Ship Ahoy – Big Boat On A River

Sailing A Tall Ship On A Skinny River

Ever since I read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, I have wanted to pilot a riverboat. While living in and around St. Louis, I have had plenty of opportunities to explore the Mississippi River by boat. Up until recently, my river adventures have been in boats you could drag round with a pickup truck. Although some of those boating adventures have been quite memorable, none match a day on the river as a crew member on the tall ship Hawaiian Chieftain. This was my second time crewing this replica tall ship, the first being when I crewed her on a bluewater sail from San Francisco to Noyo Harbor, near Fort Bragg. That was hard work, but fun, so the opportunity to crew the Hawaiian Chieftain to Sacramento was an easy “yes”!

Sign On the Line, Get With The Chores
On a recent Sunday, I took two Amtrak trains to get to Antioch. Prior to departure I packed much of the same gear that was required for the off-shore sail. Even though the sail up the Sacramento was to be about 8 hours long, foul weather gear, boots, marlinspike, binoculars, and media bag were packed. My Boy Scout “Be Prepared” state of mind would not let me treat this as a casual day sail. After a short walk from Amtrak in Antioch to the Antioch City Marina, I met Captain Amon and asked permission to board. Departure was scheduled for Monday morning. For any crew, duty starts with signing the ships “Articles”, which is a document that acknowledges you have willfully become part of the ships crew and will abide by the rules as well as follow all orders.

A History of Small Boats On A Big River
Wudman on watch aboard the Hawaiian ChieftainWhen I moved to St. Louis in the late eighties, I bought a vintage 14′ Crestliner Runabout for $600. It made about 25mph up the Mississippi River with its “Always-Rude” 35hp outboard. The little blue runabout was for the most part dependable and easy to fix. Yes, there were times I had to fix it on the river. In particular, once I was cruising up this slough when I notice all these little fish jumping in my prop wash. Then I noticed a gent about 1/4 mile ahead, standing in the water washing his boat. What concerned me was that I could see his knees above the water. So I stopped and then put a paddle into the water to test my depth. I was in about 2 feet of water. Note the “river” was about 1/2 mile wide.

I tilted the motor to run shallow and then started to head downstream. Unfortunately my prop wasn’t having anything to do with spinning. Upon investigation, it was clear the shear pin sheared. A shear pin is designed to break in cases when the prop comes in contact with a solid object. In this case, all it hit was soft mud, but a rust stain on the shear pin suggested it was predisposed to breaking. Before this river adventure, something told me to put a hacksaw in my tool box. Well that hacksaw and one of my screwdrivers became the solution to the broken shear pin. Cutting down a screwdriver for a shear pin took a few minutes as the boat floated to the deeper water.

Just The Coolest Boat On the River
After the sail from San Francisco to Noyo Harbor, I was hooked on the Hawaiian Chieftain and the mission of the Gray’s Harbor Historical Seaport Authority. That mission is to educate children to the early US maritime mission on the west coast right after the end of the Revolutionary War. To support this mission, Gray’s Harbor Historical Seaport Authority sails two ships, the Hawaiian Chieftain and the Lady Washington. The ships put into to various west coast ports and run educational programs to area school children. Once again, an opportunity came to volunteer as an extra hand which also afforded an opportunity to build on previous lessons.

Eating And Working Like A Sailor!
One thing you can count on from the Hawaiian Chieftain is that you will wake up to the smells of breakfast and coffee. The cook is generally the first up, focused with getting coffee and breakfast ready. I was up on deck in time to catch the sun rise over the Antioch Bridge. After breakfast the good ship waited till a local fan delivered some Sherman Island honey and fresh donuts before mooring lines were cast. Antioch is positioned on the San Joaquin River, connected to the Sacramento River by Broad Slough. Hooking around Sherman Island, it took about 35 minutes to be on the Sacramento River.

For the most part, the trip upriver is a pretty laid back adventure, but you still have the same basic ship’s duties to attend to. Due to the short duration of the transit, the watches were shorter and more informal, but basics are the same, hourly checks of the bilges, engines, generators, and instruments which are logged. You also account for passengers.

Given the nature of rivers and the boat traffic, we had a watch on the bow as well as one on port and starboard. The concerns were deadheads and other flotsam that could damage propellers and possible hinder safe navigation. There were also plenty of small fishing craft anchored in the navigable channel. At 65 tons, we’d likely prevail over the average fishing boat, but we steered to avoid small craft when possible. In all cases, small power craft rightly yielded passage for us to safely navigate. South of the bridge at Freeport, we did have to avoid an “aircraft carrier”. That is code for a log floating in the river with a bird perched on it.

Raise All The Bridges Hawaiian Chieftain Approaches
Navigating the Sacramento River in a tall ship is one way to see all the bridges that can raise their deck, do so in one day. You start with the bridge in Rio Vista, followed by Isleton, Walnut Grove, Paintersville, Freeport and finally the Tower Bridge in Sacramento. The process is pretty simple, you call ahead to the bridge and usually steer for the center since you have to not only clear the top of the masts, but also the square rigging gear. Oddly enough on the boat I felt at peace with the cars and trucks waiting for us to pass. For some reason, when I am in one of those waiting lines, the feelings are quite the opposite.

Sacramento Port Call Hawaiian Chieftain Safe

Hawaiian Chieftain Docked Safely at Old Sacramento

The Deep Blue Versus The Shallow Brown
Of course the difference of sailing up a slow river versus the open ocean are massive, but in some ways there exist parallels. For example, steering the Hawaiian Chieftain on the open ocean is an exercise in anticipation. Steering response is about three seconds. That means when you turn the helm, the boat takes about three seconds to respond. Those three seconds also count when initiating a counter turn to steady the course. Although there is much less weather helm on the river, that is, navigation dictated by wave and wind action, river navigation has its own challenges. I was quick to think about Mark Twain’s reports on the vagaries of currents when piloting river boats.

In particular, coming around one slow bend, being quite focused on the river bank about 25 feet of my port beam, I noticed the ship was causing me to steer more to the starboard to maintain my distance from the bank. Looking down at the depth meter gave up a clue as the depth had gone from 25 feet to about 12 feet. In the shallower water, the Sacramento River’s current exerted more influence the helm, especially in the bend of the river where currents have varying speeds. As I experienced when at the helm offshore, steering the Hawaiian Chieftain on a river can be a handful. What is substantially different is that on a river, your course is bound by the channel and riverbank. Offshore, course is determined by either compass or a designated by buoy, navigation or shipping channel. In most cases, the ocean offers more room to avoid grounding.

We made Sacramento in about 9 hours and spent a few hours securing sails, coiling rope and other typical duties after a sail. Although sailing a tall ship on a river is hard work, it was an awesome fall day on the river! The Hawaiian Chieftain will moored in Sacramento until December 5th at which time she will leave for Long Beach. I hear the sail south is quite the adventure! There goes that imagination again…

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