.You might notice I’m also pretty busy with the steering wheel due to the many swirling currents we encounter.

Although we were getting into a very rural part of the country we still saw plenty of signs of industry. A lot of coal comes from here, or passes through.

Coal and limestone trains run along the river’s edge in order to avoid going up and down the valley.

Before we knew it we were approaching our planned anchorage in the Kaskaskia River. Deciding it was too early to stop for the night we pressed on.

We identified a couple anchorages farther along that we thought we might take. Speaking of planning our stops, we got great information from Mark and Diana Doyle’s Managing the Waterway Guide and also Skipper Bob’s guide books. Here you see Kristi’s three favorite navigation tools. Meanwhile I was arguing with the river about which one of us (me or the river) was actually driving the boat.

With the fast current pushing us along, and no locks to wait for, we kept getting to our planned anchorages too early. We finally decided that we could make it to Little River Diversion near Grays Point, Missouri. A run for the day of 110 miles! We couldn’t believe it, but we had just done a normal two day run in one.

With the sun setting we crabbed our way into the diversion at about a 45 degree angle, fighting the current while inching over. It seemed a little scary but was actually pretty easy. Once we were in we were treated to perfectly calm water and a beautiful spot to spend the night.


Grafton, IL to Hoppies (Kimmswick, MO)


Finally, it was time to continue our adventure on the Mighty Mississippi. We were greeted by Our Lady of the Rivers as we went by. She stands in Portage des Sioux, MO at the confluence of the Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The monument stands as a tribute to all who have lost their lives to the river waters in the area.

This wasn’t play time, with huge logs floating down the swollen river. We had to keep a sharp eye out at all times to avoid them. Many float just below the surface. This is not a rare occurence here, we almost always had dangerous floating debris in sight. Pearl Lee was a handful to steer with the swift current causing all kinds of turbulence. On the plus side, we had plenty of water under us.

As we passed Alton, IL we were greeted by the Piasa Bird. An ancient bird/monster described by early explorer Pere Marquette: “While skirting some rocks, which by their height and length inspired awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are as large as a calf; they have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, a face somewhat like a man’s, a body covered with scales, and so long a tail that winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish’s tail. Green, red and black are the colors composing the picture. Moreover, these two monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe any savage is their author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to reach that place conveniently to paint them.”

Before we knew it, St. Louis was in sight. Pearl Lee normally cruises under power at 6-7 mph, but the Mississippi was in a hurry. We were traveling at 10-12 mph with a couple peaks even faster! It’s exciting seeing bridges we have crossed by car from the “other” side.

Of course we also got to see the famous St. Louis Arch from the river. Unfortunately St. Louis, like so much of the Mississippi, really doesn’t have facilities for pleasure boats. We had to look fast as there was no stopping, and not much slowing, possible.

As we continued down the river we were well ahead of “schedule” due to the current. At the advice of many cruisers were stopping at Hoppie’s Marina in Kimmswick, MO. Hoppie’s is really just a couple of old barges, but they have fuel. Fern, the owner, gives a briefing every afternoon on the state of the river and facilities farther down. We were moving so much faster than anticipated that we were the first to arrive at Hoppie’s.

Some cruisers don’t have the fuel range to skip Hoppie’s (we did). Some cruisers don’t study guide books (we did). So we felt we could have safely skipped Hoppie’s, but only you can decide for you and your boat. We found docking in the swift current at Hoppie’s to be pretty dangerous, both through our experience and watching others come in. There are also some wing dams just down stream to be wary of. We were there on a Monday, when the entire town closes down. So there really was nothing there at all. We talked to Fern, and some other cruisers, and mostly relaxed.



Hardin to Grafton, IL

With only about 20 miles to go to Grafton we weren’t in a big hurry to leave (9/27). Grafton was a necessary stop because it’s the start of the Mississippi River portion of our trip. On the Mississippi good places to stop are widely spaced, and we had our strategy set. It was also a good place to meet up with Kristi’s sister and brother-in-law.

