Embrace America's Rivers

Nine Days on a Towboat....

  by Jerry Hay

During my extended time off from working on the steamboats, I did a great deal of research and travel to augment my job as Riverlorian. One of the things I had always wanted to do is ride on a towboat, and specifically to learn all I can about life on one to share with our passengers. The passing tows are often an interesting sight and the subject of many questions. I wrote to American Commercial Lines (ACL), and asked if there was any way for me to ride along on a tow for this purpose. I was delighted to receive a call from Bill Kinzeler, vice-president of River Operations, who said he would be happy to accommodate me. Everyone loves the Steamboats and having that going for me helped open the door. He said if I wanted to go right away he could put me on a boat in Jeffersonville, Indiana and take a trip up to Pittsburgh, get on another tow going downstream to Paducah, then jump on another tow heading back up to Louisville. I said, "When do you need me to be in Jeffersonville"? He said, "Day after tomorrow". I said, "I'll be there". ACL is based out of Jeffersonville, IN but I was to go to the Kentucky side and find the Louisiana Dock Company, a division of ACL. There a towboat would pick me up and take me to the Ron Shankin when she passed by. Following is a log of my experience from the time I arrived at the dock:

Day 1

11:30am…I arrive from my four-hour drive at the Louisiana Dock Company. After signing in I sit on a line (rope) coil to wait for someone to find me. Soon Bill Kinzeler arrives to see me off. Bill says that the Ron Shankin has been delayed and will be arriving this evening. The towboat O'Neal is docked at the repair facility and I am invited to wait aboard her. I select that option over sitting at a hot dock on a pile of ropes. The repair crew is very hospitable as they show me around the boat. There is an air-conditioned lounge, with satellite TV, and plenty of goodies in the galley. OK, I can live with this! This is to be the first of the many waiting games inherent to life on the towboats, but it is comfortable. After meeting several towboatmen, including deckhands, executives, mechanics, and an engineer, I soon discover that telling river stories is as much a part of towboat life as other forms of river travel.

2:15pm…While chatting with some crew members in the galley I notice that there is of tow of eight coal barges drifting on the river, but no boat (photo at right). I ask if that was not unusual and all hands immediately go out to see what is going on. Now I assume that this is indeed unusual. One man immediately goes to the pilothouse to radio the news of the loose tow. About that time a towboat with a single coal barge is heading for the drifting tow. It quickly adds the single barge, and then circles around to hook up to the stern of the entire tow. They are apparently saving some time or money by releasing their tow long enough to add another barge without assistance. There is very little current at this low river stage and the tow doesn't drift far, but it does look rather precarious as it drifts at an angle to the river. This procedure could never be done on the lower Mississippi, with its swift currents. After that little excitement I continue my wait.

6:00pm…I meet the chief engineer for the O'Neal, who stays with the boat during repairs. Everyone calls him Rosebud, but I never find out why. Rosebud is from Greenville, Mississippi and asks if I could get him on board the Steamboats for a look when we are in Greenville (assuming he isn't on the river). He begins to tell me some good river stories. He has had many adventures in his 35 years on the rivers. Interestingly he says, "I've wasted my life on these rivers and wish I would have taken a different direction, maybe lived a normal life." I point out to him that I'm certain that there are many people out there who have spent their lives on a nine-to-five job with no real adventures, and would envy his life. My point was well taken and not challenged.

8:15pm…The Ron Shankin has finally passed through McAlpine Lock and is headed our way. The towboat Georgia, (used for local transfers) comes to the dock to pick me up and deliver me to the Ron Shankin. The first thing that I notice is the cargo, which includes chemical barges filled with benzene, liquid propane, and caustic acid. There are twelve barges with a combined cocktail that would make an impressive mushroom cloud in a mishap. The Ron Shankin is a handsome 148-foot triple-deck towboat (photo at left). I climb aboard the vessel and after a quick tour I am taken to the pilothouse to meet Captain Dennis Mize. Captain Mize is a friendly, laid-back fellow from Missouri. He welcomes me aboard and we swap a few river stories, which is a pilothouse tradition. He informs me that he has played a joke on the cook by telling her that I will have very special dietary needs, due to my religion and allergies. She is in a tizzy and doesn't know how she is going to feed me. Practical jokes are a way of life on the river. From my conversations with the crew I soon discover whom it is that one needs to get along with on the boat. It is the cook. She has the power, and I found she is a great source of information. She is the queen and held in high regard by all. I begin thinking about that joke the captain is playing and realize that I might be off to a bad start with her before even meeting her.

I go to my cabin, which is normally used as an officer's lounge. It has a hide-a-bed couch and is all made up for me. It is a nice cabin on the third deck. I open the door to the bathroom to find only a closet. I think, "Well we must have a community bath here somewhere." I walk the halls on all three levels, reading the signs on each door. No bathroom to be found. After much searching I finally get desperate enough to ask a deck-hand "Where in the heck is the bathroom?" He says, "Why, they are all over the boat. Every couple of rooms shares one, but the officer's lounge doesn't have one. You can use the Captain's. It's shared with the pilot’s cabin." I begin to figure out the system. The Captain and pilot alternate six-hour shifts so they are never in their cabins at the same time. It makes sense to have a bathroom between the rooms. I will go through the cabin of whichever one is piloting, while the other one is sleeping to use the bathroom and shower. I am being careful to stop and think about which man is piloting before using the facility, as I don't want to disturb the one sleeping. I spend the evening meeting most of the ten crew members and enjoying the river from the pilothouse deck.

