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The River: ‘A’learin’ to be a pilot’ from Capt. Embry Haynes, as told by Capt. Michael Gore

The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders shares the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Captain Don’s note: For several months, personal issues have stymied my creative capabilities for new and thrilling accounts of my adventures on The River. Graciously, Editor Clabes has reprinted numerous of my 235-some columns previously featured in the Tribune. Although my tribulations continue, Captain Michael Gore has shared several recollections of his younger days on Green River towboats, in Western Kentucky, with his mentor and friend, the late Captain Embry Haynes. Instead of another repetition, I’d rather my readers enjoy a classic river way of educating new and/or inexperienced persons in the “pilotin’ trade.”

Young Capt. Michael Gore said: Embry started “learning” me piloting and the river. I was just a kid. It started when I was about 14 or 15 years old.

According to Capt. Mike, now retired, “Cap’n Embry told stories about working as a youth and young adult on the old boats on the Green, Barren, Nolin, and Kentucky Rivers. His Uncle, Captain Lewis Martin, who had rescued him from working with the carnival, brought Embry back to Kentucky and put him to work on the river.” 

Over the years, as Embry became an experienced riverman and eventually a master-pilot, he, like others of his trade before him, passed on his knowledge through what Captain Haynes called “a’learnin’ to be a pilot.”

A’Learnin; to be a Pilot

Captain Embry Haynes loved to have a “steersman” on his watch, which could be an official company-sent-pilot-trainee to teach (“learn”) piloting or a “posting pilot” (an experienced pilot riding to learn a new river or to get posted-up or updated). Embry said that the Port Captain of the company told him once that he had made more new pilots for the company than any other veteran. Embry was a natural teacher because it just flowed out of him. Embry was quite able to create an unofficial steersman in fairly short order. Usually, it was a deckhand or engineer, at times, even the cook, that he would train to “hold her in a straight river” so he could run down to the bathroom, get a snack, etc.

Captain Embry Haynes loved to have a ‘steersman’ on his watch.

As time and steering experience progressed, Embry would stay away from the pilothouse for longer periods. If he was needed back in the pilothouse, the steersman could simply call below on the P. A. system (if the boat had one and if it worked) or a short blow on the boat’s horn, or “rev” the engines (slow them to idle, then back to full ahead, slow them to idle and keep repeating).

It was on the GIBRALTAR NO. 2 (“G2”), that Embry started “learning” me piloting and the river. I was just a kid. It started when I was about 14 or 15 years old. I would ride every chance possible on weekends and in the summer to be with him. Through time, I got on or off at every possible place up and down Green River and many places out on the Ohio. I had paper maps of all the counties along Green River and could figure out where to meet the boat. It also helped that I had my own 2-channel VHF marine radio that plugged into a vehicle cigarette lighter. I could call the boat from a few miles away, usually from certain hilltops and roadside pull-offs, and figure out a location to meet them. 

At home, I had a VHF marine radio scanner that could pick up the boats on Green River in certain areas, and that helped me to know ahead of time when to leave home. Also, at home, I had a shortwave radio to listen to the daily “schedules” or times when the company would call each boat alphabetically to record their current mile position and their activities and times, like what time a lock was made or time in and out of a landing, what barges were dropped, and what barges were picked up.

Michael Gore:“Every tow has a pivot point when it’s a’bein’ steered. The pivot point may be just in front of the boat or out in the middle or at the head of the tow.”

Like a sponge, I was eager to soak up “learnin.” He would say:

“Pilotin’ is mostly judgment and timin’ and the rest is a’bein’ “riverwise” and “boatwise.” I’ll start you, but yore the one to learn it and add to it, so it all becomes yore’n.”

“Pilotin’ can be explained in 2 ways: Yore either a’gettin’ in shape up for somethin’ like a bend, bridge, lock, a landing, or even straight river, or yore a’stayin’ in shape to make the bend, bridge, lock, landing, or straight river.”

“You have to learn the shape of the river and know it by ‘picture in mind.’ When yore a’comin’ around a blind bend, you gotta be a’shapin’ up for what’s outta sight around the point, not just what yore a’seein’. When it’s hazy or foggy, and you can see a little but not everything, you have to steer with a ‘picture in mind.’ That radar will show you the shape of the river and it’ll pick up buoys, but it don’t show you headway or a slide or a set or bridge piers or details on the bank. You gotta see all that in your mind.”

