Coos Bay Bar: Currents, ‘tule fog’ pose challenges for Oregon coast’s seasoned pilots


The Coos Bay Bar, one of several port entrances on the Oregon coast, has a well-justified reputation for being unfriendly to shipping.

Coos Bay Bar Pilot Steven Woods and pilot trainee George Wales, with the tug Teclutsa.

For the Coos Bay Pilots there are no “routine” crossings. Each ship has to be considered in relation to winds, tidal conditions and the north- or south-flowing coastal currents crossing the mouth of the twin jetties that protect the narrow mile-long entrance to Coos Bay. The 300-foot channel inside the jetties leads a ship in an east-southeasterly course followed by a hard turn to port to move up through the long passage of the bay in a northeasterly direction.

The tug Coos Bay helps turn the 650-foot wood chip carrier Taio Rainbow.

However, crossing the bar is just the start of a Coos Bay Pilot’s work. Just inside the jetties the South Slough extends into a labyrinth of forested valleys. With little notice these can produce a heavy fog that flows out into the channel like a vaporous gate to blank out a sunny morning. Such was the case on a bright morning in mid-November 2012. The pilot boat tug North Bend had preceded the ship Taio Rainbow in through the jetties to check the state of the visibility. On the bridge of the ship, Coos Bay Senior Pilot Charles Yates was in charge and Pilot Trainee George Wales was adding one more trip to the 100 bar transits and 25 on up through the bridges that he had already completed to receive his provisional license. Training on the larger vessels is among the requirements to be met in the four-year training program to get his unlimited license. Wales has only 10 months to go and is managing to complete the required transits in spite of the drastically reduced traffic into the Port of Coos Bay. Also on the bridge of the Liberian-flagged 650-foot Taio Rainbow that day was the chair of the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots, Tom Markgraf. As a non-mariner representative, Markgraf was making a familiarization trip.

The 72-foot tug North Bend, captained by Gus Beaudry, had put the pilots up on the ship outside the Coos Bar at 0600. A little before that two other tugs, the 102-foot former YTB Teclutsa with Capt. Jeff Palmer, and the 76-foot Coos Bay, with Capt. Chris Common, had set out from the pilots’ office on the Coos Bay waterfront. The two boats ran about 3.5 miles down along the waterfront of Coos Bay and the neighboring town of North Bend. On the nearly 110° bend for which that town is named, an elevated highway bridge and a railway swing span cross the channel. In recognition of the twin challenge of the sharp turn and the bridges, provisional pilots are restricted to vessels under 23,000 gross tons and only qualify for higher tonnages on this upper section after their full training period.

It was still dark when the two tugs reached a point on the waterway where they could see nearly seven miles to the southwest to the point where the fog from the slough had flowed out and across the passage. Capt. Steve Woods, a Columbia River Pilot, who maintains his Coos Bay pilotage on a part-time basis, has come along on board the tug Coos Bay with Capt. Common. The two are both Coos Bay locals and have worked together for years. As Common peers through the darkness looking for the lights of the tug North Bend or the ship to come out of the darkness and fog, they update on stories. “On the Columbia, if the fog sets in while we are part way up the river, the practice is to keep going as that can be safer than anchoring in the stream,” said Woods.

Capt. Chris Common knows the Coos Bay Bar and harbor as well as anyone.

Woods invested the time to gain qualification as a pilot on the Columbia River in 1999 when annual visits to Coos Bay, where he had been a pilot for some years, dropped off from 35 to 15 ships per month and then reached a low of only eight ships per month. That left only three pilots to service the bay and, with Capt. Steve Sweet and Capt. Jerry White’s retirement, only one full-time pilot for the bay. Woods continues to provide relief while Wales is in training. There is now talk of both coal and natural gas terminals that would bring the traffic back up.

The three tugs belonging to the pilots do a little work apart from ship assist. A law change that will come into effect in 2013 will make it illegal for a tug owned by the pilot to assist in ship docking as has been the tradition in Coos Bay. But even in the busy times, Common enjoyed taking a leave-of-absence to do some outside towing. Now, as he waited for Taio Rainbow to emerge from the fog and darkness, he told of towing a mothballed ship from San Francisco through the Panama Canal for scrapping in Brownsville, Texas. At the same time he was looking forward to another tow with the tug Roughneck that would see him take another mothballed ship from Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to the West Coast where he would take on fuel and then again travel through the Panama to Texas. There was no shortage of stories as the starlit sky lightened and a promise of sunrise began to light up the brass and brightwork in the immaculate wheelhouse. The light framed Common’s head in one of the big round portholes across the front of the wheelhouse. “We had square windows in here when the boat was new,” he said. “But after they got blown out on the bar we replaced with these.”

