Saturday, September 14, 2019

From the Lakes to the Rivers

We are anchored in the Illinois River, just upstream of the Marseilles Dam (map). The bottom here is a thin layer of silt over rock and we are considering it a lunch hook while we wait our turn for the lock. If that ends up being overnight, we might have to find alternate accommodations.

Navy Pier, the Ferris wheel, and half the Chicago skyline from Anchorage A.

It has been an eventful week since my last post. I had hoped to post here southbound out of Chicago, but we left in thick fog and I could not divert my attention from the instruments. The following two days were something of a goat rope, and this forced stop at the lock is my first chance to type.

The rest of our cruise into Chicago last Saturday was uneventful, although I had to dodge and weave through a number of sailboats out enjoying the day as we got closer to the city. We cleared through the outer breakwaters a little after 6pm, made a hard left and dropped the hook in Anchorage A, at the northeast corner of the breakwalls (map). Had we made a right we would have been in Anchorage C, locally known as "the Playpen," and as you might imaging with that name, on a pleasant weekend it was full of go-fast boats enjoying water sports.

Approaching Chicago from the north. Navy Pier at left.

Anchorage A, by contrast, is a lonely place. We had the enormous anchorage to ourselves, although the harbor tours circled around behind us on their evening cruises. From this vantage the city lights form a backdrop to Navy Pier and its enormous Ferris wheel. We enjoyed the view over dinner aboard, and we had a mostly pleasant night, with swell moving in the following morning after a wind shift. After dinner some radio traffic from the tour boats revealed there would be fireworks, and we were treated to a nice display over the harbor.

Fireworks from Anchorage A.

In the morning we weighed anchore and moved to the south Grant Park anchorage inside the inner breakwalls, in an area locally known as Monroe Harbor (map). The entire inner harbor was once full of mooring balls, but the city pulled them out of the southern half as demand dropped off. We were just a few hundred yards from the Chicago Museum Campus. It was a perfect spot for seeing Chicago, and we had already arranged with a nearby yacht club to use their docks to land the tender.

The view from our nice, protected, unusable anchorage. Field museum at right, Shedd Aquarium at left.

We had a relaxing afternoon aboard in mostly rainy weather. It was too wet and choppy to want to splash the dinghy until we were ready to go to dinner, at the aforementioned yacht club. Instead I got a few things done around the house, including some preparations for the upcoming river trip, such as making up a masthead and anchor light we could deploy while the mast was lowered.

Just as it was coming up to 5 o'clock and we were thinking about having a beer, I got word from one of our online resources that anchoring overnight is not allowed in Monroe Harbor. It's a federal anchorage, but rulemaking in the Federal Register turns administration of it over to the Chicago Park District (we've come up against this elsewhere as well, notably the 79th Street anchorage in NYC). Harumph.

Cloud Gate, known by locals as The Bean, in Millenium Park.

It is very likely we could have stayed there overnight without any issue. But the risk is always the 3am knock on the hull from the marine patrol, and neither of use wanted to be weighing anchor in the middle of the night and trying to go elsewhere. We decided to pull up stakes and move before dinner.

Our choices were to go back out to the outer harbor, where the feds have not ceded control, take a mooring ball in Monroe harbor for (gulp) a dollar per foot (launch service included), or go to a dock for at least three times that much. The outer harbor was now very rough, and in addition to being uncomfortable, we'd be stuck on the boat or else bashing two miles through the chop to get ashore.

Right at 5pm everyone was closing for the night, but the harbormaster gave us a ball assignment if we wanted it. Apparently there are only a couple of balls in the whole harbor for boats larger than 50', and, as luck would have it, they are right next to the entrance. It would be even less comfortable than the anchorage. In the end, we decided on docking at the Columbia Yacht Club (map), which was much more protected and an easy walk to town. They charge $3 per foot, the lowest their landlord the Park District will allow them to go. The adjacent Park District docks, known as DuSable Harbor, are $3.25.

Buckingham Fountain.

