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Elite Pilots Guide Ships Over Perilous Bar

Daily Astorian

Shane Powell

A thin rope ladder dangles over the edge of the mighty Hanjin Marseilles.

When Robert Johnson grabs on to its lowest rung, he appears poised to scale a giant steel building.

But one glance at the frothy swirling water below, and there’s no question where this long-time shipping veteran is headed.

Within minutes, he’ll be piloting the mammoth freighter out of one of the most dangerous river openings in the world into the first few miles of a journey that will lead to Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and then full-circle to Portland again.

Perhaps Johnson will be the one who greets and guides the ship back into the Columbia River on its return. But in between, he’ll have repeated the job many times over for various other vessels.

Johnson is one of fewer than 20 people qualified to navigate cargo ships – often more than three football fields long – over the Columbia River bar.

It’s a task never lacking in responsibility: Only the mouth of China’s Yangtze River is reputed to be a more perilous crossing.

But as the audience of the Columbia Forum learned Tuesday from Capts. Johnson and Wayne Stolz, Columbia River Bar Pilots are some of the best trained and best equipped ship navigators in the world.


For some 150 years, the essential function of a bar pilot – the first of who were Native Americans in canoes on the Hudson River – has been to provide local knowledge and navigation to ships traversing river bars.

Today, their education and skill are highly notable.

Aside from serving a minimum of two years as a ship master, usually graduating from a maritime academy and spending many more years at sea, bar pilots are well versed in everything local: Tides, currents, weather, shipping traffic and properties of the navigation channel.

“It’s a job that requires constant vigilance,” Johnson said, adding that pilots are trained to immediately recognize any irregularities in a boat’s operation or its surrounding environment.

“We’re always thinking two to three miles ahead … and we’re constantly countering the weather before we even get to the weather.”

Simply navigating a 100-foot wide ship in a 600-foot shipping channel can be a nerve-wracking experience, he said. But the weather presents the largest challenge, especially in the winter.

When fog or heavy wind prevents the use of their helicopter, pilots must be delivered to ships by boat. In rough seas, with 30-foot waves sloshing over the bar, reaching a ship can be both time consuming and obviously dangerous.

Yet it only gets worse the further they go.

When pilots finally reach incoming ships on the ocean, they have to know how to move with the waves. The small vessel must maneuver and settle itself properly alongside the freighter. Then the boarding pilot has to snag a ladder that hangs and sways over the side of the ship. On the largest ships, the ladder stretches upward at least 60 feet.

The pilots do fall in once in a great while, but, at least in recent years, no one has been lost to sea. Thanks to a high priority placed on safety measures, a few broken bones and bumped heads are all that have plagued the bar pilots in more than a decade.

Today, the pilots operate with 10 people on two rotating shifts, each lasting 22 days. The crew handles somewhere between 10 and 15 ships per day.

Last year, they navigated about 3,800 ships across the bar – down by about 15 percent this year as a result of faltering foreign economies, Johnson explained.


Less than 40 years ago, bar pilots on the Columbia River were delivered to ships using row boats.

Since then, everything – and nothing – has changed, according to Stolz.

The objectives of the bar pilots, he said, remain the same: Safety, efficiency and minimizing delays to incoming or outgoing ship.

What has changed, he added, is the technology.

In 1967, the pilots began using the “Peacock” – their first motorized boat, which deployed a smaller boat from its back end to actually haul the pilot to the waiting ship.

“Nothing changed the face of the Columbia River more dramatically than that,” Stolz said. “The boat allowed pilots to transit an otherwise impassable bar.

“The river remained open for a higher percentage of time, and the upriver ports were able to attract much more shipping business.”

In the mid ’70s, the bar pilots invested in their second motorboat, the “Columbia.” The boat was notable for holding many pilots at a time for long periods. It was also the first boat designed to be positioned directly alongside the ship.

Then in 1999, following years of tests, the next “radical” change for the bar pilots arrived in the form of a helicopter transport system. It was the first of its kind to be used in the United States.

By landing a pilot directly on deck within 15 minutes of taking off, the helicopter was a revolutionary change for the bar pilots. Today it’s used by the pilots for about 70 percent of their journeys.

Thanks to the helicopter, Stolz said, the bar pilots’ jobs are considerably safer and enormously more efficient. They’re now able to serve ships more quickly without requiring the vessel to even slow down.

That means time and money savings to the pilots, and on a larger scale, to the shippers. “Thirty minutes can be a difference of many thousands of dollars (to shippers),” Stolz said.

“Also, by allowing the pilots to board further offshore, they’re drastically reducing the chance of a maritime disaster,” Stolz said. And further still, “we can put a pilot on or remove personnel from a ship that’s having mechanical problems.”

As an example, he noted last Thanksgiving’s near-disaster with the Atigun Pass – a decommissioned oil tanker that broke its tow line and began drifting toward Willapa Bay with 50,000 gallons of fuel on board. Helicopter pilots put workers and spare parts aboard, averting a potential disaster which may have been similar to the New Carissa accident in 1999.

But helicopters still haven’t replaced the conventional motor boat. As Stolz conveyed to the Columbia Forum, the bar pilots’ glitzy new boat – the “Chinook” – is perhaps equally exciting as the helicopters in terms of new technology.

The quest to find this perfect boat, now employed on days where weather prohibits the use of a helicopter, took the pilots around the world. The final product was a $3 million Dutch boat that is self-righting and, with 2,600 horsepowered jets that can “empty an Olympic-sized swimming pool in 12 seconds,” considerably faster than the Columbia.

Stolz added, of course, that it’s also safer.

“When you put your life on the line, you have to have a good piece of equipment,” he said.

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