by Harold Duffield - Florissant, Missouri - USA

Even though I grew up on the river, and have spent most of my  life  hanging around the water, I’ve made only two extended trips down the Mississippi River over the past 50 years. The first was with my 12 year old Daughter, the second with her Son when he was 12 years old. The first cruise was 8 days starting at Moline IL and ending in Hanibal  MO. The boat was a 16 ft Compac sailboat with a 6 hp Johnson outboard kicker. The plan was to sail when the winds were right, and to motor when not. I was very familiar with the little Compac and had  even sailed it on Lake Michigan a number of times. It’s a very safe and stable little boat.

River trip - 1980

The little Compac 16 was a surprisingly good boat for such a trip. Little, of course, is the key word here. It has lots of  cockpit space with below the deck and cockpit storage compartments for storing  the necessary gear and food. However, all the boat handling,  living, and cooking  requirements, must be done in the cockpit and thus exposed to the elements. The trip was taken the first week of October to miss the hot weather of an earlier departure, and to catch some of the late summer scenery. The little boat with it’s sailboat ballast is steady as a church, and can easily take whatever weather you may catch. Safety was never a concern. The main concern was space to lie down, or to sit out of the elements if it rained during the day. The head room is minimal for sitting inside.Though it met all the needs asked of it, the boat was just a bit to small in the end, but it did take us safely on our adventure. . 

Each leg of the 8 day  trip was started mid-morning after breakfast, and ending late afternoon behind the next lock destination. In this way we could watch the scenery and game as we drifted along under sail if the river breeze cooperated, or motor just fast enough to catch the river current  Our focus was the journey and the shared experience, not the destination.

The upper Mississippi is loaded with mid-river islands, and we pulled to the lea side of  these islands, anchored for our lunch, and fished for our supper. Living off the land by catching your supper adds an aspect to your cruising experience that if possible should always be included. However, it’s a risky idea to anchor off these river islands overnight. Many islands are used for growing pot. The Pot Growers might decide to take advantage of a boat anchored with the occupants asleep below. It’s best to anchor for over-night at a Local Marina, or near the shore were you are visible  from houses nearby. Also, for a small fee you can use the marina’s shower facility. With an adolescent girl on board, access to a shower is pretty much a daily essential.

The days fly by on such a cruise with ship’s duties, cooking meals, and doing the clean-up every cruise requires. My Daughter kept the ships log for the entire trip and has kept the log book with the trip photos as a remembrance of the adventure with her Dad. I also taught her how to tie  fish net hammocks to hang on the hull inside for her girl stuff. Girls do have lots of “girls stuff” to be assembled. A Dad and a Pre-Teen Daughter cruising for 8 days, sharing and depending on each other, has to be God sent. All alone, sailing with your Daughter on one of the greatest rivers in the world is a once in a lifetime gift for both Dad and Daughter. I figured it was best to do the trip at 12 years old before teen years and peer pressures interfered.

We stopped in river towns along the way to eat out, and even took in a movie just for a break. We once stayed overnight at a local motel, ate pizza, and took a much needed long hot shower. There should never be a fixed agenda for such a trip. When something interesting is seen, explore and enjoy the moment. One of the most memorable experiences was while fishing for our supper and waiting to lock through at Quincy, we saw an osprey dive into the river to catch a fish. It went straight down with wings folded back and seemed to dive out of sight into the water. Then it emerged from the water with the fish in it’s talons, and flew to a tree not 50 yards from our boat and began to eat it’s catch.. At the time we too were fishing for our own supper, and laughed about how much better luck the osprey was having. “Hey Mr Osprey, want to share that fish?”

Our original plan was to go all the way to St Louis, but we were taking more time than anticipated. My Brother was called to pick us up at Hannibal. The Father Daughter trip was a part of our bonding relationship, and we have cherished that experience to this day.

The second trip  with the same Daughter’s Son 20 years later, was made aboard  a 23 ft Aquarius sailboat with the rig removed, sailed as a Terminal Trawler, and powered by a 9.9 Honda 4 stroke outboard. Now for those of you who are wondering what’s a Terminal Trawler, it’s an old sailboat that is sailed by a Captain who is impaired and can’t  scramble around  to handle the sails. ( Terminal-get it?) The mast and rigging is removed leaving a motor-only sailboat hull with all the advantages of a sailboat’s interior space, and stable ballasted platform. I was  such a Captain at the time with my legs giving out, and my lemon size prostate demanding a trip to the head hourly.  I wasn’t in  the best of shape, and therefore unable to safely go forward to handle the sails. However, I was ok to handle a power boat, just not sails, and I was determined not to postpone the trip my Grandson had anticipated for so long. The Aquarius has loads of room inside for cooking, eating, and space for getting out of the weather. For a cheap boat, a Terminal Trawler can be a good choice. I bought the boat with trailer and 6 hp Johnson outboard for $1,250 and traded 3 boat covers for the Honda 4 stroke. So don’t postpone your adventure because you think you don’t have the money. There are lots of these old sailboats that make great Terminal  Trawlers.

