A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Everything seems to be shutting down except river’s workhorses; humor can save the day


The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

I’m sorta numb. How about you, while we are waist-deep at the beginning of a worldwide pandemic of a new virus spreading its deadly effects across the globe? No one knows what to expect day-by-day. The negative economic impact of the COVID-19 virus will, most likely, influence more people than the disease itself. Everything seems to be shutting down. On the river, the overnight passenger boats, just beginning their seasonal cruises for this year, lay tied up until further notice. The dinner and day liners will likely delay the start of their 2020 seasons, too.

On the river, the overnight passenger boats, just beginning their seasonal cruises for this year, lay tied up until further notice.

The workhorses of the river, the mighty towboats, not “tugs,” continue to do their vitally necessary work of transporting essential cargoes of coal, oil, gasoline, salt, chemicals and other bulk items in barges lashed together in mass configurations called “tows,” never “a barge,” as the uniformed persist on calling them. The towing companies are, however, modifying their operations to comply with government, state, and industry recommendations to limit the spread of the virus. Life aboard a towboat is a classic example of “social distancing” from the rest of the population, but crews do change with workers going back and forth from the boat to the shore, and visa-versa.

Earlier, I was on the phone with one towboat captain who was on such a mission for his company to ensure compliance of guidance to help their boats and crews thwart the invasion of COVID-19. Captain Barry J. Hitchcock of Florida Marine Transporters, LLC, revealed he was a day away from boarding a boat at Memphis. Cap’n Barry, a native of Batesville, Mississippi, just south of Memphis, down US Highway 51, like so many others close to the river, loves to tell a good story. The one thing I quickly learned about Barry from his many postings on a popular Facebook page I help administer, “Rivermen & Riverboats,” he’s full of stories about his life on the river these past 30 years. With his permission, I will share a few of his anecdotes in his words with minimal interference from me.

Captain Barry: 

Thirty years ago, I cut my teeth in this river industry, just a young 20-year old that didn’t know what river life was all about. The mate handed me a “duty,” or chore list to do for the watches I would pull, so I thought, “That’s it?” About a week into my trip, with all my daily watch duties completed, I was sitting in front of the TV when the captain came down and kindly asked what I was doing. I replied with an easy, “Well, all my work is done.” He laughed and said, “Work’s never done on a boat. When you think your work is complete, put a couple of rags in your pocket, grab hold a 409 bottle, and follow the chief engineer around.” We got a laugh out of that one. While over the next few days, one thing was for certain.” He ain’t a’ lying.”  

The workhorses of the river, the mighty towboats, not “tugs,” continue to do their vitally necessary work of transporting essential cargoes.

That was one lesson Barry learned early-on that I discovered in my own time, there is always something to do on a boat, and one should always find what needs doing without being told. Both are key to accomplishing career goals. Barry’s captain revealed yet another of those secrets when he advised the young greenhorn to “put a couple of rags in your pocket” and use them. Pretty soon, the captain, Chief, or mate will likely notice and mentally note, “Every time I see that deckhand, he’s/she’s always busy.” Those positive notations add-up considerably on the road to however-far the newcomer wishes to travel.

Captain Hitchcock also noted: “Everyone on the river gets a nickname or title.” In the following tale, Barry reveals how he earned a unique moniker and the unusually daring way he did so.

Captain Barry:

My second trip out, which was 30 years ago next week, earned me a nickname that wore off only after ten years.

With other barges blocking the Texas Eastern Helena Dock, the M/V BILLY WAXLER couldn’t be faced-up to our barges, so we pushed-in on the bank just above the old wooden “drift wall” to get the shore wire tied to the top of the hill, which we pulled tight with the capstan. After my daily clean-up, I grabbed a backpack with water bottles, shimmied out on the wire since the Chief was nowhere nearby to hold the ladder. Once my feet touched the bank, I was halfway up the hill carrying the bottles of water to the tankerman/mate.

Captain Barry J. Hitchcock of Florida Marine Transporters, LLC, is full of stories about his life on the river these past 30 years.

On my return to wake up next watch, I grabbed a toothpick and a shackle to use as a zipline to fly down to the boat from atop the hill. It would have worked except the boat moved in slightly. With captain and chief watching from the wheelhouse at eye level with smiles on their faces, I flew down that wire quicker than a minnow chased by a bass.

Thinking I would come to a sliding halt on the deck after crashing into the H-bitt, the wire sagged, and I stopped five feet from the boat. I was dangling in the air like the dollar on the insurance commercial with NO place to go. My only help was watching and laughing hysterically with tears in their eyes. I tried to jump upward while releasing both my hands at the same time to catch the wire to pull myself up. Once all 265 pounds released from the toothpick, the wire jumped overhead into the air five feet. Missing the wire, I landed waist-deep in the cold April waters of the Mississippi, still holding the toothpick in-hand.

