Thursday, July 19, 2007

One and a Half Weeks to Go

The Weather Doesn't Care - and Neither Does The Port Engine!

It's been a whirlwind of activity around here the last couple of days!

On Tuesday, the mechanic came from Chicago Yacht Yard. (Plug for CYY: good folks working there). He tuned both engines and tried to find the oil leaks. OK, he tried to tune both engines. The starboard one was fine and, once he finished, in really good shape. The port engine (the one with the noise) wasn't so great. He couldn't fix the noise while at the harbor, diagnosing it as a bad valve. The engine was running so roughly, he couldn't even adjust the timing. And it appeared that the oil leak was coming from the rear oil seal. Final diagnosis: we would have to take the boat down the Chicago River to Chicago Yacht Yard, about a five mile trip through the lock and under a railroad bridge that we'd have to ask to be raised. We'd never been down the river by ourselves, so this was going to be our first adventure.

The worst news, though, was that they likely needed to pull the engine from the boat and send the bad valve to a machine shop. That could take three weeks or more to complete. And lots of money as well. Yikes!!! (Yikes?!? Phil apparently was watching a lot of Scooby Doo cartoon reruns while he was in the engine room -- did he mention the secret panel that hides the secret room with the recliner, flat screen and surround sound in the engine room.)

So on Tuesday afternoon, after getting over our disappointment, we started working like maniacs unloading stuff from the boat. It was a sad chore. (All of you who are seasonal boaters certainly know the doldrums that occur during the end-of-season boat unloading. It hits us bad every year.) Have you ever seen a sad maniac? Luckily our friend, Captain Morgan, was able to help with this task. The delay was bad, but the worst part was that we'd have to move back into our condo and be land-lubbers for the next three weeks. We haven't really been living in the condo since the end of April. This is going to hurt.

Tuesday evening we took a break and went to see the new Harry Potter movie (non-plug for the movie: not nearly as good as the others. Not much of a plot and no character development. A friend of ours who reads the books - we just see the movies - was outright angry since there was, apparently, a lot of book content that they could have used. It felt like they made a movie for the sake of making a movie about the fourth book.).

On Wednesday morning we finished moving everything from the boat to our condo. Our condo is now a complete disaster (previously it was just a mess)!

Then, at about 11:30 am, we pulled out of the slip in DuSable Harbor to begin the trip down the Chicago River. Believe it or not, this was the first time we've had to pull out of the slip completely by ourselves. We either had other passengers along, or a neighbor at the dock was there to help. Phil's pulled Meridian in and out of slips up in Waukegan singlehandedly, though, so it wasn't all that intimidating. All went reasonably well. (Phil is being nice to Bernie. I was so intent on securing the front line I didn't notice - until it was too late - that the front line holder had caught on the anchor. It snapped off the top part and it is now on the lake floor next to Phil's glasses, Phil's phone, and Mount Coffee Grounds.)

The port engine (the bad one) was running pretty rough, and as we waited for the lock to open, it died. And stayed dead. This was despite Phil's valiant efforts to restart it (while Bernie piloted the boat - equally valiantly). That was a bit scary, but there weren't too many boats around and, hey, we still had another engine that ran just fine! The problem now was that you couldn't make the boat turn to the right when stopped or going very slow. That would make it difficult to maneuver in close spaces - you know, like when pulling into a lock or a slip.

Another first for Bernie and Phil: operating the boat on only one engine. Now we just had to decide whether to proceed with the trip, or to turn back. What to do, what to do?

What we decided to do was this: Bernie would motor around inside the outer breakwater for a while as Phil continued trying to start the engine. That would give us a feel for how Meridian handled with only the starboard engine. After a little while, Bernie announced "hey, this isn't bad at all." Since we needed to get the boat to the yard somehow, we decided to go ahead. We turned back toward the lock.

That's when our luck actually improved. We saw another boat ahead of us heading for the lock. And as we approached, we got the green light and the lock started opening for us both. Just the two of us, so we wouldn't have to dodge other boats. We didn't even have to stop. We pulled right into the lock and, with no problem whatsoever, idled up to the side (the one that would allow us to turn to the left when leaving) and grabbed a couple of the lines along the wall to hold Meridian steady. You'd never have known we had never done this before and only had one engine working!

That's when the fun started. Meridian is a big heavy boat, and when the lock opened again, water started flowing through (as it usually does when a lock opens) and the boat wanted to move. It was really hard to hold her in place. Lesson learned from the boat in front of us (thanks Kristin): take a half turn around a cleat in such a manner that it helps hold her in place, but can be gradually loosened as the water level drops.

We cleared the locks and entered the river feeling that the worst part was over. And it mostly was, except for all the tour boat traffic where some construction blocked half the river. It was like highway construction - each lane takes turns waiting, then gets to go through after traffic from the other direction finishes. With only one engine, it was extremely hard to hold Meridian steady while waiting. Luckily, we didn't have to wait long. We proceeded on through when our time came.

We also got to experience the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's fountain up close. This is the fountain that shoots across the Chicago River between Lake Shore Drive and Columbus Avenue every hour (for about ten minutes). The fountain activated just as we were approaching. We have a roof (real boaters call that a "hardtop". We call it a "roof") so, what the heck, we went on through it. It actually felt like we were going through the rinse part of a drive-through car wash. We stayed dry and, looking back on it, Phil probably didn't even need to have lowered the isinglass windows around the aft deck.