We were finally tied up and shut down by 5:45; the yacht club's dockmaster gave us a couple of key cards as soon as our lines were on before taking off for the day. I spent the next few minutes repairing their pedestal to get our shore power working. Exhausted by the last minute scramble, we just went inside the club for drinks and dinner in the member bar, which was quite nice.

And when I say "inside the club" I mean up the gangway from the guest dock into the MV Abegweit, the retired 1944 icebreaking rail, vehicle, and passenger ferry that serves as a floating clubhouse. The ship is affectionately known by the members as the "Abby" and houses a bar, a formal dining room, sailing school classrooms, and lots of sails, sailmaking, and other materials. Another pair of gangways connects the ship to the DuSable Harbor walkway.

Vector (partly obscured by a rack of tiny sailboats) is dwarfed by Abby.

Before arriving in Chicago, I had envisioned casually hanging out for a full week, going ashore occasionally for exploration by foot, bicycle, or el, and generally having a relaxing visit anchored in the harbor. At $156 a night for the dock, the dynamics of a visit change somewhat (OK, so call me cheap), and Monday morning I immediately put the e-Bike on the ground to explore.

There is a very nice bike bath along the waterfront, and bikes are also allowed on the Riverwalk as well as in Millennium park. None of these things existed when I lived in the metro Chicago area three and a half decades ago. Downtown, however, bikes may not be ridden on the sidewalks on penalty of a $250 fine, and actual bike lanes are few and far between. I found it impossible to get around to anything interesting.

80th floor view to the west, dominated by the Willis Tower.

The yacht club was closed Monday, as was the nearby Chicago Yacht Club, where we had intended to land the tender and where, consequently, I had addressed an eBay package. Of course the package arrived Monday, or so said UPS. We went to dinner at Acanto, a nice Italian place across from Millennium Park. We were going through a warm spell and we were able to eat outside on the patio.

Tuesday morning I strolled over to the Chicago Yacht Club to pick up my package. It was not there, nor was it delivered to their other location, and I ended up spending a good part of the morning trying to track down why UPS said it was delivered but no one could find it. Eventually they determined the shipper's hand-written address label did not make it into the system properly, and the delivery was re-scheduled for Wednesday.

Tuesday afternoon we had something of a busman's holiday. Vector is too tall to make it under the downtown Chicago bridges. When we planned to anchor, I had intended to take the tender through the lock and explore both branches of the river a bit. Instead we sprung a few bucks and took one of the numerous river tours; we chose the "architecture" tour as being a bit more interesting.

On the Architecture Tour aboard the mv Wendella.

The last couple of times we stopped in Chicago, we ate at our affiliate club on the 67th floor of the Willis Tower. Now there is a second affiliate with an even better view, on the 80th floor of the AON center, and we walked there after our cruise. The service was nice and the view was spectacular, so we enjoyed it at the time, but Louise got food poisoning, marring the experience.

Looking north from the Mid-America Club, right from our table.

Wednesday morning I made an e-Bike run to the nearest Jewel grocery store for provisions; it's a bit of a haul but on bike path most of the way and bike lane for the last two blocks. In the afternoon I obsessively clicked on UPS tracking in hopes my package would arrive before we had to shove off. The Columbia Yacht Club was very gracious to let us stay at the dock until it finally arrived at 4:30. We cast off the lines and motored out to Anchorage B, which was now calm enough to spend a night.

The view from Anchorage B. Not too shabby.

Anchorage B is the closest to Monroe Harbor, and we tendered back to the Chicago Yacht Club for dinner. They had been nice enough to receive my package (and pull out all the stops looking for it), and we figured we'd spend a few bucks there in return. We had a nice dinner on the patio. After we returned home and decked the tender, a thunderstorm moved through, with 40-knot winds. Before we could secure everything, the wind pressure against my new anchor shape support snapped our burgee staff in two, and the day shape and it's pvc base went to Davy Jones' locker.

Thursday morning we awoke to dense fog. No problem, since we only had ten miles to go to Calumet Harbor, where we planned to spend the night and stage for our run down the river, lowering the mast and dealing with all the other details of getting under the low bridges. The fog only burned off a little bit by mid-morning, but we knew seas would be growing, and we opted to get under way, with a close eye on the radar.

