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.

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