The Arkansas Locks

As I said before I have no experience with anchoring.  I spent the night staring out my little windows checking for familiar landmarks to make certain I had not moved.  Several times I slid the hatch open and popped my head out just to make sure.  After initially anchoring I googled apps for anchoring.  What I found was, My Anchor Watch.  When you drop the anchor you start the app.  It tracks the movement of the boat using GPS.  I learned quickly that you have to correctly set the distance the boat is allowed to swing, otherwise the alarm will go off each time the boat moves..  Below is an image of my first night.  It turns out, I anchored in an eddy and did circles all night. 

My plan the next morning was to get up early and get to my selected anchorage in Little Rock before dark.  I put on what dry clothes I had and made ready to leave.  I go forward to pull up the anchor, leaving the engine idling in neutral.  Once the anchor was up and stowed, I thought, “that wasn’t so bad”, and then, “sorry for doubting you Kenny”.  With that brief thought the current caught the boat and securely planted it in three feet deep water.  The draft of a boat is the distance from the water line to the lowest point of the boat.  My draft is 3.5 feet.

How to get unstuck without getting into the water? Grabbing a dinghy oar I try pushing off the semi-hard mud.  This had no effect.  Next, I hopped in the dinghy tied a rope from the stern of the dingy to the bow of the boat and tugged.  The dinghy went side to side like a dog playing tug of war with a wall. Maybe setting another anchor would do the trick.  I grab the anchor and take it out into the channel and drop it.  Once back on the boat I tug on the anchor rode only to find that the anchor is firmly set and the boat is not moving.  Time to get in the water. 

Super excited about getting in the water.

At this point in the morning it was around 50 degrees.  I strip and squeeze into my full length wetsuit.  I then slowly climb over and down the back rail and squat on the back step mentally preparing myself for the shock.  To my surprise, the water was warm.  It felt great!  I alternated from pushing the bow free then the stern free.  The whole time my depth alarm was letting me know that I was still in shower water with a high pitched “beep, beep, beep”.  After probably 15 minutes of me wiggling the boat off of the shallow bank it was free and now coasting down the river with me clinging to the rub rail at the bow. 

I had anticipated this.  Remember the anchor?  It was still set and ready to catch the adrift boat.  Now I simply had to pull myself along the rubrail to the stern where I could climb up the ladder.  I then pulled up the anchor for the second time, rushing back to the tilller directing the boat into the channel before it could get stuck again and headed into lock 9.

Side note: I am currently docked at the Berwick City Dock in southern Louisiana.  It is now 4:00 AM and I have not been able to sleep.  Someone just now boarded my, boat grabbed my dinghy bag and made off with it. There will be no sleep tonight. End note.

I will not go into detail on every lock because I can not remember them all.  At this point they have all blurred together.  Before entering a lock you hale them on vhf channel 16, they usually respond and direct you to their working channel, usally 14.  From there you tell them your boat name, direction, general location, and intention.  Some of the operators are amazing.  They respond quickly and maintain contact with you throughout the locking process. 

The best operator I had was at David Terry Lock, number 6.  I radioed ahead letting the operator know I was coming.  “Terry Lock and Dam, Terry Lock and Dam, this is southbound sailing vessel Colibri.” He immediately responded and we switched to channel 14.  I told him I was 1 mile north of the dam requesting to lock through.  I got in the habit of asking, “how does the traffic look”, to that he said he had a double approaching and it would be about two hours before I could go through.  I responded that I would be holding at a small lake up river and standing by on channel 16.   A “double” is a tugboat pushing so many barges that it takes two trips through the lock to get all of them through.  As I waited the operator kept in contact with updates on the barge’s progress.  While I waited, I installed a new vhf radio, hardwired into my system.  I now have long range capabilities.  As soon as the barge was moving the operator called me back letting me know that he was switching the chamber around and it would be ready when I got there. 

After radioing ahead the gates would either be open or the operator would have to switch it.  This means closing the downstream gate, filling the chamber to the upstream height and then opening the upstream gates. A long horn blast gave me permission to enter the lock.  I would motor/float into the chamber choosing which floating bit (post) to tie onto.  This may be easy in those fancy party barges, but not so in my sailboat.  I watched one party barge pull up to the side as if he was at a drive thru window, loop his line around the bit, and just sat there.  I believe the difference is in the hull shape.  Party barges having straight sides make this much easier.  My sailboat widens out from the back and then tapers to a point at the front.  The Colibri does not back straight either.  As soon as I throw it into reverse the rearend will start swinging in one direction and the bow in another.  After ten locks I feel pretty good about it now. 

Approaching the floating bit, my speed is 1 mph.  This may seem slow, but, I have to clamber out of the cockpit and make ready at the line to loop it around the bit.  Problem with this is the boat will not track for long without a hand guiding the tiller.  The timing has to be just so.  On one attempt I missed the bit.  I waited too late to get on deck and then the boat began veering off course leaving me with a large gap between the wall and the boat.  Once the line is around the bit I had to stop the boat.  The line is anchored to the boat at its widest section.  If not careful when stopping the boat, the boat would pivot around that center point slamming the bow, in my case the anchor into the wall.  This happened twice before I got smart and tied a fender to the anchor mount. Once tied off the work is not finished. Unlike that party barge captain who just sat there once tied off, the sailboat wants to pivot around that wide point. I have to be diligent and make sure neither the bow nor stern hit the wall. The solar panels are mounted on the back and overhange the side of the boat several inches. When the boat pivots around to the stern the solar panels are what catch on the wall. On one occassion the corner of one panel got caught in a groove in the wall as we were descending. This put much stress on the structure holding the panels . So much stress that it pulled loose three of the supports leaving the panels to sway.

Once at the final water level the downstream gate will begin to open. I had a sigh of relief each time I saw the light streaming through the gate. As a teaser they crack the gate open just a little for a moment, pausing, before slowly opening it the rest of the way. Now is when the fun begins. I mentioned in my last post the raging waters downstream of the dams. All you can do is hang on and try to hit as many of the waves as possible head on.

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