The Houseboat Odyssey

This is a pretty long story so unless you’re employed by the government you may not have time to read it at work. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll divide it into parts so you can read it in pieces.

Part One:

I’ve liked boats my whole life and have had a bunch over the last 50 years. My latest is a houseboat I found on the internet. I live in Ontario Canada and the houseboat was in Gallatin, Tennessee. My wife and I flew down to take a look at her and put the deal together. Now I had to figure out a way to get the boat to Canada.

My original plan was to bring it up by truck but a friend of mine who knows nothing about boating said I was missing the opportunity of a lifetime and that he and I and another friend should turn it into an adventure and bring her up by water. I said I’d think about it. Gallatin is on the Cumberland River so the route to Ontario would take us up the Cumberland, across the Ohio, up the Mississippi, up Lake Michigan, down Lake Huron, across Lake Erie, up the Welland Canal and across Lake Ontario.

My friend called back and said we could shorten the trip dramatically if we took the Ohio + Erie Canal from the Ohio River to Lake Erie. I pointed out that the Ohio + Erie Canal had closed permanently in 1913. I also decided to hire a captain. His name was William but he said everyone called him Pete (that should have been a clue). Captain Pete would fly into Nashville on an agreed Sunday in June. My friends and I flew down to Nashville on the Friday night. I rented a car. We drove to Gallatin, moved onto the boat and went out for the evening in Nashville.

On Saturday we bought our provisions and set the boat up for the trip. On Sunday I drove to the Nashville Airport, picked up Captain Pete and brought him to the boat. I then went into the town of Gallatin to return the rental car. I was assuming one of the staff would drive me back to the boat. That didn’t happen. The office was closed on Sundays but there was a drop-off box for the keys. I locked the car, deposited the keys and walked towards the main street. I came to a 7-11 and directly across the street was a Ford dealership.

I got out my cell phone to call a cab but I didn’t know how to get the number. A 30ish couple pulled up to the 7-11. The guy had a wife-beater undershirt on. I excused myself and asked him if he knew the name of a local cab company here in Gallatin. He started rubbing his forehead and said ‘Oh man, I should know this’. Then he called to his wife sitting in the car. ‘Honey! What’s the name of the cab company here? The one your brother works for.’ She was also stumped. After a few awkward moments I asked ‘Well, would it be something like Gallatin Taxi?’ With great relief he said ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ I thanked him but you could see the ‘Wow’ in my eyes.

I called directory assistance and they put me through. A man answered. ‘Gallatin Taxi.’ I said ‘Yeah I need a ride to the marina.’ He said ‘Where are you?’ I said I’m standing in front of a 7-11 right across from a Ford Dealership.’ He said ‘Well that’s in Gallatin!’ I said ‘Yeah.’ He said ‘This is Hendersonville!’ I said ‘Well it’s called Gallatin Taxi.’ He said ‘Yeah but it’s in Hendersonville!’ (with just a hint of ‘You idiot’) I persisted ‘So can you send a taxi?’ He said ‘ Yeah I can but it’s gonna cost you 25 bucks just for me to get there.’ I said ‘Well my other alternative is to walk across the street and buy a car.’ After a $40 two-mile taxi ride we settled in for a night on the boat.

Part Two:

We got up early the next morning, filled the gas tanks and headed up the Cumberland River. Everything seemed okay as we went through a series of lock and dams. The biggest one had a drop of 65 feet. Captain Pete told me to string one of the stern lines loosely around a cleat on top of the lock and release it slowly as the boat descends with the water. The he handed me a sharp knife and told me that if the rope jammed in the cleat on the way down, I should cut the rope immediately or it will rip the fitting right out of the deck and the boat will sink and we will all die. That was relaxing.

There were a few fishermen blocking our route along the way but the main threat was the river barges carrying coal and gravel and whatever. The components are 10 feet wide and 30 feet long and they tie a bunch of ‘em together and then push ‘em with a tugboat.

