The Flanagans'

M/V Peter Fanchi

A Tour of the

M/V Peter Fanchi

M/V Peter Fanchi

First of all, what does that "M/V" part of the name mean? (And who is this person, "Peter Fanchi?") Simple enough: "M/V" stands for "Motor Vessel." "M/V" is used to designate a diesel powered vessel. If it was steam powered it would say "S.S."; short for "Steam Ship." These days, all towboats are diesel powered. Only a very few, very famous, passenger carrying, stern-wheeled, vessels run the rivers powered by steam. Beginning in the 1930's, the use of diesel power has totally eclipsed steam on the rivers. There is a legacy of terminology that we've inherited from our steam powered ancestors, though. It was pretty obvious why a stern-wheeled steam-boat called its stern-wheel a "wheel." At first glance, you would expect modern towboaters to call the big, round, turning, thing under the water a "propeller." Properly, I suppose we should. But we still call them our "wheels."

Living on a towboat is a little like living in a small city. We have to make our own electricity, process our own sewage, do our version of trash collection; all of the services that a city provides to its residents, we have to provide for ourselves. There are also parts of living on a towboat that are more like ordinary family life. We have an ordinary washing machine and dryer, we have refrigerators and freezers and kitchen facilities much like many homes, but on a little bit of a commercial scale. Most of what we need, we have to provide for ourselves. If something breaks, it is up to us to fix it. Only in the case of the more sophisticated electronic and mechanical systems will we call outside repairmen for help. We're pretty much "out there" all by ourselves.

The pantry

When we get groceries, we try to get enough to last for at least a week. When we take on fuel, we fill up with enough to last nearly a month. We often store our trash and garbage for as much as two or three weeks before we come to a place where we can dispose of it properly. And we usually take on fresh water at the same time that we take fuel; enough water to last for several weeks. We order more general supplies once a month, and we do our best to make them last. We learn to plan ahead. A cook quickly learns that she can't just bop down to the store to pick up a little item that she forgot to get the last time. Life on a towboat doesn't work that way.

The Crew's Lounge.

Much of what we need is provided for us by the company. Such personal items as towels and washcloths, bed linens, bath soap; many of the necessities are part of the boat's stores. Equipment for personal safety is also provided by the company; steel toe shoes, leather gloves, a head light, and life vests to mention only a few. We all bring our own toiletries and clothes. I've seen people get on board boats with TV's and boom boxes, with guitars and violins, with heavy bags filled with books, and with stacks of video tapes. You can thank Andy Helms for the pictures you see on this page. When he comes to a boat, he brings a sophisticated collection of photographic equipment. Occasionally, someone will bring a portable rod and reel with them. Me, I bring my laptop. And I pass my spare time fiddling with web pages.

The Captain's Room

If someone leaves money out for everyone to see, most often it will still be there when he comes back to it. If he leaves a magazine out for everyone to see, he is less likely to find it again. Probably the most coveted personal item for smokers is their stash of cigarettes. Cans of loose tobacco and rolling papers are common on towboats.

The routine aboard a boat revolves around the clock. Most of us stand what are called "square watches." Divide the day into four equal parts, and call each part a "watch." You might say that my day starts when someone knocks on my door at 5:00 a.m. Technically, I've got an hour to get myself ready for work; dressed, showered, shaved, and breakfasted. Realistically, I'm usually on the job and working inside half an hour. My partner, the Pilot, then comes down to the galley for some breakfast and goes to bed. At 11:00 a.m., there will come a knock on his door, and not long after, he will have had his lunch and be upstairs, in the wheelhouse, finding out about the events of the morning. I'll leave the vessel in his capable hands, come downstairs for my lunch, and grab a nap. When the next knock comes on my door, I know it is 5:00 p.m., and it is time for me to grab a bite and relieve my partner in the wheelhouse. At 11:00 p.m., it is more of the same.

The Dining Room

For the cook, the routine is a little different. Most of our cooks get up somewhere around 3:30 to 4:00 a.m. They are in the galley in time to have breakfast ready by 5:00. Their day is theirs to arrange as they wish, so long as lunch is ready at 11:00 and supper is available at 5:00. At midnight, the crew is on its own. Most of us make do with leftovers, a sandwich, or a bowl of cereal at midnight. Think about someone who really enjoys cooking. Now, try to imagine a more satisfying job than providing three meals a day for 8 to 10 hard-working men. Of course if you don't enjoy cooking, well, that's another thing altogether.

Sally's Galley

A normal crew aboard a boat is eight people:

The Pilot and the Captain actually drive the vessel. Ultimately, everything that goes on aboard the vessel is their responsibility. They are responsible for safe navigation, for the integrity of the cargo, and for the safety of the crew, as well as for the safety of the other people and vessels with whom we share the river.

