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updated 8/10/2004 6:19:02 PM ET 2004-08-10T22:19:02

Imagine trying to back a trailer 1,000 feet long and 105 feet wide into a tight garage from a vantage point a block away and you begin to get an idea of the task facing Capt. Bob Loyd as he attempts to thread 15 barges into the needle known as Lock 24.

On Day 7 of our journey the length of the Mississippi River, we joined Loyd and his crew to better understand one of the main issues in the debate over plans for a costly overhaul of the river’s navigation system — whether it makes sense to double the size of some of the river’s locks from 600 feet to 1,200 feet.

Anyone who has spent any time near the Mississippi below Minneapolis-St. Paul has seen the barge “tows” — as the masses of linked barges are known — being pushed up and down the river by a relatively tiny tow boat. But to really appreciate the physics and skills involved there is no substitute for standing in the wheelhouse with an experienced river pilot.

We were fortunate to be able to join Loyd, a Maynard, Ark., resident whose fair skin and freckles have been bronzed by 30 years of piloting riverboats, as he eased the towboat M/V Prosperity and its 15-barge load down the river and through Lock 24 in Clarksville, Mo.

As we gawked at the expanse of barges extending more than three football fields in front of the 168-foot towboat operated by the St. Louis-based American River Transportation Co., or ARTCO, Loyd explained that its ability to push 1,000 feet of barges that outweigh it 50 to 1 is a simple matter of having twin diesel engines that generate 3,800 horsepower.

Steering the colossus is a bit trickier, since it takes between a half-mile and a mile to kill the momentum once you’ve built it.

Avoiding calamities
While serious accidents involving barges are rare, the difficulties of maneuvering such heavy freight along a river were amply illustrated on Aug. 1, when 15 barges broke loose from a towboat traveling down river north of St. Louis and went pin-wheeling down the river. Several of the runaway barges struck two busy downtown bridges and one, filled with grain, hit the Poplar Street Bridge and sank.

Towboat pilots go to great lengths to avoid such calamities, and those on the upper Mississippi are particularly on guard when the are negotiating one of the 29 locks – liquid stair steps that eliminate rapids and allow shipping to use the river as a highway..

“Your locks are 110 foot wide and our tow is 105 foot wide,” said Loyd, describing the process known as “locking a tow” — or passing through a lock with a bundle of barges. “So you’ve got five feet — 2 ½ feet on each side — to play with to get all this length into that lock.” 

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The pilot gets help getting the front of the tow aligned from deckhands who keep him apprised of its position by radio, and sometime by tugboats that help push the front end into position. But it takes a skilled hand to adjust the 1,000 feet of barges — arrayed in rows three wide and five long — by a few inches.

“It’s a challenge, especially when there’s a strong current,” said Loyd. “…  It’s a lot of weight out there to handle.”

That’s putting it mildly. The load that Loyd’s vessel is pushing — 14 barges full of grain and one carrying denatured alcohol — weighs approximately 22,500 tons. If the cargo was moved over the highway, it would fill 870 semi trailers.

The keys to a safe passage through the locks, Loyd said, are taking your time and avoiding sudden movements.

“We take it slow all the time,” he said. “… As you’re approaching the lock, the main thing you have to do is keep the stern in close, and you let your head come around to the lock wall.”

In this case, Loyd has a tug boat to help him line the tow up with the lock gates. The deck crew then grabs lines thrown to them by Army Corps of Engineers personnel at the lock and cinches them tighter as Loyd gently maneuvers the tow close to the wall. Once it’s in position, the real work begins.

The deckhands — Dan Shrake of Savanna, Ill., Daniel Powers of Austin, Texas, and Kevin Hensley of Corning, Ark. — then begin “breaking the cut,” or separating the front three rows of barges from the other two. They accomplish this by releasing a ratchet and unwrapping 1-inch wire cables that are woven around cleats or “buttons” on the decks of the barges.

Once the cables are off, the deckhands radio Loyd and he backs the Prosperity away, taking the two back rows of barges with him.

