Thursday, October 10, 2019

Steel boat, FTW

We are downbound in the Cumberland River, just leaving Nashville. We had a very nice, if just a bit too brief, three-night stay there, right downtown. That will have to be the subject of my next post, however, as this one will be a very different topic. To wit: we allided with an underwater obstruction, and had to be rescued by the fire department.

The medallion given to us after our rescue by Ashland City Fire.

Sunday afternoon we arrived at Cheatham Lock a little before 4pm. The lock asked us to stand by while they finished another operation, and we tied to a mooring cell just downriver. We were in the chamber at 4:15 and proceeding upriver out of the lock not long after that, headed for an anchorage just a couple of miles further along.

As we continued upriver on the sailing line, a large downbound tow headed for the lock requested a two-whistle pass "in front of the park," just upriver of some mooring cells. We moved well over toward the Right Descending Bank and slowed to 1400 rpm for the pass. I was hand steering; we were only about 100' from shore, but in 37' of water and in the white area on both our charts. We had not even passed the tow yet when, suddenly, we ran hard aground (map).

Tied to a mooring cell downriver of Cheatham Lock.

When I say "hard," I mean we went from five knots to zero in less than 30', there was a very loud scraping noise, and when the dust settled, the aft end of the boat was nearly a foot out of the water, and we were nose-down at about the angle of the rake of our keel. The depth sounder, however, still read 37'.

"The park" where the towboat skipper asked us to meet him was a Corps of Engineers campground, which was packed with campers on one of the last weekend afternoons of the season. We had quite the audience for our grounding (and beyond), including the helpful folks who suggested we throw them a line so they could try to pull us off, oblivious to the physics involved.

After an initial damage assessment that included checking all bilges to make sure we were not taking on water, I made an effort to back off with the engine, to zero effect, and also to swing the still-floating bow off into the deep water to starboard with the thruster, also to no effect. Probing around the boat with a pole revealed we were on a 5' deep rock, with a precipice into deep water just two feet to starboard.

 We double-checked the charts. The official Corps of Engineers electronic chart showed us in "navigable" depth of at least 9', with a shoal some distance to port. Our backup Navionics Sonar Charts on the iPad also showed us in good water, on the steep slope of the side of the  channel, but it also showed us outside the buoy line, with a green buoy just ahead of us and to starboard (the buoys are not shown on the Corps charts). The buoy was nowhere to be seen, missing entirely. Had it been there, I would have kept it well to port.

Our main chart display. Coming from the left, we departed the "Sailing Line" you see mid-river to pass a tow. You can see the spot where we hit; the lighter color is all supposedly 9' deep. The meandering course afterward is from decking the tender, damage assessment, and testing.

After finishing damage assessment and getting our breathing and pulse rates back under control, we started making calls to address the situation. Louise called TowboatUS, our towing service, who said they had a boat in a land-locked recreational lake in Nashville that they would have to trailer down, with an ETA of 11am the next morning.

Concerned that an outboard-powered towboat on a trailer was going to be insufficient to move our 50-ton boat off a rock, I started calling anyone I could think of. That included the lock operator, as I knew the Corps had a large towboat on the upriver side of the lock. The lock referred us to Ashland City Fire Rescue, who had a boat. I also called our insurance company and left a message, so they, too, could work on finding us some help.

Ashland City Fire doubted they could do much with their rescue boat and its twin 225hp outboards, but they offered to come out in the morning around 11 to add their effort to that of Towboat. We thanked them and agreed to talk in the morning. With anyone else who might have been helpful closed for the weekend, we resigned ourselves to an ignominious night on the rocks, with our audience of campers.

Our backup display. I put a pin on our position (just under the blue circle). You can see the icon for the green buoy that happened to be missing.

Many of those campers soon left, as a thunderstorm that had been toying with us began in earnest. It was a real gullywasher that lasted most of the night. We had a nice dinner aboard, including self-medicating with a couple of glasses of wine. It felt so familiar to be there near the campground, warm and dry while watching some campers struggle with their campfires. We don't have "Not Under Command / Aground" lights, but we put our anchor light on, along with several deck lights.

Since the grounding, the boat had been at a slight nose-down aspect, not uncomfortable, and mostly level side-to-side unless we both walked to the same side of the deck. Our movement, or a wake on the river, would make us rock to one side or the other. After dinner the list got progressively worse, sending me to the bilges to re-check for water ingress. At some point I realized they were letting more water out at Cheatham Dam, and the lake level was dropping.

