Cargo Ships On The Columbia

Chinook Observer | Oct. 24, 2012 12:35 a.m. | Updated: Oct. 24, 2012 7:35 a.m.

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Who hasn’t felt the pull of the sea? It lures us with hope for adventure, far away places and – let’s be honest – pirate treasure! For ocean-loving people, childhood dreams of stowing away on a huge ship and traveling to foreign shores are never far beneath the surface. Seeing a cruise ship, a cargo carrier or a fishing vessel heading out to sea stirs something deep inside – a yearning for open water and possibility.

If you stand anywhere on Astoria’s Riverwalk, you will often be rewarded with the sight of at least two or three cargo ships, tethered to their anchors and gently turning with the currents. Despite being a common sight, ships retain their power to fascinate. The size of small villages, they could hold anything from cars to Aztec gold. According to the Merchants Exchange of Portland’s 2011 Annual Report, the top five ship types are: bulk carriers, car carriers, barges, container carriers and tankers. The top five cargoes are: grain, autos, petroleum, logs and containers.

If you’re confused about how to tell ships apart, there are a few things to look for. Car carriers are very tall-sided. Some bulk carriers have cranes on deck. Barges are flat-bottomed and generally towed, container ships have shipping containers stacked on the decks, and tankers have pipes in lieu of hatches.

The ships seen in Astoria hail from all over the world. They are heading to or from ports in Portland and Rainer, and Vancouver, Kalama and Longview, Wash. Different carriers average different lengths of stay in port. Bulk carriers wait the longest, up to a week. Barges stay up to three days, and containers and tankers average two days. Car carriers move at the fastest rate, averaging only a day.

One of the best resources for “all things maritime” is Astoria resident and KMUN manager, Joanne Rideout. Since 2003, Rideout has been hosting “The Ship Report,” a broadcast that airs weekday mornings at 8:48 a.m. on all Coast Community Radio stations. It covers everything from local shipping traffic and marine weather conditions to interesting maritime-related stories. Recent topics have included the merits of the odd-looking hagfish and an incredible rescue in the South China Sea.

Although Rideout has always loved sailing and boats, it wasn’t until she moved to Astoria and began working at KMUN as a reporter 10 years ago that the idea for a ship radio show came to her.

“I started noticing the ships going by, since the station studios are up on the hill overlooking the Astoria waterfront,” Rideout says. “At the time the station had two Columbia River bar pilots who were programmers, and I started asking questions. I got the idea for the ‘Ship Report’ from Capt. Thron Riggs, who is a pilot and classical music programmer. He occasionally talked about ships when he was on the air. The ‘Ship Report’ evolved from that and from my ongoing avid interest in maritime topics. I still really enjoy doing the show even after all this time.”

For Rideout, “The Ship Report” is a labor of love. She produces it on a volunteer basis outside her paid duties as station manager. “I love the research – there are so many topics. I have never, at least so far, run out of ideas or things to share with listeners,” she says. “I also love ‘Ship Report’ listeners. They are very interesting people, many of them mariners themselves, who ask questions and bring up ideas that end up as topics and interviews for the show.”

From the Astoria Riverwalk to the top of the Astoria Column, there are many places in the area where you can watch ships coming from or going out to sea. The north jetty at Cape Disappointment is a wonderful ship-watching spot. Recent improvements have made it more walkable than it was in years past. One of the only places you can see both the North Head and Cape Disappointment lighthouses at once, the jetty is what Celtic mythology would call an “in-between place.” In-between places are places of transition where things are neither one thing nor the other. Balanced between lighthouses, between river and sea, land and shore, it is a truly magical place. At sunset, when the world is hovering between day and night, it seems like almost anything is possible as the dying sun lights a ship’s path to the horizon.

A good pair of binoculars might reveal the tiny pilot boat speeding back to port after seeing the huge carriers safely past the bar. Standing there at the edge of the earth watching behemoths turn into specks is an enchanting, almost bittersweet experience. They are heading into the realm of the ancient dragons, riding above the depths where some things still remain undiscovered.



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