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Small ferry operations in Picton, Ontario, Canada. Picture by M. Leduc, April 2014

River Story: Losing It All

Authored by Tom Winkle
November 2020

Chief Engineer Tom Winkle spent a 40 year career on the great rivers of the United States, working on massive tugs moving rafts of barges. Retired since 2015, Tom shares stories of life onboard these vessels and their unique trade. He is a skilled photographer, sharing some stunning marine pictures of life on the river in the SeafarerMedia area, and previously contributing anecdotes and stories - look for the "Bilge Rat" attribution. You can reach him at bilgerat4 at Gmail.


Way back when, in the early 1980s, I was a newly minted engineer, having passed the exams and being issued my Coast Guard license at the end of January of 1982. The company ran me as an assistant on big boats for two trips, and then a few trips on smaller boats as chief on the Illinois River, and then I was assigned as the engineer on the Valley Transporter, the 7000 horsepower, two hundred foot long boat that I had been the striker on for six years.

I was familiar with the boat, all of it's quirks and bad spots (LOTS of both!). Back then, the company was spending as little as they could get away with on maintenance. So, as a consequence of this, the engineer had a full plate. There was plenty that could be dealt with while underway (subject to how much they were willing to spend on parts and materials), but a lot of the problems needed the boat to be lifted out of the water so hull work could be done in a shipyard.

One of these issues was water leaks into the fuel tanks. A boat's fuel tanks are not like the tank on a car or truck, they're not a separate entity, they are simply a partitioned off part of the hull that's welded up to be oil-tight, and equipped with the necessary piping to deal with handling the fuel; high suction, low suction, return line, fill line, etc., and most of their surface is in contact with the water.

We had one tank that had numerous leaks below the waterline, the #1 tank. It was the biggest of the boat's tanks, a large, T shaped tank aft of the engine room that extended aft almost to the flanking rudders, and the lowest part of it was a fairly small, deep area right at the aft bulkhead of the center lower engine room, so this was where the water from the leaks gathered.

We only had to burn fuel from #1 for part of the day every other day or so. If I used the boat's built-in equipment and piping every morning to suck the water out of the tank, it was safe to use what was called the high suction line to burn fuel out of this tank. That way, the water level (water is heavier than diesel fuel, and collects on the bottom under the fuel) stayed low enough to not be a problem.

But dealing with this is a pain in the butt, and potentially a danger. The captain and I discussed this and decided to see if we could shame management into docking the boat and fixing the leaks. So, each morning, on our report to the office, we started reporting the amount of water we were stripping out of the #1 tank; 7,000 gallons, 6,000 gallons, 9,000 gallons, 8,000 gallons...

This had gone on for a couple of weeks, and not a peep about it from the office in St. Louis, so we just collectively shrugged our shoulders and carried on as we had been.

Fast forward a week or ten days. Things are going along as they had been, running and still stripping the river water out of the #1 fuel tank. We had left Cairo southbound with thirty five loads of grain destined New Orleans, so we were running “southbound speed”, with the engines running about 700 rpm instead of the usual 900 for full load.

It was the end of my evening watch (midnight), and I was talking with Gary, my assistant, bringing him up to speed on what needed to be done on his watch that morning, which was primarily cleaning the fuel centrifuge.

Time to go technical here, so you can better understand what's to follow. Bear with me...

A boat's fuel system has two parts, the primary and the secondary systems. The primary system gets the fuel out of the boat's tanks, gives it a first cleaning (either by filter or centrifuge), delivers it to the day tank, and returns the overflow to one of the tanks in the hull. The secondary system then takes it from the day tank to the engines and the generator, where another filter (on each piece of equipment) cleans it again before it's injected. The secondary system returns any fuel unused by the engine back to the day tank.

Both of these systems consist of piping, pumps, filters, and valves. In the hull tanks, you have the high suction and low suction in each tank for the primary fuel system. You only use the high suction when you are running; the tank space below that is where the dirt and water accumulate in a tank, so the low suction would only be used in an emergency, or to drain the tank for work.

The primary system on the Transporter had both a pump and filter and a centrifuge. The centrifuge was what you used when running, the pump and filter were there as a backup, and to supply the day tank while the centrifuge is being cleaned.

If you think of a cream separator, you will understand what the centrifuge does to the fuel. (In fact, the same company makes cream separators) “Dirty” fuel (and possibly small amounts of water) go in and are spun at 7,200 rpm in a “bowl” that accepts a continuous flow of fuel. Cleaned fuel comes out of one discharge, water comes out of a different discharge, and the dirt is retained in the machine, so the centrifuge has to be shut down every so often for cleaning, which took about an hour.

