Thursday, January 12, 2017

In a Tchefuncte

We are tied up at the city dock in Madisonville, Louisiana, on the Tchefuncte River (map). This is a great spot, with power and water, right downtown. A half dozen restaurants are within a three-block walk; slightly further is a well-stocked Ace Hardware and a small Piggly-Wiggly grocery store. The town charges $10 per night if you use the power.

We ended up staying in Mandeville two extra days beyond the nominal three-day limit. Friday morning, when we were putatively scheduled to depart, weather had moved in and we were more or less pinned down. I called the police department to ask about an extension, and they seemed confused as to why we would call them. They told us to check back with the yacht club. The yacht club didn't seem to care, and even offered to write us a new permit.

Tchefuncte River Lighthouse, with black stripe for the range marker barely visible on the left. Photo: Richard David Ramsey

We ended up going right back into the yacht club Friday evening for draft beers and dinner, which they have catered on Friday evenings. We enjoyed meeting a handful of members, and dinner was convenient if nothing special. At least we did not have to make our way through the storm to anyplace else.

While Friday's storm would have made a departure nearly impossible, Saturday was barely better, with heavy rain and moderate winds all day. Visibility was poor and the lake was choppy. We opted to stay Saturday night as well. Sunday was much more pleasant, and we loaded up the scooter and cast off.

One of the yacht club members had filled us in on the dock situation here in Madisonville, and we decided to make it our next stop. Even though we are less than seven miles from where we started in Mandeville, it was a trip of over 20 miles, taking a little over three hours. That's in large part because the Lake Pontcahrtrain Causeway, the longest continuous overwater bridge in the world, separates the two towns through the middle of the lake. Vector is too tall to pass beneath any part of the bridge except the navigation span, nearly eight miles south of the north shore.

After clearing the span we set course for the 148 year old lighthouse marking the channel to the Tchefuncte. The original structure was actually constructed in 1837, but it was destroyed during the civil war and rebuilt in 1868 on the same site. It still serves as an important navigation aid today, being the rear marker for the Tchefuncte range, without which, we would be aground in the lake.

I passed these chickens out loose on my way back from the hardware store. This is a small town.

A range marker, for those unfamiliar, is a pair of towers of differing heights, with vertical lines painted on them. The shorter marker is in front of the taller marker; when approaching the range, the idea is to line them up so that the vertical lines are coincident. If the shorter marker appears to the right of the taller one, you steer right, and vice-versa.

The white lighthouse has a vertical black stripe painted on the seaward side, and a more modern range board is mounted on a frame seaward of that. The dredged channel leading in from the lake is extremely narrow, and, worse, is shown in an incorrect position on the charts. The only safe way in here is to follow the range exactly.

Even then, arriving at low tide and with a north wind, we had just three inches under our keel in several stretches. I was hoping to get a couple of nice pictures of the light and the range marks, but I could not drop my concentration even for an instant. I never took my eyes off the range, and Louise read off the numbers from the depth sounder every couple of seconds until we were well into the river. Once out of the lake, the river deepens to twenty feet or so.

This waterborne film shoot passed us slowly as they waited for the bridge. A dory with its passengers in period costumes is on the deck of the spud barge, with the film crew in life vests scattered around.

That was the most concentration I've had to dedicate to the helm since some close-quarter passes of giant towboats on the Mississippi. We were rewarded with a very calm and beautiful river and a very easy docking here at the city wall. We did have to dock twice -- we could not find a working power outlet at the first spot, and I have since discovered that out of some two dozen 50-amp outlets along the waterfront, only perhaps three or four are working. Not a problem, since we've had the whole waterfront to ourselves since arriving; I can only imagine what it's like during the annual Wooden Boat Festival held here, where the dock is so crowded that some boats med-moor.

The 50-amp power carried us through the last of the recent cold snap, and we were thankful to have it. Monday morning we walked over to the town hall to register; they wrote us a permit for another three nights and collected our money. Today we will have to leave the dock, but we are permitted to return after 24 hours.

Weather out on the gulf has not been conducive to making a circle trip down the river and back up to the gulf coast. Even going out into Mississippi Sound and traveling along the Mississippi gulf coast looks to be fairly uncomfortable for the foreseeable future, not really all that surprising in the dead of winter. At this writing, it looks like we will be staying right here in Lake Pontchartrain until it is time to move over to the Industrial Canal to get ready for our yard visit.

This very sweet cat on the porch of the Riverfront Bar is a doppelganger for our dearly departed George.

And so it is that we will sign up for another three nights right here in Madisonville after our mandatory 24-hour hiatus. In the time since I started typing this, we've already moved the boat, and we are now anchored in the Tchefuncte at a wide spot north of the Madisonville Swing Bridge (map), which we came through at the 1pm opening. We'll spend our 24 hours here and then head right back to the city dock tomorrow.

Lack of Internet access, other than our cell phones, has been catching up with us, and yesterday I walked over to the nearby Abita Coffee Roasting Company cafe toting my laptop, two iPads, and four Android phones. I spent an hour over a nice latte getting all of the device software updated, along with navigation charts and POI data. At ten bucks a night, lack of WiFi is fine, but I'm still peeved that we got no WiFi in New Orleans even at nine times that amount.

Thus far we have only walked the town, sampling all the nearby restaurants and picking up a few items at the local stores. Once we return to the dock I expect we'll deploy a scooter so we can ride into Covington, where we have some more shopping and dining options.

