NOBRA Pilots in the News
NEW ORLEANS, LA–(Marketwired – Sep 5, 2013) – One year after Hurricane Isaac scattered more than a hundred ships and vessels in the Lower Mississippi River, the United States Coast Guard honored two New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots (NOBRA) for their fearless actions in braving gale-force winds and a storm surge to rescue several crippled vessels and their crews and prevent further casualties from the Category One storm, announced Captain Michael E. Rooney, NOBRA president.
The USCG award ceremony honoring the NOBRA pilots was conducted today at the Maritime Pilots Institute (MPI), 401 N. New Hampshire Street, Covington, LA 70433.
“The Commandant of the United States Coast Guard,” said USCG Commander P.W. Gautier, Captain of the Port, “takes great pleasure in presenting the Coast Guard Certificate of Merit to New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association river pilots Captain Derek Solar and Captain Maurice “Toby” Wattigney for their roles in the response and recovery efforts during Hurricane Isaac, August 27-29, 2012.”
According to the USCG, Isaac was a surprisingly strong category-one hurricane whose prolonged movement significantly damaged the port community. The storm’s especially powerful surge and gale force winds resulted in more than a hundred marine casualties and pollution incidents, causing property damage in excess of $5B as well as the shutting down of the Lower Mississippi River and its connecting waterways and tributaries. Some 120 deep-draft vessels remained in the port when the storm struck with about a third of them experiencing significant casualties within the initial 24 hours of the storm. The hurricane heavily impacted vessels at anchorage, leaving some aground and others entangled in their moorings.
“Captains Solar and Wattigney were among very few pilots who were able to reach the Mississippi River through the flooding and blocked highways to address these vessel casualties and they did so without hesitation,” said Captain Gautier.
With gale-force winds pounding in the early morning darkness, Captain Solar drove to Grandview Anchorage to board a launch for the M/V OVERSEAS ANTIGMAR, a 46,000-ton oil/chemical tanker measuring 600 ft. long and 100 ft. wide. The ship’s Master initially dragged anchor and then weighed anchor to avoid perilously drifting and colliding with the LaPlace water intake — the workhorse water plant and water line that supports St. John The Baptist Parish. Captain Solar arrived on the scene, took control of the vessel and brought it safely to anchorage — an operation that lasted well into the morning. As he departed the ship, Captain Solar noticed another vessel had dragged anchor and was in the middle of the navigational channel. Knowing that reopening of the Mississippi River vessel traffic was a top USCG priority, Captain Solar boarded the vessel and cleared the channel.
After reaching the Grandview Anchorage, Captain Wattigney boarded a launch for the grounded M/V MEDI SENTOSA, an 84,000-ton bulk carrier measuring 750 ft. long and 95 ft wide. Captain Wattigney headed to the M/V MEDI SENTOSA before the storm surge reversed and the high water receded. He immediately noticed the 13,000-ton M/V CLIPPER DAISEY, an oil/chemical tanker measuring 406 ft. long and 65 ft. wide, had spun on its moorings and was aground, blocking the M/V MEDI SENTOSA. Shuttling between the vessels, Captain Wattigney managed to not only re-float them but also safely return both to anchorage, thus achieving the USGC priority of clearing the navigational channel.
“The brave and heroic actions of Captains Solar and Wattigney exemplify our mission at NOBRA to protect the public welfare and environment of the State of Louisiana,” said Captain Rooney. “We are extremely proud of these two outstanding master mariners and their service as NOBRA Pilots.”
The NOBRA pilots held the 2008 Toy Drive at First Baptist Church of Luling on Saturday, Dec 23rd. A total of $10,000 worth of gifts were purchased by NOBRA Pilots to give to kids from St Charles and St John Parishes. Food and drinks were also provided by the Pilots.
It was barely dusk and NOBRA pilot Captain Don Gagnon was readying for his full assignment upriver when he noticed what he thought was a barge next to the recreation ship, the Carnival cruise line ship, the Ecstasy, now temporary Post Katrina housing for firemen, police, and emergency personnel. FEMA arranged for the ship immediately after the storm to allow special personnel with access to the city amid the flooding.
Gagnon thought to himself, “No barge should be next to that vessel,” according to a recently published story in Waterways Journal by freelance writer and pilot Richard Eberhardt. Later we would learn that perhaps a ballard failed on the dock and with high winds, the ropes gave way and the ship slowly started moving into the River.
Gagnon acted quickly, getting the tug to take him over for a closer look. He hopped aboard the barge and then up onto the Ecstasy to find some 10 mates and the Captain on the bridge trying to hold her in place with just the bow thruster and making no headway. He said they were thrilled to get some assistance.
Meanwhile, others in the river began to see what was happening and put out messages for tugs to come and help. All were tuned to the Vessel Traffic Service and later to channel 77 for commands.
According to a story by Richard Eberhardt in the Waterways Journal, witnesses said the Ecstasy missed two Navy ships by 20 feet and the dredge by 50 feet. With Captain Gagnon’s assistance, the crew was able to get one main engine and the bow and stern thrusters working. Gagnon said he deployed the port anchor about seven-tenths of a mile downstream of its dock. When the ship dragged anchor, the Journal noted, Gagnon had put out more chain, eventually dropping about 600 feet and using the tugs’ engines to help stop the downstream drift.
A Crescent Towing and Willy Bisso tug both provided assistance as well. The Ecstasy was later moved to the Julia Street wharf.
With her 6-month-old daughter cradled in her arms and her five boys playing nearby, Ladonna Smith smiled about Santa’s gift-giving as she stood in a parking lot at the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church. Her boys zoomed around on their new bikes while she carried a preschool block set for her daughter. All of the gifts were courtesy of the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association.
