Amazing as it might sound, there are people in the maritime industry who do not believe the Columbia River Bar is a dangerous place. During an official discussion upriver some months ago, one such Portland authority referred to the bar as "a quiet little estuary down there."
Last Friday's brush with disaster should be sufficient evidence to disabuse anyone of the notion that the bar is quiet or safe. Were it not for the extraordinary capability of the Columbia River Bar Pilots, we might well have had another New Carissa disaster off the North Jetty.
The captain of the Tai Shan Hai did not call for assistance. As Bar Pilot Gary Lewin said, "Like the New Carissa, the captain didn't realize he was in trouble until he was in trouble."
The New Carissa leaked 70,000 gallons of fuel oil from its wreckage. The Tai Shan Hai carried about 140,000 gallons of fuel oil.
All of this is important evidence in the long-running dispute between the Columbia River Bar Pilots and the Columbia River Steamship Operators Association (CRSOA). During the rate hearing that has now been settled, the CRSOA repeatedly minimized the skill that is needed to guide ships across the Columbia River Bar. The CRSOA's spokesmen even belittled the danger of the bar itself.
The CRSOA questioned the need for the bar pilots' use of a helicopter. During last Friday's adventure, the pilots' helicopter saved the day. Without it, Bar Pilot Mike Dillon would not have been able to board the Tai Shan Hai. The helicopter allows the pilots to work in weather in which they otherwise could not work.
The pilots have asked for a radar station at Cape Disappointment that would allow them to see vessels that are coming toward the bar. In this case, it would have allowed the pilots to turn around this vessel as it steamed toward a dangerous situation.