If you sketch a plan view of Berwick Bay — a swelling of the Atchafalaya River at Morgan City, La., where the Port Allen Alternate Route, Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW), and bayous Teche, Boeuf and Shaffer converge on the river — you get a drawing resembling an octopus in trouble.
That trouble migrates to mariners not familiar with the natural and manmade complexity of a heavily trafficked waterway system comprised of conflicting currents, two locks and a triple-bridge complex spanning the Atchafalaya between Morgan City and Berwick. The bridge complex consists of the Highway 90 and 182 spans and the Morgan City Railway Bridge. The high number of allisions with the railroad lift bridge encouraged the U.S. Coast Guard to establish Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) Berwick Bay in 1975.
From left, Fletcher Technical Community College instructor Capt. Jack Porche and Settoon Towing’s Mike Hall confer with Fletcher simulator operator Royal Richoux and Breck Chaisson, the college’s director of marine operations.
Three years ago, Settoon Towing approached Fletcher Technical Community College near Houma, La., to consider creating a continuing education program for its wheelhouse employees that concentrates on navigating the Berwick Bay waterway system. The instruction grew into what the college calls its Inland Bridge Resource Management Program.
“Settoon chose the waterway system to focus on because it’s such an active location and is very dangerous,” said Mike Hall, the company’s director of personnel.
Settoon Towing’s operational headquarters is also in Houma. The company, with a fleet of 80 petrochemical barges and 51 towboats — 15 of them new-builds since 2010 — is in an aggressive period of growth. Fletcher College’s Marine Operations Department, located at the Louisiana Marine & Petroleum Institute campus on the GIWW, is primarily focused on bluewater mariner training. However, it also conducts an apprentice mate program to train prospective towboat captains.
“We offer what a towboater needs to get started as an apprentice mate on the way to an inland towboat captain,” said Breck Chaisson, director of marine operations at the college. Unlike the bluewater mariner, the towboater holding a master’s license is not under any regulatory requirement to continue his marine education, practical or academic, he said.
Hall explained that Settoon approached the college because the company was butting up against a growing industry-wide issue. “Our customers are looking for us to show them that there is a continuous improvement education program in place for our current wheelhouse employees,” Hall said. “This program has allowed us to be able to answer that question. They see that we have the equipment to do the job, but they want to make sure we have the best training for the employees doing the job. Also, if we have an incident, the Coast Guard is looking for anything we have to show that we have a training program in place. The insurance companies like to see that as well.”
Settoon Towing’s Hall at the sticks in Fletcher Technical Community College’s simulation of Berwick Bay as instructor Porche, right, monitors the mock voyage.
Kicking ideas around for six months resulted in the Inland Bridge Resource Management course, a two-day refresher program that alternates between classroom work and wheelhouse scenarios on a Kongsberg simulator. “The college hired a photographer and Settoon provided the boat for him to shoot custom footage of the waterways converging on Berwick Bay and Morgan City, which were then incorporated into the simulator,” said Chaisson.
Hall explained that a refresher on the rules of the road and correct procedures is a valuable part of the course. Berwick Bay is also a Coast Guard station and VTS expects and demands that the correct rules and procedures are followed. “They want to know who you are, what you are doing, what your tow is, what you intend to do and where you are going,” said Chaisson.
Those rules and procedures are all in the Vessel Traffic Service Berwick Bay User Manual, which is required reading in the wheelhouse.
In part, the manual states: “You must monitor the VTS frequency, channel 11 VHF-FM at all times within the VTS area and participate fully in the Vessel Movement Reporting System (VMRS) if you are a:
• Power Driven Vessel at least 40 meters in length (130 feet)
• Towing vessel at least 8 meters in length (26 feet) engaged in towing
• Vessel certified to carry 50 or more passengers for hire when engaged in trade.”
Rules apply to other vessels such as dredges but with the emphasis of italics, it reads:
“Finally, any vessel intending to enter the VTS Special Area, which are those waters within 1,000 yards of the Morgan City Railroad Bridge, must contact the VTS on the appropriate frequency before entering that area.”
Settoon Towing relief captain Troy Martin, who has trained on the simulator.
The manual continues: “The area includes the triple-bridge complex in Berwick Bay, and the blind intersection at 20 Grand Point, where the Intracoastal Waterway meets the Atchafalaya River at Morgan City. … All vessels must receive clearance from the VTC prior to entering this Special Area. Receive clearance from the VTC prior to meeting, crossing or overtaking another vessel in this Special Area.”
In addition, there are mandatory check-in points and high water procedures and rules to follow. The subject of high water resides in the trouble column of issues at Berwick Bay. A Coast Guard website states that “during seasonal high water periods, the VTS enforces towing regulations that require inland tows transiting the bridges to have a minimum amount of horsepower based on the length of tow.”
The Fletcher College faculty help the mariners practice safe navigation in various conditions.
“Our job is to keep them (towboat captains) from hitting the bridges,” said Capt. Jack Porche, a marine operations instructor. Porche sites the extreme high-water summer of 2011 as particularly difficult, “especially when the Morganza Spillway was opened to let water out of the flooding Mississippi into the Atchafalaya,” he said. “The current was up to 6 knots.” Hall added that the towboats were required to have trip-assist boats to cross the Atchafalaya.
