Helicopter or boat – for bar pilots it’s all about safe transfers


“It is a system,” said Capt. Robert Johnson of the Columbia River Bar Pilots, explaining the relation between their helicopter and pilot boat. The first experimental use of the helicopter by the bar pilots was in 1997. Once the helicopter had proved itself, the first fast-run pilot boat was added to the system in 2000. It is now established routine for the bar pilots to use a helicopter in tandem with their high-speed pilot boats for putting pilots onto inbound ships and taking them off outbound ships. Boarding and disembarking from ships once in the river where the river pilots have responsibility is accomplished just off Astoria, Ore., with the pilot boat Connor Foss.

As an organization, the 13 Columbia River Bar Pilots see themselves as more than ship jockeys. “The Columbia River is a major export center with many of our ships arriving empty and leaving with loads of grain, potash or logs,” Johnson said. “There is an imaginary line somewhere in the Midwest where a decision is made to barge corn or soy by inexpensive barge down the Mississippi and on to Asia through the Panama Canal or to ship it by rail to the Columbia and then by ship directly to Asia.”

From left, Duerr and Bruhn are back at the Astoria airport base with pilot Gene Hill.

In the shippers’ calculations the Mississippi barge is less expensive than rail to the Columbia, but the longer sea voyage and canal tolls are greater than ship costs from the Pacific Coast. The Columbia River Bar Pilots know that they are a line item in the shippers’ budget calculations. “We have two guiding principles,” maintains Johnson. “Number one is safety for the pilot, the ship and the environment. Number two is efficiency for the ship.”

A containership, working on a tight schedule, would rather not take off speed and turn to make a lee for a pilot to board from a boat. With the helicopter, the bar pilots routinely go an extra 10 miles or more off the sea buoy to board a containership that is still traveling at sea speed. Such a boarding meets both criteria of safety and efficiency.

The speed with which a helicopter can complete the transfer of a pilot onto or off a ship is remarkable. In late February this year, the 418-foot by 54-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bertholf had just crossed the bar outbound after completing some repairs upriver. Bar Pilot Capt. Larry Duerr had boarded at Astoria and brought the ship over the Columbia Bar to the sea buoy and was ready to get off. The ship was sailing into one of those spectacular Pacific Coast sunsets and Duerr was standing on the ship’s helicopter deck.

Helicopter pilot Gene Hill and hoist operator Mike Bruhn had lifted off from the Astoria airport just before 1800. At 1803 they had crossed over the coast and headed out to sea. At 1807 they were following the ship’s wake up to the stern. They had previously agreed that there was no need to land on the ship. At 1808 they were hovering over the helicopter deck and Bruhn was lowering the winch wire, with a harness clip and small weight on the end, about 35 feet down to the bar pilot. By 1809 Bruhn was helping Duerr strap himself into the helicopter seat. At 1814 they passed back over the coast and by 1820 they were settling on to the apron at the airport.

Bruhn begins to lower the wire to Duerr while the bar pilot was still on Bertholf’s flight deck.

On the flight back to the airport their Italian-built Agusta 109SP helicopter had passed over the U.S.-flagged tanker Empire State. A few minutes after landing, having checked their aircraft, Hill and Bruhn were back in the air on the way to pick up one more pilot. It was a task that they would repeat numerous times before the night was done. Bruhn, who started his career as a helicopter mechanic on the Gulf Coast and has been working out of Astoria for nearly 10 years, said, “I counted my lifts until I got up to 3,000 and then I just stopped keeping track, it must be somewhere around 6,000 by now.”

Not all helicopter transfers are as simple as that from Bertholf. There are the dark and stormy nights when it is nice to know that the twin-engine helicopter can hover on only one engine if necessary. In heavy weather the ship will be turned to minimize the roll and put the wind either ahead or astern — not to form a lee, as it would for a pilot boat, but to steady the ship’s deck for the pilot to be retrieved or set down. The helicopter has a 35.5-foot rotor span. Helicopter pilot Roy Wilkowski explained that when the ship makes the turn it is important to get in and out quickly as the window, before it starts to roll in a heavy sea, can be quite narrow. He explained that when working a ship with cranes down the center line, he has to hover at about 45 feet so that the roll of the ship can bring the cranes in under his rotor span, but he must still leave enough room for the hoist operator to get his line down to the ship’s deck. On rare occasions he has done a lift at 75 feet, but the pendulum effect can be too great. At night the helicopter is flown with two pilots and with a ceiling limit of 700 feet and three miles of visibility compared to the daytime ceiling of 300 feet and one mile of visibility. Despite the challenges, Wilkowski proudly declares that in 22,000 hoists since the original trial, “We have never had even a broken bone let alone had a dunking or death.”


Bar pilots and flight crew wear easily inflatable life vests with additional safety devices including a German-made personal EPIRB, strobe light, ribbon marker, mini flares and even a small tank for breathing in the water. Johnson explains that all Columbia River Bar Pilots come from deep-sea ships and so have extensive experience around the world. He believes that this helps them to be more open to shopping the world for the best tools to do their work.

Connor Foss returns to the Columbia River Pilots’ Astoria base with a bar pilot who just guided a ship inbound.

It was this open approach to global technology that led them to Camarc Design for their first high-speed pilot boat, the 72-foot Chinook, delivered from Seattle’s Kvichak Marine in 2000. “With the speed of the helicopter, the old 12-knot pilot boat Peacock just didn’t fit into the new system,” Johnson said. “The helicopter can put a pilot on a ship in about 12 minutes. If fog shuts that down and we go to the boat, then we need its 30-knot speeds to get a pilot out to the ship in about 25 minutes.”

