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Here's some basic river terms for all you wanna be river rats.

ABOVE... further upriver

ABREAST... side by side, even with

ADRIFT... floating free, not moored, loose

AFT... toward, at ,or near the stern; behind a vessel

AFTER WATCH... the twelve to six shift on a boat, headed by the pilot

AGROUND... afloat but resting partially on the bottom

AHEAD... toward the bow; forward; in a forward direction; in front of

ANCHOR LIGHT... white all-around light displayed by a vessel at anchor

ASSHOLE... tight kink in a wire

AWASH... just visible above water; nearly submerged

BACKING WIRE... (1) a lashing running forward from the push string to the drag string.(2) a wire from the stern corner of the tow to the side of the towboat; also called WING WIRE

BALLAST... weight placed aboard a vessel to improve her stability, trim, or handling. A boat may be ballasted aft to keep her props submerged

BANK... land along the river; the shoreline

BARGE... non-powered cargo or work vessel

BEAM... maximum width of a hull; also called BREADTH

BEND... (1) a curve in a river (2) a knot, i.e., an anchor bend

BEND SIDE... the concave outside of a river bend with faster current and deep water also called OUTSIDE A BEND

BEND SIGNAL... one long whistle blast sounded when approching a blind bend or other obstructed position

BILGE... lowest place in a hull where water collects

BILGE KNUCKLE... rounded corner where the side meets the bottom of a hull

BILGE WATER... water which collects in the hull

BITCH BOX... intercom system

BITT... short, heavy post on the deck to which lines are attached; may have a crossbar; often installed in pairs

BLOCK... pully with one or more sheaves

BOAT HOOK... long pole with a hook at the end used for picking up lines that are out of reach

BOIL... riffle on the surface caused by current running over a submerged bar or other obstruction

BOILER DECK... second deck of a steamboat

BOONDOCKS... a rural area; a hick town

BOW... forward end of a vessel

BOW LINE... a line leading forward from the bow

BOWLINE...(BO-lin) a knot forming an eye that will not slip or jam and is easily untied

BOW PIECE... barge with a long streamlined bow rake designed as the lead barge of a unit tow

BOW STEERING UNIT... small barge with a remote controlled propulsion unit to provide sideways thrust for the head of a long tow; used mainly on the lower Mississippi

BOX BARGE... barge with two square ends

BREAKAWAY... going adrift of moored barges usually caused high water or ice, but sometimes due to the wake of a passing vessel, or because they were not properly secured

BREAK COUPLING... connection where a tow is separated for a double lockage

BREAST LINE... mooring line leading directly abeam

BREAST WIRE... hard lashing run athwart ships between two barges

BROAD... at a 45 degree angle as, "broad on the bow" meaning 4 points or 45 degree abaft the bow

BUCKET... horizontal paddle on a paddle wheeler; also called bucket plank

BUCKLE... to kink or break especially with reference to a barge hull

BULK CARGO... commodity shipped loose, such as coal, grain, or gravel rather than in containers

BULKHEAD... (1) vertical wall or partition in a hull (2) a retaining wall along the shore as at a wharf

BULLNOSE... rounded end of the middle wall in a two chambered lock

BULL ROASTER... a towboat cook

BULWARK... waist high coaming at the edge of the main deck; more common on tugs than towboats

BUMPER... a fender, old truck tire, or other object used to cushion and protect the side of a hull

BUTT LINE... soft line at the end of a face wire for winding on a capstan

BUTTON,,, a low round deck fitting shaped like a mushroom; fixed buttons secure line while roller buttons act as fairleads

CABIN... (1) stateroom or bunkroom (2) entire superstructure of a towboat

CABIN DECK... second deck of a towboat where crew quarters are located

CABLE... (1) heavy wire rope (2) electrical wire with multiple conductors (3) a length of 600 foot

