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Bar pilots risk life and limb to guide ships across the "Graveyard of the Pacific." (Ed Kashi)

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

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At first light on a winter morning off the Oregon coast, the sky begins to luminesce the same creepy shade of doom you might expect at the Apocalypse. A gathering storm is chasing crab boats back to port, but the Chinook is running out to sea. Long as a locomotive and painted rubber-ducky yellow, it powers through the angry water with a thunderous boozh-boozh-babooozh! that sends explosions of spray hurtling past the pilothouse.

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"She's built stout," yells Ken Olson, the boat's operator, and I want to believe. It feels as if we're riding a mechanical bull through a dunk tank, and I'm fighting the odd urge to yodel and retch simultaneously.

But this is just the morning commute for Capt. Dan Jordan, who routinely works in all manner of awful weather to guide ships into and out of the Columbia River. The bar, where the river's mighty current collides with ocean swells, is one of the most treacherous harbor entrances on the planet. Winter storms whip the sea into a ship-hungry maelstrom that long ago earned this patch of water the nickname "Graveyard of the Pacific." Pilots guide ships at every major harbor around the world, but the bar pilots here have distinguished themselves by working a potent brand of maritime mojo in the face of what a 19th-century naval officer called "the terrors of the bar."

Jordan has a rendezvous with the Rainbow Wing, a car carrier running in ahead of the storm with $72 million worth of vehicles fresh off the assembly line in Japan. And time is tight. "It's a pretty big storm out there," Jordan says. The forecast calls for 24-foot seas.

When the Rainbow Wing finally materializes out of the scud, a dozen miles out to sea, it looks like a ten-story-tall anvil plowing through the water. White-over-blue and as long as two football fields, it has "Honda" emblazoned big and red across its ample stern. Partway down the length of the ship, dangling like an afterthought, is a rope boarding ladder.

Olson cranks the Chinook around to maneuver alongside. Jordan turns up his radio, zips into his float coat—a self-inflating survival jacket—and heads out on deck. The Chinook rises and falls beneath the pilot ladder, and gobbets of spray fly through the air. Jordan bides his time until he can feel the rhythm of the swells. The boat's deck rises once more, and he launches himself for the fourth rung. He scrambles up the ladder as another welter of water blasts over the pilot boat.

Once aboard the Rainbow Wing, Jordan negotiates his way between the rows of gleaming CR-Vs on the cargo decks to the bridge. He confers with the captain and gets a quick feel for the way the ship moves through the water. "On a ship like this," Jordan says, "you need to think way far in advance of where you are. It's a big piece of steel we're driving here. If you're not on top of things, once you get in trouble, it's too late to get out."

He heads the Rainbow Wing toward the bar. Huge rollers roar ashore on both sides of the river entrance as he begins finessing the ship between the rock jetties and down the ship channel. When the Rainbow Wing finally arrives in Portland some 100 miles upriver, 80 longshoremen will drive the 3,508 vehicles off the ship.

The Rainbow Wing is the first of several ships that Jordan and his fellow pilots will try to sneak into port before the full fury of the storm arrives. It's highly technical, difficult, wet, dangerous work, little known outside the fraternity of harbor pilots. Yet these men—and one woman—are a crucial link in the global supply chains that make possible the 21st century's just-in-time economy.

Some 2,000 vessels and 700 souls have been lost on the Columbia River bar. Disaster has been written all over the chart ever since there was one. When the navy sloop Peacock arrived to map the area in 1841, it promptly wrecked on one of the sand spits bracketing the river's mouth—and the treacherous landmark was named Peacock Spit.

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