Life on the Loop
Skills to get Serious About
A lot of the volunteers could ‘drive’ the monstrous ladder truck in the Fire Department where I was a volunteer for many years, but only a few could back it up to pass the certification. The same could be said of Docking. Most of the time it’s like driving the ladder truck forward, but occasionally you have to back it up.
You’ll be surprised by the number of people willing to give you a hand, including virtually every Looper, and especially if things get dicey with some wind or strong current. To be honest, they also want to make sure you’re not going to hit their boat. There’s no way around it: docking takes practice and experience.
Tide, current and wind make each docking unique. Tide is obvious and easy to check. How many barnacles are showing on the piles? A lot may mean that you have to keep an eye on your sonar. Current can be checked by standing off the dock in neutral for a moment or two. Every marina has a flag, so wind is easy to determine too. Be patient and use common sense. Sound familiar?
You’ll come to appreciate floating docks. The worst docks are those with no, or very short finger docks where you have to tie your bow to single piles. It feels like those piles are giving you the finger as you try to lasso them – especially to a solo boater with no help from the helm.
You’ll develop a preference for bow or stern in but understand that it’s harder to control your boat in reverse. Don’t become overly dependent on thrusters. After watching some real debacles, I think boaters should be forced to do at least some simple docking without their thrusters just to appreciate that it is possible.
If you forget everything else, remember that nobody ever made docking harder by slowing down, though a strong current going the wrong way can make that interesting too.
Volumes can and have been written about anchoring. Anchoring can be tricky in more open water and with sailboats and bigger power yachts. I’m not going to spend too much verbiage on anchoring techniques other than to say the more chain the better. Loopers can avoid the more sketchy anchorages if by nothing else, staying at marinas that are almost always available, at least if you plan for them.
I took full advantage of L.T.’s ability to sneak into tight and shallow anchorages, mostly because L.T. is so small that I had to get away from waves and wake if I wanted a good night’s sleep. But also because…well, because I could. With the outboard motor up, L.T. needs 9 inches of water.
Boaters will often pull out the binoculars when they see a boat about to anchor nearby. It’s a reflex, just like helping someone dock – but they’re also curious if their boat is in any danger, just like when someone is docking. They’re going to check your amount of chain, type of anchor, rode angle and see if you check your swing and test your hold. No pressure!
Good anchorages are generally indicated by the number of reviews in Active Captain (or whatever resource you’re using), not necessarily what the reviews say. Reviews can be subjective and don’t account for your boat or skill set, though I admit that the phrase ‘good holding’ gives me the warm fuzzies. 15-20 reviews generally indicate an acceptable anchorage (or marina). There’s probably something sketchy about those with less than 5, though you may never find out what it is.
You’ll eventually get used to the rocking and the sound of small waves slapping the hull inches from your head. But don’t ignore bumps in the middle of the night. Once you get the taste of fear out of your mouth, your best chance to take corrective action is immediately. Who cares if you’re in your underwear?
Strong wind or current may keep you up late but the hardest thing to get used to is how different things look on the water after dark. Did I really anchor that close to the shore or that boat? Probably not, but that may not help you get back to sleep. Give yourself the gift of extra room when you can.
Locks and Dams are the backbone of river travel. The dams hold enough water back to make the rivers navigable. Locks move you up or down past the dams. Locks are not as intimidating as they look, though circumstances can make any lock challenging. It helps to understand that none were built for pleasure boats. Even the locks on the Erie Canal and the Trent Severn Waterway in Canada which seem quaintly recreational today were built for commerce.
The Corps of Engineers locks on the Tenn-Tom and Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers are the biggest, most professionally run and leave no doubt about their primary purpose. I locked through the newest, the Olmsted Locks and Dam, just upriver on the Ohio from its confluence with the Mississippi 3 weeks after its official opening. Yes, locks as in plural – two 110’ wide x 1200’ long chambers. Each chamber can hold up to 18 barges or 720 L.T. Loopers, give or take, if packed in efficiently.
Lock systems have their own idiosyncrasies. For relatively simple mechanisms that function virtually the same, that can be frustrating. It’s best to relax and appreciate, not curse their differences - much like appreciating each new section of the Loop.
The locks on the Tenn-Tom are sticklers for having your life jacket on – which they should be, but it gets old being lectured at every lock. The ones across the Okeechobee insist that you have spare fuel cans tied down. These are also the only ones who fill and empty by opening their gates a foot or two – somewhat disconcerting the first time you experience it. The locks on the Trent-Severn in Canada don’t have radios. The ones on the Erie Canal have them but rarely answer your call.
Most, but not all Corps locks have huge floating bollards (also called bitts) to loop your lines around. Remember, they’re not designed for recreational boats; looking graceful while looping your line can be a challenge. Others have cables or pipes. A few throw you a line from the top of the lock. Occasionally, a bigger lock with only one or two pleasure boats will let you free float while they drain the tub. Most, but not all, will let you wrap your lines how you want.
Once on the Trent-Severn, I was told by the lock master to leave the lock if I wouldn’t loop my lines around two separate cables on the lock wall. In bigger locks, catching two bollards is not even possible because they’re too far apart. Being single handed, it’s a pain and, in my mind, less safe than the technique I had developed through some 50+ locks.
I was tempted to think that her by-the-book brain didn’t have much real boating experience and being a woman lockmaster, she felt a need to prove she had balls – a thought that will not please my wife and daughter after their years of indoctrination effort. No lockmaster had insisted on this before or since. Except the next day at the next lock where I learned that lockmasters on the Trent Severn occasionally rotate positions.
L.T. feeling pretty lonely.
Brandon Road Lock, Illinois River
Thanks for the picture Island Time
Olmstead Lock under construction.
15 miles upriver from Cairo, Illinois
These stories in Life on the Loop are more about my experiences than giving advice. I haven't been boating all my life and have only done the Loop once. They’re a lot more experienced Captains you should seek for advice. But I will offer two suggestions.
First, take time to learn your boat and how it handles. Put it through its paces. Don’t be embarrassed to experiment in controlled environments. By dumb luck I started my Loop on a lake, a great place to learn about L.T. with no tides or current and hard to get lost in.
Second, during the early part of your Loop, err on the very wimpy side of caution with potential bad weather or conditions. You will inevitably be surprised by big water. You don’t want it to happen before you know your boat well and how it handles.