What is a Barge?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2019
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A barge is a type of flat bottomed boat, typically with a very shallow draft, which is used to transport goods along rivers and canals. The basic design of a barge is very simple, and the boats have been in use for thousands of years. In addition to being used to transport cheap heavy goods, barges are also sometimes used as pleasure craft for parties and entertainment. Numerous shipping companies retain a fleet of barges to move materials once they have reached a port, in varying sizes to navigate different river and canal environments.

A classic barge resembles a very large raft. Typically, a barge has no superstructure and a limited crew, primarily on board to supervise loading and unloading. In many cases, a barge is unpowered, and has to be moved with the assistance of a tugboat. In this situation, the captain and first mate are aboard the tugboat, not the barge, as the tugboat is providing the power and steering for the barge. On self powered barges, the crew includes a captain and first mate to steer the boat and manage the crew, and a small superstructure is usually mounted on the rear of the barge.


A slightly smaller man powered version of a barge called a lighter is used to transport goods between moored ships and the shore. Typically a lighter would be used to replenish provisions and fuel sources. With the evolution of shipping, the traditional use of a lighter has been eliminated in most harbors, and some companies use the term “lighter” to refer to a smaller ship which takes over goods from a large one, regardless as to whether or not the smaller ship is built like a barge.

When a barge is used to transport goods, it typically carries goods which are relatively inexpensive, but bulky. Barges are a very cheap method of shipping, but they are also slow. Many garbage and recycling facilities use barges to transport their materials, as do steel and coal companies. Barges ply many of the rivers and canals around major port cities including Amsterdam, New York, London, and San Francisco.

When used as a pleasure boat, a barge is frequently employed for receptions and special performances. Barges have a long history as ceremonial boats; paintings of barges can be found in the historical record as far back as Ancient Egypt. Typically these barges were powered by rowers, and were built to be impressive rather than speedy and maneuverable. A pleasure barge typically does have a superstructure to house event staff, catering facilities, and a bar, and it may be decorated with pavilions, ribbons, flowers, and other similar ornaments.


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Is it easier to push or pull a barge?

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