Murphy’s law 2019 #41

October 17, 2019

This is the last day of the See For Yourself program in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) and after spending yesterday touring loading facilities along the Columbia River, we started this one with another essential transportation partner, BNSF Railway. Their traffic is down substantially due to the tariffs and much like executives of shipping, BNSF had a slide titled Lost Opportunity which showed that they do not expect soy exports to reach pre-tariff levels until 2027. Soybeans constitute a large portion of their business to the PNW, although last year corn is what carried them through in terms of crops.

We then were addressed by the Executive Director of the PNW Waterways Association which is comprised of 30 to 40 members of every facet of shipping along the Columbia from river pilots to port authorities to shipping companies themselves. They maintain a 43-foot depth along that river from the ocean 105 miles inland upon which 40,000 jobs depend. They must advocate at the state and national level for the funding to keep it functional and work closely with the Army Corps of Engineers. We then were treated to explanations of the work that Columbia River Pilots (they take control of ocean going ships between Astoria and Portland) and Columbia River Bar Pilots do. These people hop on the ship when it enters their territory and go to the bridge where they take control from the ship’s captain to assure safety in the tight confines of the river. When a vessel weight thousands of tons and is over 750 feet long, you need to know how to deal with ebb tides, flow tides, wind, etc. The Bar pilots handle the ships in the region known as the Bar which is not a land feature but the zone where the river flows into the sea. This is a more complex and dangerous job because waves can be 40 feet or higher and when a ship is loaded so it is drafting 40 of the 43 feet of water, too violent a pitching motion will ground either the bow or the aft and you are in trouble. They need to check with the National Weather Service for wind predictions, swell size, wave size and storm timing as well as other complicating issues. Then they need to either hop onto rope ladders over the side of the giant ships to either get on or off from about a 75-foot craft that pulls alongside the ship. It looks scary enough because both are underway, but when the seas are rough, it is extremely hazardous. They do use helicopters most often, but sometimes, especially in winter, seas are too rough and winds too high. We were all impressed with the dangers and details of these jobs which must be done to get your soybeans to market.

Then we boarded a bus and went to Bonneville Dam to see the first of several locks which to our surprise works on water heights in one hundred foot increments. They held one for us that had a barge hauling sawdust so we could see them open the gates, push the barge out and refill it with 28 million gallons of water in about 8 minutes to get ready for another ship. Pretty impressive. Tomorrow we get up at 3:30 to catch a bus to the airport. Home will look good again, even with 4 plus inches of water to encourage the mosquitoes and complicate our farming efforts. A great and educational trip!