CAMEL... heavy timber fender used alongside a wharf

CAN BUOY... floating marker with a flat top painted green or black. Marks the righthand limit of the channel

CARRY AWAY... to break or seperate, as a line or fitting

CAST OFF... to release or untie a line or vessel

CATCH OUT... to strand on a falling river; a vessel may be caught out it moored along a sloping bank and the lines are not slacked as the water goes down causing the hull to go hard aground on the inboard side. This makes the vessel heel, and if not corrected, the outboard gunwale will go under and the vessel will founder

CATHEAD... horizontal spool or capstan for pulling lines; also called a GYPSY

CEILING... inside lining of a hull

CHASIN' FROGS... running aground

CHEATER... short length of pipe used for additional leverage on a ratchet

CHECK... to slow or stop a barge or tow by rendering a line belayed on a kevel or timberhead

COAMING... (1) raised barrier around a hatch or hold to keep water from sloshing in (2) high sides around a hopper of a covered barge (3) the cargo box on a deck barge

CREST... (1) top of a fixed dam (2) highest river stage reached during a raise after which the level falls

CUT LOOSE... cast off all lines

DANGER SIGNAL... five or more short rapid blasts of the whistle, intended as a warning

DAVIT... light boom shaped like an inverted letter J which can swing over the side for hoisting

DAY MAN... on the old boats, a man who worked from 0600 to 1800 every day

DAY TANK... small tank used to settle out dirt and water from the fuel before it is consumed by the engines

DEADHEAD... (1) to run without barges also called LIGHT BOAT (2) a non-paying passenger (3) watersoaked log with one end awash; a snag

DEAD MAN... heavy anchor, usually concrete, embedded in the river bank to secure a mooring line or a tieback of a wall

DEPTH... vertical distance from the water surface to the river bottom

DERELICT... a drifting or abandoned vessel

DINNER BUCKET BOAT... small harbor boat with no crew accommodations or galley

DISPLACEMENT... total weight of a vessel at any time; equal to the weight of the water displaced by the hull; usually stated in short tons for river vessels

DOCTOR... auxiliary steam pump used to inject boiler feed water

DOG DOWN... to fasten securely, as a hatch cover

DOG HOUSE... (1) storage room for rigging at the forward end of the deckhouse (2) operator's cab on a dredge or derrickboat

DOLPHIN... (1) round cluster of wood piling lashed together (2) a cylindrical steel structure used as a mooring or protective barrier

DONKEY DICK... baloney or other sandwich meat

DOUBLE LOCKAGE... transiting a lock by splitting the tow in two smaller sections which will fit into the chamber

DOWN BOUND... proceeding in the direction of the flow

DRAFT... (1) vertical distance from the water surface to the deepest part of the hull (2) cross current

DUCK POND... open space in a tow ahead of the boat or between two barges in a string

EDDY... (1) small whirlpool or countercurrent (2) area of slack water, as under a point or below a bend

FACE UP... to bring the head of the boat up against the stern of the tow and secure it with the face wires

FACE WIRES... steel cables from the head winches or capstans used to connect to towboat to the barges

FANTAIL... rounded stern of a boat

FLARE... outward slope of a vessel's side from the knuckle up to the sheer, especially forward

FLAT... small deck barge usually with low freeboard

FLEAS... jet skis and similar small motorboats

FLEET... group of moored barges

FLOP... to turn a barge end for end

FORE AND AFT WIRE... hard lashing between the ends of two barges in a string

FORWARD WATCH... work shift from six to twelve on a towboat also called CAPTAIN'S WATCH

FOUNDER... to sink to the bottom

FREEBOARD... vertical distance from the gunwale or sheer to the water surface

FROG HAIR... what something very nice is finer than

GANGWAY... boarding ramp

GIVE-WAY VESSEL... vessel in a meeting or crossing which is required by the Rules to yield the right-of-way; formerly called burdened, also called STAND-ON VESSEL

