Day: September 29, 2018

Lessons in Locking

When I was learning to fly airplanes, I bought a plaque with a quote that resonated deeply with me. In only a few words, it encapsulated an aphorism that I have tried to live by most of my aviation life and to a lesser degree, in my boating life.

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect.” I naively believed that the distance between the perils in aviation and the time to avert danger where much shorter than the time to avert the same for the Mariners’ peril. I thought that at least you could float in a boat, right?  I would go back to the author of that quote and ask him to consider rephrasing the “even to a greater degree” line and then ask Poseidon to forgive my ignorance and hubris.

What brought this reflection about, you may be asking yourself, and what lesson or trouble did Jerry find this time? You would be right because I found that aphorisms, whether in aviation, maritime, or any other pursuit by men and women, are born out of the immediacy of experience.

Jean and I are fortunate to have completed two-thirds of the Loop and have entered the remaining one third, known as the river system.  We have had our challenges along the way and are grateful for each, and every experience we have earned and learned from, but for me, the most challenging moment came in the Starved Rock Lock, on the Illinois River. Those few moments in the lock made each of the previous challenges feel like child’s play in comparison.


Photo by Wikipedia

The locks in the states are similar to the locks we have experienced in Canada (the Rideau Canal and the Trent-Severn mostly) but differ vastly in size and type of traffic that uses them. The closest that we experienced in Canada was the St. Lawrence Seaway locks, and we were immensely happy that we only had to lock through those a couple of times. The “commercial locks” are typically over a 1000′ long and can range anywhere from a few feet to over 35 feet change in water level. In the states, commercial traffic on the Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, to name a few, have priority and work 24/7 transporting up to 16 barges in one haul up and down the rivers. A single pusher/tow vessel can fill an entire lock and take a long time to load in or out of the lock. It is not uncommon for pleasure craft (known as PC’s to the river captains) to wait hours for an opportunity to lock-through. I am not complaining. The industries (and the public) that benefit by barge transportation is immense, and without them, our economy would be crippled. The amount of materials that barge traffic haul is more than cargo aircraft, railroad, and semi-trailer loads combined can haul. The priorities and wait times are just part of river cruising and are to be expected and endured.  Jean and I have made 120+ lock-throughs learning and gaining confidence with each one. Our last experience has delivered the most powerful lesson in locking-through to date.

The morning begins calm enough with an early departure from the Ottawa City Dock for an hour or so cruise to our first and only lock of the day. We planned to stretch from Starved Rock Lock to Peoria (a run of about 65+ miles) and tie up for a couple of weeks to make a side trip to the west to visit family in Colorado.  As we entered the river, we joined four other boats heading for the same lock. Three more boats fell in behind us, and we all cruised slowly towards Starved Rock. It is customary to call the lockmaster before departure to give him a heads-up, plus find out if we should even untie and proceed towards the lock.  If there is numerous commercial traffic, it pays to stay at the dock and wait without running engines and burning fuel.

The lockmaster said that an 8:30am lock-through was a good possibility, so off we went.  As we got closer the lock-through time increased from 8:30 to 9:00 due to traffic. What many cruisers will do is “hover” in place while waiting for the appointed time.  Makin Memories does not like to hover so we will do a slow up and down the approach to the lock depending on how much traffic is waiting. Others will join in and wait for the lock-master to open the gates and direct us to the spot they want us to come alongside and we will either throw a line around a floating bollard or hang on to lines the lock staff give us. This day there was a pusher/tow in the uppermost part of the lock with Jean and me in the third position. Pusher/tows do not tie up to the wall of the lock, nor do they “hold lines.” They will use their engines to “push” up against the wall to maintain their position. Pushers and tows are river vessels that transport barges (up to 16 at a time) up and down the rivers. They are different than tugs both in size and power available, but nevertheless can be just as intimidating and almost as powerful. A few differences are in design and horsepower available and the ability to pull other vessels. A tug can produce as much as 27,000+ horsepower awhile a pusher can generate, on average, 5000+ horsepower to perform its work. The method of steerage comes in many different forms. Pushers can utilize Kort Nozzles or Cycloidal Propellers, or other vertical axis methods as examples (Google it!). The point is that the thrust vector is confined and powerful and to be avoided whenever possible.


