Saturday, Afton to Watergate, 10/3/20

As I enter the downtown area of St Paul MN

How the 9 hour day Played out to success

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Today, Saturday Oct 3rd, 2020 will be my last official real day on the water for 2020. Anything after today is just prepping the boat while at Watergate Marina to pull it out of the water and seal it up for winter. 

I have some trepidation, it will be a long traveling day at an average of about 4.5 knots per hour, barely 5 mph. I need to travel about 40 miles, if you looked at a map you would think it’s a lot more than 40 miles. There are some really shallow areas on the St Croix River I need to successfully traverse, two bridges at Prescott WI that I should now be able to easily motor under now that my mast is laying horizontal on my deck, there is a lock just north of Hastings to get through and then all the twists and turns through the nav channel that may or may not be filled with large barges and tug boats heading either up or down river. 

I’ve never motored up the Mississippi from Prescott before, once in 2018, I motored down the river from St Paul MN, but everything looks different when you travel the opposite direction. 

Heading south on the St Croix to Prescott went well, about 2 hours at about 5 plus knots, with the current. Looking at both the transportation/highway bridge and the railroad bridge it was easy to see there would be ample clearance, I only need about 6-8 feet and the lowest is the RR bridge at about 19 feet. Easy, no waiting cruise through. A big swing to the right gets me in the Mississippi and now heading up-river against 2-3 knots of current so my speed is now down to about 4.5 knots. 

Lock #2 just ahead and that becomes easy to negotiate as I’m the only one locking through and there is basically no wait. Two friendly guys running the lock with some nice conversation. The upper gates open and off I go looking in the distance as about 4 to 6 power boats are heading south. Good timing on my part to get there before them. 

Seeing these boats heading south is actually a great way to pick where the channel meanders. I’ve entered an area that is a huge “lake”. The lake however is extremely shallow everywhere except the channel. To safely get through this area you need to round an island and make a big loop back to the left and then another big loop around to the right. It would be so easy to just cut across the shallows but I’m not sure if a small fishing boat would even be able to do it and I need at least 3 plus feet of water to stay afloat. 

There are two main ways to determine where the channel is, at least visually and that’s my main nav method. Kind of like flying’s VFR (Visual Flight Rules) There is lots of time to let my mind drift and as I think about it, visual navigation is like a game of connecting the dots. Maybe I’ve talked about this before, bear with me if this seems redundant. There are Black/green floating buoys and there are red floating buoys. Then there are “Daymarks” green and red. The key to remembering what side of the boat they should be on is a simple meme. Red, Right, Returning. It applies to all waterways, even in the ocean. If you are returning to port or heading north, keep the red buoys and the red daymarks to the right/starboard. Black/green keep to the left/port. The daymarks usually are placed on the shoreline or at least some static position close to shore. They usually have lights that flash during the night. Heading north, put the red daymark on the stern and the green daymark on the bow and you should be safely in the channel. You still need to pay attention to marker buoys along the way keeping red right and black left, returning. Here is the problem, daymarks get covered by leaves, branches and other vegetation. Buoys are spaced at non-specific distances so you never know where you will see them. Leaving Lock #2, I was watching all the down river boats and didn’t notice that I had steered to the wrong side/shallow side of the first black can. AHHH!!, Hard right turn gets me back to the proper side of the can and back in the channel. So, the game of connecting the dots becomes one where you really don’t know exactly where the next dot really is. You just have to have faith that as you travel you will be able to spot the next nav aid, can, daymark, whatever. Luckily at 4’5 knots, it takes a lot of time to move from one dot to the next. Binoculars would work but with the boat motion and trying to steer at the same time, they really don’t help me. A first mate along watching would be helpful. 

I’m a tiny boat compared to most along the river, a sailboat under power only makes me just another power boat, no special right of way. Most other power boats are a lot faster than me and create a lot of wake even at slow speeds. As I get further up river, boats catch up to me and trying to stay safe while turning into a big wake is challenging, especially as one of three boats pass me, first of which goes by faster and creates a wake that really rocks me and my little boat even as I try to manage the waves. Not fun, the next two pass slower and I control the wakes better, then a crazy assed fisherman heading down river is on a collision course with me, I make a hard-right turn and he passes with not a lot of room to spare, asshole!! Learn to respect others and know the rules of the river!

As I head further north into the more industrial section of the river there are empty barges tied up along the shoreline and just about every backwater bay, I feel like I’m moving through a giant parking zone, this is no longer a recreational river, this is a work river. 

With all the parked barges, moving barges tend to blend into the shoreline and don’t really look like they are moving until you know they are moving, right at you! The first one of those I kept an eye on for a long time trying to figure where he wanted to go and where he wanted me to go. We eventually sorted it out and I passed him starboard to starboard which is the exact opposite of what normally should occur. 

The next one came from around a bend passing through an open swing rail bridge. The channel was open through the bridge and I was wondering why, maybe just a Saturday thing, until all of a sudden, the channel was filled with barge and lots of smoke was coming out the top of the stacks telling me he was heading south at me. I tucked in along a parked barge and waited for this one to pass before pulling out into the channel again and proceeding, under the bridge that was closing just before I got there. Third barge was under the Robert St bridge in downtown St Paul. Same action, I pulled to the right and waited while this barge made its way past. Three successes, yeah! Lastly, a city tour barge came into view just passed Harriet Island in St Paul, I kept to my path along the right side of the river even though it seemed like this one was looking to make a big sweeping 180 degree turn to dock along the island to my left. 

The last landmarks to announce my arrival were traveling under the 35E Interstate Freeway bridge and then come to the convergence of the Minnesota River and the Mississippi River. I’ve never viewed it moving north from the middle of the river before, so I was a bit confused as to which channel to take, Ha, I used Google Maps on my phone to verify that I was actually at the convergence and not just a little nondescript channel. Both rivers by now are significantly narrower than what I’ve been used to. Suddenly, I round a slight bend and there is the entrance to Watergate a little after 5 P.M. a few hours to spare before darkness. 

Time to tie up in an empty slip, there are plenty this time of year. My truck is parked here so I get a chance to drive to a BBQ Rib place, Famous Dave’s for a hearty rib dinner and a beer to celebrate. 

Back to the boat, some journaling, reading and time to snuggle into my sleeping bag as it will be a cold one. I wake in the morning to frost all over the docks. Some of the marina services I need aren’t available today so my plan to pull the boat out of the water will have to wait for a warmer day. I think I’m happy about that. I pack up and time to head home about noon. My 5 plus days of boat adventure is done for 2020. 

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