It doesn’t get much tougher and rougher than the Columbia River Bar, a turbulent stretch of shallow water where the fast-flowing Columbia dumps its enormous load of water and silt directly into the Pacific Ocean. 

There are no barrier islands, and no delta to break up the river and slow it down before it collides with the ocean rollers. And when the tide ebbs, all the additional upriver water from the flood “turns around and comes back with a vengeance,” said Mike Tierney, a member of the Columbia River Bar Pilots in Astoria, Ore. “The ebb current is usually about twice as strong as the flood, and when that current hits those incoming swells, that’s what jacks up the turbulence and the height of the waves.”

With extreme conditions essentially the norm, all incoming foreign ships and most domestic, large-tonnage ships are required to be navigated by licensed bar pilots when entering or leaving the Columbia River. 

In the old days, the bar pilots would be dispatched to and from the Peacock, a 90' steel pilot boat built in Germany in 1964, or the Columbia, an 82' steel pilot boat built in 1977 by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland, Wash. Both vessels stayed on station outside and carried smaller “daughter boats” for the actual transfers to and from the ships. In between jobs, the pilots waited on these station boats outside the bar. 

In the late 1990s, the bar pilots decided to abandon the station boat concept and switched to helicopters and fast pilot boats. This change allowed the group to employ fewer pilots and spend less time bobbing around in the ocean.

“We end up using the helicopter about 70 percent of the time, just because it’s so efficient,” said Tierney. “You can go out there and do six pilot transfers in about 20 minutes as opposed to an hour or an hour and a half on the boat.”

For the other 30 percent, the pilots rely on stoutly built, swift, stable, maneuverable, rollover-capable pilot boats designed by Camarc Design in the U.K. and built by Kvichak Marine Industries in Seattle. The Chinook, the first of three nearly identical boats, was built in 2000 and was recently traded in on the Astoria, the third of this series, which was delivered in March. Kvichak is repowering the Chinook and reselling it to pilots in British Columbia. The second boat, the Columbia, was built in 2008. 

All three feature virtually the same combination of twin 1,400-hp Detroit Diesel/MTU engines, ZF electric-shift transmissions and Hamilton 651 waterjets pushing 75'6"×21'6" aluminum, double-chine monohulls. “By pilot boat standards, she’s long and narrow,” said Keith Whittemore, Kvichak’s president, “and because she’s a double-chine boat, you’re able to make her out of aluminum with a deeper forefoot, and the double chine acts as an extra spray rail, so she’s very dry on deck up next to the side of a ship.”

The boats are also “unbelievably maneuverable with extremely fast throttle response,” said Tierney, noting capabilities that are required to cozy up to the side of a running ship in ocean swells while a pilot grabs or lets go of a ladder dangling off the side.

The Kvichak pilot boats also feature cutout notches in the wrap-around Popsafe fender system just forward of the wheelhouse on both sides. Positioning the ladder here while pressed against the ship prevents the ladder from being pinched by the boat and possibly torn off with a pilot on it. “As far I can tell, the first time that was done was on the Chinook,” said Whittemore. 

During transfers, the pilots are assisted by a deckhand attached to a Hadrian rail system with sliding trollies. Hadrian rails are also installed on the stern where both the boat operator and deckhand can clip in during man overboard rescues. Should that happen, the operator circles around the pilot in the water with a trailing line the pilot can grab and be pulled to the boat where a hydraulic A-frame davit with a horse collar harness lifts the person from the water. 

If the pilot is unconscious or incapacitated, he or she can be retrieved by a hydraulically powered, L-shaped rescue basket on the stern. The last option is calling the U.S. Coast Guard.



While the hull and propulsion are nearly identical on the Chinook, Columbia and Astoria, the interiors have each been modified. Where the Chinook had a bulkhead separating the wheelhouse section of the house from the pilots’ lounge behind, the Columbia and the Astoria have an open interior. “We wanted to open it up so there would be more interaction between the pilots and the operators,” said Tierney. “It’s much better for the pilots to work with the operators and the deckhands as a team.”

The Chinook also had both port and starboard control stations, but the Columbia and the Astoria each have a single control station in the middle of the console, which opens up space on the forward starboard side for stairs down to a head, bunk and equipment rooms, as well as the engine room. 

