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.

Captain Jared Austin on the Mississippi River
Captain Jared Austin checks the logbook aboard a Greek freighter. Photography by Michel Varisco

Fewer than three hundred pilots in Louisiana are qualified to pilot on the river, and Austin is one of only six who are African American. In his mid-forties, he’s six-foot-two and three hundred pounds. He was a college football player at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. His head is shaved, and he sports a graying beard. He has a deep love for the river, something he’s proud to share with Mark Twain, perhaps the most famous of all Mississippi River pilots.

Austin’s a man of confidence in an industry where a single command could either lead to or divert disaster, so he strives for boring on the river. He has a short list of messes he’s been in, and wants to keep it that way. Peril can come unexpectedly, and there are numerous close calls every day. Some ships run up to nine hundred feet long – vessels six times larger than any Twain handled – and at times Austin drives them at speeds between ten and fifteen miles-per-hour, frequently carrying petroleum or toxic chemicals that, if spilled due to a crash, could cause an environmental disaster. He pilots in daylight, the pitch of night, rain, and high winds. “In fast river conditions,” Austin says, “there can be several different currents pulling in unpredictable directions, like a huge pot of water boiling crawfish.” If he gets caught in fog, he has to pilot blind and rely solely on radar.

Austin has managed his share of piloting difficulties. When a waterspout ran over the bow of his ship, his radar went black and the entire ship rocked. When his ship was hit by lightning, the electronics were destroyed. Austin says lightning storms coming across the river can look like “Ten Commandments-from-the-Bible kind of stuff.”

Map system on freighter
The Electronic Chart, or ECDIS, shows location and logistic information along the Mississippi River. Photography by Michel Varisco

Austin’s first duty is to protect people and the waterfront from any major catastrophe. His duty to help move commerce comes second. Five hundred million tons of cargo run through the Mississippi River every year, and Austin thinks of himself as a connector, an essential cog in the global farm-to-table wheel. It’s personal to him; after all, he grew up on the river. “Water is where I find my peace,” he says.

Sixteen years ago, the man Austin affectionately calls “Dad,” the father of his best friend in Marrero, Louisiana, and a third-generation pilot, offered to sponsor Austin in the business. (Most pilots gain entrance through family connections.) Austin started working on a tugboat, while keeping his job as an inspector at a chemical plant, in order to study the river in earnest, learning its curves and tempers, along with the essential bond between tugboat and ship. Then he apprenticed for a year as a ship pilot and trained as a deputy pilot for three more years, graduating from smaller to larger ships. “As scary as it might sound,” Austin says, “that’s how it’s done. You watch, you practice.” He holds a Master Unlimited License, issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, permitting him to drive a vessel of any gross tonnage, as well as a First Class Pilot License for the section of river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Five years ago, he was elected into the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association.

This morning, the Spar Hydra is empty of cargo, anchored, 41 miles by river from New Orleans. A twenty-person crew from India has been traveling onboard for a month already, and will remain with the ship another 45 days until it reaches Bangladesh. International ship captains aren’t authorized to pilot ships on the Mississippi because they are not practiced in handling the narrow, fast, traffic-dense water. Instead, the captains hand over control of navigation to Louisiana riverboat pilots, who climb aboard like members of a relay team for maximum eight-hour shifts, until the ship finally reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

Austin works an alternating-week schedule, and when he’s working he is on call 24 hours a day for seven consecutive days. Last night, the dispatcher estimated Austin would get a call around three a.m. to head to the river to move the Spar Hydra. At 7:45 a.m., Austin is still at home waiting, but he takes it in stride. He’s accustomed to sleeping in the middle of the afternoon, eating breakfast at two a.m. or dinner at midnight – his schedule dictated by the river.

For Austin, though, the difficulty of such a job is figuring out how to be a good single dad to his twelve-year-old daughter. “The real struggle is balancing being a nurturer and disciplinarian,” he says. “I’m a man raising a feminist. I had to learn how to get in touch with my emotions.” Austin has had full custody of her since she was three, and a nanny watches her while he’s at work.