Another three-day permit here will take us to Monday, which would leave us with a week before heading over towards the Industrial Canal. I'm not sure where that week will take us; if we can squeak over the bar at Pass Manchac we might go into Lake Maurepas for a couple of nights, and once our 14-day exile is over we might return to Mandeville for a night or two. There are few other alternatives open to us save for anchoring in the lake itself, an option only in settled weather.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Inland Rivers Recap

As I promised a bit earlier, here is a summary of our "rivers" trip spanning the second half of 2016. If you are joining us from a link on one of the Great Loop forums, welcome. For our regular readers, bear with me while I catch some folks up.

Sunset on the river.

We've always wanted to do "The Great Loop," a circle trip that typically involves cruising north up the east coast of the US to the Hudson River, thence to Troy, New York, thence via one of four alternative routes to the Great Lakes. After cruising the Great Lakes, loopers make their way to Chicago, Illinois and ultimately via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi.

Holiday lights in Vicksburg.

The Illinois empties into the Mississippi upstream of St. Louis, Missouri, and loopers proceed downstream to the confluence of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. Above Cairo the river is known among rivermen as the Upper Mississippi, and from Cairo to the Gulf of Mexico it is the Lower Mississippi. The distinction is more than just a name; mile numbering starts over from zero at Cairo on the Upper Mississippi. Also, the Upper Mississippi is controlled and regulated by locks and dams, whereas the Lower Mississippi flows unimpeded all the way to the Gulf.

A map showing all the alternative Great Loop routes.

At the confluence of the Ohio, loopers have a choice to make. Continue downstream on the Lower Mississippi all the way to New Orleans, a trip of some 865 statute miles, or else push upriver on the Ohio to the Tennessee River, locking up to Pickwick Lake, and then taking the "Tenn-Tom" route south through Mississippi and Alabama to Mobile. I don't know if anyone keeps statistics, but I am going to guess that over 99% of loopers take the Tenn-Tom route, and most cruising resources steer loopers in that direction. Nevertheless, the Lower Mississippi is considered a Great Loop route, and most literature on the subject depicts both of these two alternative routes.

Locking through.

While completing the Great Loop was on our original boating to-do list, long-time readers will know that when we conducted our boat search, many things were higher up the priority list, chief among them the seaworthiness and range for transoceanic voyaging. Vector met almost all our tick boxes, but, sadly, since the addition of a hard-framed flybridge top during the previous owner's tenure, she is too tall to complete the loop as depicted above. Our air draft is 27' and there are a number of bridges between Troy, New York and Alton, Illinois that are 20' or lower, no matter which route is selected.

One of many evening meals on the aft deck.

We've already done the entire east coast portion of the loop, from the Florida Keys all the way to Troy, New York, where we had to turn around before reaching the 20' bridge just after the lock. And this spring, we did the Gulf portion of the route, but in "backwards" sequence from the typical looper, starting in the Keys and going counterclockwise all the way to Mobile Bay.

Fall color on the Tennessee.

The rest of this post concerns our trip from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans, Louisiana by using both of the alternative western loop routes. From the convention center dock in Mobile we proceeded upriver on the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers and the Tenn-Tom waterway, and then downriver on the Tennessee and the Ohio to Cairo, Illinois, in exactly the reverse direction from a typical looper. Because this is the route that most loopers also take, I call this the "Great Loop Route" portion of our trip.

Knoxville, Tennessee. The "high" point of our trip.

Upon reaching the Tennessee River, we also opted to make a "detour" off the Great Loop route, going upriver, round trip, to Florence, Decatur, Huntsville, Guntersville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville, all the way to the headwaters of the Tennessee. The boat spent a month in Decatur while we traveled to California and Virginia for various business, and we spent over two months in Chattanooga due to medical issues. Together these three months skewed the numbers for the overall trip. I call this segment the Knoxville Detour. Many loopers also do part of this trip, typically as far as Joe Wheeler State Park in Alabama.

Chattanooga, our home for two months.

Once we finished the "normal" great loop segment by reaching the Mississippi, we took the road less traveled and proceeded downriver for 865 statute miles to New Orleans, Louisiana, where we've been for a couple of weeks. I call this the "Lower Mississippi" segment of the trip. At some point we hope to do the ICW between here and Mobile, thus "closing the loop."

Vector's travels on one map. You can clearly see our "southwest loop" at left, with the finger going out to Knoxville. This is entirely generated by GPS tracking on our plotter, not made after-the-fact. You can also see our excursion up the Hudson as well as our Maine and Bahamas trips.

I've compiled some statistics for each of the three segments and the trip as a whole in the table at the end of this post. Overall we spent just shy of six full months, although three of those were spent at the dock as noted above. We put 340 hours on the engine and 2,200 nautical miles (2,500 statute) on the odometer. We fueled the boat twice, once in Carrabelle, Florida (235nm before Mobile) and once in Paris Landing, Tennessee. I don't have a way to be precise here but I would say we used about 1,200 gallons of diesel, and a little over 100 gallons of that went to 171 hours of generator operation.

Walking in Memphis.

We locked through 27 times (and drove past one more lock that was not operating), and went from sea level in Mobile to 813' above sea level in Knoxville, finishing at four feet above sea level in the Mississippi at New Orleans. One final lockage, not counted in the totals, at the Industrial Canal in New Orleans, brought us the rest of the way back to sea level.

Life on the big river.

We spent 69 nights on the hook, and made 66 stops altogether including at docks. On the Lower Mississippi segment of the trip, we docked only one time, in Memphis, for two weeks. Nevertheless, we were also able to stop in New Madrid, Caruthersville, Osceola, Tunica, Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, and Baton Rouge. We skipped shore visits in Osceola and Tunica for lack of interest; only Natchez was a disappointment, inasmuch as weather did not permit landing there on our visit (we were very late in the season).

Across from Paducah, Kentucky.

