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Life on the River as a Towboat Deckhand

Updated on May 5, 2016
Working on a towboat can be a lot of hard work. But it can also be fun and relaxing.
Working on a towboat can be a lot of hard work. But it can also be fun and relaxing.

Living and working on the river is unlike anything I have ever seen on shore. I had questioned a couple of guys about towboating before I ever took the job, but I honestly didn't know what to expect once on the the boat. The idea of most people is that boat crews kick back, push barges around, and get paid. But the truth of the matter is is that the average person has no clue what all goes on on a boat.

There is no way to describe everything that needs to be said about living on a boat, but here you will get a good idea of what a deckhand does on a daily basis. I say daily because your stay on the boat is a 24/7 job. Only those with experience on a ship will understand this next statement: On a ship...you live your job. Let's begin with the boats themselves and go from there.

An example of a tugboat or fleet boat.
An example of a tugboat or fleet boat.

Towboats, or line boats, are boats specifically designed to push barges up and down a river or waterway, and are not to be confused with the smaller fleet/tug boats. These inland waterway vessels normally have a crew between eight and ten people. This depends largely on the waterway a particular boat works, but also on the size of the ship.

Towboats at work today have two or three engines; with the latter often called a triple screw by tow boaters. The boat's diesel engines are very powerful as they must produce the thrust needed to push the heavily loaded barges. Each engine has its own stack and turns a single screw. A screw is the prop or propeller. The boat itself has a flat (or square) bow. It will align in the middle of the tow (barges) and is centered by the captain and crew.

To center the boat a capstan line used. Once the boat (facing up-river) is in place, the capstan line is pulled in and holds the boat steady as the face wires and wing wires are put out, and is often accompanied by other double up wires for more stability. The face wires are added support to hold the barges in place relative to the boat. The wing wires are spread further out and allows the captain to better steer the tow up or down river. The double ups are regular rigging which will be discussed later.

The Mississippi river


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The captain steers (or drives) the boat from the wheelhouse. This is also referred to as the pilot house. Below that (if it is a larger boat) is another deck that may contain sleeping quarters most commonly for the captain and pilot or rooms used as storage. Below that is the bulk head with quarters for most of the crew. This is sometimes the same level as the Texas deck. The Texas deck is over the engine room. When you see the stacks on a boat you are looking at its Texas deck. It's called the Texas deck because it is the largest deck on the ship.

A lot of power is needed to push this kind of weight!
A lot of power is needed to push this kind of weight!

Below the Texas deck level is the main level. This consists of the bow (head deck), sleeping quarters, galley, engine room, washroom and the steering room (also called the rudder room). Some quarters have their own bathrooms. Most often the bathrooms are shared. On larger boats, particularly that of the triple screws, a larger communal bathroom is shared. Cooks are being faded out of towboat crews to save money for the company. But should the boat have a cook then it will more than likely be a female, and she will be put in a room with access to her own bathroom. The two tall things you see at the bow of the head deck are called tow knees or push knees. These have rubber padding on them and actually have more than one use with their main purpose being to act as the "hands" of the boat. The engine room has a below deck where the actual engines are located and mounted and there's a bilge below that. The under hull of the boat holds the fuel and potable water. There is also the galley and kitchen; often both are referred to as, and understood to be, just the galley. The lounge room, if the boat has one at all, and the deck locker. The deck locker is where the hands keep there life jackets and gear. It is the first room you enter on the front end of the boat.

A typical modern day towboat.
A typical modern day towboat.

Not every boat is made the same, and not every crew operates the same. There are two watches: the front watch and the back watch. Each of these work in six hour rotations and are also referred to as watches. Normally, but not always, the mate works the same watch as the boats high captain. The high captain is the governor of the ship; his word is law. On front watch, there is the captain, the mate, a deckhand, the chief engineer, and either a call watch or oiler; or maybe both. The back watch consists of the pilot (the captains relief), the assistant mate or lead hand, a deckhand, and perhaps the call watch person. The oiler, if the boat crew has one, works relief for the engineer. The oiler position is usually only found on strong current rivers such as the lower Mississippi which includes the stretch between New Orleans and St. Louis. The cook is up during the daytime. Because during the night the cook is asleep, the back watch getting up for their second watch will have to feed themselves. When a crew member does his/her time on the boat and goes home for their two weeks leave they will be replaced by a relief.

