And then the time comes to fly solo.
Many Loopers travel together, sometimes by design and sometimes by happenstance. I was glad that veteran Loopers lead the way yesterday, our first “river day” — just as I was glad for a buddy boat in Lake Superior. Today, we felt ready to go it alone.
There were times when I questioned that decision.
We always have a go/no-go discussion. (Well, almost always. Jeff is usually ready to go before I am. He gets antsy to leave, especially when he sees others leaving. I usually insist on checking weather again and reviewing the route first.) The weather forecasts were more moderate than the night before, so we decided “it’s a go.” We wanted to break up the next leg, a long one, and take an anchorage half-way to the next marina. I’m always ready for an anchorage.
Before we left the Joliet wall, I called the lock just a mile ahead to request a lock-down, as we were advised to do. (I had to check my notes to figure out which radio channel to use for locks. The problem with following someone, as we did yesterday, is that you just don’t remember as much. Like being a passenger in a car rather than the driver.) It was interesting that the male skipper of the boat behind us also tried to call the lock and never got a response. I had heard from a few people that lockmasters and tug captains will respond to a woman before a man. Hmm! The other boat followed us to the lock, and I asked for permission for both of us to enter. All went well. I was growing more confident about locks.
But then, there’s the river. And wind on the river. It’s not as rocky as the Great Lakes, but it can be more complex. This day, we faced a stiff oncoming wind. Jeff described it “like going uphill,” even though we were headed down-river. And then, the barges. Always the barges. A larger one than what we saw yesterday, coming toward us as we approached a narrow bend. It’s like one of those math problems: “If your train leaves X city at such-and-such a time driving X mph, and another train leaves from Y city (etc.), when will your paths cross?” I know Jeff has a good “gut feel” for these things, but he’s also new at this. I’m wishing I had paid more attention in math class.
We passed the barge without incident, though we had to go very close to shore to do so. (We have a good electronic chart that marks the channel, but we also keep eyes on the physical buoys. I’m often on the binoculars, looking down-river for the next one. Redundancy is good!)
Our destination today was an anchorage in a wide opening just off the river. By the time we found it, the stiff wind was growing stiffer and clouds were looking somewhat darker. There wasn’t as much protection here as we had hoped. It took two tries to set a good anchor, since we are trying a new method and the wind was strong.
Jeff’s old-but-refurbished boat requires someone on the bow to let the anchor down and feed the line out. That’s usually me. Our new two-anchor system required more strength, though, so Jeff was on the bow while I was at the helm. Setting an anchor with a single-screw boat in a stiff wind can be a challenge (in-gear, out-of-gear, forward, reverse, more throttle, less throttle, etc.) and I’m still learning how to work the controls in this situation. Jeff guided me through the headsets that we wear during complex operations, but I still screwed it up the first time. After we started over and set the anchors more securely, the wind began to scream a little. Whitecaps surrounded us. I’m learning to trust my gut more, and stated bluntly that we shouldn’t stay there. Jeff quickly agreed and found a more protected anchorage about 12 miles downriver. We raised the anchor a 2nd time and headed back into the Illinois River … and almost immediately into another lock that we somehow missed on the chart. I was chagrined at our lack of adequate research, but enjoyed the feeling of confidence. The lockmaster answered the radio right away, telling us to wait for the green light. I couldn’t see any light, of any color, so I called him back. I was a little embarrassed to do that, but remembered that it’s always best to ask for instructions when it comes to locks. “I’m having trouble making out the light,” I said. “Should we proceed?” “No, wait,” he answered — and shortly thereafter, a red light was evident. Jeff said he obviously had forgotten to turn the light on at all. That made me feel a little better.
We women are capable of asking for directions or clarification. Maybe that’s why almost every man I see on The Loop has a woman along — to help keep him safe! (Though I doubt he’d ever admit it. 😉 )
We went through this lock all alone, which was odd. Is this a hint, I wondered? Apparently nobody else is traveling right now! The wind whistled through the lock and the clouds became darker. As we exited, Jeff asked the lock workers if there was a wall or anchorage nearby where we could take refuge. They mumbled something about a dock in Morris, some 10 miles down, and warned us about a storm. Another check of my weather apps confirmed this. I began to get nervous, wondering about navigating around barges in the low visibility and gusty winds that a storm front usually brings.
I wanted to throw the throttle forward and try to outrun the coming storm, but I wasn’t driving! I told myself we will be fine. The darkest clouds seemed behind us and the weather radar indicated the storm might just skirt us if we could make way fast enough.
The town of Morris did indeed have a dock – a tiny one without any cleats, so no way to tie up to it. Out of options, we continued to our intended destination on the protected side of Sugar Island.
I watch the sky a lot. I’ve seen many storms approach in Virginia, and I didn’t like the look of this. When Jeff gave me the helm as we prepared for anchorage, I did bump up the throttle. “We need to hurry,” I said, relieved as we entered the narrow channel. “It’s going to hit. Let’s drop it now!” Jeff has a better sense of good anchorages, though, and directed me to drive farther in until we finally released the anchor — in just the right place, and just in time.
Moments after he re-entered the cabin, it hit. Sheets of rain. Lightning and thunder. Trees swaying on the nearby shore. The surface of the narrow river was rippled by wind and small whitecaps.
But we were dry, and secure. And relieved.
I wonder how often we will have this feeling — relief at being secured, and a small thrill at making it there? We’ve had that feeling after some of our dicier marina arrivals too. It’s intense, and satisfying. But this was too close. We could have been caught in the big river, with barge traffic, in that mess. I wondered if we made a questionable judgment call, leaving when we did, without adequate research. Jeff says you can’t plan for everything. He’s right about that; there will always be surprises. But they can be minimized. The two boats that stayed behind in Joliet didn’t trust the weather, and maybe we shouldn’t have either.
I decided to download a new weather app that many Loopers rely on for accurate forecasts. I’ve also downloaded an app that tracks commercial boats more reliably than simple radar, since we’ll need to know what’s around the next bend when the barge traffic becomes more intense, and remembered that I haven’t worked with it yet. Then I remembered a new navigation app that I downloaded a week ago–also one that Loopers recommend–and haven’t yet figured that one out either.
I felt I should use this hiatus at anchor to study these things, but realized I’m in danger of app fatigue and worn out by the intensity of the day. Besides, we had no signal in this gloriously quiet place. After the storm passed, I took the dinghy out for a short row and listened to the birds make their sunset racket. And then, a truly silent night.
I will always remember Sugar Island for its sweet silence.