Mississippi 19-22

(Scroll down to see the pictures)

What to do? If it were just me to think about, the river was still there and needed paddling. This wasn’t about me though. It is about my grandchildren and it wouldn’t do much good to die. After a sleepless night I made the decision : either hitch a ride or walk to Memphis. It was Good Friday but it  was time to try for a ride.

Two companies came up on the internet so I went to the one at Vicksburg Port. There was a large workshop about 1m above the water with a couple of vehicles on the pavement outside but not a soul in  site. A concrete ramp to the river was evident but was all but submerged. From the ramp was a walkway with the land end about 30cm below water and a temporary grating 5m long leading to it. At the top of the walkway was about an acre of barges tied together with a few tugs and other work boats around the outside. An office building stood in the middle about 1m above deck level. Once on the barges it felt just like any other workshop area on land. The only difference was that this one could move up and down 15m over a year.

The receptionist inside was just as expected when she heard my story; sympathetic, friendly and helpful. Nope, she couldn’t help because they were just a repair company. However, she called her boss who suggested trying Magnolia Marine, just back up the road and turn right at the big propellor in the concrete.

Magnolia Marine was deserted but some guys next door were working on a trailer and reckoned staff would be back Monday. Decision time again. Start walking or wait until Monday risking losing two days. There were still some things that needed doing like setting up the GoPro on the kayak after the first two had technical problems, fix the toilet in the van, waterproof the tent, try yet again to find a decent portable stove and keep looking for a spare paddle. Buying a decent wing paddle in Australia is a simple trip to a kayak store but in the USA it was proving elusive. The stove was another bug bear. The only one that I had found that came with readily available fuel took 30 minutes to heat enough water for a meal to 75 degrees. The one that was like we had in Australia could be found in specialty stores and at Walmart but fuel cans, “Sorry sir, we outa those.”

Monday morning 7.30am found me at Magnolia Marine. After a brief wait senior VP Roger Harris came out and we talked about my predicament. He was not confident of a lift with his company because they transport fuel but he reckoned that he would find something via the resupply store in town. Before lunch, true to his word, Roger rang me saying, “Be at the store at 4.00pm. We should have one of our boats coming through about 5.30pm”. He told me what my restrictions would be which were fine, and so it was, I had a ride on the Emily Davis.

The Emily Davis is a 3000hp twin screw pushboat built in 2013. These boats typically haul around 21,000 barrels of petroleum and run all over the inland waterway system. She is captained by Beau Cummins but more about him later. A crew boat runs out to the tugs with personnel and a few pallets of supplies. A ramp leads from the land to a barge which is exactly the same height above the water as the crew boat allowing easy forklift access although the forklift drops the pallets onto the boat and pushes them in. All I had to do was get into the truck driving onto the barge and then hop onto the crew boat.

We motored out to the Emily Davis that had pulled into a tributary with lower flow to drop off a full fuel barge. Coming alongside, the crew boat was firmly tied to the tug and four of us offloaded the pallets of food, paint, electrical and mechanical spares. Most of the boxes were for the galley and mess area. “You’ve got the cook’s room,” I was told, so I deposited my bag there and headed out to watch the machinations of giving another tug our full barge and re-securing the remaining two empties.

Perhaps I should have just watched but I had my life jacket on and assisted a little when I could. There is a 40mm 4:1 rope system that winches the barges back to the forequarters of the tug, a 75mm rope at the centre and lateral 25mm wire ropes each side. We only had two empties to push but fuel barges are bigger, about twice as big at 90m x 6.5m x 3m. When I was asking Rob, the engineer, I guessed a depth of 10ft but he told me with, I forget what liquid exactly, that it was 9.5ft. There are of course two types of people in the world, engineers and others. Being on the “others” side of that balance is not appealing to me. For all our faults, and the jokes about our thinking that is simply logical, we do have a way of understanding the world. Well that’s the way we look at it even though we have to accept there are other views.

The guy that I had met at the store came out to refuel and water us. Perhaps it was just my ignorance not expecting what was entirely logical, but he was driving a pusher tug with a barge in front. Everything, absolutely everything apart from the crew boats is done by barges skilfully manoeuvred by pusher tugs. Even a ferry across the river is a barge with ramps, and a pusher tug. We loaded about 50,000L of fuel, about a quarter of a tank, in about 45 minutes as night descended. A US Coastguard vessel slipped quietly up the river past us. They have lots of rules which everyone obeys and are really like the police, only on the water. It is very strange for someone like me to see the coastguard 1000km from the coast though.

My accommodation was not what I expected but a whole lot better. It is a small room but not pokey and it has its own toilet and shower. On the same level is the mess which seats nine, the galley which is like a large kitchen, but with a bit more storage area and very large fridges and freezers, and the engineer’s room opposite the cook’s room. Two levels up is the crew lounge with comfortable seats and a TV. Between that is crew, captain and pilot. Right at the top is the bridge with all the latest in electronics, commanding a great view of the barges, the river and its banks.

