Friday, September 10, 2010

(High Five) We Didn't Sink the Boat Today

Before we left on this trip, we heard from skeptics who were sure Dragonfly would not prove seaworthy, or that we were fools to tackle the trip with so little boating experience.  Since then we've had a few exciting moments.  Big waves on Lake Ontario.  The time the prop shaft came loose and water flooded the bilges.  Engine trouble. The day on Georgian Bay that a lightening storm blew in.  Now, at the end of each day, we've gotten in the habit of joking to each other, "Hey! We didn't sink the boat today!"

Peoria at dawn
We'd heard that there was construction at the lock below Peoria. You could lock through--but only if you arrived at the lock outside of normal business hours, after five o'clock at night, or before seven in the morning.  

There's no place to dock or anchor for quite a ways below the lock, and we don't run the boat at night, since we're a slow-moving vessel with a dark hull. So an evening passage was impractical. That meant an early departure. 

We set out at 6:00 AM, just as the sky was starting to flush purple with its pre-dawn glow.  

The Cap'n had plugged in a portable spotlight, just in case, and flipped the switch on our rarely used running lights, which look like old-fashioned train lanterns. They glowed green on the starboard bow, red to port.   

By the time we reached the lock, five miles below the city dock, it was quarter to seven. We'd tried phoning ahead (which is what you are supposed to do), but no answer.  We tried hailing the lock on the radio. After a few tries, we finally got an answering crackle.

The lockmaster was apologetic but firm.  "We've got a tow in the lock now.  Not sure if we can get you through this morning.  Let me call my supervisor and check. You may need to wait till this evening. Hey, is that you down there, by the bridge?"

Affirmative. We circled, in the constricted space between the piers of an upstream bridge, and the wall of the lock, and waited

At just a few minutes before seven, the lockmaster called back.  "We're going to get you through.  But as soon as you see the green light, you book right on in, we have to make this fast."

We have a theory that Dragonfly's "cuteness factor" has helped us more than once on this trip.  You call ahead, and the marina is fully booked.  But just show up, hang around the gas dock, in your full adorable glory, and people are intrigued.  They want to see the darn thing. Room is somehow found.

The lock doors opened and Dragonfly hustled as fast as she is capable of hustling.  Once we were tied up the lockmaster, a weatherbeaten guy in a denim shirt, came over to lean on the rail and contemplate us.

"Saw your solar panels!  All-electric, is she?  I've been thinking about building an electric car, myself," he said. "My commute's only eight miles, electric would be perfect. But those Chevy Volts are too expensive.  I think I can build something better and cheaper."

As the water dropped in the lock, the lockmaster and the Cap'n discussed amps, volts, the advantages and disadvantages of lead-acid batteries, the pros and cons of existing hybrid vehicles.  Just one more ordinary citizen who likes the idea of alternative technologies, is raring to tinker with them on his own, and doesn't need a big corporation or the government to make things happen for him.

By then the sun was up, warming the air.  Below the lock we passed a grain-milling facility, towers belching steam, wastewater gushing through a channel into the river, a sickly sweet smell in the air, like spoiled cream of wheat.  We passed a big dock with what looked like an abandoned natural gas pipeline, a barge up on shore topped with a burned-out cabin.

Then the industrial facilities got fewer and farther between. The river banks had narrow beaches and low banks of pale, sandy mud, where low water revealed the dark holes of muskrat burrows.  A great blue heron, tall and thin, perched high in a dead tree, calmly keeping company with a flock of turkey vultures.  A coyote foraged along the shore for dead carp, its sandy pelt matching the river sand.  He spotted us, paused, concluded we were no threat, and kept nosing his way up the shore.

And in between these pastoral moments were moments of mild terror, as the radio crackled to life, and we heard tow captains chatting back and forth . . . and realized there was a northbound tow approaching, and a southbound tow approaching, and we were in the middle.

Towboat do-si-do. Swing your partner cheek-to-cheek.
The river channel is narrow, and outside the channel it's very shallow.  Barely room for two enormous tows to kiss past each other, gunwale to gunwale.  We were not about to play chicken with either boat.

So each time we'd ease out of the channel, feeling our way, the water so shallow that even our gentle prop wash startled Asian carp, which would jump, and smack into the side of the boat (not the hull, the SIDE!)  six feet above water level. 

They'd hit nose first, and fall back, flopping, into the water. 

We hovered outside the green buoys marking the channel edge and let the big boys go first, their bows pushing up walls of water, their props churning their wakes to a muddy froth.

At the end of the day, we found a haven--a little marina in the old-fashioned river town of Havana (yes, named for Havana, Cuba; and its other claim to fame: The oldest continuously operating water tower in Illinois.)  After we docked, we puttered around, filling our water tanks, taking out the trash, sweeping and tidying. As the Cap'n wandered around the docks, checking out the other boats, he discovered a small cabin cruiser, low in the water.  It appeared to be sinking.

It was sinking. He hailed the marina manager, Bob, and together they got the bilge pumps working.  Later on, Bob reported that the boat had been towed to safety, and despite its submersion underwater, the engine had later started right up.

So we had a good laugh over dinner.  Honey, we didn't sink the boat today!  Indeed, quite the inverse, we helped prevent another boat from sinking.

Do you suppose this makes a credit on our boating balance sheet?


  1. Good job navigating with the big boys! If Dragonfly could talk, she'd be cheering at the end of every day. Keep up the good work, and as always, I am enjoying your stories so much.

  2. We DO think Dragonfly is enjoying her adventures. After 20 years going back and forth on the Erie, it must be fun for her to see some new scenery and try different kinds of waters!

  3. Quite an adventure. But I have to say I'd be more surprised if you did sink the boat. Do you get a cool sound out of the carp hitting the side of the boat? That would be quite a sound to record. There could be a hit song in there somewhere....

  4. Cynthia--I'm enjoying your blog so much! Thanks for sharing this adventure with us all.

    Sunshine and calm waters--Melanie