Ear protectors hung on hooks outside the thick doors that seal off either end of the passageway to the engine room. It was only a 10 second walk along the bridge above engines, but the ear protectors were a necessity. The roar was enveloping, it penetrated into my bones.
This time I wasn’t just passing through to the galley, so I twisted in some earplugs in before I put on the protectors. Chief engineer Bart Stayton had offered me a tour of the ship’s bowels that I did not want to pass up.
The engines were as hot as they were loud. They smelled of metal and heated oil. It was the pleasing odor of a well-run mechanics shop, the smell of healthy machines.
Bart was leaned back in his work chair when he waved me into the control room.
Bart said something.
“What?” I thought I said. But I couldn’t hear myself.
Bart was wearing his protectors above his ears near the top of his head. I took mine off to hear what he saying. Even behind thick glass and the shut metal door, the noise was deafening.
“You could write a book about what goes on on this river,” Bart said.
I get the feeling Bart, like some the other crew, had been practicing his tales because someone told him I was here writing a book. Bart wasn’t the storyteller that Ricky was, but he made up for any lack of narrative with his enthusiasm for the material. He was a friendly man, about my age, from northeast Arkansas near Jonesboro. He has a thick and ruddy face under his blonde goatee, the kind of guy who wouldn’t mind teaching you a thing or two about fishing or duck hunting.
He knew needed a hook to get my attention, so he pitched a tale about bodies in the river. A couple of these bodies were casualties from collisions with the tow. The Coast Guard does its best to keep the river’s channel clear of pleasure boaters, yet every once while small craft will get in the way of a fast approaching southbound barge.
A pontoon boater once cut in front of Bart’s tow and had the not so bright idea to jump off the boat.
“Some people get ignorant when they are drunk.” Bart said.
A tow’s engine turns the wheels under the boat at 160 RPM, with an intake of thousands of gallons a minute. The presumed drunk disappeared. The Coast Guard closed the river for 12 hours while they searched for the body. They didn’t find it. The body surfaced only later when they were servicing the tow. The body of the man who thought he could out swim a 1,500-ton boat had been trapped under the hull.
Bart kept glancing at my little notebook, and seemed nervous when he noticed I wasn’t taking notes on his man overboard tales. He paused a moment, as if to recollect, then grinned. He looked like a poker player about to show his ace card as transitioned into his last body recount.
“We came up on Mud Island one morning and the pilot spotted long hair and shoulders floating above the surface.”
They fished the woman’s remains from the river. Her throat slit, her hands chopped off and her teeth knocked out, she appeared to be the victim of a gangland style execution. There was no way of identifying the professionally disposed of body. Side-wheel riverboats may have disappeared, the remaining captains may no longer booze, but death on the river was as seedy as in the days when Mark Twain chronicled her.
I jotted notes while Bart told the Mud Island story, which seemed to put him more at ease. He again offered a tour of the engine room.
If I had an inkling of mechanical knowledge, I am sure his explanations would have made perfect sense. Machismo did not allow me to ask certain questions that I knew I should know by now, a bit of Latin America had rubbed off on me over the past months.
Bart was a thorough guide and took pride in his engines and his responsibilities as chief engineer. He started out with the gizmos in the control room, explaining what the various blinking lights and gauges were measuring. One set of dials that were bigger than shinier than the others monitored the RPM of the three engines, train engines converted for marine use. One of the needles trembled more than the others, it showed a reading a little lower than the other two. Each engine turns a nine-foot wheel under the boat. One of the wheels is slightly bent, thus the drag on the needle, and the vibration that rattled the boat.
The more notes I took the more Bart explained. He described the mechanical features of the two-stroke, turbo charged diesel engine. I nodded after he shouted each sentence over the din of the machinery outside and below us. Bart explained how the engines are gear driven up to 700 RPM at which point they becomes turbine driven. In total they consume about 9,000 gallons per day, as a tow averages about 120 miles per day upstream, this boat gets a mile for every 75 gallons.
Bart had a great appreciation for the power plant of the boat.
“The guys who designed these engines were geniuses.” Bart said.
There is a reason the engine room is 120 degrees even in the winter. The engines run at over 1000 degrees. I asked Bart how it was safe to run an engine complex at such high temperatures. He drew me a diagram, called the fire tree. Each corner of the triangle had a label: fuel, air, and source. It takes all three to make a fire. With 130,000 gallons of fuel and 1000 degree temperatures, the only triangle point that can be eliminated is air. This is accomplished by powerful vacuums that keep air from rushing into the controlled explosions in the engines.
Bart pulled on his ear protectors and led me outside of the control room. There was no audio aside from engine’s constant roar, I did my best to lip read what Bart was yelling to me for the remainder of the tour. I kept close to engineer and was careful not to touch anything since some of the surfaces were as hot as 900 degrees. The engines were cased in enormous housings with pipes above and below, though which ones carried the fuel or expelled exhaust I hadn’t a clue. Spigots like little udders dropped down from the sides of the casings. The covers above them for all I knew were the lids of industrial barbeque smokers.
Bart walked me down the length of the three rooms back to the stern so I could see how far the turbines extended past the engines. They spun faster than the eye can perceive motion, though I imagined their revolutions accounted for the lightest and sweetest smells amongst the mingling scents of petroleum.
We climbed up to the pump room that regulates the steering and flanking rudders. Black hydraulic pipes worked to push thick metal rams that turn the rudders. Parts of the floor were covered in yellow paint to designate the pinch points, places where the dull edges of the heavy and powerful equipment could snap a man in half.
Back in the control room I thanked Bart for the tour, though I caught myself hanging my head the way my students in Marianna did after a new algebra lesson. Bart was proud of this equipment, machinery we both agreed was designed by geniuses, and he seemed to relish his responsibilities as the steward and doctor to the boat.
“All in all it’s a pretty good life,” Bart said. “Been at it for 16 years.”
Monday, August 31, 2009
Posted by Bill Wilson at 5:52 PM