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The Delta Queens Captains Log, June 2

Posted 01-27-2012 at 12:20 AM by Capt Mike
At The Army Corp dock, St. Francisville. The morning was nice and clear, the river stage at 17 feet and rising. The tours got off, the gangway was seated nicely on the newly graveled walk/ramp. About 10:30 am, the American Queen landed alongside to debark an ill passenger, Captain Garland Shewmaker at the bridgewing controls. I had the Delta Queens engines and thruster warmed up just in case of the AQ moving us, but we never even felt it as the huge boat landed gently alongside. She was there only a couple of minutes, just long enough for paramedics to trundle the ill lady and an AQ crewmember across our bow and to the waiting ambulance. The AQ gracefully backed out and away, then headed back up river, bound for Natchez, some 98 miles up a muddy river. We were bound for Alexandria and Nachitoches, Louisiana on the Red River, and I was worried about the forecast, rather ominous, calling for torrential rains the day after tommorrow, when we were supposed to be in Nachitoches. The small narrow Red River tends to rise very quicky in reponse to heavy rain...
We got all of our tours aboard and departed on time, headed up for The Old River lock at mile 304, about 38 miles up river. The afternoon and evening were uneventful, and we locked through the 75 foot wide lock at 6:30 pm, passed through the canal and turned out and up into the Red River. The Red was near normal, just slightly high. The Red River is lined with rock dikes in many places along the shores, and many of them dont have bouys on them. The river is near normal now, so all of the low rock dikes are all visible, and easy to avoid, but when the river rises only a few feet, the dikes go under and become almost impossible to see, especially at night. I only hope the forecast is wrong!
We locked on up through locks 1 and 2 on the Red and made it to Alexandria early, in the wee hours of the morning. The newly constructed city front afforded an easy landing with good ties. The deck crew had us secured quickly, with our 2 new hands really hustling as they ran the lines up the hill.
The morning started out clear and calm, but the skys slowly darkened as the day progressed, and the weather forecast called for severe storms and heavy rain this evening. We got everyone aboard and departed on time at 5 pm, and I hoped we could get up into the Nachitoches harbor and secured before the storms hit. No such luck. At 7 pm, we were beset by 60mph winds and torrential rain, completely blanking out both radars. I stood in the pilothouse stiff and tense, extremely worried about my vessel and her precious cargo. This was the part I hated about this job, the worry, and at times the fear for my boat, guests and crew. Any Captain who says hes never been afraid out on the river is a dam liar! We couldn't stop, we had to keep moving up the channel to maintain steerage in the wind. With the radars blanked out, we could only see the river banks illuminated in ghastly white flashes of the incessant lightning. Captain Milford stood at the sticks, leaning to one side, steering the old boat up through the storm. "Just an old Red River squall, Capt Mike" he said in his Louisiana drawl. I was so happy to have an old seasoned pilot like him at the controls right then! About 30 minutes had passed of this nightmare, then the storm eased as quickly as it had come, having mercy on us just as we neared the Natchtoches Harbor. We made the very sharp turn into the Nachitoches harbor, a very small pond really with barely enough roon for us. The wind had died to nothing and the night was cool and clear after the storm as I turned the Delta Queen in the narrow harbor and laid against a single cluster/piling. Not much to tie up to, all in all a **** poor set up!
June 3...
This morning, the tours got off on time , the tour manager in her usual nervous fluster, hustling guests off to busses like a mother duck after her hatchlings. Before she left, I took her aside and asked her to hurry the tours along, and explained my concern about the rising river and the once again ominous forecast for the evening. She was visibly angry that I would suggest she hurry her tours, and short change our guests! I was very ****ed at her attitude, but kept my cool trying to explain that if the river rose much more while we sat here we may just end up sitting here for a week waiting for the flooded river to fall, and how would that affect our guests? She stormed off without responding.
Sure enough, along about noon the weather forecast began warning of major storms approaching the region, with more high winds and torrential rains. After last nights torrents, this little river was already rising and was really going to rise now. The warnings worsened in the early afternoon, now flash flood warnings were being issued for the Red River! I called the tour leader and instructed them to cut the tours short and to return to the boat, which they did, arriving around 3:30 pm.I announced to all passengers and crew that we would be leaving early, trying to get down and out of the Red River before the dikes flooded under. Most of the guests I spoke to thought it was exciting ,but the tour manager was madder than a wet hen and a couple of musicians complained that I was cutting into their shore time! It took I all I had to control my anger as I tersely explained to them that the safety of this vessel was a hell of a lot more important than their god dam shore time! I'd like to see them talk to Capt. Ernie Wagner that way!
We got underway 45 minutes early at 4:15 pm, making a run for the big wide Mississippi River. The sky was slowing darkening again and light rain was beginning to fall. We made it down to the Alexandria bridges, one was opened and one was still closed! I had called earlier in the day to arrange to have both of the bridges open, and had been assured they would be when we arrived. We had to back full astern to stop the boat when we came around the bend and saw the closed bridge. We finally got the bridge tender on the radio, who apologised and said he forgot to get the other bridge open. We had to sit there above the bridge for a hour and tred water, backing in the increasing current until a highway emergency road crew arrived and got the bridge open. Finally, we raced on down the rising river as the rain picked up, the tops of most of the dikes just barely showing in the increasing current. We finally got down and locked through the last 2 locks that night uneventfully, and then locked on out through the Old River Lock and out into the big wide beautiful Mississippi River around noon the next day. The sky opened up and all hell broke loose, with high winds and torrential rains that lasted all day, but we were safe back out on the big muddy, headed south. We made it down to Baton Rouge at 10:15 pm, and I wanted to go in to the "paper clip" dock at the city front early to let the crew off, but, low and behold, there was a small US Navy ship right in our landing spot on the dock! We were scheduled to be there, but that of course does not matter to the Navy! I decided to try anyway. We called the vessel, The USS Blackhawk, a mine sweeper, but there was no response. We tried every channel, still no response. I had the pilot turn the Delta Queen alongside the ship, and we flashed our searchlights repeatedly on the vessel and its wheel house. No response! Even a blast on the whistle failed to rouse a single soul! This is our Navy?
I finally got in touch with the dock manager just up river at the Capital Marine Fleet barge, who agree to let us land up there for the day. We had been the before and their wharf barge makes an ideal spot to off and on load passengers. Those guys are great friends and true riverfolk! We finally got tied off on the fleet wharf barge at midnight. Several of our stalwart crewmembers headed off to the favorite crew watering hole, The Thirsty Tiger Bar...
The best laugh came the next morning came when I called and woke the tour manager at 6 am, and told her that our landing location had changed slightly during the night and told her she would have to tell the tour busses where we had moved to. She was extremely angry that I hadnt' called her the night before, but I explained that she wouldn't have been able to contact the bus drivers at midnight anyway, besides, we were only upriver a mile from the dock and within plain sight of the road. Oh well, as the crew is fond of saying, "As the Paddlewheel Turns!".
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