Towboat Fundamentals

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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 again.

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.

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