“They’re gonna really enjoy themselves with this stuff,” Smith said.
Don Rieder, a steamship pilot for 30 years, helped raise money from other pilots for 157 disadvantaged children in Plaquemine. When he told them money would go to children, the answer was always “yes, yes, yes,” he said.
Rieder and other members of the association, also known as NOBRA, gathered at the church in Plaquemine Saturday morning, surrounded by the fruits of their labor – and money.
Forty-seven bicycles leaned on kickstands outside the church. A roomful of presents for the youngest children lay in wait. And, in the cafeteria, 26 pizzas and more than 150 tacos were ready to be passed out to children and their parents.
“It’s the time of the year when you’re supposed to do this,” NOBRA President Bud Watson III said. “It’s a time of giving.”
The pilots, who steer freighters, bulk cargo vessels and tankers up and down the shifting Mississippi River and who have been criticized in the past for being insular, raised more than $10,000 for the third annual Christmas event, Watson said.
In total, 112 NOBRA pilots raise anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 each year for charitable causes as part of an outreach program, Rieder said.
They saw a tangible outcome of their gifts on Saturday.
Children rode their newly acquired bicycles in the church parking lot while their parents stood and watched.
Alan Hollins, 11, leaned against his new green bicycle and mentioned that it is painted his favorite color.
His father, Edward Hollins, said his son would ride the bike home to their house a few blocks away. The bicycle was a welcome gift.
“This doesn’t happen every year,” Hollins said.
Hollins, who works in construction, said his son wants to be a policeman or firefighter when he grows up but Hollins acknowledged a career as a river pilot might not be bad, either.
The pilots, who may earn close to $300,000 a year for bringing deep-draft vessels inland, are members of one of four state river pilot associations.
Kelvin Boston, who is the first African-American river pilot licensed in Louisiana, told the mostly black families crammed into the 28 pews in the church that if they worked hard, they could accomplish almost anything.
“It’s a good thing to do something for these kids,” Boston said. “They deserve it.”
The pilots raised the money for the event and organizers from the church identified the children from low-income families who would receive the gifts, the Rev. Lee Wesley said.
Newborns to 17-year-olds, all from Plaquemine, received presents.
Some families requested assistance in paying for school uniforms and supplies and received that as well.
NOBRA contributed to the event in Plaquemine this year but may shift its donations elsewhere next year, Watson said. The group tries to rotate charitable gift-giving among the parishes along the lower Mississippi River.
In the spring, the focus for NOBRA shifts to an annual baseball event for terminally ill youth, Rieder said. He expects the effort to go well.
“It’s one of the easiest things to do,” Rieder said, “raise money for kids.”
NOBRA Pilot Credited for swift action in reporting Ukrainian ship captain as DWI aboard “Leeds Castle”
In April, a Ukrainian ship captain was arrested and charged with allegedly operating a commercial vessel under the influence of alcohol, when he was found unfit to master the ship.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten credited a NOBRA pilot for swift and decisive action for reporting the incident and for saving the ship from a potential disaster. That NOBRA Captain was Stephen V. Streckfus.
According to Letten at a press conference held a few days after the incident, the alleged drunken officer, Yuriy Roshkalyov, was reported by Captain Streckfus, who called the St. James Sheriff’s Office and the Coast Guard to report the incident around 9:30 pm on Sunday, April 16.
River pilot groups, such as NOBRA, are required under state law to guide ships along the Mississippi River, because they are experts at navigating the difficult system. The ship’s master is responsible for the safe navigation of the ship. It is customary for the two to meet before a ship leaves port to discuss operating plans, said Rear Adm. Robert Duncan, commander of the New Orleans-based 8th Coast Guard District.
Docked at a terminal in Gramercy and loaded with grain, the ship was destined for Mexico. On Sunday, April 16, the NOBRA pilot asked for Captain Roshkalyov as he boarded the Leeds Castle. He was told the captain was “not well.” When he finally met with Roshkalyov, he smelled alcohol on his breath and refused to sail the ship.
A St. James Parish Sheriff’s deputy and the Coast Guard officer who responded to the incident noted that the master’s attitude was combative; his eyes were bloodshot and his speech was confused, according to a statement released by Letten’s office and reported in the Times-Picayune. In addition, Roshkalyov’s blood alcohol concentration level was .252, six times the legal limit. A person operating a commercial vessel in U.S. waters is considered intoxicated if his blood alcohol level exceeds .040.
At the press conference, Letten said, “He performed his job extremely well. That NOBRA pilot refused to serve that vessel, refused to get it underway. This was as good evolution as one could ask from a river pilot. It couldn’t have gone any better.”
Admiral Duncan said that in his three years with the health the local coast guard district, four other ship captains have been arrested on intoxication charges. All were convicted and at least one was barred for one year from operating ships in U.S. waters. “These ships are like 18 wheelers of the waterway and that’s why it is important to keep them safe.”
According to NOBRA Executive Director, Captain Bud Watson, the regulations for drug use are in place to keep our waterways safe. We salute the excellent job of NOBRA Capt. Stephen Streckfus. “It is vital to our work of safeguarding the Mississippi.”
The NOBRA pilots are supporting high schools, musicians, and medical foundations throughout the affected regions. They donated $4500 to a fundraiser sponsored by Central High School in Baton Rouge to benefit Chalmette High School and have sponsored the Slidell High School Alumni Association Relief Fund efforts. They also sponsored “Cooking for Our Neighbors” in Central, Louisiana, to benefit the Chalmette/St. Bernard Unified Schools. They have also assisted the Tipitina’s Foundation for displaced musicians and the Chaubert Medical Foundation in Houma/Terrebonne.
Louisiana River Pilot Association’s “Pilot’s Watch” Vol. 5 | No. 1