Aboard Atlantis

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


It's just after dinner and all is quiet aboard Atlantis. On the other side of the sliding partion separating the library from the galley, dim mumurs and muffled conversation. Overhead, fresh air whistles through an air vent. A wave slaps the hull. A forward hatch is shut and latched with a metallic clack!

But for the fog obscuring the mouth of the Columbia River, we would have departed Astoria at our posted sailing time of 8:30 am Friday. Instead, on the advice of the pilot, we waited alongside the dock. By 10:00 am the fog had lifted, and the ship traffic stacked up at the river's entrance had dispersed. We cast off our lines and started downriver.

The Columbia River's olive green waters ebb and flood at three knots or about 3.3 miles per hour. Though it sounds slow, its flow is measured in millions of gallons per second. The Columbia's inexorable current scoured its eponymous river gorge out of the surrounding table rock. It has swallowed ocean going ships and drown swimmers. The Columbia River is a graveyard.

We threaded our way through an armada of sport fishing boats drifting downstream. Men holding fishing rods watched our approach impassively. Despite the danger of collision, some refused to give way, forcing Atlantis' captain to sound the fog horn. Ten short blasts, danger close. The signal sounded again and again. That they would be crushed like tin cans beneath Atlantis' 3,000 tons seemed to concern them little. They moved grudgingly, with a palpable sulleness.

Sunshine glinted off the water's surface. Wind wrinkled and tide ripped, the river swirled and churned, its heaving swells capped by frothy white rollers. The far shore nearly a mile distant, with its rolling, tree stubbled mountains and rock-strewn ravines, mimicked the river it shadowed. The first ocean swells began to lift our bow. Up ahead a fog bank, opaque and dazzling white, stretched across the horizon.

A cold, damp twilight descended. Colors faded. The horizon vanished. We zipped our jackets and raised our hoods. Our fog horn sounded, a sudden, skin tightening sonic boom lasting five seconds. Moisture had seeped into the horn. Its blast began as a honk, more air than sound. Only gradually did it find its full throat. We laughed at the peculiar two-toned note. It reminded me of my junior high school chorus. Sometimes my voice would give out mid-note, making me sound like a braying donkey. Eeeyhaaaa.

In between blasts, nature reasserted itself. Squawking sea gulls floated overhead. Water rushed beneath our bow. A fresh wind blew. I stood alongside chief mate, Carl, and fellow deckhand, Steve. We stared into the blinding whiteness. Nothing. Occasionally, a navigation buoy materialized out of the mist. We'd call it out, and Carl would notify the bridge on his walkie talkie. Sometimes we'd hear the deep hum of a distant ship's fog horn. Time passed slowly.

Keep an eye out for the pilot boat. It'll be coming alongside any time now. We strained our eyes, but we saw nothing but mirages and ghostly after-images produced by glare. The pilot remained on the bridge.

Unlike ship's captains, who are equal measures diplomat, despot, and CEO, river pilots are solitary introverts who rely on memory and intuition. More horse whisperer than celestial navigator, pilots know a river by feel. They know the river better than anything except their wife's body. Pilots know the location of every sand bar, mud flat, and swirling eddy. They've memorized every turn and bend, every rock and shallow, the times of every ebb and flood. Their education is continous; rivers like the Columbia change constantly.

The pilot boat appeared, a phantom from the shadows. As it drew near, it revealed its handsome lines. One hundred feet of smooth molded steel. Long sleek foredeck. Angular bow, sharp as a guillotine blade. Two story superstructure mounted aft, painted canary yellow and perched above twin water jets. We walked back to our pilot ladder and waited for the pilot.

Pilots leave a vessel by rope ladder. Not surprisingly, its called a pilot ladder. Secured to two pad-eyes screwed into the deck, the pilot ladder is slung over the railing, the lowest rung hanging just above the water surface. Atlantis' embarkation deck is one level above the main deck and about 20 feet above the water. The pilot boat matched our course and speed. It drew closer. Its captain turned slightly and pressed his vessel against ours. Heavy rubber bumper rails attached to its hull cushioned the collision. Pressed together, we sped along at 10 knots.

The pilot stood next to us. He said nothing. Dressed in waterproof overalls insullated with buoyant foam rubber, he peered over the side to the pilot boat below. It rose and fell like an air mattress in a wave pool. He cursorily inspected the ladder, gripped the hand rail, and lowered himself over the side. A crewman on the pilot boat helped him step safely onto the boat's non-skidded deck. This is serious business. Just last year a Columbia River pilot lost his grip, fell between the two vessels, and was crushed to death.

The pilot safely aboard, the pilot boat veered and disappeared into the fog. The roar of its engines soon faded. Quiet desceded. We were alone.

Night has fallen. The fog has lifted. Outside the library's porthole the vast, satin black sea blends into the infinite, diamond dusted universe.

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