Construction of the Vilma B for the Mississippi River trip
For river travel we built a series of wooden pontoons, which were basically just boxes made from 2" x whatever for the sides, and plywood for the top and bottom, no internal framing. We built them 4' wide since this is the width of plywood. After fastening the bottom onto the sides, the pontoon was filled with foam pieces, and then the top put on. The first two we built were each 4' wide x 18' long x 1' deep, filled with foam, and with a raked front end. see photos These two pontoons were then joined together with 2"x6" cross pieces, forming a catamaran 16' wide and 18' long, which was decked over with whatever lumber was at hand, whether plywood or light planking. To lengthen the raft we built another two pontoons, joined them together like the first two, and lashed them on behind the first two, and so on, all down the river, until we eventually reached a total length of 106'. We built 4' x 8' cabins, 4' high, from plywood with 2"x4" framing, to serve as sleeping space and for galley and storage. We kept them low in height to cut down the windage factor and thus make steering easier.
The simplicity of building a raft, which is not a watertight structure, is that you can use any kind of floatable material and enclose it with just about anything to hold it together(wood, fishing nets, you name it). Making a box with a flat bottom and a raked front end provides a smooth surface and therefore a faster movement through the water.
For downriver travel, we used outboard motors, which provide plenty of steerage as long as you have enough power to make the raft move slightly faster than the current. It is very helpful, though, to have enough power to go upstream a short distance in order to make a landing or back track if need arises.
It is essential to check with your state government as well as Coast Guard regulations to be sure you have all the required safety equipment on board. And we cannot stress enough the need to wear your lifejacket at all times on the rivers, especially the Mississippi. Rivers are deceptively peaceful looking: currents and whirlpools are always present and ever-changing, whether they are visible or not, and if you fall overboard without your lifejacket, you may not come back up.
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