Day 2

7:00am…I rise to a hazy morning on the river near Vevay, Indiana. I head down to the galley for coffee where I expect to meet the cook. I feel like someone who might be going for an important interview and hope to make a good impression. The crew has already finished breakfast and is busy at their jobs. I introduce myself to Gay McGrew. She is from Paris, Tennessee. It doesn’t' take Gay long to fill me in on the current crew, her background, and other useful tips. Gay (at right) has beautiful hazel eyes that are filled with the spirit of the river. I have come to recognize that kindred spirit during my 30-plus years on the rivers. The crew of the Ron Shankin is a family and she is mom. She tells me that many young men who have been without families and sometimes without a home have found their way to work on the towboats. These "boys" have discovered not only employment, but also a home and family here. It is no wonder why so many stay with this life for so long. My first meeting with Gay is a success. I was in! There is the ultimate compliment one can receive on the river. It is a very short sentence that lets one feel accepted. It is "Yer awe right”. I'm about to leave the galley with my second coffee. Gay notices that I ate no breakfast, and is probably apprehensive about my dietary needs but says, "Just what is it that you can eat for breakfast?" I explain that I am not a breakfast eater, and then get a short lecture on the importance of a wholesome breakfast.

10:30am…We are transferring a couple of barges to another vessel and are picking up two more. This is a slow and careful process. All things are in slow motion on the towboats. Waiting is a way of life. Waiting to board, waiting at the locks, waiting for barge transfers, and waiting at narrow channels. The vessels move slowly and all work is done carefully to insure safety. This would not be a profession for an impatient person. It is, however, easy to adapt to the pace, and one can imagine that anyone living this life for any length of time would have difficulty going back to the fast lane. That isn't to say that there would not be some fast and furious action taken in an emergency. An emergency could be loose barges, fire, sinking, crew injury, or any number of things that can happen.

12:10pm…We are about to enter Markland Locks and Dam. On approach to the lock I see the towboat Red Eagle with twelve barges run aground on a sand bar. She apparently got straddled on the bar just after leaving the lock, heading downriver. I can see the sandy-colored water about midway on the tow where it is resting on the bar. The boat is running hard reverse trying to back off. Mud is being kicked up from the prop wash. The low water is causing some problems and Markland is allowing no water to pass in order to maintain the upper pool stage. With no water flowing below the dam it becomes shallow in that area. Captain Mize would have tried to help with a tow line but no help was requested from the Red Eagle. I have been on the river long enough to know that a pilot will try everything possible to get off a bar before resorting to being pulled off. It's a pride thing. As we leave the Markland lock heading upriver toward Cincinnati, I check the schedule for the Mississippi Queen. She is in Maysville, Kentucky today and we will meet her at some point. I am hoping to spot her and maybe call the pilothouse to say howdy.

6:30pm…I just enjoyed a delicious dinner and am chatting with the deck hands. More good river stories! We are about 35 miles below Cincinnati. The pilot, Ronnie Prater, advises me that we are running slowly because a barge is supposed to be picked up along the way and it isn't available yet. Rather than sit there for five or six hours, he would rather run slow and conserve fuel. We expect to pass Cincinnati around midnight, but the unexpected is common out here and changed schedules happen often. The Mississippi Queen is now en route from Maysville to Cincinnati.

7.45pm…"The test". I am hanging out with the crew on the bow and they are interested in knowing more about the Steamboats, which being my favorite subject, I am happy to oblige. John is one of the crew and apparently a river history buff. He is curious about my job as Riverlorian. Then John begins testing my river knowledge. "What is the deepest river in the country? How did Meriwether Lewis die? What Kentucky town used to be called Limestone?" The questions continue and I am impressed with his knowledge, since I'm sure he is asking questions that he knows the answer to. I answer to his satisfaction, but can sense his frustration. He really wants to stump the Riverlorian. In apparent desperation he grins and asks a really dumb question. "How many glasses of water are there in the Ohio River?" I reply with a question. "Would that be 12-ounce or 16-ounce glasses?" The session ends with a good laugh by everyone and John says the magic words, "Yer awe right." I am discovering several differences between life on a towboat and a steamboat. Since the cargo on steamboats is passengers, we make frequent stops along the journey at historic towns. This often gives the crew a chance to take a walk or get some needed items. On the towboats there are no such stops. When crew members do their four- or six-week rotation they are on the boat the entire time. Towboats are constantly at work and there are no landings at towns.

11:30pm…I am walking the decks with nearly a full moon above me. It is a beautiful night. I go aft on the second deck, then down the stairs to the main deck where the prop wash from twin 16-cylinder engines is. The feel of great power is present. The incredible turbulence created by the nine-foot diameter propellers is amazing, and I can sense the danger beneath me. This violent action of water is an awesome display of man’s and nature's power. Cincinnati is nowhere in sight, so I turn in.

Day 3

7:15am…I am told that some people have trouble sleeping when first getting used to the constant vibrations of a towboat, but not me. It makes me sleep better and I find myself sleeping later than usual. This morning I wake up to find us tied off to another barge just below Cincinnati. We arrived at this destination during the night and are still waiting for the barge to add to our tow. The captain is now expecting to get underway around noon. The deck-hands have already repositioned some of our barges to make room for the addition. The Mississippi Queen should be docked at Cincinnati all day and provide a good sighting as we pass. Knowing that it is a turnover day (taking on new passengers), I don't expect to see much activity on the MQ at noon. Captain Mize tells me that his longest delay during his 33 years on the river was waiting for 26 days at Lock 26 on the upper Mississippi River. The lock was being repaired and the tows could only push one barge through at a time. I will soon discover that a similar thing is happening on the Ohio River and will affect our plans. The Ron Shankin is registered out of New Orleans and spends most of her time on the Mississippi River. Some of the crew have never been on the Ohio River before, so this gives me an opportunity to serve as a tour guide for them. They are impressed with the size, amount of traffic, and the beauty of the Ohio and its communities.

