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Life on the River as a Towboat Deckhand

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 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

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. How Long Is The Nation's Most Important River?
    • 2,300 miles long
    • 2,400 miles long
    • 2,500 miles long
    • 2,600 miles long

Answer Key

  1. 2,500 miles long

The captain steers (or drives) the boat from the wheelhouse. This is also referred to as the pilothouse. 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 bulkhead 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 the 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.

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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 captain's 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 woken 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 handrails, 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 almost 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 onshore and incoming hurricanes are 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.

A Note About Call Watch And Oilers:

Oilers, as the name sounds, work in the engine room. Sometimes they may work with the Chief Engineer, but more often than not they work when the Chief is off watch.

Your job as an oiler consists of things like painting, doing a checklist of pressures, levels, and temperatures, general cleaning, and whatever else needs to be done. More experienced oilers may change oil filters, and whatever else the Engineer trusts you to do.

Some oilers, by the way, run regular on some boats. Sometimes, though, the oiler position is just filled in with somebody. At least that's been my experience.

If you're on tow, working call watch, then you'll do the same sort of tasks as the deckhands. Which, basically, is what you are. It's worth mentioning that some people ask to be put on call watch. Here's why:

On call watch, you are obviously on call. I've worked on call watch where I'm up to make a lock, to help build tow, help wash and paint the boat . . . sometimes only working during a normal watch and other times working for twelve hours before I'm able to get my time off.

It's the "time off" that people like and why they ask to be put on call watch. However, there are times when I was up and down, up and down, to the point that I'd only get a few minutes of sleep before they came for me again.

So much so, that I'd be so tired that I'd go to my room and just crash on the bed—still in my nasty, smelly clothes—boots and all. These times usually included working down in "the hole" in Louisiana (just below Baton Rouge to New Orleans) and running down river during high water between St. Louis and St. Paul.

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 towboat 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 are 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” o