12 hour turnaround in the Columbia River, Oregon

Fri 26 Aug 2016 21:40
46.11.29W 123.52.48W

Our intended few day stop in Coos Bay, turned into much longer than anticipated… as usual, waiting for weather! At least this gave us time to see Coos Bay, without it being shrouded in fog! After a week, a window arrived and we departed the dock just before the end of the morning flood tide. “Gooney Bird’ (the fisherman who lent us their big fender on that windy night) was following; not far behind, but heading for the tuna fishing fields about 60 miles out. The bar crossing was a bit ‘up and down’, but we were soon out and into a 2-3metre side on swell; not too comfortable. Within an hour, we saw what we didn’t want to see……another fog bank’. In we went with that ‘deja vue’ feeling ……..arrrghh! Fog bring quite a chill factor out at sea; so the Webasto ‘heating’ is usually switched on…… but today, it just wasn’t going to fire up?? So the only option was to layer ourselves up, I had about five layers on and even wrapped myself up in the duvet! Eventually after 12 or so hours, the visibility cleared and we even caught a glimpse of the coastline; that’s a first on the Oregon coast. Plenty of fishing boats to keep us occupied on our watches, especially the ones who stay in one place for ages then make a dash passing close by, to fish in another spot on the grid!

When we left Coos; we were unsure if we would head directly for Vancouver, or go into the Columbia River. The reason being; some uncertainty over some gale force winds into the Straits of Juan de Fuca (the entrance to Vancouver). On re-checking the Gribs, we decided to make for the Columbia River and would wait there for 12 hours to wait for the weather to calm down.

The “Great River of the West”, as the Columbia River was once called, has earned the reputation of being one of the most treacherous river bars in the world. Before the jetties were constructed to control its moving sandbar, the mouth of the Columbia was referred to as the “Graveyard of the Pacific”. According to local history, more than 2,000 vessels and 700 lives have been lost over the Columbia River bar. The area is so challenging, the U.S. Coast Guard’s only rescue training station is located at Cape Disappointment (just love that name?). Today thousands of vessels enter and exit the Columbia River without problem and only a handful are caught aground or in breaking seas.

Listening on VHF to the Coast Guard, we were able to hear their regular bar status reports; which provide details on the size of swell, size of breaking waves and restrictions to vessels. The bar is often closed to small craft when there is an ebb flowing tide and large swells running. We were several miles away, when we hard the bar was closed to small craft less than 30ft, but as we had timed our crossing to coincide with the end of the flood tide, the Coast Guard had lifted all restrictions by the time we arrived. As we navigated to the entrance buoys, it was easy to see how the bar got it’s reputation, as even on a relatively calm day there was a confused swell across the bar; wouldn’t like to see this place on a nasty day.

With the advantage of the flood tide we gained a few extra knots, as we cleared the piers into the channel. We made our way for West Astoria Marina about 10 miles from the entrance and although we had been advised they hadn’t any slips, we decided to see if the fuel dock was free, which is was. So after 190nm we tied up at 1700, had dinner and went to bed, up again at 0300, cast off and headed back out to take the last of the flood tide. On contacting the Cape Disappointment Coast Guard, they informed us there we no restrictions on the bar and by the time we reached the piers, we were already feeling some effects of the ebb tide.

The seas had died down drastically since our entrance 12 hours earlier and once cleared of the channel markers we turned to starboard and began to sail in 10knots of WSW winds in only around a metre swell….delightful!