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Close Call at Colorado Locks by Capt. David Whitehurst
On May 20th at about 16:45, I had a very close call with a small sport fishing craft at the
west Colorado locks; I was west bound with a 300 x 54 ft. empty spoonbill rake barge. As I
was lining up on the east side of the west locks I looked though the lock chamber and to my
surprise, saw a sport fishing boat enter the west end of the lock, l called the lock masters by
VHF radio on channel 14 to inform them that a small boat is coming east bound in the lock
chamber. I kept watching, all the while thinking that the operator of the small boat will either
turn around or go to the south bank in the lock chamber. The fool did neither and actually
sped up and kept right on coming.  Just as he was about to enter the east gates of the west
lock he seemed to hesitate and then suddenly gunned it and passed between the bull-nose
of the lock wall and under the rake of the barge. The wind that afternoon was out of the
south and the tide was running out so I had to watch for these effects upon my boat and tow
as it crossed the river. There is a point of no-return in a close quarter’s situation. I had
already slowed my engines down to clutch and when I saw him gun-it, I went to reverse but
with the delay in the clutch for the gears to shift and then the engines to throttle back up,
there was no effect on the  forward movement of the tow.
The operator of the small boat was an elderly gentleman with three or four, twelve to fifteen
year old youngsters, none were wearing personal flotation devices (PFD’s). As l was
departing the lock chamber l looked back to see if he would do the same thing at the east
lock. A Texas Wildlife and Fisheries boat was pulled along side of this small boat. I thought
that either the lock master made a phone call or the officers were monitoring VHF Ch.14?
After numerous phone calls and E-Mails l tracked down the wildlife officer that boarded the
small boat.  By speaking to this officer I found out that he was not aware of what took place
at the locks just minutes before boarding this vessel.
This was not the first time that I have had a small boat operator cause me to age nor will it
be the last; although I really do believe that this was the closest that I have come to having
lives lost and causing me to live the rest of my life agonizing over the question, “What the
Hell could have I done to save those lives?”  Even though it was not my fault, just knowing
that a fool used equipment under my command, basically committing suicide and possibly
taking young lives with him, it would be too much to bear.  This incident is similar in nature to
someone trying to race a train to the crossing. Pure stupidity.
A few years ago I traveled to Washington D.C. to attend a Towing Safety Advisory
Committee (TSAC) meeting; I addressed this very issue. I have also asked the American
Waterways Operators Association (AWO) to sponsor television commercials addressing the
dangers of small craft intermixing with large commercial vessels. They did not respond to my
request. Although, Miss. Cathy Shantz-Hammond, the owner of a towing company, a paid
chartered member of the American Waterways Operators Association and holder of a seat
on the board of the
Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC), has received a plaque from
the AWO for her work on getting a government grant for what is referred to as the
Hammond lights. These lights are set out at the coupling on the barges to make them more
visible to small craft during night time navigation.
There are by far more small crafts operating doing day light hours then at night. The jet-skis
or personal water craft (PWC) that are, by the hundreds, jumping the waves in the wheel-
wash do not generally operate at night. Boats pulling water skiers and wake boarders do not
operate at night. Most bass fishing tournaments are held doing day light hours. Signs and
lights are important for the ones that obey them. Just like at rail road crossings signs, lights,
whistles and bells are installed but there are deaths every year which is why the rail road
companies have launched a campaign using television commercials showing what really
happens when a train and  car mixes it up, the train wins every time! It is in many ways
worse on the water, due to the drowning aspect of an unconscious body in the water. There
are large florescent signs at the Colorado locks that states small craft must not enter the
lock with commercial vessels.  Maybe adding a flashing red light to draw attention to those
signs or a lighted, flashing sign reading:

                  
DANGER, SMALL CRAFT DO NOT ENTER LOCK CHAMBER.
                            Even with this, I know fools will always be fools!

The real answer is
education, education and more education. I have offered to speak at
small boating courses that wildlife and fishery officers hold in my state; and the answer is
always the same: “we already teach about the dangers of operating small craft around large
vessels.” Judging from the number of close calls, I really do not think that they get the point
across very well.

