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Mentor Spotlight

Mentor Spotlight - Dustin Blaine Salinas

I started in the Maritime Industry in January of 2008. My dad, James Salinas, who has now passed away, was a Captain, and that’s what I wanted to do since I was a kid. I started on the river with Eckstein Marine where I worked for six months as a deckhand. I then worked, as a deckhand, for three years at American Commercial Barge Lines before making it to Steersman, Pilot, and Captain for another six years. I started a business creating training and instructional videos about eight years into my career and worked as a Trip Pilot for multiple companies for two years before taking a job with Western Rivers where I currently work.

I have had a number of mentors over the years, but most notably would have to be my dad James Salinas. It’s a common saying that it takes 10 years to make a good pilot, which is why so many river workers could probably give you a list of mentors. If it weren’t for Randy Chamness, Steve O’Ferrell, Brian Weibrecht, Chris Primm, Jack Kline, Dave Bryant, Charles Dicus, Charlie Stapleton, and David Penix, I wouldn’t be the Captain I am today.

My father was my best friend in the world and the mentor that I called daily for motivation, a confidence boost before difficult stretches of river, or for his unbelievable knowledge and skill navigating the river. I heard my whole life of how big the shoes were that I had to fill. He had the record with his company for the fastest advancement from deckhand to pilot until it was shattered by me. This was something he was immensely proud of me for, and I have long wished one of my brothers or maybe my children will shatter mine also. He wanted desperately to steer me himself, but I wanted to do everything, on my own, so that I felt like I earned it. In a way, he still did steer me because I constantly called him for help. He would never get mad or upset no matter how many times I called him. I was extremely lucky to have him as a father and mentor.

I’ll never forget the first time we passed each other on the river with me as a Captain of 40 loads at 26 years old. He was extremely proud of me and talked about how many years it took him before he was handling tows of that size. I have a flood of memories come through my head when any of the vessels he worked on meet me on the river. I do a pretty good imitation of how he said all the boat names too, which he was always clever about.

Photo of Dustin's dad in his signature overalls

It won’t be the same working on the river and not getting to step out and wave at him once a week or ride together months at a time. He left behind a lot of friends that all call me and knew how close we were and how much he helped me. They all offered to continue that in his place. He was loved by so many and we are having a Memorial Car Meet for him on April 10, 2021, in Monroe, Louisiana. He started on the river in March 1989, as soon as he realized my mom was pregnant with me. He died on his 32nd anniversary as a Towboater. My dad was also a mentor to my best friend, Terry Solomon, that I call my brother, who he also loved like a son, and my brother JohnDavid McBride. They both work on the river as well. Terry Solomon is a Pilot for Marquette Transportation and JohnDavid is a Deckhand for American Commercial Barge Lines.

Randy Chamness was my Port Captain and gave me every opportunity as soon as I earned it to advance to Pilot of 40 loads after just 4 years with the company. He is a very good friend of mine who I’ve kept in contact with even after leaving the company, and I will forever be thankful for him realizing that I could advance quickly if given the opportunity. He pulled strings for me, more than once, to continually promote me to bigger vessels, and Captain after less than a year as Pilot. Randy really goes above and beyond his job description and truly cares for each and every employee.

Charles Dicus was the Captain who took me on as his steersman and taught me most of what I know. I can still feel that ruler, slapping the back of my arm, every time I touch the sticks and don’t need too. He is the most graceful pilot I have ever seen. I will never forget when David Penix and I were in the wheelhouse and he said he was going to make the Louisville bridges, with 15 loads, and he could put the tow into the canal and inside the lock chamber without ever engaging an engine. We quickly ran down to eat our supper so we could come back and see him do it. He did it and made it appear that the river did it all for him. It was in that moment that I began praying every day that I’d be lucky enough to have him steer me. I will never forget all the things he drilled in my head. I will be making a bridge or lock and remember everything he ever said to me. For example, “Bubba, when you make this Chester Bridge, you don’t ever steer to the starboard until the two trees are in your port window.” I said, “Charlie! There are a thousand trees down that bank! How am I gonna know when the right two trees are in my port window?.” He said, “Bubba, just wait and you will know when the right two trees are in that window.” I kept going south and looking over until I saw it. There they were, two trees that stand out more than all the others and they even have the Chester Prison Upper Light on them, so you can see them at night. He is nearly retired now, but I think any Pilot or Captain could learn a lot from him.

“My best river buddy Dave” was what I called David Penix for years. He would steer me while I was off watch as a deckhand and gave me a really good start on becoming a Pilot. He is hard on himself so he used to always say, “I dunno if I can show you the right way to do this, but I can show you how to get out of sticky situations.” He really was packed full of knowledge on how to prevent accidents. I still say, you gotta make it look worse before it’s gonna get any better, just as I’m sure he still does. He was my best friend on the river and motivated me in times when I had worked long hours on the deck and had lost my motivation to drive while I could be sleeping.

