O Pilot! Historical Sketches of the Coos Bay Bar Pilots


O Pilot!
Historical Sketches of the Coos Bay Bar Pilots
By Capt. Steven E. Woods & Jeanne Woods
Coos Historical Society, 2013
134 pages

Alfred Lord Tennyson used the significance of a ship crossing the bar as a metaphor for death. He hoped for a gentle crossing with “such a tide as seems asleep.” I expect that pilots have thought those words as they went out to meet one more ship. Such crossings are regular events, although they can be, as in Tennyson’s metaphor, a deadly occasion.

Happily in this history of the Coos Bay Bar pilots by Capt. Steven E. Woods (who is himself a pilot, 1986 to present) and his wife, Jeanne Woods, most crossings are routine. Even those with exceptional tides or weather are nearly always successful. At the same time they do not avoid accounts of the dangers and death that await pilots and pilot boat crews on the Coos Bay Bar.

Published in March 2013, the book modestly declares itself Historical Sketches of the Coos Bay Bar Pilots. Sketches they well may be, but the sum total is a carefully researched and definitive history of pilotage in a small port with a challenging bar and long reaches of shallow harbor waters.

Starting in the mid-19th century, we learn of the haphazard nature of the earliest bar crossings: “…although Native Americans had been crossing the bar for centuries in their canoes. The pilot of record was Patrick Flanagan who traveled down from the Umpqua River area in 1850 with his Indian guide and piloted out the brig Kate Heath, which was headed for the Umpqua and had arrived in Coos Bay by mistake.”

In those early days of rough to nonexistent charts, local knowledge was as important as luck. The authors of O Pilot! do a great job of explaining the gradual updating of charts, the addition of breakwaters and of dredging and the licensing of pilots. Tales of heroic boat handling, rescues and loss are intertwined with history. This makes for exciting sea-story reading and there is no shortage of stories.

The 1909 rescue of seamen from the four-masted schooner Marconi by Capt. Bror Olsson is one such. Olsson served as pilot from 1931 to 1952. The authors have brought together an amazing collection of eyewitness accounts from archival and oral sources. Dale Holden, pilot from 1941 to 1971, tells of the 1957 collision between M/V Thorshell and the dredge Russell.

Capt. Ralph Hansen (1957-1984) tells how the pilots’ 76-foot tug Coos Bay, launched in 1969, had one of the wheelhouse windows blown out while crossing the bar. The pilots had the front of the wheelhouse rebuilt to give the tug distinctive round portholes that can take the green water.

Fortunately for the chronicling of Pacific maritime history, the authors included an account of the grandfather of pilot Capt. Gerry Davis (1974-1996), developer of the Davis Raft. This ingenious system of assembling a log raft so that millions of board feet of logs could be towed in ocean swells was used on the Pacific coast for decades.

Perhaps the only thing that takes more care than piloting a ship is the chronicling of those who do. The Woods have brought this ship into port in a very readable fashion.  

Copies of O Pilot! can be purchased from the Coos Historical & Maritime Museum by phone (541-756-6320) or at www.cooshistory.org. Proceeds benefit the museum.

By Professional Mariner Staff