This second trip was to start at Keokuk Iowa, and end 7 days later at St Louis. Both trips were planned to drift down the river a distance of one lock per day. Each lock is located about 30 miles apart giving a sensible destination each day without rushing.

The $900 Falcon ready to launch the $1250 Terminal Trawler

We pulled the boat from St Louis to Keokuk with my old van the Millennium Falcon. The Falcon was named by my kids for the space ship owned by Hans Solo in Star Wars. The Falcon appears to be a piece of junk, but is bull strong, and runs and pulls like a teenager. Before we started, as you can see in the photo, we had to cut half the fender off the trailer. The old  broken fender was hanging down  onto the trailer tire. Hey- who needs a fender when you are off to a memorable adventure with your 12 year old Grandson!

The Falcon snorted the 140 miles up the river road to Keokuk without a hitch. We backed the Aquarius into the river above the dam and tied up for our first night on the boat. Once the boat was tied, we got about the business of putting our supplies and provisions on board and stowed for the trip. I did most the grunt work while my Grandson ran up and down the jetty with delightful excitement for the adventure to begin. . These kids today!

My grandson getting ready for the trip

It goes without saying that cruising with a boy is sure different than with a girl. I guess you are more protective with a girl. Not that you aren’t also protective with the boy, but I guess you can better relate to your own youthful experiences with a Grandson, plus your own maturity I suppose.

That first night of our trip was spent at the dock where we launched the boat. For some reason the River Gods decided to test our mettle by dropping the early October temp into the 30’s. We had sleeping bags, but this was ridiculous! I not quite jokingly said, “Who’s idea was this?”  My Grandson, who had completely disappeared into his sleeping bag, just grunted. I think I used some words I shouldn’t have, but probable had been heard before by a 12 year old boy. Crawling from my warm bed hourly, to make a head trip to ease the call of the prostate demons, didn’t make for a pleasant start of our week long adventure. But I endured the antagonism of it, and made it through the night with acceptable discomfort.

The next morning we drove the falcon to town to eat our last restaurant meal.  Then off we went to lock through at Keokuk. The Keokuk lock drops you nearly 40 feet to the river below.  The only power plant on the Mississippi is at Keokuk, which accounts for the deep dive of the lock. The lake pool behind the lock stays constant year round and varies less than a foot either way. If you get a chance to travel the Great River, the river lake from Keokuk upriver to Fort Madison is 45 miles long and one of the most beautiful on the river. Going into the 1200 ft lock on a small Terminal Trawler and tying up behind a 6 barge river tow gives you a prospective that creates some awe for the massiveness of the river lock and barge traffic system.

The huge gates closed and there was an eerie silence before the tubes  opened to empty the lock. The water literally shakes as the river is sucked from under your now very small boat. You sit there like a lost decoy under the stern of a massive barge that shifts sideways as the water exits. I had my Grandson sit next to me as we shifted against the  mooring lines that are attached to a massive slider that goes down with the water. The size and scale of the great lock seems to create a respectful silence amongst those who experience the  threatening and rolling water of the emptying lock.

You drop 38 feet in about 20 minutes and look up to where you started. Then we came back from our upward gaze as the gates at the front of the lock slowly opened revealing the river below.  The next sound was the huge smoky belch of the engines on the River Tug that kicks 4,000 hp into gear, and begins to push the barge tow out of the lock. The 8 ft diameter screws on the tug leave a churning 3-4 ft swell as the water boiled aft buffeting us against the lock wall. 

We sat for a while to allow the tug to get a way ahead before we left. I started the Honda kicker and idled for a minute or so before heading out. I must say that little motor is the sweetest running outboard I have ever owned. In fact, it  is so quite you often have to look to see if there is a water pump stream  to  know it’s  running. The sound is the hum  of a precision machine, instead of the oily clatter and pop of a two stroke. Sweet!

A few minutes later with the Tug down river a comfortable distance, I put the little Honda in fwd and cracked open the throttle a bit. “We have a big bad motor too”,  I said to my Grandson as we smiled at each other, and purred out the front of the lock in our proud little Terminal Trawler. The tug had left a series of rolling swells that lingered on the river. The little Trawler took each with ease because of it’s half down center board, and ballasted sailboat hull and bow. Our speed was a lot less than the disappearing down river Tug, and soon the water settled down to normal.