While I regret not having the time to go upriver on the Cumberland, Ohio, Arkansas, or Red rivers (due to the three months of unscheduled downtime), there is no part of this trip that we regret doing. Many people tried to talk us out of taking the Mississippi from Cairo to New Orleans and we are very glad we did not listen -- it was a beautiful trip, rich in history and eye-opening in regards to commerce. We had no trouble piloting, navigating, or stopping where we wanted.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Fuel, fresh water, and waste capacity can be an issue on this leg for some vessels. A fuel range of some 300 miles and water and waste capacity of three weeks are required, but that is within the operating envelope for many cruising boats and perhaps most cruising trawlers. Even at low water we had no trouble finding anchorages, and with more tankage it would be possible to proceed at an even slower pace if desired.

Anchored with the big boys.

Along the way we had the usual sorts of problems any boat will have over six months. I replaced an anchor light, repaired the tender, changed impellers, adjusted valves, and other sundry chores. During some of our downtime I tackled some major projects, adding inverter-powered heat and air conditioning to the pilothouse, automatic fire suppression in the engine room, and a new vanity sink in the master head. Life on the water, same as always.

Steamer Natchez in our New Orleans anchorage.

If this is your first visit, we document each and every anchorage and dock at which we stay with a Google Maps link that can be found in-line in each post. I also usually share a little about each stop and might mention a restaurant or two or maybe even a store of note. There are also tons more photos, of stops, anchorages, and locks. If you are planning your own trip, those posts can be found by monthly archive using the drop-down in the sidebar. Posts appear in the blog in reverse order. The dates for each segment are as follows (all 2016):

Mobile, AL to Pickwick Lake, 20-Jun to 3-Jul
Pickwick Lake to Cairo, IL, 29-Oct to 8-Nov
Cairo, IL to New Orleans, LA 9-Nov to 15-Dec
Round trip Pickwick to Knoxville, 4-Jul to 28-Oct

I'll do my best to answer any questions; please post them in the comments. Here are the stats:

Great Loop
Number of days 23 119 36 178
Statute Miles 750 873 910 2534
Nautical Miles 652 759 791 2202
Up lockings 12 6 0 18
Elevation change up 414 399 0 813
Down lockings 3 6 0 9
El. change down 124 399 286 809
Number of stops 21 28 17 66
Nights at anchor 19 29 21 69
Nights at dock 4 90 15 109
Engine hours 109 135 95 339
Generator hours 56 64 51 171

Friday, January 6, 2017

North Shore

We are tied to the free city dock in Mandeville, Louisiana (map), on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. This is a great spot, with free 30-amp power and a three-night stay limit. We have a scooter on the ground and have been getting some errands done.

Sunset over Lake Pontchartrain Tuesday, through the gazebo, from our aft deck.

We ended up staying at our impromptu berth at South Shore Harbor all the way to Tuesday morning. I was absolutely miserable all weekend, and since the construction site was dark no one came by to ask us to move. We figured we could stay right up to Monday morning with no issues and that's what we opted to do.

Monday, however, an enormous storm blew in, and we were quite literally pinned to the dock by 20-30kt steady winds, with gusts much higher. With some effort and 370 horsepower I could probably have gotten off the dock (at some risk), but we decided to wait it out unless the construction guys came over to ask us to move. I was still not operating on all cylinders yet, either, so just as well. The construction guys had their hands full, wrestling crane loads around in the high winds, and seemed to take little notice of us.

By nightfall the storm had passed and we had clear skies and calm weather overnight. Tuesday morning had us shrouded in fog, but otherwise good conditions for a departure. We made ready to leave, and as I was wrapping up my second coffee the construction superintendent wandered over. They asked how long we planned to stay, and I'm not sure what the reaction would have been if we did not say we were making ready to depart. We did not want to be in their way, and we were also tired of being confined to the boat.

With the fog apparently lifting and the harbor dead calm, w dropped lines and maneuvered to head out into the lake. Out intention was to circle back around the airport and drop the hook close to the canal, so we could tender ashore. Between when I started the engine and when we motored into the channel, the gap in the fog closed back in, and we made our way out into the lake by radar and breadcrumbs.

We had a good breadcrumb trail on the plotter all the way back to the anchorage, and despite increasingly heavy fog we decided to continue to the anchorage. At this point, Louise decided to re-check the weather, which had previously indicated we could anchor on the south end of the lake for two nights before north winds would pick up and force us to the north shore. Conditions had changed, and now it looked like we'd have to leave the south shore Wednesday morning, and even then we might have a bit of a rough ride across the lake.

That made a single night near the canal an unappealing option, and before we even cleared the airport runway approach lights, we made the decision to simply continue right across the lake to Mandeville. The lake was nearly glass calm, so a great time to cross, other than the fog. We were literally the only boat on the lake, according to our AIS and radar displays, so we turned the radar gain up, activated the automated fog horn and continued across in pea soup. Near the edges of the lake the occasional crab float would come into view, but none was close enough to warrant an adjustment.

It takes three hours to cross the lake, and we arrived here shortly after lunch. We made a radar approach to the marked channel, and I turned off the fog horn once I had the markers in visual sight. The city dock is just a short distance from the channel entrance and we had no trouble coming alongside and getting tied up. Unsurprisingly, we are the only boat here and we had our choice of spaces; there are eight service pedestals along the dock.

Both our guide and the signs along the dock said to go to the nearby Pontchartrain Yacht Club to get the required permit to stay at the dock. I had called them on the phone mid-lake to confirm this, and also to ask if we could have a package sent there (more on that in a moment). It seems to be a nice club, but we do not have reciprocal privileges there. The secretary told me she had been hearing our foghorn for some time.