In 2008, they added Columbia from the same designer and builder. This gave them a backup vessel so the two now alternate as duty vessel and standby. With the helicopter and the two fast boats the system was complete. “We now do around 3,500 ship moves per year. About 70 percent of those involve the helicopter and 30 percent use one of the pilot boats,” said Johnson. “This results in around 700 times that the boat will be coming alongside the ship. If the weather is bad this can result in hard landings with resulting strain on the pilot boat.”

In order to maintain their high standards of service and safety the bar pilots had a third Camarc-designed boat built at Kvichak and delivered in March. All three of the boats have the same hull design developed specifically to meet the demanding seas of the Columbia Bar.

“Camarc came out here and rode with us to see what we were dealing with,” said Johnson. “On the design committee with the designer and builder we had Bar Pilot Capt. Wayne Stolz, who has deep-sea experience, but grew up in a local fishing family. We also had one of our pilot boat operators, David Fastabend, who is the son of a shipyard owner and had been a fisherman. He understood small-boat dynamics and the waters over the bar very well.”

The result was a hull form that not only has not changed significantly through three vessels, but has been copied by numerous other pilotages including those of British Columbia and Loodswezen, the Dutch pilot authority in the Port of Amsterdam. The Dutch group had three boats built to the same general design at Kvichak and shipped to the Netherlands. Minor changes to the superstructure on the second and third vessels, Columbia and Astoria, include Plexiglas panels in the breakwater forward of the pilothouse so that the operator can see the pilot’s feet when they are on the deck and a more complex set of lights for a variety of operations. A stern-mounted and hydraulically operated lift basket supplements a starboard-side rescue davit with horse collar. The basket, for retrieving an unconscious person, is lit and operated from a stern control.

Columbia River Bar Pilot Capt. Robert Johnson prepares to descend the pilot ladder from Clipper Iyo.

The remarkable aluminum hull design features a finely tuned deadrise with multiple lift strakes for sea kindliness and doublers and frames for extra strength. On a trip out in February with about 3 knots of ebb and a river current pushing Columbia along as it met the big Pacific ground swells, the GPS climbed to 30 knots. The big boat surged over the swells like a 1950s Cadillac on the Sunset Strip. It was so smooth that one had to check the size of the swells and the speed of the vessel to see how fast she was moving. There was none of the pounding that is so often associated with conventional deep-V hulls at high speed.

But this is much more than a well-bred ocean racer. The speed from the pair of big MTU diesels driving a total of 2,800 hp to Hamilton jets meets the pilots’ efficiency criteria. The boat operator, Capt. Chris Bigelow, grew up in Astoria and first went fishing with his grandfather at age 12. By 18 he was crab fishing and by 27 he was a captain. He started with the pilots as a deck hand and they sponsored his schooling to get his master’s certificate. The Columbia Bar is second nature to him, but he never takes it lightly. Working a 12-hour shift with seven days on and seven days off, he, along with the four other operators and crews, is supported and receives regular training from Fastabend, the lead pilot boat operator. This includes regular man-overboard drills. After a recent successful recovery of a pilot who fell into the sea, one of the pilot boat crew was heard to remark, “It all went naturally because it was just like a drill.”

On this February morning trip Bigelow, with deck hand David Cordiner, also a former fisherman, would pick up Johnson from the partially loaded Panamanian-flagged 555-foot Clipper Iyo outbound for Long Beach, Calif. Pulling out of the pilot boat base just inside the south jetty of the Columbia River mouth, Bigelow noted the river current aided by the ebbing tide was doing about 3.5 to 4 knots. On a flood, he explained that, “After the change, the river starts to rise but continues to push out on the surface for a couple of hours before turning.”

It is a casual observation, but also an indication of the comfort he has with local waters. He, like other pilot boat operators, is an expert boat handler. When Clipper Iyo caught up to the pilot boat to rendezvous at the designated Buoy Two, Johnson began the maneuver he would put the ship through to create a lee. While still on the ship’s bridge he asked for a slow change of course from 225° to 200° to maintain the ship’s speed. Then he left the bridge after telling the captain to stay tuned for further directions. Once on deck he called the bridge and ordered a hard port rudder to 160° to create a slick sea surface for the pilot boat.

The bar pilots’ boat Columbia prepares to depart the base near Warrenton, Ore.

Deck hand Cordiner had already gone out on the bow of the pilot boat and clipped his safety harness to the rail, before opening the storage box for emergency markers and loosening the life ring in readiness for any emergency. He turned on the GoPro camera mounted on the front of the wheelhouse to allow pilots and boat crews to review their work. As the ship swung to the new course, Bigelow set the boat’s starboard bow against the ship’s hull well forward of the pilot ladder. Johnson, who had been standing at the top of the ladder with his hands on the two manropes, began to descend as Bigelow worked the jet buckets and joystick on his console to slide the boat back and then parallel to the ship’s hull. This fitted a cutaway section in the fendering just at the point where the pilot ladder came down. Johnson had now come down the ladder holding onto the manropes. With the pilot boat in position, he kicked away from the pilot ladder and slid the last few feet down the manropes to the deck where Cordiner was waiting. Moments later Johnson was seated comfortably in the pilot boat and Cordiner was back in his lookout’s chair next to Bigelow, who was pushing the throttles back up over 2,000 rpm to speed Columbia back to the pilot station to drop Johnson and be ready for Empire State, which was already on the way down to the bar.

Except for the travel time, the move of the pilot from the ship to the pilot boat was equally fast and efficient as that of the helicopter. However, as Johnson repeatedly stressed, the two methods are parts of a system. As such they each do what they do best so that the pilots can operate safely in all conditions — day or night, come fog or storm — to keep the movement of commerce flowing smoothly in and out of the Columbia River.

By Professional Mariner Staff