Captain Profiles

Capt. Joy Manthey, American Queen Voyages

The 10-year-old girl stood, waiting at the bus stop near her house, one Monday morning near the start of summer break.

Her routine thus far that summer had been to fill water balloons with two friends who lived next door, then walk to the bus stop and lie in wait. When the bus driver would arrive at their stop, the mischievous trio would hurl their water balloons at him and run.

Capt. Joy Manthey.
Capt. Joy Manthey.

“We never waited around long enough to see that our balloons would never break,” she said.

But on this particular Monday, Joy Manthey’s friends next door were out of town on vacation. Still, she kept to routine and tramped down to the bus stop as usual.

“Where are your friends?” the bus driver asked.

Manthey offered an explanation, to which the bus driver replied, “Then why don’t you get on and ride downtown?”

Manthey, who had just been given her weekly allowance, produced 10 cents for the bus fare and climbed aboard.

“We got down to the end of Canal Street by the Rivergate where Harrah’s Casino is now,” Manthey said. “He said, ‘You gotta get off and catch that other bus.’”

Manthey, though, being 10 years old and unsure of how to get home, opted to wait the 20 minutes for her familiar bus driver to leave for his outbound trip. To pass the time, she ambled down to the area near the Canal Street Ferry landing. As providence would have it, the Steamer President was moored nearby, awaiting its afternoon sightseeing cruise. Two girls, who were playing on the Canal Street dock, invited Manthey to join them. Soon, one of the girls—Donna, who happened to be the captain’s daughter—invited Manthey on board for the afternoon cruise.

“She said they’d get me on the boat if I’d clean the popcorn machine,” Manthey said.

The churning of the paddlewheel, the murmur of the crowd, the way the President plied the river and slid past landmarks she’d previously only seen from land—the entire experience captured Manthey’s imagination. She was hooked from the first day.

Soon, she was also going on a midday bayou cruise aboard the mv. Mark Twain. The Mark Twain would go downriver from the French Quarter, transit Algiers Lock, continue down the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway until the Village of Jean Lafitte, then turn around and re-enter the Mississippi River through Harvey Lock.

Aboard the Mark Twain, Manthey said, the engineer would typically relieve the captain at the helm at lunchtime. One day, the engineer was unavailable, and the captain asked Manthey if she’d like to take a turn.

“I couldn’t see over the wheel, so I got a steel milk crate to stand on while I steered the boat,” she said.

Manthey flourished at her summer job. What’s more, at just 10 years old, she already knew she’d found her dream job. So much so that, during the school year that followed, when asked to write an essay on what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said she wanted to be a 35-barge towboat pilot and a ship pilot.

That was 1968, and Manthey’s teacher, Mrs. Salisbury, didn’t buy it, instead suggesting that she opt for being a teacher, nurse or some other role more “traditionally” open to women.

Manthey took it as a challenge, and when she earned her first issue pilot’s license at the age of 18, she made sure to let Salisbury know about it.

“Mrs. Salisbury said I couldn’t be a pilot, so I personally took my pilot license to her to show her,” said Manthey, who is better known now as Capt. Joy.

That was 1975, and Capt. Joy set out the day after her high school graduation from Mount Carmel Academy to live and work aboard the Steamer Admiral in St. Louis. She worked summers and school breaks through her college days at LSU. Capt. Joy earned her 100-ton license in August 1978 and her first-class pilot license for New Orleans to Baton Rouge in 1980.

“As soon as I had my license, I put my application in to be a ship pilot,” Capt. Joy said.

Capt. Joy and a business partner bought the riverboat Samuel Clemens in July 1981. They operated a variety of cruises in Baton Rouge until the late ‘90s. During that timeframe, there were two pilot association elections, one in 1984 and another in 1998, but Capt. Joy wasn’t elected either time. While she never realized her dream of being a ship pilot, she was nonetheless a modern-day trailblazer for women in the industry.

The 1990s also saw Capt. Joy begin to realize her goal of piloting towing vessels. Her first opportunity came in shifting towboats from the Baton Rouge harbor down the Port Allen route to Port Allen Marine Shipyard. Eventually, she began working line haul for Scott Chotin, moving vessels from Baton Rouge to Freeport, Texas.

“I was the only woman on the radio,” she said.

Her first time in a barge fleet in Houston, Capt. Joy met a fellow captain who had just lost his wife in a hit-and-run accident. It was his first day back at work. Capt. Joy recognized that, even though the man was back at work, he still was wrestling with the trauma of his wife’s death.

That dockside encounter—much like the one when she was 10 years old—would change the trajectory of Capt. Joy’s life. A devout Catholic, Capt. Joy had already sensed a call to religious life. She entered a convent in 1998 and made her vows in 2000. Part of that process was either starting or getting involved with a ministry. Capt. Joy knew exactly how to marry her faith and her passion for the river: serving mariners through chaplaincy.

In the end, Capt. Joy recognized life as a nun wasn’t her ultimate calling.

“There was an emptiness in me, and the sisters knew it,” Capt. Joy said. “I’ve got the river in my blood.”

Thus, Capt. Joy left the convent and went back to piloting riverboats and towboats. And when she wasn’t on the boat, she was driving the river road, visiting barge fleets and ministering to mariners. Her chaplaincy work became the genesis of Seamen’s Church Institute’s Ministry on the River, Capt. Joy said. She recently spent time in Houston, training SCI’s new Houston-based chaplain, the Rev. Christine Brunson.

“That’s near and dear to my heart,” Capt. Joy said. “It’s needed. Chaplaincy is a ministry of presence. To do the ministry right, you have to go on the boats.”

Today, Capt. Joy works for American Queen Voyages as first-class pilot on the Lower Mississippi and chief mate on the Upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers. She also trips for towing companies whenever she can. Most recently, she’s worked for Parker Towing Company.

“I love towboating because I think it’s the funnest thing to do,” she said.

Her dream is for more women to be at work aboard vessels on the inland waterways, not just as cooks but also on deck and in the wheelhouse. She hopes her story will inspire the next generation of women to pursue their own dreams in the wheelhouse.

“Someone’s got to kick the door open,” she said, “because I feel like I’ve already done my part.”