Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New Orleans to Natchez VII: The Wheelhouse


Something bad has just happened when the Coast Guard emergency signal blasts through the wheelhouse. Perhaps a ship ran aground over a newly formed sandbar or other unmarked obstacle, or maybe someone jumped off the Helena Bridge.

Just my luck that alarms would start ringing the minute I was alone in the wheelhouse. The Captain had snuck downstairs to take a piss. I didn’t know what was happening by the noise, it wasn’t a PONing, and it didn’t sound like any of the alarms I had been warned about on the handouts I was given upon boarding, though I couldn’t really be sure. I hadn’t actually read those things come to think of it, I gave then a quick scan thinking, gee, I hope this one doesn’t sound, the seven short and one long blast for abandon ship. Now a whistle was blowing whose maddening teakettle pitch mocked my lack of diligence.

I got up from my seat to have a look at the control panel that spread out before the captain’s chair, as if I’d be able to figure anything out by looking at the controls. Then the bells stopped. Just me alone in a quiet wheelhouse atop a boat whose converted train engines pushed 24 covered barges that spanned over two and half acres and floating four to a side in six rows ahead of us, some 40,000 tons of chemicals, sand, steel, and individual shipping containers stacked up to 90 per barge. There was a great deal that could go wrong with all that cargo in front of us. I was glad the alarm had gone silent.

I soon heard Fred’s footsteps back up to the wheelhouse. It was a good thing I had gotten up to check out the alarm, he told me. The wheelhouse has sensors in the area around the Captain’s chair, if no motion is detected over a period time, the alarm sounds. If it had been allowed to ring for more than a couple of seconds it would have started calling for a dispatcher, but I had caught it in time.

The wheelhouse has a toilet for these situations, but as I find out later, I had been sitting on it, or at least on the wood paneling that covered it. Back in the day there was nowhere to go in the wheelhouse, and on an eight-hour shift this was a problem. Standard practice was to take a bag and a few bottles upstairs, and, if used, to toss the bag overboard. The EPA mandated that the Coast Guard start cracking down on this practice. They used a scope to catch one of Fred’s friends in the act of tossing his bag into the river, and pulled aside to question him. He confessed and got a $500 fine. If he had lied about it, they would have fined him $5,000. In a river that has absorbs thousands of gallons of oil, pesticides, fertilizers, benzene, mercury, lead, industrial pollutants in all their guises and hundreds of thousands of tons of raw sewage from cities up and down its banks, a few little bags seem like small fry. But the river is cleaner thanks to the tougher standards, and fines for more egregious illegal dumpings have run into the millions and included jail time. There is a long way to go, the Mississippi’s plume of muddy water still creates a seasonal dead zone that suffocates over 8,000 square miles of the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Dusk set in quick as the skies filled with dark and ominous clouds. A steady driving rain began to fall, and the radar picked up a solid band of storms that were expected to last all night. Two cold fronts were rumbling west to east about 24 hours apart. There was a chance there would be a reprieve in the early morning, about the time we were set to arrive in Natchez. The second front was the stronger of the two and due to arrive tomorrow afternoon. I would have to peddle hard to make it from Natchez to Port Gibson before getting drenched.

The navigation instruments become more important at night. A display showed the channel of the river and the locations of the approaching tows. Though floodlights illuminated the rows of barges before us and a powerful spotlight sliced ahead into the darkness and driving rain, I could not make out the green and red lights that marked the starboard and port of oncoming vessels until they were passing our tow. Fred could see them much farther out, of course, though even he told me exactly where to look, it took me a minute until I could see the colored lights through the wet ink of the night.

I asked Fred if he had ever run aground. Everyone who had spent time on this river has run aground, hit a bridge, or lost their tow at some point. The river is just too unpredictable, constantly changing under the water’s surface that rises and falls and quickens and slows with the seasons. No one can steer her perfectly. It’s just a matter of time before the PONs sound and it is your boat that has triggered the alarm.

Bart came upstairs to join us. After a minute he broke into a tale as if it had just tripped through his mind though I suspected he had thought of it after our tour and wanted to give it shot for the book. His story had nothing to do with the river. It was about the day he announced to his father in law his intentions to marry his daughter. His girlfriend had warned the old man was hard of hearing. When Bart arrived at the house, the old man was cleaning a .357 Magnum. Bart announced his intentions. The old man didn’t look up. His then girlfriend kicked him “Speak up!”

“I started again and this time the old man looked up at me with a look… ‘what kind of an idiot are you?’ So I just sat down next to him and picked up a rag and started cleaning.”

And they lived happily ever after.

Bart joked around a bit before he said goodnight and shuffled back downstairs.

“That nut must really think I enjoy his company up here.” Fred said, “I like my time alone.”

But you could tell Fred enjoyed the company and is at home with this makeshift family on the Baskerville.

The navigation systems computer projected a 3am arrival into Natchez. Fred promised me it wouldn’t be that early. We were making about 6 miles per hour, but any time a southbound tow approached it would have the right of way, and the northbound vessel must often slow and linger at a wide enough point in the river for the oncoming ship to pass.

I said goodnight, and thanks for the ride. Fred said I was welcome to return anytime, provided I could steer through the corporate tape to get permission to board again. I told him next time I’d earn my keep and come back as a deckhand. Fred smiled.

“Sometimes it’s nice to have a guest around here.”

I was serious. I don’t know how long I’d last on the river or if I’d be strong enough to navigate the wires out on the tow. I could think of worse gigs than life on a towboat—I’d as soon scrub toilets for a months before taking another job in finance.

Dexter banged on my door and flipped on the lights at 5 am. A cold rain was still falling on the deck outside.

I had time to go down to the galley for breakfast, for a spread of eggs, hash browns, and pancakes. Terry wished me luck on my bike trip and offered some snacks for the road. I told her the crew was lucky to have someone like her to take care of them.

“I come to think of them as my kids,” Terry said. “I spoil ‘em.”

Everyone on board was concerned with my safety on my bike trip. The Natchez Trace has its share of desolate stretches, the only gas station on he 450-mile route is a now boarded up curiosity.

“I don’t mean to scare you, but aren’t you worried about being alone out there?” Fred had asked.

Fred suggested I check in with the troopers who patrol the route so someone will know my whereabouts. I was more concerned about how heavy my legs were going to feel when I got trapped out in a cold, heavy rain.

I was not worried about being alone. I was looking forward to some time to myself. I’d been alone more or less since I crossed into Panama. It had been nearly impossible to find solitude on a month long sprint through Central America, there was always someone squeezed in next to me on the bus, or sitting down to share a meal or a beer if I was alone at a table or a bar. I thought about the hours I would have in solitude, I could have whole conversations with no one weigh in except for my past and my future, the ghosts of my ancestors and a few critters in the trees.

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