Our Columbia River Passage Part 3: Warrenton, Oregon to Port Angeles, Washington

All good boating stories are at the best of times, convoluted.  The cruising life isn’t ever a step wise progression from point A through point Z.  It is about divergence and bifurcation, in essence, divarication.   Many boating stories written, as many are, as a series of excerpts from a ships log are made middling by that method and can make me lose interest. Eventually, I imagine it does for most people really.  First we went to Port Angeles, then we went to Friday Harbor, and I’ve got the tee-shirt to prove it.  Look, here’s the picture. Wish you were here.  Mostly… well, not really.  I am a bit of an introvert.  Well, my Myers-Briggs plainly demonstrates that I’m on the cusp between the two, introvert versus extrovert, but I do gravitate towards the introvert given half the chance.  And that is what draws me to cruising around in a boat.  I can get all the extroverted associations I need while at a dock or in town visiting a yacht club, and then slip the dock lines and move on to a secluded anchorage and ruminate in introversion.  If Les and Kai begin to impinge on my introverted state while anchored, I can hop in the dinghy and go exploring a bit, stop on a secluded gravel beach, lean against a log and cogitate.  Lovely.  Of course, my inner extrovert demands a need to be around friends and others.  My inner extrovert just doesn’t see that as a steady need.  Balance is key.

Our little ship is too small for extended cruising with a lot of people.  Perhaps we planned it that way?  Perhaps not.  I think it was more about listening to subconscious murmurings and migrating towards a lifestyle that fit both of us.  And this does.  Les loves to move around, then nest.  We have moved a lot because of her wanderlust.   I love to see new places as well, and I have an affinity with nesting as long as it’s in the galley.  I cook, she cleans.  Balance again.  Living on a boat, we don’t have to pack, move and unpack to satisfy our yearnings of wanderlust.  We just move the boat.  Much simpler.

Cruising around in a boat stands somewhere in-between divergence and divarication.  Truth be told, divarication is the more powerful characteristic, while the mundane for the most part stands in the distance, aloof and detached from the experience.  The trajectory traveled mimics the patterns associated with a braided glacial stream, twisting, turning, branching left and right, pooling, and finally cascading wildly into the sea. And when the branch bifurcates, don’t fight it, enjoy the ride.  Where it takes you is always interesting if you let it just flow.

Braided Glacial Stream

It is very different living on a boat and not in a land based domicile.  Space aboard a small ship is limited.  Yes, you can have your very favorite things surrounding you for the most part, lest they are bulky and won’t fit in any cupboard or drawer built into the cabinetry.  My cruising guitar is a Yamaha Silent guitar.  It is mostly air, comes apart and fits into a nice little case.  It has electronics on board that make it sound like a beautiful high end classic guitar through headphones and can be played through a small battery powered amp.  I love my real wood Taylor guitar, but it is bulky and is made less useful on a boat by being encased in a gigantic fiberglass case.  It doesn’t travel well, so it has been relegated to storage.

Unless you stay at the dock, internet, TV, cell coverage etc. are not constants.  Imagine that for a moment.  No email for days on end when anchored in a remote Canadian fjord.  No Facebook or WhatsApp to peruse, or TV to watch to fill the evening hours.  Water is limited to tankage or what you can make with a finicky water maker.  Long showers are a luxury for those who are land based.  Electricity is limited to what you can generate.  Refrigeration and freezer space is reduced, which changes how you cook and eat. When in port, daily fresh food shopping becomes the norm.  When not in port, planning is essential.  If you need Worchester sauce to add to the roux and gravy that is bubbling on the stove, you’d better have backup bottles in the pantry.  If you are moving from spot to spot, it makes no sense to keep a car.  The big boat and dinghy provide water based transport.  Busses, taxis, bikes and feet rule your land based explorations.  All that adds up to creative decision making and by taking actions that are not for the most part what you think they should be, or might have been if land based, but what they need to be because you are not.