With permit in hand (well, actually, stuck to a window visible from the street, as required), we set about hooking up the power. The power on this dock is strictly 30-amp, 120-volt, which Vector could not make use of when we bought her. Way back in February I added a bypass to connect our 120-volt inverter input directly to such power, so we can at least charge the batteries and run most of our appliances and personal electronics; this is the first time that we've actually made use of it.

Things that are not connected through the inverter don't work with this arrangement, including our main heat and air conditioning, the clothes dryer, and some fluorescent lights in the engineering spaces. None of those things is critical for a few days, but it turns out that one important appliance is on this same list: the water heater. Not a problem for Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, as we had plenty of hot water from crossing the lake (heated by the engine), but I would need to do something about this before shower time Wednesday evening.

We put one scooter on the ground Tuesday afternoon and that got us to a nice dinner at the excellent Gio's Villa Vancheri a few miles away, after a nice ride along the lakefront and through the quaint downtown, still nicely decorated for the holidays. There are a handful of restaurants that are a longish walk from the dock, too, but the scooter allowed for some more interesting alternatives.

First thing Wednesday morning we got a call from good friends and fellow Red Cross volunteers Don and CC. They were on their way from their home in Texas to visit yet other Red Cross friends in Alabama and were going to be passing us on I-12 in a couple of hours; they'd seen me post our Mandeville destination on Facebook. I gave them some quick directions to the dock, and after a brief tour of Vector we caught up with them over a nice lunch at a nearby diner. It was a great visit and we all wished we had a bit more time together.

Spectacular sky last night at sunset.

I spent the afternoon rewiring the water heater so that we could run it on the inverter circuit during our stay. That basically involved removing the hard-wired power cable and installing an appliance cord with a three-prong plug, which I could then run to a nearby power outlet with a heavy extension cord. Today after buying parts at the Ace Hardware in town I terminated the former hard-wire cord with a three-prong inline outlet, so changing this back and forth in the future will be, pardon the expression, "plug and play."

Today's project was somewhat less pleasant. The aforementioned package I needed to receive at the yacht club arrived, containing a new pump for our shower and vanity sump. The pump quit working during my shower late Monday night, and we've been making do since then by using the galley sinks (which don't need a sump) for brushing teeth and the like, and manually emptying the sump with the wet vac for showers (whoever is not in the shower has to man the vac at the sump). The new pump is now in place, and I am glad to be done with the tedium of opening the bilge and setting up the vac before every shower.

After a pleasant few days, temperatures are again dropping, and we are using some portable electric heaters to keep warm, along with Meriwether in the pilothouse. Notwithstanding our original intent in installing that system, I think we have now used it more in heat mode than in cooling mode. We also have the electric blanket on the bed.

This evening on our way back from dinner we stopped at the Walmart Neighborhood Market in town to provision for the next couple of weeks, and also to pick up the new trim tab anode for the dinghy outboard. While that seems odd for a supermarket, it turns out that you can order pretty much anything on that way using the free site-to-store option, even to their grocery-only Neighborhood Market stores. This proved to be the easiest, fastest, and also cheapest way to get that oddball part here to Mandeville. The outboard dealer in town did not have one and could not get one as quickly.

Tomorrow is officially our last allowable day here, and we will probably shove off in the afternoon and anchor someplace not far from here. Our next stop is still under discussion, but if the weather in the Gulf cooperates, we may head down the rest of the Mississippi and cross the Gulf to Pascagoula before making our way back along the ICW.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Ending 2016 with a whimper

We are tied to a bulkhead across from the South Shore Harbor (map), after finally escaping yesterday from Orleans Marina. How we ended up here is something of a story in itself, which I will share shortly. We had expected to leave this morning to anchor in the lake, but I have a killer cold which Louise gave me as a Christmas present, and I am so doped up on cold medicine that it's imprudent to drive the boat.

One of the numerous light sculptures at Celebration in the Oaks.

Shortly after my last post we headed off to the airport to pick up good friends Jay and Marjorie, who flew out just to spend the holiday week with us. This is their first holiday since their girls were born that they have spent without them, as the two girls, whom we consider our nieces, zipped off to Israel on a Birthright trip. Other than an occasional cocktail over the years, honestly I think this is the first time we've ever spent with Jay and Marjorie without the girls.

The four of us at II Tony's, about to enjoy our first meal together.

They came with a short list of things they wanted to see or do while they were here, and since we'll have plenty of time without them later, we opted to focus just on their list for the short time we were together. That had us traveling out to the Stennis space center and it's whizzy new Infinity visitor center for a tour. I'm a space geek myself so this was right up my alley. Stennis is where NASA tests rocket engines; it was originally built for the Apollo program.

World's largest test stand. Built for the Saturn-V but soon to test for the SLS.

We also visited Abita Springs and toured the Abita brewery there, sampling several of their excellent beers, which can be found in most bars and restaurants in Louisiana. And we spent a half day out at Kliebert's alligator and turtle farm, where we got a nice tour from a guide with four missing fingers, which happened just as you'd imagine (during a tour, no less).

Like brewery tours everywhere -- miles of stainless pipe and a bunch of vats.

We enjoyed seeing the holiday lights at the annual Celebration In The Oaks at City Park. The park itself is a wonderful city resource, and we might find a way to get back there once the holiday festival is over. We drove around a few neighborhoods on the way home looking at more staid light displays as well.

Another light sculpture at City Park.

Of course we did the requisite beignets and café au lait at Cafe Du Monde, walked down Royal Street and a short stretch of Bourbon, and ended up at the historic Roosevelt Hotel for a very expensive cocktail in the Sazerac Bar, just so we could see the over-the-top holiday decorations at this stately Grande Dame of New Orleans.

