Zephyr explores the Lower Columbia

Despite not doing any packing on Friday night, I got packed in pretty short order. I bade farewell and pulled out of the driveway. The apprehension of the preceding week was overtaken by excitement and optimism. I was on my own time till Sunday evening. The drive up to Cathlamet, WA was uneventful and as I pulled down the marina drive I could see light ruffles on the water. The trees being still around me caused me to think of my St. Helens sail that turned into a galloping romp with a reef in. The harbor master’s office is located upstairs from the restrooms and has a beautiful view of the marina as well as Cathlamet Channel. My bill came to $11, $5 to launch and $6 to leave the vehicle overnight.

There was no one launching or retrieving at the ramp so I was able to take my time and set up nicely. It was quite enjoyable launching into a millpond marina instead of a wake-filled city river. I left the marina into Elochoman Slough and then proceeded out into Cathlamet Channel. Once clear with plenty of sea room, I shipped the oars and set the sail in a gentle breeze. With low tide at about 1700 the ebb was in full flow as I gurgled along tacking downstream.

The end of the channel came quickly and I turned into the main river pointing upstream. My beat now became a broad reach and the variability of the wind strength had me either holding steady or moving upriver slowly. I went along like this for quite a while and I sped up a little when I got next to Puget Island. I’m still not sure if Tenasillahe was blocking the wind or it just came up, but when I got to the top of the island the wind strengthened to 8-10kn. I headed firmly across the river to enter Clifton Channel and made sure to be well past the weir dam at the island’s head. I then went about setting a reef. Even though I was getting blown upriver the river was moving down faster, so I was effectively making headway to weather with no sail up and broadside to the wind!

With the reef in I still had a boisterous ride down the channel. The fetch delivered 1-2ft whitehorses at me in constant procession. As usual on the river, one tack was better than the other. My port tacks would make all the progress and the starboard ones would just hold me from losing ground. This was puzzling since there was a range of hills close on the port (south) side that the wind seemed to be coming out of. When the gusts came they would come straight up the channel though. A few times I got too close to the shore and ended up in a wind shadow that had me wondering if I would be able to complete my tack before the encroaching shore or stray piling. On the port tacks I’d be headed along Tenasillahe and watching its low brushiness flow by quickly. Sailing with the current really puts a smile on your face!

The constriction at the downstream end of Tenasillahe went by in a flash and with one particular gust of wind I could smell the ocean. It was my only scent of it on the trip which didn’t surprise me since we are 30 river miles from the Pacific. I followed the southern shore around Aldrich point and could see Devils Elbow in the distance. My original plan was to continue past the elbow and go into the small channel in between Horseshoe Island and Marsh Island and nose into Horseshoe’s nooks and crannies. With the wind coming out of the west it would have pushed me into one of these dead ends with no room to tack out and a hellish, if even doable, row to extricate myself. To my starboard was Tronson Island and I noted how its high brush blocked the incessant wind. This lured me into looking at it as a potential anchorage. I ghosted into its lee and tacked slowly back and forth near the shore looking for snags and what I could see of the currents and bottom. It was only 16:30, but I made my decision to anchor. Zephyr would swing either way with the tide and if we bumped up along the shore it was all mud. I zigged and zagged to figure out the right placement of the anchor and for me to manage the sails and speed. I succeeded with only a bit of miscalculation ending in me holding the anchor rode directly and not around a cleat. I was thankful for Zephyr’s lightness as I muscled the rode around the cleat and made fast, something I surely wouldn’t have been able to do in my old Columbia 22.

Once I was settled I listened to all the happy birds on Tronson I knew I must be in the right place. Only a few motorboats screamed by to interrupt my solitude. I caught up on some reading while enjoying cheese, crackers and an IPA. I was more tired than I thought and happy to be relaxing. Dinnertime came around and I boiled some water for a backpacker meal of “Spicy Peanut Sauce”. It wasn’t as good as some of the others I’d had so I followed it up with a yogurt and granola.

