Columbia Pilot Pay Attracts Port’s Eyeby Ben Jacklet
Portland Tribune, October 19, 2004
Bar, river navigators say idea to combine jobs jeopardizes safety
Faced with a dramatic drop-off in maritime trade, the Port of Portland is looking to cut costs by consolidating two of Oregon’s most elite unions. But the Columbia River bar pilots, who earn about $180,000 per year guiding foreign ships into the river, say the consolidation wouldn’t save a penny. Bar pilots commute to work via helicopter and guide huge ships through one of the most hazardous stretches of water in the world — a place where 20-foot seas and 50-mph winds are not unheard-of during winter. Their 20-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean into the mouth of the Columbia River can take anywhere from two hours to six hours, depending on weather and currents. Once the vessel has safely entered the Columbia, the bar pilot returns to shore and a river pilot takes the helm and navigates the winding river from Astoria to upriver ports such as Portland’s. River pilots also earn about $180,000 per year. Now the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots, which sets the pay structure for the 16 bar pilots and 46 river pilots who ply the Columbia, has convened a committee to examine whether the same pilot could take the ship all the way up and down the river. James Townley, a former U.S. Coast Guard officer who represents shipping companies, argues that consolidating the two jobs could save millions and make Portland more competitive in the maritime industry. “There doesn’t seem to be any logical reason why the same pilot can’t do both jobs,” Townley said. Gary Lewin, who has worked as a bar pilot since 1983, disagrees. “I don’t see any way one person could do the job without jeopardizing safety,” he said. “The two jobs require different skill sets and different training. It would end up costing (shipping companies) more than it would save them because of all the extra training that would be required.” Bar pilots must earn unlimited masters licenses to operate vessels of any size in all ocean conditions. River pilots must first serve as tugboat captains on the Columbia for two years and learn the 104 course changes between Portland and the Pacific Ocean. Michael Haglund, an attorney who represents the bar pilots, said pilot costs make up a tiny percentage of the cost of a ship on a voyage to Portland. He points out that a similar committee was convened two years ago and the idea of consolidating the two pilot groups didn’t go anywhere. Jeff Krug, the port’s general manager of marine operations, said the need for efficiency is greater today, considering recent downfalls in marine trade. Vessel calls are down from about 2,000 to 1,600 ships per year and two major shipping lines recently have decided to stop calling on Portland, leading to a loss of 81 jobs at the port. “We’ve got to look at how we can change to compete,” Krug said. “Our pilotage costs are one factor that stands out.” Because Portland is located 100 miles up the Columbia and each passage requires two pilots instead of one, shipping lines pay three times as much for pilots here as they do in Seattle and Tacoma, Wash. According to the port, a container ship making weekly calls would pay $780,000 more per year for pilots in Portland than in Seattle. “The differential will always be there,” because of Portland’s upriver location, Krug said. “It’s just a question of whether we can make it less.” Krug sits on the new committee along with representatives for the river pilots, bar pilots and shipping firms. The group’s first meeting is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday at the State Office Building, 800 N.E. Oregon St.
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