I have to admit I’m a bit of a tourist these days. My latest assignment has my boat trading between New Orleans and Florida. As I write this we’re waiting to get a loading berth in the NORCO terminal just above the Crescent City.
While I’ve been around tugs and tows my entire career I’ve never had the experience of seeing a Mississippi river tow built and then sailed by the massive towboats that navigate the lifeline of the mid-west. It’s busy work and takes a lot of blood and sweat to put together. It can take a day or two to build a “line tow” by small workhorse towboats that are in constant motion picking up, shifting and rafting up a fleet of 28 or more barges carrying anything from coal to grain to whatever. The towboats that move the finished tow are huge and wide with a good amount of horsepower in the engine room and the pilothouse.
Listening to these boats receiving their marching orders is interesting, the numbers and types of barges vary from boxes to rakes and keeping track of where they are placed and how they are delivered is complex but well understood. It reminds me of how my Dad used to get his orders moving railroad floats for the New York Central when I was a boy just riding along. The numbers of each unit are conveyed in a boatman’s shorthand, concise and exact.
The volume of traffic here is amazing. Ships, sea-going and river tows are everywhere. Huge cranes off-loading dry cargo, flotillas of barges are almost everywhere along the riverbank. The anchorages are along the river and tightly packed. Our anchorage here in Ama one of many. We set our anchor within a few dozen yards of the unit ahead of us and settle back. The river current is constant so we lay parallel with the bank. It’s a bit unsettling to be this close to the guy ahead of us and the one behind us, but the anchor holds and it’s kinda cozy.
The radio chatter is flavored with a bit of a patois and it’s amusing to hear some of the exchanges between the pilots and operators of the boats working here. Courteous and occasionally colorful these fellows use phrases that catch your attention. In a conversation between a couple of units this morning the dialog went something like this;”I’m up-bound approaching the turn, what would you like?” If you could hold up there I’ll be around here shortly”, “No problem cap, I can do anything but disappear.” You can be sure I’ll be using that one someday.
It’s not news to anyone that’s the least bit familiar with the western rivers that the “line tows” are massive floating collections of cargo larger and longer than any ship afloat. To listen to these units making their way is a study in “cool and calm”. When I encountered my first big guy, I was impressed with the way he seemed to manage his charges so effortlessly. I quickly recognized that these men were supremely gifted boat handlers and to underestimate them would be foolish.
For the time being, I’m going to enjoy the experience and absorb as much as I can from the mariners that work in this corner of the country. These people have a skill set that rivals any you might find in the Northeast.
During my first voyage here one of our river pilots came aboard to relieve his colleague who had met us at the entrance to the river eight hours earlier. As we shook hands and in a big voice he said “Cap, your day just got better”, better indeed.
More to come.