Saturday, August 31, 2013

Big Duck Ventures to Lake Strom Thurmond

It’s been a hot, wet spring and summer. I can’t get Big Duck out of the back yard if the ground is moist…no traction pulling the 12,000-pound trailer across the grass. But I had committed to a week long Lake Kerr outing in late September with other houseboaters and with only one time on the water in ’13 I needed to make sure the boat and equipment were in condition for that major outing. This meant I’d need to spend at least one overnight on the water before then. I’d been toying with the idea of a trip to Lake Strom Thurmond on the SC/GA boarder all summer and this was a good excuse to actually do it. It was only about 100 miles to a ramp that showed promise on Google Earth. It hadn’t rained for three whole days and the lawn was relatively dry…we’d decided to give it a shot on Aug 28, 2013 – we’d head out with Big Duck for an overnight on Thurmond.
Let's get this show on the road.

The adventure started at the gas station near home on our departure for the lake. I use Pri-G in my gas and put enough of it in my ¼ full 85-gallon tank for 36 gallons of gas. That would be plenty of gas for this outing. The pump cut off at 25 gallons as gas gurgled out the fill hole onto the deck – she was slam full. I guess my gas gauge doesn't read correctly?

This normally wouldn’t have been a problem but the tank was new and although I had installed the fill fitting in the tank with the recommended “Aviation Permatex” I guess I didn't tighten the fittings enough because gas started seeping out of the threads. OK, so I’d deal with all that later...the garboard drain plug was out and the gas wouldn't get too deep in the bilge while I was on the road.

The first part of the trip is Interstate and all went well, although there was a lot of shifting going on up the hills. Then the 4 lane turned into 2 lane and we went thru a couple towns with stop lights. It's not really a problem getting going after a stop, but after many red lights it gets a little trying. 

About 20 miles from the ramp, the van started pulling to the left. Not wanting to believe that I had a tire going flat, I played with the wheel for a while hoping it was road conditions. It was a narrow 2-lane road, so there was no place to pull over as I tested the pull. While trying to figure out what to do I guessed I missed a turn. The GPS never warned me to ‘bear left to stay on 221” so I followed the yellow line onto Hwy 10. I never realized I'd missed that turn.

Not more than a half mile later there was a sign that said, “11’6” Clearance Ahead”. I told Suzy that we couldn’t make that bridge with our 12’ tall boat, but was delighted when the GPS told us to turn left in ¼ mile. This would happily keep us from having to deal with the low bridge and it would be less than 1/2  mile back to 221. It was a comfort knowing I wouldn't have to deal with that bridge on a 2 lane road with no shoulders or places to turn around.

I anxiously kept an eye on the GPS to be sure I didn’t miss the turn and was relieved when it was finally in sight, but it wasn’t a major road. As I turned onto the road I quickly came to the end of the asphalt and now all that was visible ahead was a narrowing gravel alley. By now it was impossible to turn around and besides we were about half way through. 

The road then deteriorated into red clay. We slowed and pushed on with shrubs and branches rubbing the sides and top of the boat. The ‘road’ continued to narrow and turned into ruts. 

With about 150 yards to go we had to cross a trickle of a stream at a low point. I kept up the speed to keep from getting mired, the trailer rocking and bumping as we headed thru the water then up. Now we could make out traffic on 221 through small openings in the trees and brush – we’re almost there. 

Then, as we rounded a curve we came to a gully and at the bottom there was a ‘lake’ across the road. We stopped and I got out to check out the ‘lake’. It wasn’t really a lake, but at about 20 feet wide and 15 feet across it was every bit of a lake to our passage. I stuck a stick into the muddy water. It was about 18” deep in the middle not counting the soft mud. There was a small area to the left of the ‘lake’ with very deep ruts from where others had ventured an escape around the lake. There were cushions or pillows of some kind in this shallower side that appeared to have been used as an aid for traction (or floatation *:-S worried ). 

I went back to the van and just sat there. What the hell was I doing in 4-wheel drive country pulling a 12,000 lb 28’ boat? It didn’t seem real. When was I going to wake up from this nightmare?

We’re going to need to get towed out of here – somehow. But if we were going to get towed we might as well give the lake a shot. Worst case we’d get muddy getting out of the van when the tow truck came, unless of course we rolled. So if we were going to try to get through the mud should we get a good start and head straight through hoping the momentum would carry us or would we nose dive in the mud and end up in an abrupt stop with the front of the boat coming off the trailer into the van? We could try the side ruts and hope that we could turn in time to keep from sliding down the embankment or getting a tree trunk in the grill, or we could just creep along until we were stuck in the greasy red clay?