In two years, 50 of Settoon’s 160 captains have taken the course and received a certificate.
“It’s especially valuable with new hires and when we hire a captain from another area,” said Hall. “We can familiarize him with the waterways, the issues and the terminology, and assess where he’s at. For the most part, our guys know where they need to be but a new hire may not.”
Hall pointed out the high level of responsibility placed on captains running a boat worth several million dollars, made up to a 600-foot tow of tank barges full of product worth more millions of dollars stretching out in front of them.
The course covers bridge organization, communications, voyage planning and the like. The simulator plunges the student into the thick of Berwick Bay traffic and VTS communications — the meat of the program.
“The Inland Bridge Resource Management Program is a great tool for the industry,” said Hall. “It’s a place where captains can get one-on-one training on the simulator and in the classroom.” Once all of Settoon’s captains have their certificate, Hall said the company is considering a requirement that employees retake the course every three years.
Operations Specialist 3rd Class Hazel Eclevia stands watch at Vessel Traffic Service Berwick Bay in Morgan City.
“Then we would have an up-to-date certificate to include in the audits,” said Hall. “This training satisfies our customers. We work so hard to get them and then we can lose them if it goes bad.”
At the Settoon operations office on the GIWW in Houma, the crew aboard the 76-foot Rachel S. Settoon was making ready to head east along the Intracoastal Waterway. Both the pilot, Dane Chiasson, and the relief captain, David Sikes, have completed the Inland Bridge Resource Management course at Fletcher.
For both captains, the emergency procedures that the college instructors threw into the simulator scenarios — communications failures, loss of power, increasing the current and introducing wind, traffic, rain and fog — was the most instructive part of the program.
“The discussion of the proper procedures within the system and the need for better attention to those procedures within the system was good,” said Sikes.
“These are all situations you can encounter in the system,” said Chiasson. “They can simulate high water with all of the extra current that can bounce you from bank to bank. And every incident that occurs generates new rules, so it’s good to have an opportunity to keep up with those new rules. The course benefits you in that way, too.”
Hall added that the student’s response at the helm to simulated emergencies and conditions allows the company to evaluate the helmsman’s response without the legal and monetary penalties concomitant with a real incident.
Back at the Settoon office, relief captain Troy Martin was on a crew change and headed back to his home in Matthews, La. Martin, with 11 years on towboats, 10 of them with Settoon, is another of Settoon’s masters who has completed the course at Fletcher.
Relief captain David Sikes, left, and pilot Dane Chiasson aboard Rachel S. Settoon.
“The course was very helpful,” he said. “We were given different simulated situations that you don’t encounter often, such as cutting the ship’s power coming southbound (with the Atchafalaya current pushing on the stern). You know it can happen but you don’t think about it every day. And you get to listen to other captains talk about different scenarios they’ve been in and that makes you think about other situations, too.”
In Morgan City, VTS Berwick Bay’s office at the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit building is where experience and organization spread a blanket of calm over the chaos and the anxiety a triple-bridge complex, a blind intersection at 20 Grand Point and the intimidation of strong directional currents can create in a helmsman’s mind.
The tools used are visual and audio electronics and the authority of the Coast Guard. A rule of thumb is not to run afoul of Berwick Traffic.
The Coast Guard website states that “VTS Berwick Bay manages vessel traffic on one of the most hazardous waterways in the United States due to strong currents and a series of bridges that must be negotiated by inland tows traveling between Houston, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.” And, “Berwick Bay is unique among Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Services because it maintains direct control of vessel traffic.”
“We are a VTS station that has positive control,” said Petty Officer Brent Lacroix. “VTS stations elsewhere in the country are advisory in nature and report traffic but do not control it unless there is an emergency or incident.” The aim of a positive control mandate is marine safety while at the same time efficiently accommodating boat traffic and the trains using the railway bridge. Southbound tows on the Atchafalaya River are strongly influenced by the river’s current and get the right of way once they’ve entered the system.
“We are a red light and a green light,” said James Kephart, watch supervisor. “We have holding spots and check points. Because of the nature of the waterway we allow only one-way traffic through certain spots. The only way to accomplish that is to hold other boats.”
Both men took turns explaining that high water caused a lot of problems within the triple-bridge complex, a complex that requires a helmsman to negotiate a turn at the 182 highway bridge in order to line up with the railway lift bridge.
A high water current complicates that procedure in other ways, especially at the blind corner at 20 Grand Point, just below the railway bridge. The increased amount of silt making its way downriver creates shoaling at the point, building a sandbar into a mix of issues for a towboat captain to address.
It is no surprise that the personnel at VTS Berwick Bay are enthusiastic about the Inland Bridge Resource program which developed from collaborative effort between Fletcher College’s Marine Division and Settoon Towing.
“Any course that educates the mariner about what to anticipate when he gets to Berwick Traffic is an advantage to everyone — us and the other boats in the system,” said watch supervisor Kephart.