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Locking in Louisiana: Strong currents, stronger patience

Jun 1, 2018 03:05 PM
Tank barges guided by the pushboat Elizabeth M. Robinson approach Port Allen Lock connecting the Mississippi River with the Port Allen Route in Louisiana. The towboat Stephen L. assists on the port bow of the lead barge.

Tank barges guided by the pushboat Elizabeth M. Robinson approach Port Allen Lock connecting the Mississippi River with the Port Allen Route in Louisiana. The towboat Stephen L. assists on the port bow of the lead barge.

On a March morning, Elizabeth M. Robinson, a Genesis Marine pushboat with two 300-foot tank barges, was queuing on the Mississippi River for Port Allen Lock. The previous night, the tow had taken on a cargo of carbon black from a terminal on the west bank, just above a Mississippi River bridge at Baton Rouge, La.

Once the barges were loaded, pilot Brett Orgeron moved the tow south of the bridge and eased the lead barge against the east bank at College Point Light to await the call from the lock. Orgeron settled in for what proved to be a long delay.

The tow was bound for North Bend at mile 112 on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The tow would lock down at Port Allen, enter a canal called the Port Allen Route, lock down at Bayou Sorrel, thread the three bridges and confused currents at Morgan City, turn right into the GICW and proceed west 13 miles to complete the 76-mile trip.

The river was 8 feet above flood stage and rising. Its strong currents were complicating navigation, its litter of floating debris searching for boat wheels to foul.

Capt. Tom Giaise, on the forward watch, was a picture of patience in the waiting game. At 0800 hours, the Elizabeth M. Robinson tow was eighth in line for the lock.

Elias Lara, a tankerman aboard Elizabeth M. Robinson, heads for shore to obtain a new starter motor for a tank heater on one of the barges.

On watch that afternoon, Orgeron was taking in the view from the front window: the flooded berm of the levee and Tiger Stadium, the legendary “Death Valley,” home of the LSU Tigers. Louisiana-born Orgeron is an avid fan of the football team.

The call from the lock came just before the watch changed, ending an 18-hour wait. Orgeron backed the tow off the bank and started easing it across the river.

When it was about halfway across, Giaise slid into the helmsman’s seat and took over the sticks, employing the steering levers to navigate the strong currents churned up by the swollen river. When locking in such conditions, an assist boat, locally called a shadow boat, is mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The shadow boat, Stephen L., a Triple S Marine pushboat from Morgan City, eased up to the bow of the tow and put a line up, adding 1,200 horsepower to the maneuver. Tankerman Elias Lara and tankerman trainee Phillip Hogan were at the bow of the tow, on lookout and relaying the distances between the barge and the long wall.

“First I focus on the forebay, and then I focus on making the lock,” Giaise said. “I don’t go in hot — 1 or 1.5 mph until we get in shape with the long wall.” To make the point, several feet of freshly damaged structural members could be seen along the wall.

Capt. Tom Giaise lines up Elizabeth M. Robinson and its two barges to transit Port Allen Lock. “First I focus on the forebay, and then I focus on making the lock,” says the 15-year towboat veteran. “I don’t go in hot — 1 or 1.5 mph until we get in shape with the long wall.”

Giaise continued in the lee of the wall, high up into the reversed current of the eddy in the forebay. With a little assist from the eddy’s current, he began making the turn toward the lock entrance. The shadow boat employed its head line to keep the tow off the wall while Giaise used propulsion to control the stern. By engaging the outside engine in forward and the inside engine in reverse, and with the rudder hard over, he twisted the stern into the forebay.

When the tow was in shape with the long wall and out of the current, Stephen L. again employed the head line, moving the tow ahead. At the lock’s short wall, the shadow boat peeled off to await the next tow in line for the lock. Giaise guided the tow through the gate and entered the Port Allen Lock chamber at 1740, then tied off to the wall.

At 1820, Elizabeth M. Robinson exited the lock and entered the Port Allen Route, 37 feet below the level of the Mississippi River. The early evening light was fading fast as Giaise settled in for the run to the Bayou Sorrel Lock. The talk drifted to the perils of navigating high water on the Mississippi.

“Safety is the chief concern,” he said. “Get everybody home safe.”

Pat Rossi illustration

The dangers of downstreaming

• In downstreaming, a fleet towboat moves upriver against the current (1) before turning around (2) to face up to a barge (3) and remove it from the tow (4) by backing up. If the towboat meets the barge at an angle and the current is strong enough, the boat may become pinned sideways against the barge and capsize.

• The American Waterways Operators and U.S. Coast Guard studied downstreaming in the mid-1990s and later issued a report with operating recommendations. Between 1992 and 1996, the study attributed 1.6 towboat sinkings per year to downstreaming. Many occurred during swift river conditions and with towboats of less than 1,350 horsepower.

Giaise has 15 years of experience on towboats, the past six of them as high captain and the past three at the helm of Elizabeth M. Robinson. He explained that swift currents and eddies are among the chief concerns for a helmsman. Debris is another.

“It can get caught up in your wheels and cause you to lose propulsion,” he said.

