Columbia Bar pilot dies after fall from ladder

Columbia River Bar Pilot Capt. Kevin Murray, 50, was lost after falling into the Pacific Ocean on Jan. 9, 2006 while attempting to transfer from a ship to a pilot boat during rough weather.

Capt. Kevin Murray, the former master of a tanker, had been a bar pilot for less than a year. The bar pilots usually use a helicopter to get them off ships, but on the night of the fatal accident, the helicopter was not permitted to fly because of severe weather and poor visibility.
   Image Credit: Courtesy Columbia River Bar Pilots

The accident occurred at about 2130 five miles beyond the river’s mouth in 18-to-20-foot seas with winds gusting to 40 knots. The water temperature was 47°. Murray was descending a ladder from Dry Beam, a 558-foot outbound ship carrying a cargo of logs, and was attempting to board the pilot boat Chinook.

According to Capt. Gary Lewin, the administrative bar pilot, the two-man pilot boat crew had a visual fix on Murray and attempted to get him into the hydraulically operated retrieval basket on the stern before he was carried away by wave action. Murray was wearing an inflatable float coat, and he was reported to have been wearing a fanny pack that may have contained some of the rescue equipment that pilots routinely carry. Murray was carrying a strobe light but was apparently unable to activate it.

Since the loaded ship had only about 14 feet of freeboard, Murray probably fell from a height of about 10 feet. It does not appear as though he hit the ship or the pilot boat. “There was no indication he struck anything,” Lewin said.

Murray had been at his job for less than a year.

The pilot boat searched for Murray but was unable to find him. The U.S. Coast Guard launched an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Air Station Astoria and two 47-foot motor lifeboats from Station Cape Disappointment. The boats had to turn back when they encountered dangerous conditions on the bar. The helicopter searched for about three hours in visibility down to 100 feet in heavy rain before returning to base.

The Coast Guard continued the search at first light with two helicopters, placing a data-marker buoy in the water to monitor the surface current and help refine the search. The bar pilots were also searching with their chartered helicopter and two pilot boats. Weather conditions were slightly better with winds of 22 knots and 14-to-16-foot seas. Three days later, Murray’s body was found washed up on a beach 75 miles north of the river’s mouth.

The last time a bar pilot was killed on duty was in 1973, but pilots have fallen into the water on several occasions since then and been picked up by the pilot boat. “The crew practice man-overboard drill constantly,” Lewin said.

On the night of the accident, a total of four ships crossed the bar. Two pilots were taken off by boat and one was picked up the next morning by helicopter.

The Columbia River Bar Pilots use their helicopter for approximately 70 percent of their operations, and it is preferred in bad weather, unless visibility is too low. On the night of the accident visibility was too low for helicopter use because of drizzle and low cloud ceiling.

The helicopter operations are governed by policies approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In daytime, a minimum of one-mile surface visibility and 300-foot cloud ceiling is needed; at night the minimum is three-mile surface visibility and 700-foot cloud ceiling. Two pilots fly the helicopter at night.

The Columbia River Bar is considered one of the most dangerous pilotages in the world. According to Lewin, the pilots close the bar an average of 11 times per winter. The No. 1 pilot (the next pilot on the rotation) is responsible for making the decision based on several factors including the ability of the pilot to reach an inbound ship via helicopter or to transit the bar by pilot boat, the sea state of the bar, the type of ship, its draft and the tide.

Murray was born in Boothbay, Maine. He graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in 1977, and he received his first Coast Guard license at 18.

At the start of his career, Murray worked in the Gulf of Mexico. He then became master of the 658-foot petroleum product tanker SS Blue Ridge. During the 10 years he commanded the ship, Murray made many visits to the Columbia River, and his meetings with the Columbia River Bar Pilots encouraged him to apply to join the organization.

Lewin described him as “a tremendous shipmate, a hard worker and a great pilot.” Although his work had led him to the Pacific coast, Murray continued to live in Boothbay.

The Columbia River Bar Pilots consist of 18 pilots, legally set up as an “organization of co-adventurers.” Trainee pilots must make 100 bar transits under supervision, at least 40 of which must be at night. Each pilot is responsible for choosing and using his or her personal safety equipment. The pilots’ training manual recommends a floatation coat with 35 to 40 pounds of buoyancy when inflated and a built-in harness. (Most pilots use the SeaSafe marine model made in the United Kingdom.) In addition, the manual recommends two strobe lights (one manual, one automatic), hand-held flares and a personal EPIRB (Emergency Position Radiobeacon). A hand-held VHF radio is also required for communicating with ship, pilot boat and shore. This makes for considerable bulk and weight while climbing a ladder.

Peter Marsh

By Professional Mariner Staff