Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

Archive for July, 2011

Sailing Fresh Waters

As we left huge forests of kelp and throngs of sea lions behind outside the Columbia River bar, I imagined Velella relaxing as the salt crustings from over a year in the Pacific dissolved into the fresh river water. We had no place being in this river really–as a heavy full-keeled ocean-going cruiser, I felt like a whale in a lake. Sleek little river boats skimmed by us as we headed upstream, sometimes sailing, sometimes motorsailing, as the river bent in and out of the wind. Their skippers could recognize that we’d come from the coast, because we were clearly rigged up for offshore, with our solar panels, radar, dinghy lashed to the deck, and burly self-steering vane hanging off the stern. They would sail up alongside and ask where we’d been, and where we were going, and then chide us about the wrinkle in our sail or give us a tip on a secluded island anchorage.

Honestly, I hadn’t given much thought to the Columbia River in advance, primarily because our trip was over for all intents and purposes, and we just had to make it up to Portland and find jobs on land again. But as the dense green deciduous banks filled in on either side, and I began to notice old logging homes poking out of the forest on either side, I realized that I could easily fall in love with the mighty Columbia.


The river is moody and mysterious. Unlike cruising the coast, where we usually are well offshore, here we were sliding along almost touchably close to the banks. We could peer between the trees, up the valleys, rake our eyes over the sand dunes, peek back into little coves and take mental notes for next time. Whereas being at sea is dominated always by an amazing array of blues and grays, sailing this river is an outing saturated in green.

After blank slate of the Pacific ocean, sailing in the river was also stimulating: each curve throws open a whole new scene, sometimes dotted with people living their little lives on the shores, calling to their neighbors, and ten minutes later another bend spreads wide another vignette of river life. I couldn’t believe that unfolding before us was an entirely new and extensive cruising ground that we hadn’t even considered.

Since we didn’t have a cruising guide to the river onboard, we primarily navigated in the main channel where we knew the depths would be sufficient. But in the evenings, we could turn off, squeeze in to a protected little slough, and drop our hook in 10 feet of  calm water. On the first night, we had Westport Slough all to ourselves. As we enjoyed dinner of fresh crab dripping with garlic butter, goat cheese and blueberry salad, and a bottle of leftover wine from our wedding, I realized that we were in fact on an impromptu honeymoon, and it was perfect. We slept like babies in the absence of swell, and woke in the morning to songbirds.

As we neared Portland, we had a strong westerly wind pushing us up the river at a speed of over 5 knots (against the current!), so we decided to pull off into the quieter Multnomah Channel. Prescott’s parents decided to meet up with us that day, so after a quick stop in St. Helens to pick them up, we headed down to Coon Island, a place we’d heard from other boaters was a calm and lovely place to spend an evening.

We were greeted to Coon Island by a fantastic surprise. Free public docks! Having sailed all up and down this entire coast, I have never once seen a free dock where you can tie up for 7 days and nobody tries to make a dime off of you. Oregon’s public docks are part of the state parks program, a brilliant addition to boating life in this state. We tied up to the Coon Island dock, which was totally empty, and explored the tiny island in the long evening light. We even let the cat jump ashore and run around a little.

We were only a day’s sail away from our final resting point in Portland. When we got underway that last morning, I kept expecting to see evidence of the city right away. But instead, only miles of charming floating home communities gave any sign that we were closing in on civilization.

A mere five miles from the city proper, we rejoined the Columbia and finally were engulfed in the massive traffic on the Columbia. Three volcanoes were visible in the distance–Mount Hood, Adams, and St. Helens–and they lent even more grandeur to the big-city scenes.

Our final hurdle was an overhead one–the I5 overpass was a tight squeeze. They do have a lifting portion, but because I5 is the only major highway into Portland from the North, they don’t readily open it. So, we inched up to the absolute highest portion, which was marked 60′. With our air draft of 54′, we squeeked through with plenty of room, but it looked dang close.

Minutes later we pulled in to Hayden Island, our home for the time being. With the sunset washing the houseboats and docks in pastels, and draping Mt. Hood in pink, it was a warm welcome home from a long and incredible voyage. I couldn’t be happier with our new address.

Lessons on Crossing the Bar

(Rite of Passage, Part II)

Anyone who has decided to sail South from the Pacific Northwest faces the dangerous prospect of having to “cross a bar.” The Northwest coast of the United States is considered a “hostile coast” in that there are very few shelters to pull into over hundreds of miles–and those harbors that do exist are 90% of the time protected by a big sand bar entrance. While these “bars” create great quiet harbors protected from the wave swell of the Pacific Ocean, they are often dangerous and sometimes impossible to cross, depending on the weather.

