Super Subcultures

Pilots of the Pacific Graveyard

Along one of the world's busiest and most treacherous shipping lanes, fifteen men risk life and limb on a daily basis to guide colossal cargo ships to safety.

Pilots of the Pacific Graveyard

The Columbia River Bar is a place of violence. Here the behemoths of the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River collide in one long, never-ending car crash. Over 2,000 shipwrecks and 700 deaths have earned this stretch of water the moniker “The Graveyard of the Pacific.”

The amount of damage inflicted by the bar is disproportionate to its size. Made up of a series of sandbars and jetties along the narrow stretch of water separating the west coasts of Washington and Oregon, the area is roughly three miles wide and six miles long. The bar offers a little bit of everything, from strong currents and crushing waves to low visibility and unpredictable weather. Arguably one of the most dangerous places on earth for any seagoing vessel, the bar is also vital to modern commerce.

Ferrying ships across is the job of the Columbia River Bar Pilots. These men and women board ships crossing the bar and steer them safely across. The work is difficult and laden with risk, which helps explain why there are only fifteen licensed pilots.

Captain Thron Riggs
Captain Thron Riggs

Captain Thron Riggs grew up near the ocean in Santa Barbara, California. Riggs’s father worked for Standard Oil and got his then-seventeen-year-old son a job onboard a ship for the summer before he started college. “Here I am, this seventeen-year-old kid going to these exotic places with these outlaws, drug addicts, Communists, malcontents,” says Riggs. “I thought it was great.”

That first summer he worked in the bowels of the ship as a wiper. Every day he’d clean excess grease off exposed bearings. At the end of his shift the young Riggs would be coated in a mixture of sweat and grime. Eventually he worked his way up to captain, staying on merchant vessels for the next twenty-seven years.

He credits his travels to places like Ghana and Venezuela with his love of good whiskey. “When you tie up on dock, local officials come on board and if you want things to go smooth then you treat these people with dignity and as equals,” says Riggs. This meant keeping a ready supply of Marlboros, Budweiser and Johnny Walker Red onboard. As captain, Riggs would entertain his hosts, often supplying them with dinner, goods from the ship’s stores and conversation. They’d spend hours drinking beer, sipping whiskey and smoking cigarettes. When they were done, “we’d rip through the paperwork,” says Riggs. “No one would read anything.”

Much more than a caricature of a hard-drinking sailor, Riggs is also a classically trained musician, proficient on the viola, violin and guitar. He’s an avid artist with a goal of painting every headland on the west coast. “Churchill insisted a well-rounded person needed to like his job and have at least two hobbies,” says Riggs. “I buy into that.” Nowadays, he takes only a drab of whiskey a night.

Around 1986, Riggs decided he needed a change. Being the captain of a merchant ship means being away from home for large swaths of time; the job is dangerous and you’re constantly pushed to meet deadlines. A desk job was out of the question, so Riggs set his sights on becoming a bar pilot.

The process took seven years.

In the old days a prospective bar pilot would campaign for the job. This entailed making semi-regular trips to the Columbia River Bar Pilots offices in Astoria, Oregon, during time off from captain’s duties. The other pilots wanted to see if applicants were capable and if their personalities meshed.

Captain Riggs climbs from the pilot boat onto a ship.
Captain Riggs climbs from the pilot boat onto a ship.

The state of Oregon has since assumed control of hiring, enforcing some of the most exacting qualifications in the world. An applicant hoping to become a Columbia River Bar Pilot must have at least two years of sea time as master of a ship weighing at least 5,000 gross tons. These are massive vessels, some more than 1,000 feet long, that can hold thousands of pounds of cargo. Gaining enough experience to reach this stage can take upwards of fifteen years in the industry.

An aspiring pilot must also pass a series of tests, which includes drawing the entrance to the river from memory. Once accepted, a new hire has to make a minimum of 100 crossings with a licensed pilot before going solo.

The training is so rigorous because there’s a lot at stake — more than 3,000 ships cross the bar every year. The Columbia River is a liquid highway connecting imports and exports from various points across the globe. Apples from Washington are shipped out to Mexico while cars from Japan make their way upriver to Portland. It’s a multi-billion dollar enterprise with little room for error.

