Fear & Loathing on the ICW
Capt. Kerr A. Jess

Looking up at the fore-bay, west bound from a 2 knot river, with one thousand feet of tow,
is a truly nauseating experience. There I was, waiting my turn for Port Allen Lock, wishing I
would have doubled up the tow and just dealt with it until Bayou Sorell.  Instead, in my greed
for speed, I strung it out. Typical.  I was left struggling to decide exactly how to make this
work. The south point is shallow; there is an eddy working in the slip moving the water north
towards the long wall; and the river, while not exactly screaming out, is moving enough to
give me pause. I considered two options: Carry a bunch of speed to get the boat out of the
current and then hope I can check it up in time so I do not go steaming into the pit like some
madman or; proceed very slowly and cautiously and try to handle it into the fore-bay
alongside the long wall. It was one in the morning and I was tired. The guy on the back
watch was not very experienced and I was not about to give him this mess until we were tied
off in the lock. I opted for the cautious approach, knowing it would probably go wrong. It did.

I watched the outbound tow turn north in the river and drop about a quarter mile with the
current before getting a good point on it. Not a very positive sign for me and my ridiculously
long tow. I slowly eased up to the long wall, falling onto the point with my boat all the while. I
had no speed and therefore no slide or momentum to offset the current. Then the deckhand
suddenly tells me I will not clear the long wall. What the hell?!?! One minute I am 20 to the
good and the next I am 5 to the bad and my speed is somewhere on the short side of 1.
Something is not right and I soon realize it is the deckhand. He has his own concept of how
to talk someone into a lock and unfortunately it does not coincide with the reality the rest of
us share. Great. I found myself in a fine situation. I stopped and soon lost the stern to the
mud. My bow was pointed square at the massive concrete cell marking the long wall and
falling. As I try to work the stern off to back out and try again I watch as the bow falls easily
clear of the long wall. “20’ to the bad on the long wall,” interprets the deckhand over his
handheld. I reach over and turn him off. No information is better than bad information.
Meanwhile, the pilot is heading out to the bow. I continued wrestling to pick up the stern and
get into the fore-bay and out of the current, all the while praying the eddy will help me. I
worked the rudders aggressively and began to be rewarded with a steady set towards the
long wall. Lots of horsepower is a great thing. Just as I began to relax and feel like things
were back under my control, there erupted from the first coupling (a high-low monstrosity), a
deafening explosion with all the attendant sparks and flailing cables one would expect when
things go all wrong. Typical. Now I am piloting a 1000’ foot tow, hinged at the 300’ mark into
Port Allen Locks at 0200hrs.

Once tied off inside the lock, I sheepishly thanked the lock tender for her patience and
pretended like everything was cool. I am sure she thought I was an idiot, flailing around in
the fore-bay for 45 min and then entering the lock with a thousand foot banana poked out in
front of the boat. I turned the thing over to the pilot, who I am sure was thinking of all the
ways he would have done that differently, and headed off to my bunk. I went through a lot of
“woulda, coulda, shoulda” lying sleepless in my bunk that night.  I “shoulda” found out more
about the experience level of the deckhand and possibly chosen someone else to guide me
in. I “coulda” carried more speed and momentum which “woulda” probably made the entire
ordeal a routine locking. I second guessed myself which is almost always the wrong thing to
do. I guess I should look at it in a positive light, further evidence that regardless of our
experience or years at the sticks, there is always something to be learned.

-Capt. Jess
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