GRAY WATER... water from sinks and showers

GRID COOLER... heat exchanger recessed into the side or bottom of the hull for engine cooling

GROUND... to hit bottom or 'GO AGROUND'

GUARD... narrow side deck of a towboat

GUARD CHAINS... vertical chains hung from the second deck overhang down to the gard used to support safety lines along to deck

GUARD LIGHTS... lamps installed along the side of the deckhouse to illuminate the guards

GUNNEL... (1) narrow side deck of a hopper barge (2) top edge of a small boat hull

HALF HITCH... the simplest knot made by taking a turn around an object and tucking the running end through the turn; usually tied as part of a more complex knot, ie, two half hitches, anchor bend

HARBOR BOAT... small towboat used for short haul towing and fleeting work

HARD DOWN... full deflection of rudder in either direction

HARD RIGGING... barge connections using wires and ratchets rather than soft lines

HEAD... (1) bow of a boat or barge (2) a toilet or restroom (3) pressure exerted by a liquid at any given depth

HEAD LOG... heavy structural framing across the bow of a barge or towboat

HEAVE TO... come to a stop in mid river

HEEL... temporary sideways tilt of a vessel

HEEL OUT... to twist the head of the tow out toward mid channel with the stern corner of the boat or tow hard against a lock wall or other fixed object

HELPER BOAT... harbor boat used to pull out the first cuts of  multi-part lockage

HOG CHAINS... fore and aft stays running above the deckhouse of a sternwheeler to stiffen the hull and prevent excessive bending or buckling

HOOPIE... a hillbilly or yokel; a riverman from Kentucky or West Virginia

INSIDE OF A BEND... short convex side of a river bend where the current is slower the the water is usually shallower

INTEGRATED TOW... combination of a towboat and one or more specially designed barges operated as a combination. Also called a COMPOSITE TOW and UNIT TOW

JEWELRY... ratchets, chains and wires for barge rigging

JOCKEY WIRES... crossed wire lashings similar to spring lines between the sides of two barges in a tow

JUMBO BARGE... most common barge used on the rivers; 35 feet wide by 195 or 200 feet long with a cargo capacity of 1200 to 1500 tons

KANAWHA RIVER RATCHET... tightening of a doubled line by twisting with a bar

KEVEL... deck fitting with two horizontal arms called horns; a large cleat; also spelled cavel, cavil,kavel

KNEES... heavy triangular braces on the head of a towboat which bear against the barges. Also called PUSHKNEES or TOWKNEES

KORT NOZZLE... shroud encasing the propeller to increase propulsion effciently; used on many large boats

LANDING... dock or wharf with access to the shore

LAZY BENCH... settee at the back of the pilot house

LEAD BARGES... barges at the head of the tow

LEFT BANK... left shoreline as seen looking downstream. This is always the left bank even if looking upstream

LIKE A CHICKEN ON A JUNE BUG... pursuring something with considerable enthusiasm

LIKE A DOSE OF SALTS THROUGH A WIDDER WOMAN... describing something that moves rather quickly


LINE... any rope used on a vessel

LINE BOAT... towboat of a major carrier making regular trips, usually with full tows

LIST... sideways tilt, similar to heel, but often a permanent condition

LIZZARD GIZZARD... something served by the cook that is not well recieved

MAKING TOW... assembling and connecting barges for a tow

MEANER THAT A STRIPED SNAKE... describing someone with an unfriendly disposition

MODEL BOW... pointed bow, as on a ship or ocean tug

MONKEY RUDDERS... set of rudders mounted on a cross-beam aft of a sternwheel to give better control when going ahead since the main rudders are located behind the stern rake in dead water

MULE TRAIN... maneuver sometimes used in ice where the barges are pulled single file behind the towboat

M/V... motor vessel, used as a prefix; steamboat would be Str.

