Itinerary Planning for Moving the Boat “Down the River”

  • … We may go forth 
  • And we may fill the days
  • With the magic of dreams
  • The nights with an explosion of endless white stars
  • And counter the sadness of leaving
  • With the excitement of arrival…
    • Kevin Pyne, Dartmouth 

There are at least three reasons for this page:

  1. This is where my personal research took me on our pre-voyage route planning, I thought you might find it interesting.
  2. For those of you not familiar with what comprises a voyage like this, this page should give you a taste of its magnitude and the planning required.
  3. For those of you seasoned voyagers and intrepid souls who have made this trip down the waterway before us, we wanted to invite any and all advice and counsel as well as views on our thoughts of island cruising subsequent to completing the waterway segment of this trip…  COMMENTS ARE MOST WELCOME, SO PLEASE SHARE THEM WITH US BELOW & CLICK “SUBMIT COMMENT” !!  WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU !!

 The following was our intended itinerary (remember, just over 2,000 miles, all at under 8.5 knots (10 MPH), and we pretty much followed this plan all the way to Southwest Florida, with a few exceptions.

Click here to view a map of our intended route or simply read on for more info on the route by taking a mini-Wiki tour of the trip down the waterway with us without ever leaving the comfort of your chair (or bench or piece of sand that you might be perched on) …

After we took a right turn outside the sailboat basin of the Lake City Marina, we had planned to travel down river almost 800 miles on the “Mighty Muddy” to Cairo, Illinois (200+ miles south of St. Louis, MO…). This was to include traversing some 25 locks on the Upper Mississippi River starting with Lock & Dam No. 4. For those of you that might not be familiar with the operation of locks on the waterway, they can be adventurous to the recreational boater, especially if the weather is less than ideal, or if you are collaborating with commercial barge traffic for a tie-up inside, or entering/exiting the lock with dozens of other boats. Here is a simple explanation of how locks (and assoicated dams) work .

We then planned on taking a left turn (”up”) the Mighty Ohio River for a short distance from where it flows into the Mississippi at what is now essentially a ghost town (at least much of the waterfront) called Cairo, Illinois …

Then we would take a right turn, still going upstream onto Ohio’s largest tributary making our way through two locks on the Tennessee River through Kentucky Lake & Pickwick Lake to the twelve locks in the Tennesee Tombigbee Waterway (also known as the “Tenn-Tom”), which, for discussion purposes includes the Black Warrior River that feeds into the Tombigbee River, on to a short length of the Mobile River into Mobile Bay and the approach to the Gulf of Mexico

Aside from the exciting challenges we had anticipate (the sheer length of the voyage at slow speed, traversing some 39 locks, under a total of 99 bridges, encountering the inevitable gear-threatening debris, two-anchoring in narrow channels so we don’t swing into the path of a five hundred foot 24+ barge tow passing within 30 feet of us in the dead of night, etc.), there was one set of 16 bridges in the Tenn-Tom that appeared to likely not have sufficient clearance for our overall height (55 feet) beginning approximately 450 miles from Mobile Bay. This meant that we’d either have to drop our mast onto the deck (a real pain) at Aqua Yacht Harbor in Pickwick Lake before arriving at these bridges (minimum clearance 52 feet at “ordinary high water”) and probably ship the mast, booms, roller furling, shrouds & stays, etc, to Mobile to have it restepped there, OR risk leaving the mast up but take all the instruments off the masthead, wait for low water AND load the boat up with full fuel & water tanks so she’ll ride just a bit lower and hope for the best (the “sphincter factor” will also play an important role). As you sailors know, kissing a bridge with your rig is almost always the “bitter kiss of death” (very dangerous and very expensive). Just a little more spice in the omelet of life… huevos rancheros grande, mis amigos!! We left the rig up, waited for the right water levels and made it (just)! But this planning process (and more than a little luck) was fundamental to this pretty significant success for us!

Assuming we got through the waterway without incident (do you offshore sailors still think this zero sea room inland stuff is a piece of cake?), we then planned to enjoy traveling along the shore (”inside”, or in protected waters) along the Florida panhandle  via that portion of the GIWW (Gulf Intracoastal Water Way) from Mobile Bay, Alabama to Carabelle, Florida. Another glitch, however in execution. Some pretty low bridges forced us “outside” on the gulf more than we had planned, and in one case more than necessary based on some old bridge height information. Oh well.

