• Virginia Tolles

Sailing the Broad Rivers

Updated: Mar 4

I’ve ridden on ferry boats several times in my lifetime. The first two were the City of Baton Rouge and the Louisiana, which made alternating crossings on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and Port Allen.

Vintage postcard entitled "Ferry Boat Landing, 'City of Baton Rouge' Baton Rouge, La." Published by E.C. Kropp Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin (undated).

The boats were constructed in the style of the old river boats with smoke stacks and an upper verandah for pedestrian passengers. The lower deck housed cars and the diesel engines. On top, of course, was the wheelhouse, where the captain steered us safely through strong currents and passing barges to the far shore.

The City of Baton Rouge served from 1916 until 1980, when a strong storm demolished its wheelhouse and smoke stack. It was sold and moved to Iowa for use as a wharf boat. The Louisiana served from 1924 until 1968, when it was sold to the state for use on the lower Mississippi River. It now serves as a maintenance barge. The City of Baton Rouge had one smoke stack, while the Louisiana had two and was a larger ship.

As the years passed, traffic backed up on the I-10 bridge and, some miles south, the Donaldsonville Bridge. A new ferry service was opened by the Louisiana Department of Transportation. It operates between Sunshine and Plaquemine on the East and West banks of the Mississippi River, respectively.

The Plaquemine-Sunshine ferry New Iberia approaches the dock

in Sunshine, Louisiana (Webmaster, 2016).

Operating under such Louisiana names as New Iberia and St. Landry, the boats, which can carry up to 35 cars, are purely utilitarian in design. Cars park on the main deck with the engines and wheelhouse in the center. The crews are merchant mariners, usually a captain and two or three deck hands.

There being no verandah, motorists are invited to get out of their cars and stand at the railing to enjoy life on the Mississippi. There, barges and ocean-going vessels have the right-of-way. Let’s face it: a ship can’t just put on brakes when another vessel crosses its path.

An ocean-going tanker passes the Sunshine ferry dock

as it makes its way to the Port of Baton Rouge (Webmaster, 2016).

It’s fun to make the crossing, except that it’s entirely too short a trip for one who would like to spend a couple of hours on the water. For that, one really would have to take a Sunday cruise aboard the SS Natchez in New Orleans. But that’s not a ferry.

Now that I’ve left Baton Rouge, I have to take my ferry rides through YouTube videos. I find it fun to watch the Shelter Island ferries as they load and traverse the Peconic River between Shelter Island and North Haven on Long Island.

The deck crews direct the cars to park for the most efficient weights and balances possible. Heavier vehicles are directed to the portside and center. Lighter vehicles are directed to the starboard side, where the engine and wheelhouse are located. Of course, if the vehicles that board don’t offer a good distribution of weight, the deck crews have to juggle them as best they can.

When the boat leaves the dock, it travels upstream (downstream for the opposite ferry) for a certain distance to ensure a safe space between the boats. The maneuver also makes it easier for the boats to moor when they reach their destination. Almost certainly, maritime regulations stipulate what that distance should be just as surely as aviation regulations stipulate how far apart airplanes must fly. It’s a good regulation, for the river currents and winds are visibly strong. As the ship nears the opposite dock, it drives straight in and discharges the vehicles. Take a look at this video and see if you find it both fun and informative to watch: Shelter Island Ferry. The Hamptons, New York.

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