Life on the river: Brothers find rewarding careers aboard towboats

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Brothers David (left) and Aaron Hundt of McGregor have rewarding careers on the river—David as a pilot and Aaron as a towboat captain for Paducah, Ky., based Marquette Transportation. The company transports cargo by barge on the nation’s inland waterways. (Submitted photo)

Aaron Hundt enjoys life working on the Mighty Mississippi. (Photo submitted)

By Audrey Posten

 

Brothers David and Aaron Hundt grew up enjoying the Mississippi River.

“Our dad was a commercial fisherman, so we spent a lot of time out there from a young age,” said David.

“And living here in McGregor, you’d see the boats go up and down the river. I always wanted to know more about it.” But still, added Aaron, “I never once thought I’d be running a boat someday.”

Fast forward to 2022 and both have rewarding careers on the water—David as a pilot and Aaron as a towboat captain for Paducah, Ky., based Marquette Transportation. The company transports cargo by barge on the nation’s inland waterways.

A 2006 MFL MarMac graduate, David started his career at 19, as a deckhand for ARTCO in Cassville, Wis. Inspired by his brother, Aaron gave the career a try after graduating from high school in 2012. 

The two worked their way up the ladder from deckhand, following a chain of command Aaron likened to the military.

“There are all these different tiers: deckhand, senior deckhand. Then you get into leadership positions: lead man, relief mate, mate and senior mate. Ideally, what you want to do is get yourself on a regular boat, work on the same boat with the same crew and same captain, and put in your time. You’re rewarded with being able to steer under that captain you decked under,” he explained. “Then you start training as a steersman. That’s how you get to the wheelhouse.”

But there are other routes too. For example, after serving as a mate on the river, Aaron became a port mate, training deck crew members. 

“You have to apply for that position and have recommendations and a good track record and hope you get it,” he said. “If you get it, then you’re guaranteed to get into the wheelhouse and start training as a steersman. You have to be a port mate for at least 18 months.”

“When I got into the wheelhouse, I was training at 24 years old,” he continued. “Then I was turned loose at 25, which, at the time, was definitely one of the youngest wheelmen we had in the company.”

He was a pilot for two years, before recently becoming captain of the Titletown U.S.A.

The biggest part of the job, according to Aaron, is safely navigating up and down the river—getting barges from point A to point B.

“Whether that is from St. Louis to Saint Paul, or Cairo, Ill., to Cincinnati, Ohio, wherever they need barges to go, we need to be able to transport those barges,” he said. 

He also oversees day to day operations, ensures the boat stays within budget and deals with building and maintaining a crew. Each vessel typically has six deck crew, a cook, an engineer and a pilot aboard.

As far as navigating the boat itself, “you’ve got a captain on the front watch and a pilot on the back watch. His job is to run the boat and watch over his deck crew,” Aaron said, pointing to David.

The barges most often transport corn, soybeans, fertilizer and salt, although there has been some odd cargo.

“We once had a barge full of windmills. Those get hauled on the river too,” David said.

Aaron recalled hauling a set of lock gates for the lock and dam system. 

“But it doesn’t matter the product we’re pushing, as far as making it easier or harder on us,” he quipped.

On the Mississippi, boats handle roughly 15 barges at a time.

Aaron put that into perspective: “At 1,700 to 1,800 ton per barge, then times it by 15, that’s how much corn or beans or fertilizer you’re hauling. That’s a lot of weight, a lot of product being moved.”

Depending on the time of year, Marquette Transportation could have 55 to 60 boats running between the upper and lower Mississippi.

Summer is actually a slow period.

 

“Then, in the next couple months, every time you drive by the river, you might see a towboat,” Aaron said. “Harvest, there will be a lot of boats going up and down. If it’s September, October, November especially, we may have 22 different Marquette boats on the upper Mississippi, running from St. Louis to St. Paul. We have another 30 boats running from St. Louis to New Orleans. Normally, we’re within 80 to 90 percent running capacity.”

The Hundt brothers work mainly the upper Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers, although Aaron has also been on the Cumberland and Tennessee. A normal run from St. Louis to St. Paul is about 850 miles.