NIGGER... capstan or gypsy, especially mounted on the deck of a derrickboat or a dredge

NIGHT HAWK... flag on the jackstaff, which indicates the wind at the head of the tow

ONE CAR FUNERAL... what a lot of bureaucrats would have trouble organizing

ONE WHISTLE SIDE... port side

ON THE HIP... towed alongside the boat

PAY OUT... to let out line under control; to render

PIKE POLE... long boathook; a wooden or aluminum pole with a steel hook and point on one end, also called SPIKE POLE

POOL BOAT... class of towboat used on the Monongahela and other rivers with low bridges; designed with squat superstructures that typically clear 30 feet

POSSUM... fender made from old rope

P/V... passenger vessel, used as a prefix

RIDING THE HEAD... stand watch as lookout on the bow of the tow

RIGHT HAND PROPELLER... a prop that turns clockwise when going forward as viewed from astern

RIP RAP... layer of large rock placed on the bank or bottom to prevent erosion or scour

ROCK AND ROLL WIRES... crossed diagonal lashings used between the head of a load and stern of an empty

ROUND TO... to come about or reverse course

SCISSORS WIRE... single lashing connecting three or four barges at a common corner

SCOUR... rapid erosion of the shoreline or bottom caused by current or wheel wash

SCREW... a propeller, also called WHEEL

SHIFTER BOAT... a small harbor boat

SIDELIGHT... colored light in the forward part of a vessel showing from right ahead to 22 1/2 degrees abath the beam on each side. The port sidelight is red, the starboard, green. Tows also carry sidelights on the lead barges

SKIFF... a small boat carried aboard a towboat, also called YAWL

SLOP TANKS... containment to hold oily wastes until they can be disposed of properly

SMELLING THE BANK... unexpected sheering of the head due to shallow water effects

SOOGY... (soo-jee) to scrub down the boat

STANDARD BARGE... usually an open hopper measuring 175 x 26 feet designed to carry about 900 tons

STEM... sharp vertical leading edge of a model bow

STERN... rear of a vessel

STUMBO BARGE... open hopper barge 195 to 200 feet long and 26 feet wide with a capacity of about 1100 tons

TAIL WATER... turbulent water discharged below a dam

TENDER... a small boat used to service a larger one

TEXAS... third level deckhouse of a towboat usually containing the officer's staterooms

TOOTHPICK... steel bar used to keep the end of a ratchet from twisting when the barrel is turned

TOWING LIGHTS... two amber lights, one atop the other displayed at the stern of a towboat

TOWING WIRE... any lashing leading aft from the push string to the drag string

TRANSOM... squared off stern of a vessel

TREE FULL OF OWLS... what a very clever person may be smarter than

TRIMMING THE BUSHES...  running too close to the shore

TWO WHISTLE SIDE... starboard side

WALKING... making a boat move sideways by running one engine ahead and the other astern, using the steering rudder to prevent her from swinging

WEATHER DECK... the main deck of a vessel

WHEEL... (1) propeller (2) steering wheel (3) paddle wheel

WHEEL WASH... discharge current from a propeller

WHISTLE LIGHT... an all-around white or amber light synchronized with the whistle

WORKBOAT... a small towboat, also called HARBOR BOAT, TENDER

WORK LIGHT... floodlight mounted on the superstructure of a towboat to illuminate the area around the vessel

WORK VEST... a light compact life jacket for crewmen

Z-DRIVE... any of several rudderless propulsion systems incorporating propellers mounted under the stern which swivel 360 degrees to steer


Lead Line Calls

Ever wondered what depth a lead line call was in the steamboat days? Well, here ya go.....


Quarter Less [a] Twain   10.5 feet

Mark Twain                    12 feet

Quarter Twain                13.5 feet

Half Twain                     15 feet

Quarter Less Tyree        16.5 feet

Mark Tyree                   18 feet

Quarter Tyree                19.5 feet

Half Tyree                      21 feet

Quarter Less Four          22.5 feet

Mark Four                     24 feet