The Midnight Watch Change

By Captain Jack Libbey

Jack Libby spent his working life on the Mississippi River as a pilot and towboat captain.

“Cap’n Jack! Rise and shine, it’s towboatin time! Midnight!”

What a nightmare, I thought. Hadn’t I just lain down? “Already?” I slowly replied, realizing that my night’s sleep had only been two hours long.

“I reckon,” drawled Bright Eyes. “We’re comin down on lock twelve. Cap’n George got on in Dubuque. Cap’n Mike missed his flight to Cape Giradeau. He’ll rent a car and drive to St. Louis. Regular suitcase parade.”

My mind slowly tried to analyze what had happened during my six hours off watch as Bright Eyes rattled on.

“We finally got them other three loaded barges we picked up wired in. Couldn’t get them squared up too good, though. Hope you don’t care. Took far ever. I’ll try to get it out down to the lock.”

“Okay,” I muttered. He better get them square, I thought, otherwise the boat will sit cockeyed and act as a two hundred foot long rudder, constantly steering us the wrong direction all the way down the river.

The short, stocky Kentuckian had just been promoted to watchman and was obviously taking his new responsibilities seriously. His new found duties included overseeing the barges and boat and deck crew on the forward watch, between 6:00 to 12:00 A.M. and P.M., opposite my watch.

“Want me to bring ya a cup of coffee? Memphis Mike just made some in the pilot house,” Bright Eyes asked.

“No, that’s okay. I’ll get a cup upstairs.” I yawned. My eyes were slowly adjusting to the bright light as I surveyed the Holiday Inn style pilot stateroom, the same domicile that I had inhabited every other month for the last fourteen years, my home away from home. Ever since the day this towboat slid off the shipyard ways, brand spanking new, in Jeffersonville, Indiana, I had been her pilot/captain.

My ambitions of becoming a Mississippi riverboat pilot had been reached over
twenty years ago. My first trip on a tow was as a deckhand. I wanted to explore the possibilities of becoming a pilot. If it turned out to be a dead end trail, I would attend medical school and become a dermatologist. Now I was hooked on towboating for life, transporting Midwestern grain in barges the entire navigable length of the Mississippi River between St. Paul and New Orleans.
Our route follows the migratory pattern of water fowl that transit the river’s flyway each spring and fall. The only difference is that we average one round trip per month. Constantly underway, we stop only to pick up or drop off barges that are dispatched by the company’s Chicago office. Reprovisioning of groceries, supplies, fuel, and water are taken mid-stream via tow and barge while underway. Stopping for these items would be costly.

In New Orleans, the loaded grain barges are dropped into a fleet where they are dispatched to grain elevators and loaded onto ships for export destined throughout the world. Unfortunately, with one-hour turn arounds, the opportunity to visit the sights and venues of the Crescent City are nil. We rapidly face up to our new northbound tow and get underway with empty barges and loads of fertilizer, salt, and other bulk commodities bound for the Midwest.

“You awake?” inquired Bright Eyes.

“Yeah, yeah, I am,” I replied. My room and bed came alive with vibration. It became difficult for my still unadjusted eyes to stay in tune with my body. Overhead, in the pilot house, Captain George had ordered the engines into reverse and was backing full astern to slow our descent down river and begin his flank, a tactful maneuver used to counteract the river’s swift current above the locks and dams.

“Sheeit!” Bright Eyes blurted, “I better get out there to the head of the tow before Captain George kills me!” His thoughts were confirmed by the shrill whistle reverberating through the inside of the vessel. Captain George had pushed the deckhand call button, calling the crew in preparation for the approaching lock.

“Yeah, I better get ready too. I’m sure he’s tired.”

As Bright Eyes closed the door it began rattling like a machine gun. My makeshift muffler—a folded paper towel damper—had come loose when Bright Eyes opened the door. I dressed rapidly and washed my face.
I opened the door to my room as it let off another round of gunfire. The overbearing rumble of the engines provided a constant reminder of the immense power that would soon be at my fingertips when I assumed my watch in the pilot house. The smell of coffee, a placid aroma, permeated the boat as I meandered the short distance down the hallway past the guest room. Mesmerized, I began my ascent up the darkened stairway. A warm, snug feeling of belonging emerged as I reached the top of the pilot house stairs.
“Man, am I glad to see you. I’m tired!” George called out as I opened the door and entered the pitch black pilot house.

