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Perilous ‘Old Girl’ Challenges Pilots Ferrying Toxic Chemicals

Floodwater surrounds homes in Vicksburg, Mississippi in May. The Mississippi River was forcing the Yazoo River to top its banks where the two rivers meet near Vicksburg, causing towns and farms upstream on the Yazoo to flood. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Floodwater surrounds homes in Vicksburg, Mississippi in May. The Mississippi River was forcing the Yazoo River to top its banks where the two rivers meet near Vicksburg, causing towns and farms upstream on the Yazoo to flood. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

May 19 (Bloomberg) -- The first signs of Captain Cory F. Heitmeier’s unsettling work on the mighty Mississippi this week came before he even boarded a boat.

At the dock where the river pilot would catch a crewboat to an awaiting Panamanian-flagged freighter, a temporary gravel driveway had been constructed to cover creeping water and a car in the nearby parking lot was inundated half-way up its doors.

Heitmeier and his fellow pilots help keep the 500 million tons of cargo that passes through the mouth of the Mississippi each year flowing around the clock. On the best of days, the job can be tricky on the fourth-longest river on the planet, full of shifting currents, submerged hazards and constant traffic.

With the river stoked as it is now by a deluge of northern rain and melted snow, Heitmeier’s task becomes treacherous and wisdom reaches its limit.

“On the river, if you screw up, someone can get killed or you can wipe out an entire population,” Heitmeier said.

Historic flooding along the Mississippi in recent weeks has limited the amount of freight moving on the river and pushed much of it to the daylight hours.

60% of Grain

The Mississippi and its connecting waterways are home to 20,500 barges, according to a 2010 report by Informa Economics Inc., a Memphis, Tennessee-based research firm. Much of the rest of the traffic on the river comes from tankers and cargo ships moving in and out of the Gulf of Mexico to far-flung corners of the globe.

Cargo passing through the Port of New Orleans, part of the stretch of river Heitmeier works, accounts for about $37 billion a year of national economic output, said Chris Bonura, a spokesperson, in a telephone interview. About 60 percent of all grain exported from the U.S. is shipped on the Mississippi through the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana, according to the U.S. National Park Service website.

Water this high breaks any workaday routine that settles in on those who toil on the river. It is a kind of high alert. The commerce changes, too. Normally, a towboat might push 30 to 40 barges weighing from 1,200 to 1,500 tons up the river, said Steve Jones, navigation manager for the Army Corps of Engineer’s Mississippi Valley Division. Conditions have cut that number to about 20 barges per towboat.

‘Floating Bo..’

The risks to ships on what river pilots call the “old girl” are both financial and human. Tankers carry everything from oil to toxic chemicals. A spill could be catastrophic to ship crews and nearby towns. A wayward ship breaking into levees that line the river could cause disastrous flooding, Heitmeier said.

“Some of these things are floating bo…,” he said, stopping short of the word “bombs.” “I don’t even like to think of it.”

Ships on the Mississippi are required to hire licensed river pilots stationed locally to take over navigation of the waterway. Pilots know every nook and cranny of the river. Heitmeier, a 10-year veteran, had to draw in detail the 147 miles, or 237 kilometers, of the Mississippi he’s certified to pilot, including every underwater pipeline and navigation beacon. He has to know every depth, every slope on the river’s muddy bottom.

Swelling Currents

On most days, Heitmeier’s commute to work includes a ride on a crewboat to whatever ship awaits his command. The freighters are rarely stopped. He typically climbs a rope ladder several stories to the deck. This day, however, the client ship is anchored and has been unable to free itself because of the heavy silt pushed down the muddy river by swelling currents.

The Federal Baffin, a bulk carrier longer than two football fields, has shipped a load of potash fertilizer on a 22-day journey from St. Petersburg, Russia. The freighter, equipped with four cranes and a helicopter pad, will pick up a load of gravel for a 31-day sail to Japan.

The crewboat nuzzles up to what looks, up close, like the side of a steel building. Heitmeier, shouldering a large backpack, waits for the tiny boat to rise before hopping onto a metal staircase hanging over the ship’s side. Wearing khaki pants and a blue madras button-down Brooks Brothers shirt, the 37-year-old looks like a banker on casual Friday.

Heitmeier, who shaves his head clean, will guide the ship out of its anchorage and navigate four miles up river to a set of four buoys, where it will be tied and unloaded.

‘Most Dangerous’

“This is one of the most dangerous things we do,” he said. Especially now. “Just how high the damned thing is. How fast it’s moving.”

Once on the bridge at the top of the freighter, Heitmeier is in charge. Even the ship’s full-time captain will answer to him. Communication will be tricky. The captain, a Chinese national, speaks broken English. The chief mate below, who coordinates the anchors and other rigging, speaks Russian. Heitmeier already anticipates the commands “Starboard 10” (turn right 10 degrees) and “Stop Engine” will be confused.

Heitmeier, a Louisiana State University political science graduate, sets up a laptop with satellite navigation software that shows a detailed schematic of the river and traffic. The sparse bridge, with its sterile light green instrument panels, looks like the control room of a nuclear plant one might see in a movie. From this vantage point, Heitmeier is higher than the tree line on either side of the Mississippi, which laps mere feet from the top of the levees. Dozens of barges are tied down on both banks.

Heroic Striker

Before the short trip begins, Heitmeier sees something that gives him pause. In front of him, the currents are pushing another cargo ship, the Heroic Striker, in an unnatural angle toward the shore and too close for comfort to the levee. He relaxes after a few minutes of watching.

The high, fast water causes other problems. Boats must take water into their hulls as ballast so they can set lower in the river to clear bridges, making them even slower to respond to rudder controls. Ships traveling down the river actually have to go faster than usual to counter the current. Ships going up river cruise more slowly against the current even as they use more power to compensate, leaving less power for emergency maneuvers.

On the many curves in the river, ships have to make larger corrections to account for currents that can push them off course and potentially into a bridge or the path of another vessel. Earlier in the day, a ship’s anchor snapped off in the hard current.

Language Barrier

“With the river like this, you have to be on top of it,” he said. “One minor little thing that you overlook can cause everything to go wrong.”

Once underway, it wasn’t long before the language barrier caused problems. Approaching a turn, Heitmeier called out “hard to starboard” for a right turn. The second mate repeated the command. The quartermaster turned the rudder wheel left. Seeing the error on a compass above, Heitmeier commanded “midship,” asking for the rudder to be centered. Once again, the quartermaster turned the wheel hard left to the port side of the ship.

Heitmeier began snapping as he barked to the captain to boost the ship’s power to “sea speed,” which is used on the ocean and held in reserve on the river. The captain was slow to respond, prompting Heitmeier to snap louder and faster at the compass above. “Sea speed, captain. Emergency sea speed, now.”

The additional power pushed the ship back onto course after a wheel correction, turning the vessel away from a line of barges tied to a loading dock. Heitmeier ordered the quartermaster replaced.

“That’s only the second time in my career that I’ve had to order the quartermaster changed,” he said.

Then, this was no ordinary week on the Mississippi.

To contact the reporter on this story: Duane Stanford in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anita Sharpe at

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