Every watch has basic duties that are performed every single watch and other jobs that may take immediate precedence over the normalities. For example, after a crew is woke up by the previous crew they will eat, go over the upcoming or current events, go out on tow to check the barges for water, man the pumps if there are any, tighten tow, replace or add double ups, etc. They will clean their watches areas from the wheelhouse down to the galley. This includes, but is not limited to, sweeping and mopping the floors, sooging (washing) the walls and hand rails, take out the trash to the stern, polish brass, make coffee for the captain, make the captain's bed and replace the sheets if needed, clean his bathroom and sleeping quarters, clean the communal areas, wash clothes, dishes, clean windows, put up dishes, etc. Drills are routinely performed, too. They are usually done between watches, but don't be surprised if you're sound asleep and the alarms go off. It may be a fire drill or a man overboard drill. Or it could be the real thing!

Other jobs during a watch may consist of such things as: making a lock, taking on fuel, food and supplies and distributing the supplies where they belong. You may be counting rigging, working on the skiff(s), tying eyes in the lock lines, replacing the flag, pumping barges, shingling holes in the barge tanks to slow or stop water intake, fixing a sounder or any of the indicator lights, replacing batteries and light bulbs, cleaning blinds, building tow and so forth. Every boat has at least one project going on year round. The heaviest of these occur during the summer: chipping, grinding, priming and repainting the boat. Periodically throughout the trip you will sooge the boat, also.

If you are afraid to get wet then working on the river is not for you. I have worked in most every kind of weather mother nature could throw at me. From being pelted with sleet to shivering in freezing rain. Then there's the dangerously thick fog that will force the captain to “park” the boat; this is called fog delay. I've worked in snow nearly up to my waist. This is particularly dangerous because of the wing tanks (some of them may be rusted open causing you to fall through them), rigging everywhere to trip over and the risk of soaking and freezing your fingers and toes. Ice, especially when it's inches thick, isn't just a hazard but a lot of work. You're always busting ice to free lines and cords, clear gunnels (the walkway between the barges), decks and walkways on the boat. I've seen the upper Mississippi river frozen three and four feet thick; a hindrance as much as it is dangerous. High winds from bad storms, tornadoes running alongside us on shore and incoming hurricanes is always fun; unless you're piloting the boat with a load of empties and trying to make a lock or bridge. And there is so much more. You have to be crazy to work on a towboat, but if it gets in your blood then your hooked for life.

Towboats today still work much like they did in the distant past.
Towboats today still work much like they did in the distant past.

Obviously, I should say a word about what you need to be aware of on a towboat in regards to safety and your own personal health. There are a few factors you will learn to watch out for. Even experience can't save you all the time, however, working safely on a boat is mostly common sense. Here is a list of things just off the top of my head:

  1. Other crew members. I'm not saying to be weary of them when they're holding a knife, no. You have to remember you will have to be out in all sorts of weather and that you share the same living spaces with everyone else. Roughly nine months out of the year you'll be on a boat. That's a long time to avoid getting sick from somebody. I always took some basic over the counter (OTC) medicines with me to combat anything I may come in contact with; sinus, allergy, flu, etc.

  2. Lines and wires. Always, and I can not stress this enough, always watch your feet. There are obstacles you have to walk over, and lines and wires are especially worth paying attention to. When you knock a ratchet loose it may still have a ton of tension on it. So when the sledge releases the pelican hook, the wire and/or ratchet may spring across the deck taking you with it. Always watch your step around lock lines, too. For the same reason, but also because when a line breaks its like a rubber band snapping. People have been injured and killed by standing in direct line with one of these lines and have it slingshot back on them. I've seen a 3 inch capstan line snap and put a dent in the quarter inch hull of the boat.

  3. Slippery Surfaces. Barges are more likely to be slippery than the decks of your boats. We painted our decks and stairways with sand to provide a better grip. If you fall over the head of tow while working on a sounder then your chances of survival are slim to none. Watch yourself and the man next to you. I've had a few close calls of falling overboard, and a few close calls of the man with me falling over. A quick grip gave us that valuable second to find our balance.

