Before Roy Vance II could navigate the waters of the Mississippi as a river pilot, he had to navigate the twists and turns of the system that would lead him to a maritime career.
“I’ve been a river pilot for five years now, and I’d have to say the road to get here was a little different than what I hear from everyone else,” said Vance, a Crescent River Port Pilot.
To help others find their way, Vance became involved with the Open Waters initiative, a partnership launched in January between the Crescent River Port Pilots and the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots to give minorities access to resources and opportunities in the maritime industry.
“If you look around the maritime industry, there are not a lot of people that look like me,” Vance said. “We hope that Open Waters will connect minorities to an industry that they might have never heard of.”
Vance’s maritime aspirations began during his childhood, when he developed a fascination with the river.
“I would spend hours playing behind the levee, watching the flow of the river and watching the tugs move barges around,” he said. “I often wondered what was in those barges, and at the time, I thought those little boats went all over the world.”
During college, Vance’s father helped him get part-time work building railroads, or as a longshoreman at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge.
Life took Vance in a different direction, though. After becoming a father and getting married, Vance became a truck driver to support his family.
Eventually, he felt called back to the river.
“That old saying came to me: ‘Find something you wouldn’t mind doing, and you’ll feel like you’ve never worked a day in your life.’ And so at that time, I wanted to work on a push boat,” he said.
Vance applied to every push boat and tug company within driving distance of Baton Rouge, but each one told him the same thing.
“They said we can’t hire you because you don’t have any experience. My thoughts were I can’t get any experience if no one is willing to hire me,” he said.
By chance, Vance’s father was working on the dock one day as a ship arrived.
“As the pilot gets off, my dad asks, ‘How do you get a job driving ships? My son wants to drive boats on the river.’ The pilot replied, ‘Tell your son to go to Texas A&M, and maybe he can become a pilot one day.’ That pilot just so happened to be Capt. Kelvin Boston, the first African-American river pilot on the Mississippi,” Vance said.
Vance followed that advice and applied to the university’s maritime academy. Five years after graduating, he was elected to the Crescent River Port Pilots Association in 2017 as an apprentice pilot.
Now, Vance wants others to experience the same career success.
“People rarely look for jobs in the maritime industry because no one pays attention to what goes on behind the levees,” he said. “But there are long-term careers — not jobs — there.”
Editor’s Note: This is one of 12 profiles of industry professionals published in the 2022-23 Book of Lists.