By this point, I thought it couldn’t get any worse. But as you may have guessed, that shackle started spinning faster than the ball on a roulette wheel while I waited to see when, where, or even if it would come off the line. While the captain and Chief now in full gales of laughter with their faces red from lack of oxygen, I watched that shackle slowly come to a halt and fall straight down, right on top of my head!

Captain Tom Greene. When the captain came down and kindly asked what I was doing. I replied with an easy, “Well, all my work is done.” He laughed and said, “Work’s never done on a boat.”

I had to walk up the hill, grab the wire, toss my legs over, and slide back down to the boat. Once back on deck, I sauntered to the wheelhouse soaked, only to hear the captain say, “That’s the craziest thing I ever saw… Something that ‘MacGyver’ would do.”    

Guess a nickname could have been worse.

A “toothpick,” by the way, is a steel rod or length of pipe used in the rigging holding barges together to keep the steel cables, called “wires” from twisting. Husky, barrel ratchets tightened with another length of pipe inserted over the ratchet handle, known as “cheater bars,” stretch the wires to nearly their breaking points. A shackle often called a “clevis” away from the river, is a hefty horseshoe-shaped device with a hole at each of the U-shaped ends for a screwed-in pin. A shackle connects the eyes of the wires as needed. “MacGyver” removed the pin and stuck the toothpick into the holes with the shackle looped over the shore wire. Holding on tight to the toothpick with both hands, he slid down the wire Navy Seal-fashion. A lesser man wouldn’t have made it – especially after the weighty, steel shackle came crashing down atop his head. MacGyver, indeed.

Captain Barry, in another tale, reveals how comical, yet sometimes course, an interplay between members of a boat crew can be that concerns a veteran woman cook and the Chief Engineer.

For days, the Cook complained that the kitchen sink didn’t have enough water pressure, so the Chief Engineer decided to fix it up good. After midnight, he hooked up the sink’s small 5/8-inch waterline into the output of a two-inch fire pump and waited just outside the galley window for her to turn on the water.

Husky, barrel ratchets tightened with another length of pipe inserted over the ratchet handle, known as “cheater bars,” stretch the wires to nearly their breaking points.

As soon as she turned that fragile sink knob…he hit the fire pump. With all the other outlets closed, the pressure tore the faucet entirely away from the sink with what seemed like a hundred gallons, or so, of water.

Since the Cook was now looking like a drowned cat, the Chief slipped into the galley only after he could finally compose himself, to have the mean, four-foot-nine-inch bulldog of a cook, still soaked with her hair a-mess, throw her hands onto her hips and scream, “That’s too much pressure!”

Such interplay among crewmembers, as humorously portrayed by Captain Hitchcock, is what helps keep folks far from home, loved ones, and society in general, functioning for 30 days, sometimes more. With nothing other than strenuous chores over rotating six-hour shifts, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week aboard the river towboats, crew members require emotional pressure valves to ease the tension and stress that such schedules offer.

With the added weight of the viral pandemic, like everyone ashore, crewmembers are especially concerned that they are powerless to assist others they care about so far removed. Hence, professional boaters go about what they need to do and hope and pray that they, their crewmen and women, and those they love afar find respite from the worst of the unknown.

For days, the Cook complained that the kitchen sink didn’t have enough water pressure, so the Chief Engineer decided to fix it up good. (Angry Cook by Jennifer LI)

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.


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10 Comments

  1. Joy Scudder says:

    Thanks, Capt. Don. Your words paint a warm, funny picture of life on the river. Makes one appreciate the crews’ hard work to bring goods ashore.

  2. Good’un Cap’t Don, as always. We all need a chuckle or two about now.

  3. Mike Washenko says:

    Great article Capt.

  4. Ronald Sutton says:

    I sympathize with the Chief. ‘If I get First Class Food and Service, You get attention to your needs and Wants.’ Usually the Stewards Dept would sweep garbage into the Galley Drains; then cry when they plugged. The solution was to cut a Spud with firehose thread into the drain line. Hook up a firehose and blow the drains back, usually putting a couple of inches of garbage filled water into the Galley.

    Little Dramas like this play out on every ship and boat afloat on an outgoing basis. Good Stories, Capt. Don.

  5. Heidi English says:

    I am a huge fan of Captain Don’ s stories.
    This is a wonderful escape of the scary times we are living in.

  6. Ginnie Rhynders says:

    Always look forward to Captain’s columns and this one was especially welcome at this time. Thank you, Sir.

  7. Terri Christie says:

    I always love reading your river tales. It’s the bright spot of my week. Thanks and keep it up.

  8. Frank X. Prudent says:

    Another great article about life in the river, Cap. But what is the editor trying to do, save printer’s ink? They left off the final “e” in Capt. Tom Greene’s name under the photo of him wearing his paint spotted officer’s cap.

  9. Thanks, everyone for your great comments. Of all people, I’m almost at a loss for words. Keep yourselves and those you love as safe as you can. Wash your hands, keep at least six feet from others, hunker in place, and pray not only for yourselves but also for those who must put their shoulders to the storm.

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