This is what the river men call a "tow."
This illustration isn't the largest tow one can see on the rivers.
This boat could put more barges along the sides and half as many more on
the ends to lengthen it hundreds of feet more.
Managing this tow takes more than just one
boat and crew. These big tows ply the rivers from one end to the
other, adding and subtracting barges as they reach the delivery and
pick-up points. This takes the combined effort of many more
smaller towboats working the fleets of barges moored along the rivers
and at the terminals where barges full of goods await their trip.
This is a fleet.
It's basically a large
group of barges lashed together on the bank of the river. When a
big tow comes along, smaller towboats known as fleet boats set to work
cutting the required number of these barges from the fleet to be taken
over to the tow, where skilled deck hands tie the additional barges
tightly to the big tow using a variety of cables and ratchets.
These guys have their own story about how they do their jobs and the
hazards associated with making a breaking down the big tows.
The other unsung heroes of the big tows are
the fleet boats and their crews. Here is a typical fleet boat.
These boats must work barges in tight quarters
on the swift currents of large rivers. This too can be dangerous
work. Many of these boats have been pushed under after becoming
trapped in the way of a loose barge.
Here are fleet boats working around another
fleet of barges.
These boats also act like the ship docking
tugs, helping the big towboats and their tows onto the bank to tie up.
They can also be called upon to deliver barges a great distance to save
the larger vessels a little on the fuel bill.
One of the busiest times for a large towboat
is when they must navigate the many locks along the great rivers.
At each lock, sections of the tow must be cut loose and sent through
individually, then reassemble on the other side once the towboat makes
it through. Fleet boats will assist with this as well and
everybody has a full watch until they can start cruising in open water
Much more can
be written about these mighty boats but this article gives you an idea
of how much work is involved while using the seeming endless river
system to move tens of thousands of tons of goods and materials that
drive our economy.