Captain Profile: Capt. Bobby Wilson, Western Rivers Boat Management
Capt. Bobby Wilson, a heavy-tow pilot on the mv. Lewis B. Strait, has been on the river for 35 years. That would be close to a career for many people, but, at age 54, he says he’s not anywhere near the end of his working days. “I’ve got a long way to go,” he said, and what he relishes most about being on the river longer is the family aspect of the company he works for, Western Rivers Boat Management, based in Paducah, Ky., where he lives.
“I tell people I’m about as close to the (family that owns and operates Western Rivers) as you can get without being named Strait,” he said. The Strait family began Western Rivers in 1996, and it was Wilson who was the first captain the company hired when it crewed its first vessel. Before that, he said, he piloted for many years with Charles Strait, the company’s founder, when they both worked at Hugh Mac Towing.
Jason Strait, one of Charles Strait’s sons and the company’s vice president-operations, confirmed the close relationship the Strait family has with Capt. Bobby Wilson and his brothers. “Bobby is correct,” he said. “The ‘Wilson boys have become a family name at our house. I was privileged on one of my first trips with Dad to have Bobby as the captain on the mv. Robert E. Frane. Over my next few trips, I was able to ride with Kenny and Andy, brothers of Bobby, as well.
“They have been an integral part of the foundation of creating the family atmosphere that my father set out to build. This atmosphere is part of who we are today. It is my family’s honor to serve in this industry with employees like this.”
Capt. Bobby Wilson comes by piloting naturally. His grandfather was a pilot on the mv. Danny P, owned by Delta Pine Land, Greenville, Miss., and his mother and stepfather both worked for Flowers Transportation in the late 1970s. His father, the only exception, was a doctor, he said.
He got his pilot’s license in 1986 while aboard the mv. Leta Jane, owned by Willow Towing, when he was 22, just a few years after he started on the river. His younger brothers, Andy and Kenny, who are now also captains with Western Rivers Boat Management, decked for him then and later when he was a pilot on the Christopher D, owned by Kellum Marine, he said. Only 27 years old and nicknamed “The Kid” when he worked at Hugh Mac, he was at that time already responsible for 45-barge tows, he said.
The boat he’s on now, the mv. Lewis B. Strait, is a 180-foot, 10,800 hp. triple-screw towboat Western Rivers bought from American Commercial Barge Line last year.
It’s not that retirement isn’t appealing to him, he went on to say. As a matter of fact, Capt. Wilson has taken up a new hobby that he’d love to spend more time on. A year ago, he bought a 2017 Harley CVO Ltd. motorcycle, and last summer he and several other river pilots took a 25-day trip from Paducah to the West Coast and back, camping out along the way. “We got through Bear Tooth Pass in Wyoming a couple weeks after it opened,” he recalled. At Sturgis, S.D., they arrived several days before the big annual rally, which was “fun, because all the vendors were set up, and we were able to check everything out before it got too crowded.”
Being a part of the Strait family, if not in fact related to them, is good enough to keep him working for some time to come, he said. The Western Rivers family extends beyond Charles Strait to include Jason, Cliff and Chuck Strait, plus some others, all of whom he said he feels really close to. “I’m not looking to retire any time soon,” he reiterated. “As I said before, I’ve got a long way to go and I know I will enjoy it—but I’m sure looking forward to the next motorcycle trip.”