Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Big River

We are on the Mississippi River, getting a somewhat different perspective on some familiar places. This morning found us anchored in an oxbow of the river at New Madrid, Missouri (map), and we ended our day Monday at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi, across from Cairo, Illinois (map). Both places are familiar to us from our travels in Odyssey.

Sunset from our anchorage in New Madrid. This is an oxbow off the river.

Monday we weighed anchor before 8am and started downriver for Lock and Dam 52. The lock was not very busy, and when we arrived they were just locking a looper upriver. We had a short wait for the lift to complete and the looper to clear out of the lock before we could enter. It's very late in the season for loopers to still be heading up the Ohio.

Approaching Lock 52. The bridge in the distance has two navigation spans; one only usable at low water levels and the other only usable at high water levels.

Unlike the enormous locks on the Tennessee, these Ohio River locks are short lifts or drops -- we were lowered only six feet -- and the bollards are fixed atop the lock walls. we looped bow and stern lines and then each of us tended a line, paying out slack as the boat was lowered. The lock tender was very appreciative of our boat and line handling skills, here at the end of looper season. He confessed to a certain additional measure of stress right now, as his last name was Trump.

These locks also have two separate chambers. One is 1,000'x110' for the big tows, and the other is much smaller for pleasure craft, workboats, and towboats running light boat. We were locked through in this smaller chamber, known as the riverside chamber, the larger chamber being the landside chamber.

Water coming over and through the removable wickets, with some CoE boats doing maintenance.

Being on the river side of the lock gave us an excellent view of the removable-wicket dam structure extending across the river. The Corps of Engineers installs the wickets only when the river level is dropping and in jeopardy of leaving upstream sections with low water. As the level rises, the wickets are removed, the lock chambers are idled, and traffic passes directly over the dam.

This was exactly the case for us at the next dam, Dam 53. The wickets are out, the lock chamber structure is just barely visible above the water surface (at many river levels it is submerged entirely), and we ran over a gap in the dam. The wicket sills are still an obstruction to the river flow, though, and there is an area of high turbulence across the dam; I steered by hand as we approached, ready to apply throttle if needed.

Dam 53 with the wickets down. Lock structure is visible at right; Olmstead escort boat is to the left. If you zoom in you can see the turbulence.

Well before we arrived at Dam 53, however, we were hailed on the radio by the Olmstead Dam project. Olmstead is a brand new lock and dam project just a bit downstream of Dam 53. When it is completed, it will replace both Dam 52 and Dam 53 in their entirety. The name comes from the nearby community of Olmstead, Illinois, which has been entirely overrun by the massive construction project.

Being escorted toward the Olmstead Locks, under construction.

Olmstead informed us that the river was actually closed at the construction project and would likely remain closed for 24 hours. They told us that upriver tows were being parked at the federal mooring cells upstream of Dam 53. When they found out our diminutive size (relatively speaking), they suggested they might be able to get us through, and to contact them as we passed the moored tows at Dam 53.

Passing through the massive construction site.

We passed the two downbound tows and contacted the project, who told us to proceed through Dam 53 and look for a workboat that would escort us through the project. We made a long zig-zag from the sailing line, which here is mostly on the Right Descending Bank (RDB), all the way across to the Left Descending Bank, past the dam itself and a dive barge with divers in the water (the reason for the closure), then back across to the RDB, depositing us right in front of some dozen tows that were parked waiting to go upstream past the closure. We kept a low profile on the radio until we were well beyond the project.

Bidding farewell to our escort.

Between the early start, the zippy lock-through at 52, and not even having to slow down for Olmstead, we were at the mouth of the Ohio by 1:30. We're working to an anchor-down target of no later than 4pm, so we could easily have continued another two hours before dropping the hook. However, I really did not want my first driving experience on the big river to be starting out so late in the day.

Our track through Olmstead. All the gray triangles at lower left are tows waiting to get through.

We could see a pair of red buoys at the confluence and figured that tucked behind them out of the channel would be a good place to stop for the day. A huge tow was coming upriver and planning to turn up the Ohio was on the red side of the channel, and in order to give him maneuvering room I ended up nosing out into the Mississippi and downriver a half mile before looping back to our chosen spot.

Fort Defiance in Cairo, at the confluence.

The confluence is a swirling maelstrom of eddies and boils, and the current at this flow jumps from about a knot in the Ohio to nearly four knots in the Lower Mississippi. After my U-turn our speed made good dropped from eight MPH to less than half that, and we spent fifteen minutes getting back to the Ohio. A good lesson, and confirmation that spending a final night in the lower current of the Ohio was the right decision.

We passed quite a few coots... the flying ones, not the tow drivers, hanging out in "rafts" like this.

