Working in the wheelhouse of a towboat may look like fun, but piloting such a vessel requires tremendous skill. Towboat captains, pilots and steersmen push and tow barges in river and port areas during all types of weather conditions for up to 28 days at a time while away from their home and families.
Those who work in the wheelhouse are responsible for making sure the towboat and its cargo arrive safely without incident.
According to Capt. John Whiteley, former director of Mountwest Maritime Academy in West Virginia, the average starting salary for most deckhands is $30,000, with captains making $100,000 or more per year.
Not only are jobs where you can earn such a high annual salary without a college education rare, they aren’t usually as rewarding as experiencing the freedom of working on our nation’s inland rivers. And imagine being in the wheelhouse and having this career by the time you reach 30 years old. Here are six young men who accomplished just that:
David Haake, 29
American Commercial Barge Line
When David Haake was 27 years old, he was promoted to pilot on the mv. Larry Strain with American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL). It’s a position he has held for the last two years.
Haake is well aware of how lucky he is to have moved up to the wheelhouse at such a young age; however, he said staying humble about it has been the key to his success. “If you get to the wheelhouse before age 30, chances are you will run across plenty of people who have been on the river longer than you’ve been alive,” he said. “There is no substitute for experience in this industry.”
Being open-minded to learning and listening to those who have been on the water for a long time has helped Haake move up the ranks, he said. Born and raised in Corydon, Ind., Haake currently lives outside of New Amsterdam, Ind., with his wife of six years, his 1-year-old son and their two dogs. The family is expecting their second son in August.
When Haake isn’t at home caring for his family, he’s on the towboat caring for his crew. “My primary responsibility is the safety of the crew on my watch, followed closely by my responsibility to safely navigate the vessel during my watch,” he said.
When asked how difficult it was to move up to the wheelhouse before age 30, Haake said there is no shortage of people looking to move up in the inland marine industry. “The only way to set yourself ahead of the pack is by giving 100 percent in every task you undertake,” he added. “Whether you’re scrubbing the toilet to wiring up a tow, take pride in everything you do and always be looking for ways to improve. Don’t expect anything to be handed to you, and if you want to learn a new skill or job, take the initiative and go get the training, certification or license you need to perform the job.”
Today, Haake continues his job as a watch captain on the Ohio and Illinois rivers. “The opportunities I’ve seen on the river to better myself are second to none and I’m glad I made this my career,” he said.
Jermell Jones, 28
Inland Marine Service
Jermell Jones never expected to work in the marine industry. When he was 18 years old, he accompanied his brother to an interview with Hunter Marine in Nashville, Tenn. “I wasn’t really interested in a job like this at the time, but my brother needed a ride to the interview and I took him,” said Jones. “When we got there, my brother told the hiring rep that I needed a job, too, and she talked me into filling out an application.”
At the time, Jones already had a job at a chicken factory back in his hometown of Maysville, Ky. He also had a baby daughter to look after. “A couple of days later, I got a call to tell me I got the job,” he said.
Leaving his daughter behind and being so young was difficult for Jones at first, but after 10 years on the job, he knows he made the right choice.
Jones continued on with Hunter Marine as a deckhand handling wires, cleaning the towboat, making tows and other duties. Eventually, Jones said he began riding on bigger towboats hauling more barges, which led to more duties.
In his early 20s, Jones began working as a deckhand for Marquette Transportation Company LLC, where he quickly moved up to the position of mate. Eventually, Jones decided to work for Inland Marine Service, where he became assistant engineer in the engineroom. By the time Jones turned 27, he was promoted to steersman. “I’m an engineer with a steersman license, so I steer in my off time,” he added.
With an industry slowdown, Jones said he hasn’t had as much time lately to steer, but once things pick up, he said he will steer more and eventually become a full-time pilot.
Jones said he became motivated despite his initial apprehensions about working on the river. “You have to be motivated, and to me, it’s a respect thing out on the river,” he said. “Your name carries weight.”
Realizing that he had a lot of potential onboard a towboat, Jones said he set his mind on advancing his career for himself, his fiancé and his two daughters—ages 5 and 10—back home. “If you’re going to do a job, I was always taught to shoot for the top,” he said. “If I’m going to work my life away from my family, I want it to be beneficial to us. There are so many opportunities out on the river, and if you stay focused, you’ll make it count.”
John Stapleton, 30
Murray American River Towing
At the age of 30, John Stapleton “got turned loose” on his own this year as the pilot of the mv. Evan Michael Murray, a 1,020 hp. twin-screw towboat.
As the pilot, Stapleton said he is responsible for safely getting product up and down the river, conducting safety meetings with the deck crew and doing routine walks around the boat. “The most important duty I have is making sure everyone is safe and that we all make it home after the hitch is over,” he said.
