Day #6: During our last night in Dubuque (Day #5), Capt. D and Chris drove us to a beautiful little town about 20 minutes away - Galena, IL. For you Minneapolitans, it looked and felt much like Stillwater. A preserved main street and gads of shops and restaurants. We ate at an Italian place called Vinny Vanucci's and learned, again, the comfort that pasta and wine can deliver to a needy spirit. Our plan for the next morning was to see if there were any teeth in the 'possible tornado & hail' forecast. If so, we'd hunker down - and if not, we'd lift anchor yet again.
It turns out the forecast was mostly wrong. Rain, sure, but no hail or tornados and it seemed that if we left before noon, we'd stay a little soggy but be none the worse for wear. We ran a few last-minute errands in the morning and were underway by 11AM.
Because of our late start, we knew we'd have a shorter mileage than usual, but because there was only one lock in the charts that day, we traveled just under 50 miles and ended up in the enchanted town of Sabula, IA.
One of the first things that attracted us to Sabula, as opposed to Savanna or Clinton (other towns near by) was that Sabula - the whole town - was an island. It was a random choice, sure, but these days we've found that gut instinct is priceless. We further appreciated Sabula because when we called our chosen marina (Island City Harbor, MM: 534) someone answered right away - a rarity on the River. Andrew, the kid who answered, gave us very precise instructions on how to enter their cut and avoid running aground. He said he'd be watching for us and guide us in to a slip.
And not only was Andrew waiting for us, but a handful of friendly boaters who occupy the dock were also there. They were each quick to grab line and then extend a hand. With beer, and dogs, and big belly laughs - we felt immediately at home. They suggested that we walk into town and have dinner at Bombfire Pizza. "Shouldn't miss it," they said "it's one in a million."
We took their advice, greatful for the chance to stretch our legs, and walked under a railway bridge into town - a town that is in it's entirety about 9 blocks long. Almost every house was bedecked with Halloween and it looked friendly enough, but we saw hardly a person or a car and began to doubt that this Bombfire place even existed - let alone was terribly special. And then there it was - a neon arrow pointing inward to the door.
The place was packed! A guy playing live music in the corner, odd boats were hanging from the ceiling, and oddities sat on every shelf and hung on every wall. We couldn't find an open table, or a place at the bar, so we stopped Tom (who we would later learn was the owner) to see if there was a list. He looked around and saw a round table with six chairs that had only one couple sitting at it. They were young, clearly on a date, and well into their meal.
"Here!" Tom said. "Sit here, there's loads of room!"
He looked at them: "These are two wonderful people." He looked at us: "There are two wonderful people. Have a great dinner."
So, we sat down.
Kellen and Heather were from the neighboring city of Clinton, IA and totally unbothered by the situation.
"Tom is kind of an old hippy," they said. "He's great, but easily distracted."
Indeed, it was our impression from the first. White-haired and with laugh lines that betrayed a lifetime of joy, Tom was the epitome of one who believed in the ideals of the 1960's and always would. When he heard about our Big Trip, he immediately offered us the use of his wi-fi, his shower, his laundry, and even a night on his couch if the marina proved too cold.
"I live upstairs," he said. "The door is usually open."
Over dinner we had an awesome time talking with Kellen and Heather; and whatever 2012-big-city-oddness we felt about sitting with strangers quickly evaporated. He teaches highschool english, and she works at a car lot - although she is an aspiring actress. We learned that Kellen had taken a Big Trip himself a few years back - 1,800 miles on his bicycle from Austin, TX. Heather worked at a dinner theater in Rock Island, but thinks it might be time to make the move to another city. I, of course, heartily celebrated the Twin Cities and encouraged her to move there. Here's hoping.
Near the end of the night, drunk on local beer and full of locally organic pizza, Tom came over with a red magic marker.
"You have to sign the wall," he said. "Leave your mark."
Signing the wall didn't feel too odd a thing to do, but we paused a bit because the walls were not covered in writing. There were a few scrawls here and there, but it felt like a rare offer, to have the marker, and so we took it.
Done with their meal, Kellen and Heather, said goodbye and we raised our last beer to them. As they were about to go, however, Kellen turned back and told us to enjoy our night, that they enjoyed meeting us, and that they had paid for our dinner.
We were stunned. It was kind, of course, and incredibly generous - but more than that since some of our conversation over the night had been about how tough times are these days. Melby and I, two artists, talked about what this Big Trip meant to us and how we patch together our incomes; and they both talked about how tight budgets make big and long-term plans hard to make. An extra $20 to any of us is a big deal; and we were so grateful that they spent theirs on us.
The night ended at Bombfire Pizza with a big bear hug from Tom and a reiteration of his offer of laundry and wi-fi. We said if we got rained-in the next day, we might just take him up on it. As it began to rain on our walk back to the marina, I think Melby and I both secretly hoped we would be forced to stay.
And the feeling grew even more pronounced when we discovered that the same friendly faces who had caught our line were having a bonfire. Rain-be-damned. Again they smiled wide and extended us cans of beer and a dry place to sit.
How could we refuse?
We talked about family, and floods, and work, and dogs, and love, and stories of odd misadventure. They were utterly delightful, and again, Melby and I both felt as if we had to stay here forever, it would be okay with us.
But, alas, we have hundreds of miles to go. So early the next morning, we untied, said goodbye, and set sail yet again.
Right into one of the shittiest days yet.
Day #7: It was raining from the get-go which we have grown all too accustomed to. Winds, too, are hardly a stranger to us... but these gusts and this rain was something new. The problem was two-fold: The winds were stronger than usual (30-ish mph gusts), and we were passing through a 7-mile stretch of really wide river (MM: 529-522.5). The whitecaps threw our little flat-bottom baby around like a toy and with only one reliable engine, the rough miles were very, very rough. (Cue Tina Turner.)
But then, a break. For about an hour in the middle of the day, the River was clear and bright and calm. She looked like a mirror and we had a straight-away where the buoys were visible for miles ahead. It got so beautiful and calm that Melby laid on the floor with Dorothy and took a nap while I leaned back and drove with my feet. I've got an audio book (some of you will care - it's the final book of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series). I plugged in and had one of the finest hours of my life...
All shit broke loose. The River runs sometimes - as she does in the Twin Cities for a spell - east to west instead of north to south. It is usually in these stretches that it gets particularly windy. It also gets particularly windy in the widest channels. Another windy part of the River can be across flat plaines and farmlands.... For five miles there, we had all three and the waves were bucking us. Add to the anxiety a barge between us and the next lock that forced us to hang out in this churning cauldron much longer than we needed to. We tried to seek refuge in a marina called Green Gables just upriver of lock #14. They gave us careful instructions on how to pass through a really tight cut off the channel, through two rock piles and around a wall. In the wind and with the SB engine still cutting out, we both breathed a sigh of relief when we made it in the marina's slips. But then, we couldn't catch. Two guys came out to help and even with Melby throwing line, we couldn't come in. The wind was gusting now, and the starboard engine wouldn't stay on long enough for it to help us maneuver. Combine that with the flat-bottom design and a small slip - we just couldn't make it work. They eventually waved us up to another marina - but when we got close we saw it was full.
Back into the channel and back into the churning waves with us. The lock opened and let us pass not long after, but we had no starboard engine at this point; all the same, we managed to coast through with no problems. The lock itself was protected from the wind - which allowed for a rare photo - but the water as we exited was vicious as ever.
For me, it was among the worst moments exiting Lock #14. The sun was going to set in less than an hour, we were right behind a barge, and the wind seemed to be growing to dangerous levels. Visibility had been bad all day and we were entering the Quad Cities. If we could just land in one of their marinas up of the next lock, we'd be golden.
We missed the first one - it was hidden away up a cut and we were passed it before we realized we should be looking for it. The next was to our left, The Marquis Harbor, out of the channel.
I know very few things other than this: nothing is guaranteed outside the channel. Not everything is guaranteedinside the channel either, but there are many more assurances. To get to some city docks and marinas, you often have to leave the channel and follow other visual cues. Some, like Mid-Town in Dubuque and Sabula, have white plastic poles that mark their cut. This is sometimes no more than 10 feet wide, but indicates where is safe for your engines to roll by. Other places, like the Green Gables, give you verbal instructions on where to turn and what natural landmarks to use to avoid running aground. At this last marina - our final push to safe harbor from a failed engine and wind fatigue - had no such instructions.
I could see debris - portions of concrete walls and deadheads - sticking out of the waves. They separated us from the entrance to the marina but I could see no way around them. None answered when we called, and we couldn't afford to pass the marina by. So, we gulped and turned left. My stomach was in knots - this was my nightmare. There was hull-smashing, prop-shattering debris on either side of us, but nothing ahead. I went for it, full forward, and before my heart could stop pounding, we were through. Inside the marina wall. Out of the worst of it.
