The HUCK FINN--Adventures of a canal boat on North America's waterways

Photos, captain's notes, and crew's tales from the 26' canal boat HUCK FINN. Itinerary: roundtrip St. Pete. FL/St. Paul MN.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

These May 2008 photos were taken just before HUCK's latest cruise from KY Lake to Inland Marina in Evansville, IN. Read more and see lots more photos in following posts.

HUCK's beautiful spalted maple solid wood galley counter top. To the left is a 3 burner, full oven propane range. To the right a double stainless sink with H&C water. Lots of storage below...I never did fill it up.

HUCK's might 20 HP 3 cyl. Perkins diesel. Still runs like new--starts instantly, no smoke, and doesn't burn oil. Estimated run time is 7-800 hours. Engine has been maintained regularly and some spare parts are on board.

Here is the "slave cylinder" portion of the hydraulic steering mechanism. HUCK has an extra large rudder for linear stability and quick steering response.

Looking up from the galley into the pilothouse. The rooftop AC does a good job of cooling HUCK. It can be moved to the center hatch, over the galley if you prefer it there.

Continue to following posts for more photos and info. Captain Brion can be reached at or (727) 656-0700

HUCK's driveaway price is now a deal that someone won't refuse. See many more photos and read stories of HUCK's adventures on this blogsite. HUCK's final photoshoot! Following are 15 recent (May 2008) HUCK photos for the benefit of interested buyers. HUCK just cruised from KY Lake to Evansville, IN. That's about 160 miles, mostly up the OHIO R., and we did it in 3 days. My brother Roger came along for crew, as we were also delivering a 29' double-ender.

More HUCK photos! HUCK is now resting at dock in Evansville, IN on the OHIO R. and waiting for a new owner. That won't take long, as I've just reduced the price to $14, 900. See more new photos in another post below this one. Captain Brion (727) 656-0700

I'm preparing to move onto a houseboat, so HUCK will be getting a new captain soon, someone who will hopefully put many more thousands of miles under the keel. All systems are up and running and ready to go.

Here are some recent (May 2008) photos of HUCK FINN for any interested buyers. Price just reduced to $14,900. Hurry...HUCK won't last long at that price.

HUCK was just cruised by Captain Brion and brother Roger from KY Lake down the Cumberland River and 150 miles up the OHIO R. to Evansville, IN. We averaged about 4-4.5 mph against the current. That's about 50 miles per day on these long summer days.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Sadly, Captain Brion is ready to turn over the HUCK FINN to its next lucky owner. This is a one of a kind boat custom designed and built by master boat builder David Westphal in Key Largo in 1996. She is all heavy hand laid fiberglass construction, with an extremely solid and reinforced hull. Overbuilt by commercial standards. I have personally logged over 4,000 miles on the HUCK with no injuries to boat or crew.

A detailed history of many of this boats travels is chronicalled on this blog--if one navigates through the archives, you will see many photos and read about HUCK's adventures from Florida to Minnesota, then back to Kentucky.

Her inventory is extensive. Essentially she is a totally self-contained liveaboard, with emphasis on safety and economy of operation.

Where else on a 26' vessel will you find a full size shower with 9' feet of headroom? Here is a view looking up toward the nozzle. 100 gallons of fresh water provides for days (or weeks) of basic water needs.

The galley is fully equipped with a 3 burner stove top and full sized oven. It is propane fuelled with a safety sniifer system installed. There is also a propane fuelled cabin heater for more northern grounds. Also in the galley is a double basin stainless sink, microwave, lots of storage and counterspace. Opposit the galley is a freshwater flush head with an odorless holding tank and Y-valve for discharge/pumpout options.

A sizeable pantry is loaded with shelves and cupboard spaces for lots of food storage. A 2/3 size fridge runs economically off the on-board 2,000 watt inverter, which is powered by 2 dedicated group 27 deep cycle batteries.

There is a 6'+ single bunk in the pilothouse, converting to a settee in daytime. A 2-person settee is opposite this bunk, and 2 removable tables provide a base for meals, carts, laptop, etc.

The pilothouse area is raise above the lower galley and forward bunks, providing good visibility from the helm seat. Navigation equipment is complete, with GPS, Depth, VHF, Radar, remote operated searchlight, LOUD air horn and Autopilot.

Windshield windows open for ventilation and improved visibility.

For entertainment, there is an AM/FM/CD player, and a Karaoke system which I enjoy when no one else is on board!

Steering is hydraulic. Power is provided by a Perkins 3 cylinder diesel, running like brand new and still not even burning oil. It has never failed to start immediately. For backup, there is a new (less than 20 hours use) Mercury 4-stroke outboard 6HP motor. It will help get you into safe water, if the diesel should ever fail, or the main prop gets fouled, etc.