The final time we rolled to starboard we ended up at quite a list; I would estimate perhaps 15°-20°. At this angle, merely moving our body weight could not right us, and things were falling out of cabinets. The two loose chairs and ottomans in the saloon slid across the slippery floor to the starboard side; the cat could hardly walk, and we had difficulty going up and down the stairs. Sleeping at this angle was also probably not going to happen. The lake was at least a half foot lower than when we had run aground.

We called Ashland City Fire Rescue back and asked them to evacuate us. By this time we had the tender in the water and could get ourselves to shore at the park boat ramp, but then we could get noplace else. There is no Uber or Lyft here, nor even a taxi cab. Making matters worse, the lone hotel in town does not allow pets. The rain was coming down in buckets and the lightning was just a mile or two away. Even though we were well outside their city limits, they offered to come get us.

We secured the boat as best we could, including dogging all the lower port lights. We put the anchor out with enough chain (in a pile) for 40' of water, in case a wake or a rising lake floated us free. And I made my first ever Pan Pan call to alert the Coast Guard that we were abandoning ship. As hard as that is to type, it was even harder to say it on the radio.

We left the boat with just the cat, some cat food and litter, a dry change of clothes and some toiletries for each of us, and our identification papers. It was a short dinghy ride to the small dock at the Corps of Engineers park, but we arrived drenched and took shelter at a fish cleaning station. No sooner had we gotten all our gear under cover than firefighter Tanner arrived in a fire department crew cab pickup and drove us to the firehouse.

After meeting the whole shift, including firefighter Mike, who had taken all my phone calls, we spent perhaps twenty minutes at the station trying to get any kind of ride out to a hotel in Clarksville or Nashville that would take pets. In the end, the firefighters suggested we could leave the cat in her carrier at the station for the night, so that's what we did. They drove us a few blocks to Boarder's Motel.

We had a comfortable enough night, complete with luxuriously long hot showers. But I confess I did not get much sleep. Every time I got up for whatever reason, I checked on Vector with the remote access to our cameras. It seems the boat had a less stressful night than we did.

With a long day ahead of us, we were up at dawn. We gulped down some coffee from the motel lobby and started working on a way back to the park. Just as the night before, Uber and Lyft, while happily accepting our destination and calculating an arrival time and fare, both failed to find drivers. The lone listing for a local cab was disconnected, and the nearest other taxi companies told us we were too far away.

Once again Ashland City Fire came to our rescue, sending firefighter Matthew out to get us in the pickup, Angel already in tow, and take us back to the campground. We arrived back at Vector to find her sitting level side-to-side; all that rain brought the lake up over a foot since we left. Still, not enough to float us off.

I spent the morning making phone calls, trying to find a bigger boat to pull us off. Eventually I got a positive response from Glen at Hines Furlong Line, who had a harbor tug up in Nashville that he could send down if we needed it. At $400 per hour and a 20 hour round trip, we both agreed that was only a fall-back option. I also called the dam to see if there was any chance the water would come up further, but it was already overtopping the spillways.

Not long after we returned, I got a call from Matthew saying the fire boat would come down at 11 to assist. They actually arrived at 10:30, while we were still waiting on TowboatUS. Aboard were the chief, the deputy chief, and a civilian (we think) who had retired from the Corps of Engineers. They thought we might be sitting on top of the remains of the old Lock A.

While they waited they did a couple of loops around Vector with their side-scan sonar on, and that confirmed it. We were perched on the edge of the old land-side lock wall. That explained why our depth transducer, just a couple of feet to starboard of our keel, was still reading 37' -- all the way to the old lock floor. We joked about getting practice with the side-scan, which is aboard so they can find bodies.

Ashland City's fire boat. Deputy chief probing the water with the chief at the helm.

When 11 o'clock came and went, and Towboat allowed that they were still an hour away, we agreed with the fire department to give it a go without them. I didn't want to make the fire guys wait any longer, but more importantly, the lake was up 8" from when we hit, but the forecast said it was already going back down.

The fire boat has a pair of large vertical push bars at the bow, with rubber guards. With our bow already over deep water and just the after half of the keel on the wall, we had them ease up to the port side of the bow and give a mighty shove to maybe rotate us off. The push actually heeled us enough that we were floating, briefly.

One more big push, with me gunning our engine in forward, got us swinging to starboard to the point where just the aft end of the keel was aground. Pointed mostly out into the river, I ran the throttle up to full power, and with an enormous scrape we were floating free. I maneuvered out to mid-channel and we once again ran through the whole boat doing a damage assessment.

