Captain Strother Sacra recounts perils of working on the Mississippi River
When I boarded the cargo ship Trito Navigator on April 27, 2017, I had no idea that I would end up underwater in the Mississippi River just hours later.
The trip started rather routinely at Pilottown with a wake up call, cup of coffee and quick ride on the pilot boat to board my ship. The pilot boat coming along side a ship can be critical, because ships never stop to take on a pilot, despite the Mississippi River being one of the world’s busiest waterways.
The pilot boat swayed up and down as it pulled up to the moving Trito Navigator. I reached to grab and then scramble up the pilot ladder to the deck of the ship, always aware that the river that lies beneath me has the power to overtake me and everyone else aboard. Inherent with risk, the trusty wooden ladder being simple and inexpensive, remains the most common way pilots embark and disembark each ship.
Reaching the deck I assumed responsibility for the crew, the tugs, and linesman to maneuver the vessel upriver and dock at Boland Violet. With the job complete I was ready to disembark just as the sun was setting. I walked down the deck of the ship to the pilot ladder, ready to call it a day, but instead I soon found myself fighting for my life.
After stepping onto the ladder the next thing I remember is everything being pitch black. I was freezing cold and being tossed about in the Mississippi River. A sense of panic ensued as I thought I would likely die and never see my family again. I always wear a life vest, but had neglected to bring it on this trip. So instead of floating to the surface, I was suspended holding my breath, not knowing which way was up.
Time stood still as my instincts began kicking in and then as if an angel was tugging on me, I sensed the upward pull of my pilot bag strapped to my back. As it floated upwards I knew where to go. As soon as I surfaced I yelled to the crew of the pilot boat to help me aboard. I know without doubt that God saved my life that day.
As pilots we accept that we will continually face extraordinary responsibilities to do our job. As I returned home that day and met my wife’s eyes, I realized the tremendous sacrifice my job requires of my family. With grateful tears she welcomed my return, and you can be certain that she never lets me leave without my life vest in hand.