We left Astoria, Oregon, on the very tail end of the ebb tide at 0730 the morning of June 14, 2006. It was raining. The Columbia River Bar lay 13 miles downstream. Classified as a “Specially Hazardous Area” by the National Transportation and Safety Board, in fact, the Columbia River Bar is the only such classified area in the whole of the United States.
The river current gave us a speed of just over 11 knots over the ground. That put us on the bar at 0900 during the slack and at the end of small craft advisory for rough bar conditions issued by NOAA that morning. It was disconcerting to see that outside the main channel the infamous breakers were rolling on and on, they seemed to be stacked beyond the horizon, I was relieved to see that they where not breaking into the channel (as the NOAA forecast predicted). As we started over the Bar, we listened to the forecast again. It had been updated just minutes before and the small craft advisory for rough bar conditions had been extended until 1100 hours. At this point the waves were small, 2 to 4 feet and pretty regular. We talked to the Coast Guard station at Cape Disappointment, and while they can not give an offical report on conditions, and they unofficially reported 4-foot waves. So onward we pressed. It was a short few miles to the open ocean and the ability to turn northward for Cape Flattery. What a few miles it would turn out to be.
The waves grew larger and larger and more and more confused. They came at us from every point forward of the beam. Over the next 2 hours we slowly made our way through the wiggle and giggle of the washing machine agitate cycle in which we found ourselves. At the height of the excitement the waves stacked up to over 15 feet and so steep that every other one seemed to crash over the bow and send piles of green water rushing past the cockpit in a whoosh. Every heave-ho and tussle knocked things out of lockers and off of shelves down in the cabin.
At one point Susanna asked me if I had been in such rough water. I lied and said. “Oh sure, much worse.” In truth I have sailed in bigger seas, faster winds and pushier current, just not all at the same time. The reality was that I have not seen so much water crashing and rushing towards me since last time I ran a chunk of Class V river in my kayak. I can attest to the simple fact that it is even scarier when the boat is 36 feet long and displaces 14 tons.
In the end we were only a little shaken and stirred by the crossing of the Columbia River Bar. Our nerves more pressed upon than anything. The boat handled the confused seas better than our heart rates did. The most remarkable thing about crossing the bar was the change from fresh green water rushing out of the river to the rhythmic blue gray of the north pacific. It was not a subtle change but rather an abrupt line that was crossed like some border between countries. Yet another time when I wished I had a small digital camera in my pocket!
Once out on the ocean the swell was as predicted, 5 feet every 15 seconds. Almost flat. We took a few moments to catch out breath and marvel at the mess made below decks by the washing machine effect of the waves. Then we hoisted the yankee, staysail and main and off we went. We had been cautioned by several fishermen and local sailors that it was best to reach the 20 fathom line (that’s 120 feet; a fathom is 6 feet) before turning north. So we sailed. Zoom, zoom. Bluewater took off like a shot and in no time we were making over 8 knots under sail alone and headed northwest to put some room between us and the coast.
As the sun set at 2230, we marveled that we could see so much light coming from the shore. When total darkness enshrouded us we stared, mesmerized at the aft rail. The keel and rudder churned up so much phosphorescence that it seemed some one had lit a green light under the water and behind the boat.
Over the next four hours the wind steadily weakened, until at 0230, while I was standing in the rain and getting cold, it died. Susanna had been resting for a few hours when I went below to wake her and apologize for what I was about to do.
Our small boat has an even smaller engine. It is a mighty engine though, full of vigor and reliability. However, the fact that the engine is air cooled also means that it is LOUD!!! But it is also WARM. God forbid we ever have to motor someplace in the tropics. Talk about a sauna. As I mentioned it was raining, the wind was not blowing and I was cold. So putt-putt-putt we went across the ocean enshrouded in darkness and fog with heat radiating from our engine and Tilley the autopilot steering a faithful course to the north. Susanna took over the watch and Nisa and I laid down in the forepeak and slept for 2.5 half hours. When I woke Susanna was snoozing on the settee, the clock cradled in her arms. The sun streamed through the windows and it looked like the wind was starting to blow.
I rubbed Susanna’s arm to wake her and she just lay there. I gently shook her shoulder and she just lay there. My mind started to race. Carbon monoxide poisoning? No it couldn’t be, her lips were not bright red. Dead asleep? I hoped not, she was keeping watch. I shook her firmly and called her name loud enough to be heard over the din of the engine. She sat up with a gasp, like a swimmer returning to the surface from a dive that was just a bit to long. All was well she had been using the clock to nap, getting up to check the horizon every 10 to 15 minutes.
