Life on the Loop
Weather & Other Mysteries
Going Gold/Crossing your Wake
is surprisingly emotional.
A year is a long time.
Weather is not my strong suit. My eyelids start to droop when I try to sort out nimbus, cumulus, stratus, cirrus, and all their cousins. I know that big black ones are bad, especially with funnels coming out the bottom. I do pay attention to wind. Other than pouring down rain, wind is the best indicator that it may not be a fun day out there, or even in a marina.
The Chesapeake is notorious for sudden summer squalls. I was docked on the Middle River at Bowley’s Marina near Baltimore, having just stumbled back to L.T. after helping It’s Someday celebrate crossing her wake when one blew up. I watched fascinated as the wind blew one of those old fashioned 3-4 foot diameter cork life rings horizontal, wondering what kind of damage a miniature white Enterprise might do to my windshield if it lifted off its hook.
Not a clue of the squall that was coming in less than an hour
Wind is the best indicator of wave height. Wave height and wind is a good place to start with safety margins. Generally, anything less than 2 feet and 15 mph – a bit less if on my beam – I’m good to go. I’m asking L.T. her opinion and looking to see if everything is put away and tied down if 3+ feet and 20 mph. At 5 feet and 25 mph I’m heading to the movie theater and L.T. is on her own at the dock. If I’m looking at a long day, I lower these margins 10-20% unless there are really good Plan B and C bailouts along the way.
Water Level is important though it won’t beat you up like wind. Every section of the Great Loop goes up and down, either daily (tides), seasonally (Lake Okeechobee), annually (the Great Lakes) or irregularly (rivers, often due to weather hundreds of miles away). Water level determines things like:
Getting into a marina or maybe even if it’s open.
If a lock is open and sometimes even if you go through it rather than up or down in it.
Sneaking under a bridge instead of waiting for it to open.
What route you take or when you leave.
If you wake up on land or water.
It was starting to get dark along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal prompting me to try the shortcut through the original C&D Canal to the Delaware City Marina. L.T. was doing her thing in narrow and shallow when I spotted a fixed low bridge about ¾ of a mile in. I began regretting not checking this shortcut more carefully. It didn’t look like we could get under, but I noticed it was low tide by the water line on the marsh reeds. I went from feeling pretty stupid to pretty smug as we crept under it by 2-3 inches. High tide the next morning revealed a clearance of 4-5’. L.T. needs 9’ with her antenna down. Tidal lesson learned.
Current is also a fact of life on the Loop except on the Great Lakes. There are numerous places along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) where you don’t want to buck the tide, which is just a current that turns around every 6 or 12 hours. Ellicott Cut in South Carolina and Snow’s Cut near Wilmington, North Carolina are two narrow channels where L.T. expressed her unhappiness with my timing the tide, or lack thereof. One trawler Captain described the current in Pt. Pleasant Canal in New Jersey as an opportunity to film a feature length movie trying to get past a single buoy.
River current can be strong enough to add or subtract 3-4 mph, a significant percentage for trawlers making only 7-9 mph to start with and one reason few Loopers do the Loop clockwise. The lower Ohio is controlled by dams, but if the Mississippi has it’s dander up, which it did when I went through because the Missouri was flooding, the turbulence at their confluence at Cairo, Illinois reminded me of the 3-4 foot deep whirlpools and ‘picket’ eddy lines in the Grand Canyon, or the Room of Doom in Westwater Canyon – things you don’t want to explore in either a raft or boat.
The strongest consistent current I experienced was on the Tennessee at flood stage, an adventure I describe in in Pickwick Lock and Dam. It was strong enough to pull buoys completely under water. Yogi Berra would say to stay away from buoys you can’t see.
Life Jackets are required. Period. The Coast Guard requires a life jacket for everyone on board and that anyone 12 or under must wear one. Anything else is a Captain’s prerogative, though you won’t be permitted in some locks without one on.
No sane Captain would make fun of anyone who wants to wear a jacket full time and no passenger has the right to deny a Captain’s demand to wear one. But life jackets, even the inflatable version, are not the most comfortable thing in the world. Most boaters don’t wear one in calm conditions, especially inside the cabin. Some would castrate me for that observation because their religion demands wearing one. But it’s the truth.
My own rule (safety margin) was to wear my jacket if in more than 2 foot chop and/or if outside of desperate swimming range to shore. As a solo boater, I did have a registered PLB (Personal Location Beacon) attached to my life jacket. Few thoughts chill me as much as the thought of being overboard, no communication and L.T. merrily going on her way – though some would rightly question why L.T. was even in gear if I was overboard.
Visitors would seem to be something you can control. But once scheduled, they can control you. Now you have to be at a certain place at a certain time – a schedule – usually not a welcome addition to the check list. You probably have to return them on a schedule too. And no matter how much they try not to, they’re going to interrupt the comfortable routine you and the Admiral have fallen into.
That’s not to say you don’t want them or can’t accommodate them. I loved having my kids on board, enjoyed a week long break with my brother and his wife in Florida and meeting my other brother and his wife on the Erie Canal. But you have to be physically and mentally prepared for things to be different for a while and they may never get their head fully wrapped around your fascination with the Great Loop.