The Chief Engineer takes care of all of the mechanical and electrical systems aboard the vessel. He (or she) is responsible for fueling, for the maintenance of the main engines, the generators, the steering systems, all of the various kinds of pumps, the heating and air-conditioning systems, all of the plumbing on the boat, and everything electrical (though not electronic); in short, the Chief keeps us up and running.

A view of the deck locker.

The Mate and the Leadman relieve each other in a way similar to the way the Pilot and Captain relieve each other. Each of them stands a six hour watch. One helps the Captain, the other helps the Pilot. While the Wheelhouse must be manned at all times, the Mate and the Leadman take care of the barges, making sure that they are not taking on water and that they are made up properly into a rigid unit. The Mate and the Leadman supervise the deck crew. They are the pilot and the captain's eyes and ears out on the tow. When we are picking up and dropping barges, they are in charge of the work out on the tow. While we are simply going down the river, the Mate and the Leadman are responsible for keeping the boat clean and spiffy.

The Deckhand and the Utility person are the rest of the deck crew. One works with the Mate, the other with the Leadman to accomplish all their responsibilities.

The cook keeps us healthy and well fed. She (or he) orders all the groceries, makes all our meals, and keeps us within our grocery budget.

On rivers that require us to double lock our large tows, we have to carry one more deckhand. That person is called the "Call Watch Man." Double locking requires three people out on the deck to break the tow apart, lock the two parts through, and then to put them back together. When we are going to a double locking river, we get on an extra deckhand and then we just get him up when there is work to do. The call watch man normally gets out of doing the clean-up work aboard the vessel. We save him for helping us with double locking and with doing tow work. His hours are totally erratic. Some days he may get 14 to 16 hours of rest straight. Other days, he may be called out for a couple of hours work after only two or three hours rest, all day long. When one deckhand burns out on call watch, we do our best to rotate someone else into the position.

A deckhand room.

On the Peter Fanchi, we do a lot of training as well. From time to time we will have extra new-hire deckhands that are "riding heavy" to "learn the ropes," so to speak. Or we may have a steersman who is learning how to become a pilot. From time to time we spend a few days breaking in a new Utility Person. Each of these positions adds to our crew count, and to our grocery budget.

It is such an unusual culture! We work about 30 days on a boat, then we go home for about 30 days with our families. While we are on the boat, we work 6 hours on and 6 hours off, the clock around, 7 days a week. We put in an 84 hour work week while we are working and then get even with the rest of the world during our 30 days of off time. We miss our children's birthdays. We miss every other Christmas. On average, we miss about half of the birthdays and holidays that everyone looks forward to. And the corollary is that while we just keep on going (and going, and going . . .) during the weekends, our office people come in on Monday morning faced with a brand new world that is sometimes dramatically different from the one they left behind on Friday. We often get some pretty frantic messages from the office, first thing Monday mornings.

During our time on a boat, there is no alcohol; not even a beer with the barbeque. We can't go to town and shoot a game of pool with the guys. We don't even get to find a quiet place to watch a sunset. There just isn't a quiet place on a boat! I suppose that the sight of the sunrises and sunset are just about the most intoxicating experience that we get aboard boats. We often watch the birds fly past, but we rarely hear them sing. The outdoorsmen among us enjoy scanning the woods for the sight of a deer or a turkey. I've often joked that certain of our captains knew the riverbanks so intimately that they knew what chipmunks were mating with which. Studying the river's banks for signs of wild life appeals to more than the outdoorsmen during pleasure boat season. Many of our crew members use binoculars to study the bikinis on the beaches as we pass by. I remember one hippie type who looked forward to catching a lock while he was off watch so that he could go up onto the lock's property, take off his shoes and walk barefoot in the grass. On a boat and barges, nearly every walking surface is painfully hard. If we get to take a morning walk, it's most likely on the treadmill.

So, where's the wheel in the wheelhouse?

Many people think that in the summer time, the river is cooler. But out on our tow, the sun beats down without any shade. If there is a breeze, it might be an imperceptible couple of degrees cooler. And the sun beating down on all of that steel heats up the walking surfaces fiercely. Many are the times that I've sat myself down on the deck of a barge and gotten right back up again because it was too hot to the tush, uh touch. On the boat, the wheelhouse is like a greenhouse. All of those windows make for a tremendous solar gain in the summer. And in the winter, they are so poorly insulated that they let all the cold come right in. Even with the best of climate control systems, a wheelhouse is one of the most difficult spaces to keep comfortable that I know of. Except maybe for an engine room. We don't even attempt to control the temperature of the engine room! We open windows and we open vents and we turn on fans and blowers and still the ambient air temperature is around 140° Fahrenheit! We do have a boiler for extra heat, and we use it some in the wintertime. But except for the very coldest days in the winter time, we are able to keep the whole boat warm with just the waste heat from one of our engines. Actually, boats are pretty hot places, summertime and wintertime.

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© Monday, August 04, 2008