SCI’s Executive Director gets underway on the Lower Mississippi River

Dec 28, 2018

By the Reverend David Rider

I love my job. Along with the privilege of serving American and international mariners on a host of compelling issues—seafarer rights, maritime education, pastoral care and human-factor resilience—I enjoy a wonderful balance of office and field work to lead SCI’s mission.

After our recent River Bell Awards Luncheon, I joined a large Marquette Transportation Company towboat, underway for four days southbound from Wickliffe KY past Baton Rouge.  I rode with the crew of the MV Theresa L Wood, carrying 25 loads of grain and coal for export.  Towboats do not wait for visitors, so logistics had me on several potential boats before syncing with the Theresa L Wood.

Getting underway enables me to engage first-hand with mariners by name and life story.  They graciously allow me into their lives, whether out on the deck in harsh weather or up in the wheelhouse as the boat moves 24/7. We start the ride as total strangers—the crew had a couple hours’ notice of my arrival—and soon move toward pastoral relationship.  Family connections, life challenges, dreams of promotion, and the work demands of the next hour quickly come into focus.  Safety drills and awareness permeate the work.

Towboats require quirky schedules to get the job done.  The front watch works two 6-hour shifts:  5:00 AM-11:00 AM and 5:00PM to 11:00 PM.  The back watch covers the rest.  Since I joined both, I ate breakfast at 4:30, lunch at 10:30 and dinner at 4:30.   

Everyone feels the boat vibrate and hears the throttles increase or decrease speed, especially while flanking—putting the vessel in reverse to navigate the many tight bends through Mississippi and Louisiana.  Rhythms vary greatly—from the morning bustle of chores to the quiet night wheelhouse, interrupted only by radio communication with other boats.  Quarters must stay quiet, because someone is sleeping no more than five hours at a stretch.

Given the calendar and southbound direction, my first two days aboard were cold and snowy, so I felt the same chill as deckhands who did safety checks on each watch.  Happily, my last two days turned warm and sunny, allowing easier conditions as the crew broke up the tow at our destination—very demanding labor that requires hard work and cooperation to stay safe and efficient.

My hosts worked on Christmas Day, so it was gratifying to find the SCI Christmas on the River gift box under the towboat’s Christmas tree.  Thanks to those knitters who make this holiday outreach possible.

I volunteered as trip photographer, capturing images of the crew that they could send to their families on Christmas.  To view the images, click here.  For other images of passing vessel traffic, click here.

As we celebrate the New Year, I thank our donors, trustees, and staff who make this unique mission to mariners a joyful possibility.