“You have to learn the river by day and by night and in all conditions in all seasons. They’re all different, and it affects yore judgment. You have to know, a’fore you see it, that the bend is about made, so you won’t oversteer too long around the point and ‘head her up’ (oversteer and hit the bank past the point of the bend) because she won’t lift her stern in time.”

“When downbound in current, if you let her stern get too far out in the current when oversteerin’, she might not lift it back up. Lift yore stern (countersteer the opposite way) often. Nothing good happens when you lose yore stern in current.”

“You have to learn the boat yore on. How she feels in all conditions of the river. How long she keeps a’steerin’ when hard-over with the rudders. When to expect her to outrun her steer. How long it takes her to ‘ship up’ (reverse the engines from coming ahead to going astern or astern back to coming ahead). Her ‘shove-out’ power from killed out or from slow headway. If you’re unsure, test her out in open river, so you’ll know what to expect in tight quarters.” 

“When downbound in current, back ‘er full astern and see how long it takes to get to current speed and finally killed out. If she won’t stop and hold the tow in current, then you can’t stop, flank, and drive the channel span at Livermore (RR bridges). You’ll know to go down the backside. You have to know these things A’FORE you get to the bridge or lock.”

Michael Gore: Through time, I got on or off at every possible place up and down Green River and many places out on the Ohio.

“Look around all the time, especially out the side windows. That’s the only way you can tell yore headway or sternway. A’lookin’ out the front windows constantly won’t give you the full picture. The boat don’t end where yore a’standin’. Look out the back pilothouse windows often and sight the mast with the shoreline behind you…it’ll tell you if and how fast or slow her stern is swingin’.” 

“When you got empties, keep a good check on the flag for which way the wind’s a’blowin’ and how hard it’s a blowin’. Realize that wind is just current in the air. You gotta read the wind same as the river.”

“Every tow has a pivot point when it’s a’bein’ steered. The pivot point may be just in front of the boat or out in the middle or at the head of the tow. When a’steerin’ with much rudder, the pivot point may stay in one spot. Most likely, it’ll move in a long steer. When a’steerin’ in a big slide, the pivot point can move ahead of the tow. You gotta learn to know where it is”.

“When yore a’goin’ to hit something, always remember: get the head of the tow past it. A head-on collision is the worst kind there is. A sideswipe is much better and will mean maybe a lot less damage. Hit whatever it is with the tow as flat as possible and be a’liftin’ her stern so the whole tow from head to stern hits or lands flat at the same time. If things are getting dangerous, like yore about to miss a lock or get into a low bridge…ALWAYS take care of the boat. Get her a’loose from the tow as soon as possible. To hell with them barges! Let them barges end up on the dam and not the boat! You take care of the boat and the crew.”

“When I’m a’steerin’, you watch and listen to me and commit it to memory. When I say, ‘Now, don’t do as I do, do as I say,’ then I mean that. Yore not a’ready for that yet. Then, when yore a’steerin’ and I’m a’tellin’ you things, then do exactly as I say. If I tell you to steer up on a point, straighten her up, or steer off, even though it might not make sense, you just do it. That way, you’ll see and learn to feel what happens and know why and what to expect.”

“As you start a’gettin’ a feel for things and yore timing and experience start to make sense, then you can start a’doin’ things that you see me and other pilots do. Learn from everyone by a’watchin’ them; good and bad. That’s how Uncle Lewis did things, and that’s how Bill Joiner learned me.”

The first time Embry left me alone, steering went like this: It was on the G2, and we had our tow of empties made up and had just started back up the Green. Once we cleared all the fleets at about Mile 3, he said, 

“Here, take this thing, I’m going down below. There’s no traffic coming. I’ll be back before you get to Spottsville (RR bridge). If you end up about to get into the bank, just kill her out, land flat, and switch her out like I showed you to get back out in the river”.

So, away he went. My feelings were all running on such a high that I will never forget the total thrill but underlying dread of it all. Man! Here I am piloting on my own, but…what if I do get into the bank? What happens if I do tear something up? But I’m steering alone, and it’s like this huge landmark dream.

“Here, take this thing. I’m going down below. There’s no traffic coming. I’ll be back before you get to Spottsville RR Bridge.”

When I got around Mile 4 at Race Creek Bend, which is a “hard-over” steer, without missing the bend and having to land the tow. That was a confidence boost. The next four miles to Spottsville RR bridge were a long, slow bend followed by a straight stretch of about two miles- such a wide river all to myself.