Anyone can go out and buy a watercraft and with the high horse power engines that are
being marketed, some of these machines are capable of over sixty miles per hour and many
bass boats will run eighty to ninety and more miles per hour. At these high rates of speed,
when a body hits the water, it is like hitting a sheet of steel. Hitting a barge that is built out of
quarter to half inch steel plate, a fiberglass craft running at twenty to thirty miles per hour
will disintegrate.

As professional mariners we need to take an active roll in educating the general public of
the dangers of operating these small craft around the large commercial vessels that we
operate. I have seen mariners encourage a small boater to come closer so a better look can
be had at the bra-less or bottom-less female in the boat. Now do not get me wrong I am just
as guilty of this as the next guy, but this encouragement only gives the small craft operator
the idea that these large vessels pose no danger to his small craft. We are professional
mariners 24/7. We need to act more responsibly and not encourage this type of activity.  
Every year small boaters lose their lives on our waterways to commercial vessels. Some are
alcohol related and some are small boat operators anchoring in or very near a commercial
channel, many times the operator of the commercial vessel cannot see the small craft due
to poor lighting, restricted visibility or the radar unable to register the small target. On our
nations high ways I have seen stickers and mud flaps on the back of the large trucks that
say if you can not see my mirrors than I can not see you; it is the same thing for a pilot in
the wheelhouse of a towing vessel.
 If the small boater cannot see the pilot, then the
pilot cannot see the small boater.
I have seen countless incidents where  small boats
have crossed in front of my tow and subsequently endured what seems like an eternity
before they finally show up coming out the other side. I have addressed this issue of towing
vessel visibility at TSAC meetings in Memphis TN. and Washington D.C. At one meeting I
showed a side view of my pickup with the hood up and I asked the members of TSAC if
anyone of them would drive this truck to Wal-Mart with the hood up. This is what some
towing companies expect their employees to do by assigning tows that the vessel operator
can not see ahead of. Some companies have built fourteen foot hull barges and raised the
coamings (cargo compartment wall above deck) up to as much as five feet, stacking the
fiberglass covers on either end of the cargo compartment. With the fiberglass covers that
are being used on the barges now days there is a real effect with the picture on the radar
screen. The radar unit sends out signals and some of those signals penetrate the fiberglass
barge covers and bounce around in the steel cargo box registering a similar false display as
open hopper barges. These reading show up on the vessels radar as V shaped rail road
ties, the tow is not discernable as to size or shape. Any vessel in close proximity is blurred
out. The towing vessel operator can run over a small craft and not know it until the debris of
the craft shows up next to the towing vessel which is sometimes as far back as one
thousand feet.
 
In the towing industry itself, there are a number of deaths every year, most are from
drowning. Whether it be falls over board or vessels capsizing and sinking, we lose crew
members. The water is a very dangerous place to work or play. I have lived my entire life on
the water and I have had many close calls. I respect the dangers that lurk with being over
the water. If you are going to be over the water always wear a personal flotation devise
(PFD) and make sure that it fits properly and is fastened. The fault does not totally lay with
the recklessness of the small boater; the Rules of the road are plain:
we are responsible
for avoiding the risk of collision by all means possible.             

I ask that we as professional mariners and members of the towing industry work hard to
make our waterways safer. The waterways can be both fun for the week end sailors and
profitable for the commercial user. We all can benefit from our waterways. There are a lot of
professional mariners that fish and hunt, any time you are at a boat launch, whether making
a crew change or on an outing on your days off, talk to the folks that you meet and
encourage them to stay a safe distance from any commercial vessel and all ways wear that
PFD. We all need to do our part to make the water a fun and profitable place for all.

Go out there and boat safely!  Wear that PFD!      

Submitted by: Capt. David Whitehurst, USCG Licensed Master of towing Vessels (7th
issue) and an active board member of the
Gulf Coast Mariners Association.