I walked the longest section of the Chicago Pedway, a network of underground walkways running through downtown.

We dropped the hook in Calumet Harbor right around 11:30, and relaxed over lunch. The fog had mostly lifted and I was looking forward to getting the boat ready for the bridges and then getting a blog post done before dinner. With a whole day ahead of us, we were not rushing anything, and a check of the water level at the low bridge pool showed we had a good foot to spare.

All of that changed in an instant when, after lunch, Louise called up a weather report and saw a flash flood warning for the Des Plaines River in the north. The river was expected to reach flood stage overnight and crest the next day. That would mean downstream pools would be rising faster than the dams could drain them.

The neoclassical City Hall is at the end of the Pedway in this direction.

With the 10am pool reading still a foot lower than we needed, we opted to get an immediate start down the river and hope to make the low bridge in Lemont before stopping for the night, a run of some 35 miles, or six hours, not counting lockage time. The next half hour was a mad scramble to lower the mast and antennas, remove the wind sensor, and rearrange things for the bridges and get underway. We weighed anchor at 12:45.

I cleared through the first two lift bridges before the bilge alarm went off; when it rains, it pours. Louise ran down to check it, and even now we still have not locked down the source. It's slowly dripping down the starboard side hull plating from somewhere behind the wall; most likely some rainwater forced in someplace. Once we determined the boat was not flooding, we pressed on to the T. J. O'Brien lock, which lowered us from the insanely high lake level down to the controlled pool of the river system.

We had a couple of bridge delays, but overall a good cruise and we made good time to Lemont. Unfortunately, the river gage web site run by the Corps of Engineers went down sometime after the 10am pool reading, and remained down for the rest of our cruise. All we could do was hope that the level remained below limits when we arrived.

Locking down at Lockport, after the infamous low bridge. We tied to the only pin available with two huge tows in the lock. Smaller boat on our port is rafted to us.

Sadly, that was not the case. The gage web site came back on line literally minutes before we arrived at the bridge, and we were aghast to find the pool had risen over a foot and a half between 10am and 6pm. Theoretically we should have had a couple of inches to spare even at the new reading, but the gage is well downriver, at the dam, and the level can be a couple of inches higher at the bridge. I pulled up close and sighted along the top of the flybridge top, as luck would have it just as a train went over the bridge. The sighting was too close for comfort and we made a quick about-face.

And there we were, in exactly the situation I had worked so hard to avoid: unable to transit the low bridge, at 6pm and with dozens of miles back to the nearest marina or anchorage. It was a particularly low moment, no pun intended.

We had done a little dance with a couple of very large towboats just as we came into Lemont, and one of them was moving barges in and out of one of the three enormous commercial "slips" there. I called the skipper on the radio, explained our conundrum, and asked if he knew a place we could tie up until the water level went down. He, in turn, supplied me the the name and number of the guy who ran a fleeting operation in one of the slips, and we gave him a call.

I explained our situation, and, knowing that the slips are under MarSec security protocol, I mentioned that I was a licensed captain with a TWIC, which theoretically allows me into secure ports. He was super nice, very understanding, and directed us to tie up to an empty styrene barge on the wall facing the channel (map). He cautioned us about visibility, and we spent the night with every light on the upper decks turned on. Other than the towboats rumbling by outside it was a calm night.

Vector tied up to a barge along the canal. The cleats were a little high.

Aware that workers could arrive at sunup to do whatever is done in such a place, we set an early alarm. The 6am gage reading showed the river had dropped nearly a full foot overnight, and we immediately dropped lines, shoved off, and squirted under the bridge with nearly a foot to spare. We were ecstatic to have this bridge behind us.

Vector on the wall at Joliet.

It was only a short run to Joliet, where we were tied up at the free wall (map) by 10:30. With a whole day ahead of us, I set out on the e-Bike to explore a bit. Joliet was once where the historic Lincoln Highway and Route 66 crossed, and, of course, was also the site of the Illinois State Penitentiary, infamously known as Joliet Prison.

