From Baton Rouge to New Orleans: Towboating in the “War Zone”

Many towboaters in Louisiana call the 100-mile stretch of Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans the “War Zoneâ€� for the heavy traffic that crowds the waters there.

Lead hand Edward Green heads out to check lashings of the 35 barges in the tow. Facing page, Chief Engineer Ken Danna with one of his 20-cylinder EMDs. The boat can handle up to 42 barges arranged in six strings of seven barges stretching 1,400 feet ahead.
   Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

A low bridge at Baton Rouge defines the city as the head of navigation for deep-sea ships. Above the bridge the river is maintained at 9 or 10 feet for barge traffic, while below the bridge a 45-foot channel is maintained. Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a great deal of the riverbank is lined with docks. Additional mooring buoys are provided for ships to lighter cargo in the stream. All of this is supported by dozens of smaller towboats moving one or two barges at a time to and from docks, ships and the fleets along the riverbanks.

The fleets are the points of dispatch for individual barges as they move to and from the big tows. The fleets consist of huge rafts of barges moored to a set of pilings along the levee with road access and usually an office barge with a ramp to the shore. For the big 5,000- to 10,000-hp towboats that typically handle tows of 30 to 49 barges, the job is to keep the barges in the stream. The smaller towboats in the 1,000- to 2,000-hp range take individual barges to and from the big tows as they hold up in mid-stream opposite the shoreside fleets.

For towboaters working in the heavy traffic of the War Zone, deep-sea ships and other towboats are a constant concern. Capt. Lonnie Sanchez, a laconic Cajun and pilot on the American Commercial Barge Lines'(ACBL) J. Russell Flowers, pointed out, “When we are down here, we know all of the professional mariners and the ship pilots, but these little boats from the canals want to cut corners. Having that piece of paper (license) doesn’t make you qualified. It means that you know the rules, but many of them don’t know the proper etiquette for working down here on the river.â€�

As he said this, a small towboat appeared out of a side channel and came down on the tow without calling on the VHF radio to indicate a one- or two-bell meeting. It did not amount to a crisis, but it did illustrate Sanchez’s concerns.

Sanchez and Capt. Dennis Williams, both with several decades in the wheelhouses of towboats, share the piloting duties aboard J. Russell Flowers, one of ACBL’s three “turn boatsâ€� working their tows below Baton Rouge. These turn boats work up and down the challenging waters of the “War Zoneâ€� taking tows up river to meet the line-haul boats that will take over above Baton Rouge. There the turn boats take over or “turnâ€� the down-bound tows from the line-haul boats. Its owners rate the 168-by-50-foot J. Russell Flowers as a 7,200 hp-class boat. While not the most powerful on the river, the boat has what it takes to buck the river current with a tow of forty-two 195-by-35-foot barges arranged seven long and six wide. This may vary depending on the mix of loaded and light barges, as well as the river conditions.

Southbound, or downriver, tows for ACBL will be up to 35 barges arranged five long and seven wide. “Some companies come down six long,â€� explained Williams, “but then the weight is further out, and it moves your pivot point out. You slide around that point and the river coming down is hitting six lengths instead of five lengths, and it pushes that much harder. The bridges limit your width, but the length comes into play when steering.â€�

Simple arithmetic shows that northbound there can be up to 1,400 feet of tow out in front of the wheelhouse. In January J. Russell Flowers made up to a tow that had been put together at the Harahan Fleet just above New Orleans on the east bank of the river near the Huey P. Long Bridge at Mile 107.

Mileage on the Mississippi is measured from the Head of the Passes near the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans at about Mile 100. Baton Rouge, head of deep-sea navigation, is at Mile 235.

I met J. Russell Flowers at Mile 150. Here at Armont, the next ACBL fleet upriver from Harahan, more barges were being added to the tow.

When Williams moved the tow out into the stream and began pushing upriver, it was well into his evening 6-to-12 watch. By the time Sanchez came up to relieve him, wisps of fog were coming ever more consistently between the brush-covered banks. Some boats were talking on the VHF about finding a bank to lay up against until the fog lifted. Unlike the open sea, a towboat’s radar range is severely limited by the twists and turns of the river. In many places, where a down-bound tow will require the whole channel width, it is customary for up-bound tows to wait for the southbound to clear the bend before proceeding. This is a challenging practice at the best of times, but add enough fog that you can only see out to the first barge in your tow and movement on the river becomes impractical. By 2315, when J. Russell Flowers got up above Donaldsonville at Mile 174 and visibility was down to 200 feet, Williams decided to put the port head of the tow into an empty stretch of riverbank.

