Braving the Bar
By David W. Moody
Where the immense flow of the Columbia River collides with the Pacific Ocean, an elite group of mariners risks it all to guide ships through some of the world’s most dangerous conditions. Columbia River bar pilots Robert Johnson, Thron Riggs, and Dan Jordan are members of this elite team. Watch as they discuss the risk, complexity, and camaraderie around their unique careers. Then, read the story of one pilot who fell into the bar’s icy waters one stormy December night.
In December, the waters of the North Pacific Ocean kill quickly.
It begins almost immediately. The cold constricts arteries in the extremities and prevents blood from flowing into them. This keeps warm blood concentrated in vital organs, but it renders the muscles of the human body useless.
Fingers become decorative twigs and arms grow heavier like cement branches until they can no longer be lifted. The cold starves once-powerful muscles of oxygen until they become dead weight, with nothing to stop them from sinking beneath the black ocean waters.
Thron Riggs had only been in the water a few seconds before he began to feel the effects of the cold on his body.
He was wearing a float coat equipped with several safety devices: self-inflation, a strobe light, and a GPS homing beacon. But as if some god of chance had purposely stacked the deck against him, all three of them failed.
He had no flotation—and was invisible.
It was the middle of the night on Oregon’s Columbia River bar, where the Columbia River’s mighty current churns into the Pacific and pushes ten miles out to sea. The bar’s north and south jetties are angled toward each other, creating a funnel that leads the river’s powerful current.
Colossal winter storms cross the Pacific Ocean from west to east and have more than 4,500 miles to build in intensity. When the enormous, focused course of the Columbia River crashes into those storms, the river bar explodes with unpredictable fury. The colliding forces unleash bizarre standing waves, gigantic swells, freak currents, and cataclysmic conditions. And through it all curves a narrow, shallow shipping channel, in some cases, only a few feet deeper than the depths of the ships that navigate it.
Since 1792, the bar has claimed more than two thousand vessels and seven hundred lives. It has come to be known as The Graveyard of the Pacific.
Riggs was a veteran Columbia River bar pilot, one of sixteen master captains who have the experience and expertise necessary to guide ships the size of the Washington Monument through this vital, yet deadly waterway. They are tasked with moving giant vessels and their valuable cargo in and out of the Columbia River through conditions that would shut down almost any other port on earth. Without the bar pilots, Columbia River ports would be inaccessible, and a crucial artery of commerce would be permanently blocked.
Riggs knew the bar’s grim reputation better than most, along with every nautical detail about it. He had to. As a condition of employment, he and his fellow bar pilots had to draw the nautical chart of the bar from memory: The location of every hazard, every shifting shoal, the narrow river channel, every depth reading—like memorizing all the lines and fingerprints on a human hand.
But there was something else Riggs knew—something more haunting. It was the number one rule constantly reiterated to bar pilots—a rule embedded in his psyche through countless meetings, drills, and briefings. It was a rule about staying alive on the bar—and he’d somehow broken it:
Don’t go in the water.
A fierce forty-five-mile-an-hour wind screeched across the sea. It peeled foam and sea spray from the tops of fifteen-foot swells and hurled it sideways through the darkness with the rain. Titanic forces were colliding.
The swells built like towering mountains. Riggs would rise up on the crest of a wave where he’d momentarily see a distance, but then fall back down again, lost in the deep and lightless valleys between them.
He knew that in these conditions, the chance of being spotted was slim; and if he wasn’t spotted, he would die.
A few minutes earlier, Riggs had been standing on the bridge of an Italian cargo ship. He had guided the vessel across the stormy bar like so many vessels before. He’d piloted the ship through the shallow, narrow shipping channel, fighting colliding currents and opposing wind and waves. Just as he’d done for eighteen years, he successfully moved the ship from the Columbia River to the open ocean where he would send it on its way.