They need to go at a pretty good clip or they can’t steer so you get this huge thing 30 feet wide and 90 feet long coming at you at around 10 knots and he’s not interested in getting out of the way. That’s your job,

The river took us passed the Tennessee State Prison and I was relieved to see that none of the guards or prisoners recognized Captain Pete. Our first setback came at about 6 hours into the trip. Our generator went down so we had no 120 volt power. More importantly, the generator has a power take-off that runs a hydraulic pump that drives the bow and stern thrusters. So without the generator, we had no thrusters and without thrusters, houseboats are hard to manoeuver.

We decided to stop at the next marina and get the generator fixed. Captain Pete surprised us all by doing a great job of docking the boat without any thrusters. There was a marina worker to catch us. She was an attractive woman in a bikini but none us were offended. While we waited for the marina mechanic, we decided to gas up. By this point Captain Pete had been running full throttle for about 7 hours. When they handed me the $1100 gas bill, I decided we would drive a little slower tomorrow.

The mechanic arrived and started working on the generator. After about a half hour, he took me aside and said that the generator is not getting gas. He thought it was a vapour lock in the fuel line. He blamed it on the ethanol in the gasoline that causes gas to evaporate too quickly when it gets hot. He told me that I needed to wrap a bag of ice around the fuel line to keep it cool and everything should be fine. I responded that I didn’t know what we were going to do but for sure it wasn’t going to be that. I asked him if the fuel pump was electrical or mechanical. ‘Electrical’ he said. I asked him to check the connections to the fuel pump. Guess what? The vibration caused when you run at full throttle for a few hours had loosened one of the terminals and the wire had fallen right off. A couple of turns from a 3/8” wrench and we were back in business.

There was a restaurant at the marina so we decided to stay for dinner and head out in the morning. Some of us like to have a glass of wine with dinner but we were in a dry county. The restaurant told us we could bring our own wine, which I’ve seen before, but we also had to bring our wine glasses, which was a new one. One of us left our glass behind by mistake and to this day I have 3 matching wine glasses instead of 4.

The next morning we headed out early and cruised at a comfortable speed up the Cumberland towards the Ohio. The day passed without incident. We took turns behind the wheel and generally just enjoyed the ride and the scenery. All systems worked fine and we were getting used to the boat. By early evening we arrived at Green Turtle Bay Marina in Grand Rivers, KY. Captain Pete was at the wheel as we pulled into the marina and began swinging the boat around to approach the dock. Many people were on their boats watching us arrive. Captain Pete was his usual confident self, especially knowing he had operational thrusters. Any of you have ever driven a twin-screw boat know that you can turn it around faster using the engines, rather than the wheel. You just put one engine in forward ant the other in reverse and she’ll spin around on a dime. Well unfortunately the same type of vibrations that had unscrewed the fuel pump connection, also caused one of the throttle relays to fall out. The result was that Captain Pete had our 79 foot houseboat spinning out of control with one engine at full throttle in the middle of the marina. I could see the people in the boats we were almost hitting and I was unaware the human eye could open that wide.

From the upper pilot station, Captain Pete yelled at us that he had lost control and that we needed to shut the post engine down. I was on the lower deck at the stern so I raced through the boat to the lower pilot station and shut the engine down. I was a little curious as to why Captain Pete hadn’t shut the engine off himself with the kill switch that was right in front of him but I decided not to mention it. We managed to land at the marina and they gave us a slip well away from all of the other boats for some reason.

Green Turtle Bay is located where the Cumberland River meets the Ohio. From there you head west on the Ohio and in no time you reach the Mississippi, head north and you’re on your way to St. Louis, Chicago and Lake Michigan. We were excited but it didn’t last long. The marina folks warned us that the Mississippi was having a 500 year flood. The water was 37 feet above flood stage and the current was heading south at 11 knots. Our boat only goes 10 knots so if we got on the Mississippi, even at full throttle we would end up backing into New Orleans. And the marinas were all under water so even if you had the power to overcome the current, you wouldn’t be able to dock anywhere or refuel. It was a problem.