When Williams came back on watch at 0600, the fog was just beginning to thin along the river. While watching the crew work their way among the barges to check the lashings, he observed, “That is the backbone of the turn boat — that deck crew. It takes a special bunch to stay down here, especially in the summer when the temperature hits 90° with humidity to match and all that hot steel on the barges. You’ll find a lot of these crew on the line-haul boats that bring the tows down here have worked on the turn boats but don’t want to come back.â€�

The six-man deck crew on J. Russell Flowers included Andrew Ross, a big man who grew up in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta; he served as senior lead on the aft or mate’s watch. Edward Green was lead on the forward or captain’s watch. Each of these men works with two deck hands to do the routine checking of lashings and pumping barges. In addition, they go out on the tow at each fleet to work with the crews from the fleet boats to constantly subtract and add barges to the tow. The work with the heavy ratchets and wires is never ending with constant danger from shifting barges and snaking wires.

By the time a tow gets down the river from St. Louis or Cairo, Ill., to Baton Rouge, it will usually have some leaking barges from ice on the upper river in winter and groundings in summer. The towboat carries a dozen or more 2- and 3-inch portable pumps that can be carried out on the tow. Some are diesel for safe use on chemical barges, but there are plans to replace all the remaining gasoline pumps with diesel for added safety.

The Harahan and Armont fleets have floating dry docks to service the barges. If a leak is severe, the crew climbs down into the barge and drives the thin edge of a cedar shingle into the crack to hold out the water until they reach a fleet where maintenance crews can do the repairs.

As the morning light thinned the fog, the tow joined others pushing upriver. With a relatively small tow, there was little fleet work throughout the day. When Sanchez came back on watch there was time for talk of growing up on the water and the bayou fishing camp near his home at Thibodaux on Bayou Lafourche.

“When I’m off the boat, I am either fishing or hunting,â€� he said.

He also spoke of the challenges of moving a tow upriver. While not as dangerous as the downriver voyage can be, it demands a particular set of boat-handling skills. The main point is to watch the set of the river current and steer into it. In January the gauge at Baton Rouge showed only 11 feet of water. At flood stage the depth will be 35 feet. “We like at least 15 feet of water at Baton Rouge,â€� Sanchez said. “With higher water, we can cut corners and take other routes.â€�

At 1600 Sanchez was still on the steering sticks as the tow came up to Manchac Bend, a narrow horseshoe corner below Missouri Bend at Mile 215. As the tow entered the slack water — Sanchez called it “duckâ€� water — near the point, the speed over ground increased to 7.6 mph. Twenty minutes later he was pushing into the main channel current and the speed dropped to 5.5 mph. These speeds seem painfully slow until one recalls that each barge holds as much bulk cargo as 15 railcars or 58 semi trucks. The cost efficiencies of moving freight by barge are becoming ever more attractive.

Williams was back on the sticks as the tow came up on the Lower Baton Rouge Bridge at Mile 229 where a cruise ship chartered by the federal government still housed people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Forty-five minutes later Williams moved the tow through the center span of the three-span Upper Baton Rouge Bridge at Mile 234. Because the down-bound tow would have made a 90° right turn around Wilkinson Point just above the bridge, Williams explained, when he is down bound he prefers the east span when the gauge reads less than 15 feet. If it read over 15 feet, then he would generally take the west span. He added that he could “steerâ€� the tow through the east span, but in the higher water with a stronger current pushing around the bend he would “floatâ€� it through the west span.

ACBL’s Tiger Fleet spreads two and a half miles along the east bank, just a couple of miles above the upper bridge, with a smaller fleeting area opposite on the west bank.

Williams had been in touch by VHF with the boat whose down-bound tow he would take over or “turn.â€�

The 9,000-hp W.J. Barta had brought its tow hundreds of miles down the Mississippi, and it was now just above the fleet. They arranged for the northbound tow to be secured to the east bank fleet where J. Russell Flowers would leave it, while W.J. Barta held the down-bound tow along the west bank.