For Sojourn’s first offshore experience (not ours) under our helm, we then plan to cross the “big bend” (that is, not follow the shore line of the Gulf of Mexico adjacent to Northwestern Florida, but rather cross the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico offshore overnight for approximately 165 miles) from Carabelle to Clearwater, FloridaIn practice, we ended up doing this in a few offshore hops instead of one longer one due to a nasty cold front we were trying to outrun, but that’s documented elsewhere.

We’d then most likely travel “inside” (the Intracoastal Waterway) past Tampa, Sarasota, Venice and on to our own beautiful Charlotte Harbor, which we did. We had made this leg of the journey before with our friends Doug and Marti, and already had some favorite stops we wish to revisit. If the weather cooperated, we’d prefer sailing “outside” for at least a portion of this final leg of our voyage, which we also did.

We’d then triumphantly enter the ten mile wide and twenty mile long Charlotte Harbor either via the ICW from the North or from “outside” through Boca Grande Pass between the Gasparilla and Cayo Costa barrier islands. Charlotte Harbor was to become, and now has become our new home “grounds” for sailing, kayaking, hiking & fishing starting this Fall, as well as our base of operations for cruising points South, East and some West. This has been our long term dream. Now we’re living the dream!

Then it’ was on into Burnt Store Marina, now Sojourn’s new home port. From here, we plan to get the boat painted & spruced up from the beating she’d take getting here before proceeding further. And now that we’re here in BSM, she does indeed need some sprucing up from the trip south from Minnesota.

This would also give us pause as to what bearing to plot next. We’ll see !! Currently on our hit list of potential ports of call: a number of nearby destinations in this beautiful immediate area, the Dry Tortugas, the Keys and the Bahamas. After that, depending on physical and emotional health of vessel and crew, DR & PR? Spanish, British & US Virgins? My “throne reading” for the last year or so had been eclectic, but one book that fires the imagination with a reality check for cruising beyond the Bahamas is Bruce Van Sant’s book, “The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South”. This is a must read for anyone contemplating transitioning from Florida and the Bahamas to the Carribean, or for anyone who would rather read about such a passage without actually making it. At this stage in our lives, we love Bruce’s philosophy of pursuing the “thornless path” (passages south into the Carribean are often referred to “the thorny path” since it tends to bruise & scrape body & soul, not to mention hull, if you’re not knowledgeable and crafty enough to “play the trades”, have oodles of cultural tolerance & be willing to play well with others . Or, as Tom & Mel Neale have often said, we prefer pursuing the path of “the 3 c‘s” – comfortable, cowardly cruising (grasshopper !).  

 Less likely for us at this point until we gather more onboard offshore experience are the Leeward Islands, the Windwards, Trinidad & South America.  More likely, back up to Southwest Florida for eco-kayaking, saltwater fishing, golfing & amateur radio with more occasional multi-week and the fewer occasional multi-month voyages. At this point, that’s over the horizon, but we were very anxious to get the boat here, and now that it is, by executing our plan to move the boat, the possibilities are as exciting as we had anticipated so many years ago !

Sounds simple enough, does it not? Right.

We knew that trying to keep a rigorous timetable for a long voyage in a slow boat would have been risky at best and dangerous at worst as that would force decisions to get underway when it would have been ill-advised to do so (e.g., weather), so here were our simple objectives:

1. Leave Lake City, MN circa mid-August, 2008 (not Friday the 15th – I’m told it’s bad luck to start a voyage on a Friday !! 🙂 )

2. Get below “the frost line” before the temps drop below 50 degrees “up North” (our blood is considerably “thinner” than it was just a few years ago!). Yes, we are now officially tropical wimps !!

3. Do not arrive in the Gulf before the end of the storm (hurricane) season, which is early to mid-November, and then we’ll need to deal with frequent cold fronts that sweep the gulf at that time (which we did!)

4. Beyond that, stop and go will be a daily decision (maybe hourly), and that’s just fine (flooding played a key role here!)


Voyage Summer 2008
Statute Nautical
      Miles Miles
From Lake City Marina to:
St. Louis     595 517
Cairo (Ohio River)     775 674
Kentucky Lake Dam     835 726
Pickwick Lake Dam (Tennessee River)     1010 878
Tenn-Tom     1060 922
Columbus, MS     1135 987
Memphis, TN     1170 1017
Mobile, AL     1485 1291
Gulf Shores (GIWW)     1510 1313
Carabelle, FL (start big bend)     1760 1530
Clearwater (end big bend)     1895 1648
Burnt Store Marina     2010 1748


“Waterway” Distances     Statute Naut.            
    (from Lake City to Mobile):     Miles Miles            
Upper Mississippi River     775 674            
Ohio River     46 40            
Tenessee River     215 187            
Tenn-Tom (including Lower Black Warrior)     450 391          
Sub Total     1486 1292            