River barge pusher

After about a 90-minute wait on station, all the PC’s were given instructions to enter the lock and give their entry order. Jean and I were instructed to take the third position behind another cruiser and the pusher/tow. The lock-through was slow due to only one of two hydraulic cylinders operating properly, but otherwise uneventful. The fun began when the gates opened, and we were to exit the lock. The lock-master instructed the pusher/tow to remain in place and for the PC’s to proceed around the pusher/tow and exit the lock. The first clue that all was not going to go as planned was when the first cruiser was leaving the wall and was sucked up against the pusher/tow and could not transition around without using a much higher throttle than is typical.  When the cruiser did make it around the pusher/tow, the thrust from the pusher/tow pushed the cruiser into the opposite lock wall. There is usually a moment (upon reflection) that if you could have back to re-do the moment in question, you would. After the first cruiser made it off the opposite wall, I throttled off the wall and began to go around the pusher/tow. I too was sucked towards the pusher/tow and then pushed by the stern thrust into the opposite wall as well. That is only half of what was to come. As my stern hit the lock wall, I throttled up to push out against the thrust from the pusher/tow but had to throttle back to miss the cruiser ahead of us because on the other side of the lock another barge was on the immediate right side preparing for entry into the lock up bound. It was a serpentine maneuver that the first cruiser and myself were in. The entire time the pusher/tow in the lock kept his rpm’s up and pushed the two of us out of position.  On the radio, we heard the lock-master issuing warnings, and cautions to the other PC’s in the lock not to proceed and the pusher/tow to decrease their rpms to reduce the wake output.  By the time Jean and I made it through the exit and past the other barge and pusher, we had hit the wall fairly-hard but made it through.  The rub-rail and the nose of the dingy on the port side took most of the impact but upon inspection safely down the river, they were not severely damaged.

Honest reflection has taught me a few lessons here. The first and foremost was that PFD’s are absolutely a necessity. We hit the wall so hard that I was afraid that Jean would be thrown from the forward deck and into the water. Secondly, I should have never left the wall until the lock-master guaranteed that the pusher/tow either reduced its power output or exited the lock before me. The power produced by the pusher/tow holding its position against the wall was too violent for us to pass by safely. My bad!!  I also did not appreciate the crew of the pusher/tow lined up on their boat to “watch the show.” Very unprofessional and makes me wonder if this was not a planned “event to watch.” Still, when all is said and done, I decided to push off the wall and go. I regret making it now. After the two cruisers left, the lock-master halted the other PC’s and instructed the pusher/tow to exit the lock.  It took close to an hour for the others to exit the lock and continue down river.

As I nurse my LPTSD (Looper Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) over the latest “new lesson learned,” I urge other PC captains to remember that they are the captain of their vessel and ultimately, they are responsible for their decisions and if they feel that the situation is not safe, they, and only they, can make the decision to “go or not go.”

Week 38 – Lots of New Rivers… We Need a Break and Embark on a Different Kind of Loop!

(Note to readers: This week includes what was, for us, a pretty traumatic experience. Jerry will be publishing more detail on this from his perspective later today.)

This week starts with us in Joliet, Illinois, which was a God-send for us.  A free wall, in town and not much else.  When we arrived, we were in the company of 5 other Loopers.  We all kind of introduced ourselves and crashed after a long day in high (100 degree) temperatures on the Chicago River and in its locks.  The next night saw us doing Docktails and laughing at each other’s mishaps. It is amazing. When you are going through the tough times, you swear you will sell the boat at the earliest opportunity but when you get together with other people, these are the times that you share with enthusiasm.  You never share what went right, or what was great or what was wonderful…. You share what almost drove you to the brink of quitting this voyage and you laugh.  Why is this, I wonder?


Anyway, it is nice to be with people who have all been through the same experiences and fortunately for us, Jerry and I don’t share any tales of major prop and strut damage which many others are able to describe in detail along with the repair price tags (OUCH!!!). Knock on wood, we still won’t share this experience when it is all over!

Our fellow Loopers all depart the next morning but we stay, not one but, two more nights, needing to just rest and regroup and then plan what we are doing next.  We had planned through Chicago and it is now time to lay out the river portion in more detail.

The impression of any town in which we stay is shaped by our physical ability to experience it from the boat.  Joliet is an interesting town with, I am sure, much more to offer than what we can see as we are limited by travel either on foot or by bike.  What we see is Harrah’s Casino (from the outside only) and lots of liquor stores and precious few grocery stores.


We eat at the Route 66 Diner and ask our waitress where to get fresh fruit and veges and she tells us about the Supermercado and El Ranchito (nuff said right? We are in what is colloquially known as a food desert).  We bike to the Supermercado where my Spanish is barely adequate but we are able to buy some fresh stuff, which is a good thing!

We plan to leave Joliet as soon as possible in the morning but there is a railroad bridge that must be open before we can progress.  The nights here have been backdropped with commercial traffic noise.  The trains transit the river over the bridge and the tug and barges necessitate lifting the bridges with sirens and clanging gongs accompanying the openings.  It is amazing how all of this fades into a background of white noise because with the cool temperatures at night we don’t need to use our AC and all of our ports, windows and hatches are open.


