The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
What are fleeted barges? When any industrial or agricultural facility are filling or emptying barges, they tie them up along the bank of the river, sometimes one at a time, but more often in longer lines multiple barges deep. Sometimes they’re only one barge deep, sometimes they’ll tie more than one side-by-side. In chemical corridor down below Baton Rouge they’ll sometimes tie as many as a hundred long with ten or twelve deep! Most barges measure 35 x 250 feet but petroleum barges are often longer. The top end of any fleeted barges is an extremely dangerous place. Always avoid paddling anywhere near the upstream sides of barges — where the water is pushing in and underneath their top ends. It might look like you could simply hop aboard in case of emergency, but you won’t be able to! This is a trick of perspective on the big river. They are much higher off the water than they look.
They might seem innocuous since they aren’t moving, and they’re tied to shore — but voyageurs beware! Fleeted barges create one of paddler’s worst nightmares: paddling or being pushed (by big boils or strong winds) under the front of a line of fleeted barges. Several years ago a yacht lost power and was pushed sideways into a line of fleeted barges that was nosing upstream along the main channel near Tom Lee Park in downtown Memphis. The boat was immediately flipped over and 3 out 5 people did not return. If this happened to a full-sized yacht, you can imagine what would happen to a canoe — and did happen. Keep reading. Another tragedy: a pair of canoeists had paddled 2,000 miles from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and were looking forward to completing their expedition in New Orleans when strong winds pushed them into and then under a wide line of fleeted barges down below Baton Rouge. They were never seen again.
Small Tows in Harbors
The primary hazard to paddlers on the Lower Mississippi is the one powering through the current — the towboats. Smaller “docking” towboats tied up in waiting look innocent but be constantly vigilant for un-announced push-offs. Smaller tows from Helena Marine are often busy in this section moving barges in and out of grain or oil docking, fleeting barges, and performing other necessary maintenance. You might see them suddenly run out off shore to service a passing tow. While big tows will make high rolling wakes immediately behind the tow, these small tows can sometimes create rough wakes with steep and crashing bow waves that will persist for hundreds of yards lateral to the vessel. Even if a small towboat is on the other side of the river, be vigilant for bow waves. Unlike the slow, predictable and ponderous motions of the big tows, the small ones can charge around docking facilities erratically and make quick changes of direction. It’s never safe to assume anything about tow traffic. Conditions are constantly changing and require changing tactics. Your best procedure is to be constantly “on watch” and respond accordingly. Monitor VHF Marine radio Channel 13, and if appropriate announce your presence and intended line of travel. (Note: harbor facilities and docking facilities sometimes use channel 12 or other VHF channels. Inquire locally if you need to communicate).