Meet the Master River Pilot Who Conquers the Mississippi Every Day -- Lara Naughton
It’s winter on the Mississippi River, one of the busiest and most dangerous waterways in the world. Over the past two days, Captain Jared Austin has transported 300,000 barrels of jet fuel on a tanker headed for Europe and fifty thousand tons of corn on a freighter en route to Brazil. Austin is certified to pilot ships between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana. It’s his responsibility to know every bend of the river, and how its mood shifts, depending on the weather.
Today, the job is a four-mile transit from anchor to berth on the Spar Hydra, a bulk carrier that will be loaded with 53,000 tons of soybeans destined for Bangladesh.
Four miles doesn’t sound like much. It’s three minutes on a highway, less than one-sixth the length of a marathon. But winds are gusting and the river is low, so even with highly specialized training and years of experience piloting ships like the six-hundred-foot-long, sixty-thousand-ton Spar Hydra, this job will take Austin several hours, and test his expertise.
Traffic jams with convergences of twenty, thirty, forty ships, can get hairy. The river barely looks wide enough for two ships to pass, but, Austin says, “They absolutely do, all the time. In the ocean, the closest ship is, what, fifty miles away? Here we’re all whizzing around each other.” And ships don’t have brakes like cars. These steel hunks can take miles to stop.
The bottom line: don’t make a mistake.