Literature is full of tales of men conquering the Mississippi. Mine is not one of those stories. Mine is the story of two women who face down the legendary river. My story began two years ago when my husband and I made the decision to become Intracoastal Waterway boaters. We attended Sea Academy in Aransas Pass, Texas and satisfied the U.S. Coast Guard examination requirements to obtain certifications commonly referred to as a 6-pac, among sea captains, and upgraded via further examinations to a master 100 tons. I thought I was on my way to being a real captain.
Unfortunately, my husband did not feel at ease when it was my turn to take full charge of our 36-foot American Tug, Bird of Prey. He treated me like I was his crew. Like we weren't equals. I had passed every course needed to captain our boat, the same courses he had. Yet, my duties on the boat were reduced to checking the engine room, managing the lines, assisting in navigation, and piloting in the most optimal conditions.
I had no choice. Things had to change. I contacted Capt. Patti Moore, one of the owners at Sea Sense Boating School, and requested that she send Capt. Laura Nelson to help me polish my boat-handling skills. I had something to prove and Capt. Laura was the one to help me out.
EVERYONE KNOWS STAR TREK
My husband Steve and I picked up Capt. Laura Nelson from Little Rock Airport and chauffeured her to Bird of Prey berthed at Island Harbor Marina, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. During her first visit on my tug, Steve, who has all the same boating certifications, explained the nuances of our boat. I shared my travel plan with Laura, indicating our direction, destination, the distances between Locks, mile markers on the Arkansas, White, and Mississippi rivers, and other essential information. Capt. Laura told me that I put together a very thorough plan. Things were starting off on the right foot!
"So what's a bird of prey anyway," Capt. Laura asked.
"We're big Star Trek fans. It's a type of alien space craft," I said.
“Beam me up Scottie. Live Long and Prosper? That kind of thing?" She arched her eyebrow, no doubt worried about my sanity.
"It’s more than Live Long and Prosper," I said.
"I don't know if everyone will recognize that," she tilted her head and laughed.
I smiled and said, "Everyone knows Star Trek."
Daybreak, in early February, was around 6:45 a.m., so we agreed to leave Island Harbor Marina no later than 7:30 a.m. We intended to get as close to Greeneville as possible, returning to Pine Bluff before dark on Saturday. We considered our daylight hours (sunset was at 5:30 p.m.), the 130 miles to travel downstream, and 130 miles traveling upstream against the current. To be sure, 260 miles in three days traveling in daylight was ambitious.
On the first day, after pulling out of the harbor onto the Arkansas River, Capt. Laura noticed a northbound tug and barge less than a mile away. She needed to talk to the captain to negotiate our vessels meeting and to obtain radio communication information. Laura moved the cursor onto the vessel icon located on the navigation screen, and using the Automatic Identification System (AIS), identified the vessel by name. She picked up the radio and turned the knob to channel 16 being careful to turn the frequency to low, so that the conversation was not broadcasted 20 miles up and down the river
Lesson #1: Turn the frequency to low when the vessel that you are communicating with is in close range.
"Tug and barge. Tug and barge," Capt. Laura repeated. "This is Bird of Prey.”
The tug captain responded with its name; Capt. Laura replied switch and answer to 56. She was able to get the information she needed to communicate with the captains on the rivers and the people manning the Locks. She continued to negotiate our vessel meeting, agreeing to meet on our port side. I noticed during her exchange with the tug captain, that in order to avoid any confusion, she confirmed the maneuver, replying on the radio, "Thanks cap”, and repeating the agreement, “I will see you on a 1.”
Lesson #2: Always repeat the agreed upon maneuver.
During our time on the Arkansas and White rivers, I gathered boat names, hailed captains, and negotiated meetings or overtaking vessels. I was careful to repeat the maneuver agreement with each captain. When the names did not appear on our system, I contacted the captain for negotiation. Describing the whereabouts of the vessel you are attempting to contact is important when the name is not available. I really had a groove going, a knack for contacting and communicating with the captains and lockmasters.
We were traveling south, the current on our side, and at times we were doing 10–12 knots on the Arkansas and consuming as little fuel as 2gph. We passed through the river's first lock, and then the second. Each time, I practiced my communication skills, becoming a better captain. Passing through the second lock, I thanked the lockmaster, a cheerful man with a deep timbre.
"Thank you lock and dam," I said.
"Roger that Captain," the lockmaster responded, "Live long and prosper."
Capt. Laura shrugged her shoulders and laughed.
