bar-pilot4

Seahawk winch operator Michael Bruhn hoists bar pilot George Waer from the Tritonia.

The ship enters the bar, skirting the buoys that lead the way to Astoria. Barrett, who used to pilot ships for Chevron, pulls out an ancient metal stopwatch and clocks the time between markers, then inscribes numbers in a small, leather-bound notebook; there are sixteen more journals just like it in his desk at home, filled with the logs of more than four thousand trips over the bar. In most occupations that require any combination of physical and mental prowess, a person’s prime consists of a pocket of years in the twenties and thirties, when bone and muscle are firm. But most pilots, like Barrett, are well into their fifties and sixties when they peak as captains.

The sun is out now, the jagged edge of Cape Disappointment within sight. The Oriente moves so smoothly, it’s almost as if we’re aboard a pleasure craft. Barrett starts telling sea tales—about the odd feeling of boarding and acclimating to another captain’s vessel, about cat-size wharf rats kept as pets, about bleary-eyed Indian sailors asking how to get to Japan, about one captain’s wife who made a boatswain paint the elevator pink.

As we ease into the shadow of the Astoria-Megler Bridge, I can’t help but notice that Barrett hasn’t so much as looked at a radar or computer screen. Is it possible, I ask, to navigate this huge hunk of steel and men just by using the jigsaw coast as a guide? Barrett stops writing in his pad. The wrinkles in his face coalesce into a smile. “What do you think I just did?”