  4. Duck Ponds. Duck ponds are gaps between barges and where the boat is married to the tow. I've worked with a man who was in front of the guy he was working with heading out to tighten tow. He told me they were talking and the man with him fell unusually silent. He had fallen through a duck pond between the boat and the stern of the tow. It was all stop! The Coast Guard was notified and radioed (PON PON PON) to all traffic in that part of the river to cease movement and be on the lookout for a man in the river. I've seen a fleet worker fall waist deep between two empty barges as they came apart. It happened in a blink of an eye. If they came back together he would have been crushed instantly.

  5. Toothpicks. A deckhand is given a set of tools. These are referred to as his “wife and kids”. The “wife” is a long cheater pipe that fits over the handle of a ratchet allowing you to pull the barge in as tightly as possible. The “kids” are two long steel rods that are slid through the eyes of the ratchet's pelican hooks (or a shackle and pin) to keep the wire from twisting - allowing for better tension. There is a certain way to put in toothpicks, and if they aren't in securely enough they will give. When that happens, the stress of the tightened wire will spin the pelican hook and the toothpick will sling out with force.

Breaking Tow Is Scary... But It Can Be Exciting

Cover tops made of steel or fiberglass are used to protect certain kinds of cargo like that of grain barges.
Cover tops made of steel or fiberglass are used to protect certain kinds of cargo like that of grain barges.

The dreaded part of working on a tow boat has to be the tow work. There are some people who actually enjoy it, but I honestly can't see how. Building tow (attaching the barges together with rigging) is time consuming and very physical work. There are two types of barges in a normal tow: boxes and rakes. There's the tiny lash barges, too, but I won't be discussing them here. Box barges are 200 feet long, 35 feet wide with a 12 foot cargo hold. They are just what their name describes; box shape. The rakes are the same dimensions, but only 195 feet long. The rakes are put at the head of the tow for their slanted bows. I have seen a mix of (backward) rakes and boxes used to make the stern of the tow, but I believe rakes are preferred. Empty barges are strung up in different places. Sometimes the front of the tow and/or along the side(s) and even down the middle. The captain decides the barge position in tow in relevance to whether its loaded or empty and where it needs to be for more efficient drop off. The wing tanks I have been talking about are hatches to the ballast tanks of the barge. There is also a bow tank and a stern tank. Barges also have kevels or timber heads. Towboaters use these for the wires and lines to hold or guide the barge(s) or tow. The boat is also equipped with ballast tanks and kevels/timber heads.

A tow in areas with locks consists of fifteen barges (three wide and five long); although sometimes a sixteenth “hip barge” will be added next to the boat itself. The rigging to build a tow is counted as sets. One set of rigging is a thirty five, a chain strap, and a ratchet. A thirty five is a thirty five foot long wire (cable). It has a small eye at one end and a big eye at the other. The small eye goes into the eye of the pelican hook while the big eye goes over the kevel or timber head. They usually weigh about 85 pounds. There are exceptions to the rule. You may pick up a “baby wire” or a “mate's wire”. They are often thinner and weigh much less, though they aren't good for much.

A chain strap is a piece of a wire that has been doubled over to make a large eye. Attached to it are chain links. These go around a kevel or timber head and the links are attached to the opposite pelican hook from the one hooked to the thirty five. Often a toothpick will be rigged by the engineer with a piece of steel in a C shape. This allows the user to get a better bite on the pelican hook for those chain links that are just within reach. This is called being greedy and can also be dangerous. A chain strap may weigh 35 to 45 pounds. I've seen them much bigger, though.

A ratchet has two ends that are threaded. A ratchet ran out fully will stand nearly six feet tall when stood on it's end. The pelican hooks make the ends of the ratchet, and there is a center handle with a dog that allows it's user to either tighten or loosen the ratchet. Before using a ratchet, you'll need to run it out till the threads near the end of the barrel. Ratchets can weigh about 65 pounds if it's a used one; 75 pounds estimated if it's new.

