Graveyard of the Pacific; Gateway to the Northwest

Russell Sadler

Capt. Kevin Murray’s colleagues and friends officially said goodbye this last week at a memorial service overlooking the Columbia River. It was a sailor’s send off with flowered wreaths cast upon the water and and eight bells rung for the symbolic end of a watch.

Capt. Murray was the Columbia River Bar Pilot who was lost January 9 when he failed to make the transfer from the cargo ship Dry Beam to the pilot boat Chinook at night, in 18 foot seas and 40 knot winds. Murray’s body was found two days later when it washed up on Copalis Beach, north of Gray’s Harbor on the Washington Coast.

The first Columbia bar pilot history records is a Chinook chief named Comcomly, who paddled out in a canoe to guide sailing ships through the shallows as early as 1795. Astoria ship captain George Flavel got the first pilot’s license from the Territorial Legislature in 1851. Capt. Murray was one of a small group of elite mariners -- there are 20 Columbia River bar pilots -- licensed to guide large ships over one of the most treacherous bars in the world.

The Columbia is called the Graveyard of the Pacific for good reason. It has claimed more than 2,000 ships and 700 lives since people started keeping track. This toll raises the question, “Why do people take this risk?” The answer is the commerce they help facilitate is important.

Inbound ships bring automobiles from Japan and Korea and containerized freight from all over the world. Inbound tankers bring petroleum products from refineries in Northern Washington and Southern California to the Willbridge terminal in Portland where they are distributed by pipeline, barge and truck throughout Oregon and southern Washington and as far east as Lewiston, Idaho.

Outbound ships carry Northwest agricultural products to the world. Soft white wheat grown in Eastern Oregon and Washington comes down to the Columbia River ports of Portland, Vancouver and Kalama by barge and railcar. From there, cargo ships take the wheat to Japan and Korea where it is made into ramen noodles, a dietary staple in Asia. Still other ships take the soft white wheat to Middle East countries, like Lebanon, where it is baked into pita bread.

In more recent years, hard red wheat grown in America’s midwest arrives at Columbia River ports by train for export in outbound ships. The volume of midwest wheat has increased sharply since Hurricane Katrina crippled the Port of New Orleans where that wheat was once delivered by barge.

The Columbia Gorge cuts a water level route through two mountain ranges to the sea. Easy access from the east and Portland’s location at the junction of three interstate highways and connections with two transcontinental railroads, continues to allow Portland to be a competitive ocean port although it is 70 miles from the sea.

But it is the Columbia River bar that determines the utility of this important artery of world commerce. Just 20 captains are in charge of shepherding oceangoing vessels over that bar. And getting off and on the ships from the pilot boat remains the most dangerous part of the job. It is work for young, agile people. But by the time captains have the experience and accumulated wisdom to guide other ships over the Columbia bar, they are no longer young.

Capt. Murray held an ocean masters license. He was qualified to handle any ship. He was invited to become a Columbia River pilot in November 2004. He was 50 when he died. Many professional athletes are considered past their prime at 35. The bar pilots are still transferring from ships to pilot boats, climbing rope ladders up and down 50-80 foot steel cliffs, day and night, in nearly any kind of weather, into their 60s.

The pilots are not hidebound traditionalists. They consider new technology that may reduce their risk. The pilots bought a helicopter and practiced transfers dangling from cables swaddled in dry suits and winched to and from the decks of ships. They came to the conclusion that the helicopter was at least as risky as the old-fashioned rope ladder transfer from pilot boat to ship.

Pilots wear inflatable floatation equipment. They carry radio beacons, reflectors and lights when transferring. But equipment can only minimize the risk, not eliminate it.

The Columbia River Bar can be as calm as a teacup.
Then the tide changes. Millions of gallons of river water trying to get out, suddenly meet millions of gallons of ocean trying to get in over a shallow bar. A wind comes up from the west or southwest and the teacup becomes a wind-whipped, swirling white maelstrom in a matter of minutes. Suddenly it’s one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Unless you live along the river, all this ocean commerce is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. It takes a tragic loss, like the death of Capt. Murray, to give a glimpse of visibility to the remarkable way some of your neighbors earn their living.

Tom Bennett of the Daily Astorian contributed background reporting for this column.

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    Beautifully written and informative. Thanks Russell.

  • JoanneR (unverified)

    I'll second that comment by paulie. A very noble and very dangerous job that we all depend on.

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    Agreed - this is one of those posts that's well-written and interesting and original that it doesn't get much in the way of comments -- but don't mistake that for lack of readership. Good work.

  • Steve DeShazer (unverified)

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading it.

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    Thank you all very kindly.

    I have some first hand experience with pilot boarding

    When I was teaching at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Charleston on Coos Bay in 1989, one of the Coos Bay bar pilots invited me to go out with him. We went out on the pilot boat with some of my students aboard to watch him board. The ship was a Weyerhauser-owned log ship. As the pilot boat nudged itself along side the rope ladder hanging from the ship, my pilot friend -- who knew I was a trained mountain climber with no real fear of heights -- turned to me and said, "Just follow me up the ladder."

    I just timed my step onto the ladder with the rise of the pilot boat of a wave, scrambled up a few rungs to keep my feet dry and then climbed this 80 foot steel cliff to the deck. We the boarded an elevator for a ride to the bridge!

    My pilot friend had planned this all along. He just sprang it on me at the last minute so I wouldn't have time to get anxious ;-)

    It wasn't 18 foot seas and 40 knot winds, but it wasn't a calm night either.

    Two days later we boarded the same ship at the dock and took it out and climbed down into the pilot boat down the same rope ladder in similar weather. So I have some small feeling for what Capt. Murray was doing on the night he died.

    I'm glad I did it --- once. I was 46.


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    damn, we are so privileged to have Russell sharing his stories and history with us. and it's amazing, we live in our sheltered little worlds thinking we're so safe (what danger am i in, sitting here at the keyboard?) and meanwhile there are 20 people who do an unknown, vital job that can cost them their lives.

    here's a nice piece from the Daily Astorian, with comments from other pilots and a photo of Capt Murray

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