On the Job

What You Need to Know About River Cruising

7 October 2020By Kate Lardy

Written by

Kate Lardy

Based in Fort Lauderdale, freelance writer Kate Lardy got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, which has included stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

After a bumpy entrance, the captain managed to navigate the 80-foot motor yacht safely into the Rio Colorado from the Caribbean Sea, trading the whitecaps at the river mouth for flat but fast-running water. Torrential rains in the Costa Rican jungle had the current roaring at least four knots. Nevertheless, the holding was good and at the owner’s insistence, the small crew left the yacht to join him for dinner ashore.

They were enjoying a bite at one of the handful of fishing lodges lining the river when a man who looked out of place in nothing but a pair of torn shorts entered the restaurant. He spoke to the lodge owner, who immediately announced to their table, “A tree hit your boat and is pushing it down river.”

Taking yachts out of their oceanic comfort zone and up rivers, particularly those that are not well charted, translates into unpredictable cruising.

They raced out like firefighters to the dinghy. Another man called out in heavily accented English, “Hey man, we tried for twenty minutes to save that boat. We left her three hundred yards from the breakers. We’d help you but we’re outta gas.” It turned out these casually attired men were the Costa Rican Coast Guard.

It was a 10-minute tender ride back, which meant the boat could have been languishing for 20 long minutes by the time they got on board. They rounded a bend where they had left it but saw nothing in the blackness of night. Finally, the dim anchor light showed in the distance, way down next to where the river meets the ocean. There was plenty of rainforest debris swimming in the muddy river, but the captain and owner had not expected this — an entire tree had gotten entangled on the anchor chain.

This is a true story with a happy ending; with the engines engaged, the captain manipulated the massive log off the chain before the situation became dire. The Highlander, up the Amazon back in the late ’80s, wasn’t quite as successful. The captain was forced to cut the chain — fortunately they had a spare anchor.

Taking yachts out of their oceanic comfort zone and up rivers, particularly those that are not well charted, translates into unpredictable cruising. Floating debris is rampant and the depth changes from monsoon to dry season can make your typical tidal ranges look paltry. Capt. John Crupi, who, among other rivers, has run the Mekong Delta from the mouth in Vietnam all the way to Myanmar, says local knowledge is paramount. “My number one recommendation is to get a pilot. Oftentimes with these rivers that are in remote areas of the world, they are silting and shoaling, which is not normally recorded or marked. That has been my experience across the board.”

He’s also found his tandem program, operating 146-foot Dorothea III alongside a 64-foot sportfisher, works to great advantage on rivers. He sends the Hatteras ahead to scout. “You need to do a lot of exploring in tenders or smaller boats before you bring in a big, slow, deep-draft yacht up one of these places,” he says.

Even so, that didn’t help him with an anchoring issue on a Central American river. “We dropped our anchor outside of a village and we couldn’t get it up,” says Crupi. “It was fouled and it turned out that the anchor was embedded in the back of a pickup truck; we had the truck suspended off the bottom. We had to go down there and cut the anchor away from the bumper of the truck.”

With the current, shoaling, and debris, Crupi wouldn’t attempt cruising in this environment in anything but the most robust of yachts below the waterline. The steel-hull commercially built Dorothea III has another design benefit for debris: her single engine controllable pitch system. When Crupi encountered a floating forest off Papua New Guinea, Dorothea IIIended up with a tree wedged between the skeg and prop. “Most props would have bent,” he says. “Because of the controllable pitch and because of the fact that the propeller is seven feet in diameter, it just chopped the tree in half. We stood out back wondering how we were going to get it out of there and then all of a sudden both halves of the tree came out from underneath the bottom of the boat with all of these wood chips.”

According to Pioneers of the Amazon in ShowBoats magazine’s (now BOAT International US edition) October 2015 issue, The Highlander attempted to prepare for the mighty river by affixing a frame around the props to deflect debris, but this plan was aborted when a sea trial showed too much vibration. They also had pre-filters made to prevent the silted water from clogging the watermakers, but these failed almost immediately.

Another Amazon pioneer, Meduse, found when they anchored, the props would keep turning in the strong current, running dry since the gears needed the mains on for oil-bath lubrication, reports Shaw McCutcheon in the article. Their solution was to jam a two-inch-wide flatbar into the gears.

When asked the best season to embark on a river cruise, Crupi says it’s complicated. “You need a certain weather condition to get to these places and then you want certain weather while you’re there, but sometimes that doesn’t coincide. There’s a lot of research you need to do. The amount of work that goes into it… it’s hard to explain.”

This column is taken from the November 2020 issue of Dockwalk.

More from Dockwalk