Wood Towing Honors Patriarch, Christens Mv. Donald Wood

The 75- by 34-foot mv. Donald Wood, built by Steiner Construction Company, is powered by C32 Catepillar diesels through ZF Series 5111 Z-drives. (Photo courtesy of Wood Towing Company)

Debby Wood christens the mv. Donald Wood as the namesake, her husband, looks on. (Photo by Capt. Richard Eberhardt)


By Capt. Richard Eberhardt

Wood Towing Company in Avondale, La. broke with its tradition of naming vessels for long-serving captains when it christened its sixth boat and named it for family patriarch Donald Wood.

“It took two months before my father would agree to have a boat named in his honor,” Sarah Louise Wood Ham, president of Wood Towing, told about 150 people gathered at the company’s West Bank Sand Pit, across the Mississippi River from the New Orleans airport. “I do not know a more humble man than my father.”

In keeping with tradition, the christening also featured the naming and re-christening of two other company boats for Capts. Ben Nolan and Edward “Buddy” Terrel.

Measuring 75 by 34 by 10 feet, the 2,000 hp. Donald Wood is powered by C-32 Caterpillar engines supplied by Thompson Power Systems, Inc. of Spanish Fort, Ala., and was built at Steiner Construction Company in Bayou la Batre, Ala. 

It is the first Z-drive boat in the fleet, using ZF’s Series 5111 WM-FP drives. 

“Once we got used to the Z-drives, I don’t think we would ever want to go back to conventional wheels,” Capt. Chad Wallis said as his family sat with the family of Capt. Bryan Billiot in the galley before the ceremony.

“I’m privileged to have the opportunity with Wood Towing to expand my knowledge and learn to operate a Z-drive vessel,” said Capt. Shawn Williams. “I’ve been on the mv. Donald Wood since it came into service in January, and can say the boat has been amazing to operate.  The maneuverability with Z-drives impresses me every day.  It is also an honor to be the captain of a vessel that is the namesake of the man my father looked up to and worked for over 40-plus years.  The Wood family have been and still are great to my family.”

The Donald Wood will push two, 30,000-barrel barges between South Texas and the Mississippi River on a contract with American Commercial Lines. Billiot said they spent two days of simulator training at Delgado Community College in New Orleans and a few days on ACL’s American Way before taking command of the new boat.

Wood Towing has several other boats chartered to various companies, all of whom were well represented at the christening and the sit-down dinner the night before at Mosca’s Restaurant in Avondale, a restaurant noted for its colorful history and fine Italian food.

A second Z-drive towboat is being built for Wood Towing and will be chartered to ACL, explained Patrick McNeill, operations manager, to The Waterways Journal. McNeill was the welcoming speaker at the christening ceremony.

First Encounter

Donald Wood told the gathering his first encounter with towboats was when he was 12 years old. 

“My friends and I were all Boy Scouts and used to camp on the levee batture in Kenner almost directly across the river,” Wood said. “We each had nesting cooking kits which had a handle that folded out to hold over the campfire.”

One night after the group finished cooking, Wood said the entire campsite lit up “like a light from heaven.” It was a towboat’s searchlight. Intrigued, Wood said he tracked down the boat and found it was powered by a steam engine. At age 15, Donald Wood said he began working on the river, cleaning barges.

As part of her emotional tribute to her father, Sarah Louise Wood Ham said she, too, cleaned barges.

“Happy sweet 16th birthday,” she remembers being told. “Now go mop that barge!” 

After a stint in the U.S. Navy on a heavy cruiser, Wood returned to the New Orleans area and went to work for his father, who started the company in 1953 called “Point Landing.”

Still a family-owned business with about 90 employees, Wood Resources has expanded to include two sand pits, a dredge, an aggregate business, fleeting areas, a barge cleaning service and ship docking. 

Sand from Wood Resources has been used to raise elevation and provide a firm foundation for much of the residential and commercial construction in the greater New Orleans area.

Sarah Louise was born in Japan during Donald’s tour of duty. She said her father was always an outdoorsman, leading to one of the stories that always seem to accompany vessel christenings. 

