Life on the river boasts many traditions, and one of the most treasured is that of the mentor. While the exact process or definition of a mentorship can be elusive, that time honored tradition of a more experienced crew member helping to guide a less experienced crew member over time.
Today’s Mentor Monday features Captain Michael Conklin sharing with us about his mentor, Captain Buddy Compton.
“Buddy Compton and I started working together in the late 1970’s. Buddy was a talented pilot and I was the first mate. Buddy and I hit it off right away because I loved making locks and bridges with him and he was kind of a cowboy. Buddy loved to drive in locks and through bridges in all stages of the river and that combination of skill and confidence made him fun to work with as the first mate. Our relationship was built on mutual respect and from that a lifelong friendship developed. Buddy was a natural teacher and mentor to everyone.
Buddy and I would work and live together for a month at a time for a few years but as time moved along he and I would have different vessel assignments which separated us for a few years. During the years we were on different boats Buddy was promoted to Captain and he was also enlisted as the head of a newly developed Steersman program of which I had been promoted into also. Again, Buddy and I would live together and work together for about two years while Buddy taught me the river, locks and bridges, and boat handling. I’m sure I gave Buddy a lot of gray hair.
I know his skill, humor, and personality held us together and on track even when things seemed out of reach. The second trip we made down the Ohio River in high water we were making the approach to Louisville harbor. The harbor has several bridges and a canal we would enter at the lower end. I had made the harbor before but the water was not as high. The first time we sailed right down the middle without any mistakes or stress, but this time Buddy did not like the way things were lining up. He was very quiet and standing at the top of the stairs with his arms crossed. When he finally thought I was lined up ok I asked him what was wrong. Buddy said he was going to go down and wake the pilot up so he could come up and watch me crash when we got to the canal because I was going eight miles an hour and the normal speed should have been three miles an hour. I shifted the engines to reverse full throttle and started praying the boat had the horse power to stop before we crashed in the canal. Luck, not skill, got me out of that bad mistake and we recouped and floated into the canal without a scratch. Buddy went off big time and he was so upset that he went downstairs and wrote a three page butt chewing claiming I almost killed him by giving him a heart attack.
Buddy would always ask when I was going to get in the middle of the channel and stay there. I’d say I’ve been in the middle all watch and he would rebuff me and say you haven’t been in the middle even by accident all watch. Another thing which stuck with me was at the end of our time together he would say don’t ever tell anybody I had anything to do with steering you. He was kidding that it would embarrass him. I have also said that to every steersman I have trained.
The last time I worked on a boat with Buddy was the trip he turned me loose as a pilot. I told him I wish I knew a way to repay him for the education and skills he had given me. His response was you have to mentor someone else when the time is right. When the opportunity to mentor a young man came my way I gave as good as I got which was the highlight of my career.
Buddy went on to be the Port Captain for the company we worked for and later became a teacher at the Seaman Church Institute. Almost every year I would attend the Seaman Church Institute where he taught several classes until his death. I can still hear his voice in my head when I am making locks and bridges going up and down the river and I still miss him very much.”
Capt. Micheal Conklin is currently a semi-retired towboat Captain from Ingram Barge Company after 35 years of service. He started his career in high school in the summer months working for a local tugboat company. After three years, he acquired his first mate’s license and operator of uninspected towing vessels license. Riverworks Discovery asked him to write a few words about one of the mentors that meant a lot to him throughout his career.
Sharing your journey may encourage others to follow your lead by walking in your footsteps or stepping up and becoming a mentor to another crew member wishing to advance. If you are interested in sharing your own personal experiences of mentoring with RiverWorks Discovery contact us so that we can use them in our new feature Mentor Monday. We can share some thoughts to get you started!