River chaplains strengthen skills as pastoral first responders

Mar 28, 2019

By the Reverend Kempton Baldridge, Senior River Chaplain

Imagine yourself as the pilot of an 80’ harbor tug in one of the busiest and most treacherous stretches of the Lower Mississippi River.  The river is well above flood stage, and you are exhausted after a long day of “making tow,” using all of the vessel’s 900hp to assemble 30+ barges into a cohesive wired-together “tow” (with ‘tow’ used as a noun instead of a verb).

After turning over the watch to your relief and a midnight snack, you head to your cabin, strip off your clothes, crawl into your bunk, and drift off to a much-needed sleep. About 3 am, you are tossed from a sound sleep out of your bunk to the floor. But it’s not the floor you are on but the bulkhead (wall). You stagger for a moment, disoriented in the darkness and confusion. Groping in the dark for your radio or cellphone, you hear the engines racing uncontrollably. Grabbing hold of the sink to steady yourself, you slip in the icy cold water now rising all around you. Just then, you hear loud voices outside your cabin. As you struggle to stand, the door suddenly bursts open, and hands reaching in from the dark grabbing your arms, legs and torso, and people shouting, “C’mon!! C’mon!!” The hands belong to your crew, to whom you normally give the orders – but not now. The icy water keeps rising, and they keep yelling, “C’mon!! Hurry!!” 

Finally, the crew manages to lift and pull you from the vessel, out into the dark night and its freezing cold air. You’re squinting and can’t see where you are from the blindingly bright searchlights. Behind, you see your boat, tilted grotesquely on its side, held up by a single face wire. You hear the sound of someone’s teeth chattering despite all the yelling and commotion. Then you realize the chattering teeth are yours, as you stand barefoot in 30 degree temperatures, watching your vessel sink, wearing nothing but a pair of Jockey shorts. 

This entire episode took less than three minutes from start to finish.

So, how was your day at work?

A sinking vessel is just one of many hazards, hardships, difficulties and demands faced by professional mariners and for which Seamen’s Church Institute chaplains and chaplain associates must be both knowledgeable and well prepared.

Thankfully, awakening to find oneself trapped on a rapidly sinking towboat is an extremely rare occurrence. Rare, but such nightmarish events can and do happen. Only last year, three tugs from the same company sank in a single night (though all 11 crew were rescued). 

Tough times. Bad days. Nightmares. Hellscapes. And worse.

These “worst days” for mariners are also known as “Critical Incidents.” Chaplains are specially trained to know how to deal with critical incidents. We hope for the best, but are prepared for the worst.

What is a critical incident? It stems from an uncommon event likely to produce an emotional reaction, either now or later. Examples include:

  • Accidental death in the line of duty;
  • Death or grave injury to a child/loved one;
  • Exposure to human remains;
  • Shipmate’s suicide;
  • Natural disasters, extreme weather;
  • Threat of deadly force or violence;
  • Seeing or suffering gruesome injuries;
  • Acts of terrorism, man-made disasters;
  • Vessel collision/allision;
  • Vessel sinking/abandon ship;
  • Fire onboard vessel;
  • Mariner overboard

Preparing for mariners’ worst days—critical incidents—lies at the heart of SCI’s commitment to ensure its chaplains and chaplain associates are confident, capable and careful practitioners of Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM).

For the past twenty years, SCI river chaplains have responded faithfully to tragic events involved mariners wherever and whenever possible. If a mariner died onboard or a crew endured a life-threatening episode, chaplains trained in CISM techniques would go to support those affected, assess their needs, help them to connect with trustworthy support structures, and mitigate the worst effects from the trauma.

Recently, SCI chaplains have used CISM techniques in response to an armed attack by pirates, a fatal shipyard explosion, a deadly lightning strike, plus numerous suicides, drownings and traffic deaths. Although tragedy cannot be averted nor negated, the chaplains’ efforts are known for producing better outcomes for mariners and their loved ones than would otherwise be the case.

Here are some ways our chaplains have framed their roles:

"When I go up to the Wheelhouse, or down into the engine room, I know that I am moving into sacred ministry. It is just as profound as entering the Cathedral." Chaplain Dave Guilfoyle

“SCI chaplains go out to mariners on their worst days, standing by them amidst challenges and struggles in order to seek the best outcomes possible. Beginning in 2010, we began incorporating Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)—a well-established comprehensive, multi-component crisis intervention system—into our crisis response protocols. Utilizing CISM techniques—combined with our own training, education, experience and judgment—we assist mariners coping with traumatic loss, stressful events and critical incidents.”  Chaplain Kempton D. Baldridge, Fall 2016 Lookout 

"The chaplains of the Seamen's Church Institute are a great spiritual presence of service for the men and women who labor to support the commerce on our inward waterways and our vast ocean-going vessels. I feel more prepared today to meet the challenges of tomorrow with my brother and sister chaplains of the Seamen's Church Institute with the CISM training for those times of crisis on the river and in my our parish ministry."  The Rev Charles Uhlik

“This gathering of eleven Seamen’s Church chaplains attending CISM Training was absolutely invaluable. These past three days provided us an opportunity for the incredible networking and collaboration that took place. Our main charge was to complete the CISM training, laying the foundation for excellence we seek to maintain on the rivers, Gulf, or wherever else we encounter crises along our pathways. Finally, we had the occasion to be embraced and affirmed by Seamen’s Church leadership, (Chaplain David Rider), topping off what was a truly awesome experience together.” Pastor Robert L Green

“I am continually amazed at the exquisite spiritual quality of the people God sends us as new chaplain associates,”  Chaplain Don Reusch

“Seamen’s Church chaplains are not individuals doing ministry in isolation.  We are a chaplain force that is cultivated into spiritual power when we come together for training and fellowship.  The deeper our connection with one another, the more expansive and life-giving this ministry becomes.” Chaplain Tom Rhoades

“We Chaplain Associates never know when our phone will ring with news of a critical incident on a river boat. Going through CISM training helps us build our skillset so that we can respond helpfully.” The Rev Susan Sommer