Suzy and I discussed the merits of each option…slow ahead, momentum ahead, off to the side or wait for the tow truck. We sat quietly for quite a spell hoping a solution would become evident. Something made me put the V10 into gear and get a good run toward the lake. I thought I was going to hit it straight on, but at the last moment I jerked the wheel to the left in kind of a compromise between the two options. I could feel the trailer pushing the van sideways as I entered the mud because the trailer was still going down hill as the van leveled off. I nudged the wheel to the right and as the trailer tongue came down hard on the hitch the front wheels of the van jumped up out of the mud and turned us back onto the main ruts. I gunned her and the trailer followed with a violent jerk. The van was now clear but the tires were wet and slippery trying to pull the trailer out and up the other side of the gully. We slowed almost to a standstill with the rear tires spinning. What to do now…stop, lighten up on the pedal, or spin them harder? 

I kept a light foot on the gas hoping the spinning tires would throw enough mud to grab on the uphill slope. As our momentum slowed I gave her just a little more and we inched up ever so slowly. At this point both Suzy and I were both shouting, GO! GO! GO! And she finally grabbed well enough to get us to the top…at which time we saw a downed tree across the ruts, blocking our freedom 150 feet from 221.

A closer inspection showed the tree had been cut away on the right side, enough for us to get through. We were finally on our way again.

But she was still pulling, and pulling and pulling. I put on the flashers and limped to a wide spot where we could get 2 wheels off the highway. All of the tires looked good. I got back on the road and slowly looked for a place where it would be safe to get a better look. Finally finding a place to pull over, I gingerly tested the brakes and she pulled violently to the right. By the time I got stopped the left front wheel was smoking so bad we both expected it would break into flames. I inched slowly ahead so as not to let anything fuse the wheel solid while it was cooling. Looks like we’ll need that tow truck after all. 

But now I had more information on the pulling. I surmised that the left front brake heated up because it was dragging, that’s why it was pulling to the left. When I finally stopped, the left brake was so hot it wasn’t working so she pulled to the right. Why was that brake dragging? 

Then it dawned on me…maybe the anti lock brake computer was sending a braking signal to that left front brake even though the ABS light wasn’t on inside the van. While things were cooling, I scoured the manual to find where the anti lock relay was under the hood. When the smoke cleared I pulled the relay.

 We hit the road again after a period of cooling, but the pulling to the left continued despite the ABS being now offline. I put on the flashers and kept the speed down hoping things would normalize as the brake cooled. By the time we got to the boat ramp turnoff, the pulling had pretty much subsided.

The Dorn Fishing Facility was nothing short of astounding. There are a couple hundred parking places for trailers and six lanes of launch ramps all with floating docks.

The 90+° temps took quite a bit out of this 70 year old as I worked to get the boat off the trailer. I’d work for 10 or so minutes, then head inside the boat to the comfort of the air conditioner. When I was refreshed, I’d return to the task at hand. The fuel in the bilge was attenuated by a leak from the fasteners for the boarding stairs that let water into the bilge. Only when the stern is low due to the boat not yet floating level is this a problem. Because we were in this orientation for 20 minutes or more, the bilge pump sent out the fuel with the bilge water. There really wasn’t much gas…a few ounces at the most and with the Joy I put in the bilge to keep it clean, there was only a slight hint of sheen on the water.  The bilge blower was on for the whole 20 minutes so it was no surprise that a sniff revealed no fumes in the engine compartment, especially after I dried out the tank top with paper towels.

The launching operation took about 45 minutes because it was completely solo in the heat, but there were no complications. We had the ramp and lot totally to ourselves; there was no sense of urgency, and the ramp was at a perfect angle with plenty of traction. The lake itself was like many other reservoirs in our boating area, with nothing worth noting except the outstanding Dorn Boating Event Facility.
This was a DNR guy coming out.

Totally empty parking lots

More totally empty parking lots.
First Class Ramp
 Once on the water, Big Duck was cooperative in every respect…well except for getting on plane. I’m still working on the proper propping. We could do 15mph but at only 4k RPM…she wouldn’t hit the rated 4,600 RPM, but I know I can do better with less pitch. Actually this would never be a problem for us anyway - we never go over 6 or 8 mph and don't plan to pull skiers or water toys at her rated 30mph

Merlin had a ball. We nudge the boat onto a steep bank so he can jump off and on the bow at will. He’ll roam the island, often venturing into the water, and then come back aboard when he’s ready.

The weather was so calm we stayed there all night with just an unset anchor in the weeds ashore.

The time on the lake was a total success, and loading and the trip home was the same…
Merlin wasn't ready to go home.

except for failing to get Big Duck into the boat port once we got back home. Even though there had been no rain while we were away, the slight moisture in the grass prevented traction in the mild  upgrade into the shelter of the boat port. Screw it, that’s good enough for now – at least I know the limited-slip is working.

A few hours/beers later, I removed the equalizer bars, redirecting all the tongue weight to the rear, and was able to get The Duck back into her home at home.

I think I'm getting too old for this...gimme another beer and clear the way to the rocking chair.


  1. Still shaking my head....
    Have you thought through the ABS issue? Bad relay? Sensor?
    At least the Duck didn't let you down.

    1. I'm thinking the ABS problem is the computer. We did fine coming home.

  2. A very good boating story....your description of the off road part was so good I felt I was there....well done...and glad all worked out for you.


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