September 10, 2019
Lockport Lock & Dam, Illinois River
This was first written as part of a collection of stories ‘So You Want to do the Loop’ which I’ve been working on since I completed the Loop in September. It quickly grew enough to stand as its own story. Enjoy.
Wake happens. Few boats can drift to their destination. Waking is different. Waking is not giving a damn about your wake, usually by boaters in too big of a hurry, most obnoxiously by boaters who want to show off and most dangerously by boaters who think they have a God given right to go as fast as they want, wherever they want.
Waking causes longer term erosion, pier and docked boat damage. Less significant but more personal is waking while passing another boat. The stuff that really doesn’t damage your boat but may be enough to throw the pets out of their comfy bed or worse, throw up. After suffering through several bigger ones, Loopers learn to recognize which boats tend to throw the bigger wakes that you need to turn into.
There are all types of signs along the Great Loop that get you to slow down.
From a Captain’s perspective, I sympathize with the discipline needed to go slow. I’m embarrassed to admit that there were times during my early days on the Loop that I probably left more wake than I should have, certainly more than I could have. Seeing the back of a manatee that had been chewed up by a prop finally subdued the itch of my itchy throttle finger.
I’m not enamored with the big, go fast, luxury class trawlers. Some have pompous asses at the helm, but most have good Captains who can obviously afford and like to be able to go fast in big, open water. More power to them, so to speak. Well aware of their 5+ foot wake, they often arrange ‘slow passes’ over the VHF in more narrow channels. The boat being overtaken slows to 4-5 mph and big boy passes at 8-10 where their wake isn’t necessarily benign, but acceptable.
L.T. Looper is not a big luxury class trawler. But she is ‘fast’, at least by Looper, if not local, 4 abreast 300 hp outboard standards. This is the cue for full disclosure.
I passed numerous Looper trawlers and for better or worse, slow passes don’t work for L.T. Looper. It’s hard to explain over the VHF, but 8-12 mph is L.T.’s worse wake producing speed, just pushing water before getting on top and planing. I wouldn’t pass in narrow channels or canals, but once a channel opened up, I’d swing as wide as depth would allow and pass fast, usually in the 20 mph range.
Some might have viewed it as showboating, but 20 mph is L.T.’s most efficient and least wake producing speed, other than her 4-5 mph no wake speed. My intentions were pure... well maybe that’s stretching it a bit, but I was very conscious of her wake and doing my best to minimize it.
Tug and barge combinations usually produce significant wake, but not waking. Their Captains can’t help but make wake, starting with the lead barge and ending with the tug’s own – vice versa if it’s a rare tow rig. It’s worse from a tug pushing upriver and/or the barges are fully loaded (sitting low in the water). In a more narrow river and especially in a canal with hard or concreate shores, their wake bounces, crisscrossing for a half mile or more after the tug passes you. Tie the pets down.
The biggest wake I ever suffered through was from a single tug in a hurry near Jacksonville, FL. I doubt it was ‘intentional’, but I imagine the crew got a chuckle or two watching L.T. bury her bow. Several nights of sleeping on a wet mattress made me add ‘secure the V-berth hatch’ to my starting check list, even in protected waters. Beware of single tugs frothing at the mouth.
It was in the narrow, congested and way overdeveloped waterways of Clearwater, Florida where I first encountered big boat jerks – not Captains, they don’t deserve the title – who seemed to consider waking a sport. More ego than brain and more money than common sense, coupled with too much boat, power and speed. I sometimes had to resist the impulse to pull out my flare gun.
Some ‘locals’, sometimes fisherman just going home, but more often younger and on PWCs, seem to think waking is a proper response to Loopers and other boats passing through. It’s not much fun being a marker for a PWC racecourse. Sometimes it’s best to just run up the white flag: use a marina and avoid weekends in crowded bottlenecks.
The Illinois River, or more accurately, the canals, locks and dams built to make its northern half navigable from Chicago, is best described as ‘it is what it is’. The southern half has some nice scenery as it wanders through mid-west farmland. But despite several nice river towns and a spell binding trip through the heart of downtown Chicago for those small enough to do it, most Loopers view the northern half as something to just get through, dodging tugs, barges and bridges the best you can. The best take away is that there is still a role for industrial strength waterway systems to carry bulk freight, if not the sewage and industrial waste of their past.
