Barges, Mud, and Sublime Sailing Joy – Sailing on the Mississippi

Quite a few of our readers have requested that I continue to fill in the sailing back story from my childhood – the story that eventually led to where we are today. I’ve been putting it off for quite a while now, not because it’s a difficult story to tell but rather because we are currently in the process of making new stories and I’ve been more focused on this current aspect of our life than the past. My apologies for taking so long in filling in the blank spaces. 🙂

In case you have not yet read the back story and would like to, you can start with THIS PAGE, which contains links to all five previous installments of my ‘backstory’. While they aren’t required reading for this post to be relevant, you may find that some of my erstwhile prose both here and in later posts will make more sense with the context and characterizations that the previous posts would provide.

With no further ado, I guess it’s time to get on with the story…

Our first sailboat was finally ours. We had successfully brought Etesian from Chicago to Burlington, Iowa, and she had a nice comfortable slip in the small local marina. We had completed our sailing lessons, purchased charts of the local river area, stepped the mast, and checked all of the rigging and hardware on the boat to the best of our ability. With our first failure to launch and near sinking behind us, it was finally time to take our boat out and actually sail her for the first time.

Anyone who has ever sailed a boat for the first time without the hands-on advice and guidance of the vessel’s previous owner knows that this can be at once exhilarating and nerve racking. A thousand questions and what-if’s go through your mind when you get ready to cast off the dock lines and hoist the sails for the first time.

Will the chain plates hold up under the strain of the rigging? The sails LOOK good, but how long has it been since they really bore a wind load? Sure, the mast seems to be pretty solid, but being all wood there is a possibility that the inside has a bad case of rot that you can’t see. The keel bolts sure SEEM to be solid, and the keel is firmly affixed as far as you can tell, but how long has it been since it had to do anything other than dangle vertically from the hull and keep the boat upright? The deck sure seemed solid when we stepped the mast, but it’s been a while since it had to support that much weight. Is it really as solid as our inspection led us to believe?

On top of all that is the nagging sensation that maybe you aren’t really ready for this. You THINK you understand how to tack, gibe, trim the sails, navigate and hold a course… but the sum total of your sailing experience is on a much smaller boat whilst taking your lessons. The instructor SAID that what he was teaching would translate upward to any size of boat that you could possibly want on the river, but we bought this boat thinking that somewhere down the line it might be nice to take it somewhere other than the river. She came off the Great Lakes, after all, and was well suited to the vagaries therein. Indeed, Etesian was a veteran of at least one Atlantic crossing, so she was in reality a blue water boat. Are we nuts trying to sail a boat like this on the Mississippi?

Thus you find yourself boarding your boat on a sunny Saturday morning with a turmoil of expectations and emotions stirring in your head and gut. My Dad did a wonderful job of exuding confidence and putting us at ease, but I’m sure that he must have had some doubts about the wisdom of taking his entire family out for the first real sea trial. If you’d asked me a year ago whether I would have made the same decision and taken the entire family for the first sea trial I’d have told you no way. Given the perspective that I now have as a husband and Father, it seems that it would be advisable to have a seasoned hand or two aboard to assist if something dramatic were to ensue.

I thus find it ironic that nearly 30 years later I threw caution to the wind and went through nearly the exact same process as my Father. When we moved aboard 11 Purple Monkeys I had a crew who was even less experienced than my Father’s had been. No preparatory sailing lessons for this bunch! Of the six people on board, I was the only person who had ever sailed anything but a tiny single-sail rig. Even then, only three of my crew had any sailing experience at all, and that experience amounted to a total of about 6 hours of sailing instruction by yours truly. In addition, though our mast was already stepped and the rigging in place, I had yet to do anything but raise the sails on a calm day in the boatyard during the survey to inspect them. I had yet to see a load of any kind put on any of the rigging. If you’re reading this, you probably know that it has all worked out OK, but would I advise someone else to do the same? Probably not.

I digress. Back the Mississippi.

