HAMMOND — “It is like a well-choreographed dance,” deckhand Mike Hughes says.
The dance partners he talks about are the drab red, 623-foot long South Korean cargo ship STX Begonia and the brilliant orange, 72-foot pilot boat Columbia. The dance floor is the sea that undulates eight feet every seven seconds with a two-foot wind chop this July 5. The stage is set in 30 fathoms of water near the CR Buoy seven miles west of the mouth of the Columbia River, and smack-dab in the middle of the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” A misstep in this intricate dance has in the past been fatal.
“Today is fairly routine but there is never a day that is entirely routine,” boat operator Frank Shucka says as he and Hughes prepare to deposit two bar pilots onto a pair of inbound ships coming from South Korea. Shucka and Hughes, Ilwaco High School graduates in 1995, are working for Columbia River Bar Pilots (CRBP) out of Astoria.
Crossing the bar
Although the weather and ocean conditions are about as good as it gets July 5, the procedure is a hazardous one that is performed day or night, year around and in all kinds of weather by CRBP and bar and river pilots.
Ships alert CRBP at least 12 hours in advance of their intentions of crossing the bar. At least a half hour before an incoming ship reaches the CR Buoy or outgoing ships go under the Astoria-Megler Bridge, one of five boat operators from CRBP and one of its four deckhands takes either the Columbia or its sister pilot boat, the canary yellow Chinook to meet the ship.
CRBP boats take from one to six bar pilots who will board ships and guide vessels ranging in size from 1,000-foot cruise ships to 100-foot foreign commercial fishing boats safely across the bar. Each bar pilot may also choose to use CRBP’s helicopter unless visibility is poor due to fog.
On this day, bar pilots John Torjosen and Phil Matteo take the pilot boat to meet the 553-foot cargo ship Great Success. Matteo has five years as a bar pilot under his belt and was a ship captain for 13 years, while Torjosen has 12 years of experience as a bar pilot and 15 as a ship captain. Both are 50ish and dressed casually as if going shopping with their wives.
“Being a bar pilot is more hazardous than being a ship’s captain, but you get to be home at night rather than being at sea for four months and you don’t have to deal with issues with your crew. We work 15 days on and 15 days off and once a year half of our time off we are on call if it gets really busy,” Matteo explains. They lean back in plush seats that would go well in a corporate board room, but these chairs are designed to take the wildest of rides (the pilot boats are self-righting should they overturn).
The maneuver begings
The Columbia travels nearly 35 miles per hour towards the Great Success that is incoming at about 25 miles per hour, so the gap quickly closes. Shucka has informed the ship’s captain he wants to transfer Matteo on the south side to avoid the ocean swell and 10-knot wind as much as possible.
The ship’s ladder is lowered and Shucka deftly swings the Columbia around to the east. He has three lives in his hands at this moment. Hughes is about to “walk to work” some 18 yards on a three-foot wide slippery deck with no outside railing. He and the bar pilot will be dangling inches from a ship cruising by with the force of three dozen 16-wheeler trucks.
“Going out,” Hughes announces, leaving the cabin with the quiet confidence of one going for a coffee break. He and Matteo clamp their safety belts to a strip along the side of the vessel. A handrail is just above and on the inside of the deck and not outside as on most other vessels. There is nothing between the pilot boat and the ocean, its waters a step way.
Both vessels slow to 12 knots and then gently bump as half a dozen foreign crewmen look over the side of their ship, some 40 feet above, and wave to the camera. The ship glides by with the punch of a 100-car freight train, even as 22.8 feet of its hull is slicing below the waves. Eerily, there is no sound except a steady hiss of water being tamed and parted.
Shucka eases back on the controls and soon Matteo, who now only holds a hawser rope in his left hand, reaches for the rickety ladder with his right. Still strapped to the boat, Hughes has handed him the hawser and now is positioned behind Matteo like a shortstop ready to scoop a sinking line drive.
“It is always easier to jump down to a rung on the ladder,” Torjosen has said. With the ease of someone getting off a department store escalator, Matteo now steps onto the ladder. Then he scurries up the first few wooden rungs to avoid the possibility of the pilot boat pinning him against the ship. Hughes signals “Pilot away” and Shucka takes a smooth turn to port side.
“Not all of the ship’s ladders are in the best of shape. They are all supposed to have rungs of equal distance from eight to 14 inches apart, but not all are like that,” Matteo had explained. Upon reaching the deck of the ship that he will guide 15 miles eastward to the Astoria Bridge, he smiles, giving a quick wave and a thumbs-up. Matteo does not appear to even be out of breath after ascending the 40 feet to the deck of the empty in-bound ship.
Hughes enters the cabin of the Columbia, announces, “All inside” and takes off his flotation jacket. He takes a bottle of water from the refrigerator and hands one to Shucka, who has already made radio contact with the STX Begonia and is jetting toward it. Torjosen looks at one of the dozen electronic devises on board as if he is checking the daily sports scores. Moments before he has talked about losing two bar pilots, one during a night transfer in a storm half a dozen years ago. Torjosen knows the danger and the drill. He is familiar with the dance.
“The ship captains are all cooperative, but sometimes language barriers can be difficult,” Torjosen relates. Then he puts on his safety belt and pulls on his flotation coat, giving the zipper a reassuring final tug. “Jumping into the openings in the sides of cruise ships can be a challenge because it always seems like I’m going to hit my head. For me, they are the most tricky.”
Then he leaves the cabin with Hughes and at 1:29 p.m. it is “Going out.” At 1:35 p.m. Hughes gives the “All inside” as the operation has gone off with professional precision. By the time Torjosen has clambered up the often-used ladder and mounted a medal stairway near the top of STX Begonia’s side, his figure is already getting smaller. Shucka has pushed the control levers forward on the twin 1,410 BHP diesel engines to head the Columbia for home at a comfortable 25 knots. “Safety first,” Hughes had said prior to the trip and he, the bar pilots and Shucka have followed that mantra faithfully, if without fanfare.
Shucka follows the “red line” of marker buoys east towards Hammond. Once he slows for a 15-foot sneaker wave in the Pacific and later inside the South Jetty he radios the F/V Perseverance that he will work inside in order to avoid any confusion as the out-bound vessel approaches.
At 2:06 p.m. the Columbia nestles up to the dock in Hammond and Hughes steps off board to tie up. He and Shucka will later take the pilot boat to Astoria to top off the 1,500-gallon fuel tank.
For now, the Columbia sits placidly tethered to the dock and at rest with its twin, the Chinook. It is almost unfathomable to realize that just minutes before a ship twice the length of a football field and with the power to inexorably move a mountain of goods from one continent to the next has zipped by within inches of her starboard side.
A dancing partner has never been more daunting than those two ships and getting each and every step just right never less routine, no matter how easy the pros make it look to be “All inside.”