Unknown Dangers - Wind on the Tennessee River
After a couple of days of starting our Loop, we locked through the Guntersville lock into Lake Wheeler. Our weather reports told us to expect constant winds of 10-14 mph, with higher gusts. Earlier voyages on Currently had us experiencing higher winds, and we'd never failed to handle them. In our inexperience, we were missing something.
When a sustained wind blows straight down a waterway, it gives the waves a chance to build over time. Today, the wind was blew in precisely the direction of a long, straight stretch of river in in Decatur, Alabama. Exacerbated by a little commercial traffic, the uneven river bottom, and high river levels, two to four foot seas turned into six foot seas in the blink of an eye.
We found ourselves in a situation we'd never experienced before. Waves were breaking over our bow, washing over our boat, and even dousing the roof. Coffee cups spilled. A few loose items of gear not strapped down popped loose and clattered onto the floor. A quick glance at our Garmin told us Jay's Landing was close by, and we could make out the tiny buoys marking the channel. We spun the boat around, pointed it back upstream. The electronic's map told us that shallow water lay ahead, but we reasoned that our 2`8" draft could handle any typical marina.
Once again, the river gremlins of the unknown threw a trick into our path. Lake Wheeler is exceptionally low over the winter, even during times of high river flows. Jay, it turns out, is a summer marina man, and his marina is usually available only available in high summer levels, even when the dam releases are high. As we pulled into the marina, we felt the boat slow as if it were stuck in molasses. Or river silt, as it turns out.
Without us backing off of the throttle, the Garmin ticked through 6 knots, then 5, then 4, and then 3. I nosed up the throttle, hoping we wouldn't get stuck in the mud and hammered by waves. Eventually, the river gremlins decided to let us go. A dock worker came up to meet us, and told us that we were welcome to stay overnight, but probably wouldn't be able to leave until late in the Spring, long after the weather window for the great loop closed.
We told the helpful dockhand that we'd stay the night in the interest of safety. As a point of reference, he pointed to a spot on a wall next to a boat ramp. He told us when the river receded to the spot, we'd be trapped for the winter, 2'8" draft be damned.
At the time, the river was predicted to fall a foot, but the marina owner told us to be patient. Based on years of experience, she expected the river to rise, and it did. The following morning, we got up with the rising of the winter sun to a glassy river bearing no resemblance to the one we'd seen a scant 18 hours ago. We anxiously checked a couple of web sites to find risen three precious inches. We looked at the boat ramp to confirm the findings. After a short conversation, we decided it was safe to leave.
As it turned out, three inches was just enough. Our journey could continue. What a difference a day makes.