The Modern Day Columbia River – Part Four
The mighty Columbia River surges into the Pacific Ocean at a long and narrow passage known as the Bar. The sea floor below is littered with the debris of thousands of ships.
This treacherous crossing is crucial for international commerce to and from the northwest.
In this final installment of our Columbia River series, correspondent Elizabeth Wynne Johnson introduces us to an elite team of master seamen. They bear the dangerous and high-stakes responsibility of guiding ships safely past ‘the graveyard of the Pacific.’
No other port in the world matches the Columbia River Bar’s kaleidoscope of gale force winds, powerful opposing currents, and 40-foot ocean swells.
Waves that can lift up a giant container ship and point it 60 degrees off-course. Vessels carrying human life and billions of dollars’ worth of cargo face this daunting passage every day. Shipping companies fork over hefty fees to have the judgment and expertise of a Bar Pilot on board.
Robert Johnson: "The reason that all this happens is that Oregon, WA, the northwest and as far as the Midwest depend upon the Columbia River for international trade."
Captain Robert Johnson is a Columbia River Bar Pilot. In the darkness before dawn, he leaps from a small boat onto a rope ladder. And shimmies up a wall of steel to board this immense cargo ship headed out to sea.
Amb: "Ocean Coral is outbound to buoy 14. Ocean Coral"
Johnson takes his place on the bridge of the ship alongside the captain. His job: to tell the crew how to navigate the challenge ahead.
Robert Johnson: "The ship is just starting to rock a little bit now. The cargo she has in her is low… stiff… She’s says ‘I’m back out in my ocean now. I’ll show you."
Becoming a Columbia River Bar Pilot represents the epitome of a seafaring career. Fifteen men and one woman selected and licensed by the state of Oregon. It takes decades to amass the experience needed to maneuver a commercial vessel in these conditions.
Robert Johnson: "We are at times on the very edge of what a ship can take and still survive. You can bend steel with water if you hit it hard enough."
Every bar pilot has a story to tell. And a colorful way to tell it.
Thron Riggs: "What’s the difference between a sea story and a fairy tale? A fairy tale starts, ‘Once upon a time.’ A sea story starts, ‘This ain’t no sh-’ [ship horn blows]."
That’s veteran bar pilot Thron Riggs. He has a good one about a dog of a ship with a dog of a captain on board. As the outbound vessel began to plow into the ocean swells, Riggs gave the standard instruction to clear the decks. The chief mate was still on the bow trying to secure the anchor in the darkness. The captain was screaming orders
over the radio.
Thron Riggs: "suddenly sparks and I knew exactly what happened…"
The Indian chief mate had misunderstood his Greek captain’s instructions and dropped anchor.
Thron Riggs: "arguing with the captain re full ahead… ‘WE WILL DIE!’"
The captain backed down. Nobody died. In fact, the most dangerous part of the job for the pilot is getting on and off ships when they’re out in the churning ocean.
One night some years back, Riggs was dangling off the side of a carrier on the rope ladder. Waiting for the right moment to leap for the little pilot boat rising and falling alongside. His timing was off.
Thron Riggs: "I jumped for the boat, and the boat took a lurch away from the ship right as I jumped. And, um, I ended up in the water. All I was thinking was, Do they see me?? It was midnight in December. The weather
He got partially sucked under the stern of the ship but managed to avoid the giant propeller.
Thron Riggs: "I could either let it get to me and I’d have to retire, or…I knew this was a risk, could happen…here it is, it’s happened. I got through it. Keep going."
Despite the inherent danger of these daily ocean transfers, the Columbia River Bar Pilots went a long time without losing anyone. No pilot killed on the job since 1973. But in January of this year, it happened.
Just like Riggs, 50-year-old Captain Kevin Murray fell into rough seas during a nighttime transfer. His body washed up on a Washington beach two days later.
That was a blow. But it won’t stop river-borne commerce and the pilots who make it possible, any more than the ocean’s waves could stop the Mighty Columbia.
Amb. Thron Riggs: "This is motor vessel [unintelligible] outbound for sea…."