A railroad hopper car derailed and split open near one of the Wood Resources facilities, dumping a load of corn on the tracks.

“Corn attracts doves,” she said. “Dad showed up with his shotgun and we ate well for a week.”

Donald Wood treats all of his employees with great respect, which Sarah Louise said she sees as her father’s most important quality. At the supper, senior captains stood to be recognized and each had more than 20 years of service, with one captain having two sons and a grandson employed by Wood Towing.

“If everyone treated others like my father does, the world would be a better place,” she said, as she briefly struggled to maintain composure. 

When she and her brother were given more responsibility in the business, they became very good at negotiating contracts, or so she thought. But as often as not, when she and her brother would return to the office with what they thought were very favorable conditions, “Dad would say go back and ask for more…awkward!” she said with a well-delivered pause that brought laughter. 

“He may be the nicest guy in the world, but he is a shrewd businessman,” she said. Later, while standing in line for fried shrimp, fried fish and a bowl of corn and crab soup catered by Johnny’s Seafood Catering, ZF’s Bubba Benoit would also tell The Waterways Journal of Donald Wood’s business savvy.

Caroline Ham, Sarah Louise’s daughter who now works in the Wood Towing office, opened the formal ceremony, reading Pare Lorentz’ poem “The River,” which names 38 of the tributaries to the Mississippi River.

It was a fitting prelude to Gary LaGrange’s brief remarks. As president and chief executive officer of the Port of New Orleans, LaGrange emphasized the Mississippi River connects 33 states and three Canadian provenances with its 14,500 miles of navigable waters. LaGrange recognizes that the Port of New Orleans thrives because of its interconnectivity with the upstream ports and advocates channel maintenance for all those waterways.

Monsignor Christopher Nalty delivered the invocation and blessed the boats.

In-House Design By Steiner, ACL

The Donald Wood is an almost exact duplicate of ACL’s American Spirit. It features four staterooms with berths for six, although its normal crew of five includes a captain, pilot and three deckhands.

The wheelhouse breaks with tradition, as it is split in front for better visibility on deck. The wheelhouse interior is painted a flat black, which reduces glare from lights at night, and has windows sloping outward, also helping with vision at night and during rain storms. 

Radar screens and a chart plotter are flush-mounted in an overhead console that wraps around the pilot station. Two FR8062 radars, a depth recorder, AIS and bridge navigational watch alarm system are all from Furuno, supplied by D&G Electronics.

Deck equipment includes two Patterson 40-ton winches with Kevlar synthetic lines and a Wintech capstan. The hull is fully protected with Schuyler fendering. 

Dale’s Welding of Plaquemines, La. provided the aluminum doors. Keel coolers from East Park Radiator in Houma, La., cool the main engines and Z-drive units.

Auxiliary power is from two 65 kw. John Deere gensets from Kennedy Engine, and the boat has a 12-man sanitation device. Unlimited Control & Supply installed the 40-point alarm system.

Designed in-house by Steiner and ACL, the Donald Wood has tankage for 22,200 gallons of fuel, 4,500 gallons of potable water, 300 gallons of lube oil for the main engines, 225 gallons of lube oil for the Z-drives and 200 gallons of hydraulic oil. The slop tank can store 1,000 gallons of used oil.

The boat features soundproofing and has the large pantry, laundry room and laundry closet between the fidley and galley. In the galley, the sound of the generators can barely be heard. 

In addition, David Brieler of Thompson Power Systems showed the isolation mounts for the main engines, which reduce vibration and noise while underway.

The galley features a large built-in refrigerator/freezer and granite countertops. Targonal flooring was installed throughout the boat. Spanish cedar and mahogany-like sapele provide a warm interior. 

While Capt. “King” Edward Terrel said he enjoys working for Wood Towing and would be brief with his remarks, Capt. Nolan’s were slightly longer. He added to the laughter when he said his job is “something I enjoy doing and I think I’m pretty good at it. I have to credit my wife with putting her foot in my rear end and saying I needed to get a [USCG] license.”