After the meal I continued reading as the light turned golden. I pulled out my book on the Columbia River Water Trail and found out that Lewis & Clark camped on shore right across from my anchorage in March of 1806. While I had my little concerns of fighting my way back up the mighty Columbia the next day, I couldn’t fathom those hearty explorers forcing their craft against the spring currents and steady rain. Only the draw of home sustained them I’m sure.

As evening gave way to twilight the heavens approved of my little adventure and awarded me with a magical golden sunset over Jim Crow Point. I let out another ten feet of rode just to make sure of the scope and rigged my nylon fly over the cockpit. As I settled down in my sleeping bag I noticed that the birds had done the same and were replaced by frogs, the low, throaty wheeze of bull frogs and the chirp of peepers or tree frogs.

I had anchored from the starboard side which means that Zephyr wouldn’t point exactly into the current. I chose starboard so that we would point away from the shore. The problem is that the wavelets were coming up the little channel and hitting us on the corner. Even though they were little, it was an awkward angle. I tried to sleep with it but between that and an annoying knocking sound from one of the storage lockers I woke up many times. Finally at 0100 I had had enough and tied a dock line to the rode with a rolling hitch and made a bridle out of it. Now we were directly on the current and I slept through till the sun woke me at 0600.

I peeked out to the sun already up a ways and the river like a mirror. I really wanted to sleep longer but the tide waits for no one. I took down the fly and was thankful, for it saved me from all that soaking dew. I put away my bedding kit and boiled some water for mat’e. Once I had assembled the oars and got all my day supplies sorted out I retrieved the anchor and released myself to the river’s flow. I took a few strokes to get to the middle and then drank my tea while the river did the work to get me to the main channel. I had to go to port to miss a couple of mud banks and that explained why the motorboats looked like they were going to go down another channel before turning up my way.

As I neared the main channel, coming out between Grassy Island and Woody Island, I passed a really tall range marker with cormorant nests on it. What a raucous bunch those guys are. The young ones make ordinary squeaky sounds, but the adults make what can only be described as a squawk, a nasty guttural thing. It was pleasant rowing over some sparse weedbeds knowing that even if I did somehow ground out the tide would set me free in short order.

The ship channel takes a series of left turns at this point to bring it close to the northern (Washington) shore. If it wasn’t so steep-to there one would have front row seats to the giant ocean ships that come up the river to the ports of Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR. Luckily for me I had the best view of all, out of harms way, but giving me stunning views with the steep hills right behind the ships. One, two, three passed by in short order, all of different types. The first was the New Century 2 which was a big, ugly car carrier. They are all big and ugly. Next up was the Densa Falcon a majestic bulk freighter with cranes and gigantic bright orange buckets for removing the cargo. It sat really low in the water, fully laden and hailing from Yantai, China. The third was the Algol and I have no idea of what it would carry. Ah, but Marine Traffic does, she’s a Navy logistics ship. Not much to look at and belching bunker oil smoke.

With no wind I helped the flood tide carry me with some rowing. Not knowing whether I’d have to really row later, I pulled very lightly and kept my speed around 1kn. I was soaking in the peaceful scene and every range marker I passed had its own colony of cormorants getting on with family life. I was admiring the fact that at my furthest view downriver an optical illusion made the river look like it was boundless, reaching up and becoming one with the hazy sky. At another angle I could see all the way down to Tongue point, in Astoria.

A catspaw appeared in the distance and I kept rowing while it got closer and closer. It wasn’t much as it breathed over me, but it did stir me into action snapping out yesterday’s reef and hoisting the main. With the lazyjack holding the boom up high, I can row unimpeded. Now I was ready for the next whisper. It was many minutes in waiting but then it came. I pushed the boom out and watched it fill. There was no surge of acceleration but we kept moving at the same speed I was rowing so I stowed the oars and had a snack, willing to let currents of wind and water move me.

