Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine. By LT Mark Sawyer, U.S. Coast Guard.
One can quickly identify a riverman by his nomenclature. Rivermen have developed a vocabulary unique to the river industry. For example, calling a riverman’s vessel a “tugboat” will make him cringe. This simple slip identifies you as a “blue water” person with little knowledge of the rivers.
TOWBOATS vs. TUGS
In the May 2007 issue of "Workboat," an article entitled “Tug or Towboat: Which Is It?” helps to clarify the difference. The author explains “a towboat is flat on the front, not a V-bow, and has push knees or toe knees to ‘face up’ to the end of a barge or barges.” In other words, tugs are used primarily on the coast to assist vessels coming into/out of port, while towboats are used to push barges. Towboats are used mainly on the inland rivers; therefore, a riverman’s vessel is called a towboat.
PILOTHOUSE vs. BRIDGE
A “pilothouse” is the common navigational bridge of a towboat. It is the location where the master or pilot navigates the vessel. If one uses the term “bridge” on the rivers, the rivermen will be looking for a structure that spans a waterway, such as a highway or railway bridge.
HITCH vs. CONTRACT
When one asks a riverman how much longer he has on the towboat, he will give the days left on the “hitch.” A hitch varies depending on the company; typically they are 20 to 30 days. A “contract” is usually reserved for deep-draft vessels, when a mariner signs a contract to serve on a vessel for a specified period of time.
TOWBOAT PILOT vs. BAR or HARBOR PILOT
A “towboat pilot” is a member of the towboat’s crew and is the officer in command on the after watch (12 a.m. - 6 p.m.). A towboat pilot holds a Coast Guard license as a mate (pilot) of towing vessels, whereas a bar or harbor pilot holds a first-class pilot license. Furthermore, a bar or harbor pilot is assigned to a vessel temporarily to help the crew aboard navigate a particularly hazardous area. The bar or harbor pilot has an intimate knowledge of the area in which the vessel is operating, moreso than the crew aboard the vessel. Bar or harbor pilots are often used to bring deep-draft vessels into and out of a coastal port.
WHEEL vs. PROPELLER
On a towing vessel operated on the rivers, the term “wheel” is used to describe the propeller, the steering wheel, or a paddlewheel. On the coast, mariners do not use the term wheel, unless occasionally referring to the helm. Coastal mariners call the fan-like devices that move the vessel along by lift created when the angled blades turn in the water as the “propellers” or “screws.” Very seldom will you hear rivermen call the propellers anything but wheels. This term originated from paddlewheels, which were used as the main source of propulsion on the rivers long before propellers.
Unique Terms Used by Rivermen
Acorn Float - A wooden float, shaped like an acorn, measuring about eight inches in diameter by a foot long, used as a life preserver on the old steamboats before personal flotation devices and work vests were invented.
After Watch/Forward Watch - The “after watch” is the working shift on towboats from 12 a.m. – 6 p.m. The “forward watch” is the working shift on towboats from 6 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Backwater - Water that backs up into a tributary when the river rises.
Bull Roaster - A towboat cook.
Chasin’ Frogs - Running aground.
Choke a Stump - Moor to a tree on the bank.
Clorox Bottle Raise - Sudden increase in flow after a dry spell that brings out a lot of drift.
Drift - (1) To float with the current, (2) motion of a vessel caused by current or wind, (3) floating debris in the river, (4) distance between the hook block and boom sheaves of a crane.
Face Up - To bring the head of the boat up against the stern of the tow and secure it with the face wires.
Face Wires - Steel cables from the head winches or capstans used to connect the tow boat to the barges.
Lower Gauge - Water level gauge on the downstream side of a lock.
Mule Train - Maneuver sometimes used in ice, where the barges are pulled single-file behind the towboat.
Splitting on the Head - Facing up with the boat straddling two barges.
Trip Pilot - A pilot employed on a single trip, rather than employed on a regular basis.
Upper Gauge - Water level gauge on the upstream side of a lock.
Yawl - Small dingy or tender carried aboard towboats.
About the author:
LT Mark Sawyer has served as chief of prevention at USCG Marine Safety Unit Huntington. He is a graduate of Officer Candidate School and holds a Master of Science in occupational safety and health and a Master of Business Administration.
For more information:
Full article and “U.S. Coast Guard Western Rivers Sectors” edition of USCG Proceedings is available at www.uscg.mil/proceedings. Click on “archives” and then “2007-08 Vol. 64, Number 4” (Winter 2007-08).
Subscribe online at http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/subscribe.asp.
Online survey available at: http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/survey.asp.
Direct requests for print copies of this edition to: HQS-DG-NMCProceedings@uscg.mil.
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