Finally the bridge opens and the lock master who is a mile and a half away transmits that he is ready for southbound PC’s (pleasure craft) and our three boats take off.  The locks on the river are very different than the ones we have become accustomed to in Canada.  Rather than being 80 feet long, they are 800+ feet long and rather than being recreational, they are mainly for commercial traffic, which takes priority.  We have relatively good luck all day and meet with few delays until our last lock where the water is coming up and we can see a tug rising but it takes him forever to actually get his barges moving and out of the lock.


We had heard the lock master talking to the boats that are waiting below the lock and telling them that they might have a 2-3 hour wait before they can get into the lock.  If a barge is carrying a chemical load, they cannot put PC’s into the lock with them.

Once he finally clears the lock, we and the 6 other boats that have piled up behind us are given the signal to enter the lock.  We all get in and then they put a tug in right beside us but he is sideways facing away from us, we still don’t know why but man, do we get pushed around from his engine wash!


Eventually we all clear the lock to see a three-across, tow-deep barge and tug waiting to enter.

IMG_7022.JPGWe skirt him and then see 9 PCs rafted up and waiting. The sad thing is you can’t even raft up and party (well, maybe others can but we wouldn’t) as you have to have your wits about you when you are locking through.  We feel bad for these folks and again give thanks for how fortunate we were to have timed the lock perfectly and had the good fortune not to have any southbound commercial traffic take priority over us.


We dock in Ottawa and decide to have a communal dinner, with each of us bringing something to share.  Our hosts are Cat and Gilles, a French couple who are doing an around the world gig on a catamaran for a three-year duration.  It is a great dinner (compliments to the chefs!) and excellent company with lots of laughs and stories shared by all.


We depart early from Ottawa after calling the Starved Rock lock master who says there is about an hour wait but to come on down. It is about an hour drive and along the way we pick up lots of the boats that were with us in Joliet who spent a few days in Ottawa.


When we arrive, it isn’t an hour wait, it’s probably twice that.  I think there is a plot among lockmasters where they want all the pleasure boats clumped up together so they tell you to come ahead when they know it will be a long wait.


Anyway, we all wait at the lock, idling and moving slowly up and back, avoiding the shallows, the other pleasure craft and the tugs and barges that are also part of the mix.  Finally, the lock master indicates that there is one tug and barge coming up and then he will load all of us to take us down.  Sounds simple right?

Well, in theory it should be but factor in a tug that had to disconnect from his barges once he got them situated in the lock and then turn himself sideways so that he could fit and then reverse all of that once the lock filled and lifted him to our level and you have a scenario where we are all excited to see the lock doors open and then we sit there for another hour while he sorts himself out, moving his barges far enough forward that he can fit straight in behind them and finally push them clear of the lock.


Then, they load a tug in front of us, our friend Eagle One behind him, then our boat and the rest of the PCs behind us.  It is a long slow and easy ride down until they open the doors.  Usually it is first in and first out, meaning we have all braced ourselves and our boats for the tug wash that will hit us once the tug in front of us starts to move.  To our amazement, he cannot exit the lock because there are three barges side by side blocking the entry.


The lockmaster tells Eagle One to go around the tug, which means a hard left turn out from the wall, a hard right turn to come up the side of the tug and then another hard left to sneak through the tiny space the three barges have left clear and then right again to come up alongside and pass them and their pusher tug.  So, off he goes and heads for an immediate heart-attack experience.  The tug’s engines are running to keep it against the wall and his wash sucks Eagle One into its rear corner 3 times before her captain can get her off.  The tug wash then throws her against the other side of the lock. SHEESH!!! We are dying inside for our friends and their boat.

Okay, our turn.  Jerry is watching the tug wash and aims us close to the tug to lessen its potential impact but to no avail. We don’t have the side-thrusters that might have helped in this situation and it’s as if the tug has picked us up and thrown us sideways. “We’re going to hit! I can’t hold her,” he yells.  The force of the tug wash slams us into the opposite side of the lock, pinning us there.

Jerry guns the engines and we scrape, screeching along the lock wall,  listening to Makin Memories scream and crash repeatedly into the lock wall before coming free of the tug wash and the wall with a mighty lunge forward and a final slam to the rear end of the boat.


We reel for a minute and Jerry, very calmly under the circumstances, fights to gain control of the poor boat, yanking her past the tug and then to the left around the 3-across barge and into the relative freedom of the river.  “Take the helm!” he yells and I scramble from the bow up to steer us clear of the barge while he hurriedly goes below and examines the boat and engine room for damage.