11:45am…The additional barge has been delivered and we are getting underway. There are barges fleeted (tied off) directly behind us and more barges a short distance in front of our tow. Just ahead is a bridge. I am interested in watching this maneuver as we pull away. A deckhand releases our lead barge along the port side from the stationary barge we are tied to. The Captain is reversing, while using the flanking rudders to cause the stern to swing out. He continues to reverse while straightening the rudders so the tow begins to back up. At a point that only experience could know, he leaves the starboard engine in reverse but pushes the port engine into forward. The stern of the vessel then swings back toward the bank with just enough clearance to miss the fleeted barges behind. He now has the tow positioned so that it is pointed toward the bridge span and clear of the fleeted barges. Both engines are put in forward with steering rudders now being used. We glide under the bridge. Very impressive!

12:15pm…We are approaching downtown Cincinnati. I got on the radio to say hi to Virginia Bennett, whom I had met on the steamboats. Virginia is called the “Mother of the Ohio River”. She comes from several generations of river people, and lives in an apartment overlooking the river. She also has navigation lights on her balcony and spends a lot of time talking to passing river pilots on her radio. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers think so much of her that they named a nearby daymark after her. I now see the RiverBarge passenger boat, and then the Mississippi Queen landed just ahead of it (photo at left). I get on the radio and hail her but there is apparently no one in the pilothouse. I then go onto our pilothouse deck and have the pilot blast the horn, while I wave both arms to anyone who might notice me. She is a pretty sight to see after many months of being out of service, in lay up in New Orleans. We proceed on upriver in a mild rain. In the galley, Gay is glued to the window, looking at all those big fancy homes on the bluff just above Cincinnati. I don't think fancy beats what she has here.

5:00pm…Approaching Meldahl Locks and Dam. There are several tows ahead of us so we expect a long wait, particularly since the main lock is in repair and only the auxiliary lock is open. The auxiliary lock is only 600-feet long, which means longer tows must double-lock. That is, to break up the barges into two sets and pass them through separately. Estimated wait time is around ten hours. I watched the pilot skillfully keep the vessel in a holding pattern. It is more difficult to keep a tow stable in this slack water. If there is a current the engines and rudders can work against it and help hold the tow in place. Without current, the boat tends to drift with a slow pivoting motion and requires more throttle and rudder action to keep it in check. He decides to nudge the tow into the bank. The pilot keeps busy running the two engines in forward, then reverse, individually. He is also operating the rudder sticks, watching the vessel’s movement in relation to the shoreline, and keeping an eye on the depth gauge. At the same time he is talking on the short-wave radio to the mate located on the lead barge looking for a tree to tie off to. There is no good tree within reach, so he gently nudges into the shallows to stabilize the head of the tow, and then keeps an engine in forward to hold it there. We now hear that wait time may be 18 hours.

9:00pm…Update. We are still on hold at Meldahl. There are still eleven tows ahead of us and most need to double lock. Estimated wait time is now 24 hours. I should mention that even though the huge tows must often wait for sometimes days, pleasure craft will often be allowed through with barges or after three barge lockings.

Day 4

8:10am…After having my morning coffee "meditation", I decide that today will be an excellent time to really explore the boat, since we will likely be here all day waiting to lock through. The engine room is very impressive. Those huge engines are noisy and put out a lot of heat. They are mounted in the lower deck, which is below the water line. On the main deck above them is a large area housing the engineer's office, work shop and rudder controls (shown at right). The controls are hydraulic-powered rods. There are two sets of rudders and the rod and connections appear to be complex, but are easy to understand when the pilot activates them. Chief Engineer Steve Wells is a friendly fellow with a permanent smile beneath his white handlebar mustache. He keeps a surprisingly clean engine room. The floors shine and tools are neatly in place. I can see none of the dirt, rust, grease, or anything else that resembled my concept of a towboat engine room. In fact, the entire vessel is like that. I have seen kitchens of nice restaurants that are not as clean and well organized as the galley on the Ron Shankin. The waiting time at the lock is used efficiently. Since only one engine is needed to hold the tow, Steve is doing oil changes and other maintenance as the engines are shut down alternately. The deck crew is busy washing the exterior. This is not just hosing it down, like I do my boat. They wash everything with soap, brushes, rags, and high-pressure water. Gay is busy in the galley and concerned about the long delay because she needs items for the boys from the boat store that delivers supplies to towboats. It is located above the lock. Gay knows what they all like and tries to accommodate them. She even knows what each one doesn't like. I listen to her express concern about how one of the crew isn't eating enough. I no longer perceive her as Queen. She is Mom. The crew can order personal items also by listing them on a sheet in the galley.

4:00pm…The weather has changed today. It has cooled off, to our delight. The humidity is down and we have a light breeze. I brought the book Trail of Tears with me, which tells of the Indian removals in the 1830s. I decide to read, which leads to a rather comical quest for just the right spot to do so. I started in my air-conditioned cabin, and then felt guilty. It's so nice out today, why waste it in here? I find a folding lounge chair in the closet, gather the book and other things I may need, stop by the galley to get iced tea to go, then proceed to a shaded spot to settle in. I find a place on the main deck, port side near the bow. It doesn't take long to discover that the breeze has turned into wind and wakes hitting the stern barge are providing me with an unwanted shower. I pack up my chair, book, iced tea, and cell phone and move to mid-ship along the same shaded side, only to find that the engine noise is not conducive to peaceful reading. I look toward the stern and check it out. There is shade, relatively quiet, breeze, and the pleasant sound of water thrashing from the propeller. Yes, this will work! After settling in I notice some activity on the deck above me. Suddenly huge amounts of soapy water come pouring over the side of the deck about 20 feet from me and closing in. The deck crew is still washing the boat. It is time to move again. I gather my stuff and, remembering that the pilothouse has a nice deck around it with an overhang roof, I continue my search for sanctuary. Once again I am settled in. The pilothouse is quite high and a good place to enjoy the wind. In fact, the pilothouse deck is higher than the smokestacks, as can be seen in the photo at left, taken from there. It just happens that this wind is a tail wind, and the deck I am on is in the direct path of the smoke from those stacks. I try to tough it out and ignore those fumes, but can endure it no more. I then remember a place where I can read in comfort. There is no smoke, noise, water, or other distractions. I go back to my air-conditioned cabin and settle in to read.