So, why do it at all?  A valid question.  One moment you are gliding down an unfettered waterway, blissfully unaware that a critical hose just snapped a clamp and is leaking river water into the bilge.  After a bit, the high water bilge alarm sounds.  It is not a friendly sound.  It is not meant to be.  It is meant to start the flow of adrenaline that hurls you out of bliss and ejects you from the pilot’s chair.  You claw your way to the engine room and open the engine room door to find muddy water lapping up the side of the battery banks.  You cope with the issue at hand.  What choice do you have?  Once back in the pilot’s chair, after you’ve changed your wet pants and socks into dry ones, and after the adrenaline rush wears off, you are again gliding down an unfettered waterway.  Reflecting on what happened.  What went wrong?  How can we prevent that from happening again?  That is why we keep adding things to our hourly engine room inspection list that we use when motoring about.  Prevention?  Not always, but a steady diet of monitoring and fixing increases the timeline between alarm driven spurts of adrenaline.  It has been stated that cruising around in a boat amounts to fixing a boat in exotic places…  We can attest that adage to be true, and all of our cruising friends agree.  Agony and ecstasy.    It’s just not the same when your water heater out in the garage decides to leak all over the garage floor.  Annoying certainly, but that doesn’t make you feel alive.  Saving your boat from sinking does.  Arrrr… the boating life…  In balance, ecstasy wins.

Another thing.  In boating, the calendar is not to be trusted as an ally.  You determine that three days from now, a weather window will open.  It will last for 48 hours.  Or not.  It’s all a bit fickle.  Will it be Saturday or Monday?  The calendar says it matters, and when I was working full time, the calendar ruled many of my go, no go decisions.  Now I know as a certainty, as I suspected before, that the calendar doesn’t matter, particularly in boating.  In fact, allowing the calendar to make decisions for you can provoke trouble.  Ask any delivery captain.  The weather for a passage will be ready the day it is ready, not sooner, not later, not on a specific day you may have circled 2 weeks ago because it fit into some kind of plan to get to Victoria on July 1st to experience Canada Day.

So why write about the braided experiences.  Several reasons, but mainly, I love to write.  While writing I get to review what Les and I’ve experienced.  It brings it to life again as I attempt to put those experiences into a structure of words that I hope brings the experience to life for others who were not there.  It makes me look at the experience through a different set of eyes, those of the reader.  I can then visualize what transpired through that unique lens, and in a more cohesive, holistic way that I would not be able to attain if I did not ruminate and write about it.  That’s my story and I’m sticking with it…

Our plan was to arrive in Astoria and spend a few days, waiting.  Well… that plan had to be altered as noted in Part 2 of this series.  We couldn’t get into the Astoria West Marina.  The river didn’t think that it was a good idea at the time.  We readily agreed with her.  In reality, my quickened pulse, increased breathing rate, and wobbly knees, a well honed fight or flight response, made the decision, even thugh the harbormaster told us over the radio that entering the marina at that time would be just fine.  In our case, flight was the better option. Of course, arriving earlier or later would have been better.  I should have considered that more carefully in my navigational planning, but I didn’t think I needed to.  My bad.  However, our… I mean, my poor timing meant that we just needed to enter another branch of the glacial stream.  It was there beckoning to us.  So, I put Great Northern’s mighty engines back into gear and just above an idle we traveled further downriver at 8 knots SOG (speed over ground) to Warrenton instead and found ourselves nestled amongst commercial fishing boats and a large cannery that they served 24 hours a day.  We were also closer to the mouth of the Columbia.  Closer than we would have been if in Astoria.  Divarication reigns.

Our plan was to wait in Warrenton until the ocean swell on the Oregon-Washington coast relaxed a bit.  On June 22nd when we arrived, the offshore swell was running at 8 feet with 7 seconds between swells.  Conditions over the bar were passable but on the verge of not being so.  8 foot ocean swell is fine for a boat of our size, but the 7 second interval was sure to be uncomfortable even with our stabilizers.  10 or more seconds between waves is a much smoother ride.  There is time to go up and over them, not crash through them. We would go when the swell decreased and when the Columbia bar conditions were reasonably safe for a boat of our size.  We have enough experience with ocean passages to know that sometimes you shouldn’t be out there.  Sometimes you are out there and find out that you do not want to be out there.  It is always possible that you will falter and not come back.  It’s possible.  Every fishing port I’ve ever visited has a monument to those who have not returned from the sea.  San Diego has one.  Charleston has one.  Astoria has one.  I imagine Ilwaco has one.  I didn’t see Warrenton’s monument, but I’m sure it is there.  It is not wise to be out on the Oregon / Washington coast when the swell and wind are up, particularly if you don’t need to be.  There are few ports of refuge and all of them have a bar to cross over to get to safety.  Sometimes it’s just best to stay outside instead of subjecting the boat and your life to the challenging conditions of crossing a bar when the swell is up.  Best to stay in port until conditions are safe before you venture out.