Two orders of beignets (plenty for the four of us) and cafe au lait.

We dropped our friends off at the airport around 11:30 on Christmas day, after first loading up the car with their gear, our gear, and the cat and all her accoutrements. From the airport we proceeded directly to Houston, a trip of some 5.5 hours, for Christmas dinner at Louise's brother's house. A long drive for dinner, but worth it to get in visits with everyone, including our nieces and nephew (and now, great nephew) who are scattered to the four winds and we get to see only once every few years.

When we planned all of this out, the idea was to share the driving on the five+ hour drive each way. That even precipitated something of a brouhaha at Hertz when we picked up the car; our AAA membership is supposed to get us free spousal driving privileges but they had trouble getting the computer to recognize that.

That said, by Christmas morning, Louise had come down with a cold, and between the constant sneezing and the cold meds, she was not able to take the wheel even once. I had carefully packed my laptop car setup to catch up on email and maybe the blog, and I had plans to call several sets of my own family members from the car en route. Instead I had to squeeze in a few short calls at potty stops.

We did make it just in time for dinner and some socializing, but Louise was so miserable that we made it a short night. We ended up spending much of our time in our hotel room at the Omni. That's a nice place, by the way, with free WiFi, morning coffee (breakfast is an upcharge), and afternoon cocktails and hors d'ouvres included in our $75 room rate, making the $91 per night we were paying at the marina, with virtually no amenities, seem that much more ridiculous. Of course, we paid that $91 each night on top of the hotel bill, and we weren't even there.

Monday morning's breakfast was a surprise engagement party for our nephew, who is getting married in a few months. We got to meet his fiancé for the first time. A family outing to Rogue One filled out the afternoon, and we wrapped up our visit with dinner. Tuesday morning, after breakfast in the hotel, we hit the road for the long trip back.

As long as we had the car until Wednesday afternoon, we spent the morning running a few errands, including a trip to the grocery to provision for a week or two at anchor. I dropped the car off at the appointed time, and we headed off for what we thought would be a final dinner ashore before casting off.

Holiday decorations at the Roosevelt Hotel.

Somewhere in all of the hubbub of the whirlwind round trip to Houston and Louise-the-weather-router being sick, we had neglected to pay attention to the forecast. As we were getting ready Wednesday evening we learned that winds Thursday would be 20kt out of the north. With some 23 miles of fetch over a 12'-deep lake, that would make for untenable conditions on the lake, and we'd have to bash through all 23 miles of it to find comfortable anchorage. Reluctantly, we decided to suck it up and drop another $91 on an extra night.

Yesterday we lingered at the dock as long as possible, since winds were decreasing throughout the day, and around noon or so we dropped lines and motored around to the pumpout dock. Normally we can go three weeks between pumpouts, but guests aboard reduce that figure dramatically. Usually pumpouts are on a face dock, easy in and out, but this one was more like a full-on slip, requiring me to back in carefully.

We must have spent nearly an hour at that dock trying to get pumped out. Between there being no coupler on the hose (only a soft rubber taper that needs to be held into the deck fitting by hand throughout the process), the hose coming straight up rather than via a 90° fitting, and the hose being old and not vacuum-tight (as attested by numerous duct-taped areas), we could not even get the first ounce out of the tank. After multiple attempts, including pre-priming the hose with seawater from a bucket, we finally gave up.

The obvious next step would have been to return to Seabrook Marine on the Industrial Canal, where we pumped out on the way into the lake. We know their pumpout works, and it's relatively close. However, there is one huge problem, one which will affect our lives well beyond the need to pump out: the railroad bridge at the junction of the canal and the lake is broken and latched in the closed position indefinitely.

Indeed, we managed to make it from the Mississippi to Lake Pontchartrain through the Industrial Canal on the one and only day it was possible to do so. The lock opened the evening of December 14th, we squeaked through on December 15th (including a delay for the Almonaster Bridge, which ironically was closed most of just that day for scheduled maintenance), and the Seabrook railroad bridge broke and was closed indefinitely on December 16th.

The good news here is that bypassing the broken bridge requires only a 65-mile detour, which is a long day (or two short ones) for us, rather than the nearly four-day detour to bypass the lock. Still, we weren't going to go 65 miles around just to pump out, and then be stuck in the canal where there are few options for an overnight stay other than another expensive marina. Instead we decided to circle around to the backside of the airport and come here, to the South Shore Harbor Marina, which our guide said had a pumpout.

We called on the phone and the radio several times en route to confirm this, and try to get some depth information, but, unknown to us, the marina office was closed Friday (and Monday) for the holiday. We made our way in to the marina carefully, one eye on the depth sounder, scanning all the docks for the elusive pumpout station. We ended up tying up at a T-Head on the very last pier to sort things out.

A couple of helpful marina denizens directed me to the pumpout, which is over here on this bulkhead, completely outside the marina's perimeter fence. In fact, this bulkhead and the adjacent building are now part of a large construction project for a museum, which will include the restored WWII PT-boat that we saw undergoing final stages at Seabrook when we passed through. The PT boat will be docked under cover at a berth being built right next to the pumpout.

On the bulkhead is a giant yellow warning sign regarding underwater obstructions, which gave us some pause, but at least one of the marina tenants said we'd have no trouble. We cast off and motored over, and were greeted here by some of the crew for the aforementioned construction project. They took our lines and filled us in about the obstructions.