As with parenthood, there are inherent joys and challenges that come with his gig on the river. Austin often has to perform turns sharper than what ships are sea-tested to make. When the river gets high, he doesn’t always know if the ship will overcome the force of the current, or if he’ll be able to stop the ship’s swing. “There’ve been times I’ve flat out wondered if I was about to crash,” he says. “I’ve got full rudder, spinning the propeller as much as possible, and fingers crossed.”

He was on a ship that blew a fuse and the propeller became inoperable. The ship went careening. He dropped anchor and screeched to a halt less than a hundred feet from a chemical dock.

Another time he had to bounce off a fleet of barges along the riverbank in order to avoid crashing into another vessel which had a crew aboard.

River pilots operate by an unwritten rule: “Mud. Machine. Man.” If a ship is in danger of crashing, the safest option is to run it into a muddy riverbank. The second option, as Austin says, “is to bend some steel.” The absolute last resort is to damage human life.

Captain Austin is relaxed but vigilant. He learned early on, however, not to assume the same from others.

One morning around two a.m., Austin was on an 850-foot-long oil tanker painted DayGlo orange. A towboat without a barge approached his path in front of the ship. “I’m thinking, ‘I know he sees me, I know he sees me, oh my God he doesn’t see me!’” Austin sounded the danger whistle – five rapid blasts – flipped on a big spotlight, and somehow steered the 110,000-ton tanker around the relatively tiny boat.

Then there are the guys in canoes – adventure seekers. Captain Austin good-humoredly calls them “rocket scientists.” Like Twain, he loves the concept of life on the river. It’s romantic and beautiful. But while navigating from the bridge deck, a hundred feet above the water, a fourteen-foot kayak looks like a speck of dust. “Can you see a bug before it hits your windshield?” he asks, rhetorically. “Not only can I not see him, I wouldn’t feel him if we did make contact.”

At 9:15 a.m., Austin finally gets the call to be on the Spar Hydra by noon. He drives his black Jeep Wrangler from New Orleans toward LaPlace, the self-proclaimed Andouille sausage capital of the world. Along the way, he stops to buy four-dozen donuts for the tugboat crew he’ll see shortly. Then he continues to the levee behind the Cargill Grain Transfer where he’ll berth the Spar Hydra. He says, “I park where a job ends so I can immediately hop in my Jeep and go back into dad mode.”

He’s already orchestrated the timing, so a driver meets him at his car to transfer him to a crew boat, which is also waiting. On the way to the Spar Hydra, the crew boat pulls up beside a tugboat so Austin can hand off the donuts. Tugboat captains live on board full-time in weeklong shifts, and, having done it himself for more than a decade, Austin knows how much they appreciate food from land.

When the crew boat drops him off at the Spar Hydra, Austin steps onto the ship’s long metal gangway, and halfway up catches a welcome waft of curry where he meets the captain. Together they climb to the bridge deck where Austin will take control of navigation and transit until the ship is berthed at the Cargill facility. He’s immediately brought lunch: fried fish, soup, stewed cabbage and rice. The crew onboard calls him “Mr. Pilot.”

He looks out from the bridge, a vantage point not unlike sitting atop a hill overlooking a valley. It’s an impressive sight, this long flat stretch of south Louisiana: sugar cane fields, chemical plants, oil docks, barges in clusters near the bend of the river, and small communities of petroleum workers, fishermen and agricultural laborers.

This area is also one of the largest waterfowl flyways in the country. The multitude of ducks gets so thick, Captain Austin can see them on the radar, like splotches of ink in the river. There are also plenty of alligators and beavers. Underwater, giant catfish eat grain that spills from the Cargill granary and grow to the size of small humans. “People think that’s a river tale,” Austin says, “But Sweetie, a tugboat engineer, used to catch them with Vienna sausages on the hook.”