On our first trip down the coast a couple years ago, we were hit with buckets of awful weather, compounded by HUGE ocean swell (8-10 feet on a good day;10-14 was also common). Sailing was nearly impossible because, in addition to an amount of seasickness I prefer not to recall in detail, every time we would slide down into a trough of one of these enormous waves, our sails would be completely blocked from the wind by the next upcoming roller. Then we would surge up with the wave, the wind would snap our sails taut, send a shutter through the entire rig, and slew the helm sharply to one side or the other. It was exactly the kind of weather when you start thinking about putting your boat up for sale immediately in the nearest harbor.

The problem is that, as the weather gets worse, so do the bar conditions. When large swell, waving hundreds of miles across the unobstructed deep ocean, all of a sudden reaches a shallow little sand bar at the coast, all that enormous wave energy has nowhere to go but up, constricted on the sides and below by land. So the swell builds vertically into huge, steep breaking waves in an effort to cross over the bar. It often becomes bad enough that the Coast Guard will simply close off the bar to any vessels intending to cross. And truthfully, staying out at sea is often safer than attempting to cross a bar.

This summer, as we left Cape Flattery astern for the second time and turned our bow South, I couldn’t help but worry a bit about the Columbia Bar, the hurdle we would have to jump in order to make it to Portland, Oregon. The Columbia is the biggest and baddest of all of the bars on the Pacific–over 2,000 boats have been lost trying to cross it. Still, we’d made several successful bar crossings before, and learned a few things in the process.

Timing your bar crossing is critical. Tidal action moves water in and out over the bars and either compounds or subtracts from any swell that’s coming across. When the tide starts ebbing, pulling out against wave trains crashing in over the bar, this is worst combination. Not only do the opposing forces multiply the height of the waves and their tendency to break, but certain geographical features can also cause dangerous tide rips on a strong ebb. But timing your bar crossing at the right tidal moment can drastically improve the experience. The key is always to cross a bar on a flood tide–preferably at the very end of the flood where the water has slowed to almost slack. It’s amazing how very dangerous bar conditions can lay down in a matter of hours with the turn of the tide.

So before we left Neah Bay to passage South to the Columbia Bar, I checked both the weather forecast and the current tables repeatedly. I wanted to make sure that we arrived during a favorable tide, AND during the daytime, because crossing an unfamiliar bar at night would be unthinkably imprudent in my mind. Luckily, we had a tide flooding until about 3pm that day, very light swell coming from the West, and only a hint of Northwest breeze. Ideal conditions for crossing.  We calculated how long it would take us to sail the 145 miles in light wind, and departed from Neah Bay right on time.

Using the Coast Guard as an information resource is another important step in preparing to cross a bar. As dawn arrived and we started making our way towards the mouth of the Columbia River, I switched on the radio and started receiving periodical bar condition reports from the Coast Guard. All along the coast, the different USCG stations broadcast bar reports regularly–and if you don’t hear one you can always call them for the current report. They provide up-to-date conditions on the bar, sometimes even breaking it down into particular sections (for example: the North main channel has breakers 4-6 feet, the South outer channel 1-3 ft). Luckily for us, as we approached the Columbia, conditions at sea were almost glass calm, and there were 4-6ft waves reported in the main channel over the bar.

You don’t know how big a wave really is until you’re on top of it. Viewed from behind, rolling waves look a whole lot smaller than they do from the breaking side. No matter how calm the conditions appear, it’s important to prepare your boat for strong forces and rough seas when crossing a bar. Secure everything down below and make sure deck-stowed gear and anchors are lashed down tightly. Everyone should be on deck, wearing PFDs, and preferably clipped in to the boat on tethers and jacklines. We had little to do to prepare Velella for the bar crossing because everything was already stowed securely for passage at sea, but we clipped ourselves in to strong padeyes in the cockpit for good measure.

One of the major causes of boats foundering on a bar is engine failure. It’s not just Murphy’s law that would cause a motor to quit just when you need it most. What often happens as you pass through the turbulent waters over the bar is that gunk sitting on the bottom of your fuel tank gets churned up and sucked through the lines, choking the engine. Or, the extra work the engine has to do to get over the rough bar waters uses up much more fuel that you’d expect, so people run out of gas! Then you’re left adrift right on top of the worst part of the bar, and good luck getting your filters changed and lines bled before your boat gets sucked sideways in the currents. We had planned for this, and brought an extra jerry jug of fuel, which we topped off our tank with before entering the channel. We also changed our fuel filters out for clean ones, just to be safe. And lastly, we kept up our main sail while going through the channel, because a sailboat is still under control if its engine dies–as long as its sails are up!