Since being established in 1846, the bar pilots have continually pioneered new methods and technologies to enable Riggs and his coworkers to get on and off moving ships during the fiercest winter storms of the North Pacific. Every ship entering or exiting the Columbia requires the presence of a bar pilot on the bridge; it’s a state and federal law. So, if conditions are so bad that a bar pilot cannot get aboard a vessel, the bar will be closed to shipping traffic—a decision with which comes heavy implications.
A cargo ship can cost upwards of thirty thousand dollars per day to charter, so it is critical to keep them moving. When the bar closes down, railroad lines stretching all the way to the Midwest experience massive back-ups—snarls that can take days to unwind. These consequences stay constantly on the minds of all bar pilots because they are products of the shipping culture—one of constant motion.
“We’re not just pilots,” says Captain Robert Johnson, bar pilot and friend of Riggs. “We’re also risk-managers. When we’re working in stormy weather, we’re right out on the edge of what the ship can take.”
The pilots do everything possible to keep the bar open, but the risks to lives and property are carefully weighed. In the bar’s narrow channel, a mistake can have catastrophic consequences: the loss of human life, environmental disaster, or a 100-million-dollar vessel breaking up on a jetty.
Riggs had boarded the Italian cargo ship in Astoria, Oregon in the relative safety of the river. A small tugboat had pulled alongside the Italian vessel that rose from the water like a steel cliff. With practiced precision, Riggs had stepped off the tugboat and climbed a long rope ladder dangling down the side of the massive cargo ship.
It was during the reverse of this procedure, in the open ocean, when things had gone so terribly wrong.
Out on the bar, getting on and off the ships is treacherous. The tugboats that deliver bar pilots to and from ships in the safety of the river would be torn to pieces on the open bar.
The Chinook is a seventy-two-foot-long pilot transport boat built specifically to get Riggs and his fellow pilots on and off ships on the open bar. North Pacific storms pound it and shake it, but it is built to take it—to go where other boats cannot.
Aboard the Chinook, pilots like Riggs ride in a fully enclosed cabin with laptop computers mounted to walls and kiosks, the screens all glowing with the same blue-green image of a nautical chart of the bar Riggs could draw from memory. Below the cabin, two turbo diesel engines sit side-by-side, each one as large as a mid-size sedan. If a wave capsizes the Chinook, it rolls back into an upright position, keeps water out, and continues operating.
Above the cabin looms a tower of equipment that includes radio antennae, a radar bar, thermal cameras, and stadium-style lights. On the back of the boat there is a steel-framed rescue basket that can be lowered into the water during worst-case scenarios.
In a normal pilot delivery on the bar, the bar pilot instructs the captain of a cargo ship to maintain a course that will block as much wind and wave action as possible, using the ship as a massive barrier. Then, with both vessels rising and falling on ocean swells, the Chinook pushes against the side of the cargo ship long enough for the bar pilot to jump to or from a rope ladder dangling down the side.
This procedure is performed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—day and night—during the North Pacific’s most ferocious winter storms.
Before landing in the black waters of the Pacific, Riggs had been performing this routine procedure. But on this night, the transfer was anything but routine.
From the deck of the Italian ship, Riggs climbed down the rope ladder as far as he could safely go. The Chinook pulled along side the ship beneath him, but the two vessels bobbed out of synch in the water, like pendulums swinging to the count of different metronomes. Conditions were bad. The screaming wind and monumental waves were colliding from opposite directions. If he went too far down the ladder, he would risk having his legs crushed if the Chinook rose up unexpectedly high on a swell.
He waited on the ladder and watched the motion of the pilot boat. The wind’s dark fingers tore at his float coat and flying sea spray stung his cheeks. When he saw his opportunity he jumped.
Just as his feet left the rung of the rope ladder, a swell shoved the Chinook away from the cargo ship. Free of the ladder and suspended in mid air, there was no turning back—but Riggs had nothing to land on. His feet skipped off the edge of the Chinook’s deck and he continued straight down into the narrow space between the two vessels—into the icy winter waters of the notorious bar.