7:00pm…A decision must be made. Captain Mize advises me that the towboat Warren Hines is delayed below the Montgomery lock, near Pittsburgh, for several days. It must still turn around and go back through the lock to meet us. That lock is also under repair and their auxiliary chamber is only 300 feet. This means only one barge at a time can be locked through. Why is this important? The Warren Hines is the turnboat that I am to get aboard for the trip up to Pittsburgh, then back downriver to Paducah. A turnboat is when two towboats are headed toward each other and when they meet they exchange their tows and turn around. This keeps the boats from having to get too far away, particularly when a crew change is coming up. Being concerned that I might get stuck above the Montgomery lock for weeks, I tell the Captain that I will just stay on the Ron Shankin for the return trip.

9:00pm…Good news for Gay and crew! The boat store has put their order in a van and brought it around below Meldahl lock where we are still holding up. They will be at a nearby boat ramp. The lead man (second mate), and a deckhand lower the yawl (photo at right) into the river and speed off to pick up the order. They must hurry because we are finally next up to lock through. A few minutes later the small craft is cutting across the setting sun on their return. The long 30-hour wait at the lock is nearly over.

10:00pm…As we enter the lock the deckhands are preparing to untie the first four barges that we will send through. These are called cuts. When double-locking these are the first cut, then the rest of the barges, including the boat, is the second cut. I watch from the pilothouse as Captain Mize eases the tow into the chamber, while the lead man, Steve Birney, is calling approaching distances to him. I remark on how smooth we slip into the chamber with so little clearance. Upon disengaging the engines and seeing the huge tow drift into its predetermined position, Captain Mize says that liquid tows are a bit trickier. Too sudden of a stop will cause the liquid to shift forward and create an unwanted forward surge in the vessel. Once in position the hands secure the four barges, and then release them from our tow. The Captain then backs out of the chamber with the remaining barges. The gate closes and the first cut is locked through by being pulled out by another tow that has secured its barges and unhooked from them. It will then lock through, going downriver. There are a couple of other methods used for sending a cut through. I had seen a system in the Illinois River locks where they use what is called a mule. This is a mechanical device that runs along the guide wall, pulling the barges through, much like real mules pulled flatboats in the canal days. The third method is interesting, and can only be used going downriver. Upon opening the lower gate to allow the cut to exit, the lock operator will open fill valves that are located in the bed of the chamber. When done skillfully with just the right surge of water, the barges will drift to a stop at their destination along the guide wall where a deckhand will tie it to a pin and await the rest of the tow. Steve tells me that riding that loose barge when too much water pushes it can be a real adrenaline rush, particularly since he must catch a pin and stop it before leaving the lock area. I would call it barge surfing. We lock through and hook back up to our first cut and by midnight are on our way again.

Day 5

6:00am…I wake up to find us still moving, which is encouraging. We are around mile 400 and running a little faster than previous days. The Warren Hines has finally locked through Montgomery Lock, picked up our tow in Pittsburgh, and is now back at Montgomery, waiting again to lock through to meet us. We are still 370 miles apart.

    7:00am…Fog moves in (shown at left). It is much cooler this morning and with the warm water, I expect to see some fog. It isn't thick enough to stop us and begins to burn off in an hour. As the sun rises and the fog lifts this morning it reveals the beauty of the upper Ohio's waters, hills, forests, islands, and riverside communities. The crew often has safety drills. Captain Mize tells me a story about the day he decided to have a man-overboard drill. If a person is overboard the first step is to stop engines, then man the throw rings. Pitching the throw rings takes some practice, so he decided to give them a target. He found a full trash bag, tied the top, pitched it into the river, and sounded a man-overboard alarm. At exactly the time he pitched the trash bag into the river, he noticed a Coast Guard boat was approaching from behind. By the time he got to the pilothouse to explain to the Coast Guard what he is doing, the efficient deckhands were already manning the life rings. One can only imagine the surprise of the Coast Guard officials to see a trash bag thrown in their path and then to see the crew effect a rescue mission of the bag. They just had to believe the Captains story, especially when the crew lowered the yawl to complete the rescue of the disabled trash bag.

9:00am…I am sitting in what has become one of my favorite spots. I continue to be drawn to the stern, near the propeller wash (shown at right). The waterfall sound is violent but relaxing and there is usually shade to be found. I spend a lot of time in the sun, as is obvious by my dry tan skin, but when I relax I am a shade worshiper with no desire to broil in the sun. While here I notice another interesting thing that happens when the rudders are turned. The pivoting of those huge rudders causes the stern of the boat to lurch sideways. Though not enough to see, I can feel it. Considering that we have nearly 6,000 horsepower, spinning two nine-foot propellers and pushing thousands of tons against a dense substance like water, there is an incredible amount of pressure on the rudders when turned. Steering a towboat is much like pushing a wheelbarrow. The back must swing out to point the front in the right direction. When going downriver with a strong current, towboats must "flank" around the bends. The engines will be run in reverse, letting the current push the head of the tow into the turn, then shift into forward when the tow is positioned to steer out of the bend. The second set of rudders is called flanking rudders and are located in front of the propellers so that a reverse thrust is directed into them. Boats have more control while running against the current due to increased resistance against the hull and rudders, creating more responsive steering. That is why downriver traffic has the right of way. They have less maneuverability. All vessels must mover faster or slower than the water to steer. Tows use flanking buoys that are attached to the stern barge by a line. These show whether the vessel is moving faster, the same as, or slower than the current. They indicate this by floating with the line stretched, drifting aimlessly, or drawn up against the barge.

