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Safe Boating in Barge Traffic

picture of a tow boarRecreational boaters need to exercise extreme caution when operating near commercial traffic on the Tennessee River. Commercial traffic consists of strings of barges pushed by towboats. This configuration is commonly known as a “tow.” Typically, commercial tows on the Tennessee River average about 15 barges.

A fully loaded 15-barge tow can carry the same weight as about 900 tractor-trailers, with all the obvious problems of maneuverability. For this reason, commercial tows have the right-of-way in the main channel of the river. It is important to give them lots of room since they cannot move out of the channel to steer around you and may need up to one and a half miles to stop. A person falling from a personal watercraft about 1,000 feet in front of a tow has less than a minute to get out of the way.

Follow these rules when boating in barge traffic:

  • Do not anchor your boat in the channel, and never tie off to a navigation buoy.
  • Beware of the blind spot that can extend for several hundred feet in front of and to the sides of barges.

diagram of a tow boat

  • Stay away from the turbulent waters behind a towboat created by the propellers.
  • When you cross the main channel of the river, always proceed in high-visibility areas.
  • Take extra care when boating at night. The navigation lights on the front and rear of a tow can be as much as a quarter of a mile apart.
  • Know the danger signal. Five or more short whistle blasts indicate immediate danger. Make sure they are not directed at you.
  • Sailboaters and windsurfers beware: large tows can “steal” your wind.
  • Avoid excessive speed.
  • Always wear a life jacket, or personal flotation device to reduce the chance of drowning.

Excerpted from “Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers: A boater’s guide to safe travel,” produced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District, and TVA.



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