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......Regarding the tugboat shots, Rx'd this thru Retired Navy Commander....


Recently there was a posting with a URL starring a tug boat. I thought the
URL was cool so I sent it to a Captain buddy of mine...this was his
reply...sorry for the lack of multihull content

There are some things about me that you are just unaware of, and this
instance is a fitting example. Please send this to all, my explanation.
And as Paul Harvey used to say..." that's the rest of the story..."

It was either late 1978 or early 1979, I have forgotten exactly, but anyway,
I am close on either... The river is the Tombigbee River and this happened
to be the record high water ever for that area. The towboat you see coming
down on the bridge is the Motor Vessel Cahaba owned by Warrior Gulf
Navigation out of Mobile, Alabama. Warrior Gulf is a subsidiary of
Pittsburg Steel. I know you are familiar with Birmingham's coal mines and
steel mills, and this company would haul iron pellets up to Birmingport and
off-load to make steel plate. On the return the barges were filled with
coal for export at the McDuffie Coal Terminal at the mouth of the Mobile
River and at the head of Mobile Bay.
The Bridge was the Old Rooster Bridge (since demolished and removed - I saw
the explosion to tear it down also) located below Demopolis, Alabama. The
land-side highway dead ends at the bluff, and you can still drive to this
site and imagine how high the river had to be to get to the bottom of the
The pass or Channel Span of the bridge was located on the far West side of
the river, or on the opposite bank from the photographer's standpoint. In
normal river flow, we would drop down near the rock bluff and steer through
the opening to pass southward with our tows of coal barges. Normal loads
were six barges, each measuring 195' X 35' and loaded to a 10' draft. This
allowed each barge to carry approximately 2,000 tons of coal (times six =
12,000 tons X 2000 pounds = 24 Million pounds of cargo.) The boat is 1800
Horsepower twin engine diesel built in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It is named
after one of the eight "friendly" Indian tribes. It is the Motor Vessel
Cahaba. At the "sticks" or helm is Captain Jimmie Wilkerson, a long time
river pilot and was my personal friend - since deceased.
The river current was so very treacherous that we were forced to drop down
to the bridge in the slack(er) water on the left descending bank and when we
got down to the bridge, we uncoupled the boat from the barges and let the
barges drift down under the bridge. The bottom of the bridge would "shave"
the coal stacked in the barges off to a level surface. The next step was
to back the vessel upriver and then go over to the far West side and
traverse the bridge's channel span with the boat, and run down and catch the
barges. It was just too dangerous to try to bring the barges through the
bridge span in the current.
Anyway, Jimmie dropped down properly and with the entire rest of the crew
standing on the barges for safety, he began to reverse his engines to back
away. His stern would have to be kept directly pointed into the current or
the boat would travel sideways like a kite without it's tail. Captain Jim
was a fine pilot, but he made a small mistake and his stern was caught in
the current, twisted sideways and the river smashed him into the bridge
sideways. Notice that the boat re-surfaced right side up on the down stream
side. What luck you say? Nope, WGN ballasted all their vessels with three
to four feet of cement in the bottom. The boat was like a little yellow
rubber duckie, and came back up like a duckie oughta do. The boat
suffered major cosmetic damages, but little flooding because of water tight
doors, except in the pilothouse. Notice the picture where the boat is not
quite righted and you can see water pouring out of the wheelhouse door. The
chair washes out, and Jimmie told me he was holding on to the controls with
all his might to keep from going out the drain and into the river.
He was very shook up and you can see him approach the tow of barges
downriver. Well he didn't get it together quite soon enough and he smashed
into the barges, causing further damage.
I next saw Jimmie about a month after this and we had a cup of coffee
together and talked about the incident. He was smoking a Camel Non-filter
but didn't even need an ashtray beacuse his hands were still shaking too
much for the ash to build up to any degree.
How do I know all this? I was on the boat that went through the bridge
immediately before the Cahaba. The Motor Vessel James E. Philpott made the
bridge and was headed south at close to 15 MPH. For all you who don't
understand, that is very fast on a commercial towboat with that much
Glad to pass this on to everybody...
Captain Michael L. Smith
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