In the August 9, 2010 issue of the Waterways Journal, retired Canal Barge Company Captain Simpson Kemp was interviewed for some insight into his storied history on the river. Capt. Kemp worked with Canal Barge for over 37 years and is revered on the river as one of the most versatile Captains in the industry. Below, is the full article, courtesy of the Waterways Journal.
Retired Towboat Captain Reminisces
Capt. Simpson Kemp, who grew up watching boats on the Tickfaw River, retired from Canal Barge Company, New Orleans, La., in January, ending a 54-year career on the river, 38 of which were with Canal Barge. He started working on boats when he was 15 and in eighth grade.
Speaking with Hannah Chotin of Canal, Kemp recalled that while he was on a trip with his father to Manchac, La., to sell a load of fish, he noticed a dredging boat and out of curiosity, asked the captain how he could get a job on the boat. The captain simply replied, “Get on that skiff.”
Kemp worked on the dredge boats until he was 18, at which time he traveled to Baton Rouge to find work on a “big boat.” He completed his GED 56 years later.
The “big boat,” he told his interviewer, was the mv. Harry Dyer, a Chotin Transportation vessel that ran from Exxon Baton Rouge to Exxon Pittsburgh. He was a deckhand hired by Capt. Jos. Chotin. The route took about one month round trip; they had to break tow at every lock. That’s when he knew he was hooked, he said. He stayed on the boat for two trips and off for one trip.
He worked for Chotin for 13 years, coming up through the ranks. He remembers seeing the mv. Irene Chotin, which was the first boat to transit the Port Allen Lock.
“Working on boats, you meet all kinds of people from all over the country,” he said. “The river gets in your blood and you can’t get away from it.”
When Midland bought Chotin Transportation in 1971, Simpson traveled to Natchez, Miss., to visit Canal Barge Company about career opportunities and ended up tripping for about a month before becoming a full time Canal pilot.
Kemp told Hannah Chotin, at the beginning of his career when taking a tow to Pittsburgh from Baton Rouge, it wasn’t possible to call the office until reaching Cairo. Also, there was no formal training then. The mate told you what to do and how to do it. He remembered when he was a relatively new captain on the mv. Cypress, he attempted to turn on the radar (a huge WW II model) as the winter night was getting very dark. His supervising captain quickly asked him, “What are you doing? We only use that thing in the fog!”
When computers were added to the boat, Kemp said, he was actually scared of what the change would mean, but he gradually learned the programs and came to realize that they are ultimately tools to help make the waterways safer.
“You have to make sure up-and-coming pilots and captains don’t rely solely on the computer. Often, when I supervise a green captain or pilot, I make them go without the help of a computer for a bit and coach as they drive. That’s the best way to let them learn. They have to trust their senses,” he said.
Kemp said the entire river system is in much better shape today, thanks to the Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard. The locks and dams are more efficient and the navigational safety is much improved. It is better environmentally, too, he said, recalling the days when you’d need a tetanus shot if you fell into the river in the Chicago area.
Living conditions on the boat have changed significantly, he said. The mv. Codrington had no air conditioning and was very noisy. He has seen boats refurbished with soundproofing, black-out shutters and many more advances to ensure the crewmembers have a better quality of life onboard. The regular upkeep of the boats is now to higher standards to ensure better living conditions.
“In the 1990s, we moved Army equipment on barges and the last move I was involved with had 16 barges in the tow; it looked like a giant, floating parking lot. Other captains on the river would ask, ‘Where you goin’ with all that military equipment?’ and I’d reply, ‘This isn’t military equipment; I’m just seriously going to the hunting camp!’”
From then on, river folks called him the “deer hunter,” he said.
Courtesy of the Waterways Journal