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Preface: When I was a kid playing on the Ohio River, we knew the barges were out there and kept our 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. Collisions happen more often than we'd like to think, and if this article saves even one boater, it is well worth the time 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 Amherst Madison, a Charleston-based coal and river transportation company. Having spent most of his life on the rivers, he asked that I use my website to point out the danger to which recreational boaters often and unknowingly expose themselves.

Capt. Grossarth, by the way, helps teach boating safety courses in Pittsburgh, making him a great reference for recreational boaters like us. More recently, I had the opportunity to ride along with him on the M/V J. S. Lewis from Charleston to Louisville. The 400-mile trip helped me gain a new perspective, and this article has been enhanced from its first publication a few years ago.

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, providing clues for your situational awareness. As these larger, slower-moving vessels make these coordinated adjustments several minutes before their passing, a large hole opens up in the channel.

Capt. Grossarth tells me that one of the more challenging areas to transit would be the "bridges" area in downtown Cincinnati. There isn't a lot of room between the pilings, and they frequently find themselves passing other large vessels as well as recreational boats. The downbound vessel in a narrow channel has the right of way, and is usually the one to propose a manner of passing.


Above, a pilothouse view approaching downtown Cincinnati from upriver.

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 in the middle of the channel 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 one or 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. Depending on the current and weight of the tow, it can take up to FOUR MILES to stop and is very close to being in a situation where it could run them over.

The captain sounds five blasts of 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. Grossarth 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 start counting and 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)

Below, a smaller towboat with a load of "empties" with lids. This can be very difficult to see around. Note the pilot eye height compared to the height of the leading barge, and you'll see why the blind spot is so large. Imagine if this vessel was pushing 5-long instead of 2.


Scenario 3

Pictured below, a very interesting scenario occured as we passed the last bridge heading downbound through Cincinnati on my towboat ride. I complained that we hadn't seen "any boats in the way."

Just a few minutes later, the captain barked, "well there's your guy, sitting right on the green!" In this case, the green would be the green light on the bridge denoting the center of the channel, where the towboat wanted to be. The other green dots indicate the green marker to steer toward on the shore, and the green buoy to starboard. For emphasis, a configuration of 15 barges was depicted to show what it would look like.


Above, the 100' flat pushed by the J. S. Lewis was superimposed with a set of 15 barges for perspective.

What made this situation particularly hairy was that the towboat to the right had announced his intention to push his stern away from the shore, of which the fisherman was totally unaware. Neither did he see us bearing down on him. Binoculars indicated that he was not only in the middle of the channel, but had his trolling motor submerged.

When the towboat to the left shoved-off, he panicked and headed directly into our path. Right about the time I took this picture was when he had a sudden "AHAH!" moment. He saw us bearing down on him and altering course, stowed the trolling motor, fired-up his outboard and got the heck out of Dodge! We were about to signal him, but it wasn't necessary at that point.

What the picture doesn't show is that we were running out of room to port. We joked that he probably thought he had the right of way, but keep in mind that a towboat considers the river a "narrow channel" in this case and that other rules apply.


Above, a fisherman in Cincinnati determined to get in the way

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 similar reports from the first few slips at the Limestone Bay Marina.

Be aware of some additional dangers, such as the very turbulent propwash behind a towboat. 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 to come 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, steering from the stern, 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.


Above, something commonly seen on the Ohio, especially close to major terminals, would be a barge-tow configuration with a "helper." These guys above have some 20 barges, and needed a lot of room!

Below, another perspective from the helm. There was a down-bound towboat pushing barges heading downriver (upper left). We used the barges out in front of us to estimate what we could see with 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 barges in front. Note how the amount of river you can see decreases with each barge length. After the fifth one, which just so happened to be an empty with lids, you can get a feeling for how difficult it can be to see, as 975' to the end of the last barge is a long, long way.


What can you do? If you're reading this, you're already smarter than Mr. 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 waterski or anchor in the channel, or to 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 the Port KY 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. Let's all be safe out there!

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!"


Above, Capt. Steve Grossarth from the pilothouse of the M/V J. S. Lewis. He has been on the river most of his life, and does what he can to help educate recreational boaters.


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.


Have you found this article to be beneficial to your safety as a boater?

Please consider becoming a sponsor of the website by visiting the "Sponsors" link to the left. Thank you. -Capt. Eric



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