Fleeting company's thoroughbreds keep barges sorted and ready to go

In Louisiana, Jean Lafitte is the pirate of choice, his name prominently displayed on everything from a park entrance to a tavern door. It is also the name of a towboat in the Turn Services fleet. Recently I was on Jean Lafitte, accompanied by the company's senior vice president of operations, Mike Marshall.

The captain, Jason Pitre, stood between the steering levers in the wheelhouse and deftly worked the two sticks with one hand and the throttle with his other. He occasionally nudged the sticks with his hips when his steering hand was holding the radio microphone.

Pitre was moving an empty hopper barge that had just been unloaded at the Myrtle Grove Midstream Terminal, a grain terminal operated by Associated Terminals. Pitre spun the empty barge into position and nudged it into a tier of empty barges. The deck hands, Brandon Miller and Chris Gabourel, made the barge fast to the tier, jumped back aboard and Pitre moved Jean Lafitte off to transfer another barge, loaded with feed pellets to the terminal.

"We park barges," said Marshall on a tour of the company's downriver fleeting, barge cleaning and repair operations, beginning at Myrtle Grove, La., mile 57 above Head of Passes (AHP) on the Mississippi River. In its simplest form, fleeting can be compared to a valet service or a railroad shuttling yard.

Turn Services, founded in 1990 by the company’s president, Frank Morton, has its offices in a restored building in New Orleans.

The company operates full-service fleets at three locations: Myrtle Grove, Meraux, at mile 86.5 AHP, and Welcome Fleet, at mile 163 AHP. Turn also leases two boats to Azalea Fleet at mile 113 AHP. Azalea is owned by Alter Barge Line, a Bettendorf, Ill., based company. Turn also has a barge-shifting operation at LaGen Power Plant, mile 263 AHP.

Fleeting, as defined by Charles F. Lehman in A Riverman’s Lexicon, a comprehensive and entertaining glossary of rivermen’s terminology published last year, is:

1. The act of placing a barge in a fleet area.

2. The holding of barges in a fleet area until they are called by a dock for loading or unloading, or picked up by another towboat.

3. A place for the assembly or disassembly of barges and the makeup of tows going to different destinations by different towboats.

Turn Services also has a barge-cleaning and repair operation, but the main business entails providing fleeting services to companies with large line-haul fleets such as Ingram, AEP, ACL and others.

Typically a line-haul boat with up to 40 or more barges in a tow headed downriver from St. Louis; Cairo, Ill.; or Paducah, Ky., will stop at Welcome Fleet, just downriver from the Sunshine Bridge at Donaldsonville, La. There the fleet boat, Jolly Roger, breaks up the tow and distributes the barges to various tiers or banks of barges according to destination, cargo and such. As the barges are called for, Turn’s trip boats will pick them up and take them to their destinations downriver as far as Myrtle Grove.

Conversely, barges, empties or loads, are tripped upriver to Welcome Fleet and made up into tows for the up-bound line-haul boats.

Eleven of Turn’s fleet boats range from 1,000 to 1,500 hp. Two boats, Citation and Affirmed, built in 2007 at C&C Boat Works in Belle Chasse, La., are 2,200 hp. Ten of the 13 boats in the Turn fleet are named after thoroughbreds that won horse racing’s coveted Triple Crown. In addition to Jean Lafitte, two other towboats, Black Beard and Jolly Roger, all acquired from Marvin Dorr’s Deep South Towing fleet in 2007, round out the pirate theme.

“We had such a good relationship with Marvin Dorr that we’re keeping the names, at least for now,” said Marshall. “Also these boats, after a few years, establish their own presence on the river.”

The trip boats are Black Beard; Citation, the Triple Crown winner in 1948; Whirlaway, the winner in 1941; and Affirmed, the winner in 1978. Gallant Fox, the winner in 1930, shifts coal barges at the LaGen Power Plant.

At Myrtle Grove, Sir Barton, the Triple Crown winner in 1919, is the lead boat, with Jean Lafitte assisting. The lead boat captain organizes the barges into their various tiers according to cargo, destination, customer, etc., so that the fleet operates smoothly with minimal confusion and effort when locating and digging out a barge to make up a tow.

“The lead boat captain has got to understand the capacities of his fleet,” said Marshall. “It’s his real estate, and he gets to know it like his backyard. The lead boat captain has to let the dispatcher know what is possible and what will cause a mess.”

