At the river’s mercy: Towboat pilot enjoys life on the Mississippi

Published 12:01 am Sunday, August 5, 2012

ROD GUAJARDO/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Michael Melton, towboat pilot for Vidalia Dock and Storage, maneuvers the Bettye M. Jenkins to pick up an empty barge from the company’s fleet. Melton takes empty barges and delivers them to Bunge Grain in Vidalia to be filled. Once filled, the barges are kept at the Natchez Port until another boat picks them up.

From his cockpit, towboat pilot Michael Melton used all the data at his disposal to maneuver a loaded 200-by-35 foot barge out of the way so a nearby empty barge could slide into its place.

“What’s the wind doing?” he asked his deckhand over the walkie-talkie.

Mike Harmon, who has been a deckhand for four years with Vidalia Dock and Storage, looked at Melton from the empty barge, stuck a sun-tanned arm straight in the air and flapped it west.

The barge’s sign has become a familiar sight on the river.

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With that indicator, Melton waited for Harmon to climb down the floating staircase from the barge to the towboat’s deck, released the empty barge at just the right spot and chugged toward the full one parked beneath the Bunge grain elevator on the Vidalia side.

Harmon hopped on the full barge and secured a nearly 2-inch wide rope to a three-foot kevel, which is basically a massive cleat.

Melton attempted to back up the towboat, but as hard as the engine churned and the cockpit shook — the barge wouldn’t budge.

“(The bottom of the barge) must have found a hump when they filled it,” Melton said.

Working on the Mississippi River, Melton’s job is subject to the river’s idiosyncrasies.

And last week, as well as this week — the river is low.

“It sure don’t look like we’re movin’,” said Harmon over the radio, as he investigated the sticking point by walking around the edge of the barge and peering down.

Melton kept chugging, hoping to spring the barge loose from a sandbar on which it apparently had bottomed out.

Michael Melton fills out paperwork on the Bettye M. Jenkins. Melton’s job includes tracking each and every barge he picks up or drops off along the Mississippi River.

It’s an uncommon problem — bottoming out — Melton said, but the pilot and crew are used to dealing with problems that pop up, including the ones that come with record high water levels one year and near-record lows the next.

“You get me turned loose, yet?” Melton asked his deck hand.

Harmon, obviously a helpless force against the 300-foot barge and the Mighty Mississippi’s stubbornly unpredictable floors, had no response.

“I’m messing with you,” Melton said, as he kept working the throttle.

River water made massive swirls on either side of the barge. Harmon noted bubbles coming up near the back end of the barge and said he heard the echo of where it was stuck.

“It’s rubbing good — real good,” Harmon said over the walkie talkie.

And finally, it eased loose.

“Eeeerrr we go,” Melton said. “There we go,” he repeated.

A smile on his face, Melton pulled the filled barge toward the middle of the river. The empty one, which he just positioned to rest against the full one, slid into the full one’s place with a little help from the breeze and current.

By watching the flags move, listening to his deckhand’s technical assessment of the wind and relying on his 24 years of experience, Melton can push and shove around the massive barges to get them right where he wants them, he said.

Melton has been working with Vidalia Dock and Storage for 24 years. Growing up in Natchez, he never knew the company existed until his cousin told him about the job, Melton said.

He started as a deckhand in 1988 and got his pilot’s license in 1995.

Sand surfaces from the bottom of the Mississippi River as the Bettye M. Jenkins leaves Bunge Grain in Vidalia carrying a loaded barge. With the river levels being so low, the towboat often hits sandbars along its journey.

As a pilot, Melton spends most of his days alone in the cockpit, which is kept surprisingly cool by a single window air conditioning unit — loud whirring noises aside.

But he remembers his days as a deckhand and appreciates the fact that all pilots start at the bottom.

“It was a chore, so every chance I get I help the deckhands,” Melton said.

Melton said one of the biggest issues created by the low river levels is the lack of places where he can park the fleet of barges for storage.

When the river is high, they can tie up to the dead man — a massive anchor near the river’s bank — just about anywhere.

But with sandbars turning the City of Vidalia into beach-front property, those options are limited.

The low river also restricts how much load the barges can carry. With the river floor effectively rising, the barges can’t carry more cargo than would make it sink 9 feet below the surface, Melton said.

And another thing affected by the river’s wavering waterline hit a little closer to the couch. The satellite for the satellite TV aboard the towboat needs adjusting whenever the altitude gets shifted up and down with waterline.

Last year, when the river crested at a record 61.9 feet and sent Vidalia residents and their belongings across the Mississippi River Bridge for fear the city would flood, the challenges were different.

Towboats travel only 9 mph, but the current was 10 to 12 mph.

“It was fun,” Melton said of navigating the swollen river.

And since his company plays a support role to the local ports and river navigation, Melton spent a lot of time last year helping other towboats navigate the barges under the bridge.

Harmon remembered the unpredictability of those hectic times.

“With the current going against you, there’s no telling where (the vessels) are liabel to go,” Harmon said.

Regardless of the river’s plans for the day, the employees at Vidalia Dock and Storage continue to operate around the clock, even when the office took in 7 inches of water during last year’s flood. The employees work seven days, then seven nights, then get seven days off, they said.

The river traffic doesn’t stop for sandbars or the summertime temperatures, so neither do they.

As far as the towboat business goes, there’s only one season that matters.

“It’s grain season. We’re busy,” Harmon said.

Both Harmon and Melton said every morning when they report to work at 5:30 a.m., they have no idea what the day will bring before they get off at 6 p.m.

Vidalia Dock and Storage Port Captain Travis Morace has been with the company in various capacities for 22 years.

Morace said as much as he has learned from his uncle and his own experiences how to read the current, the river will always remain unpredictable.

Robert York, top, and Mike Harmon, both deckhands for Vidalia Dock and Storage, stand on the boat waiting to board a barge at the Natchez Port that got stuck after being loaded with grain.

“We’ll never figure it out,” Morace said.

The men agreed that although surprises aren’t always welcome, it keeps things lively.

“It gets a little tiring, but it never gets old,” Morace said.

Melton said working on towboats is the only job he’s had besides bagging groceries right out of high school.

“It’s in my blood,” Melton said.

And he’s grateful that with just him in the cockpit, Melton siaid, there’s nobody to say to him, “Sir, you’re doing that wrong,” like when he bagged groceries.

With a variety of tasks to do at the mercy of the Mississippi River, trial and error comes into play as much as experience, and the river men said they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s a job that takes a special person to do,” Morace said.

“It’s a cool job.”