Part Three

By the next day our plan was rapidly unravelling. Captain Pete had another job to get to and my friends couldn’t afford to just wait around and see what happened. So we said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. I decided to give it a week or so and see if conditions improved. It would take me that long to put together a Plan B anyway.

The only really good thing that happened was that my wife drove down from Ontario to spend a few days. That was nice. The other advantage I had was that I was in Kentucky which is the world headquarters for houseboats. They build most of ‘em there and they know how to service ‘em and even better, they know how to move ‘em. By truck. So I started the search for a trucking company that could get me from Green Turtle Bay to Ontario Canada.

During that time a boat pulled into the marina. He had come down the Mississippi from Chicago. His face was ashen. He said it was the worst experience of his life. Going with the current was no safer than going against it. He said there were power cables and telephone lines below the surface and the water was roaring and full of debris – trees and bushes and parts of houses and appliances. That convinced me to hire a trucker. I found a guy willing and available and we started the process.

Another thing they have in Kentucky is really long and wide boat ramps. But not at Green Turtle Bay Marina so I had to get the boat across the ba to the boat ramp. I hadn’t driven the boat enough to be comfortable with it so I hired a young guy from the marina to take her over to the ramp. There was a cross wind and the slip we were heading for was barely wider than the boat. When we got close I asked the driver what he’d like me to do to help him get the boat into the slip. He said that as long as I didn’t stand directly in front of him, he should be okay. Sarcasm is alive and well in Kentucky. He brought her in without incident.

I was now in launch mode. The first step was for a couple of guys to come and measure the boat. Not the whole boat but most of it. First they measured the beam – 18 feet. Then they measured from the point of the bow to the last bulkhead. This houseboat is 79 feet long but the last bulkhead is about 63 feet from the bow. I found out later why they only measured to there.

By this point the trucker arrived with a fancy, totally adjustable trailer. They could set the length and width to whatever they wanted and it had a whole lot of small wheels rather than the usual number of normal-sized truck tires. They adjusted the width of the trailer to 9 feet which was half the width of the boat, and the length to 63 feet which was the length to the last bulkhead. This meant that once the boat was on the trailer, there would be a 4 ½ foot overhang on each side and a 16 foot overhang on the back. The back overhang is especially troubling because the engines and the generator are all inside that overhang. That’s a lot of weight to not have a trailer under it but I never questioned Captain Pete so I just carried that tradition on.

The trucker backed his adjusted trailer way down the ramp while the crew brought the boat up onto it. The trucker had asked me how much the boat weighed. I really had no idea and boats don’t get picked up in that area of the world so I had no way of finding out. She has an aluminum hull so I estimated the weight at somewhere around 20 tons. I soon suspected that was not exactly correct as smoke poured from the truck clutch as he tried to pull her out of the water. (I found out later that the boat weighs 34 tons. I’m glad I didn’t know)

After they got her out, I realized that although they had dealt with the width and length of the boat, they had not yet adjusted the height. Bridges in America tend to have a minimum height of around 13 feet. My boat’s height of 20 feet meant that the entire upper deck had to be removed and loaded onto other vehicles. Aside from the structural disassembly, every wire had to be cut and numbered so we had some chance of reconnecting them later.

Then they went inside and secured everything they could. They filled the dishwasher and locked it, put everything they could inside cabinets and used zip ties to prevent the doors from everything. It looked rough but it was road ready. When they were set to go, they had four vehicles. The first was a pole car. It has a big pole attached to the bumper with the length set at just slightly higher than the load. If the driver goes under a bridge and the pole hits, he radios the truck driver to warn him. Next comes the truck itself pulling the boat on the trailer. Behind that another truck carrying the parts from the upper deck. The final vehicle was an RV for the crew to sleep in. It also had a ‘Wide Load’ sign across the back.

