Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Singing Bollards of the Tenn Tom

Giving new meaning to the
expression: "Call me UP"
We started the day about 50 miles north of Demopolis, Alabama.  Never heard of that town? Yup, this is a lightly populated area.  That's why blog posts have been scarce--internet's slower than our boat. To catch a cell phone signal, it helps to stand on the roof.

Our trip down the Tenn-Tom takes us through a lock or two each day.  The crew is now proficient at lassoing floating bollards.  She can flick a loop of rope around that metal post from 6 feet out and haul the end in fast, like a cowhand roping a calf.  OK, a slow-moving calf.  But still.  

SlowBoat's official "make and model" is "Lock Master." Each time we pass efficiently through a lock, we high five and intone that Flash Gordon theme song from the band Queen, "LockMaster! ah-ah . . .  savior of the universe."

When we began our trip, we joked that we were "emissaries for the canal-boating culture." We're on a mission to convert the American public to the delights and glories of canal boat travel.  We feel we are starting to see results from our mission.  This has to do with the matter of fenders.

Fenders are those cylinders or beach balls made of heavy plastic that you hang from the sides of your boat to prevent damage to your shiny hull as you approach a dock (or lock wall).   In boating culture, fenders are like underwear--unmentionables.  Everyone has some, they serve an important function, but it's not quite proper to display them prominently. You flash your fenders  when absolutely unavoidable. The rest of the time you stow them neatly out of sight.  
"Our lights are on for safety."  And our fenders. (How's my driving? Call 1-800-SLO-BOAT)
There's even a certain boating obsessiveness about fender cleanliness. Some boats put little canvas covers on their fenders, like car bras.

As evidence of the Chapman's Boating Etiquette approach to fenders, I noticed that just this past week, in the "Looper Digest," someone engaged in a mild rant about boats leaving their fenders hanging out while they're traveling.  

The criticism was veiled in a bit of concern: "When you leave your fenders out, you risk loosing one." Which is good advice, since (unless you have those fancy fender tenders) fenders are tied on with a quick couple of half hitches, and they can indeed fall off if the deckhand screws up. Those suckers are surprisingly expensive to replace.

But the fender critic also pushed home these points: Fenders hanging off your boat look bad. And it just isn't done.

Now, SlowBoat has her fenders out ALL the time.  This is canal boat style. Working boat style.  We are not ashamed. Canal boats constantly travel through locks.  If you have to keep putting fenders out and taking fenders in and putting fenders out and taking fenders in . . . well that's all you would do all day long.

Looking good!  High fashion, canal-boat style
As we proselytize "The Canal Boat Way" across America, we are starting to notice a hopeful sign that our message is being heard: We see more and more boats traveling with fenders out.  

Now, returning to our reporting on the locks we've been transiting for the past week or so, they have distinguished themselves for the vociferous nature of their bollards.  If you need a refresher on the question of "What is a bollard?" (specifically the kind of bollard you find in a lock) it's made of metal, and about the size of a fat garbage can. Now picture a flat-topped metal post sticking out of the top of the can, like the giant head of a nail. That post is what you loop the rope around.  

Each bollard is slotted into a concave, half-round track set in the lock wall.  In a six-hundred foot-long lock, there may be five bollards on each side of the lock. 

Like garbage cans--or maybe "like oil drums" is a better anaology--bollards float on the water. As water goes out of the lock, they go down.  As the lock fills with water, they float up.  And (once you tie up to it), the bollard takes your boat with it. 

We'd never used a floating bollard on the Erie.  We got acquainted with them on the Mississippi.  But the Tenn Tom is the first place we have encountered singing bollards.

Locks make many distinctive noises.  The doors screech as they open to let you in. After the doors close,  a siren sounds to warn boats downstream that water's about to come flooding out. After the doors close, water often leaks through the upstream gate, a musical fountain noise.  And when a lock is filling, water flooding in from the floor of the lock makes the whole water surface bubble, like a kettle on the simmer.

The singing bollards of the Tenn-Tom add distinctive high notes.  They can sound like a pack of coyotes, tuning up under a full moon.  They can sound mournful, like dissonant church bells. Or they can be just plain annoying, like fingernails on a chalkboard.

The sound, of course, is the metal bollards sliding up and down on metal tracks.  We told one lockmaster, "Hey, these bollards need greasing."  He grinned and shook his head.  "There's no way to grease 'em. That's just the way they are."

So, with the bollard chorus in the background, sing with me now:  "LockMaster . . . savior of the universe."


  1. Who knew? A blog post that covers boating etiquette, my personal hero, "Flash Gordon", the musical sounds of river locks, and bollard lassoing. All encompassing!

  2. Speaking of fenders out... we ran into an interesting problem on our new pontoon boat. We rarely hauled the fenders in on the starboard side since that's the side we dock against. They came with the boat and they're really nice, but they're quite large and bulky. We usually don't go far so to haul them in and put them back out would just be a pain. That is until we kept noticing the floor on the starboard side was always wet when we came back to the dock. It's a pontoon boat so it's made to get wet, but when the deck is about 15 inches above the water surface, we couldn't figure out how water was getting in. Until we watched the fenders... As the pontoons skimmed across the water, the small wave they create was just enough that the top of the crest hit the bottom of the fenders even in smooth water. The water got funneled the fenders and under the fence. Now we haul the fenders in.