New SIT towboat bewitches with hull ‘voodoo,’ z-drives


First light was breaking as Capt. Bob Asher maneuvered Karl E. Johnson across the Mississippi River to the Southern Illinois Transfer (SIT) fleet at Ste. Genevieve, Mo.

Asher nudged the bow up to the stern of a four-barge tow loaded with scrubber stone destined for the power plant in Lively Grove, Ill. With the towboat faced up, deck hands Jason McConnell and Zack Dill hoisted lock lines over their shoulders and headed for the bow of the tow to prepare for the Jerry F. Costello Lock, six miles downriver, at the mouth of the Kaskaskia River.

Just above the Kaskaskia, Asher turned the tow and backed down with the current. “When I get abreast of the mouth I’ll just twist the tow in there,” he said. “If we don’t do it this way, we’d have a whole different story. The current would put us on the point below the mouth.”

Arriving at the mouth, Asher applied power and rudder and, taking advantage of the current, turned the tow into the river. He pushed the throttles forward and entered the Kaskaskia.

On the approach to the lock, McConnell was on the bow of the tow, calling out distance and width to Asher at the helm. Once locked through, it was smooth sailing to Baldwin, Ill., beyond which the river narrowed and silted, causing the z-drives to churn mud. Asher backed off the throttles to ease the strain on the tow, slugging through the thick water.

“I can’t begin to tell you how well this boat handles,” says Capt. Bob Asher, guiding a four-barge tow down the Mississippi River.

Karl E. Johnson, powered by two Cummins QSK19 main engines shafted to Veth azimuthing stern drives, was designed and built by SIT and its Barbour JB Shipyard, incorporating Kenny Barbour’s double-chine hull design.

“We call it Barbour hull voodoo,” said Kurt Johnson, president and part owner of SIT. He is also the brother of the boat’s namesake. “The engineers can’t explain why it pushes so well, but it does. What our people tell us is that our 1,500-hp boat handles and pushes like an 1,800-hp boat.”

Voodoo or not, Karl E. Johnson negotiated the mud with ease to the Kaskaskia Regional Port District 1 dock at mile marker 24.5.

The towboat is the third from the Barbour JB Shipyard with a double-chine Barbour hull. The yard sold the first boat to another operator, but the 68-foot Kaskaskia Warrior — completed in early 2019 — joined the SIT fleet. It now totals nine towboats working on the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers.

In addition to the Barbour hull, Karl E. Johnson has another feature that distinguishes it on U.S. inland waterways: Veth z-drive propulsion, the first installation of such a system on a new Midwest towboat.

“I can’t begin to tell you how well this boat handles,” said Asher, still negotiating the z-drive learning curve. “When I get my handling up to par, it will be even better.”


Deck hands Zack Dill and Jason McConnell set a three-part scissor breast wire to cinch up the tow.


Karl E. Johnson heads up the Kaskaskia River with a cargo of scrubber stone.


The boat’s hull form allows it to push a four-barge tow about 50 percent faster using one-third less fuel than other SIT vessels, according to Kurt Johnson, company president.


McConnell monitors one of the Veth z-drive units in the engine room. Twin Cummins QSK19 mains provide 1,500 horsepower.

Karl E. Johnson specifications

Owner/operator: Southern Illinois Transfer, Sparta, Ill.
Designer/builder: Southern Illinois Transfer/Barbour JB Shipyard, Baldwin, Ill., with engineering by Sterling Marine, Fairhope, Ala.
Dimensions: L: 68’ B: 28’ D: 9’6”
Crew size: Three

• (2) Cummins QSK19 750-hp main engines
• (2) Veth VZ-700 azimuthing stern drives
• (2) Kubota 40-kW auxiliary generators
• Christie & Grey isolation mounts
• Vessel speed: 12 knots

• (2) Wintech 40-ton deck winches
• One-inch face wires
• M&M Bumper Service fendering

• Furuno electronics suite



By Professional Mariner Staff