Steering Ships Through a Treacherous Waterway

Braving storms with high seas a group of elite ship pilots steers tankers and freighters through the Columbia River

Bar pilots risk life and limb to guide ships across the "Graveyard of the Pacific." (Ed Kashi)
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The bar pilots trace their heritage to 1813 and a one-eyed Chinook Indian chief named Concomly, who would paddle a canoe out to guide ships across the bar in exchange for axes, blankets and fishhooks. The Columbia River Bar Pilots organization was officially chartered in 1846 in Astoria, Oregon, 12 miles upriver, where today Victorian houses still crowd the steep hills to the waterfront and the pilots' office sits amid seafood restaurants and boat-repair yards. In the group's 163 years, some two dozen pilots have died on the job. The most recent was 50-year-old Kevin Murray. In January 2006, Murray took a cargo ship out in a storm, and as he climbed down the ladder toward the Chinook, a swell caught the pilot boat and Murray tumbled into the water, was swept away and drowned.

The bar pilots' work follows a seasonal rhythm. Beginning around October, the fierce North Pacific weather system, spanning thousands of miles, starts bowling ugly storms straight into the river's mouth like well-greased strikes. "It's brutal," says Neal Nyberg, captain of a government dredge that keeps the ship channel clear of sand. "I watch the bar pilots in the summer and it's like: Oh, what a joke. But it's in the winter when they pay the bills. Those poor bastards are out here getting the s--- kicked out of them."

These days, pilots still often haul themselves up and down gnarly wood-and-rope boarding ladders that look as if they were scrounged from the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. But they've also kept pace with the times. Their two so-called "fast boats"—the 73-foot, 2,600-horsepower, waterjet-propelled Chinook and Columbia—can survive a 360-degree roll. The Columbia River bar pilots are also one of the few pilot groups to use a helicopter, an Italian-made Agusta dubbed the Seahawk that can fly sideways at 45 knots, the better to maneuver onto ships when the wind is—in the pilots' idiom—blowin' like stink. Speed, after all, is everything. Every minute that a Chinese-made Tickle Me Elmo or a Japanese car languishes offshore, somebody's losing money. An estimated 40 million tons of cargo, worth $23 billion, crossed the Columbia River Bar in 2008. Taken together, Portland and several smaller ports upriver are first in the nation for wheat and barley exports, and third for automobile imports.

Each of the 16 bar pilots has the authority to close the bar when conditions are too dangerous. Still, Jordan says, "When we shut down the bar for two days, trains are backed up all the way into the Midwest. And just like a traffic jam on the freeway, once you clear the wreck, it takes a long time for it to smooth out again."

"There's a lot of pressure on us to keep working all the time," says Gary Lewin, a bar pilot for 26 years.

The water glitters bright beneath a beam of sunlight that has pierced the clouds, and Jordan has shepherded the Rainbow Wing into the ship channel. Now, though, he seems to be skidding the 41,643-ton monster sideways. If you're on a fully loaded ship with no quick way off, "stemming the tide" like this can be unsettling—it occasionally makes captains gasp. But Jordan is deliberately crabbing the ship down the channel to compensate for the currents that are pushing against its bow and stern.

Ahead, the Astoria Bridge looms over the silvery gray water. Throughout the run in from the open ocean, Jordan has kept the Rainbow Wing moving at full sea speed. Now he orders the engines throttled down. Almost as soon as he does, a tug pushes off into the channel ahead of us, nosing an enormous barge full of wood chips toward Portland.

Jordan recognizes the boat and radios ahead: "Good morning. Just wanted to make sure you saw us sneakin' up behind you there."

"Yep," the captain says with a laugh. "Got you spotted back there. You're pretty hard to miss."

Jordan asks the Rainbow Wing's captain to post a crewman on the bow, so the ship can drop its anchors if things go screwy during the approach to the bridge. "All it takes is an engine failure," Jordan says, "and all of a sudden you've got a real exciting situation."


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