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A New Twist on Raising the Bar

Daily World

Citing safety issues, speed and cost, bar pilots are now using helicopters for transport to and from cargo vessels off Grays Harbor.

Sea captains who travel the world rely on the bar pilots for up-to-date, detailed information. The bar pilots are crucial to the commerce of the Harbor. Their knowledge of the shipping channel, including sandbars, bridge clearances, tides and currents, guides vessels safely in and out of port.

In the past, they have used pilot boats to rendezvous with - or depart - vessels just off the entrance to the Harbor.

The Port of Grays Harbor began using helicopter transport for the pilots about six months ago when pilotage services came under the Port's direction.

"With only four ships coming into the Harbor a month, using the helicopters is more cost efficient than using and maintaining pilot boats," says Bobby D'Angelo, director of pilotage for the Port.

Currently, the cost of helicopter transport, round - trip, for four monthly cargo ships is $8,000, compared to $13,000 for pilot boats.

"When more ships begin to come into the Harbor, then the boats will be the primary transport for the pilots," D'Angelo said. "When weather, cost and other problems arise, then helicopters will be used. Right now, the helicopters make more sense, but that doesn't mean we won't have the boats now or in the future."

Once the economy improves and ship traffic increases on the Harbor - to Port and Weyerhaeuser docks - D'Angelo said maintaining a "cost-effective pilot boat operation" will make it cheaper and easier to use than helicopter transport.

"The cost of bringing up the helicopter to the Harbor or catching it in Astoria to get onto the ship is more expensive when you use it more here," D'Angelo said. "With a cost-effective boat operation, those costs to get onto and off of the ships can be controlled."

D'Angelo added that local bar pilots will be able to use helicopter transport when the choppers are not in use by the Columbia River Bar Pilots Association. The association recently signed a five-year deal with Portland-based Helicopter AirTransport to provide transport to and from cargo ships.

In July, Knutson Tug Boat Co., of Coos Bay, Ore., will begin ship assist and bar pilot transport on the Harbor. Knutson won an open-bid process with the Port earlier this year.

D'Angelo said he will re-evaluate the cost of using the boats and helicopter transport at that time.

"But right now, I don't see that the boats would be more expensive than the helicopters with more ship traffic," he said.

Relatively new to the Harbor, helicopter transport allows bar pilots to be hoisted to and from the decks of cargo ships with relative ease.

Rand Wintermute, vice president of Helicopter AirTransport, said that helicopter transport for bar pilots is widely done at Oregon ports, including Astoria and Portland.

"Compared to the boats, which can sometimes take a few hours to get to the ships, helicopters can get a bar pilot onto a ship in less than an hour," said Wintermute, a retired U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant commander.

"It also saves the shipping companies money on fuel costs and time, because they have to stop or turn in a circle to wait for the bar pilot boat. The ship can continue its course as the helicopter meets with it and drops off the bar pilot."

Helicopter transport has been floated around state legislative committees in Olympia as an option in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which has experienced high ship traffic and congestion over the past several years.

As more and more ships travel through Puget Sound, accidents, near-misses and time delays are becoming more frequent.

State Sen. Karen Fraser, D - Olympia, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy & Water, met with Wintermute and D'Angelo at Bowerman Field at Hoquiam last week to take a ride on a simulated bar pilot transport to Astoria.

"I'm here to learn and see for myself what I've been hearing about helicopter transport for bar pilots," Fraser said.

"With as much traffic that the Juan de Fuca sees, this may be an option, but nothing has been proposed or suggested."