“This boat is built for so many different missions. It’s got a lot of staterooms on here for major events. It becomes a command center during major events.” Jeffrey Hopkins, first mate-steersman of the M/V Mississippi.Jeffrey got hooked on river life when he was a boy. He began working on the Mississippi River when he was younger than 10. “I was a gas boy at the Marina in Dubuque, Iowa. I also helped run the boats in the marina when they had a boat show, and clean the boats and cut the grass and weeded around the marina.” A few years later Jeffrey helped his dad run a charter boat service in Dubuque. “If you’re going to become a tow boat captain, Master of Towing vessels it takes a minimum of 1,080 days just to get to make Pilot and another year to get the full Master of Towing, so a minimum of four years. To get to Mate of an Unlimited Tonnage Vessel on the inland waters, you need a minimum of 1,080 days. That’s three years non-stop eight-hour days just to get to the Mate level and I’m at the Mate level, but I hold the Master-Unlimited Tonnage that I just got this May. So I started my first Licensing in 1994, I started with a 50-ton license.” It’s not just hundreds of hours that Jeffrey’s dedicated at the helm of increasingly larger vessels to upgrade his Coast Guard license. There’s also learning five modules (and about 100 submodules) of complex material about maritime law, Inland River Navigational Rules, handling the boat in a multitude of weather and water conditions, and safety, all for the Master-Unlimited Tonage certification. https://www.dco.uscg.mil/nmc/exams/RVR01-master-rivers-of-unlimited-tonnage-Q300-Q383/. After all that studying, Jeffrey had to pass the 300 question Coast Guard test. All crew members have an arduous work schedule aboard the Mississippi. The deck department – those responsible for ship navigation from the pilot house – works six hours on six hours off, which is called the “square watch.” “I’m on the front watch,” Jeffrey told me. “That means I work the first six hours before noon and the first six hours before midnight. My relief is another Steersman First Mate. He relieves me at noon and comes on watch and then I relieve him at six and we just keep that rotation going on all 24 hours a day until we get off the boat.” Jeffrey continued, “The engineers are working straight 12s. That’s by choice by their department. The stewards and cooks are working this straight 12s, 5 a.m. till 5 p.m. basically. The typical work schedule for Jeffrey and his crewmates is two weeks (14 days) on, followed by seven days off.” I asked Jeffrey why he feels the nearly incalculable years of training and study, the long work days, and the time away from his family, have been worth it? “Take a look around. This is the best office you can have. I’ve got 12, 14 windows. Some people fight their whole career to get that office window in the corner of a building and I get a 360 degree view. Plus it’s fun going up and down the river. Piloting is enjoyable and you make a lot of friends out here on the river.”
“Often people get a job on a barge industry barge and work as a deckhand; work your way up to pilot, because all the pilot is just an old deckhand.” Jeffrey HopkinsJeffrey admitted that the work schedule is at times trying. “It is a hardship to be away from family for a long period of time but the love of the rivers is what keeps most of us out here.” Even getting on or off the boat to change crews can be tricky because of unexpected mission and schedule changes. “If the boat can’t physically get back to crew change spot on crew change day, they might have to get a government van, load people up, bring them down further south to meet the boat because it just couldn’t make it back on time, whether it’s weather related or mission-related.” Jeffrey’s situation is complicated because he lives in Wisconsin and the boat is based in Memphis. “ I try to buy plane tickets out of Jackson, Mississippi, New Orleans or Memphis and you don’t know for sure if the boat’s going to be close to any one of those. We try to make it to an assigned area to do crew change, but sometimes it doesn’t work out and you got to meet the boat somewhere down river. Sometimes along the Levee and pushed into the bank, using a ladder to get on board, crossing the levee.” The crew quarters aboard the Mississippi are comfortable but modest. Each crew member gets a bed in a stateroom which will accommodate their clothing and a few personal items. “(It) is a unique style of living. You have to get used to it. It’s a bunk bed and depending on what rank and how long you been with the boat, and which stateroom you get moved in, you might be on the top bunk or the bottom.”
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