The boat interior is finished completely in knotty pine solid wood and toung and groove panelling. The boat carries 1300 lbs. of ballast below the water line, giving it exceptional stability in rough water. It has withstood some vicious wakes and took me safely across the Gulf of Mexico from Tarpon Springs to Appalachicola. HOWEVER, and PLEASE NOTE: This boat is neither designed for nor intended for extensive off shore cruising. Any ventures off shore must be undertaken with careful route planning and provisions for local weather conditions.

The HUCK has a 3-stage smart charger for shore power, and the inverter will run all systems on board except the 12,000BTU A/C or the hot water heater. Hot water is created automatically through the engine coolant system after about 1 hour of run time.

The forward bunk area has two large single bunks (6'+X 26"+) that can be joined with an insert to make a very comfortable nearly Queen size bunk. The conversion is quick and easy. All cushions are new less than 2 years ago.

The comfort and the amenities on this boat exceed any I know of on a 26 footer. More important, the construction and the on board eqipment are high quality and everything is in good working condition.

If you're not yet impressed, the HUCK cruises conservatively at 5mph at a rate of 3/4 gal. per hour fuel consumption. You can bump it up to 6 mph at about 1 gal. per hour consumption.

The price for now is $26,000 and firm. If the boat has not sold after several months, I may consider reductions at that time. Regards, Captain Brion 727-656-0700

Friday, June 15, 2007

Here's HUCK safely in her berth at the Kentucky Dam Marina on Kentucky Lake. He (she) performed remarkably well against the awesome Mississippi currents...well, actually he was going with the current, but that's still a force to constantly struggle with. There was one major breakdown just inside the Little River diversion canal below Cape Girardeau. No more than 5 minutes after clawing full throttle against the current to gain the canal, the prop shaft totally separated from the transmission. No propulsion. I thought it was something much worse, like a blown transmission, until I discovered the flange bolts in the bilge. There are supposed to be 4 bolts, but I discovered only 2, which had worked loose and finally wiggled out altogether. Some local fishermen in the canal kindly offered to visit the nearest hardware supply and get me some replacements. Within an hour, the job was done and HUCK, now with the requisite 4 bolts in place, was better than before.

This failure was amazingly close in time to just getting off the big river. Had it failed while clawing my way into the canal, I would have been sent flying nearly out of control back into the 5mph current of Ol' Miss. All in all, a lucky and well timed breakdown!!

A bow on view of HUCK in her new slip. Sadly, she may have to go on the block soon, so the money (and slip space) can be used for Brion and Jo to set up housekeeping on a larger boat, probably a 38-40' houseboat. I hope I can find just the right new owner who can appreciate and enjoy HUCK as much as we have. She's truly a one-of-a-kind.

This slightly tattered ancient beauty watches over the dock at the head of the ramp connecting the dock to the shore. The marina has a number of such statues, many with cheery flowers at their bases. For a local touch, someone has attached a couple of old outboard motor propellers to the wall behind the statue.

Remarkably, there is no graffitti or other defacement of this aging statue. Had she been standing in a public place in Saint Petersburg, local vandals would have made short work of her. One of the many striking contrasts between rural Kentucky and urban Florida. Off today to Alton to pick up my van and return for another brief visit to the marina before driving back to St. Pete. Regards. Captain Brion

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Alton (IL) Marina and highway bridge in my wake. After nearly 8 months sequestered in the Alton Marina, it was time to move farther South. We took a year lease on a covered slip in the Kentucky Dam Marina, on Kentucky Lake. This lake is actually the Tennessee River permanently spilled over its old banks by the TVA projects for creating hydroelectric power. The Alton Marina is a very protected and modern facility, but can't match the rugged forested beauty of the Ozark area.
I wish I could have gotten closer to show more detail of this amazing sight. This tiny raft, composed of one or two sheets of plywood and some plastic barrels, had two occupants. It appeared to be without any means of steerage or propulsion. Incredibly, there were two passengers aboard. This reckless crew was flying down the Mississippi just below the Kaskaskia River entrance when I passed them by. The river was churning with roils and whirlpools still churning from the Spring flood. At any time these hapless rafters could have been dashed into rocks or near shore tree stumps and other debris. Worse, they could be swept into the river's midstream, where they would have been helpless to avoid being run down by the many huge tows plying the river. I thought about trying to approach them to see if they needed help, but the current would not allow me to backtrack, and I didn't want to risk navigating outside the channel. In over 25,000 miles of river travel, this is one of the wildest and craziest projects I have witnessed. I can't stop wondering if these guys managed to get off the river before they met with seemingly inevitable disaster.

My first night after leaving Alton, I holed up in the Little River Diversion Canal a few miles below Cape Girardeau MO. Just a 1/2 mile or so into the canal is a railroad trestle. I tied to the pilings supporting this trestle, which is more convenient than dropping and retrieving an anchor. And easier on the back.

