The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
The Flanking Maneuver
During low water periods heavily laden towboats often slow their engines, then cut them off completely and then sometimes put them in reverse and execute slow-moving gymnastics at tight bends like the one found at Hughey. First-time paddlers might get confused, especially when a nervous pilot shakes the earth with blasts from the warning horn, and then impatiently stomps on all three engines turning the river into a chaotic piling of waves and waters. Best policy: stay as far as possible from any tow in a tight bend and make your intended route well downstream of their intended route. When possible pass behind the tow, not in front of the tow. Watch carefully for the moment the pilot restarts engines and charges out of the bend. First warning will be the clouds of black diesel smoke filling the air above tow smokestacks. Second warning will be the whitewater erupting from behind the tow. Finally the tow begins to move slow & ponderous. Be equally vigilant down river for upstream pilots who want to continue the journey up the river as quickly as possible and as they power up add even more waves & confusion to the already upset channel.
The pilots of these downstream behemoths call this the flanking maneuver. Only the most experienced pilots will attempt the flanking maneuver. Here the subtle power of the river is observed and taken advantage of. The method is similar to how canoes & kayaks follow the boil line around a bend in a head wind. The tow pilot uses the river to make the turn. It works like this: the approaching down streamer slows their massive tows down to river speed well above the crux of the bend. They might start slowing down miles upstream as they approach a known tight bend like Burkes. They float at river speed into the bend at a slight angle so that the nose of the tow gently enters the boil line typically found around the outside edges of all bends. As the tow floats downstream with the river these big boils gently ease the front of the tow away from the river bank (and certain disaster) and in slow dinosaur speed the entire tow is repositioned by the river as it continues downstream until the tow is perfectly positioned for exit, at which point the pilot restarts the engines and exits the bend, often at the highest speeds possible, leaving big waves rolling outwards directly behind. (the pilots call these waves the outwash). Upstream tows meanwhile must pull up somewhere below this bend and await the passage of the downstreamers.
Running at normal speed would be disastrous for the big tows during low water when the channel sometimes narrows down to a mere 300 yards. For the towboat pilot pushing a 6×5 fleet of tows, 6 barges wide 5 barges long = 200 feet wide and 1250 feet long, this is as difficult as threading a needle with a barge rope. The biggest downstream tow might be pushing 100,000 tons of rocks, grains or coal in its barges. The overwhelming momentum of this weight would push the entire flotilla into the banks if run at normal speed into a bend.
At right angle bends like Hughey negotiating the narrow channel is further challenged by sliding shoals which typically are emanating outwards from the inside of the bend outwards into the navigation channel. At Burke’s Point this shoaling area encroaches the remaining channel with the sands & gravels being washed downstream with the flow of the water and spreading outwards and threatening to choke the navigation channel as it slides off the point at LBD 636 and spreads outwards towards Fair Landing at RBD 632.5.
Paddlers should be aware of other bends where the flanking maneuver might be used. These include: Buck Island Lower (above Topper’s Landing), Island 69 (above Dennis Landing), Victoria Bend, and Arkansas Bar.