1:15pm…We are passing Portsmouth, Ohio. I notice deck hands walking around the edge of the barges. They are opening hatches and looking inside. The barges are double-hulled and the hatches are above the space between the hulls. A visual check is made every six hours to insure there is no water leaking through the outer hull and no chemicals leaking from the inner hull. If a leak would start, it would be confined to a section of the hull. Bulkheads divide it so that the entire barge cannot easily be flooded. There is another change in plans. The Warren Hines is still stuck above Montgomery lock so the Northern will now be our turnboat. She is closer and the Ron Shankin will exchange tows with them before turning back. Captain Mize wants to know if I still want to go to Pittsburgh; and I say I don't want on any boat that will end up above Montgomery Lock. I'm staying on the Ron Shankin back to Louisville.

3:00pm…I'm chatting with some crew members taking a break, and mention how impressed I am with the smooth lockings, some without as much as a bump. The mate says, "Yep, it sure ain't like that with old Harvey." It turns out that there is an infamous pilot on the river who just can't keep from banging those lock walls hard. "You better hang on or sit down going through a lock with Captain Harvey at the helm." I wasn't told, nor did I ask what his last name is, but he is known only as Captain Harvey Wallbanger.

4:30pm…We are entering Greenup Locks and Dam at mile 336, with Captain Prater at the helm. Our tow nudges up along the guide wall while waiting for another tow that is locking through going the same direction. Suddenly the head of the tow begins careening to the right for unknown reasons. I had noticed that we were kicking up mud on the lock approach, indicating shallow water, but that shouldn't make this happen. The 1,000-foot tow is moving into a very precarious angle, pointing off to the right of the lock wall. The lead barge is getting very close to the riverbank. The pilot immediately goes into hard reverse and the tow begins to slip backward, but the stern is now heading for the guide wall. He uses flanking rudders to shift the stern to starboard, while still backing away. He calls a deckhand to take a line to the port side of the stern barge, and directs him to throw a line over one of the pins at the end of the guide wall when he gets within range. After several attempts the deckhand loops the line over the pin and secures it to a kevel on the barge. The pilot then starts running the port engine in reverse and the starboard engine forward, sending intense vibrations throughout the boat. The action is an attempt to twist the boat into alignment with the wall.

In fact, the maneuver of running the engines in reverse of each other is called twisting. The line attached to the wall is used as a pivot point. The stress on that line is incredible. It is squeaking, popping, and beginning to smoke. This is called a hot line. The deckhand wisely removes himself from the area. Slowly the tow begins to move back to the guide wall. Another deckhand is sent to the lead barge on the port side to hook another line on the wall to keep the tow in place this time. After passing through the lock I ask Captain Prater about that maneuver, which he explains to me like it is routine, before admitting that in over 30 years of piloting it is the first time he has done it. The lockmaster indicates that others have had a problem with that lower sill but that they haven't figured out what is causing it.

8:30pm…We hold up at Ashland, Kentucky to have a barge removed. It is the empty we picked up a couple of days ago below Cincinnati.

10:30pm…Passing Huntington, West Virginia, at river mile 311. Huntington is an impressive-looking city from the river at night. I remember to ask someone about a posting I saw today on the bulletin board. It lists the dress codes for the crew. Most of the criteria are as I expected until I got down to the item that says "ball caps in darkness”. What's up with that? I wear a ball cap in the sun to shade my eyes and keep the sweat off my face. Why do they require ball caps at night? With that question still on my mind, I go below to the forward deck and ask. The deckhands must go out on the barges during dark hours for various tasks. To help them see, the pilot will turn on those powerful Xenon searchlights. In order to see what they are doing they must avoid being blinded by the light and the ball cap shades their eyes. Makes sense now!

Still interested in their equipment I ask John Scroggis, the mate, to pose for me with his safety gear on (photo at left). I choose John because he has that riverman look that most of us envision. He's big with huge tattooed arms, full beard, pirate-style headwear, and a few scars with stories behind them. John agrees and tells me that this is his modeling debut. I have known many river folks over the years and often find that people aren't always as they appear. John is a sensitive guy who cherishes his 10-year-old daughter, of whom he has custody. I also know how this river gets in one’s blood. John first took a job on the river for a little getaway, with no plans to continue it for any length of time. That was nine years ago. When fitted up to go out on the barges crew members must have steel-toed boots, back-support belt, reflector straps, flashlight, gloves, shortwave radio for onboard communication, flotation device, and, of course, at night a ball cap. The gear is no fashion statement, but the work is dangerous and safety has first priority.


Day 6

7:00am…We are at mile 268 which is between Gallipolis, Ohio and the mouth of the Kanawha River. The Ron Shankin is tied off to a landing barge (permanently moored), and the deckhands are busy preparing to remove two of our barges. The small towboat Iron Duke pulls behind us with six coal barges, then ties off. She unhooks them and comes around to extract the two barges from our tow. Our turnboat, the Northern, is waiting upriver for us to exchange tows when we are finished here. I watch Captain Mize maneuver the Ron Shankin sideways to change positions on the tow (photo at right). There are no bow thrusters on this boat so the sideways maneuver is done with skillful use of throttle and rudders. I notice that each time a barge is removed from our tow that a deckhand takes a long pole and pushes out any debris that collects between the barges. This is to insure a snug fit of replacement barges.

