- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Cary Lewis has the best view of anyone who plies the Mighty Mississippi. His office - better known as a pilothouse - sits atop the Motor Vehicle Mississippi five stories above the waterline.

Lewis is the pilot-on-duty of this massive towboat - the largest and most powerful in the world - and, like a nervous cat, he can’t help but regularly glance about, in his case downriver from this perch high above the treacherous, yet serene appearing, Mississippi River.

Lewis is a slightly corpulent man with a steady gaze, both of which evince a life spent with the responsibility of steering barges up and down the river and its tributaries.

He is 62 years old and has been on the water, now, the better part of half a century.

“I started out when I was 18 as a deckhand and worked my way up to the pilothouse,” he said.

It was then, before he was old enough to vote, that a towboat pilot working for the former Missouri Barge Line Co., which had brought Lewis on board, challenged him by saying, “Why don’t you steer this afternoon? Or, why don’t you make this bridge?”

Lewis has been steering and making bridges ever since.

Six years ago, St. Louis-based AEP River Operations, a subsidiary of the publicly traded American Electric Power Co., purchased the Missouri Barge Line Co., and Lewis, who has lived in the company’s home port of Cape Girardeau, Mo. - a city the size of Greenville - since his family moved from Chicago when he was eight, elected to seek employment elsewhere.

At the time, he said, “the Corps was needing a pilot, and I signed on.”

Doing so continued a certain familial tradition.

“My dad,” he said, “was in the Corps years ago, on the dredge Hurley.”

The Motor Vessel Mississippi, aka The Boat, as its deckhands refer to it with obvious affection, was built at Pascagoula-based VT Halter Marine Inc.’s Moss Point shipyard.

It is the fifth boat to bear the proud name - the first was commissioned in 1882 - and given the responsibility of keeping an eye on the rivers that comprise the Mississippi watershed.

The current iteration’s keel was laid on March 31, 1992, and the boat was commissioned the following year.

The MV Mississippi is the flagship of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is based in Memphis, Tenn.

It spends 90 percent of its eight months on the water working as a towboat, pushing barges in support of the Corps’ river revetment operations, in which blankets of articulated concrete slabs, each 25-feet-long and 4-feet-wide and linked together in 140-foot sheets, are laid along river banks to reinforce them against the water’s inexorable urge to reroute itself.

“That’s what this boat does mostly, pushes around mats,” said Greg Raimondo, the chief spokesman for the Corps’ Vicksburg District, which encompasses Washington County. The revetment work, he said, “is done in the fall, when the river’s level is lowest.”

Raimondo, who, after serving 26 years as an U.S. Army engineer, including nine with the Corps of Engineers, retired as a lieutenant colonel. He then joined the Corps as a civilian in October 2012.

The MV Mississippi tows the barges that sink the so-called mats as well as the floating hotel that houses the hundreds of crewmen who lay the revetments, unfurling the mats along the river’s banks.

A priority attached to the revetment work “is to keep the river where it’s at,” he said. “If the river moved, it would start to eat up levees, which, of course, we can’t have.”

The mats, which roll off the revetment barge like paper towels coming off a spool, are remarkably durable. Each year, Raimondo said, “less than 1 percent of mat needs repair or replacement.”

The MV Mississippi accommodates more than 100 people in its paneled hearing room. The boat also boasts 22 staterooms. Its dining room seats 85.

Crew members work 12-hour days with 12 hours off, 14 days straight before a six-day reprieve, for an eight-month stretch.

The engine room, which is grease-free and smells of fresh enamel paint, is overseen by Second Assistant Engineer Robert Morton, whose rank belies his authority. Here, on the boat’s first level, he is in charge.

Standing behind a glass wall that overlooks the engine room, he waded deep into one of the dozens of thick binders stored in cabinets ever at the ready to answer a question about the giant diesels’ internal combustion.

He, too, has been with the Corps better than a dozen years. He holds multiple marine licenses.

As a pilot, Lewis works six hours on, six hours off, alternating with another pilot.

The Vicksburg District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees 68,000 square miles, an area that is a fourth again as large as Mississippi.

The district office is charged with, among other things, maintaining a navigation channel no less than 9 feet deep along a 278-mile stretch of the Mississippi River.

Downriver traffic has the right of way because in bends it must exceed the speed of the current to make them, whereas those traveling upriver can more easily hold their position.

At the helm, the pilot sits between two oversized monitors, one at his left elbow, one at his right, both of which displayed radar images of what was ahead and around.

Ahead and just to the right was a third monitor, an Automatic Identification System, which alerts towboat pilots to traffic in either direction as well as that entering from any tributaries.

Reading the images and gauges and making the right decision without fail is something prospective pilots must learn on the job.

“We don’t have a school or a college to train a pilot,” Lewis said. “It’s just like when I got started. You steer when you get the chance, and you make a bridge when you have to.

“Fact of the matter is, we’re still doing it the same way that old steamboat pilot, Mark Twain, did it way back when,” he said.

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Information from: Delta Democrat Times, http://www.ddtonline.com