By the time we finished pumping out it was nearly 4pm. I was exhausted, because the cold had been creeping up on me all day, and by this time I had docked the boat three times and wrestled with two pumpout stations. The bulkhead was plenty long enough for several boats, with cleats along the length, and we asked the crew if we could just tie up for the night. They had no problem with it, and we cast off, moved back a couple hundred feet, and made our fourth and final docking of the day. I think this is the most times we've docked in one day since we finished training in Hilton Head.

By the time I hit the hay last night the cold was full blown. Having witnessed it knock Louise out for three solid days, I knew I was in for it. This morning I was in no shape to drive the boat, and cold medicine just compounded that problem. Fortunately, the construction project is dark today (and we imagine through tomorrow as well) and we reckoned no one would bother us if we just stayed right here.

At this writing I can hear fireworks going off around the lake. The city's own display will be out over the river and we will probably not see it from here. We're confined to the boat; the project is fenced in and locked, and we don't really even have permission to walk around ashore. We're viewing it as an anchorage, just with less movement.

I am hoping that by tomorrow afternoon I will be well enough to move, and we will drive back around to the other side of the airport, which will give us a lee from the forecast easterlies, and drop the hook. From there we can tender ashore at the boat ramp near the canal entrance if we need anything.

Tasting aftermath at Abita Brewery. Relax -- those are 4oz glasses.

We've made the decision to remain here in New Orleans to have the hull painted. It's a big job, estimated at a minimum of eight weeks, and there is one boat ahead of us in line, so they can't really start until the last week in January. Yard schedules are always somewhat fluid, so I am taking these as best-case. That gives us three weeks to kill before we need to be in the yard. I'm hoping we can spend the last of those three at the yard's docks, getting familiar with the place and having them look at some other projects on our list.

Once I'm off the cold meds I'll do some planning for the other two weeks. We might cruise around Lake Pontchartrain or even head back to the river and do the last 90 miles down to the passes. I'll also be working on a place to stay in February/March, as we'll need to be off the boat for the actual sanding and painting. Mardi Gras falls in there someplace, so I am expecting something of a challenge; we might have to rent a car and spend that week out of town.

As we count down the final couple of hours of 2016 here aboard Vector, we wish you all a very Happy New Year. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Big Easy

We are docked at the Orleans Marina, on Lake Pontchartrain, in New Orleans, Louisiana (map). We're all settled in for the next week or so, and our friends from California will be arriving this afternoon to join us aboard.

Sunset over New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain.

The Industrial Canal lock, formally known as the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock, opened as promised Thursday evening, and Friday morning we weighed anchor and motored the two miles back upriver to the canal. We tied up at the little dock on the south bulkhead while we waited for a tow to lock through in the other direction, which turned out to be the Corps of Engineers' own boat. Then they got us right through, having cleared the traffic backlog overnight.

About to clear the Florida Avenue Bridge after leaving the lock.

With all the brouhaha about the lock, we had forgotten completely about the bulletin we received some time ago stating that the Almonaster Bridge, about mid-canal, would be closed for maintenance on Friday. In a stroke of pure luck, we pulled up to the bridge right at 11 am, which was the lone time in the entire day that the bridge was scheduled to open, if needed, for marine traffic. We were the only boat requesting an opening.

Good thing, because the CSX railroad, whose tracks cross the bridge and were being replaced, took a full hour to clear the bridge and get it open. We ended up anchoring twice and station-keeping for a half hour, due to several false starts. Apparently the maintenance work severed the track circuit, and they had to resort to the emergency opening procedure.

Almonaster bridge, with the I-10 high bridge behind it. Note the CSX trucks still on the bridge.

We made it through the bridge around 12:30, and a short while later tied up at Seabrook Marine, right on the canal, to have them look at our paint issues. We spent nearly three hours with Jeff, one of the owners, going over the boat, paint and deck options, and the like, before moving along. As long as we were already tied up at their fuel dock, we took advantage of the pumpout before dropping lines, and it was past 4pm when we crossed the Seabrook railroad bridge and out into the lake.

We ended up dropping the hook only a short distance from there, near the runway of the old airport (map). Winds out of the north had us bobbing around for a while, but they switched to easterlies overnight and we had a nice lee from the airport. Just before we anchored, we spent ten minutes or so running in a tight circle to let the "new" autopilot computer calibrate the compass; I had been steering by hand up to that point with the autopilot lacking good heading information.

Weighing anchor in the lake. The shank is coated in famous Pontchartrain mud.

Saturday we had a nice leisurely morning, blissfully free of ships, towboats, workboats, and their concomitant radio traffic. After coffee and catching up on news and email, we weighed anchor and came directly here, a full two days early for our reservations. We wanted to fill up on water to do laundry, and have an easy time of getting the boat ready for visitors.

Although spendy, at $1.75 per foot, this is a great location, with nearly a dozen restaurants in walking distance, as well as a nice grocery store, a Walgreens, and a few other services. A bus stop nearby will get us anywhere in town in two hops with a $3 day pass. And we have a good address for some deliveries. Still, for that kind of money the docks should be in better shape and there should be Internet, but there is not.

Vector, snug in Orleans Marina for the holidays.

Yesterday Hertz Local Edition picked us up, and we now have a car for the next ten days. We spent the afternoon at Home Depot and Walmart replenishing supplies, and this afternoon we will pick our friends up at the airport.

I'm not sure if I will have another chance to post while our friends are in town; it's a short visit and we'll probably pack the schedule. At some point I will try to post a summary here of our Mississippi River trip, with some relevant statistics for those who are into such things.

We wish all our family, friends, and other readers a very pleasant holiday season.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fogbound in Crescent City

We are anchored in New Orleans, or more specifically, Algiers, in the New Orleans General Anchorage (map). We are downriver of downtown, and just across the river from the historic Chalmette Battlefield.

