An aquatic goodbye

Friends bid farewell to Bert Smith with trip down Tennessee River

Enjoying a trip but hating to say goodbye are, from left, Bert Smith, Bob Hirche, Tim Self and David Dwyer.

Enjoying a trip but hating to say goodbye are, from left, Bert Smith, Bob Hirche, Tim Self and David Dwyer.

All smiles for the boat trip are, from left, Bert Smith and Lock Bryan, who will be the crew for the Texas leg of the trip.

All smiles for the boat trip are, from left, Bert Smith and Lock Bryan, who will be the crew for the Texas leg of the trip.

The Donna Marie stands ready for her journey down river.

The Donna Marie stands ready for her journey down river.

When good friends part, a slap on the back, a handshake and a quick hug doesn’t get it. But a nice long river trip is a good start.

When Bert Smith and his lovely wife, Jo, were to move back to Beaumont, Texas, we needed a fitting farewell. The economy being what it was, nobody was buying Bert’s 32’ Marinette cabin cruiser at any price. He couldn’t just give it away, and it would cost close to $8,000 or so to truck it there. Oh, what to do?

“We’ll take it there ourselves by water. Not a problem, just a few friends, a little planning and time.”

We’re so easy. Tim Self and I, David Dwyer, would start the trip with Bert and Bob Hirshe and others to meet and go on subsequent legs of the three week or so river journey.

The crew for the first leg of the voyage:

Bert Smith - Boat owner and Captain, psychologist and transplant from Texas. Now returning to the heat and swamps of Beaumont.

Tim Self - A fun, energetic, all things possible kind of guy.

David Dwyer - An easily amused actor and a lover of water and boats.

Day 1 Sat., June 30. 11 a.m.

We’re off. The first day absolutely rocks. The greatest fears of our intrepid crew had been to (1), break down, (2), run out of beer, (3), fall overboard and float till someone notices, and (4), endure the dreaded doldrums in 100 plus degree heat. But mild weather rules the day. Fort Loudon Dam is up first with a 2 hour wait to lock thru.

Time with good friends slips quickly by. On thru the lock. I am determined to accompany each and every lock thru with my own brand of manic trills, arpeggios and moody musings on the flute that are very likely only imagined to be as magical as they seem. But the acoustics in a lock, with the huge growing walls of concrete, demand it. I am undaunted. The others look at me threateningly. Must practice, soon or else.

Thru the lock - we all can’t quite yet believe that we are actually doing this. Our bud Bert is really saying goodbye to East Tennessee. And boy, does East Tennessee say goodbye to Bert. Incredibly gorgeous weather and skies with temps that make you giddy in July.

We stop to swim and eat outside of Kingston- one hour by car, five hours by boat. But good things take time. Wonderful meal. Tim “Galley Boy” Self is quite accomplished and puts together a delicious meal. The swim and clean up after a day on the water is refreshing, especially with Dr. Bronner’s Pure Peppermint Castile Soap. Biodegradable of course and guaranteed to make you tingle all over.

Darkness falls as we blithely pass potential marinas for docking at night as we are convinced the Boy Scouts of America’s Camp Buck Tom is ripe for a friendly raid.

Day 2: Sunday, July 1. Very early in the a.m.

As raids go, this one was rather mundane. We were welcomed with open arms -Tim and Bert having spent a great deal of time with the BSA bunch. After raiding the ice machine, we were finally to bed about 12:30 a.m. or so after failing to repel squirrelly-looking boarders disguised as camp staff.

Morning comes early at Camp Buck Tom as a very loud and excited group of Scouts descend on the waterfront. We graciously fire up the boat and slip away. Dawn was beautiful as my eyes finally focused. Morning on the river is magical. As the mist rises, reflections play an integral part of the passing scenery.

We have elected to proceed at a stately pace of 9 mph, hull speed, the most efficient for our trip and Bert’s wallet. 1.8 mpg we figure. Just under $4,000 for gas plus two weeks of fun.

Watts Bar Dam and lock is up before we know it. A timely arrival at the dam and we lock thru - no wait. A little “Rock of Ages” and “The Tennessee Stud” are our accompaniment. Great acoustics! My pucker and fingering are getting better with the practice. Slowly.

Ah, the rigors of boating. Kicked back, arms folded behind head, toe on wheel, I am a piloting machine. Razor sharp reflexes, concentration and superhuman effort are required to bring this ship and crew of good buds to their next destination.

The weather continues to amaze us. Yesterday was blue and gorgeous, but a touch windy. Today, very calm, no wind, not a ripple except for our wake, such as it is at 9 mph.

The twin 318 Chrysler engines purr down the river. The “Donna Marie,” named after Bert’s daughter, sleeps 3 to 6 comfortably with a V berth, head/shower galley and a flying bridge where we spend most of our time.

Captain’s log July 1

Traveling “stately” on the river makes me think about the nature of destinations. With Beaumont, Texas, so far away and our rate of travel only 9 mph, it’s easy to fall into the Zen of the journey.

The temperature increases with the afternoon and at 9 mph, there is no wind. Another lock, Chickamauga, another one and a half hour delay for barge traffic. We pass the time with a nice swim with Dr. Bronners, clean clothes and a cocktail and then on to Chattanooga. We tie up just down from the Delta Queen, a 220’, five-deck, wooden paddle wheeler. Impressive.