At 0635 AIS shows Taio Rainbow making 9 knots and one-and-a-half miles outside the jetties while the tug North Bend has gone ahead. Capt. Beaudry reported, from North Bend, that he was inside the jetties and there was fog but that he could still see the shore. Then adds, “I can see the inside ranges.”

“Steve and I used to tow gravel barges over the Umpqua Bar in fog,” said Common. “We had only one radar so we practiced with no radar and using the whistle echo in case we ever lost the one.”

At 0655 Taio Rainbow emerged from the fog bank and into the early morning light. North Bend was just ahead as the two made their way up the seven-mile channel. Coos Bay moved up through the rail bridge to await the ship. At 0725 North Bend ran through the rail bridge where the first of what would be a large flood, has begun to show against the piles. Teclutsa, now joined by North Bend, waited just above the highway bridge. The ship’s 105-foot beam seemed to take up the full width of the swing span.

Aboard the tug, pilot Steven Woods watches Taio Rainbow.

With an intense morning sun cutting hard over the horizon, Common took up a position astern of the ship as it moved under the rail bridge. The pilot directed Teclutsa to come on his port shoulder with North Bend on the starboard side. At 0745 he directed Coos Bay to put a line up to his stern as the ship made the turn to the south and moved into a turning basin. Deck hand and Coos Bay Towboat’s office manager Derek Davisson sent a towline up from the tug’s bow, but he had flaked out extra line down the tug’s starboard side to the aft winch rather than the forward winch.

By 0800 Coos Bay had turned stern-to the ship and was towing hard with its 32,500-pound bollard pull at an angle to the ship’s stern while Teclutsa pushed on the starboard quarter and North Bend pulled on the opposite side to turn the ship a full 180°. Diners in a shore-side restaurant at the casino, which has taken the place of a large but defunct sawmill, had a ringside seat to a fine bit of shiphandling. By 0815 the turn was completed and the ship stopped before being towed stern-first to the pier where it would load chips.

Even though the sun was fully up, there was a ribbon of fog descending a valley just opposite the turning basin. “We call that a ‘tule fog’ because it comes out of the tule grass in the estuary,” explained Woods.

Teclutsa and the 1,425-hp Coos Bay began pushing the ship toward the pier making use of a J-hook. All three tugs in the Coos Bay Towboat fleet are single-screw boats. When pushing against a ship they take the line from the bow hawser winch through the forward staple and then back to hook under a J-hook on the bulwarks just at the front of the wheelhouse. This is really an inverted J through which the line is passed and up to the ship’s deck. In this case the current, about 1.5 knots, was coming from the tug’s starboard side so the J-hook on that side was used. This holds the boat easily in position 90° to the ship while backing into its headline. The Schuyler bow fendering protects both ship and tug while in the push mode. The 2,200-hp Teclutsa has the added advantage of a Becker rudder that throws the prop wash out under the stern quarter. While it wasn’t used on this job, the tug is also fitted with a 500-hp tunnel type bow thruster. Capt. Palmer, who came to Coos Bay from skippering yachts in Florida, has unlimited praise for Teclutsa’s versatility and the beautifully reworked wheelhouse that he and a friend have built in very high quality woodwork.

With the ship up against the pier, the two tugs maintained pressure while a well fitted out little line boat, Blanco, complete with a bow thruster, ran the lines. At 0935 the pilots let the tugs go and they returned to their nearby base. Their next job would be taking the loaded ship back out to sea. Maintaining a pilot service in a small port like Coos Bay can be a challenge. Things will get better if the coal and natural gas terminals happen. The Coos Bay Pilots also look after the Port of Newport just up the coast. There is word of a plan to load log ships there that will add more work. While more can be better, it would be a pity if the Port of Coos Bay were to lose its “small” status where everyone knows everyone and the job of bringing ships safely over the bar is taken very seriously, but there is still time for a dock side visit when the job is done.

Deck hand Derek Davisson retrieves Coos Bay’s towline.


By Professional Mariner Staff