Saturday, October 29, 2016


I am typing under way on Pickwick Lake, downbound from Florence, Alabama on the Tennessee River. We had a very nice four-night stop in Florence, where Louise underwent two more physical therapy appointments. We won't pass another office of that physiotherapy group until we reach Memphis, on the Mississippi River.

Sunset from our anchorage in the river, on our way to dinner Tuesday.

This morning found us docked at Florence Harbor Marina (map), just a few feet away from where we docked back in July. We only spent a single night at the dock; unlike our last visit, we did not need air conditioning, and so we only opted to spend our final night in town at the dock so we could top up the batteries, take on water, do some laundry, more easily load the scooter, and pump out our tanks on departure.

Vector at the dock. That's a tiny Nordhavn astern of us.

This last item proved to be a snare and a delusion. After the last load of laundry finished drying, we unplugged the power just past noon and ambled over to the fuel dock We spent a half hour trying to get the pumpout to work, and while it would draw water from the river, it would not make enough vacuum to draw from our tank some four feet below the waterline. On our last visit, we had trouble with the power, so this place is now oh-for-two.

Charybdis. Best I could do from the flybridge. That's a bottle in the center.

Shortly after my last post Tuesday, we locked down through Wilson Lock, the tallest single lift east of the Rockies. As we reached the lower end of our descent, we noticed a small whirlpool forming in front of the boat, spinning an old water bottle trapped within. Between that and the enormous hundred-foot-tall gates, I was reminded of Scylla and Charybdis.


After leaving the lock it was a very short cruise to the O'Neal Bridge; we dropped anchor just downstream of the bridge in 18' of water, well out of the channel and directly across from the harbor entrance (map). The bottom here is scoured rock, all the way back up to the dam, so we put out nearly 200' of chain, allowing our Bruce to catch on whatever discontinuity could be found in the rock. We did not budge our whole stay.

Locking through Wilson, these ball fenders scrape along 100' of dirty, slimy lock wall.

After splashing the tender I headed into the basin to sound it out and see if there was a way to offload a scooter without paying for marina space. I found over 8' all the way to the boat ramp and public courtesy dock at the north end of the harbor. We opted to return in Vector Wednesday morning rather than cram it in at the end of the day Tuesday, and so we ended up eating at the River Bottom Grille right there in the harbor Tuesday evening.

Delta Mariner passing under the O'Neal bridge. Florence Harbor is to the left.

As I was coming back to Vector from my reconnaissance, I quickly passed in front of a large ship coming upriver. I got back aboard just in time to snap a photo of the Delta Mariner approaching the O'Neal bridge on its way to the lock. This ocean-going ship is sized for navigating the inland rivers, and is purpose-built to transport space rockets from the United Launch Alliance manufacturing plant in Decatur, Alabama to the launch sites at either Cape Canaveral, Florida or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The ship is somewhat infamous for having taken out a section of the Eggner's Ferry Bridge, which we will pass a bit later on in our cruise.

Delta Mariner after hitting the Eggner's Ferry Bridge. That's a bridge span sitting on her bow. She attempted to use the wrong span.

Wednesday morning we decked the tender, weighed anchor and made our way to the boat ramp. As I started to come alongside the dock, I found myself struggling to get the boat close, feeling almost as though we were aground, yet I had sounded out the whole dock the day before and found nothing less than eight feet.

It turned out that our keel was sitting on a massive steel cable that runs under the entire basin and is used to hold the docks in place. The cable is supposed to run down the embankment and thence along the bottom, but in this particular location it has become somewhat taught and enters the water at a shallower angle. No harm, no foul, but I'm really glad we did not hit it with the propeller, or catch a stabilizer fin on it. It's possible we lost some paint on the keel. We opted to load from the marina dock at the end of our stay to avoid a repeat performance.

Vector at the boat ramp courtesy dock to offload a scooter.

