Friday, September 5, 2008
The Frank Phipps, April 1974
I had to sell my soul to get on the Frank Phipps, a 165 foot-long tug boat working on the Ohio River between Pittsburg, PA, and Cairo (pronounced K-row), IL. I got on board in Louisville and went downstream as far as Green River, Indiana, near New Harmony, IN. The three day trip was uneventful but I left the Phipps in admiration for the crew and what they have to do in a normal workday. It isn't an easy life. One of the pilots said: "I spent six years in prison and I don't know which I like better, working on the Phipps or being in jail." The river tugs push their "tows" from behind and the tows are made up of hundreds of barges each carrying a cargo. The barges are delivered to their respective destintations up and down the river by undoing the thick cables that hold them in the tows. The tows including the tugs can measure more than 1200 feet long, as long as a supertanker on the high seas, and it's amazing to watch the pilots manuver the length of the tows around the bends in the river sometimes sliding them up on to the banks to help steer them. The tugs have a huge amount of horse power measured in the thousands and the boats throb constantly from the power of the engines. The food is good but the hours are long and it's hard to sleep, or even think, with the constant noise of the engines. The only quiet place is up on top of the superstructure in the pilot's cabin.