I remember turning the radio up loud like Embry, listening to the fairly new WBKR, which originally only played classic country music, the only kind he would listen to. When Hank Williams, Cowboy Copas, George Jones, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Webb Pierce, or any of those classic guys sang, the pilothouse windows rattled when Embry was on watch. Some months later, I brought a new 8-track portable stereo with speakers that separated. Embry loved it! Many miles of country music 8-track tape went through that player before it finally wore out. 

Anyway, back to this particular day, I finally sat down in the pilot’s chair and savored it all. It was like I was becoming Embry, Bill Joiner, or, by extension, Lewis Martin. My dream was coming true. Up the river, I went with a new and wobbly type of confidence. When we finally got towards Spottsville, I remember thinking: Embry will be up anytime. But as the bridge began to reveal itself, coming into sight around a short bend.. no Embry. 

Still running full ahead, I knew at some point SOON, Embry had to come up. He could drive Spottsville full ahead, but I did not dare even to try making Spottsville running dead slow ahead. 

Still, no Embry! What to do? 

I pulled the engine throttles back to idle and then revved back full ahead to give the come-to-the-pilothouse signal. I thought, he’ll come up here now…but, no Embry. We were getting on up closer to the bridge now. I pulled back to idle speed, and the tow began to slow down headway. I revved it again, and no response from Embry. I couldn’t get much closer to the bridge. That was the limit of what I could do! 

So, with feelings of dread, bewilderment, confusion, and a little fear, I backed her full astern and killed out in midriver just a few hundred feet below the bridge’s lower shear fence pier. Still, no Embry! I revved some more and finally blew a short blast on the horn as the minutes passed, feeling like ice water running through my veins! 

Finally, I heard him coming up the stairs before I saw him. The rush of relief was tremendous. When he arrived in the pilothouse with a big grin, I gushed, “Where have you been?? I didn’t know what to do, so I killed out. Man, you got me worried about letting me get this close!” 

Embry eased up to the steering levers and said, “I got her,” as I stepped to the

This was a “watch change” scene he and I would play out many times every 6-hour watch a few years later when I was his real pilot. He said, 

“Why are you a’worried? Did you think I wasn’t a’watchin’ you? You didn’t know it, but I was a’watchin’ all the time down on the second deck where you couldn’t see me.”

“You see, every pilot has to have “nerve,” lots of nerve that can’t be shook up. Never lose your nerve. You just got a little taste of maybe a’losin’ it. When things go bad out here, you gotta keep your nerve and not panic. Panic is what’ll cause a’losin’ your judgment. I waited so you could feel a little bit of a’bein’ out-of-control and a’tryin’ to figure out what to do.”

“You killed out, and I’m proud of you. Some would have tried the bridge. I’d have been up here in a flash if you had tried that.”

(Captain Don: It was uncanny when, some months later, I studied Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and read almost the exact same experience that Sam Clemens’ mentor-pilot, Horace Bixby, put him through to learn an important lesson about confidence as a pilot. I guess it’s an old river tradition.

Yes, you’re correct, Capt. Mike. It’s been a never-ending, repetitious cycle of youngsters coming to the river, becoming experienced, moving ahead, getting older, and then passing down what they’ve learned to help a deserving rookie to take their place when the time comes. It’s been a river tradition since the first steamboat departed from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in 1811 and will continue, perhaps, to the end of time or until the rivers run dry.)  

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 sharing his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.

Click here to read all of Capt. Don Sanders’ stories of The River.

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  1. Mike Washenko says:

    Great to read article.

  2. Cori Reade-Hale says:

    Awesome, thanks Capt. Don and Capt.Mike for “Learnin” us about how young men begin “learnin” the river. I remember Dad talking about Capt Charlie Ellsworth & other trainers he had. He was hired by USSteel specifically to train young Mates to be pilots. Now reading this I can feel what his days & nights were about.. Thanks fur bringing it to life. “Hours of boredom & a few minutes of terror”

  3. Michael Gore says:

    It is with sincerest appreciation that I wish to thank Capt. Don Sanders and the NKYTribune for allowing this space for a tribute to my beloved mentor, Capt. Embry Haynes.

    • Michael Garrity says:

      Wow. This is like a free mini Masterclass in how to “alearnin’ to pilot a river tow. I love getting to read these great river history stories. So glad the editors of the paper see the value of printing these pieces in the paper.

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