Boating in Mid-America

Kentucky - Side Trip… again!
We are leaving Bravo in Beaufort, N.C. for two weeks to travel to Louisville, Kentucky. Our friends Dennis and Julie Fox are buying a Bruce Roberts designed 59’ all aluminum Pluckebaum built semi-displacement trawler, and they need help to move it from Louisville, Kentucky to Florida. This boat has twin Caterpillar C12's, and is a "go fast" boat. Naturally, just like all of Dennis's boats, this boat is also renamed SeaFox. We initially are not sure if we will make it all the way to Florida in two weeks, but we will help Gale, Mary, and Dennis move it as far as we can. It will be a very interesting experience.

Here is SeaFox ready to take us on our next adventure!

SeaFox was made in Louisville, Kentucky by boat builder "Pluckebaum".
Bet you never heard of Pluckebaum boats? At least we didn't!

But oh baby! She has horns galore, that sounds like a mega freight train!

The route
The cruise will start just a tad to the north of Louisville, Kentucky then take us south, then west, and then south again on the Ohio River, Tennessee River, Tenn-Tom Waterway, and the Tombigbee River to the Gulf of Mexico, to our end destination of Fort Meyers, Florida. Eight states are on the route: Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.

This was our route, and we travelled approximately 1300 nautical miles on this trip.

When we first heard of this trip, we had no idea how a boat could travel, on its own bottom, from the middle of the United States, to Florida. Well, this adventure was an educational immersion into US geography, history, and transportation. These rivers and waterways played a crucial role in the settlement and economic development of the middle of the United States. Pioneers followed these waters to settle mid-America. Commercial marine traffic… really, really big barges… carried agricultural and industrial products to and from mid-America and the Gulf of Mexico.

We see more barges than any other type of boat on these waterways.

Barge approaching in the early morning mist.

Currently, recreational boaters also travel these waters on the “Great Loop” route from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. From there, they travel to Florida, up the East Coast to the Hudson River, the Erie Canal and back into the Great Lakes. Hence, the “Great Loop”. People making this trip are referred to as “Loopers”. However we saw very few recreational boats on this trip, but lots of barges & tugs.

Map shows the possible Great Loop routes.

Ready to go… Ohio River
Back in Louisville, shopping trips are made to various boat supply stores, and also to Lowes, Home Depot, Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Walmart, Caterpillar, and Kroger. All sorts of supplies are needed to provision the boat, and a few last minute technical issues are addressed.

Gale and Dennis get a much closer look at the black water holding tanks.

After a few hectic days, we make an early morning start down a small narrow creek and onto the Ohio River. The team of Dennis, Gale, Karl, Mary, Nora, and Keela are on their way. Let the journey begin!

The happy crew! Left to Right: Keela, Gale, Mary, Dennis, Nora, & Karl

We pass under bridges, through downtown Louisville and onto the mighty Ohio River.

We approach our first bridges in Louisville, Kentucky on the Ohio River.

Muhamad Ali grew up in Louisville, and we pass a museum that is dedicated to him.

Locks and Dams
One hour into the cruise, we enter our first lock. A special feature of this cruise is the number of dams and locks that need to be navigated. On the Tenn-Tom alone, there are ten locks. For the whole trip, there are a total of 17 locks. These locks are all large and extensively used by commercial barge traffic. Safety rules prohibit pleasure boats from being in the locks at the same time as commercial barges. We communicate with the lockmasters and often have to wait for a commercial barge to clear the lock before we can enter.

The size of all of the locks are enormous.

Each lock has slight differences, but the overall size is similar to accommodate the barges.

The shortest lock lift we experience is 30 feet. The deepest is 86 feet. Boats are secured by a line to the wall with floating pins. Each boat is connected to one floating pin, tied off on a single mid-ship cleat. As the boat is raised or lowered, you monitor the line and fenders to be sure they do not get hung up. We each have our assigned stations.

This is a typical floating bollard/pin. You only use one line that is mid-ship.

This is the view looking up from the bollard. Gale is on the flybridge looking down.

"Coach" Dennis is watching the lines as the locks descend.

When the lock master blows the siren to confirm the gates are completely open and it is safe to leave, you untie the line and push off the wall with boat hooks.

Nora preparing to push off as we exit the locks.

River-town USA
This trip is a meandering journey through middle America. The river winds and turns slowly through the country-side.

The waterways  are usually very shallow.

Often we'll see barges just parked along side the river banks.

A lone fisherman.

Hmm? What's this in the middle of no-where? Ma-Bell calling!

Trees coming right out of the water.

The landscape and weather changes constantly.

Some mornings start off cold and foggy.

And some glorious sunsets at days end.

In some areas, because of the flooding, the Kentucky state line is designated by large concrete and stone markers.

The steel cables are actually holding floating docks in place.

One of our first stops is Evansville, Indiana. We dock at their small marina, catch an Uber into a local restaurant, and have our first fried green tomatoes.

And of course you have to have the fried green tomatoes. A local specialty!

There also were some curiously painted trees along the side of the road. We are not sure if it was an art piece or had a functional purpose.

Mysterious colorful trees alongside the roadway.

Each day we are up and under way just before dawn and travel until dark. The river landscape is mostly rural with old bridges, and intermittent industrial installations.

Some areas are busy, busy, busy.

Old abandoned machinery, looks like some sort of monster emerging from the woods.

Huge barges pass daily. We communicate with them to ensure a safe passing.

Requesting and making a "Two Whistle" pass to this barge.

