ASTORIA, Ore. -- The Columbia River Bar is nicknamed "the graveyard of the Pacific" for a reason. The ocean swells whip the river's current and it is one of the most treacherous bars in the world.

Video: Woman navigates dangerous Columbia River Bar

To get through it on a ship, was always a man's job. The Columbia River Bar is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Bar pilots navigate ships safely over the bar and help keep the commerce flowing smoothly through Astoria.

KGW was given a rare look aboard a cargo ship. Captain Deborah Dempsey is the only female Columbia River Bar pilot and has been, since 1994.

The Columbia River Bar pilots are an elite few, "Yep, I guess you could say we're pretty elite. There are only a few people that meet our qualifications," said Capt. Mike Tierney, also a bar pilot. There are fifteen bar pilots on the Columbia River.

"Yes, I do feel like a minority here just because of my gender. But, do I feel like a minority because of my job? Absolutely not," said Dempsey.

"She's been an integral part of the Columbia River Bar Pilots and she's certainly made her mark with us," said Capt. Tierney.

Dempsey has made her mark in many places.

She was the first woman to graduate from a maritime academy and the first woman captain aboard a cargo ship on an international voyage. Eleven years later, she became the first female Columbia River Bar pilot.

"It's a life long commitment, pursuit and career," said Dempsey.

And it is not a career for the weak. Captain Dempsey boards a ship in one of two ways; by boat or helicopter. On the day KGW tagged along, she flew in the helicopter and the chopper slowly lowered her down by a harness.

She unhooked and was greeted by the crew. Once up on the bridge, she assumed the ship's duties to get it through the channels. She was piloting a cargo ship out of Japan. The ship was headed to Vancouver to load grain.

"I have not reached that point where I wonder why I'm doing it [bar piloting]. I know why I'm doing it," she said.

Don't be fooled by how easy it may sound. To be a bar pilot, you must first have been a ships' captain for at least two years. And, to be a ships captain? You've likely been to sea for about 20 years.

That experience comes in handy when the weather isn't on a pilot'< s side.

"We frequently are out there working in 18, 20, 22-foot seas," she said.

She continues to break barriers. You could say Captain Debra Dempsey's ship has come in.

"It's not your everyday job. What it tells you is that you can do whatever you want to do. You know? Your dream can come true. There's no reason not to do it, just follow your dream and make it happen. It's possible," she said.

Two years ago, Captain Dempsey also began something else very near and dear to her -- the , a non-profit community boating center in Northwest Washington to teach people how to be safe on the water.

Read or Share this story: