Day #9: We woke up to another calm and sunny day at the Marquis Harbor in Moline, IL – which should have been our first clue that we would not be leaving the marina that day. Tom, our head-wounded mechanic from yesterday, returned at 9AM with the fresh spark plugs and wires. Everything was assembled and doing its thing by 10AM; and the starboard engines sounded good at first, but then, heart of the problem returned. The carburetor. The bottom line: it needed to be removed, soaked and rebuilt.
To be fair to Eric, my mechanic in St. Paul, he said the same thing – and if I hadn’t been so set on leaving as quickly as we could – this might have been avoided. Lesson #94, learned.
(Pic: Tom, the head-wounded mechanic and his apprentice. Moline, IA - Oct. 16th)
Everything would be done by the late afternoon, Tom said, which meant we would not be able to leave Moline until early the next morning.
Damned delays! But, we reminded each other, this is still our vacation – when things go our way as well as when they don’t. The sun was shining, we had nowhere to be… there was fun to be had there.
Dorothy and I ran along a huge, paved path that stretches for miles along the River. Melby took out the johnboat with the little trolling motor… only to discover that it is really underwhelming – barely better than a paddle and much less fun.
(Pic: Melby in the johnboat. Moline, IA - Oct. 16th)
Most of the day we spent talking with Mike and Romeo, the occupants of a boat a few docks down. Mike has had several boats over the years, and working 3rd shift means that he has loads of daytime to enjoy them... Romeo rocks, but Dorothy wouldn't allow him on board.
(Pic: Mike and Romeo. Moline, IL - Oct. 16th)
Mike suggested a place for a beer and local flare – a place called The Bent River Brewery. It was a three mile walk, which seemed daunting at first, but we both found that we were very eager to stretch our legs. We have experienced some pretty daunting landsickness when we step off The Road at the end of the day. Like walking across a yard after you’ve been jumping on a trampoline – earth feels so strange.
The Bent River Brewery was well worth the jaunt. Great beer, and pickle fries that Melby swares are the best he’s ever had. Apparently, they “changed his life.” My favorite thing about The Bent River was this:
Because I had just eaten a burger and drank three beers, the idea of walking 3 miles back to the marina felt much less appealing. When she brought our tab, I asked our waitress how hard it was to get a cab around there. “Oh,” she said “it’s easy!”
“Great,” I said “we don’t need it now.”
“…but sometime before you leave,” she anticipated.
I smiled. Yes, great, this is perfect! I thought maybe East Moline was too small and that getting a cab would be-
And then she handed me this:
(Pic: The Bent River Brewery. Moline, IL - Oct. 16th)
She walked away and my eyes popped up to meet Melby’s.
“Yes,” he said. “She heard CAP. I knew that was going to happen.”
I swung between laughter and disbelief, the whole walk home.
(Pic: Sunset at Marquis Harbor. Moline, IL - Oct. 16th)
Day #10: We had such ambition on Wednesday morning! The weather was fair – and we’d stay under it too if we got on the River before 9AM. For the first time in days we had two, fully-functioning engines; and all felt right with the world.
Getting out of Marquis Harbor wasn’t difficult, but it was specific. The gasps and disbelief that we did not run aground on our way in, put the fear of the River in us regarding our way out. A narrow cut between two red buoys about a mile down had us back in the channel and we felt that all-too familiar surge of optimism.
We locked through #15 with such ease, we giggled. When we were cruising in the channel, the wind at our backs, we powered-down the port engine and ran on the starboard engine alone. For the long straight-aways, we had often been running on just one engine - even before we didn’t have a choice - because it saves a lot of gas. And boy-oh-man was that engine sounding good!
And then, suddenly, it gurgled to silence.
Not a huge problem, we think, we’ll just start the… Nope. Port won’t start either. Hopeless. Adrift. We have almost no choice in where the wind and the current take us while we scramble for help, solutions, escape.
And, again, we find ourselves in the best-case, of a worst-case scenario. Within minutes we came to a gentle stop on a sandbar, just outside the channel. Rocks and deadheads all around, but not where we were… Good girl.
(Pic: Adrift on a sandbar. MM: 478.8 - Oct. 17th)
Additional good luck was that we were less than a mile downriver of Tom – the mechanic who has literally bled to keep us going.
Like Batman on a boat, Tom (and his buddy Bill) raced to our aide. It’s a simple fix, he said.
Essentially, this is what happened: Although we have two 115 gallon gas tanks – one on the starboard side and one on the port - they empty one tank at a time instead of both at an equal rate. We knew we had over 100 gallons of gas left, but it was on the port side. Because of a simple valve turn, the engines both drew from the empty tank and, boom. We’re screwed.
A little over an hour later, we were back underway, unscathed. However both of us were chilled by what we would have done had the same thing happened near a dam, or passing a barge, or into a stump field – all landscapes much more common than a safe sandbar… But friends, if we started thinking like that, we’d have quit long ago. And, the day was far, far, far from over.
(Pic: A still stretch - MM: 450-ish - Oct. 17th)
We had a long stretch of very calm River in the afternoon and although there was no sunshine it was peaceful.
Until it wasn’t.
(Pic: Downriver of Muscatine, IA - Oct. 17th)
The waves were downright brutal and we had to slow way down – trying to find the perfect balance of NOT going so fast that you are slamming into the waves, but also going fast enough to maintain control.
It became clear, that we were in a particular bind because there are no marinas between Lock #17 and #18. The sun was setting and the winds were picking up – we’d have to find a place to beach.
The Lock operator at #17 said there was a place only 10 miles ahead on the left descending bank. A campground, he said, where big campers and boats are lined up all the time.
We fought the next 10 miles, at a crawling pace, and then finally saw it. It was an ideal spot – loads of sand and even (gasp) campground bathrooms.
We landed gently and had the anchors immediately out. But the wind was too fierce and before we could fight it, we were blown side-long into the beach. Not terrible, the sand was really soft and we were positioned in a way that was going to be loud in the cabin, but easy on the boat. A little persuasion and we would be able to reverse out of there in the morning – we were sure of it.
Actually, before falling into a fitful sleep, we had both admitted we might be fucked.
But in the meantime, Melby caught some amazing pictures of the stars (and maybe a ufo.
(Pic: A beach in Keithsburg, IA - Oct. 17th)
Day #11: In the morning, after letting Dorothy play a little in the sand, and starting a pot of coffee, we confirmed our fear. We were, in fact, stuck. The winds that had put us there were still raging this morning, keeping us there.
(Pic: The same beach in Keithsburg, IA. Oct. 18th)
The port engine was free and running, but the starboard prop was wedged in the sand. Even with rocking, and shoving the situation combined with the wind left us ducks, sitting. Soon, a white-haired, red-faced man in denim overalls wandered down. He watched us for almost 15 minutes and then said, “I could get my boat I suppose.”
We thanked him profusely and – hot damn if he didn’t have us loose in less than 20 minutes! However, the instant before we were free, the line he had tied to us came loose and wrapped itself around our port prop, grinding it to a halt.
Ducks, sitting very still.
Our intended destination the night before, Bluff Harbor in Burlington, IA, was only 22 miles downriver. Unfortunately, a lock stood between us and them. Still, we had cell reception and I called their office.
“Okay,” the man said after I explained where we were and what our condition was. “I’m sending two guys and two boats, they’ll be able to get you loose and shepherd you to our marina… It’ll be a couple of hours.”
And money, no doubt.
Time, money, and piercing cold. Melby and I were at our lowest point yet.
We paced and shivered and contemplated how awful the trip to their marina was going to be. If and when we were free, we’d be forced to face what were developing into the worst white-caps we’d seen yet. And all on one engine, again – but not the old reliable one, no. We’d have to do it on the ONE engine that has a habit of pooping out when we need her most. And that was supposing the bitch would start when she got free of the sand!
There were no other options, unfortunately. It is that way to rescue. It is that way to continue the trip. And, again, the worst-case scenario had delivered a best-case factor – two dudes in boats who do this allll the time.
Jake and Jerry from Bluff Harbor had us free in minutes and (yes!) the starboard started up the instant she was free and sounded fine.
The winds and waves were worse than we thought. The Road, kept a steady clip (20 RPM”s) on the starboard engine alone, and Jake and Jerry cruised along in our wake, being blocked – when possible – from the stinging rain.
(Pic: One of our 'shepherds', Jake. Oct. 18th)
Around 1PM we passed a barge so close I could have handed them tea, but they had given us permission to go around them to the next lock. That lock (#18) was a churning, chaotic disaster but we all made it. It was remarkable that with whitecaps inside the lock walls, one engine out, and two boats shepherding, us the lock master felt this tidbit would be useful:
“What you need to do is straighten her out and get up next to the wall.”
