From left, Bruce Paulsen, SCI board chairman; Mark Nestlehutt, president of SCI; Blessey Marine Chairman Walter Blessey; Clark Todd, president and CEO of Blessey Marine. (Photo courtesy of Seamen's Church Institute)

SCI Honors Longtime Industry Leader Walter Blessey

The Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) hosted its annual Maritime Training Benefit Luncheon in Houston April 28 after a two-year break due to COVID-19 and Hurricane Ida. Despite that delay, the luncheon, which benefits SCI’s Center for Maritime Education and the organization’s pastoral ministry to mariners who work along the Gulf Coast and the inland waterways, didn’t miss a beat, with more than 450 supporters from the maritime community in attendance.

Steve Golding, founder of Golding Barge Line, addressing the crowd, offered his personal testimony of the indispensable work of SCI.

“This industry is so fortunate to have Seamen’s Church affiliated with it,” Golding said. “Yes, we’ve got great training and simulators here in Houston and in Paducah, but what really moves the needle for me is the pastoral care and chaplain service that’s provided for our crewmen.”

Golding spoke of the tragic off-duty death of one of his company’s tankermen. Following that tragedy, Golding reached out to retired SCI chaplain Kempton Baldridge.

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“He didn’t know this individual, but he knew the lifestyle,” Golding said. “He knew the life he came from. He knew that he was on and off 28 and 14. He knew what he was up against as a mariner. He was able to weave that into his eulogy in giving the service, and it was so meaningful for the family to have that.”

Golding then mentioned how Tom Rhoades, SCI’s senior chaplain, will often visit Golding’s vessels, ministering to mariners right where they are. Rhoades, Golding said, is able to “come on board, sit down with the crew member, get him over the hump, let him know somebody cares, let him know ‘I understand,’ because Tom rode the boats himself, so he knows the lifestyle.”

That pastoral care is offered free of charge, Golding said. 

“Yes, you pay for the training when you go to the Seamen’s Church simulator,” Golding said, laughing, “but this kind of pastoral care and chaplain service is the reason you all are here today. Part of this fundraiser, as well as one in Paducah, goes to provide for the chaplain service that we have and enjoy as an industry, and Seamen’s Church has plans to expand this ministry.”

Golding then introduced Walter Blessey, chairman and founder of New Orleans-based Blessey Marine Services. As part of the luncheon, SCI honored Blessey with the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

“We’ve been competing weekly for many, many years, Walter’s company and our company,” Golding said. “And what’s unique about this industry is you can still be friends, because you need friends in this industry. If you think you can make it by yourself as an independent operator, you’re badly mistaken. Everybody is going to reach a point where you need a friend, and Walter has been a good friend of mine for many, many years.”

That friendship included Blessey calling Golding with insight about a crew member some years ago, and it also included Blessey leasing equipment to Golding when Golding had a need.

“Again, very few competitors would lease another competitor any equipment,” said Golding, who praised Blessey as a “giver” and one who has “always been on the front line for our industry.”

The program honoring Blessey also featured reflections from Blessey Marine Capt. Serafin Madrigal; David Lane, vice president of marketing for Canal Barge Company; Christian O’Neil, president of Kirby Marine Transportation; and Blessey Marine President and CEO Clark Todd, Blessey’s own son-in-law.

From left, Laney Watkins, Laura Todd, Clark Todd, Walter Blessey and Jane Ann Blessey. (Photo courtesy of Blessey Marine Services)
From left, Laney Watkins, Laura Todd, Clark Todd, Walter Blessey and Jane Ann Blessey. (Photo courtesy of Blessey Marine Services)

“After a career spanning 50 years in the petroleum trading and waterborne transportation industry, it was wonderful to see so many of Walter’s contemporaries, as well as current industry leaders, at the event,” Todd said. “At the end of the day, members of our industry may be competitors, but with so many family companies involved, we support each other and cheer success.”

Addressing the crowd, Blessey recounted the story of how he went from a job where he was “miserable at the utility company” to founding Blessey Marine. The hard times and learning experiences in between weren’t easy, but they made him into the leader he is today, Blessey said.

“I learned how not to do things from the companies I worked for,” Blessey said. “I have tried to create a company where respect for the individual is the foundation of our culture. We have no misters in our company. Our corporate purpose is on every boat and in our offices. Respect for the individuals is paramount. We put our people’s pictures in our headquarters when they retire. It is because of all of them that we built this company. They believed in us. We honor them.”

And with that same culture, Blessey Marine continues to thrive, recently christening the mv. Walter E. Blessey Jr., its 104th new vessel to build. Todd connected that success, in part, to the training and chaplain ministry Blessey Marine receives from SCI.

“Over the years, we have used SCI to provide counseling services to mariners in need, to provide other support and logistics services, to visit our New Orleans and Houston (Channelview) offices to provide on-site training and lectures, and of course, to utilize their training simulator in their Houston location,” Todd said. “Annually, we have put more than 35 wheelmen through the simulator for the past decade. There really is no other way to capture and to challenge the daily experiences being thrown at our mariners on America’s waterways.”

The fine-tuned and customizable simulations are crucial to preparing mariners for the dynamic nature of the waterways on which they operate, Todd said.

“Every bit of training counts,” Todd said. “Barge transportation is the safest, most energy efficient and most environmentally friendly mode of transportation amongst waterborne transportation, rail and trucking. Our industry is the heart of the supply chain for dry goods, liquid products and project cargoes. Our safety benefits the nation and keeps essential goods flowing.”

Stephen Polk, director of SCI’s Center for Maritime Education, said the past 10 years working with Blessey Marine have been characterized by partnership and collaboration.

“They have taken advantage of all of the simulator service SCI provides, doing simulator training for their wheelhouse personnel, and mariner assessments with Capt. Dave Howell in our Wartsila simulator,” Polk said. “Blessey has routinely challenged the norm by inviting U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board marine investigators to sit in on their classes and learn from mistakes and recent incidents and participate in the simulation debriefs.”

Caption for top photo: From left, Bruce Paulsen, SCI board chairman; Mark Nestlehutt, president of SCI; Blessey Marine Chairman Walter Blessey; Clark Todd, president and CEO of Blessey Marine. (Photo courtesy of Seamen’s Church Institute)