“I hear you. Welcome back. Have a good time at home?” I asked, fumbling in the darkness, trying to locate my personalized coffee cup. Towboats run on coffee and diesel fuel. “Did he make Brim or Folgers?”

“I had him make Folgers. Figured you wouldn’t mind. Besides, I needed the caffeine. Didn’t think I’d survive till you got up here!”

“I need some tonight too. Stayed up too late watching a movie,” I confessed.
My eyes swept the pilot house as they began to adjust to the darkness.

George’s upper torso was silhouetted by the faint yellow sweep on the radar screen; his face was barely recognizable in the glow of the swing meter. He flipped on the search light, directing the beam toward the head of the tow. He had not lost his touch. As always, his flank was perfect. We were sitting crossways in the river. The current was beginning to push the head of our 1,200-foot tow toward the lock wall faster than our stern, as it should be. If all his timing, skill, and luck worked simultaneously, the lockmen would be able to throw a small, handy line to our deck crew earnestly awaiting on the starboard head of the tow. In response, the crew would attach and return a 600-foot lock line, three inches in diameter. With the lock 110 feet wide and our beam 105 feet, there is little margin for error. Lock line is used to keep the tow flat against the lock’s guide wall during an approach during an approach.

A total of twenty-seven government locks and dams must be transited during our voyage down river. Each are strategically placed along the river’s course, creating a stair case system to allow for the changes in elevation above sea level and maintain a controlling navigation depth of nine feet.

To raise or lower the vessels from one river level to the next requires a process that normally takes between one and two hours to complete. Only a few of the newer lock chambers are 1,200 feet long. The older locks are only 600 feet long and require the towboat crews and assisting lockmen to break the 1,200 foot tow into two sections. Winches and cables along with the towboat are used to move the separate sections in and out of the lock chamber.

Lockmen not only assist the crew in locking the vessel from one river level to another, but also provide invaluable services. Deckhands and lockmen trade everything from the river’s latest rumors and jokes to dogs, fresh fruits, vegetables, books, and wild turkey calls. The only form of currency normally exchanged during these barter sessions is a can or sometimes a case of Folgers coffee, taken from our large stockpile in the galley pantry.

My eyes had slowly adjusted to the darkness of the pilot house. I watched carefully as the xeon search light beam swung slowly toward the upper guide wall of lock number twelve, silhouetted by the lights of downtown Bellevue, Iowa.

Ironically, George and I share many of the same piloting techniques. We always feel comfortable relieving each other’s watch. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. I have worked with other pilots who were not as skilled as George and would cause me grief at watch change.

Uttering the traditional towboat change of command, I voiced with certainty, “I gotcha.” Everything looked perfect so far.

“I’m ready for bed. You can have it!” George said wearily. I moved in, taking the controls, as he backed away from the regal wheel house chair.

Here I was again, overlooking fifteen barges, three wide by five long (105 feet by 1,000 feet), containing a total of 24,000 tons of grain. Including the towboat, the entire tow reached out to a total length of 1,200 feet. Laced together with turnbuckle ratchets, chain links, and steel cables called wires, they floated harmoniously as one sturdy unit. No ship on the earth was longer. We were the length of four football fields, three hundred feet longer than the Exxon Valdez, and yes, even longer than an aircraft carrier.

A bright full moon slid out from behind the clouds, casting the towboat’s shadows onto the Mississippi River’s surface, forty-five feet beneath my feet. This rumbling titanic vessel supports a self-reliant crew of twelve. Like the early lumber camps, towboats have always provided plentiful amounts of food and comfortable living conditions for the crew, helping to ease the minds of crew members while away from home. We live on board for a month at a time, in an environment much like that of home, but with the internal complexity of the space shuttle, including electrical generators, twin 4,800 horse power diesel engines, comfortable sleeping quarters, lounges with TVs and VCRs, a library, and galley.

