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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"On a good day, I rarely look at the radar," she said. "That picture is in my head." It was not an exaggeration: one of the tests the bar pilots must pass to earn their license requires them to draw the nautical chart of the bar from memory. "You really know the water that you're working."

Despite all the jet-powered wizardry at their disposal, the pilots' stock in trade is still their feel for the water. They are drawn from the top ranks of ship captains. Many have more than three decades of sea experience, and all carry "unlimited master" licenses, which allow them to captain any ship of any kind, anywhere in the world.

Lewin, who's also the bar pilot group's administrator, was visiting San Francisco when we first met, as luck would have it, at a bar with a commanding view of the Bay Bridge, which the Cosco Busan would hit three months later. "What you learn from doing this a long time is that you never know what's going to happen," Lewin said. "But you always have an alternative. When you stop thinking ahead, you get in trouble."

He went on: "A big part of piloting is anticipating what the sea's going to do to you, and using nature's power to your advantage. You're trying to balance all these forces, and they're different every trip.

"It's Zen, I guess, in a funny sort of way. Too much yang, you're in trouble. Too much yin, same thing. If you get your yin and yang in balance, you make it."

Aboard the Ansac Orient, Dempsey described how, on a bad bar, heavy swells can lift a ship's propeller out of the water and stall the engine, leaving the vessel at the mercy of the currents. "Losing the engine on the bar—you don't wanna do that too often," she said. It has happened to her twice, and the standard operating procedure in that kind of emergency is pretty straightforward. "You kind of, um, hang on," she said, "while the crew tries to restart the engine." A ship can drop its anchors in an effort to hold fast in the channel, but bar-pilot wisdom is that the tactic will likely achieve little more than ripping the anchors off the ship.

A deeply loaded ship—or a short one that can't span two swells—can bottom out on the bar and break in half. And a tall-sided car carrier like the Rainbow Wing can surrender to high winds and veer out of the ship channel onto the shoals.

Late summer brings somewhat better weather and an entirely different hazard: fishing season, when the river clots up with small sport-fishing boats that are often oblivious to the container ships bearing down on them. "Basically," said Mike Glick, another pilot, "they'll risk their life for a stupid fish on the hook."

Summer can bring heavy fog, as well.

Which can mean heavy fog during fishing season.


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