We spent the day trading time at the tiller, as we could not get the wind vane to work. We needed hose clamps which I had neglected to retrieve from their home under the cockpit, so we elected to trade off the tiller every hour or so. About 1330, I turned over the helm to Susanna and laid down for some more sleep. (At this time I had slept a total of 2.5 hours since Astoria, and the night before we left I had slept a total of 4 or 5 hours). I nestled down in the lee cloth with the Wonderdog and fell deeply asleep. I awoke about 40 minutes later to the boat screaming along. I got up to check on Susanna and discovered her using all her strength to wrestle with the tiller. The boat was over-canvassed.
There are natural-born helms people. They sit down at a tiller or stand behind the wheel of a sailboat and steer a straight and fast course, which is exactly what Susanna did. Not an easy feat in the building seas and increasing winds. Bluewater had too much sail up, so instead of being easy to steer with only slight adjustments needed here and there, the tiller was a giant stick pushing and pulling against Susanna.
The next 3.5 hours became a giant game of catch-up. We needed to reduce the sail area on the boat, at the same time we didn’t want to stop our northward progress toward Cape Flattery by taking too much sail down and thus reducing our possible maximum speed.
Reducing sail was also compounded by the fact that Susanna had wrenched her shoulder while helming the boat as the seas and winds increased (our chiropractor-wizard friend Tami thinks she pulled a rib). It was up to me to go forward and put another tuck in the main or staysail and finally to pull down the yankee. As we reduced sail, the seas began to increase remarkably, their height and confusion seemed to be whipped into a frenzy by the setting sun. In hindsight I think the reason for this was that we were passing over the edge of the continental shelf as the wind speeds increased. I between one of the many sail changes that afternoon I listened to the weather again and was very surprised and a bit more than unnerved to hear the calm computer voice call for a small craft advisory for hazardous winds and seas beginning at 2300 hours. A mere 4 hours away, we were already feeling the beginnings of the renewed blow. NOAA was calling for 30 to 35-knot winds and seas building to 11 to 15 feet with 4 to 6-foot wind waves.
Looking at our position, I calculated that at our current pace of 4 knots we could expect to round the cape at 0330, on my birthday, in the middle of a nasty blow. The weight of all weather at sea, all wind and waves, rain and fog is compounded by the coming of darkness. And like some Orwellian terror the night was not coming with the usual fiery display of light and clouds, but rather the darkness oozed in, stealing color and vibrancy from everything, even our bright red and green navigation lights seemed to be powerless against the dark. Our world rapidly became a palette of grays, then blacks, then the only light seemed to come from our chart plotter, reporting our slow progress northward. The storm seemed to even chase away the green fire of the phosphorescent plankton in our wake. The only good thing about the darkness was I could no longer see the large seas coming for us. With Susanna’s injury I was taking the bulk of the tiller time. As darkness set in and the wind really started to blow, the seas became ever more confused. I was scared. Not shake in my boots crap my pants scared. It was like the fear that I have experienced kayaking. A combination of wondering what would happen if something went wrong, only this time it was not only myself I felt that I was putting in danger, but also Susanna and Nisa.
If something happened to me, I would be OK with that. I know the risks and I have chosen to take them. If something happened to Susanna or Nisa I would carry a chain of regret a mile long. I had crazy images flying through my head. Even though we were more than 20 miles offshore I had visions of our boat being dashed on the rocks just south of Cape Flattery, or being pushed into the rugged southern shore of Vancouver Island. These thoughts were crazy! I was scared and scared was the result of TIRED and COLD.
It was Susanna who was level-headed. Rightly she pointed out that Bluewater could take WAY more than we were throwing at her, that she was fine and that Nisa had, at my request been given half a Benadryl and seemed to be conked out just in front of the mast on the v-berth. We looked at the options: run off the coast and into the storm and tough it out where there was nothing to hit (not counting our heads on the ceiling of the boat) or turn on the engine, crank our speed up to 6 knots and use all the tools available to us, GPS, radar, digital charts, depth sounder, kick-ass binoculars, eyes, ears, noses and brains.
Brmmm, Brrmmm went the engine and off we went at 6.2 knots. With additional power, we would round Cape Flattery around 0100, still in the blow but sooner than later. My world was reduced to the screen of the chart plotter, switching between the radar and chart views every few minutes. The rain came first, then the wind, but it didn’t matter, we were headed toward calmer waters at our best and most comfortable speed.
TO BE CONTINUED
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