But the wind continued to push and our engine still wouldn't start, so we gimped into the final deck we could grab and tied up. As usual, the slip was imperfect - too short for us and less-than secure - but better than nothing. We hugged. We plugged in. And we fell into a fitful sleep.
Tomorrow, we decided, we would get a hold of a mechanic, figure out what's-what, and make a plan.
Day #8: Granted, it has only been a week, but we've grown accustomed to the reality that when the weather is nicest and clearest and calmest - we will not be able to be underway. Today, it was the case yet again. 63 degrees and sunny, among the warmest temperatures we've seen, and very calm seas. There were times in the afternoon when the River looked downright reflective. But we were docked for repairs, and we were often reminded to count our blessings.
The first visitors of the day appeared about 9AM after Melby and I had had breakfast. Gary had his sailboat in the slip next to us and was going to be hauling it out for the Winter today; and his friend Dan was going to help. Already, Melby and I had called 6-7 mechanics from the local listings, and all were either unavailable or unresponsive. The guys suggested Tempo Marine. They're near by, they said, and very good... Our two favorite things.
Soon, we had (another) Tom on the line. He is available, he said, and could be here in an hour or less. Holy Hannah, things were looking up! In the meantime, we took advantage of the sunlight. It seemed that everything we owned was wet. We hung jackets and jeans and sweatshirts, the clothes in which we had fought the day before, on the rails to dry. We scrubbed dishes, swept, and Melby fixed (gasp) the head. The shitter, the toilet. Hands-down the worst job on a ship - anyone will agree.
And then Tom, the mechanic, arrived! He was great, calm, reassuring...
And then the hatch blew off its hook, hit him hard in the back of his head, and he had to go to the emergency room.
No, I'm not kidding.
Melby saw it happen, I was talking with the neighbors. After it hit him, he bled A LOT. He held several bloody rags up to his head, calmly walked down the dock to his truck, got in it, and drove himself to the hospital. And there we were. With his tools, and his phone (briefly, his son came back for it minutes later) and wondering if he was okay... should we have let him drive himself... would he be back... what were we going to do...
Finally, we called him and were assured that not only was he okay, but he planned on coming back! And he did!
We offered him booze, cookies, an aloe plant, but he just smiled and waved us off. I've never had stitches in the back of my head, but if I did, I doubt I'd want to go back to my job an hour later. For the record, the picture below is not him after he got hit by the hatch door. It is him after he came back from the emergency room and is reaching to the back wall for a slipped wire. Seriously - man of the year.
When it was all said and done, it was about 3:30PM and we were sure we wouldn't be departing at all that day. Tom said that the source of the problem was essentially old wires. The carb needs work too, he admitted, but the primary problem was wires that were simply not communicating with the cylinders. It's a comparatively easy fix and he'd have the wires (and new spark plugs) to us by 9:30AM.
Again, the cost is nominal and we will be girdled with optimism again when we plunge back into the channel tomorrow.
The last thing, before the sun set, was to move us off the too-small, better-than-dying-in-the-channel slip and into one more our size. Mike, the harbor master - and heck of a good guy who even brought us stuff from the hardware store - helped us navigate into the slip just as the sun went down. He and his buddy Dan could not have been more gentlemanly, and although we had full power and water at the previous slip, this one was more protected. When we tied up and plugged in there, all really felt right in the world again.
As I write this, it is just before midnight on Monday. Tomorrow, Tom should be done with the repairs and we should be underway before noon. Tally-ho.
...Oh and... It would seem an incomplete account to leave out the fact that every single person commented on how unlikely it was that we cut across the channel in the way we did and not run aground or hit debris. Of the 8-ish people, boaters and mechanics, that we talked to, everyone seemed astonished that we avoided it. Mike, the harbor master, went so far as to say that we were the only people he knew of who took the track we did and didn't run aground. That would have been devastating. A trip-ender, for sure.
Dan said someone is looking out for us.
Above: The Road at a gas stop in Clinton, IA. Right: A Paddle-Wheel we passed near the Quad Cities.
Below: Underway down of Sabula. Right: A windmill up of East Moline.
Below: Melby at the helm. Right: Melby in the Engine compartment. He's generally happier than this...
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