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Backstory: Navigating the 'wiggles'

Part 3 of three

By Mary WiltenburgCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 21, 2006



ON THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER NEAR VICKSBURG, MISS.

Between Memphis and Vicksburg, the Mississippi snakes fiercely, doubling back on itself for 300 miles of tight river bends that pilots call "the wiggles." Day and night, the banks play tricks on the eye: looming out of nowhere, promising disaster, then rearranging themselves at the last second to allow a safe passage.

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A 52-year veteran of these bluffs, Capt. Robert Byrd steers the towboat Patricia Gail and her 70,000-ton load of grain, coal, soy, slag, and lime through their narrows without evident dismay. But for a novice pilot, this passage is a nail-biting example of how dangerous and artful river work is, even in an age of high-tech navigational aids.

Keith Trout, a bright-eyed 30-something who today begins a month-long apprenticeship with Captain Byrd, is such a pilot. "This ain't fair, man," Mr. Trout says admiringly as Byrd swings the boat around a bend. "I work my tail off right here. You make it look too easy."

Barge accidents don't happen today nearly as often as they did when Mark Twain piloted these waters 150 years ago, or even as frequently as they did in Byrd's early career. But the challenges of driving a river tow - especially on the powerful lower Mississippi - are still considerable. Though the US Coast Guard reports improvement in riverboat safety over the past 10 years, nearly 200 severe accidents occur annually on US waterways, including sinkings, groundings, crashes, explosions, and fires. On average, 16 people die each year working the rivers.

"And you don't never want your men to be one of them," says Trout. "Whatever it takes."

***

At 5 o'clock this morning, the Patricia Gail's kitchen was the brightest spot on a sleepy river: griddle hot, oatmeal ready, and a slab of bologna frying. By lunchtime, new faces ring its family-style table, enjoying the coming-aboard spread left by outgoing cook Ken Floyd: roast beef, red beans, potato salad, collard greens, stewed tomatoes, corn, and three kinds of biscuits.

New crew members joke and feast, trading news of mutual friends. Nearly all worked recent shifts down South in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The storms that cost many Gulf Coast residents their homes and livelihoods were felt along the river, too: the Port of New Orleans closed for a fortnight, losing an estimated $11 million in revenues. Winds and flooding kicked hundreds of barges and their cargoes onto riverbanks.

But even such sobering news can't quell the playful mood in the Patricia Gail's kitchen today. Engineer Eddie Owen tells of a factory that had a load of sugar ready to be shipped when Katrina hit. Its owners returned, he says, to find four feet of molasses. "They probably put that on a barge and sent it upriver," jokes watchman Kevin Harrington.

Mr. Owen cocks an eyebrow. "They probably put it back in Lake Pontchartrain, the way they put everything else," he says.

When the meal breaks up, some crew members make their way upstairs to sleep before the evening watch. Others head off to relieve their crewmates: Owen to the engine room, Mr. Harrington out to the tow. There, he and a partner will spend the next six hours checking the steel cables that hold the boat's 35 barges together in a raft bigger than an aircraft carrier. They will listen closely, deckhand Mike Evans explains: Just before the 40-pound wires snap, they make a sound like bacon frying.

***

Everyone is fresh-faced the first day of a new shift, but none more so than Trout. The young pilot, captain of a smaller Mississippi towboat, will spend this trip at the elbow of Byrd, whose five decades on the river make him one of the most experienced pilots on the Mississippi.

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