For the last 5 months, I’ve been planning a new adventure: a 2,000 mile trip down the Ohio and Mississippi from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. I’ve wanted to build a boat and sail the Mississippi since 2006, when I first started building rafts for the Hudson. I figured I would do it after I rafted to NYC, but then that took four years, and by the time I checked that goal off of the list, I had a career at the NYS Legislature. Then I left to go back to school, and by the time that was over I was completely broke. Then I said I would do the Mississippi after I published my first book. But that took longer than expected, and I figured I ought to try and sell some books to make money first. Now it’s time to piss or get off the pot.
The Mississippi has a current, unlike the Hudson which is tidal. I’ve built a houseboat before that floated on barrels. My plan is to do the same thing again, and use the river current to move me slowly south. But because the Mississippi is so sinuous, I needed to acquire a motor of at least 10 horse power to steer myself out of the channel to avoid river traffic. I really wanted a motor of 50 horse power. I’d rather have more power than I need, and use 1/10 of it’s capacity, because at some point there will probably be a strong wind or some kind of contingency where the extra power will come in handy.
A 50 horse power motor costs between $3,500-$5,000. But a guy from Tivoli (on the east bank of the Hudson just north of Rhinebeck) was selling an old boat with a 50 horse power Mercury for $875. He told me I could have the boat and the trailer, too. So on the one really nice day that we’ve had so far in 2018, my dad and I took his truck an hour south across the river and I bought the boat. The guy was nice enough to put two new wheels on the trailer and rewire the break lights and blinkers. We brought the boat back to my parent’s house in New Baltimore, and for the first time in 13 years of Hudson adventures, I became the owner of a boat that isn’t a one-time use item.
It was really a wonderful purchase. I just expected to get a motor that I could put on the barge I was planning to build, and instead I got a whole boat with an electric start, hydraulically powered steering, lights, bilge pump, chairs and cupholders.
So that was a warm day in February, and then it snowed or rained every day I was off after that, and today (Monday, April 9th) was the first day I could go down and work on it.
In the mean time, I’ve been drawing plans. I want the boat to be big enough that me and my partner on the adventure can live relatively comfortably and have our own little space. It needs to be water proof because I will be bringing my computer in order to blog about the communities I visit as I travel down the river. Also, Sam, who is going on the trip with me, plays guitar and harmonic and sings, and I play keyboard and sing, and we want to try our hand at pod casting and busking, so there has to be space for the instruments too. Also, space for a wet bar and an ice maker so I can have afternoon cocktails, a galley for making food, space for storing provisions and clothes and a telescope and a microscope, because I really do want to learn as much as I can about the rivers as I go down.
Rob (my partner on the Hudson adventures) and I have been talking and going over some designs, and it seems like the best plan is really to go with a square wooden platform like a dock that floats on 16 55-gallon plastic barrels and has a 12X10 foot cabin on top. We’ve built a similar vessel before. We discussed using plastic pipes or metal pontoons for floatation but they are too expensive.
My friend Andrew is an engineer and he will help me wire the two 1Kw windmills which I have owned for ten years, which should supply us with more than enough power.
The motor boat I just bought, which I call Delaney, because she looks like a floating DeLorean to me, will function as a tug, interfacing with the cabin in order to steer it at something like 3mph relative to the current, while remaining detachable in order to operate independently at 35 mph.
So, Sam is my co-worker, and he has been in the Israeli army and made road trips across the U.S., and he’s looking for an adventure, and we have complementary strengths, so he is going to join me on the trip. But he is not terribly familiar with my previous river trips, so I thought it would be a good idea for him to come down and see the boat and see a representative day of boat work, which usually entails a lot of driving and hardware store planning and helping my parents move furniture and very little progress gets made, but we get ideas for the next time we work.
And sure enough, that’s how the day went.
I picked up Sam from his Albany apartment at eleven, after getting lost. We drove to my friend’s house, because he was giving my parents’ a patio set and they needed help loading it into their truck. Then we drove to New Baltimore and ate a sandwich with my folks, and I gave Sam a tour of the “boat graveyard”–the 4 canoes, 1 sunfish, 1 sailboat, 1 motorless motorboat, and 1 homemade fiberglass catamaran–that I’ve managed to accumulate in the woods behind my parent’s house.
