Keeping costs under control keeps the tow moving downriver season after season.

With our tow boat and 15 barges filled with corn, wheat and soybeans now heading downstream, Captain Rider says 100 miles represents a good day on the Upper Mississippi River. South of St. Louis on the 730-mile journey to New Orleans and with no locks to slow down the tow, it’s a different story.

Rider, who hails from Wappapello, Mo., says traveling 100 miles a day up here is a very good day. “Once the barges get to St. Louis and are turned over to another tow boat crew, they’ll make 200 to 300 miles in a good day since they don’t have to spend time going through any locks,” he adds.

Pilot Tom Persons later tells us that tows running south of St. Louis are limited to 25 barges during times of low water depth. They may be able to handle as many as 35 barges when the river levels are high.

Around 8:30 p.m. Rider starts preparing for the trip through the lock at Hastings, Minn. Even though we’re still 2 miles upstream, he starts positioning the barges for the trip through the lock. While the wheelhouse is equipped with both radar and GPS equipment, maneuvering through the locks still takes plenty of expertise based on years of personal river experience and well-developed hands-on skills.

Setting up the approach to each lock means evaluating the position of the barges, judging the river’s current, assessing the impact of wind speed and other variables as he prepares to move barges that stretch out to a 105-foot width through a l10-foot wide lock. And it’s all being done with a bunch of barges that can stretch out nearly 1,000 feet in front of the captain’s chair in the wheelhouse.

As we get within 650 feet from the lock’s long concrete wall, a deckhand standing on the front right-hand corner of the lead barge starts talking with the captain over a two-way radio.

His continuous 10-minute chant goes like this: “450 feet to the wall, 5 feet to the left; 425 feet to the wall, 4 feet to the left;” and so on until the first lineup of barges enter the lock.

A good deckhand out there on the end of the barges can make a pilot really look good, says Rider.

Once the barges are in the upper lock, the crew goes to work disconnecting the many cables that hold the tow together and splitting it into two separate parts.

Some 35 minutes later, Rider backs the remaining six barges and tow boat out of the lock and idles nearby while the other half dozen barges drop to the lower river depth and are moved by the downstream current out of the locks. After another 25 minutes, the lock is refilled with water and the captain moves the remaining six barges and tow boat into the lock.

A half-hour later, the deckhands start chaining the dozen barges back together. After another 30 minutes, we’re on our way downstream. It’s taken 2 hours to get the dozen barges and tow boat through this lock.

Rider says the barges draw 9 feet of water when fully loaded in a channel that has a minimum depth of 9 feet. When the barges get out of the narrow river channel by just 1 or 2 feet, you’ll hear them scraping along the river bottom. Yet when empty, the barges draw less than 3 feet of water.

Continuing to move downstream, engineer Eddie Spears takes us on a tour of his spotless —but extremely loud — engine room.

After we don ear plugs, he tells us the tow boat burns 2,000 to 2,400 gallons of diesel fuel per day with twin 16-cylinder Detroit Diesel engines that each offers over 3,000 horsepower. A pair of generators each churns out 125 kilowatts of electrical power for the kitchen, lights, TV sets and other on-board uses. The tow boat weighs 402 tons empty and 592 tons when fully loaded with fuel.

Spears says the tow boat can pull up to a diesel refueling station on the river and take on 72,000 gallons of diesel. While the tow boat’s tanks hold 90,000 gallons, fuel is only loaded to 80% of capacity for safety reasons. But if diesel fuel is selling for $2.80 per gallon, that’s a credit card charge of $201,600!

He says the boat is operated for 7,000 to 8,500 hours during a barge season that runs from March to late November or into early December. He tells us the engines and replacement parts have to be brought into the room in pieces that can fit through very small doors. Proper maintenance is essential since repairs can be extremely costly.

For instance, Spears says replacement of a single cylinder will cost $25,000. Figure on paying $105,000 for a new crankshaft. And if repairs are needed during the shipping season, there’s likely to be a $250,000 loss in tow income.

So having an engineer like Spears who is a stickler for proper maintenance is definitely a good investment for tow boat operators.

In the next installment of Shipping Out: Why Barges Are The Quickest, Cheapest Way To Move Grain To Export Terminals. Shipping Out segments will appear once every two-to-three weeks. Make sure to check back often!


How Corn Exports Grow In Value

Grain produced on a Minnesota farm and exported to Mainz, Germany

Grain Movement Additional Charge
(Cents Per Bushel)
Value Per Bushel
Minnesota farm n/a $3.60
Minneapolis elevator $0.10 $3.70
Barge freight, Minneapolis to New Orleans $0.60 $4.30
New Orleans elevator $0.05 $4.35
Ocean freight, New Orleans to European water terminal in Rotterdam $0.35 $4.70
Barge cost from Rotterdam to mid-Germany $0.40 $5.10