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Crossing the Bar

A sailor tackles crossing the notorious Columbia River bar, from history's point of view.

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Story by Robert Olds

The entrance to the Columbia River is reputed to be one of the most dangerous in the world. On May 12, 1792, though, Captain Robert Gray found crossing the bar to be anything but dangerous.

"This day saw the appearance of a spacious harbour abrest the Ship, haul'd our wind for itt, observ'd two sand bars making off, with a passage between them to a fine river," wrote John Boit, a fifth mate on Columbia Rediviva. The captain credited with "discovering" the Columbia River made it seem like a day sail.

Nineteen years later, Captain Jonathan Thorn added a tragic chapter to the lore. Crossing the bar on the Tonquin, he encountered the kind of weather that has earned the bar its notorious reputation.

"The aspect of the coast was wild and dangerous, and for some time, the ship lay-to, until the captain could satisfy himself that it was the entrance of the river," according to Alexander Ross, a member of the business enterprise sent by John Jacob Astor to establish a fur trading empire, and recorded in Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813.

Eight men sent out in small boats to locate the channel died.

*       *       *

Boarding the Ship

A pilot boat brings the river pilot, who climbs a ladder to reach the deck.

Having sailed on the Columbia and its tributaries for 21 years, I became fascinated with the river's history and lore, especially the wild stories about crossing the bar during the worst weather, when stormy south winds and huge swells clashed with ebb currents. I decided to investigate its reputation. I met with Jerry Ostermiller, president of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, whom I have heard referred to, in a friendly way, as "the mouth of the river" because of his love and knowledge of the subject.

According to Ostermiller, there is no formal rating system for bars. "It's just word-of-mouth, and the Columbia is generally considered the second most dangerous bar in the world, behind the Yangtze."

One day in August of last year I had the chance to find out for myself. By a stroke of luck, I wound up on the navigation bridge of Tinos, a 490-foot bulk grain ship traveling from Seattle to Kalama, Washington.

My adventure began with a visit to the offices of the Columbia Bar Pilots to ask about the possibility of accompanying a pilot to an incoming ship to take photographs for a story I was working on. Captain Barry Barrett quickly said yes, but added that I’d also have to obtain the permission of Arctic Air Service at the Warrenton airport because most pilots are transported by helicopter. Pilot Michael Holtsclaw granted permission, but explained that I'd have to be trained on using the hoist, a cable mechanism that lowers pilots to ships that have no landing pad.

Wheelhouse Ladder

I underwent the training and was ready to go. Captain Charles Lane, the bar pilot, arrived shortly before we were scheduled to take off. I asked him whether I could land on the ship with him rather than just fly out and back; he said we'd need the captain's permission.

Holtsclaw called Tinos on the radio. Once again permission came quickly. By then, I knew I was extremely lucky.

The helicopter flight was brief and smooth under blue skies. The approach of Tinos was exciting, seeing the huge cranes on deck from above rather than from the water, but the sight of the deck brought disappointment. Painted on the deck was a large H with a circle, a helipad. We wouldn’t be dropped by hoist.

We landed onw Tinos as it traveled at about 13 knots toward the Columbia River Entrance Buoy, which is almost 6 miles from the tip of the jetties. Our destination was the Astoria waterfront, more than 20 miles away, where a pilot boat would take us to shore.

After we disembarked, a crew member led us quickly across the deck and up several ladders. I was introduced to a friendly Captain Uwe Eicke, from Hamburg, Germany. For the next couple of hours I was free to roam the bridge and outside on adjacent decks. The captains were responsive to my questions, and I was treated to fascinating discussions about shipping and piloting.

The bar extends approximately from buoy 2 to buoy 10, a stretch of ocean about 3 miles wide and 6 miles long where dredging constantly is required. The skies had turned a dismal gray but the ride was smooth. Even though I wasn't getting the wild ride I'd hoped for, I was thrilled nonetheless to be finally "crossing the bar," a phrase that had become a metaphor for me as well as a longed-for adventure.

I asked Captain Lane if he'd ever had serious problems in his 21 years as a pilot.

"Once a large swell overcame the rudder power of an inbound vehicle carrier near buoy eight during a period of high swells and a strong ebb current," Lane told me. "The ship was actually surfing sideways and came very close to planting Hondas all over the north jetty. Scared the hell out of me."

"What did you do?" I asked.

"The rudder was fully right and power was increased to an emergency, full, all-you-got mode. No further effort could be made, and the outcome was just reduced to a hope and a prayer."

"What happened?"

"We didn't hit the jetty."

A number of other problems can arise in bad weather, such as damage to the rudder from hitting the bottom, or damage to cargo or ship by water coming on deck. The captain's qualifications are rigorous: two years as master of a deep-sea vessel, state and federal exams, and 100 supervised crossings.

My two-hour journey ended shortly after we passed beneath the bridge connecting Oregon and Washington. A pilot boat arrived with a river pilot to take over for Captain Lane for the journey to Kalama. He climbed up a ladder thrown over the side of Tinos. Then Captain Lane descended and I followed, wondering what this trip would be like in roiling seas.

Later on I was able to ask him what he likes about the job.

Lane said, "The challenge of being put in a position of large responsibility with lives, huge vessel and cargo values, and our environment all at risk. No two trips are the same, so complacency and boredom never intervene."

I told him I'd like to repeat the experience in stormy weather.

"Come back in November," he said.

Oregon Coast November/December 2007

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