Lance Allan Wiedower 0000-00-00 00:00:00
The originator of mid-stream fueling keeps chugging along, through post-9/11 security, the Gulf oil spill, and the occasional canoeist in distress. America’s highways are dotted with exits filled with gas stations and restaurants, welcoming beacons for car passengers and over-the-road truck drivers on long journeys. But what about those travelers on America’s original highway, the Mississippi River? Numerous towboats push barges up and down the river, passing Memphis on a daily basis. But when the boats need fuel or the crew wants to restock the pantry and reload on cigarettes, they can’t just pull over anywhere on the side of the river. That’s where companies such as Economy Boat Store fill a vital need for boat traffic on the river. From its office on the banks of the Mississippi River just below the Memphis & Arkansas ("old") Bridge, Economy Boat Store operates three fueling barges and a grocery boat from the foot of Illinois Street. It’s a perfect location for the 24/7 company and its crews to refuel barges with diesel and crews with necessities. “Mainly our business is selling diesel fuel,” says Jody Davenport, general manager of operations for the Memphis and Wickliffe, KY, locations and a 44-year veteran of the company that also houses operations in St. Louis, Wood River, IL, and a joint venture in Baton Rouge. “We call ourselves a full mid-streamer. We sell anything that a boat needs out there: groceries, hardware, cigarettes — anything. In the old days, we used to say we were Central Hardware — everything from nuts to bolts. But when they went out of business, we stopped saying that!” Despite the recent economic downturn, business is full steam ahead for Economy Boat Store at its Memphis location, where the nearly 60-yearold company has operated since 1972. Its services are in high demand, used by 7 to 30 boats a day under the expert care of 50 local employees. Started in 1953 in Wood River, Economy Boat is Among a waning breed of sorts. “We are probably one of the last independent boat service mid-streamers,” says Davenport, who grew up in the business, thanks to his stepfather, the original owner of the Economy Boat Store in Wood River. “Most of them are owned by big companies now. We consider ourselves one of the last of the originals, the independents.” The services Economy Boat Store provides are necessities for the boat crews working and traveling on the Mississippi River, who can be on the water for days on end. After all, an upriver trip usually creeps along at about five miles per hour. When Economy Boat sends out a fueling barge or grocery boat, it usually heads eight or nine miles downriver with a two-person crew to meet up with its customer. The transfer may take place there as the boats tie up and sit idle for the two-hour, 30,000-gallons-per-hour exchange, or they might continue cruising upstream together, side by side, finishing by the time they reach the bridges. “More and more, we stop now for the transfers," says Davenport. “A lot of boats prefer that because the crew handling the transfers wants to make sure it happens safely.” Safety is a high priority for the industry. All workers are screened through the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard, and everyone who works on the river or gets on a boat has to wear an ID that proves it. This was one of many security procedures implemented after 9/11. "We have security officers — of which I'm one," says Davenport, "and a lot of interaction with the police and fire departments, too." Although the transfer process itself is actually quite safe, the river can become a safety concern during rough weather or high water. "If they get out there and a problem comes up, we shut down the operation," says Davenport. "We just sit and wait it out.” And then there's safety of a whole other sort that involves saving personal boaters on occasion. "One Saturday, one of our employees heard a guy screaming across the river," Davenport recalls. "It was a couple of guys in a canoe, and one of them was drowning. We pulled him out of the river. That just shows how freak things can happen." Of course Economy Boat customers don’t just pull up to the company's dock as if it were an old-time, full-service gas station with an Employee to check the oil and pump gas. No, on the river, the boats rely on good, old-fashioned … technology. “Today, computers are a big part of the business,” Davenport says. “The boats email their ETA — estimated time of arrival — and their offices call in with fuel and grocery orders. And we also have radios that communicate directly with them.” How often a boat refuels depends on its size and whether it's heading up or down the river. The rule of thumb, Davenport says, is that boats typically burn about a gallon of diesel fuel per horsepower per day. A 5,000-hp boat, then, burns about 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel a day. And much like the U.S. interstate system with its rest stops spread along the way, the Mississippi River has its own way stations of sorts, with fueling and replenishing options scattered along the way. Recently, many of Economy Boat’s tow and barge customers have switched from pushing barges upriver to heading to the Gulf of Mexico to assist in the cleanup efforts related to April’s BP oil rig accident. As that cleanup effort has been predicted to last well into the fall, Davenport is quick to point out the clean record of the river shipping business. The American Waterways Operators, the national trade organization for the tugboat, towboat, and barge industry, reported that tank barge oil spill volumes have dropped 99.6 percent since the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, with a record low of 4,347 gallons in 2009. That should only continue improving in the future, thanks in part to the U.S. Coast Guard's recent requirement that by 2015, all barges must be double skin, meaning they have a double hull. The design calls for two layers so that if a barge gets damaged or hit, the fuel compartment won't be penetrated. Economy Boat already has one such barge in Memphis. Another one is set to deliver to the Wood River store, with plans for an additional four to be built. “When you ask about the future, they are saying the whole business will increase significantly in the next five to eight years,” says Davenport on a sunny, hot afternoon, as he gazes out the large office window overlooking the Mississippi River. “Because look at the highways right now. They’re almost maxed out. Trains, how much more can they put on rail? No, I think this river industry should just keep right on going.” Economy Boat Store, 398 W. Illinois, 775-3131, economyboat.com.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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