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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Simpson's voice is a steady incantation over the intercom as he talks Youngquist in. With each roll the ship makes, the cranes swing uncomfortably close.

Dempsey, wearing a harness, stands ready at the port-side rail, and Simpson toggles the hoist control to send the hook down. The night is blacker than sin. Jet exhaust and rain are gusting through the cabin, and I half-expect the seven trumpets of Revelation to sound at any moment.

Then, in one quick motion, Dempsey clips into the hook and lifts off. A cascade washes over the deck beneath her. On her way up, she wraps one arm around the hook while she shields something beneath her other arm. As she scooches into the cabin and Simpson unclips her from the hook, Dempsey hands me the object under her arm—a box of green tea.

"Yeah," she says with a laugh, once she's plugged into the intercom. "The captain gave it to me on the way off the bridge."

Only then does Youngquist say that, from up front in the pilot's seat, he'd watched the wind and waves create a weird spinning genie hovering just off the ship's bow as Dempsey came up. As Youngquist wheels the helicopter around back toward shore, his voice comes crackling once more through the headsets: "It's gettin' funky out here."

The bar pilots take two more ships out that night. At around 5 in the morning, Capt. John Torjusen barely manages to get a bulk freighter called the Phoenix Island out, crawling across the bar as swells roll down the deck. Once the ship is safely in the open ocean, the helicopter crew hoists Torjusen aboard and flies him back to land.

For the next 19 hours, the bar is too dangerous to cross, and the order goes out to close it. Inbound ships gather off the coast, outbound ships remain in port, dockworkers and freight trains pause their frenzied handling of goods and the pilots leave the bar to itself.

Matt Jenkins is a contributing editor of Paonia, Colorado-based High Country News.
Ed Kashi's latest book of photographs is Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta.


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