Saturday, May 24, 2014

Tennessee River Gorge

We planned to splash at the Harris Chain of Lakes in Florida on May 15, 2014, but it was raining down there, and would be for the next couple we held off leaving. We'd rather spend the time at home if the weather was questionable. During the wait, I pulled out an ACOE Chartbook of the Tennessee River. Cruising the Grand Canyon of the East Coast was on our radar and we thought this might be a good time to have a looksee at possible ramps. I look for ramps on my antique Garmin handheld chartplotter and on the Android phone's Navionics charts, then use Google Earth them to see how the ramps look via satellite. I need a 'friendly' ramp for my 28' houseboat and require a floating dock because my wife's MS dictates that I splash and retrieve alone. We'd be boating with Doug and Elaine on their 2120 Parker, Mokee Dugway, and would likely have help at the ramp, but I like to know I can negotiate the ramp on my own in an emergency.

Launch/Retrieve Solo

We found several promising ramps down near the Nickajack Lock and waypointed them for when we would head that way in a couple months. But -- it wasn't long before we were considering a change of plan to cruise the Tennessee River instead of heading to Florida. The more we thought about Florida, the better we liked Tennessee.

OK, we'd go to Chattanooga. One GPS routed us to Knoxville then down; the other had us go through Atlanta then up. We opted to take the high road from Spartanburg to Chattanooga. This meant going up the I26 Saluda Grade to I40 into Knoxville, then down I75 to Chattanooga. The ~300 mile trip was uneventful.

The first ramp we checked out just up from the Nickajack Lock was definitely a no-go. So was the next one. The 3rd ramp we looked at was a maybe, but I didn't feel good about it. We asked the locals there about a nice ramp. They weren't convincingly helpful as their experiences were only with bass and flats boats. They thought the folks at Hales Bar could help us, but they didn't recommend the ramp there.

It was dark by the time we maneuvered down the long switch-backed road to the Hales Bar Marina. The guys there said our best bet would be the TVA Storage Ramp a couple miles up the road, We were glad to find the ramp, but the lot was full of bass boats returning from a tournament and the ramp was a broken pile of concrete rubble. We decided to overnight aboard in the lot and make a new plan in the morning.

Overnighting in the parking lot

The next morning we found notes on our windshields from "The Hood", advising us not to use this dangerous ramp. He also left his phone number if we wanted help -- I called him. We learned that the TVA ramp we were at was not the Storage Ramp. The TVA Storage Ramp was a couple miles farther up the road. He said it was a very steep ramp, but it was in excellent shape, there was plenty of parking and video surveillance of the lot. The more he thought about it though, the more he worried about my 12,000# boat dragging the van down the steep ramp into the drink, but finally said he didn't want to scare us into not using it.

The ramp was the steepest we've ever encountered. The entire dock was only about 40 feet long, Big Duck's stern would be sticking out about 10 feet beyond the end of the dock in order to get the boat off the trailer. But, we decided to give it a shot.

We figured to splash my boat first while the ramp was dry. I backed down the ramp ever so slowly and when I tried to stop at the waters edge to undo the straps, the van slid backwards with all 4 wheels locked up, I was at the ready to manually apply full power to the electric trailer brakes and the van quit moving as I did. I then had my helpers put the big chocks under the front wheels.

With the straps off and the boat ready, I needed to pull forward a little to free the chocks. The van inched forward without wheel-spin and the chocks were removed without incident. At this point I was confident that we'd be OK, and we were. We splashed, then pulled Big Duck around the dock to the other side, bow out, to make room for Doug's boat. Because the dock was so short, I raised the out-drive to keep the prop from bumping the rocks on the beach.

Doug's launch wasn't quite as smooth. As his boat slid off the trailer, the anchor on the bow pulpit punctured the cover on his electric trailer winch and wouldn't let the boat move any farther back. It took us about 10 minutes to get it untangled. The winch still worked, but there was a big hole in the plastic cover. When he was finally ready to head out, I put Big Duck in gear to head away from the dock...and I heard, "clunk, clunk, clunk". The drive was most of the way up so I assumed the skeg dragged over a couple rocks. She responded well getting into the channel, so I put the banging behind me.

We certainly enjoyed the river although the area is known locally as Nickajack Lake. We scouted things out from downtown Chattanooga to the Nickajack Dam. The cliffs along the river are home to interesting buildings even one that appeared to be a castle.
Is that a castle up there?
At one point we could see the Interstate. We were so far removed from the hustle and bustle that the cars and trucks seemed like toys on a child's train set, and we were playing hooky from life.

Also, there are many places for side trips off the 'Canyon'. Surprisingly, the only commercial traffic we saw was one pusher/barge coming out of the lock while we were anchored in a cove well off the main channel.
Doug and Elaine's Parker in the Gorge

Hales Bar - remnants of the old hydro dam 

Suzy and Merlin enjoying blue skies

We rafted for every meal, and overnight

The weather for the first couple days

Downtown Chattanooga - I took Merlin ashore for potty.

Big Duck pulling the "Potty Taxi".

View of the river from the flybridge.
Chillin' out.

