Capt. Ted Dicus
Captain Profiles

Capt. Ted Dicus, Tennessee Valley Towing

Capt. Ted Dicus took a moment in between watches to reflect on his career with The Waterways Journal. He is currently helming the mv. William Hank, a 133-foot-long, twin-screw towboat built in 1968 and operated by Tennessee Valley Towing.

Dicus has worked for many river employers all over the western rivers, but regularly returns to TVT. He’s a child of the Tennessee Valley, raised in Clifton, Tenn., on the Tennessee River, where his father and four uncles also worked on the rivers. He started out as a deckhand for TVT at age 18. “It was what we had back then,” Dicus said.  One of Dicus’ brothers and a nephew also work the rivers today.

This is coal country, and most cargoes in Dicus’ early career were coal, although he has pushed everything from steel to aggregates and grain. Dicus still lives in Waynesboro, Tenn., the Wayne County seat, where he raises 70 head of cattle on a small farm, along with hay, “five horses and 13 dogs.”

Dicus has traversed most of the western rivers except the Missouri. “I went wherever they sent me—the Ohio, Upper Mississippi, Green, Arkansas, Cumberland and Tombigbee,” he said.

He gradually moved up to steersman and pilot, although “I enjoyed decking.” The birth of his daughter in 1996 helped motivate his advancement.

M/G Transportation was the biggest company he worked for, but he also steered for many smaller ones. “I liked working for the smaller outfits,” he said. “You could see the impact you had on the company and its revenues.”

One of those smaller outfits was Tolen Marine, where his mentors included Capt. Norma Barrett of Symsonia, Ky. “He was a really good man to work with,” Dicus recalls. “He had a cool attitude, never got too riled up, but he would go out of his way to teach you. Usually, the older they were, the better they were.”

Dicus first used his pilot’s license on the Tennessee River, then the Green River. He had to step up when a permanent captain quit a week after Dicus started. “They just left me up there” in the wheelhouse, and he’s never looked back.

Does he have a favorite river? Dicus prefers the Upper Mississippi River north of St. Louis, but for a reason you might not expect. “The radio traffic is quieter around there,” he said. “The chatter is much less.”

That observation led to a discussion of technology in general. Dicus has never driven a Z-drive, and he doesn’t like electric rudders or throttles. He says he gets a better feel for the river through hydraulics.

There’s much less traffic on the rivers than when he started, Dicus said, as coal continues its decline and barge drafts get deeper. One thing he cannot understand is companies not providing a cook, especially when it’s so hard to attract good people to a life on the rivers. “I’ve seen a lot of people quit because of no cook,” he said.

Regarding the up-and-comers on today’s boats, Dicus is diplomatic, but he does say that learning all you need to know on towboats requires looking around, not being glued to a screen. “You can’t learn the rigging from an app on your phone,” he said. He calls cell phone distraction “one of the biggest problems we have on board right now.”

As far as what young people need to know to become successful in this industry, Dicus said, “Have the mindset of a winner. Give all you’ve got, every day. Treat the crew as your family. Follow rules as though your life depended on them—it does! Don’t let someone else’s negativity hold you back. And safety first at all times!”