As soon as they are clear, lock personnel shut the gates and began releasing water from the lock, lowering the nine enclosed barges to the river level below

Next comes the most dangerous part of the process. When the “cut” is pulled from the lock by a tow line attached to the lock wall, the deck hands have to stop the 13,500 tons of cargo — and themselves — using nothing more than arm strength and the friction supplied by a couple wraps of rope around a deck cleat. They spread their feet, grab hold of the rope and pull for all they’re worth, as the rope slips in spurts and pops and groans as it stretches to near the breaking point under the load.

“It’s just sheer force,” Loyd said in describing the catch. “…You want to have a little meat on your bones if you’re going to work out there.”

It’s also the most dangerous part of crewing on a tow.

“If that line breaks, it could come back and hit you,” Loyd said. “There’s been several people killed or injured.”

Once the cut is secured, two of the deckhands climb ladders on the side of the lock, walk to the upper end of the lock and get back on the two rows of barges still attached to the Prosperity in order to help Hugh Aldredge, the ship’s pilot who has just relieved Lloyd in the wheelhouse, into the lock and to then realign with the cut after clearing the lock. Then they get to work reconnecting the barges.

By the time the Prosperity gets under way again with its full complement of cargo, 1 hour and 15 minutes has elapsed from the time the front of the tow entered the lock. And that was under ideal conditions, without any delay due to congestion.

Twenty miles downriver, they will have to do it all over again.

Gridlock
Loyd and Aldredge, of Cape Girardeau, Mo., say that traffic frequently backs up as tow crews cut and reassemble their loads to pass through the locks, and that they sometimes have to wait a full day for their turn. The problem is particularly bad at the lowest locks, just above St. Louis, where traffic entering the Mississippi from the Missouri and Illinois rivers adds to the congestion.

The issue is of high importance to the barge industry and farmers, who say that the small locks are costing them hundreds of millions of dollars a year in delays. Both are among the big supporters of a plan that the Army Corps of Engineers is expected to recommend to Congress this fall calling for $2.4 billion in improvements to the river’s locks and dams, along with $5.3 billion for ecosystem restoration from Minneapolis-St. Paul to St. Louis.

In addition to modernizing and rebuilding the locks, most of which were built in the 1930s, the plan includes funding to expand the five lowest locks on the river from 600 feet to 1,200 feet, which would eliminate the need for the tows to be divided to pass through them

Industry officials say the improvements are needed for U.S. farmers to remain competitive in global markets, but they say the efficiency of the barge system has so far worked against them in making their case.

“The system is unobtrusive,” said Paul Rohde, a spokesman for the Midwest Area River Coalition 2000, which represents barge operators, farmers and construction interests. “It’s the way we move millions of tons of product that keep the Midwest economy going and people don’t even think about it.”

Congress will be forced to think long and hard about the system this fall, examining incidents like the July 27 closure of Lock 27 — the lowest and busiest lock on the river just north of St. Louis and one of just two that already has been enlarged to 1,200 feet — for emergency repairs to the lock gates.

The problem, lock master Ed Rogers told us when we stopped by to look at the repair work, is that several bolts atop rods supporting diagonal struts on the lower lock gate had been sheared off, causing the gate to bulge out at the top. Without the emergency work, it was feared that a catastrophic failure could occur, he said.

As the work was continuing, traffic heading up and down the river was forced to use an auxiliary 600-foot lock, causing long waits. During our visit, 24 northbound and 17 southbound tows were lined up waiting to transit the lock, facing average waits of 54 hours.

Our locks lesson completed, we drove the short distance into St. Louis, where we spent the night listening to a free concert by Los Lobos in the park under the Gateway Arch and sampling fare on the “Eats Bridge,” an outdoor dining event in which the historic Eads Bridge is closed to traffic and turned over to pedestrians.

On Day 8, we will take a look at the river’s greatest mysteries, the rise and fall of an advanced civilization several hundred years before the European explorers set foot in North America.

Reporter Mike Brunker and media producer Jim Seida are traveling the length of the Mississippi in August and will be filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at mississippi@msnbc.com.

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