Getting ferried ashore for potty can wear a puppy out.
The weather was varied. It rained off and on for a couple days, we even had 15 minutes of hail, but visibility was always good and there was no challenging seas. I took a few pictures at the ramp and on the way up to Chattanooga, but because it was overcast I decided I'd wait to take the majority on the way back up from the Nickajack Dam when the weather would be sunny.

The picture taking didn't work out though. We rafted close to the dam off a park so I could dinghy Merlin ashore for his once every 24 hr potty. I was about to get in the dinghy when I did a 180 to go back and get my phone. I wanted to take some pictures of the boats from the beach. Patting myself on the back for remembering the phone, I stepped into the dink like I always do and tried to pull it a little closer to Big Duck to get the battery off the deck for the trolling motor. Unbeknownst to me, my dinghy had somehow picked up water inside the hull. This little bit of motion sent all that trapped water to the side of the dink and in slow motion I watched the gunnel disappear under water and the dinghy turn turtle with me under it. I can remember thinking that all these clothes were holding me under, and I didn't really know which way was up. I finally got oriented and wondered if I'd come up under the dink or under the boat.

I surfaced unscathed, but minus my glasses and of course my cell phone was now toast. And my phone is a battery hog so while on these outings with roaming, I have to turn it completely off in order for it to charge, and each time I turn it back on I have to remember to change the settings to save the pictures to the SD card. Many of the pictures I took earlier had been saved to the phone memory because I forgot to change the setting. So I lost those pictures and couldn't take more, but there were a few that went to the SD card that were saved.

After turning turtle - I'm soaked and no glasses...the only thing dry is the dog.
Now that I didn't have to worry about surfing the Internet or taking pictures I decided I'd give her a little more throttle than the 6 mph we'd been doing since we left the ramp. Six miles an hour is our cruising speed...we're never in a hurry and 6 is usually gives us 3+ mpg -- there's no reason to go faster. As she climbed to about 8 mph I began to feel a vibration. I knew it had to be the prop from the banging at the ramp, especially since we were only getting 2 mpg on this trip so far. I wasn't about to confirm my diagnosis though, because we were doing just fine at 6 mph and I didn't want to start worrying about a mangled prop. I didn't worry about the prop, but later I did sneak a quick peek and could see a hunk missing. This actually made me feel better about the poor mpg.

Our meals on the cruise were outstanding. Left to my own devices, nourishment would be whenever and would be package to preparation or cooking and no dishes to wash.  It's OK to put something in the microwave, but it has to be eaten out of the container. However, Doug loves to cook and not only planned and purchased stores but also prepared several course lunches and dinners.
Chef Douglas boiling water for spaghetti
Mmmmm - brat burgers

The final adventure would be getting Big Duck on the trailer and up the ramp. Doug and Elaine left the anchorage earlier than we did, so they could get Mokee Dugway settled on the trailer in the lot before we arrived in Big Duck. By the time we showed up, the ramp was dry and we only wheel hopped once going up the ramp to the parking lot.

Damage to the prop was worse than I thought.
Doug and Elaine headed back to the Chicago area from the ramp. We decided to take the low road back to Spartanburg. This route didn't involve mountains, but it did involve Atlanta traffic -- which we hit at rush hour. I don't mind rush hour traffic because we're never in a hurry, but we did have a problem. I'd had the Anti-Lock Brake Module rebuilt because it had caused the drivers front brake to drag on our trip to Strom Thurmond. The rebuilt module had been in service for about 500 miles as we hit Atlanta. We were in bumper to bumper stop and go when the van started pulling to the right. Then we could smell the hot brake. Then the van would pull violently to the left when braking because the right brake was hot...not a fun problem in the congestion. I pulled onto the shoulder and jerked out the fuse for the anti-lock system. It took probably a half hour for the system to stabilize, long enough that we exited the freeway at one point to see if we might have a flat tire.

I parked the van/boat/trailer in front of the house when we got home. I like to rest up before attempting to get the boat into the back yard. It's a challenge with fences and trees in the way of getting the boat around the house and over to the boat-port. The ruts from previous attempts over soggy soil don't help, but I finally did back the boat in position under the boat-port roof.

While getting the chocks out of the van in preparation to unhook the boat, I came across my wife's walker. I thought I'd just get it out of the van while I had the side door open, so I removed it and set it aside. With the chocks in place I now unhooked the boat and pulled the van forward to clear the coupler. With the boat settled I had planned to move the van to the cement pad next to the garage. But now remembering the forecast for rain, I impulsively decided to put the van next to the boat to keep it out of the weather. I had to jocky the van around a tree which I foolishly planted in the yard two decades ago and finally slowly backed the van next to the boat when it hit me...or rather when I hit it -- my wife's walker, it was now a tangled mess under the van.

All told, we were on the water 5 days and 4 nights, going ashore only to take the dog for potty. We averaged a little over 5 mph for the 90 miles we covered. The boat used 45 gallons of gas and the generator took about 5 gallons. The unplugged freezer with the 5 gallon brine brick kept the perishables and my beer deliciously cold. Cruising the Grand Canyon of the East Coast is one of the highlights of our boating experiences.
Track of our TN River adventure - We splashed at TVAST444

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