Indianapolis Bishop Experiences Life on River

Nov 23, 2009

In her diocese’s November newsletter, Bishop Catherine M. Waynick details a recent trip down the Ohio River in which she encountered what she described as “a different world.” The Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) coordinated the Bishop of Indianapolis’ trip down the Ohio with Ingram Barge Company. The following is reprinted with permission.

The Bishop Barges In
by The Rt. Rev. Catherine M. Waynick, Bishop, Diocese of Indianapolis

They live in small communities in what I can only describe as a different world, not invisible exactly, but not held constantly in our awareness, and certainly not well known or understood. They may be taken for granted, like so much of what goes on around us without our personal involvement. Those who choose this life have made a choice which physically separates them from family and friends for fully half of their time.

They live and work in close quarters, each one carrying out particular responsibilities in order that the whole group can thrive and accomplish its work. There is no room for large egos, hotdogging, or put-downs; this way of life calls for mutual respect, support, and encouragement. All the members of this community have learned to be content in time spent alone, though they clearly care for each other, and enjoy being able to talk about their lives and work with occasional guests.

They work in two groups—six hours “on” then six “off”—so the work can continue around the clock. Meals, sleep, laundry, and personal time must be arranged around that work schedule. Breakfast is from 4:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m., dinner from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and supper from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. in order to provide meals at shift changes; but food is available at all times for those who choose to snack rather than sitting down to three meals each day.

When they are together they are physically confined to their place of work; most of them must share their personal space with another person, though they don’t use it at the same time. They can see the world around them but they cannot enter into it except through satellite TV, cell phones, and occasionally, e-mail.

What I am describing is life on a river boat—the ones we can see towing barges on inland rivers. In this diocese we have heard about them from the Rev. Jim Wilkinson, whose ministry with the Seaman’s Church Institute includes making those of us on shore aware of these crews of workers, and inviting us to reach out to them.

Larry and I were recently guests on a boat owned by the Ingram Company, which is headquartered in Nashville, TN, and operates on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Jim took us to a place near Warsaw, KY, where the boat could send a small motorboat to collect us from the shore and take us on board. Jim went with us to meet the captain, and then returned to shore, leaving us in very capable hands.

We were warmly greeted, had safety rules explained, got a brief tour of the common areas of the boat, and were shown to our quarters—a bedroom, lounge and bath located just beneath the pilot house. Over the course of the first day we met the crew; learning from each of them what their work entails, and being offered tours of their special areas.

This particular boat was towing (which means moving—usually pushing, not necessarily pulling) fifteen barges, each loaded with 150,000 tons of coal. (Yes, tons!) The barges stretched out in front of us for about 1,000 feet, three across and five end-to-end. The barges are lashed together with heavy rope lines and metal cables called wires— heavy lifting for the deck hands!

These connections are checked several times each day and each barge is checked for water. If any is found, pumps are used to clear them, keeping the cargo dry. The barges are about 12 feet deep, and peering into them gave a better sense of how much each of them holds. Amazing.

We went through two locks, one at Marklin, OH. You may have heard about this one on the news because one of the lock doors fell off! The Army Corps of engineers was hard at work getting it repaired while we passed through (after dark) on the side that was still working.

The locks are fascinating at any time, but especially so because of the width of the barges—105 feet. The locks are typically 110 feet wide, which means the deck hands must be out on the bow of the barges giving information to the pilot in order to maneuver them into the opening which provides only five feet of leeway. Talk about mutual dependence! Cooperation! A shared sense of accomplishment!

Our progress down the river was stately—about five miles per hour when we were moving. In spite of such mechanisms as locks, and technology like the radar and GPS in the pilot house, the boats sometimes stand still. Locks can break, which means boats have to wait hours for their turn. If the boat needs to go under a railroad bridge there may be a wait if a train is scheduled. At the lock near Louisville we had to wait because a log became jammed in a lock door. We stood still all one night because of dense fog, which, in spite of radar, can hide small obstacles in our path.

So we waited much of the time … a reminder that technology not withstanding we cannot always see what is ahead of us, and we simply must wait until things come clear. Life often presents us with times when we must be patient and live into discernment rather than “barging” ahead. It reminded me of the time we spent waiting in Sudan— for rain to end and runways to dry out, for trucks to be repaired….

One beautiful afternoon we spent nearly two hours on the bow of the barges, watching the shore world drift by. It was interesting that the crew was often as uninformed about things they see over and over on shore as those on shore are about life on the towboats. Life on board keeps them busy… they have other things to think about.

Best of all are the people—wonderful, caring people, who were so pleased to have conversations about things that matter to them, and to have someone show an interest in their lives. We had taken gifts—little red prayer books and a Bible, for which they were very grateful. But we received gifts as well; enthusiastic welcome and the holy hospitality which can only stem from wanting others to know them. When we left the boat we left new friends behind. I hope and pray all visitors among us might feel the same way….