My original plan was to follow the parade for a while just to see how things went. I changed my mind in a hurry. Although the trailer was set for 9 feet of width, the boat itself is 18 feet wide. That’s fine but I didn’t realize a highway lane is only 12 feet wide. So the procedure is for the trucker to drive up the road with the right hand wheels of the trailer riding the white line at the edge of the highway. That limits the overhang in the next lane to 1/1/2 feet, even though the over hang on the shoulder side will still be 4 ½ feet. But things can go wrong. What if the right side wheels slip on to the shoulder? What if there’s a parked car or a disabled vehicle on the shoulder? Or a hitchhiker? What if a large vehicle tries to pass? Like say, another trucker with another houseboat? This was hard to watch at any speed but when the parade hit 70 miles an hour, I decided to head home and wait to hear how it went later rather than see for myself.

When I got to my home in Ontario, I was in for another surprise. Before this adventure even began, I had arranged to get a new plan for my cellphone so I could send and receive calls and emails without going broke. I was also doing an article for the local paper so I needed to send hi-res pictures. And I had told Captain Pete and my guys to feel free to use my laptop because I had set up a plan.

While I was home, the phone rang. I thought it was the trucker with good news. It was neither the trucker nor good news. It was the cellphone service provider. He said ‘Mr. Smith, I have your first invoice for your new service here and before we send it out, I thought I should call you.’ I said ‘What’s the problem? Is it too low?’ He said, ‘Did you completely understand the package you were purchasing?’ Sensing a loophole I said ‘Absolutely not. The clerk was 11 years old, she was on the phone with her boyfriend, she told me to sign and I did. Why?’ He said, ‘Well you signed up for unlimited calls and data but it was for Canada only. Once you entered the US you triggered roaming charges and data limits.’ I said ‘Oh boy…How much is the bill?’ He said ‘Well it’s around sixteen thousand dollars.’ I laughed. Crying has never worked for me. He went on to say ‘But since you didn’t understand the package I’m able, on a one time basis only, to waive half of the charges.’ I said ‘That’s great. And I don’t want to look like a piker so I’ll waive the other half.’ And he did. Not a word of a lie.

Part Four:

Don’t exactly remember when I got the call from the trucker but it was at least three days before I expected. He had brought the boat to Erie, PA and was in the process of putting her back together. I asked him how he was able to get all the trucking permits done that fast. He said, ‘What do you mean, permits?’ I let it go.

He figured in a day or two he’d have her back together and I could sail her across the border into Ontario. I contacted Captain Pete. He was halfway across the Atlantic on his way to France in a 34 foot sailboat that had just lost her steering so he was unavailable but would send another captain. I told him I would also need at least one crew guy. My wife drove me to Erie and dropped me off at the boat which was still on the trailer beside a small canal in the parking lot of an industrial marine machine shop. They were just finishing the reassembly and I was checking for damages. Some parts of the metal fins on the bottom of the keel were missing. It looked like they had been ground off. I asked the RV driver how that happened. He said there were some concrete partitions on a tight cloverleaf and the overhang caught the top of them. He said the sparks flew out about 30 feet behind the boat. These fins are right below the gas tanks so we dodged a bullet there.

There were also some green scrapes on the top of the upper deck. I asked the trucker about them. He said ‘One of the bridges was green.’ Another guy in the crew told me how lucky I was to have chosen this particular trucker. He told me that one morning they came to a bridge under construction and the lane that was open was too low for the boat to go under so the trucker hauled the whole load across the median and went the wrong way under the bridge then crossed the median again to get back where he belonged. Apparently the construction crew was pretty impressed. But on the other hand, it wasn’t their boat.

They finished putting her back together and used a couple of cranes to lift her into the water. We left her there for the night. No power. Just tied up to the side of the canal. I stayed in a nearby motel. All night I lay there thinking about the boat. She had just had a rough ride. Were there any cracks in the welded hull? What if the batteries were dead? With no power, they wouldn’t recharge and the bilge pumps would fail. Would the boat still be there in the morning? The next day I got my answers – no, they weren’t, and yes. We moved her over to the marina and waited for the arrival of Captain Fred and his crew.

