Towboating on the West Canal
....an article by Captwooly

 When I was a deckhand and a young up and coming pilot working in and around Mobile, I
used to hear horror stories about running on the west canal. “You don’t want none of the
Wax”, or “the Morgan City bridges will eat your lunch” were some of the phrases I heard
occasionally, not to mention the infamous “everyone out there is an asshole”. So I felt pretty
fortunate to work on the east side running the Mississippi sound, the east canal, the Tenn-
Tom, the Tennessee, and the Tombigbee-Warrior river systems. All except for the Warrior-
Tombigbee were very easy to navigate. My favorite was the Warrior-Tombigbee. To say it
was a challenge for a pilot is an understatement. Sure, it wasn’t all that difficult with two,
maybe four barges, although it could still get tight in a hurry. But when you put six or eight in
front on a 1,000 or 1,200 hp towboat, then you usually have your hands full. They say
someone who can run that river with that many barges and navigate safely (not strip strings
or knock holes in the barges) on a regular basis can run anywhere, and I can believe that.
You literally have a river full with that many and there’s no room for error. The skills you
learn operating on a river like that will make you a better pilot anywhere. And the people that
you work with and around are, for the most part, a pleasure to know.
 Then I was unceremoniously sent to the West canal. To say I was dreading it would have
been an understatement. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to it. Hell, I thought, If I wanted to
work out west, I’d live out west. But things were slow on the east side so I didn’t really have
much choice, plus I figured that at least it would open up new job opportunities should the
need arise. I don’t think that I’ve ever learned an area as quick as I did the west canal,
especially the Houston ship channel and harbor. It seems if you don’t meet at least eight or
ten ships a watch it was a slow day, and not knowing where all the docks were was kind of
stressful also when you’re coming out of Carpenters Bayou with 1,100 feet of tow. Once we
finally got some charts of the area and I got a few trips under my belt I found out several
things. First was that there isn’t much to the west canal. It’s pretty boring actually, what with
many 20 mile straightaways and a few wiggles thrown in every once in a while. And the high
traffic density areas have Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) and VTS user guides that simplify
things tremendously. The other thing I learned is that the people out there aren’t that bad at
all. Sure there are quite a few that will not answer the radio, and God forbid you want
anything other than the “one whistle” while meeting, or the “two” while overtaking. But, other
than that, the percentage of rudeness is probably on par to the amount of boats transiting
the area as it it is back east. So if you have never been out west and are going for whatever
reason, there’s nothing to sweat about. Just make sure you have your charts, plenty of
coffee to stay awake, and the memories of the bikinis that you won't hardly see out that way.

captwooly
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