Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Columbia River Bar

by Shanna Hatfield


As a writer, it's important to me to get the historical details as accurate as possible in my stories. Due to that fact, I spend a significant amount of time researching information that will help bring my stories and characters to life.

The book I'm working on right now features a hero who is a Columbia River Pilot back in the late 1800s.

I started doing research on what this job would entail and discovered a wealth of interesting details.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Columbia River, it is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. The river rises in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. It flows northwest and then south into Washington State before it turns west to form most of the border between Washington and Oregon. It empties into the Pacific Ocean.

The river is 1,243 miles long and its drainage basin is roughly the size of France and extends into seven US states as well as a Canadian province. It is the fourth-largest river in the US and has the greatest flow of any North American river draining into the Pacific.

The Columbia Gorge is the route the river follows dividing Oregon and Washington. The gorge is canyon that is up to 4,000 feet deep and stretches for more than 80 miles as the river winds westward through the Cascade mountain range toward the Pacific Ocean. It provides the only navigable water route through the Cascades and the only water connection between the Columbia River Plateau and the Pacific Ocean. It holds a protected status as a national scenic area and is a popular recreational destination.



Beautiful, isn't it?

Ships coming inland from the ocean or those traveling down the river trying to reach the ocean face a treacherous area known as the Columbia Bar. The jaws of the mighty Columbia River empty into the ocean at the bar where water gushes more than a million cubic feet per second and smashes head-on with hurricane-force winds creating twenty- to forty-foot swells roaring off the Pacific. Eerily nicknamed the "Graveyard of the Pacific," this stretch of the coast lives up to the moniker.

Since 1792, there have been approximately 2,000 ships sunk in the area and more than 700 deaths.  Water, weather, and geography combine to make the bar deadly. The Columbia River flows through a narrow channel into the Pacific. As the water surges toward the ocean, it slows down, dropping sand and silt. The sand and silt then form a fan-shaped sandbar that extends more than six miles into the ocean, creating underwater speed bumps. The conditions can rip ships to pieces and force swells to sheer off, creating a freefall. Pelting rain and heavy fog add into the dangerous mix.

The bar's weather and waves are notoriously dangerous for all types of vessels.

In 1846, after numerous shipwrecks, the Columbia River Bar Pilots organization formed to ensure the safety of ships, crews, and cargoes crossing the bar. The main office is located in Astoria, Oregon (12 miles upriver), where Victorian houses crowd the steep hills to the waterfront, giving visitors a reminder of a bygone era.

The men and women who belong to this organization must hold an unlimited master’s license (meaning they are licensed to pilot vessels without limits on size, power or geographic location) and have served a minimum of two years as master of oceangoing vessels.

All vessels engaged in foreign trade are required to employ a Columbia River Bar Pilot licensed by the State of Oregon when crossing the Columbia River Bar. The standard of licensing for the bar pilots is one of the highest in the nation.

The pilots board the vessels and assume navigational control, using their experience and knowledge to safely navigate the restricted channels of the Columbia River and over the bar both coming and going from the sea.

Approximately 3,600 vessels cross the bar each year – from 100-foot tugs to 1,100-foot tankers, bulk carriers, car carriers, log ships, general cargo ships, container ships and passenger ships. An estimated 40 million tons of cargo valued at $23 billion goes across the bar each year.



Another organization, the Columbia River Pilots, provide maritime pilotage services to all ports on the lower Columbia and Willamette Rivers once ships have crossed the bar. These pilots  are charged with safely and efficiently piloting vessels in all weather conditions, at all hours of the day and night, 365 days a year. Headquartered in Portland, the group has a pilot station located in Astoria where pilots await inbound ship assignments.


In my story, Adam Guthry is a Columbia River pilot, helping guide vessels from the bar to ports along the Columbia River and back again. You can read more about his work in The Christmas Vow, releasing this November as the fourth book in the Hardman Holidays series.

 ~*~*~
A hopeless romantic with a bit of sarcasm thrown in for good measure, Shanna Hatfield is a bestselling author of sweet romantic fiction written with a healthy dose of humor. In addition to blogging and eating too much chocolate, she is completely smitten with her husband, lovingly known as Captain Cavedweller.

Shanna creates character-driven romances with realistic heroes and heroines. Her historical westerns have been described as “reminiscent of the era captured by Bonanza and The Virginian” while her contemporary works have been called “laugh-out-loud funny, and a little heart-pumping sexy without being explicit in any way.”

She is a member of Western Writers of America, Women Writing the West, and Romance Writers of America.

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3 comments:

SingerChick71 said...

I adore the fact that you look to the FACTS about when you are writing. I claim it increases my learning, while delving into the romantic storyline. I am intrigued by these geographical oddities I've never known existed! Thank you for sharing. I look forward to your next book.
~Jodi

Robyn Echols said...

Great post. I never knew all this about the Columbia River. I tend to focus a lot of my research of the town of Columbia in California. I can see where the physical characteristics of this river can add a lot of excitement to a story. I look forward to reading your book when it is finished.

Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

Shanna Hatfield said...

Thanks, Jodi and Robyn! It is fascinating to learn all these details about an area. The history of the Columbia River Bar goes back a long, long way. Lewis and Clark spent the winter near Astoria, not all that far from the bar.