Lesson #3: Everyone knows Star Trek.
NAVIGATING IN THE DARK
Capt. Laura took over the helm at the Arkansas Post Canal. This section of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) is manmade and connects the Arkansas River to the White River. We soon reached the place where the Arkansas River empties into the mouth of the Mississippi. By sunset, the ride grew rougher, and we still had more than 55 miles to our destination.
Capt. Laura looked at me and said, “How much experience do you have navigating and piloting at night?’
"None," I said.
She said, "This is a decision point—we either have to commit to going all the way or we are going to have to find a place to hunker down."
"I have taken this route many times with my husband and we have passed mostly good places to hunker down; we have to move on."
"Looks like you're about to learn to operate this vessel at night."
"I'll get the spotlight." I stepped toward the dashboard near the spotlight switch, but Capt. Laura stopped me. "We do not need the spotlight," she said. "In fact, the spotlight will impair your night vision; it is time for you to learn to navigate using the instruments we have onboard."
Night fell upon us. Laura requested that I get the Furuno navigation and radar system reference guides and learn how to make specific adjustments on the radar and navigation system. I had to dim the helm's displays. The lights were making it difficult for her to see. I cut out aluminum foil and taped it on all lit displays.
It was getting darker and I asked Capt. Laura again if there was a need for our spotlight, a subtle hint. I thought that it was a great visual aid.
"No," she responded. "I need you over here getting familiar with the radar. You need to learn how to navigate this vessel using the radar."
As I learned the nuances of the radar, Laura and I talked about everything that was happening out there. I negotiated overtaking one tug and barge; we later came across Dennis Hendrix, a tug pushing a huge load off our bow. Laura hailed Dennis Hendrix and the captain politely told us that we could overtake him on our starboard side. Laura told the captain that she had not been in those waters in a while and if it was okay, we would tag along behind him.
Dennis Hendrix became our guide. The captain of Dennis Hendrix was great, at one time; he shines his spotlight on an area in the water and warns over channel 13, “Bird of Prey, don’t go over there. There is a loose buoy.” Other tug captains hailed Dennis Hendrix and asked if he was towing, saying, “Captain, what’s that behind you? Are you towing something?” The captain responded, “No, it’s a pleasure boat, Bird of Preyfollowing along.”
It was so dark and outright scary out there. However, it was comforting knowing Dennis Hendrix, a massive tug and barge was essentially acting as our personal river sweeper pushing everything out of our way, clearing a safe path for the Bird of Prey, and at the same time lighting up the sky with her revolving spotlight. We tagged along behind Dennis Hendrix until we arrived at the channel leading to the Greenville Yacht Club.
The next morning was cold. Capt. Laura was eating breakfast; I made myself a cup of coffee, filled the water tank, disconnected the shorepower, and we were on our way. Capt. Laura pulled away from the transient dock and took us out to the Mississippi. Once there, I took the helm, negotiating, overtaking, and meeting maneuvers with the tug captains. The current was rough in the channel, so Capt. Laura advised that I stay outside of the channel to conserve fuel and to steer more easily. As we traveled toward home, it started to rain.
As luck would have it, the fog started to roll in. The visibility was terrible. Capt. Laura, who was sitting in the passenger seat, said, “Just put everything that you learned last night to use. Adjust the gain on your radar and use the radar to navigate through the fog.”
"I can’t see a damn thing," I said.
"You couldn’t see a damn thing last night either; learn to trust your radar."
I remembered the previous night's lesson: I slowed down, adjusted my radar and my navigation system. I made it through the fog. I eventually reached the mouth of the Mississippi where the swirls pushed Bird of Prey in many different directions. As I approached the mouth of the White River, Laura saw lights. She picked up the radio to hail the tug.
Laura grabbed the helm and told me we had to get out of the way of the tug.
We did not see the vessel on the navigation system, but we did see the lights. A tug captain moving north on the Mississippi was monitoring channel 13 and heard our hail. The Mississippi northbound captain called to inform us that it was not a tug and that we were seeing lights from Montgomery Point. Good news: We were too close to home for any close encounters.
Laura continued at the helm as we entered the White River. By this time it was pitch black again and we did not have a friendly tug and barge guiding our way. Unlike the Mississippi River, where there are blinking navigation lights, all we saw were navigation nuns. I started adjusting the radar, but it was not helpful. The channel was too narrow. All I saw was a bunch of noise on the radar. We took out the aluminum foil again and covered all the displays to shut out the ambient light. I suggested we turn our spotlight on.
