Slow Boats and Fast Water

Photo courtesy Bob DeckCaptain Bob Deck (R) with his son Cullen, on the bridge of the Betsey Northrup paddleboat

Photo courtesy Bob Deck
Captain Bob Deck (R) with his son Cullen, on the bridge of the Betsey Northrup paddleboat

Early in the morning on June 21, 2007, my son Cullen encountered a rowing scull, crewed by five young women in the Saint Paul Harbor and pinned by a heavy current of the Mississippi River. This crew team had misjudged the current and was trapped against the Padelford wharf barge.

Cullen was a crew chief on the Betsey Northrup at Harriet Island that morning and getting ready for a charter. Caterers were preparing food in the galley and setting tables on the lower deck. Bartenders were stocking the bar and cleaning the boat. Cullen was moving between the engine room of Ugh the Tug and the Betsey, keeping the Northrup crew on task. Outside the river was rising with a strong, swift current.

At one point in his work, Cullen glanced upstream through the main deck windows. There he saw a rowing scull hugging the bank above the Padelford wharf barge.

The crew seemed to be struggling to maneuver the craft away from the bank. Nearby, a small outboard-powered chaperone boat was following the scull, and it too appeared to be confused. While Cullen watched, the scull continued to flounder.

Ahead of the scull, a broken tree branch banged into the wharf and rolled beneath it. The swirling current created a strong eddy, which sucked large objects under the wharf. Cullen had a feeling the rowers weren’t going to make it back into the channel. He ran back through the Betsey’s main cabin and headed for the end of the wharf barge. By the time he got there, the current had turned the rowers sideways and slammed them into the barge: all he could see of the rowers were their fingers clinging to the edge. A couple of the oars had already been torn loose and disappeared.

Later, Cullen told me what happened when he discovered the pinned rowers: “The Betsey Northrup passenger barge was docked facing upstream. The crew boat found itself flat across the gap between the rake end of the wharf barge and the Betsey. I put a couple of caterers in charge while I ran to get more people to help.”

As he turned to summon help, the coxswain and the escort boat driver were yelling at Cullen that they did not need help and would get themselves free. “As I hustled back to the office door, I could hear the chase boat driver telling the crew to pull themselves hand
over hand out toward the channel. When I heard that, I ran as fast as I could.

“By the time Steve Bowell and I got back, the situation was chaotic. The scull had rolled under the water and the rowers were dangling from the edge of the barge. One of the caterers started throwing ring buoys into the river where the women could reach them. I told everyone to grab someone, then dropped to my knees and grabbed the nearest victim. She was the woman who was in the stern, the coxswain, who had been telling me that they would get themselves free.

“The crew boat was sucked under the bow of the Betsey; we could hear it slowly rolling back under the Betsey’s hull. After we rescued the rowers, we were standing with them in front of the office and watched it snap in half on the bow of our other boat, the Anson Northrup, then float downstream. The five women we rescued were very shook-up. We gave them water and coffee before they walked down Harriet Island to their boat club on Raspberry Island.”

In recognition of the rescue, Saint Paul mayor Chris Coleman honored Cullen and Steve Bowell when he officially proclaimed January 16, 2010, as Padelford Riverboats Day. Now Cullen is a Padelford captain learning the same lessons about small boat behavior that I learned as a young riverboat pilot.

Leave a Reply