Learning the life flow of America’s main arteries

On a Tuesday morning in Louisville, Ky., about 20 dark-blue uniformed people make their way into a basement conference room in the Romano L. Mazzoli Federal building. Bleary-eyed and waiting for their coffee to kick in, they sit patiently behind tables for a class to begin.

These men and women attended the 8th Coast Guard District’s annual Western Rivers Orientation class.

“The goal of the class is to help familiarize Coast Guardsmen coming from coastal regions, known to the rivermen as ‘blue-water sailors,’ with the terms and ways of river life,” said Al Lee, course administrator. “The world of inland rivers or ‘brown-water sailing’ is completely different from the world of ‘blue-water sailing.’” 130130-TM873-060-Overflight of MOC-12 oil spill response

The class is held in three major locations within the 8th District’s area of responsibility. Roughly 90 Coast Guardsmen in Louisville, St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn., which are the host cities of three of the district’s seven sectors, attend the Western Rivers Orientation class annually to understand what takes place within their AOR.

Like pebbles skipped across water, instructors tossed river terminology to the course attendees. Terms like open river, pool river and drift were but a small handful of terms that rippled a new glossary for the class to learn and understand.

Along the Western Rivers of America, the Ohio River has a series of locks and dams creating what is called a pooled river as opposed to an open river.

According to A Riverman’s Lexicon by Charles F. Lehman, a former towboat captain and operator, a pool is a body of water on the river that is contained by a dam, or between two dams, to provide navigation.

William Kline, lead instructor for Western Rivers Orientation and retired Coast Guard commander, evoked the lingo you’d hear from the rivermen of America’s heartland throughout the duration of the class.

To help the class attendees better understand industry standards and operations, they were taken on tours of the McApline Lock and Dam, a towboat and passenger vessel in Louisville. Multiple towboat and river passenger vessel captains also talked with the Coast Guardsmen about river life.

Most of the towboat operators are fifth, sixth and sometimes seventh-generation captains. Most start learning the ways of the river at the age of 14.

100417-G-3422A-723“It’s important to allow the Coast Guardsmen to hear from actual rivermen to understand that navigating up and down a river is completely different than open-water sailing,” said Lee. “The biggest difference is a designated channel to navigate through. Because of river conditions, buoys aren’t set indefinitely but are constantly changing positions to mark the best navigable waters.”

The class allowed incoming Coast Guardsmen to learn of the well-established partnership between the Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and river vessel industries.

For example, rivermen have to learn and understand the flow of a river before they operate a vessel alone, and the Coast Guardsmen assigned to guard and maintain commerce along America’s main arteries must learn how river life ebbs and flows.

As the coffee begins to kick in and awaken, its consumers’ ears perk up to the speaker in the front of the room engaging his audience of ‘blue-water sailors’ to transform them into knowledgeable ‘brown-water sailors.’ By the close of his last speech, the terms the instructor once tossed like pebbles across the water, understanding of the rivermen’s language was captured as the terms rippled across the body of students.

The Coast Guard’s annual class protects the nation’s waterway and sheds light on the life of the Western Rivers. After the course, the graduates help keep the blood of the nation’s commerce flowing.

More importantly, they discovered and now comprehend the Rosetta stone of the brown-water sailors.

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