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 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.