Inside the Terminal Trawler

The days clicked by with drifting along at idle speed from lock to lock until finally we found ourselves stacked up behind the dam at Quincy, and fishing for our supper before turning in for chow. Then it happened again. At the very same place, and at about the same time of day, an osprey flew up from it’s perch and dove into the river to catch a fish. It emerged from  the water with a small fish in it’d talons and flew to a nearby tree to eat. The hair on my neck and arms stood up as I gazed in amazement and disbelief at the coincidence of the event. Was this a distant Grandson of the original osprey sending a message from the River Gods showing their awareness and approval of our adventure? Was it just a coincidence, or something more? I must admit to this day, I can’t reconcile the events being exactly the same.

The next day we made the Hanibal lock and took an afternoon to explore the Mark Twain Museum and all the related  activity  surrounding the tourism sites on the river front. The little marina at Hanibal gave us a safe stop for a beak to eat some restaurant food and get away from Grandpa’s cooking. We had a ship’s rule that whoever complained about the food had to do the dishes after the meal. Needless to say, I got no complaints about the food for the whole trip, but I did get  a few squinched up faces a time or two,  followed by a hearty boy’s laugh.

The Hannibal Marina

We did make one stop between the locks when we noticed some teen boys playing soccer near the marina while we were gassing up. Gassing up was topping off our 6 gallon tank. The stingy little Honda ended up using less than 10 gallons the complete trip. I knew Sean needed to burn off some boy energy, so we took a lunch break while he joined the boys in the pick up soccer game. There were a number of teen girls watching as the boys strutted their stuff.  My Grandson, inheriting 25% of his “dumb” genes from me, decided to show off by doing a bicycle kick to impress the girls. For those who do not play soccer, a bicycle kick involves the ball coming directly at you, and flipping on your back while air-born to kick the ball over your head. However, it also involves falling flat on your back after the kick. Of course the stunt worked beautifully. The teen girls called out, “ohhh-Sean are you ok? Are you hurt?” He, with great manliness, ran back putting his chest out said, “ naw-I’m fine. Do that all the time”. I could see as he returned to the boat that it had been a somewhat painful show off experience. I guess if that’s the dumbest thing he ever does to impress the girls he will be ok. He did succeed in burning some energy by playing the show off soccer for an hour.

The last day of the cruise we locked through the dam at Winfield early morning, and headed down stream the 35 miles to Alton where the trip was to end. The weather was great for the whole trip except for our face slap first night spent at Keokuk. Hours later we rounded the bend near Grafton where the Illinois River joins the Mississippi and notice a number of boats near the center of the river. The Coast Guard boat amongst them. “What’s goin  on?” I hail to a nearby cruiser. “Barge ran over a boat”, was the somber reply. “Anybody hurt?”, I shouted back. “Boy’s missing”, was shouted to my question.  A 28 ft cruiser had stalled in the water in front of an oncoming tow and was run down before the tow could be stopped. A young boy was missing and presumed drowned. There was total silence on our boat as we proceeded toward Alton. Finally, I broke the silence. “That’s the reason Grampa  always stayed as far away from the tows as possible. Notice how I went to the other side of the river whenever we say a tow coming up river? That’s why. There is no room for a second chance with those huge boats .Make that an unbroken rule when you are in a boat anywhere.”  We both sat in silence for the next hour.

The Tug that ran down the boat

Then, 20 miles later as we approached our destination in Alton, a storm could be seen approaching from the west. I could see by the anvil head of the approaching clouds that it was going to be a race to the Alton Marina before the storm overtook us. I put the hammer down on the Honda. The little monster came to life, and with it’s four blade power prop grabbing the water, drove the displacement hull of the trawler above it’s hull speed. The last half mile, past the boulder jetty, around the out-docks,  and we quickly tied up just as a frog strangler down pour burst upon us. We looked at each other in amazement as wave after wave of  cold pouring rain dumped upon our little friend the Trawler. “Pretty exciting way to end the trip, hey?”,  I commented, as we sat inside with hatches buttoned.  “let’s keep going, Grampa”, was his reply. Not a bad trip, I thought to myself as I  called my Wife to pick us up. Not a bad trip.

Now  I’m of an age and shape when trips down the river can only be memories, but I do have some ideas based on experience of what would be, in my thinking, a very good boat for such an adventure. The little houseboat shown below just might fit the bill. It’s a manageable size that can be pushed with a 10-25 hp motor and not break the bank for gas. It gives some room to walk around while underway,  a real head with the necessary shower if you have woman aboard, and a little wood burning stove. It’s tow-able and can be parked in your back yard.

However, it should be considered only if you want to build your own boat, not for cost savings. The little houseboat should cost around $5k to build using our hull kit, but a Terminal Trawler sailboat could be had for half that amount.

Kit Houseboat possibility

Other boats that could be considered for a Terminal Trawler includes a 22 ft Catalina pop top, although a little small, a 25 ft Catalina pop top offers lots of room inside, and an old 25 ft Venture or McGregor pop top, which can be really cheap. What ever way you chose, you don’t nave to be a millionaire to live like one cruising down the river.

Harold Duffield – Lover of the Great River -


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