Tankerman trainee Phillip Hogan uses a cheater bar to cinch the wires connecting the towboat and its barges.

Downstreaming to a dock or fleet and making up to a tow are rife with unwanted possibilities. “High water makes the Mississippi River a dangerous place to navigate,” Giaise said. “It becomes more treacherous and not so forgiving. If you aren’t scared of it, you should be.”

Upstreaming has its own set of potential problems. A tow can stall, lose headway and back downstream. An upstream eddy can catch the head of the tow and, when the lateral slide is stronger than headway, turn the tow 180 degrees. Giaise cites 81 Mile Point near Morgan City as a prime example of a dangerous upstream eddy.

“Why put yourself in grief? You don’t want any crew walking on the outside of the barge and you want to make sure all of the watertight doors are shut,” he said.

To contend with the caprice of high water, a helmsman has to be cognizant of the tow’s headway, the tow’s size, the boat’s horsepower and the river conditions.

“You want to have control of the tow when nature is working against you,” Giaise said. “When approaching locks at high water, it is critical not to get the tow on the bad side of the short wall. If you commit your stern too much, you can lose it and you get caught up in the draw from the dam. Everything in the water is going toward the locks. Where the current goes, that’s where everything goes — man overboard, debris, the tow. It’s very important to learn to read the river. I’ve learned a great deal from the veterans.”

Propulsion for the 110-foot pushboat is provided by a pair of Caterpillar 3512 diesels linked to Twin Disc gears and 88-by-65-inch fixed-pitch propellers. Two John Deere 99-kW gensets deliver auxiliary power.

Even though the tow had been waiting to access the Port Allen Lock for 18 hours, Lara, Hogan and the other tankerman trainee aboard, Ra’naud Adams, were busy. Their duties involved deck work and maintenance on the vessel, but as their titles implied, they also manned the heated tank barges. The cargo was carbon black, a raw material that provides high flexibility and abrasion resistance in rubber products.

Keeping the tank heaters running is a critical part of the job. The carbon black is heated and kept at a steady temperature to preserve its specifications and reduce viscosity, which makes the oil easier to transfer. When the tank barges are carrying product and the heaters are running, the tankermen check that they are functioning properly every hour.

The previous day, the starter motor failed on one of the heaters. Lara, who is also the engineer aboard, fired up both heaters by using the working starter motor from the other barge’s heater. Once through Port Allen Lock, the crew launched the pushboat’s skiff and Lara made for shore to exchange the failed starter for a new one from a vendor waiting on the bank.

A short list of a tankerman duties includes making up the tow, regularly checking and cinching the barge coupling wires, conducting pre-inspections of equipment prior to docking, transferring product and checking the barge machinery fuel levels.

In recent years, Genesis Marine has added 18 newly built vessels, 16 of them from the John Bludworth Shipyard in Corpus Christi, Texas. The program was undertaken to upgrade, modernize and standardize the Genesis fleet. The vessels include the 84-by-32-foot, 2,680-horsepower class, and the 110-by-32-foot, 3,200-horsepower class.

Tankerman trainee Ra’naud Adams checks the fuel level in tanks designated for barge machinery. Although a tow may be idle while awaiting a lock transit, the tankermen seldom are.

Elizabeth M. Robinson, at 3,150 hp, is included in the latter class. The pushboat is powered by two Caterpillar 3512 diesel engines coupled to Twin Disc reduction gears at a 7.01:1 ratio, turning 88-by-65-inch, stainless-steel fixed-pitch propellers. Electrical service is provided by two 99-kW generator sets driven by two John Deere diesel engines. All of the vessels have two steering rudders and four flanking rudders.

As well as designing and building a pushboat with good power and handling characteristics, the shipyard pays close attention to the custom joinery and finishing of the vessels.

“We make the living areas as comfortable and quiet as possible because crewmembers will be living on the boat for weeks at a time,” said Bludworth President Gasper D’Anna. “The design of the hull and the structure within the hull reduces vibration. Along with well-placed sound-reduction coating and insulation, the living areas are quiet and comfortable.”

“The Bludworth design is not only a solid, good working boat, it is beautiful as well,” said Shane Bird, director of operations for Genesis. “But the big advantage is the standardization throughout our fleet, minimizing operational, maintenance and repair costs. When catching one for the first time, the crews are almost instantly familiar with them, as they are essentially the same boat.”

Just before last light, Lara returned in the skiff with the new starter motor for the heater and redundancy was restored. As the banks receded into darkness, Giaise switched on the Carlisle & Finch searchlights. At 2045, he made the Morley Railroad Bridge and proceeded onward. Orgeron then took the helm and nudged the tow up against the bank at 2345, two and a half miles above Bayou Sorrel Lock. The tow was 13th in line to turn the lock. The long night’s waiting until morning began.

First light, veiled by a soft fog lifting off the water, arrived with Elizabeth M. Robinson as the 10th tow in the queue. Giaise predicted the wait would last through the day and into the night. The bridges and currents at Morgan City would have to wait for another day and another story.

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