The view from our anchorage this afternoon, as the steamboat Natchez, left, and a bulk ship, right, passed us on either side. The bulker dead ahead is anchored.

Shortly after my last post Monday evening we dropped the hook at the Upper Grandview Anchorage on Grandview Reach (map), in fading daylight. We anchored abreast of a large bulk cargo ship, the Helvetia One. Ashore was a small dock with pair of workboats that service river traffic; just before we turned into the anchorage we chatted with a river pilot on an upbound cargo ship who offered to put us in touch with them if we needed anything ashore, one of myriad nice gestures we've experienced on the river. I'm sorry I did not copy down his association number.

Our view at the Grandview anchorage as the fog lifted. The ship was too long to entirely fit in my picture.

Speaking of which, here on the deepwater section of river, the pilots call and answer the radio by number, rather than the name of the vessel they are piloting. So a giant tanker like the Overseas Texas City might call on the radio thus: "Vector, this is 97, I'd like to see you on two whistles."  This is more than a little disconcerting until you figure out what number is on which ship. We soon learned to make a chart as we listened to other calls. Pilots come from several different pilots' associations, and the number is sometimes preceded by a modifier like Federal, Crescent, or NOBRA. One of the NOBRA pilots chatted me up on the radio about Vector, only the second person to do so in 850 miles of river.

Leaving Grandview astern. You can see the dock ashore and our other neighbor, an ATB upriver of the Helvetia One.

We had a pleasant night there, but the lights and powerplants of the nearby ships meant it was neither dark nor quiet. In the morning we woke to a blanket of fog over the river, which kept us in the anchorage for an extra hour or so in the morning. Fortunately, we were just 54 miles from our destination here in New Orleans, the entrance to the Industrial Canal.

Approaching the Sunshine Bridge.

That 54 miles has been, bar none, the busiest waterway we've ever navigated, and that includes the Port of New York. In addition to the unending parade of linehaul towboats with tows upwards of 30 barges (the largest we've passed on the river is 49), we're now dancing the tango with hundreds of harbor tugs conducting fleeting operations and doing pas de deux with deep-draft cargo ships. We have to listen to two radio channels at once, which are often both blaring simultaneously, and more than once I've been talking on one radio while being hailed on the other. I was so busy in the pilothouse that I had time for nothing else, including snapping pictures of some of the landmarks along the way.

Approaching the Luling bridge.

After completing our mandatory check-in with Vessel Traffic as we passed the Harvey Lock, I called the Industrial Lock on the phone, hoping beyond hope that they might be open or at least have an estimate for when they would open. Sadly, they gave me the exact same answer I've heard for days: closed, with no estimated opening date. Worse, they told us we could not use the small dock where pleasure craft normally wait unless and until the lock was reopened.

Approaching New Orleans and the Crescent City Connection bridges. Two paddlewheel cruise ships, America and Queen of the Mississippi, are docked here.

We were prepared for that answer, and proceeded another two miles downriver to the General Anchorage. At 50' deep and just off the main channel, it's less than ideal, but at least it is a legal place for us to stop that is still within striking distance of the lock. There's a fleeting operation along the bank here; we dropped the hook as close to shore as we could get without being uncomfortably close to them, or so we thought.

There's a long story here that's more appropriate over a few beers than in a blog post; suffice it to say we ended up moving around the anchorage three times. We were right to be where we were (confirmed by Vessel Traffic), but we didn't want to be dead right. The last movement was at midnight, when a 600' ship needed to squeeze into the anchorage as fog closed in on the river.

Steamer Natchez passes us close aboard. He's steaming through the anchorage; the shoreward edge of which has become a de facto (but not de jure) channel, which led to some conflict with a fleet operation, seen behind him.

That fog ended up closing the river entirely at Algiers Point, just upriver of us, a short while later, and we had a very quiet night. This morning tows and ships were lined up anywhere and everywhere on both sides of the closure; the river did not reopen until after lunch. While the closure itself did not affect us, there was no way we were going to try to make our way downriver in that kind of fog, especially with so much traffic stacked up.

In the course of all the moving around last night, I spoke with the shift supervisor at Vessel Traffic three times (three different people; we managed to catch two shift changes). During one of those conversations, I learned that the Industrial Lock was planning to open today, information the lock itself had been unable to provide. Sure enough, a bulletin came out late in the day to that effect, stating the lock would open for traffic at 6pm this evening.

Passing downtown. Riverwalk Mall at left, and the Hilton Hotel where I spent way too many nights over a period of a decade. World Trade Center toward the right.

All's well that ends well, and with that news, we decided to remain right here, even after the fog lifted, and try to get through the lock tomorrow. If that goes awry for whatever reason, we still have just enough time to go around the long way. When they started taking names this afternoon for spots in the lock queue, the queue filled up to 17 spots in a matter of minutes. That's a full day of lockage; the lock opened at 6pm today but anyone requesting lockage by then would be waiting until sometime tomorrow night. Fortunately, pleasure craft are locked through in the leftover space behind commercial tows, so we don't wait in the same queue.

The river was extremely busy this afternoon as the backlog in both directions cleared; it's finally calmed down to the point where the radio (we are monitoring four separate channels now) only cackles once every couple of minutes. With any luck we will not get any calls tonight, and in the morning we'll motor hard the two miles upriver to the lock and wait for a gap to squeak through. That could be minutes or hours, but we are hoping to be in Lake Ponchartrain by the end of the day.

Passing Jackson Square and the Jax Brewery.