As Riggs dropped into the churning abyss, the pilot boat operator and deckhand’s relentless training took over. Almost immediately, the boat operator peeled away from the ship to avoid crushing Riggs against the steel hull and the deckhand began scanning the roiling water behind them. It was the deckhand’s job to locate Riggs and to keep him in sight. If he failed, Riggs would die.
The beams of light from the mast of the pilot boat cut through the stormy night like blue-white blades; but the light only went so far, as if being pushed back by the fury of wind and spray.
Riggs was gone.
Riggs’s wife, Betsey Ellerbroek, is the education director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Because of her job, she knew a lot about the bar pilots—probably more than most. She knew the statistics and she knew the risks, but like Riggs, she always assumed tragedy knocked on other people’s doors.
Early in their relationship, Riggs had explained to Ellerbroek that he loved being a bar pilot and accepted the inherent danger. He told her that if he died on the bar, she should know that he died doing what he loved. She’d been sending Riggs off into the night for so many years, it had become routine—a familiar procedure.
She always assumed he would come home.
Not all bar pilots do. In 2006, the bar pilots suffered a tragedy that deeply branded their collective psyche. In an incident eerily similar to Riggs’s, a new bar pilot named Kevin Murray misjudged his jump from an outbound cargo ship to the pilot boat below him. Like Riggs, Murray dropped between the two vessels and disappeared into the blackness of the stormy waters. Bar pilot crews and the coast guard searched for him relentlessly, but they were unable to locate him. Murray’s body was discovered two days later eighty miles north of the bar.
Murray’s death hit the pilots, their families, and the community hard. The shipping culture and the bar pilots are part of the very fabric of Astoria. The comings and goings of vessels make people feel safe—like there are things that can be counted on. Locals listen to a radio show called The Ship Report produced on a volunteer basis by Astoria resident Joanne Rideout.
They learn about the giant vessels gliding past their windows down on the river, about their cargo, their origins, and the pilots who guide them—the same pilots they say “good morning” to over steaming cups of coffee in downtown cafes.
Many residents own scanners tuned to the bar pilot communication frequency. Rather than listen to AM talk radio, they listen to bar pilot transmissions throughout the day and night.
Though they shy away from the attention, Riggs and the bar pilots were indeed local heroes. When Murray died, the community lost a hero.
“After Kevin’s death, there was no denying that this is real,” says Johnson. “The danger is there and can mean loss of life if I make a mistake . . . it made me think about leaving my daughters.”
For others, Murray’s death churned up memories of their own family experiences. Anne McAlpin is the daughter of late bar pilot Captain Kenneth McAlpin and says her parents did a great job sheltering her and her sisters from the dangers of her father’s career. She remembers knowing that his job was respected and exciting, but that there were things they didn’t talk about.
McAlpin has one particularly vivid memory from when she was eight years old and her father showed up after work one morning dripping wet. She and her younger sister couldn’t believe their dad would dare to drip water on the floor of the house and told him he was going to be in trouble with their mother. It was years later McAlpin would learn what had happened to her father that night: his boat had capsized on the stormy bar and he had spent some time in the water. He was lucky to have survived.
Riggs wanted to be lucky too and he immediately went into survival mode. The bar pilots performed man-overboard drills constantly and Riggs knew what to expect. As the gigantic Italian ship slid past him in the water, he began to push away from it, trying to distance himself from the swift moving hull. But the huge structure surging through the water created a suction that pulled Riggs back against the steel. He pushed away again and again, failing each time as the cold began to starve his muscles.
The bar pilots have always worked to reduce risk through innovation. In 2000, they began using a twin turbine helicopter, the Seahawk, to transfer pilots to and from ships. The Seahawk can travel 130 miles an hour and fly in worse conditions than the boats can safely operate.
