Master of Controlled Collisions

 Steering Ships Through a Treacherous Waterway | Science & Nature | Smithsonian Magazine

The Smithsonian has a four-page article online about the pilots of the Columbia River bar, a place that has honestly earned a reputation as the graveyard of the Pacific. I have never seen a piece of water that more closely approximates hell than the Columbia River bar in a gale.


As deep water storm swells begin to feel the bar shoal beneath them and the strong outwash of the Columbia River confronts them, monstrous seas are formed. But even in moderate weather the strength of the river’s current can create waves of exceptional height.

The bar pilots are responsible for millions of dollars of equipment and cargo, not to mention the lives of all onboard, but the skippers of the pilot boats have a more intimate challenge. They need to pin their vessel against a wall of steel long enough for the pilot to transit safely while each vessel describes its own eccentric orbit in the seaway. I once heard the captain of a San Francisco bar pilot boat describe himself as a master of controlled collisions.

Above, footage of the pilot boat Chinook on the Columbia River bar. And below, a view from a pilot boat in relatively calm weather.


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