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Image: Courtesy Columbia River Maritime Museum

When Rebecca Henderson steps on the bridge of the 650-foot Aliki Perrotis, she’s in charge. Of the Greek captain, of his Filipino crew, of the ship, and of the 34,900 tons of soda ash the bulk ship is carrying. From the dock near Portland until the vessel nears the mouth of the Columbia River, the five foot two inch pilot, blonde hair pulled back into a neat bun, is behind the wheel.

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Rebecca Henderson

River pilots drive every large ship—oil tankers and cruise ships, car carriers and container ships—on the first 320 miles of the Columbia like nautical valets. Another crew, of bar pilots, handles the short passage where the Columbia meets the ocean, to where hurricane-force winds and 40-foot swells are so perilous it’s called the Graveyard of the Pacific. Pilots hop into ships they’ve never seen before, sometimes overseeing a crew that doesn’t speak English. “Guys that have been going to sea since Noah’s ark, the older foreign captains, they’ll have a younger officer stand next to them translating,” says Henderson.

In 1993 the Oregon state legislature noticed that local pilot associations were short on minorities and women. An apprenticeship program brought in applicants from outside the local tugboat operator pool, and since then two accomplished woman mariners, Henderson and Anne McIntyre, made the cut.

The sight of a female pilot can still be shocking. “A couple times, the captain looks at you like ‘You must be kidding,’ ” says Henderson. Her response: competency. She’s usually busy deciding which tugboat to use, how to navigate the 600-foot channel with radar, sight, and feel, and ensuring that when she told the helmsman to turn right 10, he didn’t accidentally go left 10.

Deb Dempsey is no stranger to that look; when she attended the Maine Maritime Academy as the first female student in 1974, “I got spat on, I was in the middle of food fights, and bags of unmentionable things were left at my door.” She graduated, became the first woman captain of a cargo ship internationally, and in 1994 joined a club even more exclusive than the river pilots: the Columbia River bar pilots. 

Dempsey, retired now after a nasty fall into the freezing water, is a trailblazer; today Henderson and ­McIntyre are the only female ship pilots on the West Coast. Still, Henderson’s most memorable days come not from sexism, but the river: “I saw a deer swimming across the river, and I had to make a turn. I would feel really bad if I had to run over Bambi.”

For her part, Dempsey’s been profiled and interviewed far more than her male colleagues, and knows they were sick of her notoriety. But as elite as that crew is, none had to hear “But you’re a woman!” on the job. Dempsey always had a comeback ready: “I unzip my jacket and say, ‘Thank you, captain, you noticed!’ ”

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