IN THE GULF OF MEXICO — After 14 days spent on or between the banks of the Mississippi River, you notice when they drop away -- first on the right and then on the left – and you enter the Gulf of Mexico. We capped our odyssey down America’s river by gulping in the ocean air on a glorious day and spending a few hours in the odd little burg of Pilottown, La., part-time home of the bar pilots who guide big ships in and out of the river’s mouth.
Our travel plan originally called for a triumphal Gulf entry aboard an outbound freighter, oil tanker or passenger ship, but that blueprint fell victim to post-Sept. 11 security precautions, as none of the outgoing vessels was willing to take journalists aboard along with a bar pilot. Instead we rode the final miles from Pilottown to the Gulf aboard the pilot boat Judge Perez.
Despite our disappointment at not being able to experience the river’s exit from the wheelhouse of a big ship, it was an exhilarating experience to race out of the Southwest Pass – the main shipping channel -- in a fast boat and suddenly find ourselves looking at only a few handsful of cotton-ball cumulus clouds, a few distant oil-drilling platforms and ships and a long blue-green horizon.
The latter goes like this:
We began our day by driving from the Big Easy deep into Cajun country and parking at a marina in Venice, La., where we found apprentice bar pilot Jason Bosley waiting for us, the engine of his pilot boat idling.
As we set off for Pilottown, a half-hour boat ride away, Bosley explained how the river pilot system works:
There are currently 45 bar pilots, all of whom belong to the Associated Branch Pilots, a professional association formed in 1870.The association’s members, who are independent contractors, are licensed to captain big ships about 22 miles between the sea buoy outside the shipping channel and Pilottown, an isolated island community in Plaquemines Parish.
On the way downriver, we got a chance to see the rodeo aspect of river piloting up close. Seconds after a pilot boat pulled up alongside the Greek-flagged freighter Calliroe Patronicola, bound for the Gulf with a full head of steam, a bar pilot scampered up a rope ladder, onto a gangway and then vanished to take command of the ship. A few minutes later, the crescent pilot skittered down onto the pilot boat, which sheared off and headed for Pilottown.
It looked easy on a calm day, but veteran bar pilot Paul Vogt said it’s a bit more interesting when the ship is rolling in heavy seas.
“If the ship rolls in a sea, of course the ladder stays perpendicular, and when a ship rolls the other way, the ladder swings to the ship,” he said. “… When you swing out, usually the ship is dipping (so) you just kind of hang on until the ship rolls the other way and then you go up, and then the ship rolls and you hang on.”
We struck up a conversation with Vogt, who at 63 is currently the senior bar pilot and unofficial historian of the bar pilots association, shortly after arriving at Pilottown, an odd place that is part ghost town and part bachelor barrio.
A zip code without a post office
Once a bustling community of some 200 residents, Pilottown is now nearly deserted except for the pilots. It still has a one-room schoolhouse, which was closed in the 1970s, and its own zip code, though the post office was shut down three years ago when the government couldn’t find anyone who wanted the job of postmaster.
In the old days, Vogt said, there were two barrooms on the island that served as central gathering places, but they were closed down years ago. Now, no alcohol is available on the island, just one indication of how the piloting business has changed over the years.
River pilots were an eccentric breed in the old days, Vogt said, mentioning by way of example one fellow who kept a former circus bear at one of the stations. “They had to get rid of the bear because he was pulling all the weather boards off the pilots’ buildings looking for insects,” he said.
They also were much more inclined to pilot by the seat of their pants.
While river piloting retains the romantic reputation it developed hundreds of years ago, the pilot associations have come under criticism in recent years on several fronts, including a clannishness that sees many members following their fathers and grandfathers into the exclusive associations.
But Vogt said the familiarity works to the benefit of the association when members vote whether to accept apprentices who have put in their time learning the ropes.
“Some may call it nepotism, but I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “We see them as kids, as young adults and into manhood, and you’re always passing like a subliminal judgment on them. The ones that shouldn’t make it usually don’t.”
It also has been suggested in some quarters that the Mississippi river pilots are overpaid. A survey of pilot rates done by the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2001 found that Louisiana pilots had an annual target pay rate of $321,000, compared to average annual pilot pay of $185,000 in New York and New Jersey and $175,000 in California.
Vogt and bar pilot Michael Miller, who also is vice president of the Associated Branch Pilots, said that the figure was misleading because it was predicated on a level of ship traffic that hasn’t been seen in the Mississippi in years. They declined to provide specifics on their members’ pay, with Vogt saying only that they are “well compensated.”
They handle a wide range of vessels that are far bigger than the ships of yesteryear – ranging from passenger ships to oil tankers -- and must do so without the help of traffic controllers, often in challenging conditions such as dense fog and heavy seas, he said.
“I equate piloting a fully loaded oil tanker (in difficult conditions) to driving a car in a driving rainstorm with both hands gripped on the wheel and looking out the windshield and praying,” he said. “If you screw up, you might go to jail.”
The job also can be dangerous.
Vogt remembers vividly the night of Jan. 8, 1969, when he climbed aboard an incoming tug boat towing a barge outside the river’s mouth in heavy seas.
As Vogt waited with the captain and an able bodied seaman for outbound traffic to clear the outer channel, where vessels are not allowed to pass, the tug keeled over sideways to the point where he thought it might capsize. The captain assured him that it wouldn’t, but “about a minute later, she turned over. We turned over completely upside down,” Vogt recalled.
While Vogt grabbed onto a radar unit and the captain hung on to something else, the seaman was washed down a spiral staircase that, in properly oriented circumstances, led to an upper wheelhouse used for greater visibility when the tug was pushing a barge.
“You could hear him hollering as he was going down,” Vogt said.
After waiting in the dark as the water filled the wheelhouse, Vogt and the captain were finally able to open a window and swim to the surface, where they found a self-inflating raft with most of the crew already aboard, including the seaman.
But Vogt’s ordeal wasn’t quite over.
“I had one of these stretch belts, so they grab me by the belt and they’re trying to pull me into the life raft … and I said in my own mind, ‘Isn’t this something. I get this far and I’m going to die because of a stretch belt,” he said, a small chuckle and his presence on the porch of the bar pilots’ Pilottown headquarters both attesting to a happy outcome.
While Vogt had the other pilots at the station had plenty more tales to share, our time at Pilottown had run out. We climbed aboard the Judge Perez, with apprentice pilot Jordan Fitzpatrick at the controls, and made our run past the Head of Passes – considered the actual mouth of the river even though its three channels extend several miles farther – and into the Gulf.
Just a few hours later we were back at our hotel in New Orleans, counting the blessings accrued over our 14 days traveling the length of the Mississippi. Despite the river’s problems and the challenges ahead, we couldn’t help but feel optimistic about its future as we thought back about the people we had met during our journey, all of whom care very much about this national treasure.
The river can be counted on to do its part. It just keeps rolling along.
Reporter Mike Brunker and media producer Jim Seida are traveling the length of the Mississippi in August and will be filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.