Ghost Marina on the Mississippi

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Chapter 7 – Launching the Boat – Modern Day

Jason had toyed with the idea of carrying out the whole trip by boat but after careful consideration, the communications with Chuck and in deference to his daughters’ concerns he decided the best idea would be to tow the boat to Kimmswick. If he wanted to explore the Tennessee River or the lower Mississippi he could still do that and maintain Kimmswick as a base.

It was a 580-mile road trip from Cleveland to Kimmswick and under normal conditions, it was a distance Jason could handle in a single day. But he was hauling a trailer, so he scheduled to split the journey into two days. Jason planned a stop the other side of Indianapolis, he estimated it would take him 6 or 7 hours to arrive there. As it turned out, his reckoning was dead on, despite experiencing a few teething problems with the trailer during the first few miles. As soon as he had hit the freeway he began to get a little more confidence with his new rig and was feeling quite proud of his decision to make the trip.

The following day, Jason left the hotel at first light and was hoping to arrive in Kimmswick by lunchtime, he had even emailed Chuck to inform him of his pending arrival. Chuck replied, and suggested Jason should drive straight down to the marina and then they would go out for lunch, doesn’t matter if he arrived a little late. So it was, at 12:40 Jason was slowly driving his rig down a hill and into a marina where an old guy was waving and directing Jason to where he should park. Jason drove into the spot indicated by the man and came to a stop, he turned off the engine and got out of the truck.

“Chuck?” Jason asked.

“Hi Ray,” the wizened old man said. Chuck might be 81 years old, thought Jason, but he looked fitter than most people half his age. He had a thick thatch of white hair; his skin had the consistency of old leather from years of being outside in all weathers. His blue eyes looked sharp and when he shook hands with Jason it was firm and the muscles in his arm were taut and he didn’t appear to have an ounce of body fat anywhere.

“Boy, you’re the spitting image of your grandfather,” Chuck said.

“Wow, I’m impressed, you can still remember what he looked like?” Jason asked.

“Sure can!” Chuck replied. “Boy, you can’t imagine my disappointment that day about not getting on that boat and never hearing about the two men again. But didn’t give it a thought at the time, we get a lot of boats through here that we never see again. But when you called to say they had disappeared I remembered, that night a couple of ships went down, one of them was ‘The St. Louis Streamer’. It was a party boat taking some of the St. Louis elite on a junket down the river, over 30 lives were lost.”

“There were other boats lost that night?” Jason asked incredulously.

“Yes, sir. It was some storm, just upriver there used to be another marina, The Missouri State Marina, it hadn’t been up and running very long, bit upscale as you would say today, but not only did a couple of boats from there disappear but so did the dockmaster. It was a bad ’un.” Chuck explained, “anyway, let’s talk about this over lunch, I’m parched.” Jason thought that was a surprising choice of words until they walked into an establishment and the man behind the bar had already poured and served a large beer for Chuck before he had even sat down. Chuck waved to a couple of men sitting at the bar and they looked around at him a little surprised and disappointed that Chuck hadn’t walked over to join them.

“What can I get you sir?” The barman asked Jason.

“I’ll have the same,” Jason replied. When the man returned with Jason’s beer he took their food order and while they waited for their meal to arrive they talked largely about Jason’s trip from Cleveland.

Over lunch, Jason didn’t really learn much more than he already knew, although he was intrigued about the losses of other boats.

“One of the problems on this stretch of the river, and something you have to be aware of are those wing dams,” Chuck said.

“Yea, I read about those and the guy who sold me the boat also warned me about them too,” Jason replied.

“At this time of the year, they are at their worst because the river is at its highest and you can’t see them. You must rely on your charts and make sure you remain within the channel markers. That way you can keep clear of them.” Chuck said.

“If they are so dangerous what is the point of them?” Jason asked.

“They deflect the current towards the center of the river and helps prevent river-bank erosion.” Chuck explained, “but many a boat has been damaged hitting one of them.”

“So, you think that’s what could have happened to my grandfather and those other boats?” Jason asked.

“It’s possible, the river and the winds were so rough that night, it would have been easy to be blown off course. But I wouldn’t like to speculate.” Chuck said.