Before I get on with the personal part of the story, I find it important that some perspective of what the river itself is like be imparted to you, the reader.

If you’ve never been on Old Man River, you might not have an appreciation for what sailing on it is like. In addition to the ever shifting currents, depths, and riverbed contours, you have to contend with the ceaseless commercial traffic that the river carries. The Mississippi has long been the major thoroughfare for goods traveling North and South through the Midwest. This traffic primarily comes in the form of grain and other agricultural products headed South towards New Orleans and points beyond, with the returning traffic carrying raw materials in the form of fossil fuels and finished goods being imported to the United States via the port at New Orleans. In total, the Mississippi carries 60% of all U.S. grain shipments, 22% of all oil and gas, and 20% of our coal. That’s… a lot. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the river carries 600,000,000 tons of goods and materials every year. That’s 1,200,000,000,000 pounds. 1.2 TRILION. Per year. Like I said… a lot.


All this traffic is carried on an endless series of barges being ushered along by truly massive tow boats. And no, I don’t understand why they call it a ‘Tow Boat’ when it’s pushing the barges from behind, but nevertheless that’s what they call them. The standard barge that traverses the river today is 195 feet long, 35 feet wide, and has a draft of 9 feet when fully laden. These barges are then assembled into chains several barges wide and many barges long. I’ve seen barge trains 4 barges wide and 12 barges long being pushed by three massive tow boats. That’s getting very close to being a half mile long with a width of 140 feet. Considering that each barge has a capacity of something like 1500 tons, that means that when one of these is barreling down on you at 10 knots, you’re staring at better than 72,000 tons of material plus the weight of the barges and tugs. For those who don’t want to do the math, that means that if you’re in the path of one of these monsters you have something in excess of ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILLION POUNDS being driven at you through the water by brute force.


Physics nerds like me can’t help but note that when combined, mass and velocity result in inertia. The amount of inertia is dependent upon the amount of mass and the velocity of said mass. Mr. Newton taught us that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, after all. When applied to something as massive as the above barge train, this means that getting it moving, making it stop, or even turn a single degree takes an absurd amount of energy. Even with the input from three tow boats each having 8000 HP or more, altering the trajectory of that mass isn’t going to happen quickly. In other words, barge trains simply do not move out of your way. They have right of way regardless of whether you’re under sail or not by the simple expedient of the fact that they will grind you against the bottom if you don’t get out of the way.

In addition to all that mass, keep in mind that these barges are NOT very efficient hull designs. They’re basically large rectangles, with flat bows and straight sides. This means that a LOT of water has to get forced aside when the barge train moves even an inch. At 6 – 10 knots, that’s a whole crapload of water displacement.

Coming across something like that on the open ocean is really no big deal. You can see it coming from many miles away and can make sure that you keep well out of it’s path. On the Mississippi it’s a much different story. There are places on the upper river where the navigable channel is only 400 feet wide. This means that if a barge train 100 feet wide and 1000 feet long (a string three barges wide and five barges long) is negotiating a bend in the river where the navigable channel is only 500 or so feet wide, you can be left with VERY little room to try and get out of the way.

This is further complicated by the fact that the river is anything but straight. Sure, it runs generally North-South, but if you look at a map of the Mississippi up close you’ll see that it twists and turns several thousand times on it’s way to the Gulf. From above it looks like a giant serpent making it’s way across the land. It’s not at all uncommon to find yourself traveling on the Mississippi and have less than a mile of visibility ahead and behind to see what might be coming your direction.


