Zephyr visits St. Helens, OR on the mighty Columbia River

I head out in the early afternoon with not a leaf moving, figuring at least I’d get out on the water and do some rowing. The Columbia was having none of that! Even as I took the road off the highway down to “Historic St. Helens” on the river, I could see no breeze in the tree tops. I parked the rig in the parking lot and walked over to sketchy, private launch ramp to see if launching was possible and when I looked out to the river I was pleased to see some nice wind waves coming up the river.

Only one side of the ramp was workable, the other side had a sand bar right in the lane as it was almost low tide. What was left dropped off substantially. This was my kind of launch. Only one trailer in the parking lot and no one around to make me rush. I set up the rig, hung the rudder, set out a fender and the dock line and backed Zephyr down. Everything went well, the last foot surprising me because in 12 inches Zephyr was floating. The ramp just disappeared into the marina dredging. I was thankful that I hadn’t gone off the end of a cement ramp. That is the stuff of nightmares.

I parked the truck and walking back down the ramp I thought, “No one’s around, why don’t I be bold and SAIL off the dock!”. Let me orient you a little in the attached picture. The river current is going from the dock side to the open water side of the picture. The wind is doing the exact opposite. I walked out on that little sand bar to the left and it just drops right off into the water so I can come right up to it and tack. Between that and the dock is about 30ft. Short tacking for sure!

I hauled up the sail and moved her out to the end of the dock holding my line like a bridle on a race horse. Centerboard down….check. Rudder down….check. Now power up the sail and flick the dock line off. Crap! Here comes that dock! TACK! Now here comes that sand bar. TACK! Frightening amount of leeway before we accelerate. A couple more of those and I’m on a port tack and because of that initial leeway I’m just not going to clear that power cruiser at the end of the dock and I can’t come about. No room left to jibe especially against the current. I move forward and lean out and am able to catch his anchor in my hand and stop the little forward progress. I push Zephyr backwards and am able to get the nose through the eye of the wind and off on a starboard tack straight for a cement overflow. One, two, three seconds, TACK! Zephyr comes through just like she’s supposed to and I grin widely as we now harden on a port tack and straight out into the river!

Directly across the river from this marina is Sand Island. Enjoying the fresh breeze I head across and pause in the middle to open the plug to start filling the water ballast. I absolutely love the way you can just let go of the mainsheet whenever you want and she’ll just sit there waiting for you. That might have had a bit to do with the leeway at the ramp. Now we are bouncing around in the chop and I’m noticing that there are actually 1-2 ft swells coming up the river. That darn water ballast just doesn’t fill fast enough! I decide to go over to Sand Island and nose up on the beach to finish filling it instead of getting thrashed around. This done I push Zephyr’s nose out and wearily eye the piling just down wind. “If I don’t get that centerboard and rudder down quick enough I might tangle with that bad boy”. I shove off and the bottom drops away and I drop the rudder. Instant steerage! I can worry about the CB in a few moments. Solo launch from beach….check. Didn’t even get water over the top of my wellies.

We romp to windward as I’ve now decided the day’s exploration will be a circumnavigation of Sand Island. A large container ship stately cruises upriver at 15kn throwing a huge wake onto the downstream end of the island. Seeing that happen I tack and then tack again so that I’m headed into the wake. Clearing the end of the island I start heading across noting that the river current is moving me sideways, upwind at probably 2kn! I now feel the full effects of the wind and fetch. Was that a few whitecaps I just saw to windward. We’re flying now. I need to jibe and head downwind. I chicken out and tack and wear away. Everything quiets down as we start to rocket down wind. Here comes a roller. Holy cow! Two hands on the tiller to maintain course as Zephyr starts surfing for the first time. My eyes go wide as the fricken bow wave is peeling off in foamy curls AMIDSHIPS right next to me. Jeesuss we’re moving!

OK, now’s the time for my first solo reef underway. Thinking it through….. loosen the downhaul, get the reef lines loose and ready. Come up into the wind but not too close so we tack. Lower the main enough for the new tack and clew to meet the boom. My last thought, deal with the luff first. Here goes… I put the tiller over and we spun around. I lowered the main and tied it off. I pulled the luff reef in and tied it off while getting bounced around in the waves. Now we had fallen off and the boom was out over the water so I had to put the tiller over to get us more into the wind. I struggled with the leach reef as I didn’t have the cabin to lean on while tying it off. The last step of hauling up the main and tightening the downhaul was easy. Turning back downwind, Zephyr accelerated and the helm was easier. I still had to pay close attention to the tiller though.

The wind lightened up by the time I rounded the upriver end of the island, however now that I was headed into the wind, it was breezier. I tacked up past the marinas and to the ramp but I was reluctant to end such an incredible sail. So, I decided to play. If any of the houses up on the hill were watching they got quite the show. I rocketed across snapping a jibe right next to the transient dock. Then I did a bunch of linked jibes making a circle of calm wake water. I took joy in standing with the tiller between my legs and tacking across the river adjusting the main through the puffs. I darted in to that beach I had nosed up to next to the dock and tacked or jibed my way out. As the sun lowered I enjoyed sailing into and out of the shadows watching the main turn golden in the setting sun.

Not wanting to break the spell, I settled in to my downwind approach to the ramp. I had to broad reach, slowly, between some really tall pilings and the covered docks and then turn directly downwind. Luckily, the shore upwind had blocked most of the wind so right when I turned, the wind fell off to nothing. I chuckled as Zephyr gently nosed up onto the beach next to the ramp.

One of my favorite times, oddly, is the drive home. It’s a nice to take your time and reminisce about the trip.

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