More tows were encountered, but of course just a taste of what was to come. If we’re near a curve or narrow portion of the river we radio the tows and ask what side they’d like us on. The tow drivers answer with “one whistle” if we’re to pass with them on our port (left) or “two whistle” if they’d like us to pass them on our starboard (right).

Billed as the “Key West of the Midwest” we had high hopes for the Grafton Harbor Marina. We were there in their off season, so… not so much. We heard from others that it was pretty wild just the week before. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Grafton Harbor has nice docks and are relatively inexpensive, which is good. They even gave us a “buy 3 nights, get two free” deal. Many people making the trip down the rivers stop for a while, as we did, to rest up before the Mississippi.

Grafton is an interesting little town with a rich river history. The Ruebel Hotel in particular intrigued us with stories of watermen, hauntings, and a fire where the townspeople saved the imported bar and backbar. They have great pizza too, always a plus.

We also visited the Loading Dock a short bike ride away. It’s billed as the only waterfront bar in the St. Louis area. It’s a very eclectic place, and anyplace that pays homage to the bicycle is fine with us.

We didn’t see a lot of the famous jumping Asian Carp on the rivers. They’re an invasive species that are often startled by boat motors and jump high out of the water. I guess old four cylinder diesels don’t scare them. However, Kristi was startled by sudden splashing next to the dock in the dark. By the time I went to investigate, we had more light and the source was obvious. Feeding Asian Carp were startled at her approach.

We enjoyed our long stay at Grafton, but eventually it was time to move on. After all, it was October and the weather would start getting cold here soon.

Beardstown to Hardin, IL


We rose early to get under way again for a planned 60 miles or so to Hardin, IL. We had heard of a great restaurant with some old barges to tie up to, so that was our destination.

It was another beautiful day, and with this guy greeting us, it was going to be a great day. Pearl Lee was running great and we were passing Pearl, IL today. Yes, it was a good day!

We encountered our first Army Corps of Engineers dredge. It’s a big operation keeping the river channels open for commercial traffic that’s even deeper  than our 5.5′ draft. We thanked them for their work as we passed by.

We had the river mostly to ourselves after passing the dredge. Once again, there are interesting things to see when you’re watching from a slow boat traveling the river.

We found houses on stilts, nice places to watch the river go by, and a decaying riverboat, no doubt someone’s broken dream.







And of course we passed Pearl, IL. All we could see was the Pearl rail road bridge, but that was enough for a small salute.

We reached our goal of Hardin and Mel’s Illinois Riverdock Restaurant by mid afternoon. A friendly guy in a pontoon boat was happy to move down the dock to give us room. He later confessed he just wanted to see how we were going to dock such a big boat.

There’s not much else in Hardin, but we stayed a couple days to do some minor boat work. Mel’s serves down home food and they’re very friendly. In fact, the whole town seemed friendly.

Again, you’ll notice that Pearl Lee is facing up river. In cases like this we have to go by, turn around and then come into the dock.

Peoria to Beardstown


We left Peoria early in the morning with a bit of night chill still in the air. We weren’t quite on “island time” yet and we felt a bit behind schedule, even though we didn’t have a schedule.

The morning was a bit foggy due to the low temperature, but not dangerously so. Just enough to add some ambiance (say with a french accent).

With Peoria’s wicket dam open, we could go right through without needing the lock. With the next lock 80+ miles away we were hoping for a big day. Off we went, moving with the Illinois river. It was a strange feeling taking Pearl Lee directly over a dam. After all, this is normally something we avoid at all costs!

Soon the sun broke through and began to heat up the day. Among the natural scenery we occasionally found the remnants of human intervention. We like pondering their history. How long were they in use? How long ago? How long before nature reclaims what is hers? Moving slowly along the rivers gives us plenty of time to think.

