Preface: When I was a kid playing on the Ohio River,
I knew the barges were out there and kept my distance.
Only in the past few years have I been able
to rub shoulders with towboat captains,
and hearing their perspectives has been truly eye-opening.
If this article saves even one boater, it is
well worth the time I put into writing it!
Should be Treated Like Mules"
by, Capt. Eric
I recently talked boats again with
Capt. Steve Grossarth, who operates a 164' towboat
for a Charleston-based coal company. Having spent most
of his life on the rivers, Capt. Steve asked that I
use my website to point out the danger to which
recreational boaters often and unknowingly expose themselves.
Above, the M/V Detroit entering the
McAlpine Lock. Note the captain's eye height relative
to the front of the barges. Photo by Capt. Eric
To lay some groundwork, let's
look at a trip down the Ohio River from a towboat
captain's point of view. Twenty years ago, they would
transmit "Se-cur-i-te" with
their positions as they rounded bends and approached
common landmarks. With the advent of AIS (Automatic
Identifcation System) and their Class-A transponders,
captains can see other commercial boats up to twenty
miles away, so they're no longer surprised when they
meet another large vessel. They can also use their
onboard software to predict meeting situations with
their counterparts, which they'll follow up with a
call to the other vessel on the radio, "...see
you on the two down by Six Mile...," for example.
Locally, the Belle of Louisville, Spirit
of Jefferson and the C.Q. Princess will coordinate
their moves with each other and the tows, which you
can monitor on bridge-to-bridge VHF channel 13. If
you're following the C.Q. Princess upriver from downtown
and observe it make a large turn toward the shore,
chances are pretty good that they've coordinated a
passing with another vessel that's on the horizon.
As these larger, slower-moving vessels make these coordinated
adjustments several minutes before their passing, a
large hole opens up in the channel.
Let's assume it's a warm Saturday afternoon
and there are boats all over the place. Joe Boater
is out there pulling a tube with his young kids, and
goes for that newly-created open spot for a little
smooth water. That towboat is pretty far away, so he
barely notices it out there. As he's playing around
and going in circles, he notices the boat, but it's
over a mile away. One of the boys just fell off, so
he's circling back to get him. He never bought a radio
and generally just stays away from barges.
From the pilothouse, the watch consists
of two people, who first notice the blip on the radar
screen. Picking up the binoculars, they spot the boat
in their way. They are closing at 11 mph,
which, given their immense size, doesn't look all that
fast from Joe Boater's Sea Doo.
Is there a problem here? What Joe Boater doesn't realize
is that he's in the middle of the channel and is now
relying on his starter to save the lives of himself,
his guests and his children.
That approaching barge has
thousands of tons of momentum, can take FOUR MILES
to stop and is very close to being in a situation where
it could run them over. The captain sounds the horn,
which is the first indication to Joe that there may
be a problem. Joe Boater gets his kids onboard, fires
up the engine, and gets out of Dodge. He's wondering
why the barge captain was a jerk with the horn, not
knowing how close he came to getting run over.
Another even more dangerous situation
that is repeated over and over would be small boats
or PWCs, often with skiers or tubers, who go right
in front of the path of an approaching barge. Again,
these boaters are pretty much oblivious to the extreme
danger around them. Unlike Joe Boater's scenario, they
just zip across the river, not cognizant of the
Let's examine the geometry of
the towboat-barge configuration for a second:
the pilot house is on the third level, you've got
the captain's eyes about 30' above the water. A standard
barge on the river is 195'x35', so a string of five
is 975' long. The end of the first barge is 1000'
away! Worst-case, let's assume Capt. Steve has a
set of "empties"--the front of
the first one is now 10' out of the water. Add a steel
cover, as we often see, and you've got the top of the
front barge a good 15' out of the water. If you draw
a line from his eyes to the front of the barges and
extend it down to the water, you can see that there
can be a 1000' blind spot out in front of the tow.
That's nearly a quarter of a mile off the front of
the boat, and a third of a mile from the towboat
Steve tells me that he gets very nervous
when he sees a boat inside of 1/2 a mile off the front.
Even worse, he often sees boats zip into his blind
spot off the front. At that point, all he can do
is wait to see them come out the other side.
people are taking that little engine in the back
of their boat and are trusting their lives to the
fact that it will keep working for the next thirty
seconds." Just like Joe Boater, they have
no idea of the situation they've just put themselves
Above, a view from the pilothouse of
the towboat Ron Shankin. Photo courtesy of Jerry Hay,
Ohio River Guidebooks (link)
Be aware of some additional dangers,
such as the
very turbulent propwash behind a towboat. Capt. George
East from Harrod's Creek Boat Harbor reports that
he can watch Harrod's Creek come up a few inches
with a change in current direction just from the
water movement around the side of a passing tow.
I've heard the same from the first few slips at Limestone.
Those rollers behind a towboat can
easily swamp a small boat, so it is wise to keep your
distance. Jetskiers often go for these waves for fun,
unaware that those 8' propellers can also churn lots
of debris near the bottom. It would really smart coming
down on a stump! It is also unwise to operate too close
the the sides of one of those because of the huge amounts
of water being pushed around.
Above, a view
from the stern of the towboat Ron Shankin. Photo
courtesy of Jerry Hay
You should also be aware
of how these boats move through the water. They push
the barges, and in effect slide more than steer.
You'll also find that they crab in the wind and current,
so it's entirely possible to see them moving sideways
across the water. That last point becomes important
if you're passing right alongside one--even though
you think you're passing parallel to the barges,
they could be insidiously closing-in from the side.
What can you do? If you're reading
this, you're already smarter than Joe Boater. You're
well aware of the danger, and will most likely give
the towboats a little more room. You'll be less likely
to anchor in the channel or stop in the path of an
approaching tow. These guys are on ch. 13, and will
hear you if you call with a disabled boat and can't
move (see my article on VHF Radios for more information).
Another thing to keep in mind about
working boats is that they are indeed working. They
are courteous to recreational boaters provided those
boaters return the same level of courtesy and respect.
The intent of this article is not to scare you away
from a day on the water, but to make you safer as you
share the waterways. I grew up skiing in the river,
and my kids are doing the same.
points out that towboats should be treated like
"They'll bite you from the front
and kick you from the rear. If you remember that
and give them plenty of room, you should be
Founder, Port KY
Eric grew up around boats, trading summers on board his parents' Sea Rays for many man-hours of swabbing the decks. He grew up by the little town of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, overlooking the the Dashields Locks and Dam. He has traveled the Great Lakes, Lake Huron's North Channel, Gulf of Mexico and several rivers to include the Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela, Kanawha, Mohawk (Erie Canal), Tennessee, Tombigbee, Black Warrior and Mobile Rivers.
As a commercial pilot, Eric flies jets and is a flight instructor. He has owned recreational boats ranging from PWCs to most recently, a flybridge convertible that he keeps in a Louisville marina (MM 590). You can also find him with his family on the "Escape Pod," an 18' fishing boat. His most memorable journey was aboard the J. S. Lewis, a 155' towboat in service since 1931.
Eric is a USCG Licensed Master with a Commerical Tow Assistance rating, and is a member of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Riverman and the Louisville Sail and Power Squadron. After moving to Louisville, he conceived the idea for Louisville's Port KY website while searching for information to help him become a safer and more knowledgable local boater. He has worked hard over the years to educate other boaters by promoting safety classes through Port KY and by hosting captain's classes and related events.