Test Your Knowledge


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Other rigging that you will need to use are chain links (chain straps without the strap) and shackle and pins. You'll move a lot of rigging as a towboater. Rigging must be counted and traded. This is all done physically. If you need to swap twelve sets of rigging...that's around 2,100 pounds. I've once swapped over 160 sets of rigging, but, fortunately, there were plenty of hands to help. Normally everyone gets in a line and passes the rigging to the next man. Needless to say, you'll get a work out on a tow boat! The barges are lashed together with the rigging in different ways. Not every company uses the same methods, but they generally do use much the same techniques; “scissor breasts” and “fore and afts” are two examples.

This is but a quick run down of some of the things you will be seeing on a tow boat. It is kind of vague in areas, but much of it is a hands on process in which you will gain your technique and skill. By studying this article you should be able to walk onto a work boat with at least an idea of what's going on around you. But not everything that is read comes close to real life experiences. I would have mentioned the process to making a lock but that's another time...another article. I hope you can find this information useful. And if you have thought about working the inland waterways, but are on edge of making your decision, I would say go. Give it a shot. If you can make three trips on the river and learn all you can you may find you like it. It may just change your life!

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    • profile image

      Roxysitzes 3 months ago

      Thanks for the article. I worked as a cook with some good crews. Great experience---I would love to still be out there.

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      Tommy spencer 3 months ago

      We don't have cooks here at amherst and I have to say I'm glad we don't. We cook what we want when we want it. .... and a tip... all rakes aren't 195.. and all boxes 200 it depends on the barge... Crouse has mostly all 195 barges that are rakes.. but aep..memco.. ingram.. have a variety of all ..great. write up tho..

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      Anthony Davis 3 months ago from Tennessee

      Hey, John. It's been a handful of years ago, but I was talking to someone who told me that...doing away with cooks to save money. The crews would have to cook for themselves.

      We had cooks, but heard from other folks saying their company didn't.

      Needless to say, I kinda felt sorry for them. It's much more convenient for the crew, in my opinion, to have a cook prepare the meals, etc.

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      John Thomas 3 months ago

      I worked on a tow boat in the 70's and 80's, we always had a cook, what did you mean doing away with cooks to save money, i wouldn't rode on a boat without a cook.

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      Thomas Freeman 4 months ago

      I have never work on a rowboat but i have been putting my applications in with anyone I can do anyone have any input on what to expect

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      Anthony Davis 7 months ago from Tennessee

      I usually slept for about four hours of my six hour block; unless I was on call watch then sometimes I would crash in bed, boots and all, from being so tired.

      You'll find your own pattern, but I would suggest you get some sleep. Especially if you know there's heavy tow work ahead. And if it's summer time kind of hot, don't eat too much before you go out. Trust me! Lol

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      Kenny 8 months ago

      Austin, it may be to late to inform you, but, I am also looking into river boats as I just left the navy. We ran similar schedules and it varies by person. I personally only slept one of the 6 hour blocks, the other one I spent playing video games etc...

      I do wonder if the possibility of fishing during that 6 hour down time. There are some nice fish in those rivers....

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      Austin 11 months ago

      Hey, great article!

      I am considering about getting into the field but somewhat nervous about the sleep schedule. What do you do? Sleep an off shift then relax your next off or do you just sleep all the time due to all the physical labor?

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      Anthony Davis 11 months ago from Tennessee

      Thank you Linepilot for your compliments. Some one else may be able to explain better, but I did the best I could!

      Dave, i believe that answer varies. Ive seen small tugs (Im guessing you mean fleet tugs) with crews of the Pilot, mate, and deckhand (if one at all) to crews of the same but more deckhands. But it may be safe to say a crew of at least 3 or 4.

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      Dave 11 months ago

      How many crew on a tug

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      Linepilot 14 months ago

      You done a good job of explaining what goes on. A few things may be a little different from company to company but you got the gist of it. I was a little surprised by all the different definitions of a Texas Deck.

      I worked forty years on the river, most in the wheelhouse. When I first started I worked 2 for 1 but I got my first day for day and never worked more than 6 mo a year after. Almost all the boats I worked on had cooks. In the end I wouldn't even consider a job that didn't have cooks on board. I'm retired now but I still like to keep up with what's happening on the river. Again, thanks for a well writen (hub)

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      Anthony Davis 14 months ago from Tennessee

      Well, hopefully THAT will never happen! If they see you in time they'll honk you out of the way. Although some idiots try to ride the waves made by the boats. Your best bet will be to signal them. Wave a lifejacket if you have to and-or try paddling out of the way. There was a boat in our company that ran over a pleasure craft once at night. Not a pleasant story.

