St. LOUIS — Michael Weber and his girlfriend were embarking on the sailing trip of a lifetime, when — like many a sailor before them — the mighty Mississippi River left them high and dry just north of downtown St. Louis.
Weber, 63, a retired Marine and former businessman from southwest Michigan, was taking his 44-foot sailboat, the “White Widow,” down the river for what was supposed to be a yearlong trip to the Florida Keys and Bahamas.
“I was just chasing the dream in my retirement,” Weber said. “I’d been preparing for this trip for two years.”
But Weber’s dream was at least temporarily dashed when on the afternoon of Oct. 5 his Hunter 44 DS sailboat became firmly stuck on a 10-foot Chain of Rocks river dam.
And nearly three weeks later, it’s still there.
To the wonder of many locals, Weber’s boat has remained marooned in the middle of the river just south of the Chain of Rocks Bridge while his insurance companies haggle over what it will take to remove the vessel from the treacherous stretch.
“It’s a beautiful boat,” Weber said this week. “I just hope I get it back soon.”
Trip from Hell
The back of the sailboat lists its home port as Hell, Michigan.
“That’s a real town, but I actually live a little bit out from Hell,” Weber said. “But that sounded better on the boat, and living in Michigan in the winter is a kind of hell. I was ready for some southern exposure.”
Weber said he’s been boating and sailing most of his life but has stayed on the open waters of Lake Michigan and the ocean.
“I’m not a river boat guy,” Weber said. “But we figured out going down the Mississippi was a convenient way to get to the ocean and the Florida Keys quicker.”
Weber and his girlfriend left Sept. 28 from Chicago. The trip began as relaxingly as they had imagined, short of a run-in with five jumping carp that flopped into the boat’s dinghy near Peoria, Weber said.
But the couple really ran into trouble when Weber missed an exit sign for a canal that allows boaters to navigate around the river’s rough terrain and concrete dams at the Chain of Rocks.
“I thought it was a sign for a turn into a marina or something like that,” Weber said.
Weber continued on and said he spotted no warning signs or buoys before the dam and rocky area.
“By the time I got up to the rocks, the current was very strong, and it’s a sailboat, so I only have a 56-horsepower diesel engine,” he said. “So I crammed on the reverse, but it can’t do much.”
The boat was swept up and pushed sideways by the current.
“One thing I know is you don’t want to go down a river sideways,” Weber said. “So I knew we were in trouble. I coasted and ended up stuck there with no way of getting off.”
Weber was hesitant to leave his boat but called for a rescue from the St. Louis Fire Department Water Rescue and U.S. Coast Guard.
A helicopter from TV news station KTVI (Channel 2) captured their escape from the White Widow.
“I looked up and was like, ‘Really? The news helicopter?’” Weber said. “I knew then people are going to wonder what idiot put that boat there. It’s humbling and embarrassing, but, you know, I made a mistake and I’m owning up to it.”
Weber said it’s going to take a barge, a crane and a tugboat to free his beloved sailboat.
A crew of towboats attempted to remove the boat right after Weber got stuck, but it became clear a crane was needed to lift the boat off the dam. A barge with a crane arrived on Oct. 18 from Florida to finish the job, but Weber’s insurance carrier, Progressive, pulled the plug on the operation.
“They got the maritime lawyers involved, and there were concerns about their liability,” Weber said.
Weber said he watched from land when the companies called off the attempt to get the boat, while onlookers took drone footage of the vessel and wondered about who could have gotten the boat stuck like that.
“I didn’t tell them it was my boat,” Weber said laughing. “I wanted to stay incognito.”
Now though, Weber is worried that the longer the boat remains stuck, the more damage the $130,000 vessel might take.
“I know at least we have a lovely pot of au gratin potatoes that’s now splattered on the floor, so I’m sure it’s not smelling great,” he said. “Besides that, I don’t see any major damage from the exterior.”
Weber, who is back home in Michigan, said most of his possessions, including nearly all his clothes and his guitars, remain in the boat.
“I could really use a guitar right now with all this going on,” he said. “I’m not a millionaire. This was where I am planning to live for the next year, and basically everything I have is in there.”
Weber is hoping a third attempt to free the White Widow will happen in the next week, and he is optimistic it might still run.