Sometimes the Seahawk lands on moving vessels and sometimes it raises or lowers pilots to and from ships with a cable and winch. In both scenarios, helicopter pilots are often fighting fifty-mile-an-hour winds, intense rain, nighttime conditions, all the while avoiding towering cranes that swing back and forth in the sky as the ships roll in the swells.
Even with its own set of dangers, because of its exceptional safety record, the Seahawk is the preferred method of bar pilot delivery—as long as there is enough visibility. When visibility is too low, the bar pilots continue to rely on theChinook, and its sister boat, the Columbia, for pilot transport on the bar.
Had the cloud layer been a little higher that night, Riggs would have been plucked off the deck by the Seahawk and his ill-fated jump would never have happened.
Riggs continued to push off the ship’s hull only to be sucked back each and every time. Then, he began to hear something ominous and it grew louder and louder as he tried to push away: thump—thump—thump—thump.
It was the sound of the ship’s enormous propeller.
Riggs realized he might be sucked under the hull and directly into its giant blades. Somehow, he remained more curious than terrified; he wondered what was going to happen, as if the approaching fate were not his own.
The sound of the propeller grew louder and louder as the back of the ship approached. Riggs pushed off the hull again in a last effort and finally slid around the back of the giant vessel where he swirled like a log in the furious, lightless ocean.
He had escaped the propeller, but was far from safe. Riggs had to get out of the cold water fast. The frigid liquid had begun to push the blood from his extremities to keep his vital organs from shutting down. His fingers, hands, arms and legs had become disassociated flesh—something not part of him—only weight to pull him down.
But as Riggs rose to the top of each fifteen-foot swell, he caught a glimpse of the pilot boat. More importantly, each time he rose up on another mountain of water, he could see that the deckhand was looking in his direction. Though Riggs had no strobe light or GPS locator, the deckhand spotted the Chinook’s lights reflecting off his float coat. As Riggs continued to rise up on the crests, he’d briefly see the deckhand waving his arm in an exaggerated pointing motion, directing the Chinook’s operator to his location in the blackness.
He knew he had a chance.
Gene Bock is one of the Chinook’s operators, and he compares bar pilot boat operations to a well-orchestrated band.
“Everyone knows what to do when it’s their turn,” says Bock. “It’s edge of your seat, grit your teeth, and use your best skills. We don’t get too many do-overs.”
The lights of the Chinook only reached Riggs for brief moments, when both he and the boat were lifted high atop wave crests. Between those moments, Riggs was plunged into icy darkness, lost in the eerie troughs between towering swells. He couldn’t feel his body. He was shutting down.
But each time he rose, the Chinook inched a little closer. The lights were brighter and the engines louder. Each time, he’d see the deckhand pointing like a madman, as if Riggs was the last person he would ever see.
Riggs’s body had become a dead weight—a lead sarcophagus encasing an unwilling soul. He could not stay above the waves much longer. He was out of time. The cold had done its work.
But the Chinook moved ever closer and soon Riggs was bathed in its powerful lights. The boat approached him slowly, pitching wildly in the swells. The deckhand extended a hydraulic arm over the water and lowered a rescue strap toward Riggs. He willed himself to reach for it, but couldn’t move his body. No matter how hard he concentrated on lifting an arm, the arm wouldn’t move, and floated lifelessly beside him.
The deckhand realized they’d have to discard the strap and use the rescue basket on the back of the boat. As quickly as possible, the Chinook’s operator spun the boat around and the deckhand lowered the rescue basket into the oil-black water. The operator carefully backed the Chinook toward Riggs who was mostly submerged, eyes staring up toward the lights.
Finally, his limp and lifeless body was lifted from the sea.
Betsey Ellerbroek always understood that the work her husband did was dangerous. She’d always felt a mixture of pride and fear associated with being married to a bar pilot. But it wasn’t until that night that she understood what was really at stake.
In the early pre-dawn hours of that morning, Riggs stepped shivering through the door of their home, looked into Ellerbroek’s eyes and said, “I need help.”