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      Joekat 14 months ago

      I just moved to a Cabin on the Ohio River and this has been very interesting article to me. Been here 2 weeks now and watching the towboats amazes me. Only thing I'm scared of is being in my little ski boat and breaking down in the middle of the River.

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      Anthony Davis 15 months ago from Tennessee

      Thanks! Glad I could help!

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      fred king 15 months ago

      this was very good info

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      Anthony Davis 17 months ago from Tennessee

      Pay, how your paid, and your time on and off the boat can vary greatly from company to company. Your best option is to contact the companies you're interested in and ask them these questions.

      As a green deckhand, you're looking at $125 to $200 plus a day (topped out); as you get paid by the day...not the hour.

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      Brian 17 months ago

      I want to get into it but I haven't seen what kind of pay you can make yet

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      Robert juneau 17 months ago

      We always considered a Texas deck,

      A fleet deck that ran from inside push knees to cabin,nothing fancy and not worth a crap.

      But,better than nothing

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      Anthony Davis 18 months ago from Tennessee

      Thank you all for the wonderful comments! I honestly didn't know what to expect when I stepped foot on my first boat. All I had to go by were stories. If I had some one to hand me this article back when it would have helped for sure. There's some things that you just have to experience to truly grasp them - working on a towboat is one of them.

      As much as I tried to give readers the lay of the land, if you will, there is still so much more to learn; catching pins, lock procedures, tying eyes in lines, making bumpers, calling distance (bridges/lock walls) etc.

      To read such awesome comments puts a very big smile on my face! I'm extremely pleased I could maybe fill in some gaps in the mystery of towboating. Thanks again!

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      Di 18 months ago from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

      Very interesting article. I know nothing of these sorts of boats as we don't have them down under.

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      Linda Robinson 18 months ago from Cicero, New York

      Hello Anthony what an amazing hub, wow your words took you there. So well written, so extremely interesting, such spectacular detail. Lots of tremendous information, really enjoyed your hub. Look forward to reading many more. :)

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      Brian 18 months ago

      My buddy just snared this article with me as I'm looking into getting to work on a tow boat, very helpful

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      kevin.howell 19 months ago from Maysville KY

      Informative hub, I am a pilot at Crounse Corp. I think you covered it all.

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      Anthony Davis 19 months ago from Tennessee

      Thanks for commenting! Yes, indeed! There's nothing else like working on a towboat! I've even had tug crews call us crazy! lol There's just something about it that frees your spirit in a way I can't explain.

      I'm very sorry to hear about your injury. Unfortunately, for some, it comes with the job. I hope and pray things have worked out for you since.

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      denny glenn 19 months ago

      I work for The Ohio River Co. 15 yrs, my dad for 30yrs.brother-n-law [still working], father-n-law,an uncle, 6 cousins. I was injured back in 1989 and had to quit and like they said it gets in your blood. I miss it. Some say your crazy to work on the river but the company i worked for we worked 30 days on 30 off paid. So i always said where do you work that you get 6 month paid vacation. I love them tow boats.

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      Jake 19 months ago

      Oh I'm not at the point of going to work for one. I still work on an oil rig for the time being. I was just curious because I have been told different companies do and some don't. I just figured now a days, they all do.

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      Anthony Davis 19 months ago from Tennessee

      I can't speak for other companies, but the company I rode with did not have on-board wifi. You could contact the home office of a company of interest and ask. If they don't then you're at the mercy of being within range of a tower and dead zones.

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      Jake 19 months ago

      Do any of the modern day tow boats have wifi internet like these offshore crew boats and supply boats?

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      Anthony Davis 21 months ago from Tennessee

      I'd like to have seen that. Interesting she sailed under a Dutch flag. Pretty cool!

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      jimmy 21 months ago

      I used to work on the little blue one the 'Gemini' it sails under the Dutch flag and is only used on rivers and Canals, with a maximum of 3 barges

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      Anthony Davis 2 years ago from Tennessee

      Hey, Zac! Thanks for the comment, man! I don't mean this in a bragging sort of way, but yeah, the boats are usually in awesome shape! Some more than others, though. lol Zac, I've seen you guys all over the place doing work of one kind or another. Between you guys and the dredgers, I've always thought it was pretty interesting work. Thank you for your service!