The galley’s cook, Marie, from Mississippi or Miss’ippi as she always corrects me, provides smorgasbord style breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, not to mention unlimited snacks and anti-acid tablets.

“We got any Rolaids on here?” George asked in agony. “I had some of Marie’s famous breaded pork chops tonight. I missed them when I was home, but I’m not so sure now.” He fumbled, searching through the top wheel house desk drawer with a flashlight.

“Nope,” I replied. “Ordered some in St. Paul and Winona when we got groceries. Both places said that new goofy kid working in the St. Louis office told them we didn’t need em, and that he wasn’t going to pay for them!”
“What the—! First the shrimp, now the Rolaids? Ever since that damn grain embargo! Those new office idiots don’t know which way the river flows,” steamed George.

“Want to hear another one?” I blurted. “With the river coming up over a foot a day, Mike and I told them we only needed twelve barges this trip to be safe. How many do you see? They said, ‘Take em!’”

Recovering slowly, the river industry is still feeling the effects of the Russian grain embargo instituted during Jimmy Carter’s administration. With reduced exports, many towboat companies realized that they had over-built their fleets. With less cargo to be moved and an abundance of barges and towboats, not to mention crew members, times became tough. Merger mania, layoffs, and all the other complications of modern day business struck the river industry head on. To cut costs, many companies eliminated the once revered port captains, replacing them with lesser paid bean counters who have no practical boat knowledge. These port captains—highly skilled senior captains—held positions in the office acting as liaisons between company officials and the vessels, oftentimes saving the towboat companies large
amounts of money by making efficient decisions in boat dispatches, equipment purchases, and crew hiring.

I had been monitoring the plodding cluster of deckhands’ miner style head lamps as the crew meandered from the towboat, towards the head of the darkened tow. Watching the crew prepare to secure the tow to the lock wall, I thought of accidents caused by the cheap line that all the boats had been sent. It wasn’t the normal polly dee fiber, which starts at three inches in diameter and should be able to get down to the size of a silver dollar under a good strain and not break.

One locking maneuver I’d heard of came to mind. The current was running fast toward the dam, not making it easy to steer the tow into the lock. One of the men had wrapped the line around the deck fitting in a figure-eight style, tethering the tow to the lock wall. He began to check it. The captain was doing all he could to keep the boat in place. The boat was tucked into the bank, keeping most of the current cut off. It should have been an easy check.
But the line was no good. One deckhand was leaning back, holding the line when it melted on the fitting. The strain was too much. The line broke, snapping him like a whip, knocking him out of his boots and life jacket into the river. That was the last was seen of him.

= The relief crew reached the head of the tow.

“I gotcha, Bright Eyes,” Tommy said. “How come yawl don’t have us through the lock yet?”

“We figured you guys didn’t have anything else to do for the next two hours,” Bright Eyes chided back.

“You’re abreast the wall. Thirty-five feet wide and coming in,” mate Tommy yelled into the tow speaker. The confident Arkansan had just relieved Bright Eyes.

“How are you tonight, Tommy?” I asked, mostly to acknowledge the fact that I
could hear him on the speaker in the pilot house.

“Great. Ten wide coming in. Except for those pork chops.”
“You too?” I inquired.

On the speaker I heard the familiar “thunk” produced by the lockman’s handy line landing on the barge’s steel deck. The crew hastily returned our lock line to the lockmen on the wall.

“How are you fellows tonight? They been keepin you busy?” the lockman asked.

“Finer than frog fuzz, Mr. Lockman, cept… You got any Rolaids?” Tommy belched. “Five wide comin in. Two hundred to the bull nose and you will be in the lock.”

The tow was still sliding perfectly toward the lock. “We won’t need to catch a line, Tommy. She’s going our way,” I added.

“I’ll trade ya a box of Rolaids for a case of coffee,” answered the lockman.
“Tommy is a genius!” George added with a sigh of relief as he slammed the desk drawer shut. “We’re one up on the office kid now!”

As I steered the tow flat onto the guide wall and entered the lock chamber, Tommy called out, “All clear the bull nose. Inside the chamber. All’s well here.”
Yes, it is, I thought, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.