From Pittsburgh, Pa., to Paducah, Ken., work on the Ohio River doesn't stop for Christmas.
For 21-year-old deckhand Shay Arnold, of Marietta, Sunday wasn't just his first Christmas working on the river, the holiday fell in the middle of his first two-weeks on the job.
Despite the holiday, dozens of barge crews all along the river valley continued to haul coal and other commodities toward their final destination.
ROBB DeCAMP Special to The Times
A barge makes its way along the Ohio River Sunday.
"I've been out since last Wednesday, so I've been out a little over a week now," said Arnold, aboard Consol Energy's Mongah somewhere along the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania on Sunday. "It hasn't been bad at all, but I'll be glad to get home."
Arnold said he started Christmas with a call to his parents, Chris and Tina Arnold, of Marietta. He said they had sent a gift along with him to open on Christmas.
"I couldn't wait any longer and opened it last night (Christmas Eve) ... It was a nice pair of binoculars to look around with while I'm out here," he said. "I'll get them something when I get back, after I get my first check. Before I left, I spent all my money on warm clothes for work."
- From Marietta to New Orleans, a barge tow would have to travel about 1,600 river miles, crossing through 21 locks and dams, including 14 locks between Marietta and the Mississippi River. The average travel time between the two cities, without any unusual delays, would be between two to three weeks.
- Under normal conditions, barges run about 100 miles per day.
- One barge shipping 456 40-foot containers would use 75 barrels of oil, compared to 300 barrels for the 228 railcars and 645 barrels for the 456 trucks needed to ship the same amount of goods.
Source: Price Inland Terminal and Times research.
After talking with his parents, Arnold said his deckhand duties included checking tows to make sure they are properly secured and not filling with water. Also, he said he is responsible for cleaning up anything that needed attention around the boat. Crews generally work 12 hours a day, split into six hour shifts.
Time off is generally spent eating, sleeping or watching TV in the boat's lounge.
"We have satellite TV, but it only works when we're not moving," he said.
Arnold said work on the river would be harder if he couldn't at least talk to his family and friends - especially on the holidays. He said most of the time he is able to get cell service while out on the water.
"Obviously, I miss my family and I missed the big family party with my grandparents," he said. "But I like working and what I'm doing. Really, today it's pretty calm and quiet out here."
Arnold said some of the crew members were preparing a ham for a Christmas dinner.
Several hundred river miles south of Arnold on the Ohio River, Bob Kubota, of Lowell, was piloting 15 loads of coal toward a power plant north of Paducah, Ken. on Christmas. Kubota started in the barge industry in 1973 as a deckhand and worked his way up to captain of Ingram Barge Company's Jerry Tinkey. Kubota's boat runs 28 days at a time with the same crew, which will get him home around mid-January.
"We work when we're here, but it balances out because then you're off the next four weeks," he said. "When the kids are little, obviously there are things you miss ... Birthdays, Christmas, ballgames, or whatever ... But during the time off there are things you can do that you wouldn't be able to with a regular 9 to 5 job."
Kubota said his schedule has him working every other Christmas. He said stopping work for Christmas wouldn't make sense when you're in the middle of a 300-mile haul.
"We're getting paid to be out here, so we should probably be working," he said.
Kubota, who is married with two grown children, said being out on the water this month means he's missing a visit from his daughter who is in from Florida.
"The kids are used to this, it's all they've ever known," he said. "But it can be hard. You want to be there with them. But it's a lot better than when I started in 1973. You can make calls home a lot easier and some guys even have Internet and can communicate that way, too."
Prior to cell service, Kubota said crew members would have to wait until the boat was going through a lock, get off the boat and make a quick call.
"You just hoped someone was home to answer," he said.
Kubota said he will have Christmas with his wife, Karen, and their children when he returns.
As captain, Kubota said he tries to make Christmas as easy as possible for his crew of 12.
"There's no unnecessary work, except for the cook who always goes all out for Christmas," he said.
The 12-foot by 12-foot lounge on the Jerry Tinkey is also decorated for the holiday, complete with a tree and gifts.
"One thing I really like about this boat is we always celebrate Christmas," Kubota said. "Some boats don't, but our guys take it upon themselves and they all exchange gifts and make it as nice as possible."
Work on the river - and even on the holidays - isn't anything new, said Jeff Spears, local river historian and a member of the Sons and Daughters of the Pioneer Rivermen.
"In the 1800s, river crews counted on higher water around Thanksgiving to enable them to start running coal down south," Spears said. "They called it the 'Thanksgiving rise' and basically, it meant they knew they would be out on the water and probably having Thanksgiving dinner and probably Christmas dinner on their boats."
Spears said the work back then allowed for homes across the nation to stay warm and it helped fuel early business and industry.
"I don't think most people realize how really vital what is going on out there," he said. "That just isn't a pool of play water out there. Those guys are out there working hard to make sure we have affordable electricity and the many other commodities we depend upon. And river barge is still the cheapest way to move products and it also leaves the smallest carbon footprint."