One of two claims to fame for Joliet.

The prison, which closed in 2002, is the town's largest claim to fame, and they make hay of it. The local minor league team is The Slammers, whose tag line is New Team, Same Joint. And creepily, the local high school seems to have been modeled on the prison's architecture. As if high school students needed another reason to compare their stay to a prison sentence.

Joliet Prison High School.

Around 6pm the flotilla of loopers that had started their run in the morning all showed up together at the dock, unsurprising since lockage and timed bridge openings tend to bunch everyone together, even if they started spread out. I did my best to help a few get tied, but it was a bit chaotic. One skipper managed to slam his boat hard into the concrete wall, and I heard the unmistakable crunch of fiberglass that suggests a good deal of subsurface damage. We were happy to see a couple whom we had met way back in Schenectady.

The wall looks a bit different after arrival of the fleet.

While the flotilla was still getting things sorted and settling in after a long cruise, we slipped away and headed off to a casual dinner at the Chicago Street Pub. Chicago street is the main drag through downtown, and actually sports a handful of decent restaurants. A Harrah's Casino is on the riverfront for the buffet aficionados.

We're on a mission from God.

We are not good group travelers. That was true when we did a lot of motorcycle touring (where group participants are reminded to "ride your own ride"), it was true when we were in the bus (the caravan through Mexico was something we endured for an otherwise unavailable experience), and it's true in the boat, too. Mindful that locks and bridges force boats into groups for better or worse, we got up early and got a head start off the dock this morning, beating the bridge curfew and locking down at the first lock with just one other boat, the two of us crammed into the space leftover with two giant tows in the lock.

That put us ahead of the pack, so to speak, for the rest of the morning, and we had a very nice solo cruise down through one more lock and a handful of bridges. Our luck ran out when we arrived at Marseilles. This lock, and the next one downstream, have been closing for 12 hours each day to conduct repairs for the last two weeks, with unrestricted locking just starting a couple of days ago. Both locks are scheduled to close completely for two weeks starting in just a few days.

Tied alongside a chemical barge in Lemont. The infamous low bridge is in the background.

That combination has a backlog of tows stacked up in both directions for miles; when we arrived at the lock there were 20 downbound tows in queue. The lock told us they *might* be able to get a couple of us through after 5pm, but, if not, it would be 5:30am tomorrow. Which is how we found ourselves anchoring just upstream of the dam at 1pm. I did some chart work and started this post, and Louise did some sewing and started dinner. The pack of other loopers all caught up to us an hour or so later; most turned back upriver and found anchorages or marinas, with only two boats opting to remain with us.

Update: We are now anchored just downriver of a railroad bridge in Ottawa, Illinois (map). Before I could finish the post, the lock called us around 5:30 and directed us to move the two miles down the canal to the lock, where we could tie to a mooring cell or station-keep and be locked through after the next tow. We wasted no time and were at the lock by 6:20, where we tied up to a mooring cell with considerable effort in the propwash of the nearby tow. The other two boats chose to hover.

Another weird tie-up to a circular mooring facility.

And there we sat until 9:25, nearly three hours. I was very glad we took the time to tie up and shut the engine down. We had dinner while we waited, and researched contingency plans for making progress after dark and finding a safe spot to stop. We made it the last four miles in the dark without incident; the river is well-buoyed if not well lit.

Moonrise over the river as we await lockage. One of the hovering boats is at left; lights behind him are a downbound tow parked on the bank. We're using an old dowel and a piece of PEX as a temporary flagstaff.

We had hoped to just tie up to the free city dock here, but when we arrived it was full of boats rafted three deep. So we continued another few hundred yards to where we are now. We can get ashore by tender tomorrow, or if the dock frees up we can bring Vector over. I expect the pack to catch up to us early in the morning, since they'll all be locking through at 5:30.

The trip from here on down until we reach the Ohio will be busy, and I won't be able to type at the helm. I will try to update the blog every few stops, or whenever we can schedule a down day. Once we are through the next lock, we will be out from the pressure of the scheduled closure, and I expect things to get a bit more relaxed.

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