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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!


"Why Towboats 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.

Scenario 1:

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.

Scenario 2:

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 closing barges.

Let's examine the geometry of the towboat-barge configuration for a second:

Assuming 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 captain.

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.

"These 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 in.


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.


Capt. Steve points out that towboats should be treated like mules...

"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 just fine!"




Eric Grubb
Founder, Port KY
Licensed Master

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.




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