In honor of our cold snap, I thought I’d share some thoughts about icebreakers. They’re special ships designed to break through thick sea ice. They do this with reinforced double hull construction, and a very round heavy shape that makes them idea for smashing ice but not so seaworthy as a regular ship. So they tend to roll around a lot at sea when they are not breaking through ice. Icebreakers do their job by running up on top of the ice and pushing down through it with their tremendous weight. An example of an icebreaker is the USCGC Healy. There’s a photo of her on the Ship Report website at http://www.shipreport.net


The Columbia River Pilots are among the unsung heroes of the river. They’re different from the Columbia River Bar Pilots who shepherd ships between the ocean and Astoria. Both pilot groups are consummate experts whose skills are greatly needed on the challenging waters of the Columbia. The river pilots handle the long, painstaking upriver leg between Astoria and commercial ports like Longview, Kalama, Portland and Vancouver. The river is winding, full of strong currents, and actually quite shallow compared to the draft of the many ships that traverse its waters. River pilots must be “on point” for many hours at a time while they work, to keep ships safely out of harm’s way. You don’t hear much in the media about river pilots, who generally shun the limelight. But without them, commerce could not happen. They are among the many people in the marine realm who help bring us all our “stuff,” from cars to clothing to french fries. We have mariners to thank for the plethora of choices we have when we need to buy something. It’s estimated that over 90 percent of our goods in the U.S. came to us by ship.

Today on the Ship Report we continue our exploration of the largely unseen world of ship docking. Worldwide, thousands of vessels approach berths to load cargo, manned by teams of experts who work together to make it all happen expediently and safely. In the vast majority of cases, docking happens flawlessly. How do they do it?
Columbia River Pilot Mike Balensifer talks a lot about experience, knowing, and “feel.” When I interviewed him, I felt like I was asking a bird to explain “how do you fly?” It was clear that his experience, ability and good judgment are part of who he is as a pilot and as a person, and the process is not easily quantified.

Today on the Ship Report we begin an interview I did with Capt. Mike Balensifer, Columibia River Pilot, about how to dock a ship. It’s a complex process that’s different with every vessel. Today Capt. Balensifer talks about the many issues that come up when you try to stop a ship. Among them: current, wind, tide, position of tugs and the design of the ship, to name a few. It’s a delicate maneuver that requires considerable skill, experience and finesse. It happens every day on the Columbia and ports worldwide, mostly unseen by the public.

Healing River Trip: posted on the Ship Report website is a radio story I did for Coast Community Radio in Astoria, about a special group of kayakers who paddled from Portland to Astoria for the Labor Day weekend. The trip included disabled U.S. combat veterans recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. I loved doing this story – it allowed me to talk with some amazing people, and also do radio feature production, which includes ambient sound and other fun stuff. Thanks to Albert Smith for letting me know about the trip – the group camped on his pasture land in Brownsmead. Listen online at http://www.shipreport.net

How to dock a ship

Apologies for a long absence from posting to the blog and Ship Report page on Facebook. It’s been a long couple of months of family emergencies and other necessary digressions. But I’m starting a new interview series on the Ship Report next week. It’s an interview with Columbia River Pilot Mike Balensifer, all about the seldom seen and VERY important process of docking and undocking ships. We see ships go in and out of the river all the time, but how do you stop something that weighs as much as a building, with no brakes? Find out starting Monday on the Ship Report. http://www.shipreport.net

Life at sea

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sharing bits of audio and talking about my trip at sea aboard the CSL Acadian, which happened in July – 10 days at sea, traveling between the Columbia River, Tacoma, British Columbia and San Francisco. It was a wonderful opportunity to see close up what life is like on a working cargo ship. Work goes on 24/7 – there is always someone on watch and working no matter what the hour. Ships also travel 24/7 except when they are in port – so even though they go at a rather slow speed (this ship at sea traveled a little over 13 nautical miles per hour), we reached San Francisco in two days at sea, because we were traveling continuously the entire time we were in transit.

Going to sea

Have been so busy getting ready for this trip that I have not blogged much. But I am about to embark on the perfect adventure for me – a 10 day voyage on the bulk carrier CSL Acadian! I’ll board the ship Thursday evening at the dock in Rainier, Oregon, and then the next day the ship will head out to sea. We’ll travel to Tacoma, British Columbia, and San Francisco. I’ll be on board interviewing people and recording sound. Taking pictures and general learning as much as I can about life at sea. Lots of unique Ship Reports when I return!