The big order of the day, though, was to bring the motor boat over to my mechanic, Glen, in Hannacroix, about five miles away. I wanted him to give Delaney a once-over and to fix the trailer, which was missing left hand turn signal.
We had to fiddle with the trailer to get it on the hitch. Meanwhile, my uncle Paul showed up with a kind of wooden diner table he’d gotten from a worksite, which he was going to give to my mom, which annoyed my dad because they have more furniture than they know what to do with but always take more–and I said I would take it down the river with me. So, boom, I have two benches and a table for the boat now.
Then we set off for Glen’s shop. We were doing alright until I looked in the mirror and saw that the boat was tipping way to the left and I shouted to dad to slow down. We heard a scraping sound and came to a stop. Dad looked back and said,
“Oh, crap, the wheel fell off!”
We pulled off onto a side road across from the New Baltimore Town Offices.
Sam and I went looking for the wheel, which had rolled onto somebody’s lawn, and then we came back and called Glen.
“Hi Glen, it’s Dallas Trombley again. We ran into a little problem. The wheel fell off the trailer. We’re stuck across from the town office. We were wondering if you might be able to help us out.”
“Oops! Okay, do you have the bolts? Or they came out?”
“I’m thinking the guy who sold me the trailer forgot to put them in back in February.”
“Well, okay…give me a minute and I’ll mosey on over.”
As we waited we looked behind us, where two quarter horses were watching us from ten feet away. Somebody came by in a pickup truck and said “Hey Kirk,” to my dad, and he said, “Hey, Jimmy.”
“Wheel came off the trailer, huh?” Jimmy observed.
“You find the bolts?”
“They’re probably here there and everywhere a mile back.”
“I think so.”
Another guy passed and offered to help us because he had some bolts and lived a little down the road, but we thanked him and told him the mechanic was coming.
Glen came and got under the boat and jacked it up pretty quickly. As he was working he laughed and said,
“I told Steven the mechanic I was coming here and he said ‘Can’t those people get over here without their wheels falling off?'” Because my father had been driving to Glen’s a couple of years ago, and his front wheel fell off, and Glen had to go help him.
Glen took two of the four bolts off the other wheel and used them to put the first wheel on, and then we followed him as he drove Dad’s truck with the trailer the last mile to Glen’s shop, the wheel wobbling the whole time.
Back at my parent’s house, Sam and I decided to try and open the 1980s popup camper that has been rotting in the woods for 15 years and hasn’t been opened in 5, in order to see if anything might be usable for our trip–like the sink or stove or inverter or table.
First I had to find the lever that turns the capstan or ratchet which lifts the top up. I found this under the camper under years of leaves. The popup works by turning this ratchet which has a spool on it and this pulls a cable which runs under the cabin and somehow lifts the top. Of course, as soon as I turned the spool, the rusted cable snapped.
So now we had to find a way to get the top of the popup off. We went down to the workshop and found a vice and a come-along and tried to squeeze the vice unto the cable, anchor the come-along, and use it to pull the cable. But the cable pulled out from the vice immediately.
I crawled under the camper and managed to tie a loop into the cable and hook the come along directly to it. We ran a heavy rope between two trees and hooked the come along to it. But it kept stretching the rope rather than pulling the cable.
Sam and the come-along with the camper.I then ran a rope to a tree that was farther away, and we got everything taut, but instead of pulling the cable, it started to pull the whole popup forward. Sam observed that the whole cable apparatus under the camper was probably seized up and rusted. So we gave up with the come-along plan, but not before I jammed my hand releasing the tension. It was the first blood of the new trip.
Sam asked if I was alright, and I said “There will be worse injuries than that on the trip, I’m sure.”
We tried to lift the top of the popup and some weird chewed-up cushion material flew out. Then we heard my mom calling that dinner was ready, so we gave up.
We had a nice dinner, and afterwards, as Mom and I were clearing some plates, Dad asked Sam sincerely, “Hey, what’s going on with you guys and the Gaza Strip or whatever. I saw something on the news.”
I wanted to say, “That’s quite the topic to bring up casually to someone you met three hours ago,” but Sam went into an immediate summation of the issues based on his experiences and seemed to explain it to Dad in a way I never would have been able to do.
We left around 6:30 and on the way back we re-hashed the events of the day.
“So, we managed to bring the boat over to the mechanics’ shop,” I noted.
“Hey, that’s something,” Sam observed.