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Life Of A Towboater

It’s four o’clock
on a misty morning on the west side of Louisville. While most of
the city is sleeping, towboat crews are on their six-on, six-off
watches. On the waiting SuperAmerica, bound upstream to
Catlettsburg, pilot John Carson and first mate Ron Felty speak in
voices through vapor and mist becoming fog.



The only other sounds are the deafening groans of the engine room,
where Bobby Burge wordlessly monitors the controls of the
4,200-horsepower, twin-screw engines. Forward on the same deck,
there are the cracking of three dozen eggs, the sputtering of
bacon in the galley, where Connie Chambers quietly mixes batter
for another round of blueberry pancakes.

There’s the splash of the water at the cutting edge of the head
tow, and the sound of the foghorn that stiffens the hair on the
neck of most any landlubber. For river traffic, McAlpine Lock is
the only way around the Falls of the Ohio.

Huge steel chamber gates slowly, smoothly swing open. The towboat
Floyd Blaskey nudges and gathers its brood of 15 barges of
chemicals, mothering them downstream.

Marathon-Ashland Oil’s towboat SuperAmerica has delivered its
downstream cargo-each one of the barges with about 25,000-36,000
barrels of fuel in it. SuperAmerica will now maneuver into the
vacant chamber, where water will pour back in to raise the upbound
towage to a level above the Falls. They say it’s like threading
the eye of a needle, but it’s more like parking three football
fields end-to-end in a space with 12 inches on each side and about
half of a football field on either end.

"Six inches and closing," says the out-of-sight mate
into the two-way radio microphone clipped to his life jacket.

"Hmmpff," says John Carson in the pilothouse, more than
three football fields away.

"Four inches and closing," says the mate.

"Hmmpff," the pilot acknowledges with the word that
sounds like clearing his throat while at the same time
communicating "OK." The mate has heard it so many times
he doesn’t need an interpreter.

"Head on the wall," says Ron, meaning the front corner
of the tow has touched the chamber wall.

"All right," says John in plain English, adjusting with
a feather touch the rudder stick, like a quarterback feeling the
leather with the tips of his fingers. When the SuperAmerica and
its towage are inside the lock, and the deck hands have secured
the temporary mooring lines, the chamber gates close and water
pours in again. When the level of the surface is equal to the
river above, the gates ahead open, and the towboat inches out with
one barge loaded with 25,000 barrels of gas and oil to be
re-refined, and seven empty barges to be loaded again at
Catlettsburg. More empties will be picked up at Cincinnati.

Connie serves breakfast at 5:30 a.m.-plates of over-easy fried
eggs, sausage and bacon, pancakes, toast, biscuits with gravy, and
hot coffee. Capt. Lonnie Ryan of Princeton sits at the head of the
table. Other crew members come and go, but all sit together at
"the table," one of the better, surer things in the life
of a towboater.

Thirty days on and 30 days off (a year’s pay for six months’ work)
probably come in second. There’s not a lot of talk. Mostly, voices
are muted and opinions are reserved. Capt. Ryan hands his empty
plate to Connie and climbs up three stairways to the pilothouse to
relieve pilot Carson, who comes down for breakfast before going to
sleep, the changing of the watch as well-timed as passing the
baton in a track relay.

The moon and a single star hang over Louisville. The lights of The
Galt House, Humana, and Joe’s Crab Shack shine through the
thickening mist, where memories return from 40 years ago, the
early mornings at WHAS Radio, when the only time a river barge
made news was when it broke loose and ran into something.

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