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Mississippi River Sailing

Alton Pool and the Mississippi River

For the first year, this will be my home cruising grounds.  For those not familiar with the area, the impounded waters behind Lock and Dam 26 on the Mississippi River is locally referred to as Alton Pool, named such for the nearby towns of Alton, Illinois and West Alton, Missouri.  This area covers a 40 mile long section that extends up the Mississippi river to the next Lock and Dam complex near Winfield, Missouri. This area also includes the lower Illinois river which would allow access to additional sailing grounds for about 80 miles northwards before encountering another lock and dam complex.  Ultimately, the Illinois river leads towards Peoria, Chicago, and finally on to Lake Michigan via the Chicago River.

For the benefit of the many commercial barges, the Alton Pool is maintained with a channel of at least 9 feet at all times - this is referred to as flat pool level and translates to an elevation of 404 feet above mean sea level.  The Lock and Dam complex is used to adjust the river level so as to maintain about 15 feet above flat pool (419 feet above sea level) under normal circumstances.

Even though they are called "tows", the commercial barges are actually pushed up and down the river.  These "tows" can be 3 barges wide and 5 barges long with the pilot positioned up to 1,000 feet behind the foremost barge.  As can be imagined, this type of a vessel combination is not the most maneuverable item on the water.   Due to the large amount of recreational vessel traffic on Alton Pool, the barge pilots are known to dread a weekend passage through the area.

Fortunately, the channel is well marked and in most areas there is more than enough room to sail well outside of the channel.  However, this area is still an excellent locality to practice defensive sailing skills.  The local state water patrol officers claim that Tow Boats really contain "fiberglass magnets" given the number of near miss accidents caused when small boats are drawn into the turbulence of the passing Tow Boat's massive propellers.  Another risk point to avoid is the occasional free floating barge, tree trunk, or other miscellaneous unidentified object found drifting with the current.

Solar Wind's home marina is located at the lower end of the Alton Pool, just above the Lock and Dam 26 complex.  This is at about mile marker 205 as measured upstream from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  This means that a normal sailing excursion involves a turn up the river on a Northwest heading for almost 13 miles of sailing with steep limestone bluffs to starboard and low tree lined river banks to port.

At the town of Grafton, Illinois (mile marker 218), following the starboard river bank and assuming a due Westerly course will allow entry to the Illinois River which will eventually turn due north for a number of miles on the "uphill route".   This route will eventually end after 300 plus miles of travel with the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Turning to port at Grafton and assuming a Southwesterly course follows the Mississippi River for another 10 miles until the river winds northward again (mile marker 229) to Winfield and the Lock and Dam 25 complex (mile marker 241).

This section of the two rivers contains a number of islands that form protected sloughs between the main channel and the shore.  The resulting narrow section of the river offers a refuge where a boater can duck in and drop the lunch hook with little fear of being disturbed by a runaway barge.  Most are narrow, shallow, and offer limited sailing opportunities but the chance to enjoy some solitude is often welcome.

When anchoring in stump and snag filled areas such as this, I attach a trip line to the crown of the anchor.  Then if the anchor does not come up from a vertical pull, I can apply a reverse pull to free it from under the obstruction.   Because it floats, I use 25 feet of yellow 3/8 inch hollow braided polypropylene line for this purpose.  This inexpensive line is not resistant to UV or chafe so I will need to inspect and replace it more frequently.