The wind is howling, the rain is pounding sideways. Waves are 25 feet high, rolling and breaking. Most of us would stay home, safe and warm in our cozy homes. But some people are out in the middle of the storm, climbing aboard ships. Who are these brave souls, and why are they risking their lives? They are known as the Columbia River Bar Pilots and they are there to make sure that all ships safely cross the Columbia River Bar.

The Oregon Board of Pilot Commissioners was officially created in 1846 and is one of the oldest state boards created in Oregon. Most ships, both foreign and domestic and longer than 100 feet, must use Bar Pilots to cross over the bar. Once over the bar, they then pass under the Astoria-Megler Bridge and go as far as the last wharf in Astoria. Ships are then turned over to another group, the Columbia River Pilots, to help navigate further up the river.

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Imagine climbing aboard this ship in these seas. Could you do it? Photo courtesy: Columbia River Bar Pilots

How they go out to meet and board the ships is the quintessential tale of bravery in itself. There are two methods – helicopter or boat. If boarding from a helicopter, which is the main method, the helicopter has to either land on the deck of the boat – while everything is moving, rocking and rolling in the waves, or the Bar Pilot has to harness up and be winched down to the ship in all kinds of weather.

The helicopter that is used, called the “Seahawk”, is 42.5 feet long. It is yellow and has the word “PILOT” on the side of it. If a boat is needed instead of a helicopter, there are two available to Bar Pilots. Both the “Astoria” and the “Columbia” are 72 feet long, and also have the word “PILOT” on the side. However, boarding from these boats is no less dangerous than using the helicopter, as it requires the boat to pull alongside the ship while the Bar Pilot must jump over and climb up a ladder on the side to board. Both ways of boarding are very dangerous in blowing rain and rolling waves.

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Helicopter is the main method of accessing a ship. Captain Jordan broke his shoulder once during a boarding. Photo courtesy: Columbia River Bar Pilots

Captain Dan Jordan has been a Bar Pilot for 13 years. “We’re all A-Types, that’s for sure,” he laughs. Previously, Jordan sailed all over the world, delivering grain to Africa and military equipment to Asia.

“We probably have one of the harder entrances into an organization,” explains Jordan. “For us, you have to go to sea. The easiest thing to do is to attend a maritime school.” Two programs are located in Astoria, with one being the Tongue Point Job Corps program, where the jobs are entry-level and students are often hired as deck hands on the pilot boats. Another option is the Maritime Science Program at Clatsop Community College, which provides a higher level of training. It can take 15-25 years of experience, including sailing for two years as a captain of a merchant ship, before someone can qualify to be a Bar Pilot.

When asked if he has a favorite ship to guide in, he quickly answers, “No, they are all different and that’s what keeps it interesting – different ships, different crews and nationalities.” He smiles, “Occasionally, you get a traditional meal on board.”

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Bar pilots travel in weather that most of us would avoid. Photo courtesy: Columbia River Bar Pilots

How about the scary situations? “We all get in dangerous situations in the winter. We can have 20 to 25 foot seas. Jumping from the pilot boat to the ladder, even with the helicopter hovering with the winch, it’s still moving a lot. In the winter, there are some days we would rather stay home, but sometimes it’s enjoyable to see the weather.”

“The shifts are almost like a fire department,” explains Jordan. “We work two weeks on and two weeks off. During that time we are on call 24/7. We can board ships during the day or at night. It all depends on the traffic.”

So what would make a person like Captain Jordan get into a job that is inherently very dangerous? “When I was looking at careers, it was either traveling the world or sitting in traffic for hours. I’ll take this over a long commute any day,” he laughs.

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Rough seas don’t deter the Columbia River Bar Pilots. Photo courtesy: Columbia River Bar Pilots

“The best thing about this job is that I get to do what I love,” says Jordan. “I get to pilot ships on a regular basis, and for most of us during our careers going to sea, we were gone six to eight months per year but rarely more than three to four months at a time. I get to be home with my family more now.”

About 3,200 ships go through the Columbia River every year. While the numbers of ships have fallen, the size of the ships has increased so more tonnage is moving, according to Captain Jordan. Thanks to the foresight of mariners over 150 years ago, the Columbia River Bar Pilots are there to make sure all crossings are safe, and the products we use every day are able to make their way on up the river to be distributed.

Captain Jordan will be speaking about his experiences at the Oysterville Town Hall in Ilwaco on November 2 at 10:00 am.

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