Soon after sunrise about 5:40 AM, I enjoyed the splay of light on the aging but still strong bridge buttresses.

Just getting under way from the R. R. bridge, this is the view toward the Mississippi from the canal. According to my cruising guide, this canal was designed by the same man who planned the Panama Canal. I wasn't thinking about history at this point. Rather, I was bracing myself for the daunting 5mph current soon to grab the HUCK FINN as soon as I escaped the haven of the slackwater in the canal. That's HUCK's anchor resting on the bow, seen from the helm station.

June 13, '07. Dawn, Lock 52, mile 939 Ohio River. After being lifted about 12', HUCK FINN was facing the Irvin S. Cobb Bridge and headed for Paducah. The lockmaster chatted with me on the lock wall: "Just 3 more years of this and I'll be done, then I won't be worryin' about nothin'." This was the "small" chamber of the lock complex. Just to the North (left) is a much longer chamber that can accept a 5-barge-long tow with tug attached.
This photo shows the mitre gates opening after the lock has filled to the level of the upper river. Everything on the river is big. Strong. Powerful. Sometimes a little scary.

June 13, '07, 5:45 AM. Soon after exiting Lock 52 on the Ohio, I was greeted by this powerful sunrise. An hour before, in the darkness, the lockmaster hailed me on my VHF radio: "HUCK FINN...if you want to lock through I have an opening." I was at anchor below the dam about 500 yards away. I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity--the next chance could be hours later. So, no coffee, no oatmeal, no time to scratch my but. Just get out on the foredeck and haul in the 22 lb. danforth anchor and fire up the Perkins. I was the last boat locked through before the lockmaster got to go home for a good day's sleep.

The Irvin S. Cobb highway bridge, built circa 1929, at the same time as Lock 52. Now highway route 45. This bridge is just above Lock 52, just before making Paducah, KY at mile 954 on the Ohio River. I hope I look this good when I'm nearly 80 years old!

June 13, '07. Another view from the Paducah waterfront. The Ohio R. strolls at 1.5 mph to the left (westbound) seeking the Mississippi at Cairo, IL. These metal and wood post railings are part of the expansive waterfront access area at Paducah.

One mile upriver (to the right) the Tennessee spills into the Ohio. Paducah was once a winter haven for steamboats waiting out the winter freeze that rarely reached this far south.

June 13, '07. You are looking at the Ohio R. from the Paducah, KY waterfront. To the left is downstream, 50 m. to the mighty Mississippi. Paducah has invested millions of dollars in its waterfront and in restoration of its historic downtown district. I believe it's on its way to becoming the gem of the heartland rivertowns. Still unspoiled, we can only hope that "progress" doesn't become the servant that devours its own tail.

June 13, '07. After a 2 hour wait, HUCK FINN was admitted into the Kentucky Lock, the last lock of the TVA system before the Tennessee R. meets the OHIO 22 miles downstream. There were large tows (tugboats pushing clusters of barges) waiting above and below the dock, but lockmasters are required to admit "pleasure craft" every third lock. This is a view inside the chamber before a 65' lift up to Kentucky Lake.

Paducah, KY is one of my favorite rivertowns. Last summer, this is where I met my friend Dannel McCollum on the way North to St. Paul MN. This floating dock, which is removed during the winter and re-installed after the Spring floods, is the only place to tie a pleasure boat in all of Paducah. That wiil be changed , however, as Paducah has received a multi-million dollar federal grant to build a full-size marina on its waterfront. It wont be completed for 2-3 years, but I hope to be on the waiting list for a permanent slip. Ans I hope they allow liveaboards!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hannibal, MO. Not far from the marina where we stayed for 2 days in Hannibal, was this 3-story brick structure. On the marina side, facing town, was a tacky, garish, lit sign proclaiming "BUBBA'S". Half of the ground floor of the building now serves as a low-rent bar catering to bikers and pick-up drivers. Once or twice weekly Karaoke nights draw in Hank Williams or Johnny Cash wannabes.

You're looking at the back side of the building, which borders a weedy field, a small creek and the empty south edge of town. Fading ads, once in bright white paint, tell of former days, when Bubba's was a town grocery. Greasy smoke from Bubba's hamburger grill now spews from the exhaust vent directly below a stick of "Wrigley's Spearmint Gum". A classic script image of Coca Cola still boasts the bargain price of 5 cents. Finally, in the lower right corner: "Kirk's Flake Soap". Sturdy, stubborn, clinging signs, still working for a grocery long gone. Signs casting their message upon an empty field, now on the "wrong" side of the building. Signs older than the patrons of Bubba's, who never saw a 5 cent Coke, and now plunk down $3 for a Miller Lite. Bubba's clients chew Red Man instead of Wrigley's. Flake Soap? Would they have a clue? One building--two eras, distant though connected.

