It’s not called “the graveyard of the Pacific” for nothing. According to Wikipedia, about 2,000 large ships have sunk in and around the Columbia River Bar since 1792, and that’s not counting fishing boats and other smaller vessels.

Columbia River Bar Pilots at work.

The Columbia River Bar isn’t one of those bars where there’s a quick crossing through some higher-than-normal standing waves. It’s a much larger area of often violently turbulent water, about three miles wide and six miles long, where the Columba River discharges directly into the North Pacific. There is no delta of islands and wetlands to break up the flow of this enormous, fast-flowing river.

All ships, both inbound and outbound, must be guided across the bar by a licensed bar pilot. Sometimes the ship’s master has this license, but mostly the bar pilots are men who work for the Columbia River Bar Pilots in Astoria.

For outbound ships, the bar pilots usually climb aboard just off downtown Astoria when the river pilots, who have guided the ship from Portland or other upriver destinations, get off. Foss Maritime’s Connor Foss, a relatively new pilot boat, provides this service.

For inbound vessels, the pilots get out to the ship by either helicopter or pilot boat.

Last week, while in Astoria researching a story on the Bar Pilots’ newest boat, the Astoria, I got to ride along on a trip across the bar (on a sister vessel, the Columbia) to transfer a pilot from an outbound ship to an incoming ship. The conditions were rough but not extreme and the transfers went smoothly.

To say that I was impressed with the professionalism of the operations and the capability of the boat, which was designed by Camarc Design in the U.K. and built by Kvichak Marine Industries in Seattle, is an understatement. Driving up to the side of a ship in typical bar conditions and holding it in position while the pilot grabs the dangling ladder or when he jumps from the ladder to the deck of the moving pilot boat demands precision and power. For the bar pilot, it requires strength, good timing and courage.

The Astoria is the third pilot boat designed by Camarc and built by Kvichak for the Columbia River Bar Pilots. Check it out in the May issue of WorkBoat magazine. 

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).