The next day the marina manager called me into his office to discuss the weather. He told me that in addition to running the marina he also had a marine towing business and that he had seen more than his share of boats underestimate the severity of Lake Erie weather. He said there was a big storm coming in the next day, which was our departure date, and his advice was for us to stay an extra day or two for the storm to pass through. He wouldn’t want to be out there in any boat but houseboats in particular are not built for the conditions of the great lakes.

I thanked him and asked him to come to the boat and give that same advice to my captain and crew once they arrived. Later that afternoon he did just that, laying out all the potential dangers to Captain Fred and his crew. After he left I asked Captain Fred if we should cancel tomorrow’s departure. He answered ‘Absolutely… We need to leave right now.’ Once I regained control of my vocal chords, I asked him to explain that logic. He said he agreed that the storm was coming tomorrow but he wasn’t sure the conditions would improve in just a day or two and he had somewhere else he needed to be. He said that if I was okay with traveling at night, he would get the boat safely across before daybreak and beat the storm. I decided that he knew more than me so at 7 p.m. we untied and pulled away from the dock.

The first couple of hours went without incident. Once in a while the engines would rev up but would then settle down. Captain Fred thought that maybe the outdrives weren’t all the way down. I adjusted them a couple of times and then laid down on the stern and looked under the boat to confirm they were in the correct position. Usually at sunset, the wind subsides. Not this time. It was still a clear night but the wind was whipping up the waves. Although Lake Erie is huge, it’s shallow. It doesn’t take long for the wind to create some substantial waves. The first really big one came crashing over the bow. It slammed up against the sliding doors and knocked them off their track. That water then drained down into the bow, which had no bilge pump and was separated from the rest of the hull by a bulkhead. So now we had 1,000 pounds of water trapped in the bow, causing the boat to nosedive as the waves got bigger and the night got darker.

Captain Fred assured me that everything was under control but then his laptop crashed so he had no electronic navigation. He was old school so he could steer by the stars so as long as the clouds stayed away we’d be able to keep more or less on course. At first I was sitting in a chair but started to get motion sick so I laid down on the couch. When the waves got bigger I kept falling to the floor so I eventually decided to stay there. At this point everything was rockin’ and rollin’. The blinds on the windows would swing out wildly until they were up against the cabin ceiling and then would clatter back down against the window.

The engines were coming out of the water regularly now. They’d rev up to about 4500 rpm and have no propulsion until they got back into the water. Made her awful tough to steer. After one particularly big wave hit us broadside, there was a tremendous crash from the upper deck. One of the crew went up top to investigate. When he came back down he was wearing a lifejacket which I took as a bad sign. He said the entire roof had collapsed and was lying at an odd angle on the upper deck. He couldn’t find any way of tying it down so he just left it. In the morning we’d find out if we still had a roof. I was now lying on the floor thinking about the lifeboat on the rear deck and the fact that the water was a reasonable 72 degrees.

I was wondering what could possibly be next. I got my answer. My cell phone rang. It was the security monitoring company from my home in Ontario. They said ‘Something has just triggered the alarm at your house and should we send the police?’ I said ‘Yeah go ahead. I’m busy dying on Lake Erie right now.’ Both events turned out to be false alarms.

The next couple of hours are blurry. I must have fallen asleep on the floor. The wind had died down and Captain Fred was circling offshore near the mouth of the Welland Canal. He was waiting for the sun to come up so he could see well enough to get to a safe docking area.

Part Five:

Once we got her tied up, we could go out and assess the damage. The heavy waves had broken 19 welds on the roof supports, causing the roof to fall down onto the deck. The only reason that roof is not at the bottom of Lake Erie is because one of the ceiling fans caught on the sink. The bar countertop was cracked and broken everywhere. We were considering not doing anything. If the roof survived Lake Erie, it could survive the Welland Canal and even the short, sheltered section of Lake Ontario we had to cross. But then the Canal Inspector dropped by and helped us with that decision. He told us there was no way that he’d allow us to use the canal until we got that roof taken care of. The canal is like a parade. If one of the boats breaks down, all the boats have to stop and most of them are commercial vessels.

