Inside the towboat industry

Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - 3:27am

There's a billion dollar industry...that operates in large part right here in Louisiana. It chugs along round the clock, moving thousands of tons of of cargo each day of the year...connecting us to the rest of the world. The u-s tugboat, towboat, abd barge industry employs more than 33-thousand Americans...and goes largely unnoticed. In this story, we introduce you to one local man whose story just might change that for you. .

“The investment in a piece of equipment to push barges is multi-million dollar investment. but these boats last for decades. " Z-Dave DeLoach should know a thing or two about that. Like some of his tow boats, he's been in the marine towing industry in some way, shape, or form since caught his first boat as a deck hand back in 1970.

" I worked my way into the wheel house while I was in college up at Northeast, “DeLoach said. “And when I got out of school, I handed my mother my diploma and went and caught a towboat as a deckhand. She cried." But what DeLoach’s mother didn't know then was, that one decision would turn into a lifelong career. Today, DeLoach Marine employs some130 people, and is an integral part of a booming industry.

According to DeLoach, “If you step across the levee and watch, you'll see some barges coming down the river in groups of thirty or forty at a time and each one of those tows can hold over 70 thousand tons of cargo...most of it is grain."

In fact, about 60 percent of the grain that leaves this country comes down the Mississippi River. But according to DeLoach, it's not just farmers who benefit from all the work done here.

“We are environmentally friendly because we don't put near the pollution s the rest of the transportation modes do."

Now navigating the mighty Mississippi isn't always easy. You'll recall, two years ago, river traffic came to a standstill for weeks because the water level in Missouri was too low.
“Typically when we have a low water problem, they can dredge and make the channel deeper. But what happened is they got down to rock. Well you can't dredge rock

And when the water's too high, DeLoach says there's a whole other set of problems.

"We can move more barges but when you get to some of the chokepoints along the river, like the bridges, it becomes difficult to navigate those barges through the bridge."

It's not just the river that can be difficult. The towboat business is a structured system where everyone starts out as a deck hand and puts in an average of five years before ever getting a shot at mastering the wheelhouse. But DeLoach says most wouldn’t have it any other way. “They get it in their blood. Well I did."

And now so have two of his kids. His younger son, Trenton has a Master's license and is busy learning the ins and outs of operations. Daughter Elissa is learning the business side of things. Deloach says he expects his business to continue for at least their lifetimes. As for what happens after that: “Now what they do with it after I'm gone is gonna be their business, but I hope that I’ve trained them well enough that they will understand the importance and if there's opportunity, to pass in on to their children."

By the way, Z-Dave’s latest project is a more than 3 million dollar Towboat renovation. It’s lovingly named the “Z-Sharon”, after his wife of 35 years.

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