In some cases the river has moved, leaving loading facilities high and dry. Others may still be used occasionally as fishing shacks. We were putting in some miles, so we had to wonder as we continued to move south. This one has a “tin roof, rusted”, maybe it’s the B-52’s Love Shack.

As we traveled along we got a nice surprise. Monarch butterflies! Hundreds of them over the next few days. Back in Racine, Wisconsin, Kristi raised a couple Monarchs from eggs. They escaped the chrysalis and were released shortly before our departure. Now we found ourselves on their migratory route! Unfortunately, none were patient enough to pose for a good picture.

We continued to see more and bigger tows. These boats have thousands of horsepower and huge props. So we have to be careful passing them. They leave turbulence in the otherwise smooth water hundreds of yards behind them. It can make steering exciting, but once you learn to anticipate it’s twists and turns it’s not a problem.

After traveling almost 80 miles, it was time to look for a resting spot. We were running low on daylight and had another lock a few miles ahead. So just south of Beardstown we decided to duck behind Grape Island, but were having trouble finding deep enough water. Our new friends abaord Somewhere In Time radioed us with directions to their deep anchorage behind Bar Island, just a half mile down river. People helping people is what this is all about.




We woke up to the news that the wicket damn just down stream was about to be opened. With our 5.5′ draft, that meant we had to leave soon, or it might be a while before we could.

We had planned a stop at Peoria’s town docks, but some of the locals were saying there wasn’t room for a boat our size. After consulting Active Captain data and reading a very detailed review, we used Google Earth to see that the docks were exactly as described. You gotta love technology, at least when it works!

Using dock lines to give fine control, we backed Pearl Lee out of the small slip and fueled up at the fuel dock.  Then, using a combination of bow thruster* and prop walk** we pivoted out of the tight marina as if we knew what we were doing.

With the current pushing us along, and no lock to go through, it only took about an hour to get to Peoria. As we tied up at the excellent, but seagull poo encrusted dock, a fellow approached down the dock. It turned out that Mike and his wife Karen, who was just behind, were out for a walk and saw us pass by.

They came down to hear our story. After a little conversation they offered to take us to lunch, and since they weren’t giving off any serial killer vibes we took them up on it. We had a nice lunch with wonderful conversation, followed a short car tour of downtown Peoria. Mike was justifiably proud of the strides his city has made in recent years.

Peoria has a very vibrant riverfront district with more shops, bars and restaurants than we could possibly visit. Since Peoria is Caterpillar world headquarters there is also a large Caterpillar museum. If you’re in the area, you won’t regret spending some time at this amazing museum. It starts with a short film in a theater, but the theater is built in the bed of the worlds largest truck! These trucks are shipped to mining sites as a “kit” and then assembled on site. There are all kinds of Caterpillar equipment to climb on, simulators to try out, and the entire place is staffed by proud Caterpillar retirees.

The town docks are in the heart of the riverfront district, and Walmart is just a short dinghy ride across the river. There is plenty to do and see within a short walk from the docks. What more could a cruising boater want? The only real downside, besides the seagull guano is train and traffic noise, but being city folks we could deal with it. We stayed an extra day, and never saw another cruising boat stop. It’s a pity, they don’t know what they’re missing.

We decided to try Kellaher’s Irish Pub for dinner, and it was incredible. Returning from dinner we found a free concert was being held in the square just off Pearl Lee’s stern. An excellent Zac Brown tribute band was followed by a great funk band. What a night, watching a concert from the comfort of Pearl Lee’s aft deck.

The tows run all night long. Moving slow they generally don’t create a huge wake. Sorry, I don’t know why a boat that pushes its load is called a “tow”, just don’t call them tugboats.

The following day, we mostly… uh… just recovered. Resting up from a late night, and for the journey ahead.

  •  * Bow thruster: a sideways propeller for pushing the bow around
  • ** Prop Walk:  the tendency for an inboard power boat’s propeller to “walk” sideways

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