Eagle One is holding past the mouth of the lock and we check to see if they are okay while they volunteer to drop behind us to see if they can see any damage.


Unbelievably, we have both escaped with no major damage except maybe to the two captains’ mental health.  We have sustained a burst fender, a shredded fender cover and the nose of our dinghy, which I think acted as a huge rear fender, keeping us from serious stern damage, is scraped and full of lock wall slime.


Our hearts are pounding and we are adrenaline-fueled and angry when we hear the lock master tell the rest of the PC’s that maybe they should hold inside the lock and let the tug exit first.  Where was that wisdom a few minutes ago?!?


The journey, once we clear the barge traffic, is lovely, thank goodness. We pass Bald Eagle sanctuaries where we see lots of juveniles flying and fishing along with their parents.


We have moved from the Chicago River to the Des Plains River and into the Illinois River and while it has some manufacturing and LOTS of barges being loaded along its banks, it is mostly wooded land and beautiful.


There are THOUSANDS of white pelicans gathering prior to migrating south and we are struck dumb by the sheer numbers of them!  We really enjoy this part of the river.


We come into the marina where we have arranged to leave the boat for a couple of weeks.  They have assured us that our 3.5’ draft will be no problem but we continually bump the bottom coming into the marina, a fitting ending to a stressful day!  We are docked in a covered slip, which is nice but man, getting into it was a challenge!

We pick up our rental car the next day and get the heck off the boat, both of us happy to have a bit of a break!  We are blown away by the beauty of Iowa, the cornfields and even the windmills somehow look like they fit out here.


The colors are amazing and we marvel at how much of the world’s food must be produced here.  When we return to the boat, we will be going through a lock whose claim to fame is that 1/3 of the grain produced globally will pass through it at some point!  This drive gives me a better appreciation for that.


We stop in Cedar Rapids for the night after making our first Rotary meeting in a LONG time!


We visit St John’s Cathedral and the USS South Dakota Memorial before turning in, exhausted but really liking this town.


The next day is a LONG drive but I am so excited when we come to the spot where Dignity stands.  I remember reading about this amazing sculpture when it was dedicated and she is even more beautiful in person than she is in photos.  The sculptor has made the colorful tiles that represent feathers on her robe so that the wind moves them and they flutter in the breeze as we gaze at her.  As gorgeous as this sculpture is in the morning light, I would LOVE to see her lit up in the nighttime with the stars and city lights below as a backdrop.

If that wasn’t enough for one day, we continue and enter the Badlands National Park and embark on the Badlands Scenic Loop, laughing that this is a different Loop than the one we originally contemplated making!

IMG_7137.JPGThe video at the visitor’s center gives us a good grounding in what we will see.  The land here is indescribably desolate and beautiful in a stark way.  We stop numerous time to appreciate the changing vistas, some with no visible life, others with buffalo and still others with prairie dogs whistling to each other from atop their little mounds!

We check into Hilton’s new Tru brand of hotel and have to laugh.  Booking online we had no idea that it was atop a casino and restaurant/bar conglomerate.  This brand must be catering to the younger set and we immediately love the upbeat energy embodied by the décor, music and in the young people manning the check in desk in Tru T-shirts and jeans.

IMG_7143.JPGEverything is functionally minimalistic and they are more socially responsible than are the traditional Hilton family brands (no little shampoo bottles and one-use soaps– squeeze bottles of everything hang in the shower and over the sink).

IMG_7165  The young man at check-in warns us that 1-5 inches of snow is expected during the night and we are dumbfounded. We looked at the forecast and this was NOT in it.  After picnicking from our cooler for the last couple of days, we enjoy an excellent dinner at Flyt, one of the casino restaurants.  Steak in this part of the world is amazing!


We go to bed and read, getting excited when the rain actually does change to snow!  In the morning, it is still snowing and a dusting of snow coats the trees and hilltops across from the hotel. This changes what we were planning for the day but we are kind of glad not to have to go anywhere, the places like Crazy Horse memorial and even Rushmore will not be visible at all this morning and so we relax.

IMG_7149.JPGWe sit tight and catch up on work and paperwork and eventually drive out through the adorable towns of Deadwood and Hill City oohing and ahhing over the gorgeous snow-covered aspens and pines.

IMG_7153.JPGIt is just magical especially since we suppose, as it turns out quite accurately, that the snow will all be gone by the afternoon.  When we later retrace our route, everything that was stark white this morning,  is now all  vivid green pines and shimmering gold aspens, shot through with slanting sunlight that is poking holes in the cloud cover. It is equally as glorious in a completely different way.  We are acutely aware of how much of a blessing this day has been.   Our plans for the day have been shattered and we are not sorry at all to trade seeing some man-made monuments for some God-made glory!

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