The rest of the trip through downtown was beautifully uneventful. It really is a nice cruise, probably more so when you're not worried about hitting things because you can't maneuver very well! Bernie practiced her boat driving for much of the cruise - waving at the people along the way and bemoaning that there is no official WE ONLY HAVE ONE ENGINE flag which certainly would have impressed the land-based passersby (ha!).

After leaving downtown Chicago, we still had several more miles to go before reaching the yard. As the river opens up, it's a very nice ride. We passed no other boats on the river after leaving downtown, but plenty of barges were tied up along the side loading gravel and various other things. Then, about a mile before reaching Chicago Yacht Yard, we came upon the railroad bridge.

The railroad bridge over the south branch of the Chicago River only has ten feet clearance. Meridian is about sixteen feet high, so we would have to ask for the bridge to be raised. Now we knew this in advance, and never having done this before, we spent some time looking up the proper procedure.

Basically, according to United States Coast Pilot 9 (the official US Government publication on things like clearing locks and bridges, coastal descriptions and conditions, etc. in the Great Lakes region) there are three ways to communicate to this particular bridge tender. We tried all three:

1) cell phone. The number is published in the US Coast Pilot, which was up to date as of June. We tried the number and heard a very nice but very professional sounding lady tell us "this number has been disconnected. no further information is available." (Bernie had said we should try the number before we left but Phil didn't listen to her - again ;) )

2) VHF radio channel 16. We tried raising the bridge tender on the VHF radio. We haven't used the VHF radio very much, but got lots of practice here. Phil actually got pretty good at keying the mike and saying "South Branch railroad bridge. This is power boat Meridian requesting clearance."

3) Sound signal. One long blast of the horn, followed by one short blast. Did you know that for purposes of raising a bridge, there are actually formal definitions for "long" and "short"? Four seconds and one second. Although blasting the horn is kind of fun (prior to this, we only got to do it at the end of fireworks displays), it gets old when there is no return signal, nor movement of the bridge.

Oh yeah, it was still difficult to hold Meridian in place while waiting. The wind would tend to blow us to the left bank, and every time we used the working engine to move back closer to the right bank, that took us closer to the bridge. With only one engine, we couldn't go straight in reverse either. We'd move to the left bank. So, we were gradually getting closer and closer to the bridge.

It felt kind of like we were a solitary knight, on a broken down old steed, standing in front of a locked castle gate. (Seems like Phil has the DVD of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, along with Scooby Doo, down in the Secret Recreation Room in the Engine Room.) You can knock, you can shout, you can throw things, you can, well, do pretty much anything you want. We finally called Chicago Yacht Yard and asked if they had an updated cell phone number for the bridge. They didn't and suggested we continue trying Channel 16 on the VHF. But we also heard them hail the bridge on Channel 16 as well.

Finally, after several more calls on Channel 16, and about three hours after we arrived - ok, only 30 minutes, but it sure seemed like hours - we heard a really loud siren and the bridge started raising!!!! Yippee!!! (Yippee?!? I guess Phil has some old Roy Rogers DVDs along with the Scooby Doo cartoons and Monty Pythonthat he watches in the secret room off the engine room)

And that was pretty much it. We reached Chicago Yacht Yard shortly thereafter - at about 2:30 pm - and one of the mechanics helped us tie up.

As we left, we took a picture of Meridian tied up along the wall. She looks lonely . . .

We then went home, took some badly needed showers, then headed over to Lula's in Logan Square to celebrate, with a fantastic meal, our successful river adventure and all the "firsts" of the day. (plug for Lula's: a great restaurant. Go there. It has a seasonal menu and uses mostly local providers for their ingredients)

Wednesday night we slept in our bed in the condo for the first time since late April. Neither of us slept very well. It's just not the same thing - the condo doesn't gently rock with the waves or slowly sway back and forth with the wind. Probably a good thing, I guess, when you think about it.

Thursday morning it was back to work, with Phil cleaning up the condo and Bernie doing some cooking and "winter storage". Winter storage means freezing fresh fruit for use in the winter. She was lucky to get some cherries from Seedlings for $1/pint. Though she normally doesn't freeze cherries - how can you resist at that price? (Has anyone else noticed a pattern here? "Work" for Phil means cleaning toilets or crawling under grimy engines - with only the occasional break to watch DVDs in the Secret Recreation Room. "Work" for Bernie means playing with berries and vegetables in the air conditioned comfort of her modern WINDOWLESS kitchen albeit the results are good food for Phil to eat.)

Then the good news came - Chicago Yacht Yard called. After further investigating the engine, they determined that, although major work still needed to be done to the port engine, it would not require removal of the engine from the boat. They also would not need to send parts off to a machinist.

The new estimate: it'll cost a pretty penny, but we should be back in the boat by next weekend, with a dramatically better (and partly newer) engine!

Our new departure date: July 30.

As of this writing, we are at a point where, when the boat is ready, we can bring it back to the slip, load it up, and leave! This upcoming week will be devoted to cleaning up the condo, preparing more food, and having fun.

Lesson Learned: Piloting a twin-engine boat with only one engine functioning is hard but can still be enjoyable.

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