Mentoring is a longstanding tradition of the river. It is best defined as the relationship between one experienced and one inexperienced crew member; to teach, train, and share knowledge of a specific skill. Twenty-one-year-old Sam Clemens found a mentor in Captain Horace Bixby, albeit Clemens paid Capt. Bixby $500 for his mentorship in taking on the young cub pilot. This special relationship is not limited to the pilothouse. Engineers, mates, and shore-based employees all find their “Capt. Bixby” to nurture their career.
Today’s Mentor Monday features Marquette Capt. John Vaughn telling us about his mentor, Capt. Dennis Trone.
"I cannot begin to imagine how ridiculous that 9-year kid sounded when he told Captain Dennis Trone that he planned on working on the Str. Julia Belle Swain for the rest of his life. Whether the Captain really held an interest in the youth’s desire to become a steamboat man or only exploited the eagerness to steer for him in true Tom Sawyer fence painting fashion, no one will ever know. The truth, they say, is most likely found in between.
Capt. Fred Way said that “Pilotin’ Comes Natural.” I was a tough study, prompting Capt. Trone at one point to threaten/promise “I’ll make a pilot out of you, even if it kills you.” I understood Sam Clemens’ frustration when he wondered how a man could ever expect to learn the river by day, by night, in high water, in low water, up bound and down bound. My Captain’s patience, determination, and belief in me eventually paid off.
There comes a time in every apprenticeship when the cub pilot begins to understand what to do next, albeit with a slight hesitation between recognition and action. This is where the Captain interjects a stinging steering order or throttle reminder. The cub pilot will answer, “I was just about to do that,” becoming irritated and wondering why the old man won’t ever let up. Capt. Trone’s comments and unannounced pilothouse visits eventually became less frequent. He would visit if I had a question and one time, he even brought me a coffee.
And then . . . the moment when we both realized he might have taught me something. A stiff, on shore breeze had blown up before departure. This required an interesting bit of boat handling that, to a layman, might have looked exciting. Equally excited was my mentor, who had been on the main deck. Mid maneuver I heard his footsteps, two at a time, pausing at the landings, up all three flights and arriving in the pilot house. Door slams in the wind, he catches his breath, then sternly asks “Do you know how far the stern was off the bank?” I didn’t even look at him and as calmly as I could I said, “mmm, about 80 feet.” He looked at me, looked out the window, back at me and said, “You ought to be !?$# sure about everything from know on!” He turned around and departed, door slamming, two steps at a time, back to the main deck.
He is still the voice in the back of my head when I am on watch. He taught me what it means to be the master of a vessel, but it has taken long after we took different courses to understand the title. Surprisingly, boat handling is only a small part. The master must have confidence, class, and humility. The master must respect the crew, understand the vessel’s purpose, honor the traditions, and love of the River. This lesson, this gift, I’ll never be able to repay. Capt. Trone was bigger than life. Annapolis graduate, Navy ship officer, airplane pilot, boat builder, naval architect, excursion boat owner, steamboat captain, historian, showman, and my friend.
Everyone in all the crews loved him. We all remember his laugh. It was unique, honest, and contagious. We were hired as a crew but sailed as family. What began with bringing him coffee in the pilot house, in exchange for time at the wheel of a real sternwheel steamboat, became a lifelong adventure."
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 Mentoring Monday. We can share some thoughts to get you started!