“Waterway” bridge |——- Bridges ——|      
clearances & locks: Fixed Lift up Swng Lcks    
Upper Mississippi         (all>55 feet) 38 1 10 25    
Ohio (all >55 feet) 8 0 0 0    
Tenessee (all >57 feet) 10 1 0 2    
Tenn-Tom (including Lower Black Warrior) 28 2 1 12  
     (16 @ 52-55 ft at ord. high water)      
Sojourn needs 55 ft !!            
Waterway Sub Total 84 4 11 39    


Lock lifts/drops ranged from 6 to 27 feet on the Mississippi, from 25 to 84 feet on the Tenn-Tom 

A total of 99 bridges (16 fixed & of questionable clearance). Oh boy !!

A total of 39 locks to pass through, often with commercial barges that could easily crush us. Those tow captains will become our best new friends !!!

And one critical factor that all our planning ultimately did NOT take into account were aerial cables over the waterway, especially those that had unpublished vertical clearances! Nervous stomach from this a LOT!



  1. I have small correction on the Tennessee River. When you leave the Ohio River you will be going upstream on the Tennessee River. The Tennessee River flows into the Ohio River. Initially you will be going up stream to the first lock on the Tennessee which is approximately 80 feet high, depending on the hydroelectric dam discharge rate and flowage control.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Art (Jean?). Good catch !

  3. Thanks, very useful information and a cool website.
    Will be departing Eddyville / Grand Rivers late summer 2010 looking for the lowest river pool level.
    Benella is a 35ft pro built steel double headsail sloop. We draw 5′ 10″ and will have an air draft of 51ft after I remove our 3ft SS whip antenna and tricolor. I’m interested in any info regarding bridge clearances and did you come across any power lines or phone lines that were close to the bridge clearances listed? Very much want to re-rig the boat in Eddyville after 3 year refit rather than in Mobile, so any info you can pass along would be much appreciated. Very nicely done website Guys. Best regards. les Lacey

  4. Les, the more I thought about this, the more strongly I’d advise you to go through the hassle of dropping your mast. You could probably make it with 51 feet, but we found that the stress of the uncertainty robbed us of a great deal of the enjoyment of the trip. Best: ship the mast. Next best: secure it on deck, with scaffolding high enough to comfortably get around on deck (so important in the locks, and just general boat handling). Risk: knocking the end of the mast on a lock wall, and getting charged more at marinas for greater length overall. Can’t remember where, but there’s a bridge just upstream from a damn (in the Tenn-Tom, I think), and between this (last) 52 foot bridge, as I recall, there were a set of aerial phone cables that was LOWER than the bridge – we cleared by only INCHES per a buddy boat!). Just take the stick down. Cheers.
    – Cap’n Gene.

  5. Hello from St. Paul. I cruised the Tenn-Tom last winter with mast down, there were no places to sail except a few 5 mile lakes, and really it is a narrow canal which then turns into windy river, so no need for mast being up. South of Lake Pepin on the River I do no think there is any place to sail safely outside the channel even if the river looks wide, so again maybe no need for mast being up. Where rivers meet at Cairo I hear river is wide, but lots of traffic. So maybe start with mast down, then put it up at Mobile.

    This fall I might cruise down from St. Paul, how long do you estimate this might take you and how many miles do you count on per day??? 3 weeks? Good luck.


    P.S. I hear south of Cairo the River doesn’t freeze ever, but in December MN locks close, so

  6. Hey, your mileage may vary. We planned on a leisurely two months, got tied up in Southern Illinois for almost three weeks in a late summer flood, and after the USCG opened up the river again, we went like crazy to beat reported flooding coming to the Tenn-Tom. Basically focused on “moving the boat”. We left MN mid August. Doing it over, I’d leave mid July. We had the stick up, not to sail, but to avoid the hassle of our 700 pound roller-furling main mast down and up. Doin’ again, I’d ship the mast to Mobile (having it on deck is NOT the way to go – damage in locks, charged for LOA including horizontal mast in many marinas, etc.), and have it restepped at Dog River on Mobile Bay. If you’re headed to Florida’s east coast, remember, there’s a 49 foot bridge restriction on the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. Treat yourself to a trip through the Moser Channel in Marathon, and enjoy that route (the waterway across the Lake is BORING and shallow by comparison (IMHO). Good luck, Alex. Hope that helps. I’d clear your calendar for 3 months total, and adjust as you go. Remember, wait for the windows! Gene

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