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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And, of course, a ship's radars can always conk out at the worst possible moment—say, in heavy fog during fishing season.

Add to that the linguistic gumbo aboard most ships, and even a small problem can rapidly compound itself. "You may have six or seven different languages spoken on the same ship," Lewin said. "And when things are going wrong, everybody gets excited and reverts to their native language."

The pilots all have a story about the day they almost hung up their float coats for good. Last February, a storm front crossed the bar just as Dan Jordan was piloting a tanker out to sea. The waves got so powerful they started pushing the ship backward, forcing Jordan to execute a rare and risky turnaround on the bar before running the ship to shelter upriver. In 2005, another pilot was forced to run a bulk carrier called the Tilos onto the beach to avoid hitting a sport-fishing boat in the ship channel.

Lewin's most memorable day came five years ago. In a storm, the bar can push a ship to the point where it can no longer power its way through the water and begins spinning out of control, like a car on ice. When that happened to him, Lewin was aboard a ship inbound from China. "Brand-new ship, maiden voyage—a loaded tanker," he said. "And as I'm coming in across the bar, all of a sudden this swell was a little bigger than I'd anticipated. The swell's hitting my ship one way, and I want to turn the other way. I started making my turn early, but the ship doesn't wanna turn—in fact, I'm starting to turn the wrong way," he said. "So I put more rudder on it. I put the rudder all the way over—hard right rudder—and asked for all the rpms they could give me. And the ship still kept turning the other way. So I'm pointed right at the North Jetty, with a loaded tanker full of gasoline, going as fast as the ship will go. And I had no control. The sea was taking control of the ship."

Only after another swell took hold of the ship and providentially swung it back onto the channel's centerline did Lewin manage to squeak through. It may have been then that Lewin first picked up his Zen shtick.

"You're fighting nature at the same time you're using it to help you—but if you're not careful, it will take control," he said. "You develop an awful lot of respect for what the ocean can do to you. It does things you can't overpower."

All day long, the bar pilots have been helicoptering to and from ships as they work them in and out ahead of the storm. Once night falls, the weather rapidly deteriorates. Debbie Dempsey is on her way out aboard the Darya Raag, and at the Astoria airport the helicopter crew is readying to bring her in. Jeremy Youngquist, the helicopter pilot, buckles in and radios the Federal Aviation Administration for special clearance for a low-level flight below the descending clouds.

We lift off and wheel out into blackness. The Seahawk crosses the beach just 250 feet above the water, its five-million-candlepower searchlight stabbing through the rain and cloud.

Far out ahead, a vague presence beckons—the Darya Raag, safely across the bar with a load of petroleum coke bound for Australia, 23 days away. Within minutes, we're directly over the ship, and Wayne Simpson, the hoist operator, slides open the helicopter's rear door.

Below us, the ship is bucking through the water. Simpson sees that there is no way the helicopter can set down on deck. He prepares to pluck Dempsey off the ship with the hoist and bring her aboard the Seahawk. Up front, Youngquist and the co-pilot quickly run through a checklist to make sure the engines can spin out all the power they'll need to keep the helicopter safely suspended between the Darya Raag's heaving deck cranes.


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