I played rowing games. Pick a point directly astern and don’t look forward until the next nav bouy is abeam. This was the longest stint of rowing I’d done in years and then it was in my shapely Acorn. The key to rowing a SCAMP is to just not care about speed. Pick your cadence and effort and be patient. Last summer Derek Gries and I were off Port Townsend about 1nm and the wind totally died out. It was getting on toward dusk and I really wanted to make it to the Maritime Center before the light faded completely. I pulled hard on those sweet, hand carved oars the NW Boat School loaned me. Crossing the ferry path also quickened my stroke. I got there but I wore myself out too.

Once I made it past Fitzpatrick Island a gentle breeze filled in. I was cutting the corner and had been watching a sloop towing a tender motoring up the nav channel in the distance. I thought I might catch her because of the extra distance she had to make following the channel all the way around by Skamakowa, but nothing doing. She was steaming on. The Corp of Engineers dredger Essayons was along the far bank. I passed her dredging in Longview a few years back when I had my Columbia 22. As I got closer she started upriver. To my surprise she turned around a quarter mile later. I haven’t seen many ships just turn around in the river, but they must to head back out to sea.

When I cleared the point of Welch Island the wind started increasing. I was making over 3kn and just cruising right along. I decided to cross the channel to the Washington side and this put me on a beam reach. The speed jumped to 3.5 and we leapt across. According to the charts that shore has some good depth right off it so I scooted along right next to shore, one of my favorite things to do. I continued my line across the opening to Cathlamet Channel figuring on one last jibe and a nice downwind romp back to the marina. I was not disappointed! I was starting to see whitecaps and guessed the wind hitting about 10kn or so. Everything was well in control so I didn’t stop to reef.

I rounded the buoy into Elochoman Slough and as soon as the trees shielded us, the wind dropped off and got fickle, sometimes coming in from the channel, sometimes coming out of the slough. I was determined to sail up to the marina entrance and then dowse the sail. I gauged my short tacks well dodging felled trees and weedbeds while the wind appeared to be coming right out of a stand of Douglas firs!

Always one to make a sailorly appearance at the dock I put a sail tie on and put fenders out on both sides. The fickle breezes would be pushing me right onto the ramp so I intended to go halfway down the dock and then do a 180 and coast alongside to tie up. To my credit, and the lack of the usual strong gust right at the wrong moment, I executed it flawlessly, gracefully even. As you sailors would understand, at the outset I was happy there weren’t flocks of spectators, but once it is done well one wishes there had been some onlookers. Nonetheless, one of the enjoyable things about sailing is honing your observation skills, analysis, and preparation to pull off maneuvers.

As is usual at ramps with Zephyr, more than one person came by to compliment her and one gent asked quite a few questions and even wrote down Small Craft Advisor as the place to get plans. What a perfect trip. Excitement, relaxation, a bit of work and a whole lot of reward!

Columbia River

Kerrie and I drove to one of my favorite places on my day off today, Astoria, OR. The Columbia is the largest river in the US flowing into the Pacific. The mouth has been called the “Graveyard of the Pacific” due to the number of vessels that have foundered in its powerful river currents when they go head to head with that mighty ocean. The Columbia River Bar Pilots are some of the best in the world. There is good reason that the US Coast Guard has a training center here. I’ve read some harrowing accounts of their skill, bravery, and luck.

As formidable as the bar can be, one of my favorite memories is crossing it on a Pearson 40 sailboat on a perfect summer day at slack tide. This spring day was like that, 60 degrees, sunny, with little wind. We went through the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and thoroughly enjoyed the journey. What a pioneering adventure, right up there with Sir Earnest Shackleton’s hair-raising self-rescue from the grips of Antarctica.

In the photo below the Stella Prima, flagged in the Netherlands, comes in over the bar headed for Longview, WA. If you are interested in the vessels that transit the Columbia, or anywhere in the world, check out Marine Traffic