10:00am…The Northern brings down the exchange tow which has 11 barges. All are empties except for one liquid propane tanker. The Northern eases in carefully and ties off to the port side of our lead barge. We then cut loose our tow, leaving two deckhands on it, and go to the lead barge of the Northern to transfer depth- gauge units, lines, and other equipment. We then go behind the Northern and wait for her to unhook. When she is clear, we go to the lead barge of the tow we are leaving and pick up our deckhands, then finish the equipment transfer. We then swing over to hook up to our new tow while the Northern is hooking up hers. I notice that every contact with the barges being moved around are made with lines secured to the towboat, however brief. During the transfer, no barges are left unsecured or unmanned. These fellows work a lot more carefully than those on the coal tow that was left drifting on my first day at Louisville.

11:45am…We are now underway with a different tow. The tows are actually still going the same direction as they were, but the two towboats have turned around. We are now traveling downriver toward my destination of Louisville.

1:00pm…I notice that we are going much faster than I've seen on this entire trip. Going this fast I had to go see that prop wash that I am so fond of. It is really boiling now. I am almost mesmerized by the power and fury of the heaving water. I can’t help myself and stand there doing that famous Tim Allen grunt. Soon the engines throttling back interrupt my power thrill. We are approaching the Robert Byrd Locks and Dam at river mile 279. I go to the pilothouse to find that we were had been running at 11 mph. That's lightnin' fast for a towboat. While approaching the chamber a deckhand comes on the radio to warn that there is a notch on one of the starboard barges. The pilot indicates that he guesses he won't walk the wall with this one. Of course, my questions followed. A notch is any protrusion along the side of a barge that sticks out enough to catch those vertical cutouts in the lock wall that house the floating pins. Floating pins are tie-offs for the barges that float up or down with the chamber water level. Walking the wall is to gently "tetch" the wall and slide along it. I have already observed that pilots take pride in sliding along the wall as close as possible without “teching” it. One can see by the condition of the walls that they get “tetched” plenty. Our tow slides into the chamber, running along the wall within inches without ever touching it. The pilot says nothing but I could see a faint grin as he looks my way. I reply with a subtle thumbs up sign. Enough said.

8:00pm…We have a nice afternoon of cruising. I spend most of my time parked in the lounge chair watching the river or in the pilothouse getting a pilots view of the huge tow ahead (photo at left). I remember a quote, "A successful man is one who can sit and watch the river all day without feeling guilty about it." I can relate to that. My peace is broken by a swift and furious thunderstorm. The sudden cool winds ahead of the storm gets my attention, so I look downriver to see it coming. By the time I gather up all my standard lounging equipment I return to the cabin soggy. The storm has little affect on the boat, even with nearly horizontal rain, pushed by a strong head wind. It clears up in about 15 minutes and all is well. One of the crew remarks that there will be no need to wash down the decks this evening.

9:00pm…Approaching Greenup Locks and Dam. The captain decides to hold up well above the lock to wait for our turn. I notice a small cruiser sitting in the channel with no navigation lights on. As we get closer Captain Mize slows down, and then reverses to a stop. We are planning to stop anyway, but the folks in that cruiser could not have known that. I can't imagine why anyone would want to flirt with disaster by sitting in the dark, with no lights, with a 1,000-foot vessel coming their way. They finally turn on their lights and saunter off, long after we have stopped. It is not uncommon to see people doing foolish things around towboats. Unfortunately, it is also not uncommon to hear of tragedies resulting from these stunts. These huge vessels do not maneuver quickly, cannot be stopped quickly, and the pilot can't see for several hundred feet in front of the tow. If one of those wave runners would dump over while cutting across the bow, there would be practically no chance of the rider’s survival. Boats getting too close to the stern can be pulled into the churning waters by the prop wash. Captain Mize is not one to over-react or lose his temper. If he sees someone in his path he will do everything he can to stop or maneuver around them. I would probably be one of those who I have seen blasting the horn and shaking my fist. In the case of this cruiser, the captain was concerned that they may be in trouble, since it was drifting with no lights. If that was true he would have sent crew in the yawl to help.

Day 7

8:00am…My journal begins later this morning. Last night I hung out with the crew in their work station on the main deck, swapping stories and drinking coffee until the wee hours. By then, I was wired with caffeine and read in my cabin. It must have been around 4:00 am before I fell asleep, waking up a few hours later with my book still in hand and reading glasses on. We are a few miles from the dreaded Meldahl Locks and Dam. This is the one we waited at for 30 hours when going upriver. We had been informed that the repair would be done by Friday, which was yesterday, but no one believed that would happen. They were right! We must double-lock again and are not yet certain of the waiting time. This morning there is a heavy overcast with a thick haze on the river. Cool, but very humid. It feels, looks, and smells like rain will be upon us soon. I go to the galley for coffee and Gay informs me that today is steaks n' burgers day. I can choose which meal to have; steak or cheeseburgers, and I chose steak. She knows by now that I have no special dietary needs. I must say that being a person who usually views food as simply fuel for the body, with no great passion for eating, I have come to look forward to meals on the Ron Shankin. It is excellent and Gay adds a touch of TLC with each serving.

9:15am…We come to a stop on a bend just above Meldahl. Unless the main 1,200-foot chamber happens to open today, we are expecting an 18-hour wait. It will not open today. It's raining now and the crew is busy cleaning the inside of the boat. I learn a new word today. While looking over the bulletin board again I notice a "sooging schedule." That is what they call washing and cleaning any part of the vessel. Nobody seems to know where the word sooging come from, but they all know what it means. I have always had an interest in the origin of words and phrases, so I intend to research this one when I get back home.

4:00pm...We are still waiting above the lock. I have drunk too much coffee, have finished reading my book, have taken a nap, and am now scrounging through a crew magazine pile. I'm not a fan of Hot Rod or Hustler but did find an issue of Workboat that looks fairly interesting. I look out and discover that while I was napping the boat has moved across the river and closer to the lock. We are now tied off to two other tows, all waiting. It looks like a city of barges out there (photo at right). Occasionally we pull away to let a tow out. All the while additional tows are joining our fleet. On a day like this I envy the crew as they always have things to do. As I stroll aimlessly around the vessel I see crew working on machinery and painting the smokestacks. This scene reminds me of Tom Sawyer getting another boy to paint the fence. I would gladly paint the stacks if offered a brush. On second thought, it's pretty darn hot out here. I think I'll get a glass of iced tea and read an old issue of Mechanics Illustrated.