For the rest of the meal, they discussed family matters and Chuck shared stories of his experiences on the river. Jason insisted on paying for lunch and after he had paid, Chuck gave Jason a brief tour of historic Kimmswick, the second oldest town in Missouri he told him. Once the tour was over they returned to the marina to launch Jason’s boat and to encounter his first real test.

Anyone who has ever had to tow a trailer knows that until you have had some experience reversing a rig it could take a few tries before you get it right. To avoid Jason’s embarrassment, the 81-year-old Chuck took the wheel and expertly turned and reversed the trailer down the boat ramp to the water. Jason was grateful, he felt he could still be trying after darkness fell. With the boat in the water and secured against the dock, Jason parked his truck and trailer beside a large workshop, as instructed by Chuck.

“It’ll be safe there until you get back.” Chuck said as they both walked back to the dock, “even if I’m not here it will be well taken care of until you return.” He then called over a teenager who was working on the dock. “Hey Charlie, this is Mr. Clifford, he’s going downriver for a trip, keep an eye on his rig for him O.K.?” Chuck nodded his head in the direction of Jason’s truck and trailer.

“Sure thing Mr. Clifford,” the boy said. “Doing a little fishing are you?”

“He certainly is, but not for fish!” Chuck replied with a smile, “no, something a little more important than that. I’ll explain later, now get back to work, you young scallywag!”

“Bye Mr. Clifford, nice meeting you,” Charlie said as he returned to what he was doing on the docks.

“Likewise,” Jason said, and then he turned back to face Chuck. “Well, thanks for all your help Chuck, I doubt very much that anything is going to come of all this, but I feel I have to try.” Jason said.

“You never know, but you’re right son, at least you are trying,” Chuck replied and held out his hand. “Good luck, I really hope you find something out about your grandfather’s disappearance and if you do, let me know. I sure fell in love with that boat of his.”

“Will do,” Jason said as he shook his hand once more, “who knows? I may be back quicker than you think.” Jason climbed onto his boat and once more went to review the charts showing the waters between Chuck’s marina and St. Louis. He took careful note of the wing dams noted on the chart and felt they would not be difficult to avoid, as Chuck advised if he kept to the channel markers indicating the center of the river. The next thing he knew, it was early evening, he made himself a sandwich and a coffee and once he had eaten he sent an email to his daughters, using the marina’s WiFi, to let them know he had made it safely to his first destination. All this effort and outdoor activity had made Jason very tired so, despite the fact that there was still plenty of light in the evening sky he decided to have an early night.

That night, Jason slept on the boat for the first time, sleeping diagonally across the forward double bed with some of his strategically placed luggage. The strange thing about a spacious boat, the amount of available space shrinks rapidly when you begin to load clothes, spares, food, and water into it. Most of his stuff was in the rear of the boat, evenly distributed underneath the seats. One of the pieces of advice old Whinslow had given him was to keep the dining table and the seats around it clear. He had said there was nothing worse after a hard day’s sail than having to make room on the table and clearing the seats to sit down inside, away from the elements going on above deck.

In the morning, Jason recalled those words of wisdom as he sat at the dining table enjoying a breakfast consisting of orange juice, cereal, and a coffee. The early morning sun was streaming through the windows and the rear-hatch, it was a beautiful spring day. Once he had finished eating, he cleaned the dishes and put everything back securely in its place. He made one last check to ensure all doors and drawers were secure before deciding he was ready to set off.

Jason went topside to survey his surroundings. It was a little chilly but not a cloud appeared in the sky and there was very little wind. It boded well for his first day on the water. Jason had decided to leave the boat’s mast and rigging at home because he hadn’t envisaged doing any sailing along the rivers. This resulted in no visual restrictions and far more clearance walking along the boat when he wanted to dock or line up in locks. From an efficiency point of view, it would also mean he wouldn’t need to use the water ballast which was required for stability when in sailing mode. The empty ballast tank would allow him to be able to employ greater speed if required in an emergency.

Jason turned on the engine and began itemizing his mental checklist. Centerboard down, rudders down, lines untied, no traffic, slowly pull out into the river. Once Jason had navigated to the center of the river he increased speed a little, centerboard up, rudders up, increase to desired speed, which was about eight miles an hour. He didn’t want to go faster than that just in case he missed something, exactly what that something was he didn’t know.

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