Cruising the Tennessee River
in a Cabin Skiff

It’s three o’clock in the morning, very dark, drizzling rain and here I am making my way across Kentucky Lake looking for a sheltered cove.  I know there is a shore over there somewhere but I’ll be darned if can see it.  An old proverb says that a trip of a thousand miles begins with one step and I am sitting here at the wheel thinking I am about to stumble trying to take it.

For a couple years I have had the urge to do some serious river cruising.  I have been a boater more than twenty-five years but have seldom ventured far from home. I am fortunate that with in an hours drive I have the choice of several nice lakes and rivers. But lately I find my view of them has become routine and I developed a burning desire to explore new water.

In fact, the yearning was so strong I built a small boat specifically to make long river trips.  After looking a many different designs I decided that the Cabin Skiff by Glen-L fit my criteria and I purchased the plans.  The finished product is 18-foot, all plywood. and powered by a 50 hp Honda four stroke outboard.  There is a small berth that will sleep two and the pilothouse is enclosed.  Equipment is minimal but includes a mapping GPS, depth finder and handheld VHF radio.  No, I won’t be traveling in the lap of luxury but it will cruise at 25 mph and yield about 9 mpg.  Like many people, our household has budgetary constraints and although boating is high on my list it is still below making the mortgage payment. For me at this time in my life this is the perfect boat.  A few of my friends have said it is way too small for this type of cruising but I am about to try to prove them wrong. 

Even with somewhat limited experience I still knew that heading out for several days down unknown waters is a whole different game than spending the afternoon at the lake.  Obviously some planning was in order.  I decided a Tennessee River chart from the Corps of Engineers and a Quimby’s Cruising Guide were both mandatory equipment and obtained copies of both. After a few short shake out runs I felt I was ready and decided on a 900 mile adventure on the Tennessee river. 

The plan was to trailer my boat to the top of Kentucky Lake near Paducah, KY and head upstream to Chattanooga TN.  The chart put the mileage at 442 and since this was to be a round trip that number would be doubled.   My best guess that it would take six days to make the run.  The actual mileage could be covered in just four days but I knew it would probably take considerably longer. The problem was that I would need to pass through five locks each way.  And I had learned from experience that delays can range from 40 minutes to more than four hours at each! So the plan was for six days to be on the safe side. 

One of the reasons I choose this trip was the abundance of marinas along the way.  This would make fuel management a minimal issue.  Also, with a little luck each day I would be able to reach a marina or town with a restaurant for the evening meal.  With no cooking facilities onboard lunch would be sandwiches from the ice chest so a decent meal in the evening would be welcome.

My planned day of departure finally arrived and as usual something came up at the office and I got away late.  By the time I dropped the boat in at Green Turtle Bay Marina on Lake Barkley it was almost dark.  I thought for a moment about leaving it on the trailer and just sleeping there but this was a “boat” trip and the idea was to spend the time on the water not a parking lot.  I backed down the ramp and slid it in.

There was a light rain falling but I quickly made the two mile run on Barkley and through the canal to enter Kentucky Lake at about the 25 mile marker.  The wind was out of the east so I decided to anchor along the eastern shore for shelter.  I pulled into a small cove that was fairly open the lake but since the wind was from the opposite direction the water was calm.  I thought it would work just fine for the night.  This was mistake #1.  I dropped the anchor and I decided just to attach the rope to a cleat in the center of the hull rather than go out and walk around the cabin in the rain and use the forward cleat – mistake #2. 

All was well until about two o’clock when the wind shifted and started out of the northwest.  The waves really weren’t that large but the boat was sitting sideways to the wind because of the centered anchor cleat. The waves were smacking the hull making noise and causing it rock enough to keep me awake. Not knowing if it would get worse I decided to head for the opposite shore about a mile away and find a more sheltered cove.

The clouds had completely swallowed the moon and in the dark the lake and shore had become one.  Fortunately I had the mapping GPS and it allowed me locate a suitable spot and then direct me there.  I took it slow and had no problems. Crawling back into the berth I hoped that this wasn’t a preview of things to come.