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      Zac 2 years ago

      Great write up! Im in the CG and inspected many towing vessels on the Arkansas River and I got to say, despite the older age of the avg boat the crews took great care to keep them in good shape.

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      Anthony Davis 2 years ago from Tennessee

      No worries. Yeah, I've heard the spike pole thing a lot. Also heard people call fore and afts Four and a Halfs. Where or how they got that I'll never know. Thanks for adding to the clarification.

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      Ryan 2 years ago

      Sorry, I did not see that someone already made a comment about what I was pointing out

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      Ryan 2 years ago

      Terminology is wrong. As a lot of newer people in the industry call what you're saying is the texas deck, it is not the texas deck. That has became a common name for it over the years and is incorrect. Just as 90% of tow boaters will call a Pike Pole a Spike Pole. Everyone just gets used to hearing the wrong information

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      Anthony Davis 2 years ago from Tennessee

      Your crew is lucky to have you! That's awesome you do that for them. Props! And, yes, you nailed it! You're boat is your home (away from home), and your crew DOES become family!

      Thank you for your fantastic comment!!!

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      jeanie 2 years ago

      I cook on a towboat! My back watch crew does not have to feed themself. I will fux plates if necessary and cover them until the crew can eat. The schedule is set to accomadate the guys. Its a challenging yet rewarding job. Life on rhe river is very different from land. We take great pride in our work and our boats. We are a family. We listen to eachother, fuss, love, and share our li: the ones at hone we know without meeting and we love them too. We got eachothers back, because each other us all we have on the river! We are mariners, we do t have sick days and we live n love our jobs! Its not for all, but fir us its all we are!

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      Anthony Davis 2 years ago from Tennessee

      I've gotten seasick, of course, on the ocean. I've even gotten a little sick fishing on lakes. The ONLY time(s) I got sick like that on a towboat was when we were breaking ice on the upper Mississippi. Other than that, there was never an issue.

      I'd HIGHLY suggest you buy some Dramamine and GO FOR IT!!! If you have never been in a boat of any kind then, in my opinion, you're definitely missing out! I've canoed many times growing up, and I'm looking to buy me one in a few months. Very peaceful. Very relaxing.

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      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      I have never sail in a boat in my whole life but would love to try unless I get seasick

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      Anthony Davis 2 years ago from Tennessee

      I live about 15 to 20 minutes from the Mississippi River in West TN. They use to intrigue me and wondered what all they did out there when I was a kid. Little did I know, years later, I'd be taking my first foot step onto one! Thank you for your comment! I'm glad you liked it!

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      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Just seeing your first photo of a towboat brings back memories of growing up near the Tennessee River. But you know, I don't remember ever even wondering about what it would be like to work on one of those boats. Interesting!

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      Anthony Davis 2 years ago from Tennessee

      It's certainly a wild ride compared to most every other job I've seen! I had to leave the river for personal reasons, but I talk about it at least once every day. I truly miss it, and I'm glad I did it.

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      Chris the cook 2 years ago

      I worked for 5 years as the cook, a very demanding job but i loved it, every job on the boat is different.I was one of only a few men cooks,but mostly are women. I would still be there if it weren't for health problems. .........

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      Adam 2 years ago

      Traditionally, on riverboats, the Texas deck is referring to the 3rd deck. The term originated on paddle-boat style passenger vessels where the 2nd deck was referred to the promanade deck. The 3rd (texas) deck was not the largest on those vessels.

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      tupelo48 2 years ago

      He's wrong

      I've been out on the boats 28 yrs and the Texas deck and the boiler deck is one and the same

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      Anthony Davis 2 years ago from Tennessee

      Thanks for the correction. That's how it was explained to me. Every boat I rode on within my company always called it the Texas deck. Thusly, I wrote the article as to the information I worked with.

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      Chris 2 years ago

      The Texas Deck is Not the one above the lower deck and it is not named the Texas deck because it is the biggest The largest deck is called the Boiler deck the third deck is the Texas deck