By Chris Varias
When David Smith took a job as a deck hand on an Ohio River towboat 29 years ago, he was following into the family business.
Smith's grandmother served as a cook for a towing company on the Ohio, and his father was a boat engineer. Smith earned his pilot's license in 1977 and has since worked on the Ohio River and the entire Mississippi River system.
Smith proudly refers to himself as a "third-generation Ohio River person," and he carries on the tradition today, working as a port captain in Catlettsburg, Ky., a tiny river town between Huntington, W.Va., and Ashland, Ky.
That sense of tradition and history lends itself to Smith's temporary role. He is making the trip downriver from Catlettsburg to Cincinnati to help man "Tall Stacks Control," the center of operations for water traffic during the celebration of old-time steamboats and paddleboats. Smith arrives in town Monday and begins his duties Tuesday evening, when the first private-charter cruises depart.
The control center will operate from a towboat docked on the Covington side of the river, near Mike Fink Restaurant. This boat could also be pressed into duty if a safety issue arises, although Smith says such a scenario is unlikely. In previous years the operation was conducted from inside the Mike Fink offices, but the businesses of boat-traffic control and food service can tend to be mutually disruptive, Smith says.
This will be the third smooth-sailing Tall Stacks under Smith's watch. He didn't work the first two, but came down in 1988 for the inaugural Tall Stacks on a tugboat just to experience it. Smith, 48, says he has a fun time whether or not he's working.
"I enjoy both aspects," he says. "There are several of us who work the event. We don't work ourselves to death."
In fact, Smith has plenty of help directing traffic, and he will need it. There are 17 large passenger vessels to dock and turn around for cruises. There are the towboats, safety boats and shuttles to direct. And there are the everyday commercial boats towing coal, sand, gravel and such that need passage.
"In my job I may go a whole six-hour shift without dealing with a boat," says Smith. "At Tall Stacks it can get hectic and confusing. That's why we usually have two captains on duty per shift."
Six licensed towboat captains will divide the workday - from 8 a.m. to midnight - into shifts of four to six hours, and they are only part of the traffic-control operation. Their jurisdiction spans roughly from the Anderson Ferry down to what Smith calls "the Dayton bar light," the site of a former sand bar where a navigation light sits, which happens to be on the Ohio side of the river.
Members of the Coast Guard will be working in conjunction with Smith and his fellow captains. Anywhere from two to six members of the Coast Guard will be stationed in the control center, while others will pilot patrol boats and auxiliary vessels.
Of course, the matter of river safety is not only the responsibility of Smith or the Coast Guard, he says. "We provide an advisory service," he said. "The captain or the pilot on a vessel is in charge of directing his boat."