After getting the scooter, as well as all our trash, off the boat, we returned to our cozy anchorage. At this time of year, the sun sets directly downriver, making for some spectacular sunset views from our aft deck. We had a view of the bridges and dam ahead of us, the sheer limestone cliffs of Muscle Shoals to starboard, and the harbor lights across the river to port. We were close enough to pick up WiFi but far enough that the lights did not disturb us.

Wednesday afternoon I made a pilgrimage to the hardware store while Louise was in PT. Afterward we rode to the campground at McFarland Park and met up with our friends Shonda and Michael. We had a nice dinner with them at the 360 revolving restaurant high above the Marriott Hotel, near the Wilson Lock. It was great catching back up with them.

Louise "washes our balls" after locking through.

On our way back to the boat, well after dark, we noticed our anchor light was out. I was certain I had turned it on before we left. Fortunately, the string of holiday lights we keep around the flybridge top make Vector quite visible even without the anchor light, although they, too, went dark, literally as we approached in the tender. This was less of a mystery; we were gone longer than expected, and the battery level dropped to a point where the inverter cut off -- the holiday lights are the regular household AC kind.

As soon as we were back aboard we fired up the generator, which got the light strings back on immediately. The anchor light switch was, in fact, on; cycling it several times did not help, and it appeared as if our expensive, high-zoot, 50,000-hour LED anchor light had burned out. Drat. After charging up the batteries, in addition to the holiday lights we turned on a few other outside lights and called it a day.

Vector, looking tiny against the massive cliffs across the river, from McFarland Park.

That failure dictated my plan for Thursday. Shortly after finishing my coffee, I dragged out the ladder and went aloft. Even though I had girded myself for a battle, the anchor light came off the mast surprisingly easily, with but three screws which, somehow, escaped being corroded into the aluminum. I was a bit horrified to discover that the two tiny wires (22 AWG) built into the light were supporting the entire weight of some fifteen-odd feet of 14-gauge sheathed boat cable hanging down inside the mast. Whoever installed this light, circa 2009, failed to provide the required strain relief.

I clipped the leads, secured the loose cable end from falling back into the mast, and, like the Grinch, brought it back to my workshop. After cutting away the last half inch of the six-inch tails, which looked damaged to me, and connecting it to power, I found the light working intermittently. So the LED itself and its potted driver board were fine.

Sadly, wiggling the leads revealed that the copper wires were internally damaged from work hardening. The damage ran along several spots, including the worst possible (but most likely) place, right where they emerge from the fixture. Still, by cutting off most of the tails and making a new pigtail, I was able to get the light mostly working, with some occasional dimming or flicker.

The underside of the anchor light. I cut as much of the tail off as I could to still have room for the heat shrink connectors seen at upper left.

This damage is 100% due to the aforementioned failure to provide strain relief. The weight of all that cable, swinging from this one point inside the mast as the boat pitched and rolled over seven years, hardened and broke those wires the same way you can break a paper clip by bending it back and forth in your hands a dozen times. The last owner paid good money for this light, probably north of $300 for the light alone, plus "professional" installation, and by all rights it should have lasted the life of the boat.

I ended up spending two hours trying to source a replacement. This model is no longer made, and my choices no longer include any that will simply bolt back in its place. I've found one that I think will work once I cover all the old holes and drill new ones, but I will need to find a place to have it shipped. Not a single usable light was to be found anywhere in Florence, which does not have a chandlery.

Another night, another great sunset from our aft deck.

At least the old one is working well enough to be usable here on the rivers. I reinstalled it, with proper strain relief this time, and we'll check it nightly. We should be fine with our strings of LED lights lit in addition each night.

Tonight we'll be anchored again in Pickwick Lake, probably not far from where we dropped the hook on our way upstream. With all our errands this morning, we got off to a late start, and it will be a short day. Tomorrow sometime, we will pass the spot where we turned on to the Tennessee from the Tenn-Tom Waterway, and we'll once again sally forth into new territory.


