Columbia River Bar Pilot

Thron Riggs, Columbia River bar pilot

Bar pilot Thron Riggs survived being thrown into the Pacific.

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Every day, ships from around the globe bear goods into the Pacific Northwest on the Columbia River. Thron Riggs is one of 15 bar pilots who help lead the ocean vessels through a treacherous harbor entrance nicknamed "the Graveyard of the Pacific." For more on pilots and ships, visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Ore. (503) 325-2323, www.crmm.org.

Q What's a bar pilot?
A We board ships out in the open ocean and direct them safely into the river, and vice versa. The Columbia River Bar is a horseshoe-shaped sandbar that extends six to seven miles out to sea from the river mouth. I navigate ships through a narrow cut dredged in the bar.

Q Is it a difficult job?
A Huge swells come in all the way from Japan while the river discharges a million cubic feet of water a second in the other direction, creating 40-foot swells. It's one of the world's roughest crossings.

Q Had any accidents?
A One windy December night, I was getting off a ship onto the pilot boat. I jumped off the rope ladder, the boat made an unexpected movement, and I went in the water. It was just pure luck that I didn't get crushed by the boat or eaten by the propeller.

Q A favorite perk?
A Dining on the ships. Every time you board, it's like going to a different country—China, England, Turkey. If it's a Russian ship, I'm in Russia. They're not making hot dogs, they're cooking borscht—and, man, it's just like Mama made it.

Q Where can landlubbers watch?
A Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, across the Astoria Bridge, has a great view. With binoculars you can see ships crossing the bar.

Photography by Greg Vaughn

This article was first published in January 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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