Crossing the Columbia Bar

Ship pilots are lowered by helicopter to navigate the treacherous waters

By Alison Bate

I’m flying in a helicopter over the mouth of the Columbia River, which has one of the world’s most treacherous bars.

Helicopter pilot Karl Hatlemark makes a turn so I can see the two vessels heading inbound more clearly. In the foreground is the tanker “Chevron Colorado”, and in the rear is the colorful car carrier “Maersk Taiki”.

Shortly before, Hatlemark and hoist operator Ken Saladaga lowered bar pilot Capt. Mike Dillon by hoist onto the car carrier to guide it over the bar. The need to replace an aging pilot boat, and Dillon’s rescue by helicopter after falling in the water, prompted the Columbia River Bar Pilots to look to the skies in the mid-1990s.

They started using helicopters to deliver pilots to ships in August 1999, as part of a two-year trial period. The 20 bar pilots are the first in the U.S. to take to the air, although the practice is standard in Europe, as well as South Africa.

But as the trial period nears its end, the Columbia River Bar Pilots Association is facing a battle over the rates it charges. Mediation talks have broken down, and hearings begin in May between the pilots and the Columbia River Steamship Operators Association, which represents the shipping lines who pay for the pilots.

By now, 4,084 ships have been serviced by helicopter. “It’s a pretty demanding job. Probably the most demanding job I have known,” said Norwegian-born Hatlemark, an experienced helicopter pilot who has worked in oil exploration, offshore and firefighting, including seven years flying in New Guinea.

Roughly two-thirds of the vessels crossing the bar use pilots arriving by helicopter, a high- performance Agusta 109K2 operated by Evergreen Helicopters, Inc. Pilots are mostly lowered or lifted by hoist onto the deck and use helicopter landing pads less frequently. The remainder board using one of two pilot boats: the new 29-knot “Chinook” or the slower 13-knot “Columbia’.

After guiding vessels through to Astoria, bar pilots hand over to Columbia River Pilots, who take vessels about 90 miles upriver to Portland, Oregon or to other key ports, such as Longview, Kalama and Vancouver,Wash.

Pilot Capt. Mike Dillon is lowered onto a car carrier Looking at the operation from the air, the logic of using helicopters as well as pilot boats makes a lot of sense. It’s quicker, copes with more severe weather conditions, is safer for the pilots, and means ships don’t have to slow down for pilot boarding. It also means they don’t have to close the bar so often.

“The injury rate at the bar was just horrible,” explained bar pilot Capt. Bill Worth, who is an avid fan of the helicopter service. “This is the first two-year period in nine that we haven’t had any accidents.”

When bar pilots go out by helicopter, they board about 10 to 15 miles farther out than they do by boat, which makes it much safer for the environment, according to Worth. It gives the pilots more time to assess the ship and the crew before reaching the bar, and also reduces the risk of groundings.

The bar is notorious for its mountainous ocean swells and storms, and the bar pilots have guided ships across the entrance since 1847. “It’s sixteen miles of high adventure,” said Worth.

Colleague Capt. Michael Glick said the decision on whether to use the helicopter or boat is based on the pilot’s personal preference, the ship company’s preference, or the weather. The helicopter is better in heavy winds, while the boat works best in fog. Glick, too, enjoys using the helicopter. “Our biggest problem is communications,” he noted.

That’s because the pilots operate from three bases, and are constantly shuttling between the office/dispatch in Astoria; the airfield, across the bay in Warrenton; and the pilot boats, even farther away at Hammond Marina.

Capt. Gary Lewin, officer of the CRBPA and a pilot himself, said they want to bring the three units all under one roof, at a new facility at the Port of Astoria’s dilapidated Pier 3. The project would cost around $3 million.

Ah yes, money. Pilots are licensed and regulated by the state, and the bar pilots charge fees that are set by the board of maritime pilots. The bar pilots argue that rate increases are needed to cover the costs of buying the “Chinook”, contracting the helicopter service and for funding the new consolidated facility.

They point out they hadn’t bought any new equipment in 20 years until recently, and that running the helicopter costs around $2 million/year, about the same as the pilot boat.

But if that’s the case, why are they being asked to pay more since the helicopter service began, asks the Columbia River Steamship Operators Association?

“Why haven’t they saved money to pay for this equipment?” said Jim Townley, executive director of the CRSOA. He said many of the pilots make close to $240,000 per year, work three weeks on/three weeks off and service less than two ships per day.

According to Townley, the CRSOA paid the bar pilots under $7 million in 1998; $8.77 million in 1999; and $10.3 million in 2000. If the pilots get the rate increase they’ve asked for, that would increase to $12.1 million.

“The ship operators have never been against the helicopter. We would just like to see some discipline on the costs,” said Townley.

So what happens if the rate increase is denied? “If they say ‘no’ to rates, the Port of Portland would stay closed half the winter,” said Lewin bluntly. “It would turn it into a fair weather port.”

As for the helicopter operation, he concluded: “We consider it a success.”

© Marine Digest, May 2001

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