Aside from the stretch from Quincy, Ill., to St. Paul, most of the Mississippi is traversable through the winter.

“Normally, until about the end of November, early December, we make runs as far up as here,” Aaron said. “When the river stops cooperating, we take a lot of business to the Illinois River. A lot of the product in the wintertime is moved from Chicago to New Orleans, or vice versa.”

Weather—and the resulting river conditions—can be one of the trickiest issues to contend with when manning a towboat.

According to Aaron, boats will still operate in extreme high water if they can continue to load barges. Some elevators have the ability to raise and lower the spigots that shoot the product into the barge. 

“But when it gets so high, some can’t load and get a barge underneath. A barge comes in empty and sits about 13 feet out of the water. You factor in high water and trying to slide a 13-foot empty underneath a spigot, you can’t do it,” he said. “If it’s high, we may just run a certain part of the river.”

 When the river gets high, it also makes transportation more dangerous. The towboats navigate with caution, and often use a helper boat or tug assist when encountering locks and dams and bridges.

In cases of extreme rain, David said the boat sometimes has to pull over due to visibility.

“After the rain stops, sometimes you get an immediate rise in the river,” he said. “Then there’s more current and debris. Big enough stuff will lock your wheels up on your boat.”

“When there’s a lot of debris, sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it,” Aaron added. “You have to get lucky and hope you miss some of it. Then when you bump into it, the whole boat will shake and you’ll hear it. Once it goes underneath the tow and the boat, we don’t know where it’s at anymore. But we’re never going to stop running because there’s a lot of debris—we’ll get through it.”

But for David and Aaron, those challenges pale in comparison to maneuvering past pleasure boats.

“It’s more nerve racking when someone pulls out in front of you than it is when you’re trying to stick a 15-barge tow through a railroad bridge that’s 150 feet wide. When your tow is 105-foot-wide and you’ve got current and 1,000 feet of tow in front of you, that gets the adrenaline pumping. It’s always a rush when you’re making a bridge,” Aaron said. “But when somebody pulls out in front of you, it’s way more nerve racking.”

“At a certain point, you can’t see them. They just disappear. They might be 600, 800 feet away from you, but you still can’t see them,” David stated. “Or people pulling skiers, and they cross in front of you. If they fell off right in front of you, there’s nothing you can do.”

“Now, you’re thinking in your head, I could potentially kill somebody,” noted Aaron. 

He said the maneuverability of a towboat, especially with a large tow, is not good. Even worse when it’s a south bound vessel. 

“Now, we really can’t stop quick at all,” Aaron explained. “When we’re north bound, we can stop a lot faster.”

David advises other boaters to stay out of the channel, away from the tow.

“If it gets too bad, you’ll have your crew go out there and be your eyes for you and watch boats. Then you’re constantly blowing your whistle, telling people to move,” he said.

Aside from the nerve racking moments, the Hundts enjoy working on the river. 

The schedule, which is roughly 30 days on the boat then 30 days off, can admittedly take an adjustment, though.

“It is tough to leave your family for a month, but you’re making a sacrifice for your family. The pay is very good. Your time off is very nice. You get a month off to come home and do what you want, and don’t have to think about the river whatsoever. For the most part, nobody is calling you and asking about work,” Aaron said. “You get off the boat, and the next crew comes on the boat and takes over for the next month. It’s like a vacation.”

When it’s time to head back to the boat, employees are given a rental car, or even flown, at no cost to reach the boat’s current location. 

From his home in McGregor, Aaron has driven as far as Cincinnati and Memphis to hop aboard.

This allows people from all over the country to work on the boats, said David.

“I know of people who live in Florida, Puerto Rico, Arizona. You can live wherever you want,” he said. “Work hard, pay attention and put your time in. It turns into a lifestyle.”

For those considering the river as a career, Aaron stressed experience isn’t necessary.

“It’s what you make of it,” he said.

One thing you’ll never get tired of is the view.

“The scenery is really nice. From Guttenberg on up to St. Paul is probably the best stretch of river, like a postcard,” David reflected.

Added Aaron, “It’s really nice waking up, having a cup of coffee and seeing the sun rise on the river. Then going through the little river towns. There’s really not a bad place to be.”

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