The dispatcher, concerned with the larger picture and understanding the regular customer’s needs, takes into account the position of the line-haul boats and where the trip boats are, in order to move the barges from the destination fleets to where they need to go for further transport. “But the lead boat captain has to give the dispatcher the information that he needs in order to direct the trip boats with intelligence.”

The Myrtle Grove fleet is a spar barge setup whereby a string of retired barges is held off the shore by a three-pile cluster every 180 feet. Shore wires hold the barges tight to the spar. The freight barges, both loads and empties, are made fast to the string of spar barges in tiers or blocks.

“It’s not a cheap setup but it gives you a lot of security,” said Marshall. “We have very severe weather down here.”

Wind is an issue at Myrtle Grove because of its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. It doesn’t take an Ivan-, Katrina- or Gustav-strength hurricane to cause a stir in the fleet. Low marsh and wetland shrub provide little protection from a strong wind. And the wetland is giving way to the encroaching Gulf waters more and more each year.

“When there is a hurricane coming up in the Gulf we can get everything out of mile 57 quickly,” said company president Morton. “We have the couplings for electricity and plumbing set up so that we can disconnect everything in 10 minutes or less.” The company had Citation and Affirmed built, in part, to insert more horsepower into their hurricane plan.

“We needed enough horsepower so that if we are late getting out, for whatever reason, we have enough power so that we wouldn’t be blown around and up against the bank,” said Morton. “You want enough power to get it done safely.”

Later that morning we visited the Meraux Fleet, 30 miles up the river from Myrtle Grove, where Turn has a fleet on both banks of the river.

At the west bank fleet, located near the mouth of the Algiers Canal in Orleans Parish, the crew was repainting Dustin D, a towboat that Turn recently acquired from D&S Marine. Once the boat is dressed out in Turn’s color scheme, Count Fleet, a remarkable Triple Crown winner in 1943, will grace the nameplate.

The west bank fleet is a spar-barge setup. Omaha, the assist boat named for the 1935 winner, was working the fleet. On the east bank, Turn employs a shore-wire setup, whereby a string of retired barges, made fast to the bank, provides moorage for the freight barges.

Capt. Kerry Cunningham, at the wheel of Risen Star, one of four launch boats that Turn has named after Louisiana Derby winners, ferried us across to the east bank. War Admiral, named for the 1937 winner, was waiting for an Associated Terminals crane to fill a hopper barge with urea from the hold of the cargo ship Osprey 1.

“This is a feast-or-famine business, and we’re always waiting for the bottom to fall out,” said Marshall. “We always try to locate our fleets to where the activity is. Myrtle Grove is good because it has the coal and grain facilities. Meraux is good because it is at the intersection of the Algiers Canal and the river. A fleet always does well at an intersection.”

Marshall went on to explain that the efficiency of the boats is in keeping them running. “We are a ton-mile factory, billing by the ton load both ways. Our dispatchers are always contacting the customers to see if they’ve got empties or cargo that needs a ride, or can be better positioned for a future move.”

Upriver, just past New Orleans at mile 113, Azalea Fleet consists of two miles of berths on the west bank. The downriver half of the fleet is a shore-wire fleet and the upper mile is an anchor fleet consisting of four blocks of barges. Turn charters Assault, 1946 Triple Crown winner, and Seattle Slew, winner in 1977, to Alter Barge Lines.

As the name implies, an anchor fleet is a string of barges anchored some distance off the bank. The freight barges are made fast to either side of a string of retired barges anchored with 3-inch chain to I-beams sunk into the river’s bottom.

“We can work off either side, so it is not as labor intensive as a shore-wire or spar-barge system,” said Larry Childress, Alter’s general manager of Azalea Fleet. “We try to keep the different cargos together: wheat, urea, coal, steel. Any barges that are on hold, we keep together out of the way.”

Although more secure against wind, a shore-wire and spar-barge system is a little more difficult for the fleet boats, which must work barges out of one side of a block.

On the way back to Turn’s offices, Marshall explained that the company tightened up considerably during a lean stretch at the end of 2009.

“But we got through without losing any of our people. We made the decision not to let anyone go because we wanted to be in a good position when things came back. It was a good move because the lean period didn’t last that long. And last year was a good one for us."

By Professional Mariner Staff