Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tow Boats on the Radio: A guest blog from Bill

(Note: Cynthia is taking a brief vacation from blogging and her husband--sometimes inaccurately referred to as the "Captain"--is filling in.)

In our extensive---ahem--research before leaving on this trip, we read many scary warnings about tows on the major inland rivers--the Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee. 

First, a clarification: A TOW is actually a PUSH, a raft of barges with a powerful tug boat clamped to its tail end, pushing the raft along. Tows range widely in size. We've encountered tows as small as a single 100-foot barge and as large as six barges wide by seven barges long, more massive than villages in which we have lived. 
Six barges wide by seven barges long . . .  larger than many villages in which we've resided

"Don't argue with a tow," the conventional wisdom runs, "You'll lose every time." Well, duh. These things have their own gravity wells. They plow through the water trailing dead trees, protoplanets, and giant schools of Asian carp. 

Tows get priority in locks
as well as on the water
Facing a moving black hole, we are VERY polite. When we spot a tow in a dicey place--such as coming around a tight bend--we get on the radio, announce our position, and VERY deferentially solicit its advice, counsel, direction, munificence.

Very rarely, a towboat operator cannot be bothered by such an inconsequential flea as our 14 tons, and we hear nothing in reply. If that happens, we pick the safest line and slip gingerly by. Or dive into a side channel and hope the thing isn't hungry.

Most of the time, however, towboat captains do reply promptly on the radio, businesslike yet polite: "So are you that little pleasure craft in front of me? I'll see you on the one." That means, "I'll pass you on the 'one whistle,'" a.k.a. port side to port side. 

The tow captains we pass, mostly men, are usually spare with words to us "pleasure craft."  But they are ALWAYS gracious to us and to each other. They thank other captains for the courtesy of passing, or advising them about hazards, or for yielding when their tow needs to squeeze through a downstream narrows.

Tow captains and lockmasters are unfailingly
courteous--and seem happy to see us
If there is such a thing as towboat "road rage," we never witnessed it. We speculate that a captain who didn't honor the gentlemanly conventions would soon find it difficult to make a living on these rivers.

Towboat captains are bit chattier to each other than to us, and, occasionally, the radio gives us further insights. 

When two tows are about to pass, they will sometimes chat for a few minutes on Channel 13 (the conventional towboat channel) or on another frequency, either by prearrangement or by telling the other captain which channel to use. ("Switch to 68"). With VHF scanning, anyone with a radio can easily eavesdrop:

Mississippi River towboat chatter, Channel 68:

Tow 1: Do you see that? That's a strange little thing! I think it's powered with those solar panels. 

Do tows have one of these?
(At this point, we're sailing past a tow, with me outside at the helm, and so apparently unable to hear their very public conversation).

Tow 2: (Inaudible)

Tow 1: ... Well, that's nice. Looks like a barge, but with solar panels. Maybe I could retire on one of them. Wouldn't need a million dollars.

[At this point, Cynthia comes up on deck, in a bathing suit. Fact: It had been several days since our last laundry and we were running low on clean clothes.]

Tow 1: And look at that! He's got himself a fine-looking woman!
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