Thursday, July 7, 2016

Last cruise for a couple of weeks

This morning found us in familiar surroundings, anchored across the embayment from the lodge at Joe Wheeler State Park (map), in Rogersville, Alabama. Our most die-hard readers may remember we stayed at this park almost exactly four years ago in Odyssey, and we ate at the lodge restaurant before strolling the docks of their enormous marina.

The lodge at Joe Wheeler park, across from our anchorage. That's only a small part of the marina to the left.

Yesterday's cruise had us transiting two locks, and we are now at 555' above sea level. We opted for a late start from Florence, so we could take advantage of power and air conditioning, and we used some of that time to stroll around McFarland Park. I called the first lock, just three miles upriver, before we dropped lines, just in case they were locking someone else and would not be ready for us.

Tied to the wall at Wilson Lock, waiting for the massive 12-story gates to open.

The Wilson Dam is the tallest on the river, with the highest-lift lock east of the Rockies, at 94'. The chamber was still emptying when we arrived a half hour later, and the lockmaster directed us to tie to the wall outside the lock. Although there is a much smaller auxiliary lock adjacent to the main lock, he had us come in to the main lock. The auxiliary lock does the lift in two stages, so the first set of doors are only half the height of the main lock.

Auxiliary lock on the left, past the construction crane.

I only make one log entry for lockage, so I don't have the total time recorded, but I would say it took us 45 minutes to make it through the Wilson lock. When we emerged, we were navigating in 92' of water. The lake is deceptive; there are submerged islands that reach within a few feet of the surface, but they are well charted. Wilson Lake inundated the Muscle Shoals (the shoals, not the town), which had been the historic impediment to navigation above Florence.

Massive doors closing behind us. The wind pattern changes in the chamber as the doors close.

Drop-gate (unlike the miter gates we've seen thus far) well above us, leaking copiously.

Emerging above the top of the lock we had a wonderful view of the Florence/Muscle Shoals area. We could also see the "360" revolving restaurant towering above the Marriott Hotel; perhaps we'll stop there for dinner on our way back downriver. The octogenarian lock itself is showing its age, and clearly maintenance is ongoing but overdue.

360 Restaurant in the background. Director, manager, and supervisor in foreground (clearly not actual workers).

The gages are mosaic tile, probably original to the depression-era construction of the lock.

Drop gate submerging in front of us. The walkway rails must drop at least 9' below the water level before we can move.

It was barely more than two hours before we reached the next lock, at the General Joe Wheeler Lock and Dam, with a lift of 49'. When we arrived, however, the lock was in the process of down-locking a full tow. Even slowing down a half hour ahead of time, we had a wait of well over an hour, and we simply dropped the hook just off the main channel, in the approach to the auxiliary lock, which again was not in use.

Unlike the Tenn-Tom and Tombigbee locks, where tows are limited to what will fit in the chamber, here on the Tennessee, tows are twice that large. The lock fits nine barges, three across and three long. The tows are 15 barges -- three across and five long, plus the towboat. So they "cut" the tow in the lock; the towboat pushes the first nine barges into the chamber, then cuts them loose and backs out with the remaining six barges past the gates. Deckhands remain on the now powerless barges.

Anchored at Joe Wheeler lock. You can see the first nine barges of a tow, with the miter gates closed behind them.

The nine-barge lashup is then locked through, and is pulled out of the chamber with a hawser and a small winch located atop the lock wall. Forward way is arrested by deckhands taking wraps on the bollards with hawsers; they then pull the lashup as close to the wall as they can and tie it off. Brute strength is a job qualification for riverboat deckhands. We got to watch this whole process from our anchored spot, including the deckhands ascending the five-story spiral staircase to re-board the towboat before it, too, was locked down.

Once the whole tow is again on the same level, the rear six barges are pushed gently forward to meet up with the front nine, and the deckhands again make them fast. Only then can the entire tow move forward out of the lock. The entire process took an hour and a half or so. We weighed anchor as the tow began moving forward, to get into position to enter the lock and/or to clear out of the tow's way if need be. Premature, as the whole tow promptly got stuck, pinned against the lock wall and the shore by the wind.

Towboat and last six barges are emerging from the chamber and making up to the front nine.

Several minutes and large volumes of smoke later he was under way again, overcoming adversity with sheer horsepower. He called us on the radio to apologize and we joked briefly about whether we could have pulled him off the wall, but really it was very entertaining and informative to watch the whole process from start to finish. My hat is off to the towboat pilots; the geometry of maneuvering such a long, heavy lashup with just a couple of propellers in the very back is mind-boggling, and gives me perspective on how relatively easy it is to maneuver Vector.

By the time we cleared out of Wheeler Lock, a full two hours after arriving, we were pretty much done for the day, and the anchorage at the park was close at hand. As a bonus we were able to get the park's WiFi signal. On our way back downriver we may stop here again; Friday is prime rib night at the lodge.

Leaving Wheeler Lock and Dam astern.

We are now under way in Wheeler Lake, just passing the Brown's Ferry nuclear plant, and should be arriving at our marina in Deactur before 2pm. We're very early, considering our flights are next Wednesday, but the freight company is scheduled to deliver our new mini-split air conditioner tomorrow morning, and I'd like to be there to receive it. This will also give me a few days to wrap up the coolant pump project, change the generator oil, and maybe start on the air conditioner installation before we have to leave for California.

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