Like many others, Stapleton began his river career as a deckhand where he cleaned and painted the boat and tightened wires on the tows. He was promoted to second mate and eventually moved up to first mate where he was handed more duties. “I was the deck boss, and I had to make out supply orders and make sure everything was getting done on the boat as far as cleaning and painting,” he said. It took Stapleton 8-1/2 years to become a pilot.
The first in his family to work on the river, Stapleton said he went to college after high school for a year, but decided he didn’t want that life. “I knew a captain on the river for AEP River Operations and he told me to take the deckhand class in Huntington, W.Va.,” he said. “So I did.”
Originally from Gallipolis, Ohio, Stapleton said he was drawn to work on the river because he could be outside and see different cities and scenery along the inland rivers.
When he’s not piloting the towboat, Stapleton is at home with his wife and two sons, where he fishes, goes to church, works on cars and spends time with his family.
When asked what advice he has for young people interested in making their way quickly to the wheelhouse, Stapleton said young people need to stick the job out at first. “A lot of people come out here and within a year or less quit,” he said. “All I can say is work hard and always take initiative in whatever work is being done. The captain is always watching and listening.”
Nick Martin, 28
Golding Barge Line Inc.
Nick Martin got his first piloting job with Golding Barge Line Inc., Vicksburg, Miss., on the mv. Nathan Golding in 2013 when he was 25 years old. Two years later, Martin was promoted to relief captain on the mv. Kate Golding and then on the mv. Alice Golding. Today, the 28-year-old captains the mv. Thomas E Rollins, a 2,000 hp. twin-screw towboat.
Martin has worked for Golding since 2006, when he was 18 years old. “As a veteran Golding Barge Line employee, I had the privilege of working under many captains with lots of experience who have paved the road for my career,” he said. “Capt. Todd Hundley and Capt. Tim Miller had a lot of influence over me on how to operate a Golding vessel properly, along with Red Jones and many other seasoned wheelmen.”
As a captain, Martin said his duties are never-ending. “As I’ve progressed through the ranks from deckhand to captain, I understand the way we operate, so I’m able to proficiently train guys the correct way as soon as they arrive on the vessel.”
Before Martin decided to become a mariner, he attended college before, like Stapleton, realizing he didn’t want that life. “I had worked most of my life up to that point and felt out of place in the environment,” he said. Lucky for Martin, his father knew Capt. Hundley’s wife through work and he was able to apply to Golding. “I came in for an interview and caught the mv. Austin Golding a few days later,” he said.
Martin said he had no idea what to expect during his first few months as a deckhand. “I was interested in finding a rewarding job compared to most jobs available in my small town,” said Martin, who is from Calvin, La., where the annual income is a little over $30,000.
It just so happens that $30,000 is the average starting salary for most deckhands, according to Whiteley.
To other young people starting out on the river, Martin advised that they always keep an open mind, persevere and work hard. “It will carry you far in this industry,” he added. “Learn what you can from those around you, whether it is the right or wrong way. A good attitude along with a good work ethic is definitely hard to come by with a lot of people.”
Martin, who has a daughter on the way, spends his free time with his 4-year-old son and family. He enjoys fishing, hunting and riding ATVs.
Ty Matheny, 29
Inland Marine Service
Ty Matheny got his first opportunity to work in the wheelhouse shortly after he turned 22 years old. For Matheny, it’s a family business. Both his father and brother, also a captain, work in the industry.
“I can remember the smell of my dad’s clothes when he would come in from the boat, the late night crew changes and we would go to sleep with him not home and wake up to him making breakfast for us,” said Matheny. “Same way with him leaving. We would go to bed with him home and wake up to his shoes not being by the door anymore.”
Matheny said that like his father, he makes the very best of his time home with his own three children. “Quality over quantity, like he always said,” said Matheny.
At 29, Matheny is captain of the mv. Midland for Inland Marine Service in Hebron, Ky., where he maintains crew safety and efficiency first and foremost. “I want to send every one of my guys home to their families in one piece the way they sent them to work to me,” he said.
The best advice Matheny has received during his time on the river so far is to stay humble. “Do not forget where you came from and never ask your men to do something you wouldn’t stand beside them and do yourself,” he said. “Surround yourself with good, positive guys to work with and you will be successful. Be someone for your crew to trust and rely on, and likewise, pick a crew you can trust and rely on.”
Hailing from Ravenden, Ark., a town of only 350 people, Matheny spends his off time with his wife, Chelsea, and three kids ages 3, 5 and 8. He and his family spend a lot of time outdoors. “Around where I live, you can hit a gravel road and drive all day never seeing the same thing twice,” said Matheny. “We do that often.”