My Days on the Mississippi

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On Wednesday’s  blog it was reported the that the Queen of the West on the Columbia River suffered a severe engine room fire. Ironically while enjoying my days on the American Queen (now heading down river from Natchez) I observed the crew conducting exercises for possible emergencies. I was impressed with the quality of training and leadership. Shipboard firefighting is most difficult when contained in a smoke filled space: one must respond instinctively. Touch and feel is dangerous. Therefore it is imperative that fire fighters be familiar with normally secluded spaces. An learned experience: one can not bend a charged 2 inch fire hose 90 degrees in a narrow passageway. Guided tours for emergency teams are helpful, The safe evacuation of passengers and coordinated response by locals is essential.

On the paddle wheeler American Queen, the high water state of the river was immediately recognized when passing under any one of the many bridges that span the channel. It is normally yards of “air draft” but now it was feet. Bucking the river flow, normally at 1 to 3 miles per hour was  now a chore  at 5 to 7 miles per hour and in some bends 9. Old man river was truly rolling along.

Where did that island go? Were the first  word I heard after clearing Baton Rouge  and heading north, up river to Natchez. From New Orleans to Baton Rouge there is little shoreline to view as almost every available space is taken with piers, jetties, wharves, mooring, barges “hugging a stump” and large ocean going vessels handling cargo. It is a very busy river. Although much of the usually visible  shoreline was under water, the trees and brush were mostly visible, but dead trees, branches and some household effects cluttered the scene as they were deposited by the current. Dangerously large trees and debris littered the waterway. It was confusing to observe green colored buoys  being passed to starboard as the pilots took short cuts  to avoid a stronger current and take advantage of the extra 10 to 15 feet of deeper water.

The American Queen is a modern river boat with a large stern paddle wheel and two “Z Dive “units and a bow thruster. Drawing only 9 feet the Queen fully stretched out is over 400 feet in length. With fingertip control the captain easily parked  the “ Queen” in strong currents into close fitting berths between other vessels.

An early morning river stop at Oak Valley Plantation, with the revetment
under water required the deck hands to”fish” for mooring wires while the Captain pointed out their probable location with the search light; not part of the entertainment, but exciting.

For the first time traveler on the Mississippi observing the constant flow of tows and commercial traffic is entertainment enough, but included, passengers are constantly offered shows, lectures and shore tours (at a price). There are more bars strategically located throughout that one never need  worry about drought. The TV system only displays national news and when asked why—“Who has time to watch TV.”

During our week on board only one river accident occurred and as a result we visited Natchez twice and were later rewarded with two days in Baton Rouge. The unexpected high light of the week was a spectacular electrical storm with thunder and lightening the turned night into day and lasting for several hours was viewed with awe on arrival back in New Orleans. 

One leaves the Mississippi  River and its people with a memory of what a fantastic river it is and what wonderfully kind and courteous people live, work and play in this truly southern  hospitable land. As a frequent traveler I always ask myself, “Would you do it again?” In a heartbeat!

John Denham is a retired USN Captain, Licensed unlimited Master and Pilot, maritime academy teacher,and author with extensive experience as a marine consultant. He is also author of The Assistant and DD 891.

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