Rolling on the River with Master Captain Al Christian

Posted on: Feb 08 2006 | Posted in: Archive

Master Captain Al Christian can turn the Paddlewheeler Creole Queen on a dime. Rather impressive for a 200 foot, 400 ton vessel. The massive red paddlewheel itself is 24 feet wide and 20 feet in diameter. But he doesn't always get credit for maneuvering the challenging boats.

"People always say, 'Well, you've got bow thrusters, right." he says. The ship does have the additional propulsion systems that essentially enable it to move sideways slowly when leaving the dock. "But it takes a lot more than that."

Paddlewheelers have a steering system that is opposite of most boats. On most ships, the rudder is behind the propeller. A paddlewheeler has its barn door-sized rudders in front of the propulsion. This makes such a boat more maneuverable in reverse than going forward.

"A tugboat is like a sportscar," Christian says. "This boat is maneuverable but it takes a lot of forethought and anticipation." As a former tugboat captain he says the transition from one steering system to the other isn't simple, "It's like going from being right-handed to left-handed."

After 15 years at the helm, Christian is a master of both the boat and the stretch of the Mississippi around New Orleans. That's no easy task, since the entire river's most dangerous turn is at Algier's Point, across from the French Quarter. Christian spends his days steering the Creole Queen past the point several times each day en route to the Chalmette Battlefield on two-and-a-half hour sightseeing cruises. He typically shares the cabin with another captain. One steers while the other narrates the tour and port history.

As the paddlewheel begins its steady churn, the Creole Queen eases out into the river. The French Quarter, Jackson Square and the Cathedral's towers slide by on the left. Then the wharves begin, showing that shipping commerce was and still is very important to the city. Most of the port's heavy shipping has switched to the Industrial Canal, just down river. But as the river makes its right turn around Algier's Point, you'll usually see a line of ocean tankers sort of parallel parked near the West Bank. Anywhere from two or three or as many as 20 may be anchored, awaiting final arrangements and schedules to go up-river. The largest tankers weigh more than 150,000 tons.

From tugboats and small crafts to the largest tankers, all sizes of boats and ships share the river. Tugboats pushing up to 1000 feet chains of barges also cruise the river. While Christian has both radar and a computer tracking satellite positioning of other vessels, he says that line of sight is the most simple and useful guide. Radar helps out more when visibility is low due to rain or fog. The principles of navigating dictate that a captain should always seek the widest clearance from other vessels and the bank. Experience factors in heavily because of the river's ever changing currents.

The system of piloting the river is perhaps as complex. Louisiana has three licensing areas for river pilots. The pilot's license essentially designates that someone is a specialist in the region. Some are trained to take ships from the Gulf to the river. Crescent Pilots are trained for the waters up to New Orleans and then there are pilots who take ships north to Baton Rouge. The Coast Guard also issues Captains' licenses. Steering a ship like the Creole Queen requires a master's license.

Life on the river wasn't always so well regulated or technical. The call of the river has always had a much more adventurous spirit to it. Mark Twain mythologized life on the river after his early career was spent on the boats. A whole culture built up around the steamboats, one filled with raucous gambling, frontier preachers and roughnecks, and a rambunctious spirit as America looked westward.

The heyday of steamboats lasted roughly from 1820-1860. At the height of river commerce, it's estimated that 11,000 steamships worked the Mississippi. The fact that there are still steamboats today shows that nostalgia for life on the river has never faded.

Steamboats are now devoted to pleasure cruises rather than the cutthroat commerce when cotton was king. During that era, steamboat captains stoked their boilers to try to beat others to the markets in New Orleans and elsewhere. Some boats went up in flames as the engines exploded. In general though, the hazards were many. Boats had an average life expectancy of only 18 months. Fires from candles in staterooms, or wood-burning stoves or even cinders expelled from the stacks often started dangerous fires. Some of the vessels were so laid down with cotton bales that they looked like floating pyramids. If a fire broke out on such a loaded ship in port, the effect could be devastating to ships passing by or in neighboring docks. But the business of cotton rumbled on and at one time, in the 1850s, the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States was found among the shipping magnates of Natchez, Mississippi.

Besides the danger of fires, pilots always had to be wary of the Mississippi's ever changing currents and mud bars. Born Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain took his pen name from a term used by riverboat crewmen to measure the river's depth. The crewman dropped a chain in the water, gauged how long till it hit bottom and then called out the depth. "Mark Four" meant the river was four fathoms deep. "Mark Twain" meant it was two fathoms, dangerously shallow for a riverboat.

Nostalgia for that era probably runs greatest at Tall Stacks, a meeting of steamboats and paddlewheelers held every few years in Cincinnati. Not all paddlewheelers are steam driven. In fact, there are only a handful of true steamboats left. They include the Natchez, the Mississippi Queen, Delta Queen and American Queen, all docked in New Orleans. Tall Stacks refers to the black double columns steamboats have to vent steam from the engines. The event features steamboat races like the fabled ones on the Mississippi when captains and shipping companies built up their own steam in bragging about their boats.

Christian and the Creole Queen last made the 1,300-mile trip to Tall Stacks in 1999. He and three other captains shared the helm around the clock for nine days to get there. But their efforts were rewarded with a couple of victories in races against the Majestic.

Not every voyage offers that brush with glory, but Christian has no complaints about life on the river. He knew from his first day on a tugboat that the river was where he belonged.

As Twain said in Life on the Mississippi, "You think it's going to be just another cruise until they blow the whistle."