That’s not a lot of warning, even if you’re in a power boat that draws a couple of feet and can make haste to get out of the way. In a slow sailboat that draws four feet of water… you get the picture, I’m sure. On a downstream course some of these barge trains travel at 10 knots or better. That means that if you only get a mile of warning, you have a total of 6 minutes to get the hell out of the way.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, consider for a moment what the WAKE a monster like this creates is like. All that water being displaced has to go somewhere. Think of what it’s like to come across the wake of a large power boat, say something in the range of 80 feet or so. Even on our current 46′ long boat, these wakes can give you a decent tossing. Now multiply that wake by about tenfold. Then put that wake inside of a river with opposing shores that reflect that wake back and forth, making a churning mass of waves traveling in opposing directions. Then add to that wake the effect of the current in the river and the effect of the wind on the waves. It can get a little bit hairy at times. If you’d like to see what the wake from a SMALL barge is like on a river from a small boat’s perspective, this video does a pretty good job of demonstrating it:

Luckily, this scenario doesn’t happen terribly often. The river is broken up into segments along its course by a series of locks and dams. Each of these dams creates a lake of sorts on the river where the navigable water is quite wide. It’s places like this that the recreational sail boat can stretch it’s legs without too much worry of being plowed under or being capsized by a monster wake. The only time that a recreational boater really has to worry about all that numerical blather above is when you’re traveling from one open water location to another. After all, you can only sail your local area so long before you start wondering what the river is like up there around the bend!

It was into this environment that we set sail in Etesian for the first time, as complete sailing greenhorns.

I remember it as being a sunny day with wind somewhere around 10 knots or so. Perfect conditions for putting your new boat to the test. We got everything set and cast off the dock lines, finally making it out of the marina and it’s recently dredged entrance. From our marina’s location to the closest open stretch of water was a few miles, so we fired up the single cylinder diesel and off we went.

Any time you reach a point in life where a goal you have been working towards is finally at hand, the amount of expectation you’ve developed for that moment has a tendency to amplify the excitement of the actual event. This case was no different. We finally reached the stretch of open water and raised the sails. I remember my Dad scurrying around the boat checking this and that, telling us to pull on one line or another, or steer us into or off the wind. There came a moment a few minutes after we shut off the motor when the wind was just so, the water was flat, and Etesian was cutting a perfectly straight line in a broad reach. It was magic, and we all whooped and hollered about it for a bit. Sometimes it’s odd what things you remember after the passage of time. This first day of sailing is a bit like that for me. Given 30 years of separation the details are a bit murky. The bits that I do have good recollection of? The smile on my Dad’s face… the reflection of the sun on the water… the sound of the wind through the rigging… Those are things that stayed with me and had a direct impact on the future course of my life.

Over the remainder of that summer and fall we settled into a comfortable rhythm of weekend excursions to our boat and day trips to nearby towns where there were waterfront restaurants with docks we could tie up to. Often we would pack a picnic and spend the day at a sandbar playing in the river. Slowly, over the course of several months, we learned the particulars of our boat and discovered that yes, indeed, the things we learned in our sailing lessons applied quite well to our boat. It was a happy time in life that I remember with great fondness. Yes, our little boat got tossed around for a bit every time a barge went by. Sometimes we got caught in a rainstorm and came back cold and wet. Once, we managed to ground the boat on a sandbar because it had shifted from the charted location. In the end though, these few unpleasant memories have faded into the dim past while the good memories have remained.

Alas, life on the upper river comes to a screeching halt as the seasons wind their inexorable way towards winter. By the end of our first season of sailing we had become competent sailors and felt that we could handle whatever the river might throw at us. Summer came to an end, and as fall wended towards winter it was time to haul the boat from the river for winter storage. After draining tanks and winterizing the engine we tucked Etesian in and put her to bed until the tulips were to arrive in the Spring.

I spent the bulk of that long cold winter comfortable in the knowledge that once Spring rolled around we could return to the water and the sound of the wind in the sails. I’m certain that my Father and I were much more enamored of the entire sailing experience than my Mother and Brother. This became apparent over the course of the next couple of seasons as it took more and more cajoling to get the entire family to want to go sailing. Dad and I would press to go farther afield each time, while Mom would inevitably schedule something for the weekend that required us to be home by early evening. This eventually led to a fairly large division in the family, an argument, a plan, and a long voyage without my Mother and Brother.

That story will have to wait for another burst of writing motivation 🙂 Stay tuned!



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