The light in the boathouse began a stealthy morph from a shadowed murk to the color of sooty cotton. Winter sunrise at St. Helens. Raindrops tapped a live tattoo on the sheet metal roof and slipped quietly onto the surface of the water outside. There was little wind, and we could hear the subtle, whispering tendrils of the river weaving their way past the pilings and floats that kept the boathouse in place. Everything leading to this point was mere preamble: selection, offer, survey, sea trial, insurance, searching for the perfect slip. Today we moved the boat. We had been aboard and watched Charlie, who we bought the boat from, maneuver Great Northern out of it’s cozy boathouse grotto into the fairway, pivot and crab along at a 45 degree angle or so to get out to the main channel while gauging river current, tide effect, wind, and closeness to either side of the fairway. Great Northern is 53 feet long and the fairway is only 62 feet wide. Easy in most conditions, but tricky in a river current with little room for miscalculation. Today we needed to leave the slip where Great Northern has lived for the past 13 years and Charlie was under the weather and would not be there to give us his assistance and years long knowledge of depart protocol.
The slack at St. Helens was just before 0700, but experience of others that we talked to led us to consider a 0930 departure time. Local knowledge is invaluable and easy to acquire. Oregonians who have been shaped by the nearness of the Columbia have a vast and proud wealth of local knowledge gained over many years of experiential learning and seem quite fond of sharing their lessons about how to stay safe on the river. It is the rainy season and the Columbia doesn’t care much for the precision of tide charts. At 0900 we could still see a significant downstream current. Although the flooding tide from the Pacific reaches all the way to the Bonneville dam upriver, a relentless ebb seems to have the edge in the grudge match between ebb and flood.
We began our pre-passage ritual at 0700. We spent our time getting the boat ready, stowing what needed to be stowed, turning on one of the gen sets so we would have plenty of electrical power, switching on all of the instruments, chart plotters, forward looking sonar, and radios, checking to make sure all was copacetic…. During our prep time, the sooty cotton gave way to a placid metallic overcast. , and a flock of Canadian geese flying over Sand Island honked their way upriver towards Sauvie Island to feed for the day. We powered up the horn compressor so we could warn other boats as we left the lane and emerged onto the waterway between St Helens and Sand Island. Light rain, overcast, wind at 5 knots from the Southeast. 0930. We’d been watching the current and it did appear to have slowed to a languid flow. It was time. Headsets on, generator on, and engines running at idle I tested reverse and forward on both engines. Success. Les removed the bow lines, Port aft line and Port springs, followed by the starboard aft and starboard springs, and she boarded the boat. We were free and slowly drifting out of the boathouse with the current. Driving from the fly bridge so I could see all obstacles I edged us out using intermittent starboard, port engines and bow thruster to keep us straight. We didn’t touch anything out, and as we emerged into the fairway I began a slow pivot to port. With the reduced current it was easy to edge out of the fairway. I hit the horn before leaving the fairway. Holy shit. What a horn! When Great Northern speaks, everybody HAS to listen. We edged out into the current and let the boat slowly drift downstream.
Our goal was to pick up fuel at the St. Helens Fuel dock just 1000 feet downriver. I slowly spun the boat around and feathered over to the dock. I took a very long time to get over there because I was playing with the Glendenning electronic throttle controls and the bow thruster. It was the first time I’d ever really driven the boat by myself. We touched the dock and the gal at the fuel dock helped us tie off with a bow, spring and aft line to hold us against the moderated current. Voila! First depart, docking and fueling. First passage.
After fueling we made our way along Sauvie Island past Warrior Point, Warrior Rock, Willow Point, Reeder Point, Hewlett Point, Belle View Point all named for incidents and people that have lived along the river creating the rich history of the Columbia. Our destination was the Salpare Marina on Tomahawk / Hayden Island near Portland. During our first passage we saw tugs, barges, a huge dredge being towed upriver by puller and pusher tugs. There was intermittent rain and it was hovering around 40 degrees outside. We made our way through one squall that we saw coming on radar. We really enjoyed the warmth and dryness of our pilothouse.
Salpare Marina lies on Tomahawk Island in a pocket bay off of the main river. We picked the marina because of the reduced current the pocket bay affords, it’s location close to chandleries and other services, and the airport is nearby. After navigating through a few shoals just outside the pocket bay our docking was uneventful. We tied off and congratulated each other for our successful passage. The boat handled very well and appeared to be pretty uncomplicated to operate. So far… Next steps… ready the boat for a May-June departure down the Columbia, out over the bar, up the coast to cruise next summer in Salish Sea, the San Juans, the Gulf Islands and beyond.