Our preparation paid off in the end, because crossing that big bad bar turned out to be a cakewalk. As we passed over Clatsop Spit and rounded the corner towards the port of Astoria, the breeze filled in from dead behind and we unfurled the genoa into a beautiful wing-on-wing run. So, contrary to my fears of becoming “trapped” in the Columbia, I think we’ll be able to easily slip over that bar again soon, and point our bow South once again.

Rite of Passage (Part 1)

Almost two years ago, we left Seattle tenatively on a boat I barely knew. We had spent weeks and months preparing for our big voyage–going over everything wiht a fine toothed comb, packing and repacking, whittling away at our big Excel sheet of to-dos. For 8 weeks, I studied navigation and trained up to get my Captain’s license. We serviced all the fire extinguishers and the life raft, we installed lazy jacks and solar panels, hired a weather route to help us interpret our best window, and had all sorts of support as we left town on a foggy morning in August, having no idea (but some very vivid dreams) about what we were getting ourselves into.

Last week, we arrived again at departure day, from the same marina in Seattle, on the same boat. This time, we simply bought a copy of this year’s current and tide tables, picked up a few bags of fresh food, and slipped our lines. No loosing sleep several nights in advance, no libations and pleas to Neptune, and no wondering what was around the corner.

What was around the corner was the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and I knew it well. The first time we’d fought our way out to the Pacific Ocean had tamed my expectations entirely, and had almost convinced me that I’d made a grave mistake in choosing to buy a boat and live on it. As we pulled anchor on a lovely morning in Port Townsend this time, my stomach tightened in anticipation of what I knew to be a very challengening 90-mile entry-way to the Pacific Ocean. I was mentally prepared for disorganized wave chop, relentless seasickness,  pathetic speed against the strong currents, and longer night watches because this time we didn’t have a third crew member with us to share the load. I was nervous about the exaustion that I new the Strait would induce, but I was expecting it this time around. Sailors ruefully call it the Strait of Juan de Puke-ah, and I was well aware of why.

The current was with us as we nosed in to the East entrance to the Strait this time, and the early morning wind was light and variable. We motored on glass-flat water at 7.5 knots, and I couldn’t believe our luck. I actually didn’t trust it at all, because I knew that when afternoon rolled around and the sea breeze started funneling towards us over the opposing ebb current, we’d be sailing in a washing machine. So, while the morning weather was still mild, we knocked off about 30 miles and pulled into Port Angeles at noon. No sooner had we tied up than the wind started whipping through the marina, and I enjoyed a thick cup of coffee with relish and self-congratulations at making the right call to pull in early.

The next morning, we did it again–arose with the ebb that would carry us West, hoping to make as much way as possible before the westerly wind set in against us. This time, though, the wind rose earlier than we’d hoped, and dark clouds congregated in our path. Par for the course, I thought. I could see sheets of rain ahead, and I knew that our ebb tide was about to turn to flood in a couple of hours, making everything more of a slog. The clouds were moving fast, and I had heard radio reports that foretold a cold front. Cold fronts are more furious than warm ones, but they’re also quicker passing. As I zipped my foulies to the chin, stuffed handwarmers into my gloves, and put on a yellow sou’wester hat, I decided that I would like to handle this weather snarl like the salt I am now, rather than the trembling newbie I was two years ago.

On the leading edge of the front, the winds picked up suddenly, and rain fell in pinprick waves across our uncovered cockpit. Visibility dropped rapidly and the tanker that had been abeam of us only 2 miles off disappeared in the mist. Prescott flipped on the radar and I braced myself against the cockpit sole as we pressed on through it. Something about the look of the clouds and behavior of the winds around them told me this wasn’t going to last long. Sure enough, after the first onslaught, the dark clouds rose slightly and became a little lighter. The wind eased ever so little, and the rain stopped. We emerged about 2 hours later into sun-pierced afternoon mist, and I could see the line of clouds storming east into the Puget Sound. Ahead, out over the Pacific Ocean, the sky winked with patches of baby blue sky. I felt like I could reach straight up and touch the warmth of Mexico–and it doesn’t feel that far to go anymore.

We reached Neah Bay, the farthest West you can go before turning South, and dropped our anchor in a bay drenched in sunset. We still had the Washington coast to transit before reaching Oregon, but Juan de Fuca was behind us, and we’d walked through the squalls gracefully. We enjoyed a dignified bottle of wine on the hook, as all good should be able to do after a passage, and fell asleep soundly, trusting our anchor completely, and trusting our ability to handle the next leg of our journey. My dreams that night were laced with visions of rounding Cape Flattery proudly for a second time, savoring our last offshore night watch, and crossing the notorious Columbia River Bar–the final high hurdle in our seamanship exam.

[to be continued!]