Velella's Drift

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

Archive for Columbia River

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.

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