The fire boat did a loop around us as well to look for issues, and before leaving us to our own devices, they came up alongside to give us a medallion as a remembrance of our encounter. Truly a great group of people who went well out of their way to help us, above and beyond the call of duty. We'll be making a donation to the firefighters' fund.

We had to hover in the river briefly while we loaded the tender back on deck, and we ran the engine at all our usual RPM settings to see if there was any vibration that might suggest we banged the prop. Rudder control was good in both directions and I can't see that it got pushed up more than a quarter inch, if at all. The stabilizers are working and I found both to be generally intact when I probed with the boat pole, although there is a good chance the port one got banged up a little.

By this time it was after 11:30, but we still had enough time to make Nashville in the daylight. Reasoning that any services we might need, such as a diver to do an underwater inspection, would be easier to get there than in a remote anchorage near a town with no taxi, and with the lock behind us already closed for the week, we opted to press on to our planned dock for the night. We had no further issues throughout the day, and were tied up in Nashville before 5:30 with a well-earned beer.

We spent two full days and then some in Nashville, and despite making myriad phone calls, we could not get a diver to come look at the hull. Neither is there any place on this lake where we can haul out. At this point we are relying on our inspection of the hull from the inside, along with systems checks, to trust the boat is seaworthy until we can reach a yard to have a look.

We have, of course, done much soul-searching on how this happened. The electronic charts were wrong, but that happens and we know it happens. An important buoy was missing, but that happens and we know it happens. I was off the sailing line to make room for a towboat, and that happens often, usually with no consequence. I was piloting visually and by depth sounder, which never wavered from 37'.

Paper chart shows the old wall, but it's hard to reckon your position on here with buoys missing.

After the fact I went back to the "paper" chart from 2013, and the lock wall shows on that chart. It's not obvious that it's submerged, and the only good way to know where it is would be to spot the buoy that's supposed to be right next to it, which was missing. I'm not sure there is any information I might have gleaned from these beforehand that would have made me do something different at that moment. Mariner's call this "local knowledge": someone tells you to watch out for the submerged wall near the campground.

We are very thankful for the assistance of the Ashland City Fire Department, but we are equally thankful for our steel hull and heavy steel keel. Impacting a submerged concrete wall at five knots in a fiberglass boat would not have ended well; we know of even a heavy Nordhavn, known for sturdy solid glass hulls and keels, which sank shortly after hitting a submerged training wall. We were very, very lucky.

Update: We are tied up to the very lightweight dock at the Riverview Restaurant (map), in, of all places, Ashland City, Tennessee. Most of the town, including the fire station, is across the river. In the morning I need to take the e-Bike over to the auto parts store, so maybe  I will get to see everything in the daylight. The lock, just ten miles from here, does not re-open until tomorrow evening, so we are in no rush to leave.

I'm sorry I don't have more photos for this post. In hindsight it would have been good to capture the boat sitting nearly a foot out of the water, or all the spectators ashore, or various parts of the salvage operation. But in the heat of battle I just did not have the wherewithal to stop and snap photos.


  1. You chose the right boat! Shocking to hear that even with your knowledge of the sailing line, and obvious skill as a navigator and captain that this could still happen.

  2. Am I reading the "paper" chart correctly? It seems to say that the river's nominal elevation is 372 feet and the top of the dock is at 380.9 feet. Which means that the river is 14 feet higher than normal.

    1. The elevation of the top of the lock wall is 380.9'. The river level has been running around 385-386. Project pool is 385' as shown at the lower right of the chart. Cheatham runs only a foot or two in each direction normally, it's not like Barkley which has a "summer" and "winter" pool that differ by about 5'. The "372" contour you are seeing is the edge of the navigable channel, so at project pool that's 13' deep; at "low pool" it would be 9' which is the CoE maintained depth agreement. The resolution of that chart is not sufficient to precisely place the lock wall, but it looks like it should be right at the 372' contour. We were traveling along about the 350' contour.

  3. SO GLAD it all turned out well - well, wellish. My heart was in my mouth as I was reading.

  4. We grounded, hard, on a rock shoal. It was embarrassing and scary. I think it took two years before my captain could talk about it without a slight quiver in his voice. The buoy was there; we just misread the rest of the buoys in converging channels.

    Glad to hear that you worked it out. I hope you will be able to pull the boat soon and get some peace of mind.

  5. This sounds awful Sean, but I guess it makes fighting rust all worthwhile. Steel is steel, and you are driving an icebreaker. I hope the stabilizer fin is OK. Safe travels.


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