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Life on the River - FAQ's

I have received many questions about working on the River any decided to make a page that addresses them.

#1 Question

One of the most frequently asked question that I receive is: How and where do I go about finding a job on towboats on the river?

I was lucky because I lived in a port town and had to priviledge of being able to walk into an office and ask for employment. My suggestion is to go to your local state employment agency and find openings for deckhands on the boats. Also point your browser to John Esser's website. He has good information on towboat companies there. His website is on my links page.

#2 Question

Hey, what sort of things should I bring on the boat? What did you wear while you worked? Did you ever work in the cold? I'm just trying to make sure that I don't forget something. - Cody

*These questions were asked my my good friend and fellow river brother, Cody Sewell back in the fall of 97 who got hired on with Canal Barge Company out of New Orleans and needed some words of advice. This is information that I gave him before his quest on the River and serves as essential advice before any man starts working on towboats and barges. I've actualy received DOZENS of comments from people stating this helped them prepare for their first time on the boats. With this in mind, I've created a printable copy here.


I got your questions answered. I hope you get this before you leave Monday.

Here here is a list of clothes that you should get:

About 3 pairs of work jeans
4-5 t-shirts
2 long sleaved shirts
5-6 pairs of underwear and socks
A good strong belt
A pair of regular tennis shoes for when you are not working

If you get on the boat on 10/21 you will probably be riding untill late November. It may get real cold out on the river later in your hitch, especially in Dec and Jan. Remember that you will be called to work at any given time rain or snow. I highly recomend that you get a some thermal coveralls for the winter months.

Also I would get these for cold weather:

A pair of thermal underwear(top and bottom)- bring them now
A jacket
Thermal socks
Thermal work gloves
A ski mask and/or knit cap

Also keep in mind that you may be toting your baggage through airports etc. and you do not want to lug around too much. Use your best judgement and bring what you need. Carrying around three bags is tough, so try to cram everything into two if you can. Thermal coveralls take up a lot of room. You may be able to get by without them untill Dec. Then, you'll need them.

Bring enough toiletries to last a month:

shaving cream/razor
and anything else that you may take for granted when on land.

Here are some other items you may want to bring:

Reading material for a month. Novels are key. (Magazines should already be plentiful, but the best way to get in with a new crew is to bring the newest editions)
A prepaid phone card. get one with a lot of time because once it's gone you have no contact with the outside world.
100 bucks spending cash for just in case
If you can, bring a credit card. They have saved me when in a jam at the airport a couple of times. You never know what may happen when being moved around.
A Map ( I always want to know where I am and how far we are from a destination)
A camera (don't seem touristy though. The river is these men's home)
A cheap waterproof indiglow watch.
Paper,envelops, stamps ( you gotta write me man)

Here are items that should be supplied for you from the boat so don't worry about bring them:

Blankets and pillow
Work gloves (only some boat companies so you might want to bring your own to be sure. Don't expect the expensive thermal gloves)
flashlights (however I recommend you get your own personal flashlight. The best kind by far are the lights by Pelican, in particular the SabreLite and StealthLite. They take a lickin' and are safe for using on petroleum barges)
safety gear
earplugs and earmuffs ( by the way always wear earmuffs or earplugs when going into the engine room. A large number of the men in their middle ages on the boats are hard of hearing. The engine room is by far the loudest place I have ever been and in a short amount of time it can cause permanent damage to your ears. Let me give you a useful tip. Always carry a pair of foam earplugs in your "quarter pocket" in your jeans. A lot of times you are in and out of the engine room and don't have time to hunt down some earmuffs. Be prepared and protect your ears because you only have two for life!

Here is some other important advice and tips!

  • Don't remind people that you want to go home. Everyone wants to go home and it just upsets people and makes it last longer for everyone. Your last week will seem like forever. You may get an overwhelming anxiousness to get off when you are in the last leg of your hitch. This feeling is known to rivermen as "Channel Fever."
  • Take initiative to learn everything. Do this and take pride in your work and in time you may get a promotion to mate.
  • Eat everything in sight. If you ask a towboater what's the best thing about the job, half will say the travel and money and the other half will say the food.
  • Do exactly what the Captain and pilot says. Out on the deck, you are their hands. Never second guess them.
  • Learn to steer - it's really cool.
  • Learn landmarks and places on the river to get that feel of knowing where you are and how far you are from your destination.
  • Always have a flashlight on you when you know it will be getting dark soon. If you were to fall overboard at night, they will find you days later and miles downriver.
  • Do not fall overboard. It is inset into everyones brain not to and it is an unheard of thing to do. Do not horseplay on the deck.
  • Carry heavy equipment on the outboard side of you so that it would fall into the water rather than you.
  • Learn proper towboat terms. Rope is line, cable is wire, kitchen is galley, etc.
  • Watch your fingers. Especially when working with wires. When you are laying the barge wires (also known as making a "coupling") and wires from the boat to the barges (putting on "face wires"), never put your fingers between the wire and the place it will be connected to. With one slight shift and strain on the wires, you will lose your fingers or hand. I know a few guys that are missing some.
  • Know exactly where you are standing at all times. You will be working around heavy equipment and barges that weigh over a thousand gross tons. Such forces of such a great magnitude can be detrimental to the human body. You may be standing in a dangerous spot that you are not aware of. Like in between some loose wires between the barges that might come tight and cut your feet off from the ankle down. Don't go home to your mom in a closed casket funeral. Be safe. Think. Don't be scared of it. Respect it.

I hope this was some good advice. Get a hold of me when you get a chance and have an enjoyable and safe hitch.