Stretch on the River
By Margaret Graham Neeson, 91 years young, Marine Parts Express
Given a reasonably good day on any of the country’s reasonably-sized waterways, the right of way will be shared by three sorts of craft: the holidaying pleasure boats, the industrious fishing boats, and the long, squat boat-and-barge carriers. In fact, these latter can be found on any sort of day, or night too, for that matter, on all but the most non-navigable waters. They are the steady, plodding workboats of America, delivering bulk cargoes—wood, coal, oil, gravel, steel—to plants and towns, at one-third the cost of rail transportation and one-seventeenth the cost of delivery by truck. Their only extra price fits the rivers, canals, coasts and lakes they travel—time.
There are different sorts of carriers, as yachtsmen will have observed. First, there are the chunky coastal tugboats with short blunt bows and round sterns, low freeboards and shallow drafts. They half push, half tug large ships in and out of harbors and into their docks, and they also tow short strings of barges up and down the coast and in and out of harbors.
Fellows to the coastal/harbor tugboats are the ocean going tugboats, twice as long (an average of one hundred twenty-five feet), deeper draft, and with higher power (fifteen hundred to three thousand horsepower compared to around one thousand). These go longer distances with longer tows, the roughness of the ocean and the tendency of the barges to yaw and break loose, alone limiting the size of the tow.
Lastly, there are the riverboats, known as towboats, squarish craft with high bumpers built on flat bows, with their pilot houses located far forward and their sterns flat and low. The towboat doesn’t tow or pull its barges, it pushes them, with an accuracy and flexibility that its ocean going cousins envy. And with the usual vagueness of nautical English, the towboat calls its string of pushed-ahead barges, anywhere from five to fifty in number, its “tow.”
Having spent many an hour watching the tugboats pull their tows up and down the Maine coast, and many another hour admiring the riverboats ease their loads through the locks, an urge came over us to ride on a towboat. Fortunately, through the cooperation of the Dravo Corporation, a notable manufacturer of towboats and barges, and Edward Kerr, manager of Dravo’s Keystone Sand and Gravel Division, a consistent user of them, it was so arranged. One cloudy day last spring, we happily did what Bissell calls in his book on river boating “a stretch on the river.”
Our river was the Ohio and our towboat, which we boarded at East Liverpool, was the Freedom, built at Neville Island, down river from Pittsburg, in 1947. She is 127 feet l.o.a., 26 feet beam, draws around nine feet, and has twin diesels that give her close to one thousand horsepower. Her propeller is enclosed in a directing Kort nozzle, and she is equipped with two sets of rudders, one for steering, and one for flanking. She lacks the speed and some of the design of the newer boats (and some of the refinements, as her crew pointed out, such as air conditioning and television), but she is still efficient.
The Freedom’s tow that day was fifteen barges, standard Keystone length as this number can lock through the upper river six hundred foot locks without “doubling.” (The newer Ohio River locks, by the way, are twelve hundred feet.) Each barge was around 150 feet l.o.a., 27 feet beam and was loaded with sand or gravel dredged from the river bottom and to be delivered to various clients up the Ohio and Monongahela rivers. They were tied together, fore and aft and side to side, in rows of four (“a wide tow is better to handle than a long one”), except for the last row, which had only three. This provided an open space into which the towboat fitted as it took its load through a lock.
All but two of the Freedom’s barges were deck barges, simply constructed box hulls with heavily-plated decks. Two were hoppers, double-skinned, open-topped boxes with inner shells, sometimes given covers for dry cargo. A third type of barge to be seen on the river and used for wet or liquid cargoes is the tank, that is, single- or double-skinned barges built like tanks, or hopper or deck barges fitted out with cylindrical tanks.
Tow boating, as was mentioned, is slow and except for now and then (in the winter when it’s icy and dangerous, or when the river is flooding, or when locking is difficult and the pilot wonders “how’s she going to set,” or when there is a series of tricky deliveries, “drops,” or pick-ups) it’s apt to be dull.
The crew aboard the Freedom, headed by Captain Owen Medley and his co-pilot, Hugh Smith, (both come from Paducah, Kentucky, and have a joint total of fifty years on the river) work six hours on, six off, divided into forward and aft watches, with only the cook and maid, women who work the three mealtimes, breaking this rule. Everyone gets a day off for a day worked, alternate weeks for the crew, alternate twenty-eight days for the pilots. This gives time for griping, both ashore and aboard, and for pointing out which watch worked harder, and for thinking of taking a more interesting “line” trip down to New Orleans, and quitting “the pools,” referring to the sections of water by each dam and lock. But pool work is easy and lucrative, and the crew like each other, so they stay aboard the Freedom.
A special gripe directed at us was the gay and careless way of the summer boatmen who seem to cover whole sections of the rivers like water skippers.
“You can’t bring twelve thousand tons to a dead stop very quickly,” as the captain grumbled. “Explain that to them.”
“Those boats give you fits,” added Smith, “they’re out of sight under the forward barge’s bow, and you can’t even see them. Tell them that.”
So we promised to explain and tell, and thus ended our adventure in river boating.
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March 15, 2010 / JD Neeson / 0
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Margaret Graham Neeeson
Margaret Graham Neeson
Marine Parts Express