Dinner with my brothers Mark and Rich along with Tim’s friend Eliza was quite fine.

We returned to the boat with Mark and Rich in tow about 11 p.m. or so. Mark gave us a little background on the Delta Queen docked just down from us. On the verge of being condemned and destroyed just a few years ago, someone with vision and money bought her, revamped her stem to stern and has her plying the waters of the Mighty Mississippi but basing out of Chattanooga for now to escape the extensive flooding down there. As if on cue, she lets out a long horn blast and pulls out.

Day 3: Wednesday, July 2

Cap’n Bert is up and at’em about 7 a.m., and we’re soon underway. He’s eager to see what’s next. We run up on the Delta Queen. We pace her and admire her mighty paddle wheel and architecture from several angles.

Incredibly, we get to lock thru with her. As I prepare for my lock concerto, all of our jaws drop as the Delta Queen’s exterior steam calliope begins to blast steam out of her tuned pipes, arrayed along the stern edge of her top deck, in a wonderful selection of Dixieland tunes. You can see each note playing from each pipe as you hear it. The acoustics of the lock and the power of the steam calliope is amazing, magical.

The Delta Queen hangs with us at a distance off our stern but passes us as we harbor for the night in Guntersville. The pizza is good. First two episodes of the Soprano’s on the DVD player are great.

Day 4: Thursday, July 3

Captain Bert is elated as we pass under interstate bridges that he traversed in the past by car, always dreaming that someday he would be running the river under those bridges, heading to some far destination. Well, that day is now.

At 8:30 a.m. I’ve got the wheel and time to think. I figure we’re making 9 mph at about 1500 rpm. If we throttle up to 2000 rpm , we would not loose much in gas mileage but gain needed miles down the river and get to experience a good bit of the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway before meeting Bob and heading back home.

We try it. I confess, I don’t want to have to leave the trip Saturday and miss the first lock on the Tenn-Tom, an 84 foot drop that is sure to be impressive. My lips tremble at the thought.

No time to practice, I’m on now. The last lock on the Tennessee is a doozy. A 94-foot drop from Wilson Lake onto Pickwick Lake, the second largest in the U.S., and the acoustics are unbelievable.

Our first hint of trouble - at 2000 rpm the starboard engine starts to snort and stumble. We back her down and all seems OK. Fuel or ignition problem is the diagnosis. We drain the water/fuel separators and find a good bit of water in them. Onto Florence, Ala., for the night - no more problems.

Day 5: Friday, July 4

We are on the river by 7:30 - a late start for us. In four hours or so we hit the Tenn-Tom. No more locks until then. No problems with the motor. We are on Pickwick until we cut south on the Tenn-Tom in North Western Alabama at the Mississippi and Tennessee border.

Our “stately” pace is restored for good. A quick lock thru and several hours at 12 mph have put us within reach of the Tenn-Tom and through a lot of the locks before the baton pass.

Captain Bert does this change of life and residence thing well. The times of controlled chaos will return when all of us are together again. Bert’s even throwing out future trips as possibilities. He is having fun saying goodbye and hello. We are glad to be here.

Galley Boy found the blender yesterday and gave us all quite the workout. Friday noon we hit the Tenn-Tom, 470 miles of mostly water in a ditch that connects all the way to Mobile, Ala. Storms and lightning on the horizon are a good reason to switch operations from the flying bridge to the cabin. The storm is soon past. The lake is quite nice at the head of the Tenn-Tom just above the Jamie Whitten Lock. We harbor at Bay Springs Marina.

There’s a fine party at Bay Springs this Fourth of July with lots of dancing, laughter and general carrying on. One boat in particular caught our fancy on the way in. A 100’ long, 40’ wide homemade catamaran.

James Whitten Lock drops 84 feet, the third largest in the U.S. My flute is slowly becoming familiar again. Just have to say howdy more often.

This is Tim’s and my last half day on the boat, river and trip of a lifetime. We’re not really ready to quit as we’re infected with the pace and tickled at the thought of what lies ahead. Bob is to meet us at Midway Marina. He drives in, we drive out. The motors seem to run fine at 1500 rpm, and Bert is ready to push on with Bob and see if they can reach Mobile by late in the coming week when Bob has to be somewhere else.

The locks come in quick succession, some only three to four miles apart. We are veritable lock-thru machines by now, hitting the locks with no wait nearly every time. We are making better time than expected. The flute is my friend again.

The last lock is remarkable for the only reason that we share it with a 3 wide, 5 long tow going down stream. Noisy - yes; the flute is a no go.

The river/weather gods rumble their displeasure. Sharp driving rain forces us below to pilot. Big mistake. When we switch the controls back up to the bridge to take her into the harbor, both motors cut out. One restarts, one does not. The problematic starboard (right) engine does not even turn over. We limp into Smithville Harbor and smile. Bob is waiting at the dock with a grin stretching ear to ear, roaring and ready to go.

We’ve said it all to Bert the whole trip - there’s nothing more to do than a group hug and photo. It’s back on the asphalt for Tim and I and the aquatic road for Bert and Bob. Good luck compadres.

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