CASE STUDY Commercial Marine

Southern Towing upgrades its fleet of Mississippi towboats with mtu Series 4000 engines

Posted on November 28, 2016

Southern Towing was founded by Baxter Southern on the banks of the Mississippi in Caruthersville, Missouri in 1958. Since then, it has grown into one of the largest and most successful inland tank barge operators in the U.S., specializing in transporting bulk liquid fertilizer products throughout the Mississippi River system and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Southern Towing also provides towing services for other commodities including refined petroleum, chemicals, coal, grain and aggregates.


Southern Towing


mtu 12V 4000 engines


Power, performance, fuel efficiency and Tier 2 capable


Memphis, Tennessee, USA

These engines are quieter, more powerful, more fuel efficient and better for the environment.

Mike Ditto - captain, Tommy Parrish
Now based in Memphis, Tennessee, Southern Towing has developed a reputation as a pioneer in towboat design, a premier employer that puts crew safety and comfort first, and as an early adopter of innovative technology. As the captain of the 120-foot Tommy Parrish, Mike Ditto understands the importance of his job. “I’m responsible for ten lives onboard and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and product, as well as the safety of the public,” Ditto says. “I’ve been working on towboats since I was 18 years old and take those responsibilities very seriously.”

Going to great lengths

Like most Southern Towing vessels, the  Tommy Parrish  works many miles up and down the Mississippi River. “I know a lot of people, ourselves included, call this river the ‘Mighty’ Mississippi,’ and it’s a good word for it,” says Ditto. “The currents here are swifter, the channels are tighter, the fog can come in thicker and the traffic is heavier than other rivers. We deal with extreme weather conditions, too. We’ve pushed tows in Baton Rouge in broiling heat and humidity, and through snow in West Virginia. We never take risks when we know bad weather’s on the way and we always have to be prepared.”
The  Tommy Parrish  is capable of pushing barges up to 35 times its gross weight. Repowered with twin mtu 12V 4000 engines, it makes the job look easy. The engines are matched to ZF Marine Z-Drives, an innovative propulsion system adapted from ocean-going articulating tug-barge workboats. Ditto says, “This is the smoothest, most powerful and easiest to maneuver towboat I’ve ever been in,” he says. “I love the engines and the Z-drive system, which gives me 360 degrees of rudder control. Comparing these MTUs to 2-Cycle engines is like comparing a modern V8 to an old four-cylinder engine—these engines are quieter, more powerful, more fuel efficient and better for the environment.”

Bigger and better

The company’s newest vessel, the Captain H.R.  Kirtley, is the latest example of Southern Towing’s design philosophy. The 120-foot  Kirtley  boasts crew accommodations to rival a luxury motorhome and twin 1,600 horsepower mtu 12V 4000 Tier 2 engines with ZF Marine Z-Drives.
Tommy McCoin, chief engineer of Southern Towing says, “Believe it or not, larger boats are easier to maneuver when they’re equipped with Z-Drives, so our newer, higher-horsepower boats like this one (the  Kirtley) can push more cargo further on less fuel than two smaller towboats. The fuel savings alone is huge and makes Southern Towing’s prices more attractive to our customers.”
Steiner Shipyard has enjoyed rapid growth recently in orders for workboats like the  Kirtley. “The ‘brown-water boat’ business, has been very busy,” owner Russell Steiner says, “Towboats that incorporate modern diesel engines and Z-drive systems are especially popular. Southern Towing is a great customer, and working with them is a pleasure. Our job here is to make sure that whatever engines and drive systems are specified by the customer, we produce a successful boat.  Kirtley  is a perfect example of that.”
The investment in the mtu Series 4000 engines that power the  Tommy Parrish  and the  Kirtley  represents Southern Towing’s belief that the future of the inland waterways transportation business belongs to companies that move beyond the legacy engines of the past. Equipped with cutting-edge mtu Series 4000 engines, Southern Towing’s fleet is efficient and mighty enough to work the Mississippi for years to come.