I told Gary to go ahead and clean the centrifuge. We were drawing fuel from the #1 tank high suction (above the water in the tank), so all he had to do was switch to the pump and filter, and shut the centrifuge off and have at it. He was good with what needed to be done, so I headed off to bed.

I was laying there reading before shutting off the light when both engines went to idle. Nothing too unusual there... But then Gary started beating on my door, yelling something I couldn't quite make out. I hollered at him to open the damn door. He did, and blurted out, “Get up! We're about to lose everything!”

Well, that worked. Pulling on my clothes, I ran down below. When I got to the engine room, the starboard engine was running way below idle and misfiring badly. Gary yelled that he had accidentally spun open the LOW SUCTION valve on the #1 tank when he turned on the pump! So, here we are, with the day tank pumped full of WATER....

It is an established fact that diesel engines do not run well on water. We had spun the drain valve on the day tank open and shut off the pump, but it was too late. The secondary piping was already full of water. As we were flying around, double checking valve lineups, the starboard engine died. Then, the port engine started clattering, and it died too.
A couple of minutes after that, the generator died, and the lights went out.

Just for the record, there is nothing as silent as an underway engine room that has just died and gone dark while you are faced up to a tow, and not tied off to a dock. It is truly an experience to never have. The obstacles to getting power back are formidable and time consuming, and you are out of control.

Gary made a move to start the offline generator. I stopped him, because we had not yet drained all the water from the day tank. It would just run for a couple of minutes and then die as well. I told him, “Round up the deck crew! Have them go get that new trash barrel on the stern and bring it in here. Set them to filling pails of fuel from the stripping valve on the #2 tank, and filling that barrel! I'll rig a temporary fuel line!”

So, off everybody went. I got out hose and fittings, disconnected the generator from the boat's piping and set up a fuel suction line into the barrel, removed the two water filled fuel filters and replaced them with new ones full of water free fuel and the deckhands formed a bucket brigade, bringing up water free fuel from the lower engine room and filling the barrel. While all this was going on, we were still 63,000 tons of grain and steel, floating down the Mississippi out of control...

When the barrel was about three fourths full, I crossed my fingers and tried to start the generator engine. The air starter groaned and quit. Not enough compressed air; the leaks had robbed us of it after the generator died and the compressors were no longer running.


We grabbed a CO2 fire extinguisher and some pipe fittings, disconnected the air line from the starter, and piped the hose from the extinguisher to the air starter. A gentle squeeze of the handle easily rolled the engine. I spun it gently for a while, using the engine's fuel pump to clear the rest of the water, and mentally praying that not too many injectors had been ruined by the water. and she took off! The lights came back on, and the deckhands started yelling! We did too! Woohoo, this just got a bit better! We had to keep the bucket brigade going; the fuel level in the barrel would drop fairly quickly, as the fuel return line was still piped up to the day tank.

While the rest of the guys were still schlepping fuel, I set about getting the water out of the line to the generator. Once the water was out of the day tank, it was a matter of running water out of the generator fuel line into a bucket until the water was cleared. When I got clean fuel out of the line, I motioned to Gary to start up the other generator and put it online, We then shut down the one running on the fuel barrel, and reconnected it to the fuel system.

Well, this was well enough in hand that I could take a minute to check in with Grady, the pilot, and let him know what was going on, and that we were well on the road to recovery. After getting to the wheelhouse, I looked around. We appeared to be aground on the outside of a bend just below Richardson's Bluff. I told Grady what was happening, he's grinning all the while. So, I finish, and he tells his side of the story. When everything went to hell, and before the lights went out, he called traffic: “Motor Vessel Valley Transporter, about to lose the plant. Thirty five loads and one boat in tow...”

He then told me that we had topped around (did a 360 degree spin!) two times, and finally landed on the sand bar at the bend. Keep in mind the size here. The tow was thirty five barges, configured five barges wide by seven barges long, so the tow dimensions were 175 feet wide by 1,400 feet long, and add another 200 feet to the length for the boat...

At one point, he said that the barges had the stern of the boat aimed right at Richardson's Bluff, which is a sheer, crumbling sand bluff, created by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, with very deep water at the base of the bluff. If we would have actually hit that way, it would have sunk the boat very quickly. Grady said when we started to get aimed that way, he, the captain and the mate had gathered up their luggage and set it out on the barges. He had started rotating the deckhands out of the engine room one at a time, so they could do the same! They weren't going to throw us to the wolves, however. They had Gary's bags and mine gathered us up as well... Thankfully, it wasn't needed...

I went back down below, and started the task of clearing the engine fuel piping of water, and getting it out of the engine fuel manifolds as well. It took a couple of hours, but eventually we had both engines running again, and we were headed southbound, not too much the worse for the wear.

After traffic the next morning, when the office learned of our “little adventure”, we received a message on afternoon traffic that we would be drydocked in New Orleans for tank repair...


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