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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Things don't go wrong often—but when they do, they tend to do so in rather spectacular fashion. In November 2007, a bar pilot in San Francisco, relying primarily on electronic charts and radar, attempted to maneuver the container ship Cosco Busan beneath the Bay Bridge in heavy fog. The 901-foot ship sideswiped the base of a tower, ripped a 160-foot-long gash in its fuel tank and bled nearly 58,000 gallons of fuel oil into the bay. The pilot, who allegedly had failed to disclose that he was taking medications that could impair his performance, faces a federal criminal trial this spring for negligence and violating environmental laws.

The incident seems to be on Jordan's mind as he lines up the Rainbow Wing to pass beneath the Astoria Bridge. The day before, he had brought one of the Cosco Busan's sister ships across the bar. "That's one of the hazards of these electronic charts," Jordan says. Too much faith in them can lead to what he calls an electronic-assisted collision.

Even as he says this, though, the Rainbow Wing glides smoothly under the bridge. Just beyond it, Jordan will turn the ship over to a river pilot, who will guide it to Portland.

The weak dollar had touched off a global run on American wheat. The freighter Ansac Orient was headed in for a load to take to South Korea. At 1:35 on a rainy morning, Capt. Debbie Dempsey, a gruff New Englander and the sole female Columbia River bar pilot, helicoptered onto the Ansac Orient's water-washed deck as the ship moved through heaving seas. Dempsey jumped out, and the Seahawk lifted off—vortexes spinning off its rotors like smoke—shrieking into the darkness back to the Astoria airport.

Pilots are never quite sure what they'll find when they climb aboard a ship. ("It's like when you rent a car," Jordan had said. "How do you find the radio station you want? How do you turn the headlights on?") After Dempsey made her way onto the darkened bridge, she ran the captain through a series of questions like a paramedic sizing up a patient: "Engine's good? Anchors? What's your draft, cap'n?"

She switched the radios to the frequencies used in the area, beeped through an electronic chart display and then moved to the radar. "There we go," she said after configuring the display to her satisfaction. "All right."

For the next hour, Dempsey settled into a ship-handling groove. The rhythmic knock of the ship's windshield wipers punctuated what sounded like a liturgy as she gave course orders and the helmsman, standing at the wheel, acknowledged them.

"Zero eight zero, please."

"Zero eight zero."

The world outside the bridge windows was incredibly dark. I mentioned that it felt as if we were steaming straight into a black hole. Dempsey laughed and said, "It can be real black." On the radar, whitecaps showed up as glimmering gold nebulae. Dempsey dialed down the contrast until we could make out the line of buoys marking the ship channel; beyond them lay the jetties and the river entrance.


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