We stayed in Warrenton on June 22nd and the 23rd wandering about the docks and visiting the town. If we had not entered the braid offered to us by the Columbia, we would not have gone there.  We would not have met Jane, the Marina Harbormaster of 11 years, and found out about the local history of the area, who owned which boat, who fished for what, and what they were fishing for now and processing at the cannery.  How the boats could be re-rigged to accommodate different fisheries.  She was a fount of local knowledge.  She told us about the Astoria West harbormaster who was not a boater and was not surprised about our experience at having to pass by Astoria West, when that harbormaster said that it was OK to enter the marina at any time.  Hmmm…  We discovered a really good Thai restaurant and ate a delicious meal there on the 23rd.

By the 23rd, conditions out in the ocean were abating and conditions across the bar were becoming very reasonable.  We had two plans.  We never have just one plan.  Sometimes we have three.  By the 24th of June conditions offshore were predicted to be ocean swell of 4-6 feet at a 10 second interval.  Conditions over the bar were predicted to be 3-4 foot rolling swell over the bar with winds of 10 knots.  Perfect.  We developed two plans for the 24th.  Leave early or leave late.

Plan one was to leave Warrenton at 0400 on the 24th.  We’d reach the waters inside the bar at 05:15, just before the end of the incoming high tide, and just before sunrise, cross the bar and make our way up the coast.  We would reach Cape Flattery and enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca while there was still some light.  Entering Neah Bay would occur after dark and after a long and tiring 20+ hour passage of 140 nautical miles.  Of course that timing depended upon our average speed offshore, the actual size of the swell, the direction of the wind, and the presence of any fishing fleet boats that we would have to go around.

Plan two was to leave Warrenton at 1530 to arrive at the bar at 16:30.  That would make for an overnight offshore passage arriving at Neah Bay in daylight.

Les and I are used to overnight passages.  At night we work 3 hour shifts and sleep 3 hours while we spell each other.  During the day it is a bit less formal.  At night offshore, the electronics we have allow us to see where all the other boats are out there.  Speed, course and destination are available on AIS (Automatic Identification System) and for the boats that do not have AIS turned on, we have short and long range radar.  What you cannot see are crab pots, logs, kelp paddies, whales, the odd abandoned fishing net floating around, and large steel containers that have fallen off ships.  All that being said, we prefer daylight passages when offshore.

So there we were digesting our Thai food trying to sleep.  June 24th.  Departure day.  At 0200, the cannery was going strong.  A large fishing boat had just pulled up to the dock.  Fork lifts were zipping around.  The klieg lights were blasting night into day with reckless abandon.  Les just said, “let’s go.”  We made some coffee, got the boat ready, turned on all the nav equipment, slipped the dock lines, made our way off the dock, passed the cannery and unloading fish boat, and meandered down the Skipanon Slough.

As soon as we were away from the cannery it was DARK!  We navigated via chart plotter and radar until we got to the Columbia where there seemed to be a little bit of light.  We made our way out to the outbound side of the ship channel and followed the navigation lights.  Our chart plotter and radar embellished vision informed us where we needed to go.  Downriver.  To the bar.  THE BAR!  In an hour we’d be there.

Navigation at night is… interesting.  It takes some getting used to.  First you turn all the navigation equipment lighting down as low as it will go.  Things that cannot be dimmed are covered.  Radar on.  Chart plotters on.  Both radios on.  One tuned to channel 16 for hailing and the other on a bridge to bridge channel so that Les or I could talk directly to skippers on other boats navigating the waterway.  16 for hailing, 13 for chatting.  The hard part to get used to is following the navigation buoy lights and being careful to not get them mixed up with other boat lights, the odd traffic signal on shore, and other distractions.  You compare the lights you see with what is on the chart, and what is shown on radar.  If everything agrees, all is fine.  If not, you keep on twiddling with your available data points until they do agree.  It helps to have a really good pair of binoculars.  We have two very nice ones that are stabilized. His and hers.  We don’t share them.  When Les bought me a really nice pair for Christmas a couple of years ago, she’d use them and hand them back to me.  And… I couldn’t use them without readjusting how far the eye pieces are apart.  Her eyes are a bit closer together than mine.  She moved them in.  I had to readjust them.  She’d move them in, I’d have to readjust them.  She’d…  Well, I bought her exactly the same model for her birthday.  It sounds like a small thing, but when you are trying to find a buoy that you really need to find to stay on course… you can see it on the chart… there it is on radar, and you quickly need to verify it’s position with the binoculars.  It is unsafe to have to readjust the binoculars to see through them.  Yeah, I know.  They are not that hard to readjust. But… it takes two hands and that flies in the face of one hand for the boat and one hand for the ship.  Well, doesn’t it?  That is how we justify buying many things for the boat.  If we can say it is a safety issue, it is a no brainer.  That is our narrative and we stick by it…

