• August 18, 2019

River runs in crew's blood - The Trail Blazer: Life & Arts

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River runs in crew's blood

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Posted: Sunday, April 7, 2019 8:44 am

Paula Ruble
Cejae Brown steers the boat to arrange barges as a unit under the instruction of Captain Clyde Kennedy on the Paula Ruble headed North on the Ohio River on Tuesday March 26, 2019. Brown is a part of the Steersman training program which prepares individuals to become a pilot and eventually a captain. Photo by Julianna Leach Julianna Leach

Leaving family and home life for 21 days isn’t easy, but the Paula Ruble crew does it every three weeks for their job on the river. And along the 981-mile-long Ohio River, the towboat experience is very different.  

“It’s two different worlds,” said Captain Clyde Kennedy, from Hardinsburg.

With 33 years in the business, Kennedy said it doesn’t get easier, but having friendships and family ties on the river makes it feel more like a home.

“It’s just in my blood. It’s just what I always wanted to do was work on the river,” said Kennedy, who represents the second generation in his family for the job. “We try to make it a family and have two families.”

Once on the river, the seven-member crew is comprised of two groups of three that switch shifts every six hours to maintain and operate the boat, and a cook.

One responsibility deckhands have is to conduct regular checks on the tow to ensure the compartments underneath the barge are not bringing on water.

Paula Ruble
Mason Parson secures the line on a barge of rock on the Paula Ruble headed North on the Ohio River on Tuesday March 26, 2019. Parson is youngest memeber on the crew at 21. Photo by Julianna Leach Julianna Leach

Kennedy has been captain of four boats and the Paula Ruble is one of the larger boats on the river. With its two 2,000-horsepower engines, it can push as many as 20 barges, depending on water levels and current, which changes day to day.

“Not everybody can do this,” Kennedy said. “I just always try to do my best.”

The Ohio River’s systems are maintained by locks that control the depth and water flow of the current. With the lock at 110 feet wide and the boat and tow at 105 feet, there is little room for error.

Paula Ruble
Lonnie Greene and Matt Parker estimate distance from the lock walls through radio to Pilot Jason Boggess on the Paula Ruble headed North on the Ohio River on Tuesday March 26, 2019. Photo by Julianna Leach Julianna Leach

Although there have been accidents over the years with breakaway barges or slips overboard, precautions and training programs are in place to ensure the workers’ safety.

“There are hazards in every occupation,” said Mike Kidd, port captain of the Maysville office of Crounse Corporation. He oversees more than 300 employees with the help of the Paducah office. “The biggest concern is when you slip or trip. We try to train to where you don’t put yourself in the position to where there’s a chance you’re going to go overboard.”

Another program is the Steersman Training Program, which trains people to be future captains or pilots.

Cejae Brown, steersman on the Paula Ruble, is training under Kennedy with the goal of becoming a pilot, then eventually a captain. There is no set time for completing the program and it’s based on personal progress seen by the captain. It can take months for some, and years for others, to complete.

“That was my goal, to get set up in the program,” said Brown, 26, who asked if Kennedy would be the one he could study under. “It’s always been safe working under him and he’s a smooth boat operator.”

Between the hard work, long nights and being away from family, it is a job not many choose to keep.

Paula Ruble
From Left to Right: Cejae Brown looks out the window while Matt Parker and Lonnie Greene laugh at dinner time on the Paula Ruble headed North on the Ohio River on Tuesday March 26, 2019. Photo by Julianna Leach Julianna Leach

Based on Kidd’s experience of working his way from deckhand to port captain, he said it takes everyone to keep the boat running and making the trip comfortable for everyone.  

 “They are the backbone of our company and we cannot do what we do if they do not do what they do,” said Kidd. “A lot of times the captain and cook dictate the morale of a crew.”

While away, crew members have received calls from home with bad news about hospitalizations or family deaths, leaving a tight-knit crew an important support system for them.

“It’s like you have two families,” said Matt Parker, the second engineer who sees an estimated six hours of sunlight in a day. “You have your family when you’re home and then there’s the crew on the boat that’s kind of like a family.”

Kennedy explained that river systems are more economical than other transportation services and can move significantly more than semi-trucks or trains, with one full barge weighing an estimated 1,700 tons. With an average of 15 barges, that’s 25,500 tons of dry goods.

“It’s cheaper for more tonnage for the price they get,” said Kennedy.

Another factor that plays into the amount a barge can transport it the water levels. For example, the depth of the Mississippi River allows the barge to carry a heavier load than the Ohio River.

On the river banks, power plants and other consumers often have unloaders to remove their product from the barge.  

They barge over 30 million tons of goods annually, with majority of it being coal. Gravel, sand and limestone are also transported.

“No other job on the bank is like being out here,” said Jason Boggess, a seven-year pilot. “That makes it unique.”

According to manager of the Maysville Division of Crounse Corp., Thomas Woosley, international tariffs have made the transportation and production of American goods more competitive.

“It’s a world market on any commodity whether it’s coal, steel or grain,” he said.