We dropped the hook a little before 2pm and enjoyed watching the towboats making their way through the confluence. Immediately across from us was the very tip of Illinois, Fort Defiance State Park. I've heard the state has once again taken over the operation of the park from the city of Cairo, and that the campground we had all to ourselves back in 2005 has been eliminated altogether. Even the boat ramp appeared to be defunct, leaving no good way to get ashore in Cairo, which would have been a very long walk anyway. Cairo, by the way, is pronounced "kay-row" here, and not like its namesake in Egypt; at least one tow driver we heard did not get the memo.

Yesterday morning we weighed anchor and turned onto the Mississippi again, for good this time. With current running better than three knots, we're pretty much committed now in our seven-knot boat. I had figured we'd make Hickman Slack Harbor by day's end; in fact, we were whizzing past it before noon and instead made it all the way to New Madrid (rhymes with "bad-rid" and not, again, its namesake in Spain).

The Dorena ferry ramp, where we got stuck in 2010.

Hickman, by the way, is where we would have landed in Odyssey had we actually managed to get it onto the Dorena-Hickman Ferry instead of getting stuck on the ramp. It was interesting to see both the ramp and the ferry as we passed in Vector.

Not long afterward, we passed an even smaller ferry that only carries farm equipment back and forth across the river. There are several places where the current course of the river has "stranded" pieces of states on islands across the main river from the rest of the state (and some of those former islands are now simply part of the mainland in a different state); presumably this farming operation finds it easier to ferry tractors back and forth across the main river than into an adjacent state on the same side.

As I've mentioned here before, there are no more dams or locks from here to the Gulf of Mexico. We'll descend the 300 feet or so to sea level the way it's been done for millennia, with the flow of the river. One implication of the lack of locks is that the size of tows is limited only by the width of the channel, the curvature of the river, and the horsepower of the towboat.

Passing a large tow.

The army maintains the nine-foot deep channel for a width of 300'. Practically speaking, the channel is only that narrow in a handful of places, such as between bridge supports or in shoaling trouble spots. It's not really necessary for tows to keep below 150' wide, because they won't absolutely need to pass one another in these minimum-width sections. And so it is that tow raft-ups of up to six barges in width (210') and eight barges in length (1,560') can be found running the river. That's over a quarter mile long, not including the towboat itself.

Prop wash standing wave behind a large towboat.

The typical tows we've been passing are around 35 barges, five wide and seven long. They're pushing upriver at about 5mph. Some of these towboats are 10,000 horsepower and throwing a propeller wake nearly five feet tall. The river can be turbulent for nearly a mile behind them, and I steer manually from after we cross the bow wake until well beyond the primary wake of the propellers. If we happen to pass close aboard, Vector pitches over the wake in the same way she does in five foot seas.

We passed about a half dozen boats yesterday, including one we overtook, and it's become pretty much routine now. But after experiencing the wakes first hand, we opted to shelter behind the New Madrid Bar last night. We had the hook down by 3pm.

Louise on the New Madrid levee, with a pair of large tows upriver in the background.

The upper end of the oxbow is a working harbor, with a loading terminal and a small tugboat, and a handful of barges moored mid-channel. We proceeded past all that and anchored across from a public boat ramp, which would have provided access, with a half-mile walk, to a diner and a mini-mart.

Scalar at the New Madrid ramp. Vector is in the distance at the right.

Going ashore for dinner in New Madrid is not an experience we need to have -- we've been this way before and we remember what it's like. Instead, we splashed the tender and ran back upriver to the main city boat ramp, where we could stroll around downtown. It's quaint, but few of the storefronts house going concerns.

Downtown New Madrid as seen from the levee.

We had a nice dinner aboard, as we did Tuesday as well. Sadly, the season of eating al fresco on the aft deck is behind us. It has been moderately pleasant in the afternoon -- we had nice weather for our stroll around town and the tender ride -- but dropping into the 40s at night. We are glad to be heading south.

We spotted this old Eagle conversion on our walk around town.

We're making such good time that we dallied a couple of hours before weighing anchor this morning. Today's cruise has been lovely, if a bit monotonous. We did, however, pass a sailboat hard aground on shore. It looks to have been tied off to a tree, possibly just for a night, and then stranded by dropping water levels. We're trying to keep at least 6' of water under our keel at anchor to avoid a similar fate. Tonight we should be anchored in or near Caruthersville, Missouri, another stop familiar from our travels in Odyssey.

Well-grounded sailboat.

Update: We're now anchored in the river across from Caruthersville, Missouri (map), on the Tennessee side. We're well out of the channel in 20' over silt buildup ahead of a wing dam. Two giant tows passed right after we got settled, one of which was 48 barges (6x8), and while we bobbed around a little, it was far from uncomfortable, so we're good for the night. The town boat ramp is right across the river and there is a well-rated pizza joint a few blocks away. Long-time readers may recall we parked Odyssey at the casino here, which has since changed hands and names, back in 2005.

Poorly-lit shot of Caruthersville. Riverboat casino at left; city park and ramp to the right.

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