9:pm…Still waiting our turn to lock through. The evening has rewarded us with another beautiful sunset. I'm watching it from the pilothouse while chatting with Captain Mize. We discuss passing the "gauntlet" tomorrow. That will be Cincinnati on a Sunday afternoon. I've been there. Pushing a tow amongst all the recreational boats can be nerve wracking. They have as much right to be there as we, but hope they will use common sense and keep clear of us. I tell him of the time my anchor broke loose on my houseboat and drifted into the channel while sleeping. I woke to blasting horns and blinding lights as a towboat was trying to signal me, while attempting to stop and steer clear of me. I was able to get out of the way and learned a valuable lesson about the importance of proper anchorage.

Day 8

7:00am…We are finally locking through after 22 hours. As we approach the lock I can see cranes in use and repair work being done in the main chamber. It doesn't appear to be anywhere near ready. Emergency gates are dropped into slots located along the walls. These are in place to keep the water out of the lock when the movable gates are open, while work is being done. Our first cut of the barges is in the lock and we are waiting for it to be pulled through.

9:00am…After that 22-hour wait we can use a little excitement, and it comes to us. While in the pilothouse, Captain Mize sees something strange on one of his barges. He looks through his binoculars and confirms what he suspects. We have a stowaway running along the starboard stern barge toward the boat. Captain Mize gets on the radio to alert the crew of the intruder, a large rat that has set a course for the food and refuge of the Ron Shankin. The rat patrol goes into immediate action, as the critter leaps from an empty barge down to a full barge, which sits lower in the water then the crew intercepts the rat before it reaches the boat and gives chase. The patrol breaks formation and flanks the intruder on both sides, with impressive military-style strategy. The rat attempts to retreat by changing its course 180 degrees. A quick and nimble deckhand is closing in fast and at just about the time his steel-toed boot gets within striking range, the rat leaps into a dark crevasse to hide. Unfortunately for the rat, that crevasse is a small gap between two barges, which leads to the turbulent water below. The crew members are pleased with themselves for fulfilling their mission of keeping an unwanted guest from the boat. I go down to the bow to congratulate them on their success. My only regret is that I have no video camera to record the heroic event.

11:00am…We approach Cincinnati and pass under the "purple people bridge" There does not appear to be much traffic on the river this morning. The high winds and threatening clouds may have something to do with that. As we pass the busy docks I notice another difference between riding on a towboat and a steamboat. While aboard the beautiful steamboats, I am accustomed to the boats receiving a lot of attention as we travel the waterways or make port. Some small communities keep track of our schedules and announce our passing or landing. Some even make an event of our arrival. Many people come time and again to watch the boats and hear the calliope play. All along the rivers people wave and gather at locks we pass through. At night we see porch lights blinking to signal a greeting to us. We also receive waves from passing boaters but for the most part, towboats get little attention. Unusual cargo may attract onlookers. A few years ago a tow carrying a Boeing 727 up the Ohio River got my attention. It had been used to make a movie plane crash scene in U.S. Marshals, and was being transported back to Pittsburgh.

12:00pm…Having passed Cincinnati, we are now holding just below the city, waiting for two more barges to be added to our tow. An empty grain barge and a full machinery barge arrive. The machinery barge is added to the front, which makes our length 1,176 feet. The grain barge is placed into a three-sided slot just in front of the boat. The slot is created by a barge at the front, a barge along the side, and the front of the towboat, that extends about eight feet from what will be the center barge. A towboat is shoving the grain barge into the slot, but it doesn't quite fit (photo at left). It pushes harder with no luck, and then pivots to the side corner and pushes. Still no luck! Our able-bodied mate, John, walks to the winch holding the rest of our tow to the boat and releases some slack in the wire. Now the barge slides into the slot and John re-tightens the wires. The crew commences to secure all the wires of the additional barges and we are underway in a short time.

3:30pm…The winds have increased, but since they are pretty much direct head winds, they are having less affect on the tow than if they were crosswinds. I go to the pilothouse and have one of my frequent conversations with Captain Mize. This soft-spoken gentleman is not what some may visualize as a riverboat pilot. He could pass as a school principal if he had a suit on. But his laid-back style and mannerism do not diminish his authority. His crew respects him and follows his orders to the letter. He is an excellent leader and an inspiration to deckhands, since he spent his first 13 years on the river as one. Captain Mize is also a humanitarian. He and his wife of 26 years are foster care parents for several children. He also has an assortment of cats and other wayward critters. He takes no chances, particularly when pushing chemical barges. I am constantly impressed with his skill at the helm. On the approach to one of the locks, and expecting a delay, he decides to hold up along the left bank of a very wide section of the river. He is going to turn upriver and gently nudge the tow against the bank, since it is easier to control the boat while facing the current. He begins to make the left swing, and then pulls the engines out of gear, knowing exactly where the vessel is going to end up. At about the time, the boat and tow are straddling crossways in the river with no propulsion, the chief engineer comes up the stairs and into the pilothouse with a "what the hell" look on his face. He apparently has just noticed that the boat is crossways in the river with no props turning and thinks something is seriously wrong. We have a good laugh as the vessel gently drifts into the holding position that the captain is aiming for.

