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Dangerous Mission: Harbor Pilots Brave Some of the Roughest Water in the World


January 3, 2001
Julie Galle

The point where Oregon’s powerful Columbia River spills into the Pacific Ocean can become a navigational nightmare for ship pilots, as huge ocean swells crash into a sand bar at the entrance of the river. Add heavy rain, high wind or low visibility to those rough conditions, and you get a situation for which many mariners are ill-equipped.

That’s where the Columbia River Bar pilots come in. They have the specialized knowledge to bring ships as long as 1,200 feet through the risky waterway.

The danger

Up to a million cubic feet of water rushes from the Columbia River into the Pacific Ocean every second.

“It’s a very huge impact with the swells because of the large current outbound and the force of the swells coming inbound,” explains Columbia River Bar pilot, Capt. Michael Dillon.

Incoming ocean swells can double in size when they enter the Columbia River. That’s because they have to cross the Columbia River Bar, a four-mile stretch of sand that has built up at the river’s mouth.

“Swells get upward to 23 to 24 feet, sometimes even greater,” explains Gary Lewen, a Columbia River Bar pilot.

“The swells break as they hit the river. They lose their backs and are no longer rounded. They become almost like a shelf, like a cliff. And it becomes a monster to handle sometimes,” he said.

A safe passage

The Columbia River Bar pilots are considered specialists who can utilize their unique knowledge of the Oregon waterway that ships’ captains may not have. That’s why they climb aboard ships to help them enter or exit the river.

“Current conditions change by the hour, sands build up, there may be a shoal area that’s not there one day and is there the next day. And the pilots are familiar with that on a day by day basis,” says Lewen.

“Once we get aboard the vessel, we effectively take command of that vessel. It’s kind of a hands-off operation. The pilot doesn’t touch anything other than the radar and the radios,” said Lewen. “The pilot’s job is not to steer, but to tell the helmsman how to steer or what to steer,” he added.

It is the responsibility of Columbia River Bar pilots to keep freighters within the boundaries of a narrow shipping channel. During rough conditions, just one mistake could cause a ship to run aground. Or worse, a ship could break in half and sink.

Treacherous weather

Severe weather is not uncommon at the mouth of the Columbia River, especially in the winter, when strong low-pressure systems bring extreme weather. Incoming storms can turn the enormous responsibility of Columbia River Bar pilots into a heavy challenge.

“A large vessel, which is almost like the Empire State building on its side, appears to be indestructible. But, the ocean’s an extremely powerful force, and it can actually wipe things off the deck. It knocks containers off, we’ve had ships come in with containers just hanging off the side of it just barely attached to the vessel anymore,” explained Lewen.

In addition to churning ocean waters higher than usual, storms can also produce blinding rain and fierce winds that have blown pilots into the raging waters.

“We’ve had numerous occasions where the pilot boat has actually come up with such force as to actually break the pilot’s legs,” said Lewen.

River Bar pilots enter the oceangoing vessels from smaller pilot boats that pull alongside the larger ships. Then, the pilots climb rope ladders onto the ships.

“We’ve had the pilot boat actually catch the pilot’s foot between the ship and the boat, and break the pilot’s foot.”

But a broken foot is not the only concern during the boarding process.

“When a pilot goes overboard, the first thing to think about is to be hit by the propeller, and that can of course, slice you in two. And that’s the immediate thing. Once you are out of that danger, then it’s drowning. Hypothermia and drowning if you are not found immediately,” said Captain Kell Aursland, Columbia River Bar pilot.

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