Another Fine Plan is Born
I’ve been to Astoria, Oregon – the mouth of the mighty Columbia River – many times, but had never passed under the bridge upriver. This is the location of the notorious Columbia River Bar, which has the unenviable reputation as the graveyard of the Pacific, as more than two thousand ships have been lost in the area since 1792. We were intrigued by the thought of watching massive ocean-going ships pass under the huge Astoria – Megler Bridge on their way to Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon some one hundred miles inland. The river is navigable to commercial and recreational traffic for another three hundred and fifty miles through a series of locks all the way to Lewiston, Idaho. We resolved to check it out!
Another motivation for the trip was that when we purchased Chantey V in 2007, it had Corbett, Oregon as the hailing port on it’s stern. I was curious to visit the local waters where Chantey V had sailed for her first two decades after being built, near another famous river – the Hamble in Hampshire, England. We also have friends, Steve and Vickey Austin, that live in the city of Hood River, on a tributary of the Columbia. They accompanied us on their Waquiez 38, Tango on our voyage to Alaska back in 2019, along with Michael and Anne Hartshorne on Nimue. Michael and Anne were about to resume their world circumnavigation and decided a buddy boat trip down the coast together would make a great restart of their voyage.
Getting to Astoria, which is about 200 NM distant from Victoria, BC involves an offshore section off the coast of Washington (WA) to get there. This section is very unforgiving of any shortcomings in terms of crew and equipment. With this in mind, the spring haul out was especially thorough, checking steering and rudder, through hulls, standing and running rigging, as well as engine and other machinery. All was well and Chantey V had never looked better.
Getting Under Way
We departed our berth at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club on July 1st into a moderate breeze of 10 – 15 knots out of the west. The crew comprised my wife Cate, her brother John and of course ships dog Bridey the Sheltie. The forecast was for 10-20 knot westerlies and as we passed Trial Island at 7 am it was all that and more! In fact, it gradually increased, and by eleven we had a double reefed main and genoa and were just barely able to lay Port Angeles some 40 NM to the southwest. The seas increased in proportion to the wind, now in the mid twenties, with gusts above thirty! I regretted not postponing the passage a day but fortunately it was a relatively short distance.
Once we got into US waters, we used the new smartphone app process called CBP Roam to check in with US Customs and it worked very well. It provides for an interview via video phone call with the Customs officer if needed, and it was a relief that this requirement was waived, given the rowdy conditions on board. We were given our clearance number and carried on. The next challenge was getting a berth in Port Angeles. There was no response to either radio or cell phone as we approached. I made a radio call to Nimue on Channel 16 and thank goodness they were standing by. They gave us directions and were able to catch lines as we came alongside in fierce 25 knot winds even in the marina! Nimue also had a rough passage from Port Townsend earlier in the day, which included losing their mast mounted radar dome during a snap tack. It was great to be back on dry land and our troubles were soon forgotten as we enjoyed a beer and bite in downtown Port Angeles.
What a difference a day makes! We made an early departure in light winds, bound for Neah Bay some 60 NM distant, at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The only hazard was the flotilla of fishing boats of all sizes, out to take advantage of the benign conditions. We were happy to motor the entire distance, which has prevailing westerlies and can be an ordeal. The last 10 NM or so had enormous residual swells from the day before, which had us pitching extremely high. This led to some hard slamming of the hull, with consequences to be realized later.
We obtained berths in the mainly commercial fishing port of Neah Bay. This is operated by the Makah First Nation. A walking tour of the town included a stop for coffee, where we planned the next leg of the trip. Now 150 NM from Astoria to the south, this was a good distance for an over-nighter, with a daylight departure and arrival for the low slack water at the Columbia Bar, which was predicted for 10 am the following day. The wind forecast was for the usual northwesterly flow in the 10 – 15 knot range, which proved a bit light for sailing. Nevertheless, the direction was right and it would be sufficient for sailing the hours of darkness, which lowers the risk of getting an errant crab pot caught in the propeller. Nimue made better time and was waiting for us at the sea marker entrance to Astoria. The channel is 12 NM long, with the critical part of the bar at Clatsop Spit, about half way, so we had to endure over an hour of ebb to get to it on time. It worked out well and the bar was like a mill pond as we crossed, much to the chagrin of John, who was expecting the advertised excitement!