Working the sticks and the throttles, Williams laid his tow alongside the barges in the fleet as gently as a mother putting her baby into a crib. When I commented, Williams smiled, “Well there is a little current that sets down on this side. I had to learn that. The first couple of times I came and banged them in here pretty hard.â€�

These are the things that separate a freshly ticketed master from a true river pilot. There was only one barge to drop at the Tiger Fleet and several to be made up for the northbound tow, but W.J. Barta would wait on that. Directing his deck crew to take the face wires off the northbound tow, Williams ran the towboat across the river and pushed up against the head of the southbound tow. His deck crew put up the tow’s running lights while a fleet boat pushed against the starboard side of the tow, holding it tight against the fleet barges. Then J. Russell Flowers traded places with W.J. Barta, which would push on the head of the tow, while J. Russell Flowers’ crew put up the face wires on the tail end.

As Sanchez came up to the wheelhouse at 2330 to take the aft watch at midnight, it was time to start back downriver pushing a 35-barge tow of 33 loads and two empties. In the engine room Chief Engineer Ken Danna had been fussing over his 20-cylinder EMDs, worrying about an unfamiliar sound. “I thought it was a cracked head, but it could just be air in the system, so I will just keep watching to see if it gets worse,â€� he said.

Danna has all the characteristics of a great engineer. He is possessive in his love of the machinery and knows every woof and huff his EMDs make. He can and does change out a cylinder pack when necessary. He has been with ACBL for about 10 years, but started working back in 1977 as an oiler on gravel dredges. When he isn’t worrying over his engines, he is washing down the engine room or repainting a corner of his immaculate territory.

Danna is keen on ACBL’s 100-point checklist that goes from the top of the wheelhouse to the lower engine parts. “It is a good idea,â€� he said. “Plus I have daily, weekly and monthly maintenance schedules.â€�

By 0100 wisps of fog were again layering on the river. Sanchez took the tow down from Baton Rouge and around Missouri Bend, but then the fog set in hard. He could not see the tow, but there was no open place on the bank, so he took the tow around the hairpin of Manchac Bend with the radar before he found a safe place at 0410.

It was 0830 before Williams got the tow underway again through wisps and patches of fog. The watch passed with his memory making up for the parts of the river that the fog would not allow him to see. The radar image disappeared at each bend as its electronic eye was blocked from seeing around the endless serpentine twists in the river.

Sanchez was back on watch just after noon as the tow neared Mile 182 and the long easy sweep to the right of Philadelphia Point. Coming out of that bend, the tow approached the tight 40° angle to the left of 81-Mile Point, named in the river logic of shortening names. Sanchez explained that at higher water he would “flankâ€� this bend, but at this low-water stage he could “steerâ€� around it. Demonstrating the “steeringâ€� method, he used his rudders so that the angle of the tow to the river current matched the angle of the river’s flow below the point so that the head of the tow “shaves the willowsâ€� on the tip of 81-Mile Point. “You want to come right tight under the point so that the current doesn’t set you down on the other side of the river,â€� he explained, as the full length of the tow slid sideways in the current. “But you want to stay out of the duck (dead) water below the point, although there isn’t much current or back eddy at this low water.â€�

Drifting down on the corner with 40° full rudder, the engines in idle and the current pushing on the port upstream side of the tow, Sanchez bided his time. The whole tow slid sideways and the head passed the point on the left descending bank. Once the tow was nearly lined up to proceed on down the river, Sanchez held the rudders over and pushed the big chrome throttles up to get the EMDs turning their full 878 rpm. With a 3:1 reduction, the towboat’s 117-inch wheels in nozzles bit into the silted waters and pushed the tow ahead until the boat had made the turn and was past the sweeping current of the bend. That is how you steer the bend.

If the water was higher, Sanchez would line up his tow at a very different angle. In this case he would back down on the engines, working the flanking rudders until the tow was dead in the water at a 45° angle to the river current with the current pushing on the starboard or upstream side of the tow. Then, holding the stern in the slower water just above and near the point, he would wait while the faster current in the wider sweep of the bend drifted the head around. He would then neatly pivot on the stationary towboat until the tow was lined up heading downstream, at which point he could pour on the power and push on down the river.

Both approaches require a level of confidence on the part of the pilot. A little later, fog set onto the river again, but the tow continued down river. Sanchez checked on the radio for other traffic until the boat and its tow rounded College Point and came down on the fleet at Armont where Williams would take over the watch, and they would leave 23 loaded barges and continue on downriver with 10 loads and two empties.

Williams summed up the cautionary approach to towboating in the War Zone with a quote from another captain, “Never assume anything, because if you do, chances are you will become the first three letters of the word.â€�

By Professional Mariner Staff