Three hours after they pulled us loose from the beach in Keithsburg, we were in Burlington. Safe in harbor, again.
Tomorrow, they said, we’ll hoist you up and get that line out of your prop.
As the guys left, I was paralyzed with how many times we’ve been saved on this trip. Sometimes by terrific circumstances, but more often by people. People whose job it is to save us, sure, but also by people who didn’t know us or owe us a thing. Jerry, turned out to be both.
As we’d been talking, he had heard how long we had been underway and about some of the other bad luck we’ve had.
“Do you want to get groceries or do laundry? I’ll take you up the hill into town.”
I might have cried.
But we definitely said yes.
(Pic: Left - the world's most appropriate laundry sign. Right - Jerry, helping. Burlington, IA - Oct. 18th)
By 8PM, we were back on board with clean, DRY clothes and all the bread, cheese, eggs and coffee two human beings could ever want. And Jerry had a six-pack of beer left in the back of his truck because he wouldn’t let us take him to dinner.
Day #12: By 9AM, our shepherds were back and nosing The Road into a strapped lift that would hoist her the necessary couple of feet to expose the props. If you’ve ever seen a cow being lifted out of a flood by a helicopter, it’s something like that.
(Pic: The Road in the lift. That white piece of rope leads straight down to the prop. Burlington, IA - Oct. 19th)
The offending piece of line was not only untied from the prop, but salvageable! Lowered to fully-functioning safety, and with a good forecast ahead, we gassed-up, pumped out, and went into the terrifying unknown again.
We don’t know. We’re aware that there could be wisdom in quitting. And certainly, while we were helplessly stuck in the sand at the campground in Keithsburg, we looked at the warm happy campers with genuine envy. It takes 20 hours to drive to New Orleans. I know, I did it five months ago… And the chance of drowning is so remote…
And can we even make it? Technically? Is there time?
We don’t know.
But, we don’t have to be home for 2 weeks. I wonder how far we can go...
Today, finally able to leave Bluff Harbor around 1PM, we got to Keokuk – about 40 miles downriver, by 5:30PM.
Within seconds of our arrival to the Keokuk Yacht Club – a genuine yacht pulled in. This girl, The Mimi, is absolutely stunning – 110 feet long, gleaming white hull, sparkling silver anchors. Teak rails and glittering decks. I could see flat-screen tv’s in at least three cabins. Bow-thrusters, and radar and crew – oh my! People poured out of the marina bar, cameras in hand, to catch a shot and flirt.
The Road, god bless her, has seen better days. A tattered rail juts out the port side deck like a fingernail ripped off a toe, there are long strands of age-old duct tape hanging from quick-fixes. I am wrapped in a blanket and Melby’s gloves reek of gasoline. Dorothy, our ghetto mutt shivers, for at least 30 minutes after we turn off our engine… It was like Angelina Joli just showed up at your prom.
“I carried a watermelon?” (That’s for you, Mom)
(Pic: Us and the Mimi. LEFT - Yes, that's us waaaayyy up there. Keokuk, IA - Oct. 19th)
But, as we’ve learned before and hope to continue to learn – people on the River are, at the bottom of it, on the River. And the River could knock Mimi around just like the rest of us if she wanted to… Granted, Mimi’s chances of rolling with it are infinitely higher than ours, but none of that matters in the bar.
The first mate and the captain of the Mimi both came to our table to say thanks for sharing the dock. (Not that we really had a choice - to make room for them we had to untie and push ahead, out of reach of the water and most of the electricity.) They also offered tips for the trip down – having done it themselves countless times.
“Talk to Fern at Hoppie’s just down of St. Louis,” they both reiterated. “She knows everything.”
Tomorrow, we plan on setting out for Hannibal, MO – the hometown of Mark Twain – and where there is some sort of festival happening. From the looks of it, something cheesy… and we can’t wait.
(Pic: Dorothy, concerned.)
(Pic: Melby changing the oil. Moline - Oct. 16th)
(Pic: The American Queen. Moline, IL - Oct. 16th)
(Pic: Melby on guard before a barge. Somewhere in IA/IL - Oct. 17th)
(Pic: Me and the Captain of the Mimi. Melby said, "Like Sean Connery mated with the Dos Equis guy." Keokuk, IA - Oct. 19th)
(Pic: Moline, IL - Oct. 16th)
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