Over the next few months, we will be writing extensive album notes, including the lyrics and the stories behind the songs.
In the meantime, here are some notes about the song 'The Bar Pilots'.
The Bar Pilots
At harbors around the world, big ships have to take on a local pilot to guide them into port, but to get into the Columbia River takes two different pilots: a Columbia River Pilot and a Columbia Bar Pilot. The River Pilots take a ship through about a hundred miles of river, from ports like Portland and Longview, out to Astoria, near the mouth of the river, where a Bar Pilot comes on board and takes the ship out over the bar.
The Columbia Bar is said to be the second most dangerous river bar in the world, but no one seems to know which is the most dangerous, so some say it is the Columbia Bar.
Unlike a lot of big rivers, the Columbia doesn’t have a delta to slow down the water, so it comes out like a fire hose and collides with storm waves coming in from the Pacific, creating some very dangerous and turbulent waters. The Columbia Bar is a big bar of sand six miles long and three miles wide, with a narrow channel that is kept dredged through the middle. If a ship is pushed out of that channel, there are sand spits and rock jetties waiting to eat it up.
Peacock Spit is mentioned in the song. This is one of the most notorious hazards in the Columbia Bar. It’s named after the USS Peacock, which was sent to survey the bar in 1841 and promptly wrecked on the spit. A spit is a partially submerged bar of sand, which you might think would be a soft thing for a ship to hit, but it can break a ship in half or hold it for the waves to break up.
The conditions on the bar are constantly changing, and the bar pilots have to navigate on gut instinct, and the experience of a lifetime at sea. One pilot said that most of what he knew about being a bar pilot was how to get on and off a ship without being killed.
The pilots either have to go out in a pilot boat, and jump to a ladder rigged over the side of the ship, or else they fly out in a helicopter that either lands on a moving ship or lowers the pilot on a cable to a ship that is moving up and down. Because of the high requirements to become a bar pilot, the bar pilots who are jumping on and off these big ships are no longer young, they are people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who risk their lives every day to keep commerce moving.
The bar pilots are under a lot of pressure to keep the bar open at night and in all kinds of weather. The lower Columbia is one of the largest ports in the country, and the big ships, once they are loaded, are burning money until they can get to their next port. If the bar pilots close the bar for two days, the rail traffic is backed up all the way to the Midwest.
The bar pilots have a great safety record; they have not lost a big ship in several decades, although they take a dozen ships in and out every day.