Vital link in transportation chain is largely unseen by farmers Jeremy Nielsen, Columbia River Pilot Captain

By Trista Crossley


Captain Jeremy Nielsen’s role in the transportation chain that takes wheat to market is mostly unseen to farmers, but without him, their grain would be dead in the water.

Nielsen is a river pilot, responsible for navigating ocean-going vessels through the lower Columbia River. Using a ladder on the outside of the ship, river pilots board as vessels pass under the bridge in Astoria, relieving bar pilots who are responsible for bringing vessels over the bar at the mouth of the river. River pilots guide ships anywhere upriver they go, with the majority heading to ports in Longview, Kalama, and Vancouver. Federal and/or state law requires most ships on the river to have a pilot onboard.

“Every commercial port in the world has pilots, and pilots are the local experts in that area’s waterways,” Nielsen explained. “A ship may come in, and the captain has never been to the Columbia River before. There’s a lot of local customs; things operate differently in every port. There’s different recreational traffic, fisherman you have to worry about, dealing with the local government, all this aside from safely navigating the ship. We get onboard, and generally, they are happy to see us. We navigate the ship into whichever port it’s going to dock at. When it’s ready to go, we undock it and take it back out.”

Nielsen originally wanted to pilot airplanes, not boats. He was born and raised in Montana. As a senior in high school, he missed his chance to apply to the U.S. Air Force Academy, but switched course when he learned that the Navy actually flew more planes than the Air Force. He successfully applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, but was facing a year’s delay due to lost paperwork. Out of the blue, he got a call from another U.S. academy he’d never heard of, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, who offered him a spot. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy was established at the beginning of WWII to carry supplies for the U.S. maritime force. The academy is located on Long Island, N.Y., on a former estate of Walter Chrysler, founder of the Chrysler Corporation.

“They said something about ships and seeing the world, and I thought, ‘Well, sure, I’m up for adventure.’ So I got my congressman to change my nomination, and that’s where I went, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy,” Nielsen said. “I still remember the day I flew into New York City. It was quite eye opening for a rural Montana boy.”

As part of his education, Nielsen spent a year at sea, traveling all over the world. He’s been through the Panama Canal, spent time in the Far East, China, and Alaska, and been up and down both U.S. coasts and the Gulf Coast.

He recalled a trip to China on one of the first U.S.-flagged vessels allowed into the country. The 1,000-foot container ship sailed up the Yangtze River.

“The river, and it’s a very large river, was clogged with all these very small vessels. They were bouncing off the sides of the container ship. Families were living on them, and there’s little kids running around without life jackets. That’s their home. When we docked, there were about 500 Chinese Red Army in formation, all with rifles, on the dock. That was our welcome reception. It was a little bit intimidating. They did allow us off the ship, so I got to walk around Shanghai. For the most part, people were really friendly, but I had armed guards follow me everywhere I went. That was a little bit unnerving.”

As Nielsen finished up his service, he realized that the long-term time commitment required to serve aboard a ship wasn’t what he wanted. Fortunately, one of his trips had included a stop on the Columbia River, where the pilot’s comments set the stage for his next adventure.

“(The pilot) said, ‘Hey, kid, if you ever want to be pilot, this is the place to be a pilot. It’s challenging, it’s a great schedule, and you get to live in Pacific Northwest,’” Nielsen said. “I made it my goal to be a Columbia River pilot after that.”

Nielsen’s first few jobs in the Columbia River maritime industry included steamship agent, which takes care of a ship’s logistics when it comes into port, including food and fuel for the ship, cargo logistics, and crew transitions, and as a stevedore, which manages the loading and unloading of cargo. He spent nine years as a tugboat captain for Shaver Transportation before becoming a river pilot and joining the Columbia River Pilots (CRP) association in 2013. For the past four years, he’s served as president of the CRP.

While every waterway has its own navigational challenges, piloting on a river system means constantly dealing with a current.

“The current sometimes is hitting the vessel on the side and pushing you one way and pushing you the other way. It’s really a challenge when we are on a big, heavy, deep ship,” Nielsen explained. “Turning the ship around, at times, can block off the flow of the river. Anyone who has tried to hold a piece of plywood against the wind can relate to some extent.”

Many of the ships Nielsen pilots on the lower Columbia River are longer than the river is wide — the deep draft channel is only 600 feet wide and 43 feet deep — leaving him very little room to maneuver. The channel is sounded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) every 30 to 60 days from the mouth of the river to the head of deep navigation in Vancouver. If a pilot finds a problem, they can usually get it checked out by the Corps within a day and get a dredge repositioned within a few days.

Dredging is a big focus for the CRP, which works closely with the Corps and other industry groups to make sure the Corps has the funding to maintain the channel. If the depth of the deep draft channel isn’t maintained, it can limit traffic on the river as well as the amount of cargo ships can load.

“We have not had a draft restriction for about six years now because the Corps has been well funded, and they’ve done a very good job keeping the channel clear,” Nielsen said. “But if we do have to have a draft restriction, on a typical Panamax-size vessel, I’ve been told that the value of one foot of cargo they can’t load is about $1 million. It’s significant.”

Two of the biggest changes Nielsen has seen in the maritime industry is the amount of information available on the industry and the level of precision pilots need to do their job — ships have gotten bigger, but bays, harbors, and rivers have not.

Nielsen believes that without all eight of the dams on the navigable Columbia-Snake River System, the system doesn’t work. He said there’s a lot of misinformation being spread about the lower Snake River dams and talked about overhearing a federal legislative staffer during a recent tour of Lower Granite Dam who was surprised that the power generating equipment was in excellent shape.

“I jumped in and said, ‘Why wouldn’t it be in good shape? They are state-of-the-art systems,’” he recalled. “There’s misinformation about the condition of the dams. There’s misinformation about the cost of the dams; they actually produce more revenue than the operating and maintenance costs are. There’s misinformation about the fish passage numbers. There’s misinformation about orcas that supposedly only like Snake River salmon. There’s misinformation about the state of Puget Sound’s local waters. So really, there’s just a lot of misinformation out there. I think if people are honest, put emotion aside, and look at facts, the facts show that what we have is a jewel that needs to be protected.”

Nielsen hopes that farmers in the Inland Northwest understand that the river pilots are working for them, doing their part to make sure the river system is advocated for and that every ship that comes through is treated with the utmost care to get cargo to market.

“I’m really proud of my fellow pilots,” he said. “It is hard to describe the amount of extended focus it takes to navigate ships on the lower Columbia River system, but we do it day in and day out, largely unknown, with extreme precision while maintaining an excellent safety record. They are an exceptionally skilled group that I’m proud to be part of.”

When not piloting on the river, Nielsen spends his time enjoying the outdoors with his wife, Sarah, and their three children. For more information about Columbia River pilots, visit