The wind is blowing hard and can gust without notice. This could push the ship, increasing the chance of it doing a sideways slide into the berth. He calls for two tugboats, including the one that just received the donuts. With all preparations complete, Austin gives the command to lift the first anchor, “Heave starboard anchor!”

Once both anchors are lifted, he puts the ship in full maneuvering speed and brings it a few miles upriver.

Then, “Slow Ahead!”

The tugboats arrive and tie on to the portside of the ship. They look like toddler toys next to the enormous Spar Hydra, but they’re mighty, and when they connect, Captain Austin can feel their vibration along with their tug; the extra weight helps slow the ship down. Tugs are a part of the overall timing of things, and here to help move the ship into correct position.

Together they travel further upriver. When Austin clears the turn near the Cargill facility, the wind is blowing off the dock. Instead of being a hindrance, the wind will help cushion the ship from slamming into the berth. That’s lucky; Austin will be able to use the tugs, the river and the wind to his advantage.

At the Cargill berth, two hours into the job, Captain Austin has to essentially parallel park the ship, and there’s already a ship in the lower berth. He must pass it at precisely the correct distance and angle, and then, while still creeping forward, edge the Spar Hydra sideways to align it lengthwise against the dock.

The ship captain nervously darts across the bridge. Austin remains measured, in total concentration. He communicates with the linemen, dock men, tug pilots, and ship captain, all individually, and simultaneously.

“Steady!” The command seems like the understatement of the day.

“Clutch straight in!” The tugs help fine tune adjustments. Inch by inch, the Spar Hydra lands softly alongside the berth.

“Hard straight in!” The tugboats turn, perpendicular, nose to ship. They hold the Spar Hydra steady long enough for the mooring men to tie the lines. The ship captain slows his pacing in visible relief.

In truth, on his worst days at home he’d prefer to be at work. “Personal stuff, romantic stuff, family stuff, whatever’s going on at home, it has to take a pause,” he says. “I come out here and move my ship. It’s a good little break.”

Now it’s the Spar Hydra that looks dwarfed beside the Cargill facility – a complex network of elevated chutes and tunnels, a steel maze that crosses over land and into water. It stretches over acres, and its grain elevators can manage more than four million bushels of grain. Its six loading spouts look like the design of a manic kid who just keeps connecting blocks, precariously high and sprawling across the floor, daring gravity and physics to not make the whole thing fall.

Philipinno Freighter called the Chalothorne Naree
Two bulk carriers at anchor on the Mississippi River. Photography by Michel Varisco

It will take two days here to load the Spar Hydra with 53,000 tons of soybeans. There’s an inch-thick covering of corn and soy on the dock. Grain dust swirls in the air. Austin’s black sweatshirt is dotted with white flecks, like ash or an unusual Louisiana snow.

The sun pushes through gray clouds, sparkles on the river and off the red rust of the Spar Hydra. The view is striking, worth a moment’s pause.

His work complete, Austin gives orders for the tugs to be released. He consults with the ship’s captain, thanks the crew, disembarks from the Spar Hydra, and walks off Cargill grounds to his Jeep.

“All in all, a good day’s work. I’m leaving happy,” Austin says. “This is what I do. This is what I live for.”

Lara Naughton

Lara Naughton’s writing has appeared in The Sun, Salon, Guernica, Refinery29 and Bustle, among other publications. Her work includes the documentary stage play "Never Fight a Shark in Water: The Wrongful Conviction of Gregory Bright," and memoir "The Jaguar Man," published by Central Recovery Press. She is a certified Compassion Cultivation Trainer, and Chair of Creative Writing at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Michel Varisco’s artwork explores the relationship between the natural world and man-made and often blends with activism to create awareness around environmental and social issues. Varisco’s work is exhibited and published internationally and is included in public and private collections in the U.S. and abroad.