6:00pm…The Ron Shankin is steaming along in good time and should pass Louisville tomorrow morning, but we still have another lock to go through so that could change. At least the Markland Lock chamber is not being repaired. The number of recreational boats has increased this afternoon. The deck crew and I are watching them and commenting on the boats we like best. Our taste in boats is similar. The older cruisers with clean, traditional lines get the highest praises, like Chris Craft, Marinette, older Starcrafts, Lone Star. Those are real boats. A deckhand says, "A real riverman wouldn't be caught in one of those boats shaped like a half-used bar of soap." Another said "What about those candy-ass bass boats? Does anyone really need to go 80 mph to get to a fishin' hole? Then you got to worry bout puttin' a scratch on that purdy paint job." The discussion becomes lively, but ends abruptly. It is time to inspect the barge hatches. We all disperse.

11:00pm…We're entering Markland Locks and Dam after three hours of wait time, which doesn't seem as long to me as it used to. On day two, I mentioned the towboat that was stuck on a sandbar just below Markland. In its place is now a dredge boat, removing the sandbar. That is pretty fast action by the Corp of Engineers, considering the complex vessels, piping, and machinery that must be transported and assembled. Of course, the Red Eagle may not have been the first vessel stuck there. Back in the engine room I am talking to the chief engineer Wells (at right) about the drive system of the boat. The two nine-foot Propellers are housed in circular bands, looking much like a jet engine. This is called a kort nozzle system. It protects the propellers and funnels the water more directly into the rudders. There can, however, be some disadvantages. In two different incidents a loose buoy has become drawn into the kort nozzle. Those buoys are made of steel and weigh around 600 pounds. One time a buoy lodged between the propeller and the housing, causing the engine to bog down and stop. It was jammed so tight that nothing they did would free it. They managed to run on the other engine to a place where a diver was hired to cut the buoy up with a cutting torch and remove it, one piece at a time. The next time it happened, it caused a more serious challenge. A buoy was kicked up by the powerful propellers into the hull, piercing it. Water began gushing in but quick action saved the vessel from sinking. Watertight hatches were closed to contain the water in a limited area. The chief knew there was a lot of pressure on the hatches so he spot-welded them closed, just for good measure. Not all trips go as smoothly as this one has.

Day 9

5:00am…I am up early to pack and be ready to disembark as the Ron Shankin passes Louisville, en route to Baton Rouge. I make a final round to visit the crew, and of course look at that prop wash one more time.

7:15am…We are approaching the Louisiana Dock Company dock, where I left my vehicle. It is directly across the river from JeffBoat. Both JeffBoat and LDC are divisions of ACBL. JeffBoat built the Mississippi Queen in 1976 and is still turning out boats and barges, a sign that the business is still thriving. I go to the pilothouse to find that Captain Mize has already arranged for what I'll call a shuttle towboat to pick me up. I then take my bag to the forward main deck. The mate and deck hands are there, looking for my ride. They know it has been dispatched, but see no sign of it. Surprise! It's already waiting for me at the stern of the boat. The mystery of the missing towboat is solved and I take my bag to the stern. I board the towboat and bid farewell to the crew of the Ron Shankin, who come back to see me off (well, they also had some boxes to unload). The tow takes me to the dock where I jump off and head for my truck in the parking lot.

8:00am…I am driving on I-71 during rush hour in Louisville. There are some delays but something has changed in me. So what's a few, or several minutes slowed down or stopped on a freeway anyway? It is nothing compared to 30 hours at a lock. I believe that I am completing my journey a more patient man. The highway I'm on now runs along the river and I pass the canal leading to McAlpine Locks and Dam. I see the long line of towboats waiting their turn. I know that I will be home in about four hours, while my friends on the Ron Shankin will still be here waiting to lock through.

I would like to thank all the fine people who made this experience possible. Bill Kinzeler arranged the trip. It is a complex operation considering all the tows, transfers, locks, and many changes that occur. Bill called the boat one day, not knowing that I had changed my plans. He was worried that they may have lost me, but I was in good hands. I appreciate his efforts and concern. I came to know Captain Dennis Mize the best, and am a better person for it. Integrity, skill, compassion, and leadership are words that come to mind when I think of Captain Mize. We had two pilots who transferred mid-trip. Captain Ronnie Prater was generous with his knowledge and a very nice guy. Captain Harry Simpkins piloted the return trip, and also had a few good stories to tell. Thanks to Chief Engineer Steve Wells for his stories and allowing me free access to his engine room domain. Chief Wells reminds me of Scottie on Star Trek. Assistance engineer Randall Husky, known as Mo, helped keep the trip interesting. Mo is the prankster and jokester on the boat. Mo included me in on one of his creative pranks on Chief Wells. As I mentioned, Gay McGrew is mom to everyone. She even puts up with Mo's pranks (to a point). I think Mo knows the limits he must stay within with regard to Gay. She was a delight and I felt adopted. Mate John Croggis is a solid guy who I would pick to be responsible for my life, if needed. He has the skills, attitude, and look of a veteran riverman, and I'm certain serves as a mentor for others. Lead Man (pronounced “leed”) Steve Birney impressed me with his decision-making skills. He also likes to talk and we shared many good stories. Deckhands Larry Cantrell, John Embry, and Jerry Ryan were just great. They accommodated me in every way, always happy to explain what they were doing and willing to share their space, coffee, magazines, or whatever. A fine bunch of guys.

American Commercial Lines is a first-class company and my impression from the crew is that they treat their employees well. If my experience with the Ron Shankin is indicative of life on the towboats, I am impressed. The work on the boats is hard and responsibilities are great. There are times of waiting and times of fast action and danger. My perception of life on the tows has changed somewhat. As I pass these huge vessels while on the river, I will visualize a professional crew, clean living conditions, and a family atmosphere. I was accepted as part of the family from day one, and made to feel at home, as the crew of the Ron Shankin quickly discovered that I was "awe right".

This story was taken from a chapter in Beyond the Bridges book by Jerry M. Hay