Capt. Robert Tillson
Captain Profiles

Capt. Robert Tillson, Hines Furlong Line

When Capt. Robert Tillson isn’t aboard Hines Furlong Line’s 4,000 hp. mv. Donna Furlong, he prefers faster transportation.

Tillson, 60, of Gilbertsville, Ky., loves riding his dirt bike, a Kawasaki KX250.

“I’m a woods rider,” he said, saying he would rather spend time riding the trails than racing or spending time at motorcycle shows. “They can have all the Harleys they want.”

Tillson has a group of friends, also in their 60s, with whom he rides. He’s had dirt bikes ever since he was in high school.

“People look at me kind of crazy,” he said. “Maybe it’s the thrill of it.”

There is a lot about the outdoors he enjoys.

When on the boat, he takes a walk every day, keeping an eye on everything on the boat, but also enjoying the scenery.

“It really doesn’t matter what the weather is,” he said. “I won’t walk in a thunderstorm, but I will walk in the rain or the snow.”

When off the boat, the highlight of his year is his annual canoe trip with a group of friends to the Current River. The friends have been taking the trip for more than 40 years. He also likes camping and fishing with his family, including his wife of nearly 37 years, Barbie, and his son, granddaughter and grandson.

Tillson also likes taking in Marshall County High School basketball games, usually attending 10 to 15 boys’ and girls’ games each season. He’s been a fan since he was a teenager, and he still fondly recalls when the girls’ team won the state tournament his senior year, in 1982.

Tillson likes that his job as a towboat captain means when he’s home, he has plenty of quality time to spend with those he cares about the most and that it’s provided a good life for his family.

Tillson’s mother introduced him to the river industry, having worked as a towboat cook when he was in high school.

“She said you need to look into the river,” Tillson recalled.

He started out working as a deckhand for Ingram Barge Company in 1984, got married, tried working outside the industry for about six months and then came back to the river, working for Mid-South Towing for almost 25 years.

Tillson came to Hines Furlong Line in December 2011. He said he enjoys that the company is small enough where people get to know each other well, creating a family-like atmosphere.

“I could take the crew on my boat right now and take them to any boat,” he said. “It’s not the boat. It’s the people.”

Many of the crew have worked together for years, with the chief engineer having been with Tillson for 11 years.

While the deck crew rotates around a bit, Tillson said he likes getting to know them, too. When they have problems understanding aspects of the job they haven’t encountered before, he also likes showing them instead of telling them how something should be done.

“I go out on deck and work with them,” he said. “I don’t have to do it very many times. I’ll put my boots and my clothes on and go out there and show them it can be done. I think I gain a little respect that way.”

He said he enjoys teaching green deckhands especially.

“If they’re wanting to learn the river and make a career out of it, I’d just as soon as teach them the right way,” Tillson said.

He sees the job as passing along what he has learned over the years. “Those guys showed me years ago,” he said. “I showed some interest, and they showed me, so I just sort of passed it along.”

Kent Furlong, president of Hines Furlong Line, praised Tillson, saying, “Not only is Capt. Tillson a talented mariner and boat handler, but he is an excellent manager of his vessel. The results of his leadership efforts are evident though the immaculate condition of the mv. Donna H. Furlong and the results yielded by his hands-on leadership and training style. Capt. Tillson consistently produces great future HFL leaders though his mentor and training efforts with both steersmen and deck crew members.”