THE WESTERN SKY is bleeding out like a giant open wound. Rich swaths of crimson and gold spill from a slit in the clouds, oozing across the waves of the Pacific like beautiful gore. It’s as if the horizon itself has committed hara-kiri. Even for the saltiest of mariners navigating these notorious waters near the mouth of the Columbia River, the sun’s late-afternoon curtain call is enough to inspire awed silence.
Inside the cockpit of the pilot boat Columbia—a mean, diesel-powered, neon-orange torpedo—skipper David Fastabend and his deckhand pay the view their respects with a nod and a stone-faced stare. A gray whale surfaces off the bow, its exhale of spray visible from a quarter-mile away. The only mammal that seems unfazed by the majestic panorama is one Kevin Dooney. In thirty minutes, he will leap from the bow of the 74-foot Columbia and grab onto a battered rope ladder dangling from the Fragrant Island, a 580-foot Japanese bulk carrier en route to the port of Kalama at twelve knots, roughly fourteen miles per hour. In rolling seas, Dooney must climb twenty-five feet to the deck of the Island, where he will take control of a ship that’s longer than a football field, then guide it into the teeth of the Columbia River bar.
The bar is a shifting sandbar in the seventeen-mile entryway to the Columbia River, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest and the fourth largest in the country. Without the calming buffer of a delta, the Columbia slams into sea swells; the colliding currents, along with weather conditions that can shift within minutes, make this one of the most unpredictable and dangerous stretches of navigable water on the planet. Today is Dooney’s one-year anniversary with the pilots, and already he’s heard enough horror stories to fill the forty-minute ride out to the Fragrant Island: waves standing nearly forty feet high, vessels dragging their anchors, lifeboats swept from decks, rudders of massive ships driven out of the water and rendered powerless.
Since 1792, at least two thousand ships have sunk here in the “graveyard of the Pacific”; Dooney is among only sixteen men and women licensed to take the big commercial vessels of the world through it. They belong to the Columbia River Bar Pilots, a limited liability company that dates back to 1846. At forty-four, Dooney is the youngest pilot. Before this, he guided oil tankers through the arctic waters off the Siberian coast, which offered plenty of another kind of peril: Ice. Storms. Ice storms. And yet there’s a reason he ended up working this deadly triangle of water just west of Astoria. “This place has a reputation,” he says. “Coming up, I knew the bar was the real deal.”
Right now, though, his energy doesn’t suggest nervousness, but rather the giddiness of someone trying to stifle a gut laugh. The smile on his freckled face is expectant, like he’s dosed my drink and is waiting for me to buckle. It dawns on me that he thinks I’m going to vomit. “All I’m saying,” he says, his pale blue eyes never leaving mine, “is that the trash can is right here.” He opens a metal cabinet drawer in the stern. “And if you can’t make that, the sink is right here.”
His assumption is not unfounded. Six miles off the coast, the horizon is a moving target. The Columbia slams itself into, up, over, and down the unrelenting chop. The state-of-the-art boat is barely a year old and is worth more than $4 million; it’s built to survive a 360-degree roll, and its twin engines power jets that blast four tons of water per second, a force that could fill an Olympic-size pool in fifteen seconds. None of which stops me from twisting and grinding against the brass pole behind the captain’s chair like a Friday-night stripper.