I am a woman who wears many hats. While writing this particular post, I donned my Navigator hat.
During our training, John opened up a book of laminated maps of the upper Mississippi. At first I was quite confused because he traced his finger along a white band rather than through blue (which I associate with water). It finally dawned on me that the white band, edged with occasional red and green marks, was the channel—the “road” we were to follow while moving along the river. My first thoughts were disappointment—I had thought we’d be able to explore the many sloughs in the wildlife management area. But, I quickly recovered when we pulled onto the first beach during our training run (beautiful and relaxing).
After a bit more discussion with John, I understood the other markings on the map. The red triangles mark where the red buoys and daymarks are located. The green squares mark where the green buoys and daymarks are located. The channel runs between these two. When heading upstream, you are to keep to the red side—Red. Right. Returning (from the Gulf). When heading downstream, you are to keep to the green side.
Then, there were these black stripes jutting out from the shores. Wing Dams.
A wing dam is a manmade barrier that, unlike a conventional dam, only extends partway into a river. These structures force water into a fast-moving center channel which reduces the rate of sediment accumulation, while slowing water flow near the riverbanks.(Wikipedia)
John told us a bit about the history of wing dams on the Mississippi. Although I liked learning about the wing dams, I hated the wing dams themselves. There are thousands of wing dams along the Mississippi River, many of them jutting out to the edge of the channel.
While wing dams assist in assuring that rivers are navigable, they can also pose a threat to boaters. Many wing dams in the Mississippi are usually underwater and may be difficult to see, but can be easily hit by propellers or other parts of a vessel. (Wikipedia)
It was my job as navigator to make sure we didn’t hit any wing dams. While traveling through the channel, this wasn’t much of an issue—Mike did a good job keeping us “within the lines”. The situation changed when we wanted to beach the houseboat.
We’d see an inviting beach on a peaceful island. I’d look at the map and find that the whole island was lined with wing dams. Yes, there was space between the wing dams for a houseboat to go through—but the map couldn’t identify the exact location of the wing dams for us. We had to figure that out on our own. The one day that the water was calm, we could see a “ripple” around the wing dams. The rest of the week, the water was too choppy to use that method. Instead, we had to make an educated guess of where the wing dams were and hope that Harrison hit the rock walls with his (depth) sounding pole before we ran into them. And, if we managed to avoid the wing dams and moved onto the beach, we had to move quickly to set the anchors before the wind blew us along the shoreline and into a wing dam.
Thankfully, the houseboat did not hit any wing dams—although Mike did have to hit reverse and change course quickly when Harrison poled a rock wall 6 feet below us (our draft was 4 feet).
So, we were able to return the houseboat undamaged. However, I think my psyche has been negatively affected by the possible dangers of the wing dams, lurking just under the surface of the water. It may take me a while to recover.
If in a moment of stress and frustration you hear me say Wing-dam-it!, you’ll now know why.