That was another issue. The Inspector was trying to tell me that my houseboat was a commercial vessel not a personal pleasure craft. I disagreed. The boat has a pretty large bar area on the upper deck. The Inspector said ‘Why would you need a bar like that on a pleasure craft?’ I said ‘Well you’ve never met my friends.’ That did it.

We hired a truck with a crane and spent most of the day removing the roof, taking it apart, stacking it on a flatbed and sending it off to our final destination. Captain Fred and the crew were suggesting if we leave now, we could make it home by sunset. This time I refused. I said ‘We have power, we have water, we have steaks and we have a bbq. We’re all gonna have showers and a steak dinner, enjoy the sunset, get a good night’s sleep and finish the trip tomorrow.’ Nobody put up a fight.

We spent the next day going through the Welland Canal, crossing the southwestern edge of Lake Ontario and arrived at our home dock. I said goodbye to Captain Fred and crew and settled into our new waterfront home. I got some local guys to re-attach the roof and fix the wiring. When we lifted the boat out for the winter, we discovered the reason for the engines revving so high. It’s called ‘cavitation’ and it happens when air is drawn down from the surface and into the props. To prevent that, most I/O’s have cavitation plates. My boat had them when we left Gallatin but somewhere on the truck ride from Grand River to Erie, they fell off or were smashed off or ground off. In any case, they were off. I found a company in New Zealand that makes them and got myself a pair. Problem solved. We’ve spent every summer since then enjoying our houseboat and deciding it was well worth what it took to get her here.

Your Lucky Day

I just read a report about what happens to Lottery winners within a few years of the windfall. Lotteries are kind of a modern thing. A hundred years ago your only way to make money legally was to either work hard or play bingo. But now they have these lotteries where you can win millions and millions of dollars just for buying a $10 ticket. The first section of this essay I read, was to explain why anybody who had even a passing grasp of high school math would not be suckered into playing a lottery. They say that there is more chance of being hit by lighting three times than there is of winning a lottery once. But in my opinion, they’re missing a key fact – no matter how bad the odds are, they are never zero. When they advertise with the slogan ‘You can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket’ that makes sense to me. Whereas saying ‘You have almost no chance of winning’ strikes me as irrelevant, except for the ‘almost’. And who would buy a ticket to be hit by lightning three times, even if the odds are better.

The next point is that when you win, you are winning other people’s money, other people who bought tickets and lost. It’s not a lost treasure tht you’re recovering. It’s losers’ money. So what? They knew what they were getting into. Unless they don’t have high school math but who’s fault is that? When the winner bought a ticket, it was based on hope, not expectation. Same thing with the losers. Nobody who wins ever feels bad for the losers. Every winner has been a loser at some point. And probably will be again.

This brings me to the key focus of the story which was that almost every time a poor person on the verge of bankruptcy wins the lottery, within a few years they’ve blown it all. Sometimes they end up in actually worse financial shape than they were before the win. And the conclusion the author came to was that people in economic distress should not be buying lottery tickets because they can’t afford to lose and even when they win, they will eventually lose. Huh? What kind of logic is that? How can winning a lottery be bad luck?

This author concludes that lotteries should be played for fun by people who are financially solvent and are not looking to the lottery to solve their cashflow problems. I beg to differ. I have a whole different take. I think if you’re financially solvent you shouldn’t be ALLOWED to buy a lottery ticket. Who wants to hear that Warren Buffet won the lottery? Not me. I’m rootin’ for the guy living under the bridge in a cardboard box. And so what if he blows it all in a couple of years? The rich guy would probably hide it in a Swiss bank account. The poor guy will just spend it. On toys and cigarettes and booze and who knows what. He’ll be helping his own community because anybody who lives under a bridge tends to shop locally. So all these businesses and stores and street vendors benefit. In a way, they’re all lottery winners. I say let the poor folks play and let’s all hope they win. And I’m fine with it, if they blow it all. My only hope is that they’ll put enough aside to be able to buy another lottery ticket.