A barge is a flat-bottomed boat, built mainly for river and canal transport of heavy goods. Most barges are not self-propelled and need to be moved by tugboats towing or towboats pushing them. Barges on canals (towed by draft animals on an adjacent towpath) contended with the railway in the early industrial revolution but were outcompeted in the carriage of high value items due to the higher speed, falling costs, and route flexibility of rail transport.
Barges are still used today for low value bulk items, as the cost of hauling goods by barge is very low. Barges are also used for very heavy or bulky items; a typical barge measures 195 feet by 35 feet (59.4 meters by 10.6 meters), and can carry up to 1500 tons of cargo. As an example, on June 26, 2006, a 565 ton catalytic cracking unit reactor was shipped from the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma, to a refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi. While such parts are normally shipped in sections and assembled onsite, shipping the assembled unit reduces costs and does not rely on availabilty of construction labor at the site (which in this case is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina). Such a large item is not practical to tansport over land for any significant distance, and will need to be transported only 40 miles overland to get from the port to the refinery.
Self propelled barges may be used as such when traveling downstream or upstream in placid waters and operated as an unpowered barge with the assistance of a tugboat when traveling upstream in faster waters.
Types of barges:
Barracks barge (living quarters)
Dry bulk cargo barge (coal, rock, grain, etc.)
Lighter, Dumb steel lighter
Liquid cargo barge (fresh water, finished petroleum products)
Oil barge, Dumb steel oil barge
Pleasure barge- providing a floating bedroom, dance floor, or viewing platform
Railcar barge (with tracks and using special loading/offloading facilities such as a barge slip)
Royal barge (ceremonial) (e.g. Thailand's Royal Barges)
Vehicular barge, often used to transport vehicles to natural shorelines such as beaches
West country barge
On the UK canal system, the term barge is used to describe a boat wider than a narrowboat.
The people who move barges are often known as lightermen.
In the U.S. deckhands perform the labor and are supervised by a leadman and or the mate. The Captain and Pilot steer the towboat. The towboat pushes one or more barges that are held together with rigging and is called collectively the tow. The crew live aboard the towboat as it travels along the inland river system and or the intracoastal waterways. These towboats travel between ports and are also called line haul boats.
Poles are used on barges to fend off the barge as it nears other vessels or a wharf, often called pike poles, and on shallow canals for example in the UK long punt poles are used to manoeuvre or propel the barge.