Galley Wench Tales

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Crossing the Columbia Bar, Graveyard of the Pacific is not a navigational stretch to trifle with.
(Photo credit Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay)

Despite sailing halfway around the world relatively unscathed, today’s passage in our own backyard is one the fills most well-informed sailors with a sense of dread — crossing the Columbia Bar. The Bar is the point where the Columbia River enters the Pacific Ocean. It’s considered one of the most dangerous places to navigate in the world.

File:Peter iredale sunset edited1.jpg
Peter Iredale wreck, it skeleton marking the Graveyard of the Pacific
Robert Bradshaw [CC BY 2.5 (]

“Since 1792, approximately 2,000 large ships have sunk in and around the Columbia Bar, and because of the danger and the numerous shipwrecks the mouth of the Columbia River acquired a reputation worldwide as the Graveyard of the Pacific.” — Wikipedia

Valiant I crewed on in 2012 and crossed the Columbia Bar in rough conditions.

The first time I crossed the bar, in 2012, it was a nightmare. I crewed for a delivery from Neah Bay Washington, to Warrenton, Oregon, a tad past the mouth of the Columbia River. Long story somewhat short, the captain got sick. Left largely to our own devices, the other crewmate and I were pretty clueless. We took an ill-advised shortcut to approach the Bar — the equivalent of swimming against rather than with a wicked riptide. Right before the Bar, the captain came to. He tuned in the Coast Guard reports on the VHF radio. They sounded not great, but passable. The options were

  1. Heave to and wait until morning, or 
  2. Push on through the Bar. 

With great misgivings, we pushed. The conditions were worse that forecast. Winds were 25 knots. The water very choppy. Amidst the sea spray, around midnight we flailed, bumped and ground our way through. It was a surreal experience, and not in a good way. Eventually, we made it into Warrenton.

Bathymetric map of the Columbia River mouth: isobaths at five-foot intervals, 15-310 feet. Sandbars in yellow.
Source: Wikimedia

The last time I crossed the Bar it was two years ago, with Wayne. The stars aligned. The sun was shining. The water surface was calm as a lake on a windless day. I just got off watch before we crossed and it was so calm, I slept right through it — hence no photos of that passage to show!

This time, we stalled for a day, for a better forecast, first anchoring in Astoria’s Tongue Point, then spending the next night at Astoria Marina, which gave us a bit of a jump start on the Bar.

Seaweed surrounding our anchor at Tongue Point, Astoria.
Muddy anchor roller at Tongue Point, Astoria. One more reason to go to Astoria Marina – to use their hose to clean this up!

We were not expecting this passage to be as smooth as our last. A nasty ebb tide was predicted, with 6 foot swells, and breaking waves. We dutifully downed our pre-passage Bonine (motion sickness tablets, less drowsy-making than Dramamine and IMHO every bit as or more effective) with our morning coffee and tea.

Astoria-Ilwaco bridge as we pushed out of Astoria Marina for our Bar crossing this morning.

We turned our motor on at 7:15 am under gray cloudy skies, casting everything in a dull pewter glow.

The line at the left is one of the jetties marking the Columbia Bar. Note the flat smooth water? That’s good for a crossing.

Wayne spotted dolphins off our bow as we approached the Bar. A flock of pelican scattered in our wake a little after that. We decided that was a good omen for our crossing. We love pelicans!

The swells were far more benign than forecast; mostly only about 2 feet. 

M/V Serendipity crossing the bar. Photo courtesy Sholei. The Ropes in the upper right are her sailboat’s lines.

Our biggest challenge was the fishing boat that cut us off just as we were crossing the bar, their propeller-snagging line trailing behind them. Fortunately nothing “caught” our propeller. I did have to hold steady on the skillet handle for our breakfast grits as we passed the Bar, or the pan would’ve flown off our ungimballed* stove.

*A gimballed stove sits on a hinge system that keeps the stove level even when the boat tilts. Our stove is a standard, fixed camping stove, which can make for some exciting cooking adventures when we get rocked and rolled. (Ask me how I know🙄.)

All in all – a good crossing!

Our friend Sholei, at Neah Bay, stoked after completing her first solo Bar crossing.

We also happy to that our friend Sholei was also making the crossing that morning in her boat. It’s always nice when you can keep tabs on each other. Sholei got an earlier start than us and crossed the Bar before we did.

View from Sholei’s cockpit of our boats crossing the Bar. Photo courtesy Sholei.

Location Location
We arrived in Neah Bay (N48 22.224 W124 37.084) and anchored out this morning at 8 am, after going nonstop for 24 and 3/4 hours, 144 miles from Astoria. Tomorrow we head for Port Angeles, then on to the San Juans and British Columbia.

Sea lion, one finger away from Sholei’s slip in Makah Marina. Note the mohawk on this dude!