The fall of 2019 was worse than normal as the Corps of Engineers began a long planned upgrade of numerous locks below Chicago. Several were closed during daylight hours for months. Barge tows were often lined up for miles with their lead barge nudged up on shore, sometimes waiting days for their turn to get through a lock. It wasn’t that bad for Loopers and other recreation boats, but still frustrating, as I’m sure it was for the lockmasters too. As I boated through, everybody seemed to handle it well; radio traffic was occasionally strained but remained civil. Everyone seemed to realize that it wouldn’t help anything or anybody to get bent out of shape.
Which made Sea Dog particularly annoying. I was in a convoy with 10-12 other boats approaching the Lockport Lock & Dam. This section of the waterway is a canal lined with concrete on both sides. As mentioned above, this means wake is bouncing off both sides causing an X pattern stretching for miles. Not really dangerous, but a real pain in the butt.
I could hear Sea Dog coming on the radio, announcing its intention to overtake each boat doing the last 2-3 miles to the lock. We all realized that we were going to be in the lock together and it made absolutely no sense to add more to the crisscrossing wake by going fast enough to pass. You seldom hear outright criticism over the VHF, but one Captain subtlety mentioned the speed limit for that section. Didn’t do any good.
As Sea Dog passed me, it wasn’t the truly dangerous high speed ‘sport’ passing I experienced in Clearwater. Considering the width of the canal, he kept a reasonable distance off my beam. But being in the fast luxury trawler class of boat that sets off a significant wake at anything above idle speed, it was enough to rock L.T. significantly. My glaring accomplished no more than the subtle mention of the speed limit.
For his efforts, Sea Dog got to be the first to tie up inside the lock and wait nearly an hour for the rest of us come in. I was not enthralled when the dockmaster instructed me to raft up (tie up alongside) with Sea Dog, a boat more than twice my size. When you have to ‘raft’ - something nobody really likes but for various reasons is sometimes necessary - you want to do it with a boat about your size. But one thing you don’t do is argue with a lockmaster. This one in particular looked like he had already exhausted his patience quota for the day.
Sea Dog’s Captain wasn’t any happier about it than me, but I was amused by the look of horror that crept over his face as he looked suspiciously at my little bumpers and realized that his much bigger bumpers were positioned higher than L.T. was tall. Crew members appeared mysteriously from behind the smoked glass windows to frantically lower the big bumpers.
I was further amused by his pulling out some rubbing compound and furiously working on a near invisible smudge on his near perfect hull as we were lowered in the lock. I’m sure he thought that L.T. was somehow the culprit even though his boss bumpers had kept her far enough away to prevent anything like the discomfort he had caused us earlier.
First in, first out is the general rule for exiting locks, which is the only reason I can think of for Sea Dog working so hard to get there first. But karma is alive and well on the Illinois. Since I was tied to its side, I got to leave first, I’m sure to Sea Dog’s consternation as it sat idling its big diesels. Once outside I circled to let Sea Dog pass. I’m pretty sure that L.T. could match Sea Dog’s speed but had no desire to play that game.
The rest of us made are way leisurely to the Joliet town wall, one of those nice towns along the upper Illinois with a lot of history and a slew of good restaurants. I actually stayed an extra day, mostly to enjoy the town, some to admire really good tug Captains maneuver their barges through the multiple narrow draw bridges spanning the river, but at least a little to be rid of Sea Dog.
Some of you may think that I’m starting to make this up, but shortly after sunset here comes Sea Dog upriver looking for a place along the crowded wall. For whatever reason,
the next lock had turned it away. Loopers being Loopers, we made room and helped him tie up, but Sea Dog was NOT the social hot spot of the night. I was amused one last time by the Captain’s exasperation that there wasn’t any 50 amp power to run his air conditioning where he squeezed in. It was long gone by the time I rolled out of the sack in the morning.
There’s an informal social decor among Loopers. Its rooted in the realization that we all are a long way from home and it’s nice to have friends when you are. Other than kids, and especially grandkids, few talk about their past even though it quickly becomes obvious that there are some really interesting people doing the Loop. Politics is generally a no-no, except among those you already know share your general view of the world. There’s some gentle kidding, but nobody criticizes another’s choice of boat. Nobody feels particularly smug or righteous when another Captain hits a dock; we all have or will do it.
Waking transcends these social niceties. It’s at the top of the no-no list, along with don’t argue with bridge tenders, lockmasters or customs, don’t deny boarding rights to Border Patrol or Coast Guard and don’t expect to sit if you didn’t bring a chair for docktails.