“If I fuck up, there’s oil everywhere, people are dead, the channel is blocked,” Riggs says.

Captain Riggs, like his peers, knows this part of the river intimately. He’s made thousands of crossings over his twenty-one years as a bar pilot. Still, disaster is never far from his mind.

In 2007, the 810-foot container ship Cosco Busan ran into the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. More than 50,000 gallons of fuel spilled into the bay. An investigation into the incident found the pilot had been taking medication that impaired his judgment; he went to jail for ten months. In 1980, a harbor pilot, negotiating a turn in bad weather with no radar, hit a support pier of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay, Florida. 1,400 feet of the bridge collapsed, sending cars and a Greyhound bus into the water. Thirty-five people died.

“If a surgeon makes a mistake and a patient dies on the operating table he doesn’t go to jail,” says Riggs. “In this profession you can go to jail even though you’re acting in good faith [and] you’re not drunk or stoned.”

A bar pilot makes the dangerous transition.
A bar pilot makes the dangerous transition.

Pilots have to be on their game at all times. Riggs rattles off a short list of what he thinks about as he steers the ship through the channel. “You have to know how different ships behave, need to be an expert on local weather and hydrology — what’s the current doing, how fast can I go over this part of the route, how much clearance do I have?”

Heavy responsibility and risk of jail time aside, there’s also the physical danger to worry about.

There are two ways a bar pilot can board a ship: pilot boat or helicopter. The first involves making the twenty-mile trek to the outer buoy in a boat that is specifically designed to handle these conditions. In the winter the trip can take hours as the craft trudges through pounding waves. “You’re really just holding on to keep from getting thrown against something,” says Riggs.

In the middle of the percussive booms, sea spray and the urge to vomit is the crackle of a radio, the captain of a cargo or freight ship wanting to know when the pilot will arrive. “All they want to do is get inside where the blowing and pounding and drama have stopped,” says Riggs.

Hanging off the side of one of these ships is a ladder. The pilot boat pulls alongside, close enough for someone like Riggs to jump from the heaving deck to relative safety. “There’s a Zen to it, otherwise you’d freak out,” says Riggs. “If you thought about it, you’d go ‘What am I doing? This is crazy.’ You have to focus everything on that ladder, seize that moment.”

Riggs has fallen in the water twice. The last time he was so badly bruised he needed the aid of a cane for a month.

Pilot boats are only used when conditions prevent the Seahawk helicopter from flying. The mustard-colored helicopter hovers above the ship and the pilot is lowered to the deck by a winchman. The operation is easier than going by pilot boat, but not without challenges.

When Riggs and I spoke in early June he told me a bar pilot was out on sick leave with a broken shoulder blade. The pilot dropped ten feet and crashed into a protrusion on the deck when the winchman cut the line – and this was the best outcome. The helicopter pilot had lost his visual reference and started drifting back toward the containers and cabling. The winchman made a split-second decision to drop the pilot. Had he decided not to, both the helicopter and the pilot could have got caught in the cables. The resulting crash would have likely killed several people and possibly disabled the ship.

Just outside the bar pilots’ headquarters is a plaque inscribed with the names of seventeen men. These are pilots or support crew who have died on the bar.

This will be the last season on the bar for Riggs, who plans to retire in October. “This is a young man’s game,” he says.

Riggs is tired of the two a.m. wake-up calls and the fighting. Each of the fifteen bar pilots has an opinion backed by years of experience. There’s a reason the table in the office is U-shaped: The gap in the middle prevents people from reaching across and hitting someone else. “We have some knock-down, drag-out fights,” Riggs says, about everything from the color of a new pilot boat to what equipment needs to be purchased.

Just because Riggs is giving up the bar doesn’t mean he’s giving up the water – he’s got a small fishing boat that he’ll have more time for now.

Riggs is a creature of habit, with a devotion that borders on orthodoxy. He gets up to check the weather during our interview. All is quiet, but the storms are never far. In just a few months blue skies will fade into a thick grey. The wind and rain will howl.

“There’s not a pilotage ground like this in the world,” Riggs says.