Downhill Racer

At Sea — April 2000
At Sea — April 2000
By Capt. Bill Pike

Downhill Racer
Wanna know why downbound vessels have the right of way? Ride a tug-barge combo around Algiers Point sometime.

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I was sitting in my armchair-sailor's recliner at Mullet Mansion (my house), typing away at something or other, when I got a call from a colleague, a guy with plenty of experience with and knowledge of recreational boats and boating. He was aghast, he said. The night before, he'd watched a TV program that featured footage shot in the wheelhouse of a big, commercial tug pushing a raft of barges downbound around the turn at Algiers Point on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. The bend at Algiers is an infamous spot in the maritime trade, a boat-handling hellhole for vessels going south. Shaped like a horseshoe, the turn arcs through a whopping 135 degrees and is fraught with white-capped currents that rage at 6 knots or so from midspring to late summer--currents that can rob a vessel of its rudder power in less time than it takes to swallow hard. What's more, both banks of the turn are crowded with commercial enterprises--stuff like docks, shipyards, and lovely paddle-wheel riverboats like the Natchez--all reasonably expensive from the standpoint of collision. And, except for the wee hours of the morning, the place is typically loaded with spectators or, in the event of an accident, witnesses.

"What a wild scene," my friend proclaimed, going on to describe the bilious sensation he'd gotten from simply watching video footage of what a pilot sees while working his way down around the point on a "running river." The footage--shot in daylight--had apparently done a pretty good job of rendering the absolute optical chaos that prevails in the windows of a big commercial vessel's wheelhouse when visual cues associated with rapid forward movement are skewed by other cues emanating from the Twilight-Zone-like, equally rapid, sideways slide that a radical current set can sometimes produce.

Based on my friend's avowed lack of knowledge of the phenomenon, it seems likely that some recreational boaters may not know about or understand it either. The subject harbors a few horrifically entertaining details, and going public with it may push you to hew a little more scrupulously to the Rules of the Road and avoid crowding or otherwise interfering with big, heavily loaded downbound tows or ships next time you encounter them in turns, whether on the Mississippi or elsewhere. Generally speaking, they have the right of way.

Considering my knowledge of the visual peculiarities dates back a few years, I contacted my old buddy and maritime-academy roommate Capt. J.B. Collings. A skipper of ocean-going tugs as well as a Mississippi River pilot, Collings regularly runs the river these days at the helm of a tug-barge combination.

Next page > Downhill Racer continued > Page 1, 2

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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