Anyway, the lower Columbia at night under overcast skies is very dark.  Dark as a dungeon, as pitch, the inside of a goat standing in a cave, on an overcast night.  The night of the 24th was no exception to all of that.  Out about a half mile ahead I saw this bizarre phantasm.  I mean, you do see all sorts of odd things that don’t quite make sense until they do while navigating a boat in unknown waters in the dead of night.  It’s the unknown part that makes the brain formulate quirky images.  AIS clearly had it pegged as a fishing boat.  Radar had it as an object moving in my direction.  My eyes, even under the influence of my magnificent binoculars that I did not have to readjust, said it clearly looked like the Millennium Falcon even though the electronics stated that it most likely was not.  AIS said the boat was seventy feet long and 20 feet wide.  This thing looked to be 50 feet wide with blinking white lights on each side way out from where the hull was supposed to be.  I moved over to the far edge of the navigable channel and slowed down a bit waiting for the apparition to get closer.  As the blob from space got within 300 meters I finally figured out what I was looking at, and I had never seen anything like it.  The fishing boat had it’s “fish” in the water.  Obviously they were deployed to help stabilize the boat as it crossed the bar.  That didn’t make me feel too good about how much fun it would be for us to cross the bar if a commercial boat had to deploy “fish” to get through.  This is a picture of “fish” stabilizers on a small trawler.  Imagine their size on a large, steel fishing boat, coming at you in the pitch black of night with lights on them, waggling their little arms at you.  Well, that’s night navigation for you.

Small Trawler with stabilizing “fish” extended.

As we got closer to the mouth of the Columbia, astronomical twilight began and we could start to see the outlines of the bluffs to the north of the bar.  Our morning progressed through nautical twilight and civil twilight and by the time we were on the inside of the bar we could clearly assess the conditions.

For years, we’d been reading about rounding Point Conception, the Cape Horn of the California coast, and we’ve now rounded it 3 times.  It wasn’t so bad.  Even rounding at midnight in 30 knots of wind in pitch black conditions in a well found steel DeFever trawler seemed to be OK.  Cape Mendocino farther north, in a sister ship to ours, was far worse with 15-20 foot swell and heavy wind.  But, we made it around that obstacle as well. For many years as well, we’ve been reading about transiting the Columbia Bar, known as the graveyard of the Pacific.  Since 1792, more than 2000 large ships, and many smaller ones have come to their end attempting to transit the Colombia bar.  Now we were at the mouth of the beast staring into its craw.  Northwest rolling swell, 1 to 3 feet as predicted.  Glassy conditions for the Columbia bar.  We sashayed over the bar, crooning our good fortune to each other, turned right 2 miles past buoy number 2 and started the 135 miles uphill trek to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  We were in ocean swell of 3 to 6 feet at 12 seconds.  Glassy conditions for this part of the coast.  No pictures were taken.  We were too busy and enthralled to think about taking any. 

The Columbia bar on a clear, calm, glassy day:

The bar on a big day… not for the faint of heart. 

Snaps of a Coast Guard boat playing in the waves…

I’ll share only a few pictures of the ongoing passage up to Port Angeles:

One of the many sea stacks along the receding coastline of Washington

A flock of common Muures about 15 miles off the Washington coast, just hangin…

21:19.  Sunset.  Eight miles off the coast of Washington and looking towards Japan, more than 4000 miles away.

Cape Flattery and a breath of Neah Bay behind it’s barrier island in the rear view mirror on a glorious morning after the rounding:

The Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Vancouver Island to port.  Northwest weather at its best:

The Lady Washington taking on fuel in Port Angeles.  Pirates of the Caribbean anyone?

A log sorting tug just toolin around in Port Angeles:

21 hours to Neah Bay and then some to get to Port Angeles.  Our passage included 100 miles of the Columbia River, crossing the bar, transiting the coast of Washington, rounding Cape Flattery just after sunset, entering and anchoring in Neah Bay in the pitch black of night (why it was as dark as a…), sleeping in Neah bay for a couple of hours and making our way up the Strait of Juan de Fuca on a glorious morning.  We made it to the Pacific Northwest, the cruising capital of the world…

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