I spent many hours on the bridge absolutely fascinated by the skill of the captain and pilot. The captain is Beau Cummins, a big man with a pony tail to the bottom of his back. Turning sixty, he has spent his life on the water and he simply loves his work. We watched sunrises and sunsets together, shared yarns, talked bs, and agreed on what is wrong with the world. From another country, maybe very different to each other, the commonality was impressive. I even tried my Nigel joke which translated just fine.

The captain is the boss. Under him is the pilot, Larry, who is 53 with huge experience. Then there is the relief mate Matt. After a day though, Matt left to go and witness the birth of his first child. Rob, as I said, is the engineer. Billy, the tankerer, came on when Matt left. Shay and Jason are deck hands. That’s the crew, but for 2/3 of the time there is also a cook, whose room I had. This boat works 30 days on and 15 days off. There are other boats in the fleet that work 30:30.

The boat is dry, as I suspect are all boats. Thirty days straight with the same people would be hard if there was conflict. Couple that with 6hrs on, 6hrs off and it is a lifestyle completely different to what most would call normal. What probably binds everyone together is the love of what they do. From the outside it seems like it is a quiet life, not a lot of pressure, not much to do even. Then it is action stations, hard, fast, careful, skilled, until the action is over again. If something goes wrong it goes wrong fast. Shit happens sometimes. That’s why it is called shit. It is unexpected, it happens despite all safety procedures and must be dealt with. Perhaps the best example was at Natchez when I was on the river for a few days, and the support crew witnessed a barge group come apart and hit the bridge with six knots of current running. Just before the Emily Davis picked me up she caught a tug that had lost its steering and was spinning like a top down the river. No safety manual, no safety inspector, no words will be able to fix a situation like those. Experienced people will achieve extraordinary things calling on decades of knowledge and intuition and they will sort it out when shit happens.

Australia has become so ridiculous with its safety rules and regulations that individuals now are not allowed to be responsible for their own safety.  I say this thinking about an example to the contrary. In WA you can go and climb a big tree. There are three trees, the smallest of which is 58m high. Anyone can do it. It is unsupervised and there are no safety ropes. Has anyone fallen? Not to my knowledge. Why? Because they hang onto the ladder. The more fear, the tighter the grip. I almost crushed the steel rods with my fear.

These guys wear life jackets when working out on deck but they don’t tie off. They are allowed to think for themselves. I have heard Beau speak to the guys. He wants them to be safe. They want to be safe. They also want to get the job done and be allowed to think for themselves. At the top, the company wants them to be safe. In what is supposed to be the most litigous country in the world they still know how to work and have not been reduced to rule abiding robots as foist on Australian workers by CEOs scared of their own shadow.

Travelling up to Greenville the mouths of the Mississippi could be seen in the context of the groins or dikes. From a height, with the map up on the large screen, huge lines of vortices and upwellings start at the groins and spiral downstream. The boats can often be seen in what appears to be a bad part of the river, where you would expect the current to be fastest. In effect though, they are riding the swirls and whorls and actually pick up speed. It is sort of counter intuitive but it is exactly what I have done to get across large flood offtakes, the Atchapalaya, and would have used at the power station had it not been so foggy.

At Greenville Larry, the pilot was at the helm. We headed for the bank just downstream of the port. Larry nosed the front barge in and using a balance of power and rudders positioned the rig at about 40 degrees to the bank. There are two rudders each side both fore and aft of the propellors and of course the engines can be operated in sinc or separately. I followed it all until he put the front rudders hard one way with the rear rudders hard the other way. Huh? Lucky it was Larry driving and not me. It wasn’t apparent why he was positioning us here at first, but when a tug came out with our barge it fell into place. The barge came up between us and the bank. It was secured beside our rear barge, the other tug slipped back down the river and then we moved over to push from a balanced position. With now three empty barges we headed up river to enjoy the sunset.

Next day, about 150km from Memphis we were sneaking over to the right bank to look for slow water underneath the bend. A big tow was coming down the river, still out of site but showing on the computer screen. On the screen it showed the unit was sliding. To drive these things downstream is similar in operation to a high speed jet boat ride in Queenstown. Jet boat drivers, after 150hrs practice on that stretch of the river are allowed to take passengers and show them some real driving. At top speed they skim centimetres from the rock cliffs. When they come to a bend they turn before they get there and the bow points towards the rocks while the boat slides around under power. Of course it is much slower with pusher tugs and barges but it works the same. The helmsman points towards the bend and allows the boat to slide around it. With this going on we throttled back enough to let the slider pass before we got to the bend. The tow was six barges wide and five long with probably the tallest tug on the river at five stories.

In the afternoon we were running close to the left bank. Beau pointed out rough water about a kilometre ahead and slowed down to hold position. “There’s a curent running off that point,” he advised. “There’s a boat coming down and I don’t want to have that water push me out into him.” After a few minutes the boat came into view. It was another big tow. Rather than push sideways across the river though, it continued towards us until less than two kilometres away before slowly turning to its left. It came right through the area that we would have been in, only missing us by about 200m. That was not right, it should have been much further out in the river. The other helmsman apologised and Beau took it with good grace. That’s what sixty years of living can do I suppose or maybe it is just the way with these guys. One knew he had stuffed up and our man just let him wear that for himself. With a few thousand tonnes at risk it was just as well that Beau had been cautious, just as Larry had been cautious before. Was it just good luck that we were cautious? I don’t think so. It is instinct, borne out of years of experience, perhaps a really close one in a similar situation, perhaps a story about that bend. It doesn’t matter what it was but it is all about feel, what feels right, what feels necessary. That’s what experience is. How this all works and what it has to do with climate change is interesting to contemplate. These tugs use a lot of fuel but per tonne of load they are very efficient. My figures are a bit different to the figures published by the Iowa Transport Department but that is probably because I used what was applicable to my experience. The Emily Davis can push six of the bigger fuel barges but I used three for my calcs. At that it can do the job of 450 semi-trailer fuel tankers. To reach the same efficiency the semis would need to get 6.5L/100km, about the same as a very fuel efficient family sedan in Australia. Is that possible? Not with current technology, that’s for sure. Tyre wear, all the mechnical wear that goes into 450 semis also needs to be balanced against that of a barge. There is no doubt, the river is a very efficient way of moving bulk materials. Added to that is the fact that it is still, amazingly, under utilised.

What of the future? It is highy unlikely that road vehicles can be solar powered with any technology we know. The area is not great enough to provide sufficient power. Let’s look at the three barge set of the size I was on. At 4000 square metres of surface area it seems that solar panels and batteries would work. Sure, it is not ideal, that it would be immensely more expensive than diesel, but it does calculate out as feasible. Who knows what the future holds but for this engineer it is comforting to know that there are possible solutions out there.

My room was adjacent to the engine room so I was acutely aware of any changes during the night. On the first night we stopped for about three hours because of fog. The second one we stopped a few times to let downstream barges come through narrow sections. “Narrow,” they say! There was nothing approaching narrow in my book. This was still a dirty great big river.

At the bayou in the Gulf where the US section started the fishermen said the river people are special. They help. I have never seen such cooperation anywhere as I have seen on this river. Ever captain or pilot that I heard on the radio would go out of their way for another boat, or tow as they call it. When I was waiting at the supply store there was a guy from Kirby manning the radio and watching the screen. He wasn’t being paid by anyone other than his own company and the companies using the river take it in turns to supply someone to do that job. Does all this make the river people special? I think not, they are the same as everyone else but they are in an environment that encourages something that is slipping from our other societies. They are simply an example to hold up to most people in the rest of the world and say, “This is how it should be”.

Klaas: Vicksburg, half in Louisiana and the other in Mississippi. Steve is away doing his thing and we went down to Wal-Mart to do some shopping.. On the way back, just before the bridge crossing between the two States we blew a tyre, totally shredded it. The “Berm”, a concrete strip between the driving lane and the concrete edge wall just accommodates the widths of the car. .It took me an hour to unload the back of the car, uncover the tools and lower the spare tyre which is manipulated through a hole in the rear bumper to the tarmac. I managed to loosen the wheel nuts and proceeded to place the jack and found the jack, which comes with the car does not lift it. Finally a police squad car parked behind me and came to help. A very nice officer who saw the problem but he had the same jack so telephoned for more help. After twenty minutes or so an other  squad car came and a DEO (Drug Enforcements Officer) came and between them and two jacks they put on the spare. They were fantastic, courteous, friendly and life saving. Try that in good old Ozze.  The first officer works for the city and the second the state. They got their uniforms dirty, did not want remuneration, and wished us a happy stay and safe travel. Wonderful people. The tyre was US $218 The joys of travelling.  (It’s all your fault) Klaas

 From the local River Angel:  (he paddled downstream last Saturday)

That’s awesome Steve… I’m glad you got a ride.   I paddled that 22 mile section above Vicksburg last Saturday…. And holy shit…   it was swift and strong current around those rock dikes. 

You absolutely made the right decision to hitch a ride.   Hopefully it will be better for you up north. 

Take care my friend and stay safe,


Ready to go1

Supply and crew boat before loading2

Typical refueling barge3

I think that’s the Coastguard4

4:1 40 dia ropes5

75 dia centre rope6

Crew lounge. Door is at front overlooking the barges7

The helm. Chart on left with all info on boats, speeds, direction, ETA next stop, our speed, lateral speed bow and stern. Radar next to it. Larry’s right hand is on the rudder. Dead man timer 60 seconds.  9

Two fuel barges total 181m long10

This is about 10m across. Bottom centre of the swirl is the danger area11

Effect of groins, what the call dykes12

New empty coming alongside13

Delivery tug backing away14

Shay pulls the lateral 25 dia wire ropes tight15

Ready to go with three barges16

Captain Beau, Jason and Rob’s finger. I would have sworn I was taller than Beau.17

Two engineers together18

Changing crew19

Bye bye Emily Davis20

Klaas’s helpers. Pretty impressive eh.