Less than a 1/4 mile south of grocery-now-Bubba's you cross the Santa Fe RR tracks where they parallel the river's edge. Another 50 strides and you are at the sandy rock-strewn river bank. Late October weeds have been crippled by morning frost, and the taller ones show the tug of gravity, slowly easing them back to the ground. As with old men, they turn gray and begin to slump. Even a glorious morning sunrise from across the river cannot revive them. Only the seeds have a future.

These are the same Santa Fe tracks you saw in the previous entry. Only the angle of viewing has changed. The same sunlight that silouhettes the river weeds. It spotlights the bend in the tracks, lighting up the fall leaves where the train makes a hard turn toward the river. Up high you see the gray limestone bluffs poking through the thinning woods. The blufs will remain gray year round, providing contrast to the ever changing flora.

The giant SantaFe locomotives are yellow and black. They blend in perfectly with this landscape when they rumble through Hannibal. When you're sleeping in a small boat, just a stone's throw from these tracks, you are at first startled by the sound of the train's warning whistles. Warning bells at he gates on Main Street are also near and loud. Then there is the screech and clatter of the wheels, which turns coarser and higher pitched as the train enters the curve toward the river. The wheels do not align so perfectly on the curves; there is chafing. And scraping.

After a couple of weeks on the river, the nightly sound of trains becomes welcome and soothing. Unlike the huge barge tows, trains are fixed on their course, and you never think of your boat colliding with the train. So you can relax completely. And learn to savor the sound of trains following the river at night.

Monday, November 13, 2006

On my 60th birthday, today, Nov. 13, 1946, I have returned to St. Petersburg FL. Ninety-eight days ago I left on the HUCK FINN, chugging upstream to St. Paul, MN. It was a 60 day trip, about 1/365th of my life.

Many times I was asked by strangers why I was doing this. I simply told them it was something I wanted to do before I was too old. "Are you retired?" they often queried. I never stayed with a job or a career long enough to officially retire from it. I have always enjoyed staying busy and working at something, whether profitable, or charitable. In fact, being and staying busy for me is a compulsion, from which I never intend to "retire". It is not a path I have chosen, as much as a road I find myself on from which there is no exit. Though I am attracted to the idea of "rest areas", I rarely stop there--I simply do not relax well. I envy very much those who can and do. So I am compelled to distract myself, to be entertained, to be challenged and to do not do, I fear, would be my undoing. As for treating this malaise, I can say only that diesel fuel, and boats, have been less expensive, and more successful than psychiatrists and pharmaceuticals.

Those alluring RR tracks at sunrise were shot in Hannibal MO in October. You are looking South. The tracks are veering to the East toward the Mississippi R. only 100 yards beyond. Following the river bank for hundreds of miles, the Santa Fe locomotives haul long payloads of coal, grain, gravel, petroleum and other materials. These are sometimes transferred to barges at loading docks along the river. Or, they may receive their cargo from barges unloading at the same facilities. All of this happens mostly unseen except to the barge and train crews, and to the occasional river traveller in a small boat. Next you see HUCK at sunset at a small city dock next to public boat launch ramps in Keokuk, IA. This was just a mile downriver from the Keokuk Lock and Dam, the largest on the Mississippi. The Keokuk Lock can hold an entire 3 wideX5 long barge tow with tug attached. This lock also has the greatest "drop" on the river at 38 feet. Part of the dam includes a hydroelectric generating plant in continuous operation for more than 50 years. We were lucky to have been given a pass through the lock ahead of a large tow, whose captain invited us to go ahead, while he "held off" until our lockthrough was complete. This allowed us to make it to our little dock for that night just before dark. A good thing, since it's quite unnerving to get stuck on the river after dark without a clear plan for safe tying or anchoring. We found the tugboat captains to be almost always courteous and considerate. We routinely made radio contact with them when meeting or passing. There were lots of ducks near the ramps at Keokuk. With duck hunting season in progress, they were wise to stay in town. We saw lots of duck blinds further downriver, and hundreds of decoys carefully arranged to attract overflying ducks. We heard lots of shots, too, soon after sunup at first light. The shooting never lasted long, I guess because it didn't take long for even a duck to figure out you don't stay long where someone is trying to blow your head off.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

. This scene is at the southern end of the Wabasha bridge, in one of the many alcoves set aside for relaxing and viewing the river and the city. I was taken by the lines of the benches, the railings and the closeup trash canister housing. Next (above) is a view to the west of the High Bridge, another artery connecting North and South St. Paul. There is not much commercial traffic north of the high bridge, as the river becomes too shallow and narrow for safe navigation by tugs and tows.

Finally, another sunset shot at the South end of the bridge, not far from the city dock where HUCK was tied. I spent lots of time, mornings and evenings, walking this area and enjoying the play of light on the great variety of park structures near the bridges and the waterfront.