Tug Life: Ben Powell's Barge takes a trip along the Mississippi - SXSW

A frothy wake churns behind the stern of the M/V Mary Parker towboat, pushing a float of barges downriver. Its 6,000 hp on your ass, man, its great! exclaims the captain, waxing about what drives life along the Lower Mississippi.

Originating in Rosedale, Miss., the trip wends to the Port of New Orleans and back, taking many days to navigate the hundreds of miles of American South. Crews live onboard for weeks at a time, working shifts of six hours on, six hours off. The work is grueling and very dangerous: Deck hands wrangle massive steel wire cables and tighten each down with manual ratchet winches in an intricate web to keep the separate 200 foot-long boxes from floating apart. Over a dozen cargo barges might be lashed together for a single trip.

Despite the risks and time away from home, beyond the decent compensation (a high school diploma and good work ethic can earn a six-figure career), theres an allure. You got some guys, they just dont give it up, the captain explains from his wheelhouse. You can take em off this thing on a stretcher. Older guys in their 70s, 80s. Hell, this is all they know. This is their family. Tow boating runs deep.

Austin filmmaker Ben Powell (Phil Collins and the Wild Frontier) grew up in Mississippi, hearing stories about outlaws, people that just got out of prison, out there for their second chance who work the river. Curiosity lead him to spending time with crews to demystify the myths. While a few have indeed served time, he discovered that it....

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