  1. Sean you could have the light sent here and I could meet you in Camden, Paducah or even Memphis.
    However it would probably be easiest to have it sent to general delivery at the main post office downtown Paducah a short walk or scooter ride from the river front.
    But I'm having trouble remembering what kind of dock would be available for you to unload the scooter.
    I know you could tender in to the landing on the river front and walk about 4-5 city blocks to the post office.,-88.5932019/37.0844963,-88.5960987/@37.0873464,-88.5978797,1270m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!4m1!3e2

    and also probably a place of interest to Louise would be;,+Paducah,+KY+42001/@37.0881834,-88.5979908,1270m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m13!4m12!1m5!1m1!1s0x0:0xbee5c7f873d025cf!2m2!1d-88.5971193!2d37.089333!1m5!1m1!1s0x887a11b2e1625dfb:0x709dbd37a8bf3124!2m2!1d-88.5936108!2d37.0880671

    Or you could just have it shipped to where she'll be getting therapy in Memphis.

    1. Thanks, Bryce. It's working well enough to get by for now, so I'll probably just have it sent to the marina in Memphis. Thanks for the quilt museum tip, though, we might check it out. I expect to spend at least a couple of days in Paducah if we can easily get ashore -- not sure how much water is at the dock right now.

    2. Sean I don't recall Paducah having much of a "dock" as the whole riverfront down town is slanted like a boat ramp.
      But I see no reason you couldn't drop anchor and tender in. There are cleats and "eyes" to tie off to in the concrete. (or were 25 years ago when I lived and worked in Paducah.
      Might be a dock at the hotel/civic center right next door to the quilt museum. (used to be Excutive Inn but they tore it down and I heard there is a new one but couldn't tell you anything about it!)

    3. Bryce, my chart shows a floating "courtesy dock" at the far west end of the waterfront, which may or may not be put in place seasonally. The most recent comments on the crowd-sourced guide we use, from August, say the dock is not there this season due to construction. I have some inquiries out to people who've been through Paducah recently to see if anyone knows. Hopefully we can find a spot to at least land the dinghy so we can get ashore.

    4. I talked to "Shorty" last night and he said the Visitors center had sponsored and placed a courtesy "barge" at the end of the riverfront but they have taken it away now that the main "boating season" is over.

      He said to be sure and be very careful in a boat the size of Vector as the river is the lowest he's ever seen it and he's lived in Paducah 55 yrs.
      He said there was a bunch of hoopla and hystria last weekend when a couple guys in a 33' "Cabin cruiser" ran ashore on a sand bar and called in a "mayday call" on the radio and had the fire department, coast guard, city and state responders and anyone else that was bored out there trying to rescue them.
      Turns out the guys didn't want to be rescued stayed on the boat and someone eventually pulled them off the sand bar.
      He said it was all over the city radio system and even made the evening news but really was a bunch of hoopla over nothing.
      He said they have built a new launch ramp down by the pump station he works at but it's just a ramp and no dock. And quite a ways downriver from "downtown"

    5. Thanks Bryce. We had no trouble with low water in Paducah, but I can see how an inattentive skipper could run aground on the Tennessee River side.

      We passed that boat ramp on our way downriver this morning. The dock runs up and down the ramp on a track as the water level changes... quite nifty, actually. But, yes, a long way from anything. And the local boaters seem to prefer the downtown landing anyway.

  2. Is there something unique about the design of the light that makes it so expensive?

    1. Hi Tim.

      Well, for starters, it's made for a boat. Anytime you have a "marine" item you can figure it is several times more expensive than a similar item made for a house or even an RV. Part of this is supply and demand, and part is low manufacturing volume.

      We try to avoid buying marine-specific items whenever possible for this reason, but when it comes to navigation lights, that's not an option -- the lights must be tested to 2nm visibility and carry USCG and other approvals.

      Navigation lights in general are more expensive than interior fixtures as well, since they live in a harsh environment and are typically fully potted.

      Similar lights today are about a third to a half that amount, and this reflects the LED fixture industry as a whole. LED fixtures were much scarcer and more expensive a decade ago.


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