Sunday, September 26, 2010

Shipwrecked on a Desert Island (Almost)

Sunset on the Ohio River
We were on the Mighty Mississippi for just a few short days. Then we hung a hard left, to travel upstream, on the Ohio River.

Instantly the water went from cappuchino-brown to pine-needle green . . .  and our speed dropped from "comparatively blistering" back down to "pokey."

We travelled a mere 46 miles on the Ohio . . . . from Cairo, Illinois, to Paducah, Kentucky, where (as you'll remember) we were frustrated in our quest for barbeque.

By the time we left Paducah it was getting late.  We didn't reach our "approved anchorage" until a little after sunset.

The spot where we anchored is called the "Cumberland Towhead,"  towhead being an old-fashioned word meaning "an island in the middle of a river."  The term implies impermanence; a towhead is basically a sandbar that has lasted long enough to spout trees, but could be erased in the next big flood.  In the sheltered lee of the island, the water is quiet . . . and too shallow for commercial barges, which makes it a safe place to drop anchor.

In fact, as we nosed our way in, the water seemed a lot shallower than the charts indicated. "Go up on the bow," the Captain directed, "and keep a lookout for snags."

I did my little monkey girl/bow-bunny dance along the narrow walkway on the side of the boat, up to the bow.  As I peered ahead into the murk, one half my brain was thinking, "Gee, we haven't seen Asian carp here on the Ohio.  I guess they haven't invaded here yet."

If you've seen the movie Jaws you know what happens next. A massive fish erupts from the water right next to the boat.

Luckily, it missed the windows . . . and my head.

"On second thought," said the Captain, "come on back to the stern."

With a little jockeying, we finally set our anchors, bow and stern, and settled back in a couple of deckchairs to enjoy the moonrise over the cottonwood trees.  On the Kentucky shore, a pack of coyotes started tuning up.  On the towhead, a screech owl joined the chorus.  The air was soft and warm, a little breeze kept the bugs at bay, the beer was cold.   We were content.
Still tied to the mothership . . . 

The next morning the crew had a clever idea. Most pictures of Dragonfly have been taken while she's  tied up to a dock.  "Why not snap a few photos from the dinghy, so people can see what she looks like at anchor?" I thought.

"It's the perfect place.  There's hardly any current, there's no wind . . . I'll just jump in the dinghy, and instead of rigging the oars, I'll just take this canoe paddle and paddle out a little ways  . . ."

 . . . and . . .  (of course) as soon as I shoved off in the dinghy, the wind picked up. And then it picked up some more.  And though the crew paddled manfully--and powerfully--and skillfully, the dinghy got farther and farther from the mothership. In less than a minute it had been blown halfway down the length of the island.

The things we do for a photo-op!
By dint of serious paddling the crew got the dinghy to shore.  There was Dragonfly,  a tempting 100 yards away, peacefully anchored. The Captain was below decks, checking the engine, out of earshot.

Not a bad swim if you don't mind the carp . . . but impossible to swim and drag the dinghy too, the wind would catch it . . .

Eyeball the boat.  Eyeball the waves building on the water, and calculate their direction and speed. Brilliant conclusion:  Drag the dinghy along the shore, upwind.  Then shove off hard . . .  and let the wind push the dinghy down to the boat.

The mud at the shore was slimy and very slippery and ankle deep and grabbed the dinghy's hull.  But finally, the launching point was achieved and . . . . once again, the dinghy swept down wind, not coming even close to its objective

So, recalculating.  Another slog through the mud, this time all the way to the very head of the island.

This time, the trajectory worked . . . and the Captain had emerged from the engine room, and was standing by with the boathook.  All's well that ends well . . .  although the mud on the crew's toes was suprisingly tenacious.

At this point in my narrative I imagine the mothers who are reading this blog might be worrying a bit. Please.  Not to worry.   OK, I admit, I was doing some mild internal worrying myself.  What if I can't get back to the boat?  Could the Cap'n float a line to shore?  Could he pull up the anchor, fire up the diesel, and intercept the dinghy?  Could we radio a passing boat and ask them to send out THEIR (motor-powered) dinghy to give me a tow?

When in doubt, wait for moonrise.
(This is the moon rising over the Joppa Steam Plant)
Standing back from the experience, there was no real danger.   We could have done any of these things . . .  or I could have walked to the river side of the island, where deep water comes near to shore, and the Cap'n could have picked me up.

 I was wearing a life jacket; I was well fed and well watered and well suncreened.  The most dangerous wildlife on the island were chiggers.   Worst case scenario, we'd have to wait till the wind died down  (which it did, around noon that day).

By the way, the Captain wasn't worried for even one minute.

I think experiences like this one are actually helpful, rather than scary.  They're kind of like flight simulators . . . you get a chance to rehearse what you might do in case of a REAL emergency, without taking any actual risk.  You get a chance to practice staying calm, and thinking things through.  So that, if a time comes when you REALLY need those skills, you have them.

I remember the time, back in college, when I was on a study-abroad trip. We were on Barro Colorado Island, in the middle of the Panama Canal, helping conduct a survey of howler monkeys.  The biologist in charge had suggested each student hike out into the jungle to find their assigned listening post before the actual survey took place.  Most everyone else blew off the advice, but I dutifully walked out in the jungle . . . and while I was out there, night fell.  (It gets dark surprisingly fast and surprisingly early in the tropics.)

So there I was, lost in the actual jungle!  With creepy unidentifiable animal noises, and dense foliage rustling, and all that horror-movie stuff.

I did what we'd been briefed to do.  I didn't wander around.  I sat down.  I waited for moonrise.

At which point I could see the trail . . . AND the trail markers . . .  which were numbered.  We had been told, the lower the number, the closer to the jungle lodge where we were staying.  Just follow the markers.

I groped my way from little wooden sign to little wooden sign, tracing the numbers with my finger to be sure.  It felt like I had waited for hours before moonrise, then walked for hours more.

By the time I finally saw the glow of electric light and the rustic log buildings, I estimated it must be about two in the morning . . .  and I started to kind of wonder why no one had come looking for me.

Just then I ran into my professor.  "Hey," he said, "it's just about dinner time."

I had been "lost" for all of an hour.

Like I said, it's good to practice, in case of emergency.  If nothing else happens, you get a good story out of the experience!

1 comment:

  1. You even got a nice picture of the boat out of the experience!