All three boats have 1"-thick windows all around the house. On the Chinook, they’re bolted on, while on the Columbia and Astoria they’re larger and glued to smaller mullions for better visibility.

The Columbia has two one-bunk staterooms, but the Astoria only has one two-bunk stateroom. “We went to one bunk room instead of two because we don’t really use the bunks that much,” said Tierney. “We used the other bunk room space for our electronics room.”

“I was really pleased with that upgrade,” said Whittemore. “The fact that you don’t have to go into the engine room to get at all the switchboards is just much nicer. Everything is in one place, right in front of you.”

Another upgrade for the Astoria is the LED lighting, both inside and out, where the floodlights illuminate night transfers. “The LED lights really penetrate in the dark,” said Tierney. “At night, it’s like daylight out there, and that’s what you need, this arc of daylight all around the boat because if the pilot goes in the water, you need to see that distance in order to locate them.”

The Astoria also features an attribute that’s much appreciated by David Fastabend, a senior boat operator whose time goes back to the Peacock. “It’s substantially quieter than the Chinook or Columbia, which reduces fatigue from noise.”

Tierney said the bar pilots took a leap of faith when they selected Kvichak to build the Chinook in 1999, but the faith was well placed. “They support us perfectly,” he said.

The Chinook also helped push Kvichak in a new and productive direction. “Since then we have done a ton of other pilot boats from Savannah and Houston and Sabine to the Dutch pilots, all with Camarc, who is also the designer of our RBMs for the Coast Guard,” said Whittemore.


[For additional photos of the pilot boats, visit]


Connor Foss shuttles bar and river pilots 

The Astoria isn’t the only new pilot boat on the Columbia River. Yes, the Connor Foss is almost two years old, but the Foss-built and operated pilot boat replaced a small tug, the Arrow No. 2, which had been shuttling both bar and river pilots for about 50 years. So that makes the Connor a relatively new kid in town. 

The 63'x17' vessel design was based on a Camarc pilot boat built in the U.K., with additional engineering provided by Kvichak in Seattle. “It was a team sport,” said Kvichak’s Keith Whittemore. “Camarc and Kvichak did the design and production engineering, and Foss did a great job building it at their Rainier yard.”

The Connor Foss is powered by two six-cylinder, Tier 2 Caterpillar ACERT C18s, each rated at 715 hp. TwinDisc gears turn 33" MichiganWheel propellers. Top speed is about 17 knots.

The Connor operates almost exclusively in the river right next to Astoria, Ore. Its job is to pick up bar pilots after they’ve brought a ship over the bar and to deliver river pilots who take the ships to upriver destinations, and vice versa. Because the run between the Astoria pilot house and the ships is quite short, the boat was built with a semi-displacement steel hull and an aluminum house. Lots of windows, especially forward, provide excellent visibility.


“I’ve been all over the world and between our two 72-footers for the bar pilots, the helicopter and the Connor Foss, that’s one fine transportation system,” said Whittemore. — B. Buls 



Builder: Kvichak Marine Industries

Designer: Camarc Design

Owner: Columbia River Bar Pilots

Mission: Bar pilot transfers

Length: 75'6"

Beam: 21'6"

Draft: 3'6"

Hull/Superstructure Material: Aluminum

Main Propulsion: (2) MTU 16V2000, 1,410 hp

Marine Gear: ZF 3050

Waterjet: (2) HamiltonJet 651

Ship’s Service Power: (2) Kohler 40 kW

Speed (max.): 29 knots

Capacities (gals.): Fuel, 1,655; water, 75 

Electronics: (2) Furuno FAR-2127 radar; (2) Furuno GP-150 GPS, Furuno NAVpilot 700; (4) Furuno FM8900S VHF; Furuno FCV-585 color sounder; Furuno FA-150 AIS; Superior Marine alarm system; FLIR M-618CS thermal camera; Taiyo RDF direction finder; Furuno FMD 3200 ECDIS

Passenger/Crew Capacity: (2) crew; (4) pilot

Displacement (light): 110,000 lbs.

Fendering: Popsafe shock-absorbing foam with polyethylene contact surface

Certification: ABS

DeliveryDate: March 2014