Changing Gears

Gregory Blache pilots against the tide on the Mississippi River

Gregory J. Blache
AGE: 33
OCCUPATION: Riverboat Pilot
LOCATION: Mississippi River
DUTIES: Guides more than 95% of ship traffic on the Mississippi River bar
SALARY RANGE: $300,000–$320,000
Having completed 365 days at sea, trained in Port Revel, France, near Grenoble, and finished a four-year apprenticeship, Gregory Blache has become the first African American bar pilot in the Associated Branch Pilots (ABP)–one of three Mississippi river groups.

“Every river has a bar, where the river meets the ocean. We are called bar pilots because we pilot ships across that bar,” explains Blache. Blache and his colleagues guide all foreign-flagged ships and some American ships, including those carrying cargo to foreign countries, across the bar where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. They navigate the ships through the narrow channels of the Southwest Pass and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

“We don’t work for a company, we are [more] like independent contractors,” he says. The pilots, who are always on call, are rotated according to a ship’s arrival and departure schedule. Each pilot receives a fee per ship based on, among other factors, its draft (depth) and dead weight tonnage (how much the ship can hold).

o Training: It took Blache about five years to move up the ranks. He was a seaman for a year, then he became an apprentice, and in June 2001, he was inducted into the Associated Branch Pilots. There are 47 pilots, one of whom is the superintendent who negotiates contracts and handles all association business. All pilots are partners, each one has an equal share and an equal say. One man, one vote.

o Closed Community: In 1990 Kelvin Boston was elected the first African American bar pilot on the Mississippi, but in recent years, the industry has come under heavy scrutiny for discriminatory and nepotistic practices in its selection process. The pilots are wholly responsible for selecting their applicants and apprentices. In the past, commissions were primarily passed down to sons, grandsons, or son-in-laws.

“This had a lot to do with [family members] being around, knowing about the job, and having experience with boats and on the water,” Blache explains. As a result, the association did not receive applications from minorities. “Still, to this day, many people don’t understand or know about the piloting industry and its impact, through trade and commerce, on their daily lives. Since 1997, only five or six pilots have retired, so it is still a difficult task to become an associated branch pilot–just based on numbers. We have a black apprentice right now, and with the recent inception of the association’s minority scholarship, I would say the chances [for minority inclusion] continue to improve.”

The Right Attitude: Blache says that, in one sense, his work and becoming the first black bar pilot in the ABP is no big deal. But on the other hand, it may be monumental. He has integrated an organization that is over 100 years old.

“It is important for black Americans to realize that, even though things are harder for us sometimes, adversity makes us stronger,”

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