Not all of the towns along the river are as large and prosperous as Evansville. Most are tiny, cling precariously to the banks of the river, and many buildings appear to be empty.

Main Street, Elizabethtown, Illinois.

This used to be the town's gas station once upon a time.

This town was like a time capsule from many years ago.

Small docks/marinas provide moorage for a few boats and their restaurants offer the local favorite… fried catfish!

SeaFox was almost as big as the restaurant, and took up the whole dock!

This is the front of the restaurant, which also was the only restaurant in town.

First time Nora and Karl had catfish, and it was actually pretty darn good!

Tenn-Tom Waterway
At the Pickwick Dam and Locks, we enter the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

This man-made waterway, completed in 1985, connects the Gulf of Mexico with the Ohio River and the major cites of mid-east USA. The initial purpose was to provide commercial boat traffic easier access to the Ohio Valley cities. Originally, barges were pushed by huge paddle wheelers. We pass one that is part of an Army Corps of Engineers Museum and we later dock next to a mini-paddle wheeler used solely for recreational purposes at a pretty remote spot.

This giant paddle wheeler is now a museum.

This paddle wheeler was the home to an elder couple who said they wanted something different.

The Tenn-Tom expanded the flood control and hydro-electric power producing infrastructure initiated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. A byproduct of the Tenn-Tom Waterway is greatly enhanced recreational boating on these inland waters.

We see a few trawlers/”Loopers” heading south for the winter and we share the locks with them. Each day is filled with a routine of entering and exiting locks. Usually more than one lock in a day. 

This is one of the few times where we actually share the locks with a couple of other boats.

There were many opportunities to make small repairs while underway. Dennis always refers to the first few cruises on a boat as the "Breakdown" cruise.

Gale making adjustments to the throttle and shifter cables.

The Long and Winding Road
As we exit the Tenn-Tom Waterway and enter the Tombigbee, the river becomes even more convoluted. Sometimes we think we can see ourselves coming and going.

Sometimes it takes us 2 miles to travel 1 mile due to all of the turns.

Everyone takes a turn at the helm, while others take a nap.

Nora takes her turn at the helm on the "Go Fast" SeaFox.

The Gulf Coast and ICW
After 10 days on the river systems, we enter the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Alabama. Mobile is a large port with extensive commercial marine infrastructure.

Some evil looking ships being built in Mobile, Alabama.

We cross Mobile Bay and enter the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). We stop for the night at Lulu’s Marina in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Up early, we continue east on the ICW heading for Treasure Island Marina in Panama City, Florida. This is the Florida Panhandle. The coastal landscape morphs into white sandy shores and palm trees.

Panama City
Because of offshore weather patterns, we decide to stay in Panama City for a couple of days. This brief layover gives us time for some “extra-curricular activities”. Dennis has dinner with his niece and nephew who live nearby and there is time for several walks on the white sugar-sand beaches.

What a great view after seeing nothing but rivers for the past couple of weeks!

The local boardwalk.

You almost want to start singing "Under the Boardwalk"!

Change in cruise plan
By now you might be wondering what happened to the “two week plan”. Well, because of pending weather windows, the decision was made to push ahead with a gulf crossing from the Panhandle to the west coast of Florida. This crossing is 20+ miles offshore and should only be attempted with an appropriate weather window and a crew that can run the boat in overnight watches. Depending on where we make landfall (somewhere between Tampa and Fort Meyers), the trip will take 12-26 hours, non-stop.

Apalachicola, Florida is our last stop on the Panhandle. After SeaFox is docked, on a recently repaired wharf, we walk down the street and have a great dinner of amazingly fresh local oysters and gulf shrimp. The next morning we wander the streets of this small town checking out the small shops and coffee roasting establishment. There is lingering evidence of hurricane damage, but overall the town seems to be recovering.

Hurricane damage to waterfront docks. 

Some neat stores and small galleries in the older waterfront section of town.

Dennis, Gale, and Karl do some last minute adjustments to the captain’s chair which result in Karl sustaining “hand damage”. Luckily, Mary is a registered nurse, so there is no need to head to the emergency room!

Unfortunatly, accidents happen.
Keeping this picture small so I don't gross you out!

West Coast of Florida and “Home”
Well, a 26 hour offshore overnight gulf crossing does not produce too many pictures. The routine consists of being on watch, sleeping and naps, and eating when your body says it’s hungry.

Oh my! This is a pretty bumpy crossing. Batten down the hatches!

A well deserved nap for Gale and Keela.

We finally dock in Fort Meyers, Florida and celebrate with dinner in a nearby restaurant. Dennis stays on board SeaFox. His wife Julie will arrive the next day to continue the trip with the boat to Stuart, Florida. Gale, Mary, Keela, Karl and Nora pick up a rental car and the next morning drive north to Tampa/St. Petersburg. We have a little time to check out the waterfront and the artwork in the airport before boarding a plane back to our boats in Beaufort, NC.

Our trip back to Beaufort from the Tampa/Saint Petersburg Airport.

Start to finish, this unique cruise was 21 days of travel on the rivers and coastal waters of America. Truly the trip of a lifetime.


  1. Looks like perfect territory for a shantyboat! See "Shantyboat: A River Way of Life"" by Harlan Hubbard.

    1. Ahh, Nora has read "Shantyboat: A River Way of Life", ...a good read!
      For other Nordhavn cruising stories see " --> Community --> Blogs" by other Nordhavn owners.

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