Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Flexibility is key

We are anchored outside the buoy line at mile 604 on the lower Mississippi (map). It's been an interesting couple of days since last I posted here, including a reminder why one can never have a schedule on a boat.

Sunset at our anchorage last night. That's the port's massive trolley crane; the big river is behind it.

We had a lovely evening Sunday, much warmer than Saturday, although the season of dining on the aft deck is long gone. Around dinner time we started hearing the distinctive riverboat whistle of the American Queen, presumably calling the all-aboard. Around 7 or so she pushed off the dock, and by 8:30 she was passing us, upbound for Memphis. I did my best to snap a photo as she passed. I spoke to the skipper about the missing cruise dock, and he shared that the low water meant he'd be pushing up against the Greenbelt Park on the river side and using his gangways; when I looked on Marine Traffic on Monday he was pushed up against the boat ramp there.

The American Queen passing us upbound. We were still in the same spot a day later when she passed us downbound, too. The paddlewheel is brightly lit and makes for a spectacular mist effect at night.

Monday we went nowhere at all. Conditions were fine for a morning departure, but a forecast storm meant that we'd be trying to anchor at the end of the day in storm conditions. We opted to stay put and ride it out where we were; we knew we had a good set on the anchor and we had good Internet access.

The storm hit around mid-day, and our choice to stay put was soon confirmed by myriad towboats making the same choice, pushing up against the bank wherever they could. We don't have an anemometer, but we estimate the gusts we experienced at close to 50 knots, enough to overcome three knots of river current and move us around some. This same storm wreaked havoc with the fires in eastern Tennessee later on. We scrambled around on deck stowing anything that might blow over, and then just settled in and enjoyed it. At the end of the day the storm cleared and we had an interesting sunset.

Spectacular post-storm sky. My photo does not do it justice.

Yesterday we weighed anchor for a short day's cruise to Helena, Arkansas, where we hoped to drop the hook in a slack harbor and maybe get ashore. Alas, it was not to be. We had barely reached the mouth of the harbor when we promptly ran aground; the depth sounder went from 45' to 5' in the span of two boat lengths. Trying to back out we hung up on the starboard fin, spinning around and heeling over fifteen degrees. Fortunately, it's all river silt, and the big 370-horse Lugger easily pushed us back into deep water to lick our wounds.

We moved a few miles downriver and tried to drop off-channel behind some green buoys, which would have been acceptable if not entirely comfortable. But a couple of tow drivers called us to tell us there was another slack harbor just a few miles further down that would be perfect, and that's where we ended up last night, at the Phillips County Port. We anchored mid-canal just a short ways in, with enough room for the working boats to pass on either side of us (map). It was calm, peaceful, and quiet.

Not so the radio, which has been abuzz the last three days with groundings. The river is at an extremely low level right now; the Captain of the Port has issued a low water warning spanning 550 river miles. A large tow went aground near mid-channel at mile 493 and was stuck there for two full days, with one-way traffic restrictions around it. Last night 13 barges ran aground at mile 636, just a few miles downriver of our anchorage, but they managed to get off before we were under way this morning, and we passed them on our way out of the harbor.

Passing the Tunica Riverpark dock, where American Queen tied up. Fitzgerald's casino is to the left. Had we felt the need for a casino experience, we could have gotten ashore here.

The forecast calls for the river to rise as much as six feet starting just a couple of days from now, but that will be short-lived as winter sets in to the north. As long as the tows are getting through, we'll have no trouble navigating, but the low water makes finding anchorages a much bigger challenge.

When we were making ready to depart yesterday, I went up to the flybridge to fire up the "new" plotter, and it was dead. The storm had blown the cover off it (fortunately not overboard), and then doused it for hours with driving rain, which managed to infiltrate the supposedly weatherproof unit. It's predecessor had been up there in the same spot for nearly three years with nary a problem.

After we were well anchored I took the unit apart. Rust and circuit damage tells a tale of a long history of leakage; this storm was merely the last straw. One of the problems with used gear is that you can't tell what sins the last owner may have committed. In this case it looks like the unit had been opened up but not properly sealed on closure, and water entering the trackball area dripped onto the front panel circuit board. There may be other damage, too, but I won't know until I replace this board. Fortunately, I have one in the old plotter that I tucked away. It looks like I have my project for the next few days cut out for me.

Endless flat water makes you complacent, and the last couple of days have reminded us to keep the boat squared away. Under way yesterday we were passed in a narrow section by an upbound tow pushing very hard; his prop wake reverberated for over a mile behind him and had us porpoising over four footers for nearly ten minutes. I moderated the throttle to null as much as I could; meanwhile Louise stood in the galley holding onto the crock pot, which had just been sitting out on the counter with dinner in it. In the ocean, we put the crock pot in the galley sink. Then we had the aforementioned 15 degree roll at the end of the day, which, fortunately, happened in slow motion.

This morning I had to pass astern of two towboats pushed against the bank in order to exit the harbor. I had to pass close astern to avoid being pushed into the shoal by the combination of river current and prop wash. We were prepared for rough water but had neglected to dog the fridge door; with the stabilizers pegged that prop wash rolled us at least 20 degrees to port. We rolled quickly and snapped back almost as quickly, and a good part of the fridge contents ended up on the galley floor. A drawer launched out of the saloon table, and apparently every dresser drawer, all of which are to starboard, came open below decks, notwithstanding being latched.

Vector handles all of this with complete aplomb, and I had no trouble driving through it, but it was a good reminder. The cat was completely blasé about it all. A little later in the morning we had another porpoise episode after passing an upbound tow in a narrow stretch; by then everything was again secured.

At this writing, there are no tows aground, although that could change overnight. The river is rising slowly, and we've made a note of some shallow spots ahead that the Coast Guard has been announcing on the radio. We should be in Greenville, Mississippi in a day or two. There's a marina there, but it's very pricey, so we will probably anchor in the slack harbor and dinghy ashore instead. It will be nice to be able to get off the boat.

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