September 3, 2000
The Columbia bar is one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor. All who have seen it have spoken of the wildness of the scene, and the incessant roar of the waters.
Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes. 1845
The potential treachery of the Columbia River bar, where the westward flow of the river meets the eastward currents of the ocean, is well known to those with even a cursory interest in boating in the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes referred to as the "Graveyard of the Pacific", it has meant the end to many a sailor. With this in mind, maybe even overwhelmingly so, we cast off from the dock in Tillamook Bay at Garibaldi for the final leg of our journey, one that would have us crossing the Columbia River bar.
Crossing the bar can be done safely, hundreds of thousands have done so prior to us. While one must not lose respect for the trip, one does not have to be overwhelmed with the what can happen - a little respect for the possibilities is all that is needed. To successfully navigate a safe journey into the Columbia it is best to pick the best time - that being during a flood, or rising, tide. The time we had chosen to cast off was picked, based upon the speed we had experienced coming up the coast, to coincide with a flood tide. In addition, NOAA weather radio, while forecasting rain squalls, gave us hope that the wind would not be whipping the Columbia River bar into a frenzy. If things worked out as forecast and planned, our crossing should be uneventful and we should arrive in Ilwaco sometime around 1:00 P.M. in the afternoon.
The bar at Tillamook Bay was a little grumpy as we crossed outbound on our northern journey, but nothing that O'Baby!! couldn't handle. Soon after moving away from the mouth the seas calmed down to their previous state, presenting us with a welcome four foot swell from the south, easing us along on our journey north.
The picture on the horizon presented us with the blackness of rain storms
all around us. As previously mentioned, we were
unprepared for this in that we forgot to pack our rain gear along on this trip. (You would
never guess we were lifelong residents of the great Pacific NorthWet.) So Debbie
came up with a great idea, we would wear garbage bags to ward of the rain!
way, I said,
let's just go below and operate from inside. Nope, Debbie
insisted and began cutting up the bags. Oh, how embarrassing.
No pictures, I
insisted, but that carried no weight either. (Sheesh, who's the captain here anyway!) So
onward we motored, the fashion plates that we were.
Surprisingly enough, we never did get hit with a direct squall, we just brushed the edges of the rain storms that we saw. As we came up toward Cannon Beach we watched a rather nasty storm head our way, wondering whether we could out run it or not. It missed us, but not by much (thank god, it carried a lot of water!). Soon after Cannon Beach it became clear we were not going to get rained upon. And in a flash, it was off with the plastic! I'm free! Woohoo!
Looking ahead we spied a land mass and for the life of us couldn't figure out what it was. Then it dawned on us, it's Cape Disappointment, on the Washington shore! Oh man, the end was in site. And even though we were a long ways away, it looked as though the water was going to remain as calm as it was now. The waves of hope swept over us, could it possibly hold?
The water was beginning to turn from four foot swells to largely no swells at all as we passed from the rain storms of Cannon Beach to the waters north. Our anticipation began to grow. It was going to work, we were going to cross the bar in calm conditions! This was getting exciting - oh how I wanted this boat to go faster.
But it wouldn't. As a displacement hull vessel, it was pretty much going top speed, on the flat water that amounted to about 10 knots. We were getting closer though, and there was no indication conditions would deteriorate. Our timing for the flood tide was working as planned, so we began to anticipate a wonderful crossing.
We kept our ear to the radio in case anything cropped up, listening for reports from other vessels. About all we heard was another ship worried about the traffic at Buoy 10, asking the Coast Guard if he could get an escort through the area. We had no idea what that was all about, as we could not see Buoy 10 at this point. But we stayed alert for any problems. In the mean time, we continued to enjoy the flat seas and the lack of wind and rain. About the only thing that could make this better would be sun, but hey, this was the northwest, we knew the limits.
One of the surprising sights we saw along the way were dolphins. We never imagined that dolphins would be this far north. Unlike the dolphins of the south, though, these creatures had no interest in playing with the boat - they just bobbed up and down in the water on their way to wherever they were going.
Another more interesting sight was the birds, thousands of the them. Sitting there on the water, making that loud squawking noise that they do, diving as our boat rolled toward them. They were everywhere. [Looking them up after we got home, trying to identify them, left us perplexed. It's possible they were marbled murrellets, but without any clear pictures of them, it's hard to be certain.]
Finally, the approach buoys to the Columbia River began to come in sight.
We were almost there, and the sea was as flat as a table. It was far
more than we could have asked for, and left our jaws agape at the sight of it. In fact, it
was so much better than anticipated that we could scarcely believe that we were looking at
Is that really it?, we asked each other.
Yeah, there's the
south jetty,; and not even a ripple of a wave rolling up on it. This was too much,
surreal in it's appearance. But we weren't complaining, on the contrary, we were rejoicing
at our good fortune.
It seemed to take an eternity to get to the buoys, but it did happen. And before we knew it, we were on an easterly heading into the mouth of the mighty Columbia. Oh the joy!
It also became apparent to us why the tug and barge had ask for an escort past Buoy 10. The salmon fishermen there were so thick in their boats that you could literally walk from one shore to the other without getting wet. Our worries of crossing a nasty bar were soon being replaced with the worry of getting through that horde. But hey, at this point, I was beginning to think that was more their problem. I'm big, I'm cement, and I'm putting this sucker in port. Watch out!
Of course, no one wants to swap paint on the water, and as we motored in on the entrance range the boats moved out of our way, flowing in behind us as if were had not even come through. We made our way through the channel into Ilwaco, found the first open slip we could, and in no time at all we were tied up to the dock. Our long ocean voyage was over. O'Baby!! was finally home on the Columbia!
"Man that suckers flat!"
Chuck Whitt, upon viewing the Columbia River bar September 2000