I did take a break today to see a bit more of the town and visited the Baton Rouge art and science museum and planetarium. It was a nice museum and I saw an interesting video (projected in 360 degrees on the dome ceiling of the planetarium) about underwater dinosaurs. As big as those animals were it’s interesting to think that the biggest known animal the earth has ever seen is alive right now. The Blue Whale and it’s a mammal besides.
After the museum I walked up the levy bank to the Ingram Barge Company docks to see if I could get a shot at the main goal of my day…A chance to meet a tow boat captain, and if I was lucky a tour on one of their boats. I had checked in the night before and the security guard said that the shift change was at 4:00 and that’d be my best chance. So at 4:00 I arrived and approached the first two guys I saw coming off the docks. One of them turned out to be partly in charge of that facility. Unfortunately, because of post 911 Homeland Security regulations, there is no way I could get on one of the boats. However Tommy Grantham turned out to be a super guy and was very willing to tolerate all my questions. I chatted with him for over an hour then he introduced me to the mysterious man in the black hat that even the security guard had told me to look for. The man they all call “Cowboy”.
When Tommy introduced me as a guy that’s kayaking down the river Cowboy instantly asked if I was the crazy guy that came through the other night. I replied cautiously “Yep, that’s me.” and Cowboy just shook his head. Tow operators pretty much all think that kayakers and canoeists are crazy. Like Cowboy said “Crazy, not stupid… there’s a difference.”
After paddling for 1000 miles on the river and seeing hundreds of tows going up and down with me I just wanted to know what how tow operators would like us (in our tiny boats) to do to make their jobs easier when interacting with us. From talking to Cowboy what it pretty much boils down to is that for much of the time they can’t see us. We don’t show up on their radar and there is an enormous “blind spot” in front of a tow (several hundred feet long) where they can’t see what’s on the river in front of them. If you’re crossing in front of a tow, up to a quarter mile away, they may not be able to see you. All they know is that you’re out there somewhere and that they’re moving toward you fast. It makes them nervous, kind of like the mouse under the elephants foot scenario. In a perfect world for a tow operator, we wouldn’t be out there. Cowboy even said it though;
“I know why you all’er doin’ it, for the adventure and everything. But you’re crazy. Crazy, not stupid….”
On bends in the river, small boats are of exceptional concern for tow operators. They have two main techniques for making a bend in the river. Both require a lot of room to maneuver and can put either end of the tow very close to shore. I saw the tows take up a lot of the river but at flood stage like I’ve seen it there has always been room to spare. At lower water the ends of the tow and often the back of the tow boat can end up “up in the willas” along the bank. Of course depending on which technique the tow captain is using to make the turn will determine which bank he is closest to. If they know where you are they can adjust a bit to accommodate you if you can’t get out of the way. What it boils down to is communication. They would love to know where you are and just exactly what it is you’re planning to do, and to be able to tell you what they are going to do. It’s a whole lot easier for a paddler to hang out above a turn and let the tow clear out than it is for them to move for us. I carried a VHF all the way down the river with me and never found occasion to turn it on. Because the river was so wide I never felt threatened by the tows. I know now that I probably should have turned it for some of the tight turns just to let the tows know I was there and was staying out of their way. I’ll definitely be using the radio a lot over the next two days on the river where I’ll be seeing more traffic than I have on the entire river combined.
I had heard stories about the crews being stuck on the boats for months. I learned that it’s not true, the crew schedules vary from company to company and route to route. But the long haulers can work anywhere from 12 to 28 days on the tow followed by a bunch of time off. The companies generally have a home “port” where the crews must report then are driven or flown to where the tow boat is waiting to do a crew change. The outgoing crew is then driven or flown back to the home port. A tow boat company is certainly not a small time thing.
As I had guessed after detecting the smell of bacon and eggs coming from the kitchen of a passing tow boat (of course after I ate another bowl of oat meal) that the crews are very well fed. Tommy laughed and said that they’re actually trying to change the culture on the boats a bit. As you might expect meals are brought to the captain or pilot steering the tow so he can keep working. Of course he’s not exactly doing jumping jacks up in the wheel house so he pretty much stands around and eats all day. Consequently tow boat captains tend to carry a little more weight around the mid section than they probably should. Crew sizes vary but on a big tow you can expect to see a captain, pilot, engineer, a half dozen deck hands, and of course the cook. Sometimes a couple more deck hands are added to work fill in shifts when things get busy. They generally work six hour watches followed by six hours off. There isn’t much for the crew to do once the tows are assembled so much of their time is spent cleaning the boat. It shows too because almost every tow boat on the river is spotless, they are absolutely gleaming bright.
I was amazed to hear exactly how the “switching” operation that this facility operates actually works. Depending on where the barges are that need to be shuffled out of the raft are located, very often the big tow never stops moving. They just slow down and the smaller tow boats pull what needs to be pulled (while moving) and the big tow continues on…. Time is money in the shipping industry I guess.
Check out this link to the Ingram Barge Company web site it should go to a cargo comparison feature. It’s amazing just how much those barges can haul.