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The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Drama on the Columbia River Bar

Mike Duff

December 7th, 2019

Any mariner who plies the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest knows how wild that coast can often be. Chances are they also know the entrance to the Columbia River and the Bar that protects it from any dubious vessel that dares to challenge its uncompromising wrath at the wrong time.

The Columbia River Bar is not some sleazy joint on a river side street like you might find along the banks of the River Thames, or those along the canal side streets of Antwerp or the watering holes on the side of the Danube, no! The Bar on the Columbia River is more serious stuff than that, especially to the old timers of Astoria, Oregon, the gateway city at the river’s mouth. To them the Bar is part of their heritage, their history, the evolving of their city, and they hold it in great esteem with a great deal of pride; for it was ‘The Bar’ that gave them employment as rescuers, salvagers and pilots to guide ships across it as they navigate the long Columbia river.

By now you might be wondering what the heck the Bar is?

Well first of all, the intent of this brief narrative is to tell you about Anestina crossing the Bar, including a little drama on the way. Not to try to explain why the Columbia River Bar does what it does, because I’m no expert on its bizarre behavior, but I will, in layman’s terms, try to give you a brief idea of what makes it such a dangerous waterway.

All big rivers around the world eventually run into the ocean, but unlike the Columbia, they fan out into wide, shallow estuaries that form over a long period of time, by the deposition of silt and sand carried down by the flow of the river. In relative terms the Columbia has a huge volume of water flowing down to the ocean through the convergence of its upstream tributaries, some being major rivers in their own right, but at its mouth where it meets the ocean, the immense volume of water funnels into a comparatively small outlet and the silt and sand contained in the flow,   deposits at its mouth to form a constantly changing sandbar: the ‘Columbia River Bar’.

Topography of the Columbia River Bar showing some of the 2000 ships that have come to grief there, since 1792.

Some rivers, like the Amazon, have huge estuaries hundreds of miles wide; as does the Fraser River in British Columbia; the Nile, and the Zambezi just to name a few big rivers on different continents.

All rivers are affected by ocean tides to varying degrees depending on their location on Earth. Because of the restricted outlet of the Columbia River, the tide has a more profound effect on its flow, making it an extremely dangerous waterway to navigate. This is because of wave effects due to converging flows, wind, weather, and the constantly shifting sand bar. There are a lot more complexities involved that cause its erratic behavior, including the asymmetrical relationship between the earth and the moon, coupled with apogee and perigee tides and the geographic position of the Columbia River mouth relative to the “tide creating moon”.

At times throughout the year, when the river flow crashes into the open Pacific Ocean at its mouth, it tends to come to a dead stop. All the silt and sand in the water collapse at the mouth to form the famous Bar, a bit like a big black charging bull hitting a solid brick wall and collapsing at its foundation.

The Columbia River is a commercial waterway for ocean-going ships for about 100 miles and smaller ships navigate up the river for twice that distance. In the early days, many ships came to grief on the Bar or near it because of few navigational aids, tidal effects, weather and bad judgement. Since becoming a significant commercial waterway in the 1790’s, more than 2,000 ships have foundered at the mouth of the Columbia River. It was dubbed the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’ and a mural in the Astoria Maritime Museum is a testament to that.

Like any navigable inland waterway, most large commercial ports employ professional pilots to navigate large ships into their port facilities. Astoria, the gateway city, is the base for the Columbia River Pilots. There are two classes of pilots: the Bar Pilots and River Pilots, but the former are the distinguished elite; they’re the ones that bring the big commercial ships across the constantly changing sand bar.

I don’t know if large ocean-going vessels have to time their passage across the Bar the way smaller vessels do, because big commercial freighters have the power to plough through the rip that can reach a high magnitude of wave height with a very short period between wave peaks. This is scary stuff in a small boat, I’ll tell you, and if Anestina got into it, it would bury her! Therefore, timing is critical to ensure that small boats are able to cross the Bar safely.

I don’t know what determines the opening and closing of the Bar, but I do know the US Coast Guard closely monitors its condition and opens or closes it accordingly, including to commercial traffic. For small boats, what can be extremely dangerous is an opposing wind to the direction of tidal flow, even in high or low slack water, which is generally the best time to navigate the Bar.

We went into Astoria for two reasons:

  1. To go down the channel entrance at high slack when the current can still be running at a high rate of knots. If you add the speed of Anestina under power… wow what a ride! We went screaming down the channel and across the Bar.
  2. To check in through US Immigration and Customs.

Although it was an awesome joy ride down the river, it wasn’t without some drama at the channel entrance. Anestina has two fuel tanks. The main tank built into the keel; the second, a small capacity day tank, filled from the main by an electric pump, manually operated by a push button switch. With all the anxiety of crossing the Bar at the right time, I overlooked the fullness of the second tank. We were just at the entrance to the main channel heading across the Bar, not 100 meters into it, and although we were yet several miles away from the critical point, our speed was beginning to increase and I knew there was no turning back. We were committed to the flood and in for the ride and it wasn’t going to get any slower.

One of the red markers approaching the bar.

All of a sudden, the engine died! Oh, what a time to croak, I thought, after all the care and attention I give that little three cylinder sucker. It lets me down at the worst possible place, right at the channel  entrance to the Columbia River. Now what ? In the panic of the moment, which seemed a lifetime, but it was only a few seconds, I realized what had happened. It had simply run out of fuel. I scrambled through the wet locker close to where the day tank is installed and checked the level gauge. Not a single sign of fuel in the tank. It was empty! The engine had taken the last little drop and stopped.

