I was impressed with a lot of things during my recent visit to a Marquette Transportation Company towboat on the Upper Mississippi River north of St. Louis.
Among the highlights of the press tour organized by the Waterways Council: The quality of the food prepared by senior cook Steve Stapleton. The cleanliness and upkeep of the Christopher Myskowski. The view from the wheelhouse of the Mississippi River and the imposing Melvin Price Locks and Dam. Watching Asian carp, spooked by engine noise, jump high out of the river and land on the deck of the Army Corps of Engineers service vessel that ferried us to the towboat. Pretty ugly fish.
But what I liked most was the discussion with the captain and crew about how advances in technology have influenced their professional and personal lives onboard.
Satellite TV provides them with the latest shows to watch during their downtime. Cellphones make it easy to call home or share river information with other towboats. GPS provides accurate location. AIS has replaced VHS radios, allowing vessels to put out their positions and know who is around them. The internet keeps them in touch with favorite websites, email, weather forecasts, news, and sports. Such innovations make the long separations from family and friends more palatable, and allow crewmembers to be more effective at work.
Beyond personal conveniences, perhaps the biggest development has occurred with navigation. Like everything else, navigation has gone electronic, and things are fast, accurate and in realtime – in turn making them easier and safer. At first, many mariners were skeptical, but today they will be the first to tell you how electronic navigation is one of the best tools out there.
“You see this over here?” Capt. Jeff Stoneking, 54, asked, gesturing toward a display screen in the wheelhouse. “It’s the best thing ever designed for the river, and it’s getting better every year. There’s never a time that you don’t know where you are. It’s the major piece of equipment up here.”
Stoneking, who has some 30 years of experience on the river, was referring to his vessel’s electronic charting system designed by Rose Point, a Redmond, Wash.-based marine electronics software company, that is widely used on workboats. Paper charts, once the only way to navigate, are now relegated to backup status, stored in a drawer. The Coast Guard requires them to be kept onboard.
It’s usually the younger mariners who are gung-ho about technology. But on the Christopher Myskowski, Geoff Westgerdes, the 27-year-old pilot with seven years experience, isn’t totally giving up his paper charts. Like Capt. Stoneking, Westgerdes has witnessed the transition to digital, but paper charts are still an important part of his onboard navigation routine.
“I like them because I can take notes on them,” he said, showing me a notebook that he keeps of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maps of the Upper Mississippi routes that his towboat follows, mostly from St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn.
“I keep my notebook. I take notes on making turns, as reminders to myself, “ he said. “And I take the notebook to my room to study as a refresher.”
Just goes to show you that there are still some things that technology can’t replicate.