Dave Bryant has become one of my closest friends who I’d trust with my life. I met him my first trip with 35 loads, when I steered for six weeks under Chris Primm, before being turned loose on the Lower Mississippi River. We continued a friendship mostly based on sharing knowledge about the river and how to navigate it. He’s absolutely one of the most humble people who’s extremely skilled as a Pilot and an even better person. Dave is the good ole country boy that will take anyone under his wing worth his time and help them in all aspects of life.

I steered most of my time on the Ohio, but when I went to become a pilot. There was more need at the time for Mississippi River Pilots so I was moved to the M/V Rickey Hughes to steer under Chris Primm. He really taught me how to run the river on radar alone, like the old-school pilots. The way I steer the Vicksburg bridge is still exactly the way he taught me by “coming off the point”. I’ll never forget looking at the chart, which he never looked at the entire time he made the bridge, and noticing he traced his same track line of the last several times he made the bridge. He has a way of handling a boat that is just artistic. I mean who can drive a boat, in the same exact spot, every time, without using something specific to constantly monitor his exact position? I do a pretty good imitation of his defense of why he never backs up at the Vicksburg Bridge. I hear him say it every time I head down on it. He’s the type of extremely intelligent person that Mark Twain would have written about. If everyone could ride just a week with Chris Primm, they’d be a better pilot.

Steve O’Ferrel has to be one of the most popular captains on the river. I swear it was like an extra chore, riding on the boat with him, just to keep up with all the names of people that I passed that told me to tell him they said hey. He can’t pass a boat without people stepping out to wave, and he’s always out there waving his hat around with that big goofy smile. He is a Captain for ADM Artco now, but he and Jack Kline fine-tuned my skills as a Pilot, so I could maneuver up to 40 loaded barges. I’d be surprised to know a watch ever went by that he didn’t ask God for a little help, haha! He is an excellent pilot, who’s very humble and doesn’t hesitate to say a little prayer when things get tricky. He was always willing to teach anyone, and is very good at it. It would be easy to get brownie points from him by him catching you reading your Bible.

I’d be willing to make any bet that the Pilot on the river with the most detailed bar book is Brian Weibrecht. He has spent thousands of hours hand drawing bars and making notes on the entire river system. I’d like to think every true Pilot can draw the river, by memory alone, but I bet he can tell you how many rocks they added to every dike while you were off and how much water it takes to run over any sandbar. He’s run short cuts on the river most men don’t have the courage to attempt. I learned so much from him about things like that. If he could somehow patent and sell his bar book, he would probably make millions and companies would make billions with the revenue increase of making more miles with less fuel burned.

The Maritime Industry is an excellent place for anyone to make a career. There are so many different ways to advance, and anyone can find a job that they enjoy doing. If you did everything correctly, you could be making $1000 or more a day, in just 3 years, without a college degree, as a Pilot. The industry is packed full of so many great people who become your second family, and the boat becomes your home away from home. The bond you form with the river will almost certainly keep you on it, or working in the industry, if you ever give it a shot. There is a saying that if you ever wear out a pair of boots on the river, you will be a river rat for life.

I have to end this with thanking Riverworks Discovery for asking me to do this and my favorite quote from Mark Twain about River Pilot’s.

“One cannot easily realize what a tremendous thing it is to know every trivial detail of twelve hundred miles of river and know it with absolute exactness. 

"If you will take the longest street in New York, and travel up and down it, conning its features patiently until you know every house and window and door and lamp-post and big and little sign by heart, and know them so accurately that you can instantly name the one you are abreast of when you are set down at random in that street in the middle of an inky black night, you will then have a tolerable notion of the amount and the exactness of a pilot's knowledge who carries the Mississippi River in his head.

"And then if you will go on until you know every street crossing, the character, size, and position of the crossing-stones, and the varying depth of mud in each of those numberless places, you will have some idea of what the pilot must know in order to keep a Mississippi steamer out of trouble. Next, if you will take half of the signs in that long street, and CHANGE THEIR PLACES once a month, and still manage to know their new positions accurately on dark nights, and keep up with these repeated changes without making any mistakes, you will understand what is required of a pilot's peerless memory by the fickle Mississippi.

"I think a pilot's memory is about the most wonderful thing in the world. To know the Old and New Testaments by heart, and be able to recite them glibly, forward or backward, or begin at random anywhere in the book and recite both ways and never trip or make a mistake, is no extravagant mass of knowledge, and no marvelous facility, compared to a pilot's massed knowledge of the Mississippi and his marvelous facility in the handling of it. I make this comparison deliberately, and believe I am not expanding the truth when I do it.

"Many will think my figure too strong, but pilots will not. “

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