There was one solution to the problem and no procrastination: bleed the fuel system and pronto. All it took was a 14mm spanner and a screw driver. However, there was one problem: I needed another pair of hands because I can’t fit my foot down the side of the engine to stroke the manual pump with my big toe to get the fuel flowing. I’ll have to wake up Simon, my crew and First Mate, who had not long been off watch and sleeps like a log. I didn’t want to do that, to wake up a log, but had no choice.

I kept on stroking the manual pump while I cracked the bleed screw at the injector pump until we got a bubble-less flow of fuel. Done! Next I tackled the injectors starting at # 1 cylinder: I cracked each one at the overflows until a clear flow of fuel. Done! Then, the moment of reckoning; the engine turned over but for a lot longer than it normally does before firing and then suddenly, Bingo! it starts, splutters and burps and finally begins to run, hesitating a little as all that last aerated fuel is squeezed of its air. After all that, it starts to purr. We’re back in the game. Phew, what a relief! And before I bring the engine up to its cruising RPM we are already screaming down the channel.

The benign looking bar at high slack that might have violent waves in the next few minutes.

Fortunately, because of boat speed due to current, in spite of those 15 powerless minutes, we still had steerage and Silas, the Bar pilot, was able to keep us on a straight course down the channel with just a few single degree corrections along the way. It was tempting fate for sure!

Customs and Immigration in Astoria was hassle free. I called them up on VHF after crossing the Bar and answered a few basic questions including passport numbers and boat registration. George, the Customs Officer, met us at the fuel dock coming in, gave us a welcoming greeting and then said we were good to go. All cruisers coming into the US need a Cruising Permit. When I requested this, George simply gave me an entry confirmation number on a torn off piece of paper (very informal and a breath of fresh air) and told me I would have to call the office the following day to make an appointment. The cruising permit involved a few questions and was issued as a formal document not long after, with a validity of 12 months. The issuing officer advised me to call Customs and Immigration at each major port, as a gesture of courtesy.

Rested up, fueled and watered and ready to rock and roll, we departed Astoria after three days, half an hour later than we had planned, on an ebbing tide. All went well down the northerly river stream towards the Bar and we enjoyed the ride to the green channel marker, marking the turning point into the final channel and across the Bar.

Right on the Bar were two large dredgers that are used in maintaining a constant depth. Each dredger was running diagonally across the north and south side of the channel and we initially set a course to run between the two. However, these two vessels were moving much faster than they appeared and we subsequently decided to go around them. While our attention was focused on the dredgers, we were rapidly approaching the green marker and before I knew it, we were almost on top of it and had I not disengaged Silas (the autopilot) and swung the wheel we could have been history. The rate of current flow around that buoy was frightening.

As we continued down the channel, the outgoing ebb got worse, the wave rip intensified and became quite violent and Anestina constantly buried her nose. Fortunately this was just a mild sample of how bad an ill-timed crossing can be over the Columbia River Bar.

Now, we discovered there is after all another bar in Astoria that would, by any stretch of the imagination, rival those of the sleazy European variety that I mentioned at the beginning of this little narrative. The Portway Pub, not five minutes walk from our slip at the government dock has been in the same location for nearly 100 years, since 1923. Its most famous owner, or Publican, was the son of its founder. Portway Paul, they called him, a professional boxer who is well remembered in the community for running long beer tabs for all of his clients. When any one of them was paid off, he bought drinks for the house. The legacy he left after he passed on several years ago is still upheld today. The Portway Pup is an active noisy joint where the beer is good and the tattooed clad characters to watch are even better, especially on Karaoke night. Worth a visit if you’re passing through Astoria on your way south, but check and double-check your timing across the Columbia River Bar.


  1. Cliff David says:

    Hay Mike Cliff here enjoy your journey be safe and keep in touch.

  2. Kchristie says:

    If there is an adaptive and flexible lad, one to hang out with, it would be you. Insight and learning, just happen around you.
    Great writing. Glad to have met you. Hope I helped a bit.
    Elders just go out and do it. The youngsters say wow!
    We never lecture, but if they come to ask- we show them how.

  3. Hugh Bacon says:

    Nice account Mike. Great diesel bleed job! The Wide Bay Bar off Fraser Island, Queensland, Australia challenged us but nothing like the Columbia River. Cheers, Hugh

  4. Ken Wright says:

    Mike , good account……………… next time ………………
    bleed air out of high pressure pump by opening bleed scew and operating low pressure pump lever
    use a bit of paper towel to tell you when fuel bubbles solid…..then close bleed screw.
    crack open all 3 injector nuts AT the same time …….
    put litle bit of paper towel to tell you when they all get wet …..
    make sure to put the throttle to max position while bleeding air out(rolling eng over)…………
    secure all 3 nuts.throttle back to 1/4 then start up…………. often coughs getting rid of lit bubbles of air so………
    do NOT ….put throttle to idle until you are very sure !
    .idea maybe…take my “MAD” diesel course next time in Van.
    Via condios ..
    ps…..most injector nuts use a 17 mm spanner….. find a 6-flat almost enclosed spanner ( 1 flat is cut open to admit the h/p pipe) as this does not slip off the nut.

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