After securing a couple of berths at the Astoria West Boat Basin, we decided to tour the city. There is a wonderful restored 1913 tram that runs 12 miles along the waterfront, with volunteers providing guidance and narration of this town, steeped in history. We chose one of the many restaurants and booked for dinner later. Astoria has a terrific museum dedicated to the Coastguard, Bar Pilots and the history of the port, which is a must see for visitors.
Heading Up the River
There was no point leaving early due to the ebb, so we had a leisurely start to the day. John and I walked to the excellent chandlery at Englund Marine. We secured 16 ft of sanitation hose and some fittings. The severe pounding we got near Neah Bay had collapsed the discharge hose and we had the unenviable task of replacing it. Now, at least, we had the necessary parts. We set out at noon to catch as much of the flood as possible. The Columbia is tidal for the first 90 miles or so and the ebb can add another 3 knots to the typical 2 knot downstream flow of the river. There was a good breeze out of the west, which allowed us to periodically deploy a headsail when the wind angle cooperated. We had a nominal destination of Cathlamet, but given Nimue’s draft of 7 ft, we became anxious of a possible grounding at the entrance at less than half tide. We pressed on, checking a number of riverside anchoring locations before settling for a spot behind Fir Island. This area is called Cape Horn and the fierce winds as we approached made us realize why! Happily, it was perfectly calm in the lee of the Island and soon we were having a pleasant walk ashore with Bridey.
Setting out early next day, we were indifferent to the ebb, as the flood did not begin until much later and would not be that strong in any case. It was 30 miles to our stop at St. Helens and we needed to get on with it. The river was still very wide and huge ships as well as many tugs with barges were plying their way up and down. We passed large dredging operations. These machines work continuously to maintain the 40 ft depth required by the ship traffic all the way to Portland. The riverside scenery is interesting, with small towns interlaced with industrial activity along the way. There is an east-west railway running along both riverbanks, with a surprising amount of traffic, mostly containers with the occasional passenger train.
We arrived at the St Helens docks in six hours and secured ourselves. These municipal docks are unmanned and we were able to see that there was space available ahead of time by viewing the city’s webcam online. The docking fee, with the option of buying an electrical connection for the night, was paid on a dockside vending machine. Once ashore, we heard live music wafting through the riverside park, which gave the town a festive atmosphere. We toured the town and settled into a sidewalk pub for a few pints. Later we had dinner aboard whilst the Nimue crew took in the latest Indiana Jones movie at the beautifully restored theatre in the town.
With just 40 NM left to go to get to Portland, the shoreline gradually became more industrial as we passed the junction with the Willamette River, which leads into downtown Portland. The railway swing bridge opened for us after a 10-minute wait, and then on to the I5 freeway bridge, whose 66 ft clearance was nerve-wracking for Nimue’s 63 ft air draft! It even looked too close for Chantey V, even though our mast is only 54 ft tall. We stayed on the Columbia, bound for the Portland Yacht Club, which is behind Hayden Island. This is a reciprocal club to our RVYC and we received a warm welcome at this beautifully appointed facility.
This welcome included an offer to drive us for a provisioning run to the grocery store next day. This allowed John and myself to have the boat to ourselves for a few hours to tackle that hose replacement – not a job for the faint of heart. Suffice it to say we got it done! Later the same day, I toured Hayden Island on our electric scooter. This is our latest solution for transport to and from the boat. It’s very effective and folds up to a smaller package than a folding bike. It can go up to 20 kph an hour, with a range in excess of 30 kph and can be recharged readily with the boat’s inverter.
We took an Uber to downtown Portland on Sunday and had an enjoyable walk around the city. The waterfront is lovely and we found an eclectic retro café for lunch. Alas, there was also much evidence of urban decay, homelessness and open drug use, which sadly is a scourge in many large cities nowadays. We arrived back to the PYC in time to catch lines for Tango with Steve Austin on board. Steve had sailed down from Hood River to cruise in company with us for the run upriver.
A story to be continued another day.
[Editors Note: See next month’s issue for Part 2 of Chanty V’s Columbia River Cruise.]