The Columbia River bar, where the river runs into the Pacific Ocean, is notoriously savage, yet it’s of huge economic importance. Grain, apples, and other commodities from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are exported; Toyotas and other cars make landfall over a hundred miles upriver in Portland. It’s a busy place, with very big ships moving back and forth. And there are fifteen captains on the planet that make it happen, taking the big ships across the world’s most dangerous waters.
Based out of Astoria, Oregon, the Columbia River Bar Pilots is a tough club to get into; on average, it takes over 15 years of experience just to apply – and if accepted, you have a minimum of 100 crossings with a certified pilot ahead of you before they’ll even consider letting you drive on your own.
“If I fuck up, there’s oil everywhere, people are dead, the channel is blocked,” Riggs says.
There’s a lot on your plate, in other words, every time you pilot one of these ships in or out of the Columbia, and it happens more than 3,000 times a year. Oh, and if you screw up, you’ll likely to some prison time as well. As the saying goes, “Serious as a heart attack”.
“If a surgeon makes a mistake and a patient dies on the operating table he doesn’t go to jail,” says Riggs. “In this profession you can go to jail even though you’re acting in good faith [and] you’re not drunk or stoned.”
Oh, it’s an interesting job, with excellent compensation. But the demands of the physical exertion associated with simply getting to and from the ships at all hours of the day and night, often in nasty weather, together with the psychological stresses, exact a hefty toll. You’re not going to work into your mid-to-late 60s as a Columbia River Bar pilot.
Hipsters and slackers need not apply.