Traffic Jam on the Illinois Waterway: Tugboats Are Busy Through the Holidays

Date: Friday, January 3, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

‘An epic year’ of floods and trade wars forces barge crews to try to move freight and make up for lost time

ON THE ILLINOIS WATERWAY—At a time of year when things usually slow down, the tugboat Aggie C. shuttles 300-foot-long barges through crowded locks and canals outside Chicago as the industry recovers from a year of record floods.

“It’s been brutal,” said Mike Blaske, marine superintendent with Illinois Marine Towing, a tug and barge operator based in Joliet, Ill., that owns the Aggie C. Illinois Marine is a subsidiary of Canal Barge Co.

The shipping industry has been making up for time lost this spring and summer due to record rainfall that spurred some of the longest and most severe flooding ever. By June, high water shut down barge traffic at St. Louis, where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet, stranding thousands of barges heading north to Chicago and Minneapolis or south to New Orleans.

After the rivers began to recede, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started hundreds of millions of dollars in channel dredging and emergency repairs on locks to get traffic moving again.

Tugboat companies have spent months getting stranded barges where they needed to go or sending empty barges to pick up waiting loads. One week earlier this month saw the highest grain tonnage of the year moving through a key Mississippi River lock. Volumes have been scaling back since.

“This was an epic year on so many fronts,” including trade wars over grains and steel that held down volumes, hurting the shipping companies’ bottom lines, said Ken Eriksen, a transportation and infrastructure expert and senior vice president at IHS Markit. “It just never got to what one would consider normal routine operations.”

Work is busy, albeit slow-moving—tugboats go 5 miles an hour on average—for the six-man crew of the Aggie C.

The day began at 9:30 a.m. when Capt. Jeff Bloomfield received orders to pick up two barges filled with benzene and caustic soda in Channahon, Ill., and bring them to Lemont, Ill.

Over the next 24 hours, the tug would cover about 50 miles. Each barge it pushes can carry the equivalent of 15 railcars or 58 semi trucks, said Mr. Blaske, the marine superintendent. “For how slow it is, it’s efficient.”

After about 10 minutes cruising, Capt. Bloomfield spotted the first barge on the far side of two rows of barges moored on the river.

He and the captain of another tug debated how to free the barge before settling on Capt. Bloomfield’s plan, which involved moving four barges at once before freeing the one he needed.

“Every situation is different. It takes a lot of creativity,” said Capt. Bloomfield, 61 years old, who, like the rest of the crew, works three weeks on and three weeks off, year-round.

He and the tug’s pilot alternate in six-hour shifts, so the tug never stops. They share a bedroom, but each generally has the room to himself. The four deckhands split 12-hour shifts.

The crew spend their downtime in their cabins or the spotless galley, where the roar of the engines nearly drowns out the sound of the satellite TV. When working out on the barges—hundreds of feet away from the engines—there is an almost eerie silence as the shore slides past.

Crew leaders Brett Kirvach, 46, and Ronald LeBeau, 25, are the captain’s eyes and ears on the far end of the barge. They make a series of calls about the tug’s distance to a mooring spot, often guiding the barge to within inches of the dock.

At noon, Ivar von Waldenburg, the Aggie C.’s 45-year-old pilot and an ultramarathoner who trains by running in place in the wheelhouse to techno music on quiet stretches of river, took over.

About 20 minutes later, the tug had secured the second barge and began its journey through a series of bridges and locks in and around Joliet.

The crowded river makes it slow-going. At one point, the tug waits more than an hour for its turn to pass through a lock.

Just the day before, Mr. von Waldenburg was pulling out of one of the locks when he got an urgent call over the ship-to-shore radio. The bridge almost immediately in front of the tug was stuck in the closed position.

Mr. von Waldenburg jammed the two barges he was pushing along the side of the massive lock wall, halting their progress. The crew quickly tied them down to new anchor points in the lock, about 100 feet short of the closed bridge.

“It was one of those holy shit moments,” he said. “One minute you are drinking coffee, listening to music. The next, it’s ‘Oh, shit.’”

As the tug chugged upriver, Mr. von Waldenburg kept an eye on a large video map, with relatively new software, showing all the boats on the river and their speeds. The tug ahead was moving at 3.4 mph and the Aggie C. was going 5.75. He radioed to coordinate with the other captain to pass the slower boat before a third approaching craft could close in.

Around 10:30 p.m., the Aggie C. had dropped off the two barges in Lemont and picked up two more to begin the trip to a chemical plant south of Chicago.

Around 2:30 a.m., the city’s glow lit the low clouds and bits of snow danced through the tug’s searchlights as Mr. von Waldenburg executed a series of moves to drop off the barges and pick up two more.

He had trouble getting one of the new barges to turn around to the position he wanted. So he had the crew tie two barges together nose to nose for the journey back to Lemont. “This is highly unconventional,” he said. “But it’ll work fine.”

Around 6:30 a.m., the temperature had dropped to 14 degrees as the sky brightened. Capt. Bloomfield sent the crew out to make sure the barges would make it under a low bridge. They flicked their wrists to keep the warming blood flowing into their fingertips.

The barges silently slid under the bridge, almost close enough to touch.

Around 7:30 a.m., the Aggie C. dropped off the second barge. Capt. Bloomfield spun the 85-foot-long tug around in a channel about 90 feet wide to head home. As the powerful tug did a graceful 180, he said he just grazed the barge off the tug’s stern.


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