My co-captain grimaced. I showed her that the channel was so narrow our radar was not giving us enough information to stay in the channel. We tried following our bread crumbs, which was not helpful enough. After much discussion, there was a compromise. She would turn the spotlight on to find the nun and then turn it off.
I hailed Lock 1 to find out if there were any southbound vessels in the pool between Lock 1 and Lock 2, or if he had any southbound vessels requesting to lock through. He said no, but there was a tug and barge locking through at Lock 2.
For some reason my AIS could not pick up the vessel name in Lock 2, so I asked the lockmaster for the name of the tug and barge locking through at Lock 2. After engaging the Lock 2 master and conversing with the tug captain, Laura and I decided that we would not try to lock through Lock number 2 and that we would get out of the way of the southbound tug and barge traveling to Lock 1. We informed the captain we were a pleasure boat, about to tie up out of his way, and would appreciate a slow bell as he passed us. The tug captain passed us slowly.
Although we had planned to make Lake Merrisach our night's destination, we settled on a little platform downstream of Lock 2. It was time to call it a day. This time, I tried to be a better host on my boat; I microwaved two TV dinners and included a glass of wine with our meal.
A SMALL SCARE
I woke up at 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning. Capt. Laura had been up most of the night protecting Bird of Prey.Strong winds from the southwest blew our starboard side against the platform. To this day, I regret that I slept through the rough current and the strong wind. I woke, rested and refreshed, and made breakfast, checked the engine room and was ready to go. We locked through Lock number 2 and waved at Lake Merrisach. It was a beautiful day and Capt. Laura decided that this would be her day to rest and prepare for her travels home. She mentioned that she saw no reason to take the helm. We laughed, ate, told boat stories, and Laura took many pictures—it was a nice girl's day out.
We passed a northbound tug and barge as it rested almost against the bank. Later we found out that the captain had decided to get out of the channel for good reason. We had been very lucky thus far; we had very little wait time at the locks. I hailed Lock 3 requesting permission to lock through. The lockmaster informed me that it would be 20 minutes or so wait. I contacted the vessel in lock 3 to negotiate our meeting as he departed the lock.
"Hi Captain, I am in a pleasure boat; northbound outside the lock. I am hugging the reds. I will see you port side."
"All right Captain, the reds will be fine." The message was full of static, but we still received it. "But I am coming out sideways."
Capt. Laura jumped up and said, "Tell him that you will give him lots of room and that you will be outside of the reds."
I followed her orders, repeating Laura’s instructions.
I had not run into the term sideways in any of my studies, so I asked Laura what “coming out sideways” meant. She said there was a lot of current, and the tug captain would have a hard time controlling the vessel as he leaves the lock. “He will need the entire channel. He is going to come out with his bow on the reds and his stern on the greens. Once more, since he has the least amount of control of his vessel, he has the right-of-way,” she said.
Lesson #4: Give plenty of room to a tug coming out sideways.
I stayed out of the way hovering, going back and forth in a pattern outside of the reds until I saw the barge coming. It came so fast, it scared me. Laura shouted, “Vivian get us out of the way. Get past the vessel."
I was going so fast, I was afraid I was going to hit the stern of the barge. As I hit 13 knots, I yelled, “What have I gotten myself into!” Capt. Laura reminded me to think about the tug captain and how he was having a really hard time, and that he may lose it at both ends.
I still don't know whether she was talking about his boat or his pants.
After locking through our final lock and dam, we found a place to practice anchoring, setting waypoints, and discussing the things we had not covered during our three-day adventure. I could not imagine any situation that we had not encountered on Bird of Prey during our short time together. Laura also gave me a list of everything I needed on Bird of Prey, from safety items to nice-to-have items. We pulled into Island Harbor Marina at 6 p.m. We tied the boat down, and hooked up to shorepower. My husband Steve came to pick us up and, with a smile on his face, he asked, “How was the trip ladies? Lots of danger?”
Laura patted my shoulder. "Nothing Capt. Viv couldn't handle."
My husband and I are planning to travel this spring. We will start from Pine Bluff on the Arkansas River, travel south to the Mississippi River, and continue to the Louisiana Gulf where we will get experience on the Intracoastal Waterway. We will turn north on the Alabama River and make our way to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. We plan to spend a little time in the Kentucky Lakes, make our way to the Ohio River, and continue south to the Mississippi and White rivers. But now, there will be two captains on board with mutual respect for their respective skills—as equals!