With a whole day at anchor and unable to leave the boat, I took advantage of the downtime to effect a critical repair. On our cruise from Baton Rouge Monday, the autopilot lost its position input. That did not affect its operation, but it caused alarms on instruments downstream that were getting their data from the autopilot. Some initial diagnosis under way indicated that the serial port in the autopilot itself might be to blame, which meant the autopilot would also not be able to accept commands from that input, which is a critical backup to the main command input.

Today's project confirmed the diagnosis. Sadly, the board containing this port is not repairable; the defective part is probably a $2 opto-isolator or UART chip. Replacement boards are also not available, not that one would be cheap. We had bought a whole used unit a couple of years ago as a backup, and I ended up swapping it in and reprogramming it today. The take-out will become the emergency spare; it's still usable in a pinch with only one (of two) working serial ports.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Red Stick Redux

We are under way in the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. As of a few moments ago, our movements are now being controlled by Vessel Traffic. We are also now in a part of the river where we may only anchor in designated places and where we must maintain a listening watch at anchor, a ready bridge watch, and be able to get underway as directed if need be.

Vector anchored in Baton Rouge.

Saturday evening we anchored in a "chute" behind Profit Island (map), very nearly in the dark. We knew that anchorage would be a stretch, but we wanted to have a fairly short trip to Baton Rouge yesterday. We should have arrived right at sunset, which would have given us plenty of light for anchoring purposes.

Approaching the John Audubon Bridge, one of the newest Mississippi crossings.

All well and good, but we ended up having something of a fuel emergency. Apparently my tally of how many gallons were left in the port tank was off, and when I transferred fuel to the day tank in the morning, the transfer was short between five and ten gallons. Worse, the transfer pump must have lost prime.

When it became clear during an ER check that we did not have enough fuel in the day tank to make the anchorage with an appropriate safety margin, I went down to transfer fuel, but nothing was moving. We had no choice but to stop and reprime the pump; I made a safety announcement on the radio and we pulled as far off-channel as we could before dropping the hook.

Louise hamming it up on the fleur-de-lis of the enormous Baton Rouge sign.

Repriming is a simple matter of opening the filter housing and topping it up; we carry a small can of diesel for that purpose. Once that was done I was able to transfer fuel from the belly tank, and we were weighing anchor and back under way in a matter of fifteen minutes or so. A tow who heard the safety call checked in on us as we got back under way -- everyone looks out for everyone else here on the river.

Profit Island Chute turned out to be one of the nicest anchorages we've had on the entire river, and we had a peaceful night. In the morning we weighed anchor for Baton Rouge; within an hour we were changing radio channels for the very busy and partly traffic-controlled stretch from Baton Rouge to the mouth.

Approaching Baton Rouge. Huey Long (Airline Highway/US190) bridge in the foreground.

With a very literal reading of the anchoring regulations I determined we could be right by the waterfront, and we dropped the hook just upriver of the tourist pier as close to shore as we could safely get (map). We ended up abreast of the historic Old State Capitol building. We also had something of an audience; after two days of bitter cold, it was almost 70 when we dropped the hook (and climbed above that later), and lots of folks were enjoying a Sunday walking along the levee, out on the pier, or visiting the USS Kidd just downriver (aground at this river level).

The city pier, with the USS Kidd and Belle of Baton Rouge just downriver. The water was too low for us to reach the lowest landing.

With pleasant temperatures and a very early arrival, I was able to spend some time up on the boat deck cleaning up the damage to the dinghy propeller, and also finishing up a project to be able to charge the dinghy battery on deck. This involved putting an Anderson connector on the dinghy and one on the davit power supply, so the two can be connected by a cord I previously built to connect the two scooter batteries together. That worked like a charm and the tender fired right up without pull-starting.

Baton Rouge riverfront with enormous sign. Historic Heidelberg Hotel (now a Hilton) at right; tall pointy building in the distance at left is the "new" capitol.

Landing ashore was a bit more problematic. At this river level the water's edge is more or less large boulders and rip-rap; a protective layer of river mud has already washed off. After ten minutes of searching we found a spot where we could "dock" the dinghy against a large rock shelf and tie off to a fence stake ashore. A short walk across to the levee wall brought us to a set of concrete steps to the levee top.

We wandered down the levee, past the Kidd and to the Belle of Baton Rouge casino, which brought back some memories from a decade ago when we ate there with relief coworkers. We left the levee and walked through the River Center; the last time we were in there it was being used as an enormous shelter.

The Old Capitol. Open for visitors, but not Sunday.

We spent over an hour just wandering around downtown; Baton Rouge is going through something of a renaissance. We ended up stopping for an early beer at the Hotel Indigo, enjoying it out on the sidewalk tables for the first time in weeks. Quite the contrast from the last two days. We enjoyed meeting Kevin and Doreen at the bar, Baton Rouge locals enjoying an afternoon on the town, who confirmed our choice of dinner venues.

We had a very nice dinner at the upscale Stroube's, adjacent to the town square with it's nicely lit Christmas tree. It was nice to be able to see a different side of Baton Rouge. Long time readers may know that we spent more time in Baton Rouge in our bus, Odyssey, than any other single city. Things look much different out on Airline Highway.

Tree at North Boulevard Town Square. LSU art museum to the left.

If we had had another day I would have visited the science museum and planetarium, in a historic railroad depot, or perhaps the USS Kidd. Sadly, the Industrial Canal lock is still closed, with no estimate for an opening, and at this writing it is almost a sure bet that we will need to take the three full days to go around.

Immediately across from us; LSU art museum and old water tower at left; Old Capitol center-frame behind the old rail depot, now part of the science museum, with planetarium on right.

Tonight we will be anchored in one of the designated anchorages on the river, and tomorrow we will reach the Industrial Canal by mid-afternoon. If it's not open, we'll need to continue downriver another full day.