Columbia River Bar Crossing and Ocean Transits South…#12 – Part 1

Part 1 of 2, Columbia River Bar is dangerous and you are alone in the ocean. Find out what planning tools we used for the safest passage.

The Harbor at Ilwaco WA is a fishing Harbor. Life is hard being a commercial fisherman or a charter fisherman.  The alarm clock goes off early, with a hard days work ahead of them.  As a guest in this marina, we heard people mulling around, warming up engines, visiting about the previous days catch, maybe discussing where they might go that day, as they departed the marina around 4-5 am.

With a pleasure motor yacht “Angelique” in the harbor and on the main dock for everyone to see, we got lots of questions and looks every day. I’m sure they are wondering about us and our reasoning for docking in such a marina. We wanted to spend our time close to the bar as we could get while planning our trip, waiting for perfect weather window, working on a few maintenance and repair items AND eating sea food, of course! (Thanks Dennis Sackhoff for the great location)

“Where a River and the Sea eat ships”

The Columbia River Bar is one of the toughest crossings you can face. With the changing of ocean swells and winds, the Bar can become life-threatening within 5 minutes. Over 2000 ships have sunk in and around the Columbia bar sense 1792. Because of this the Columbia River has acquired a reputation worldwide as the Graveyard of the Pacific”.  The Astoria Journal and a NY Times special article posted in Feb. 26, 1988 outlines similar risks. Where a river and the sea eat ships” So planning is the utmost important task.

col river bar pic
Wiki Page about Columbia River Bar

First Learn: If you are planning or want to do this bar crossing and have never done it, PLEASE do some studying, reading, asking others that have done it, classes etc. DO NOT do this without understanding the water currents, winds, waves, tides, etc.

We belong to the Columbia River Yacht Club in Portland OR. One of the awesome things about the club is that we can share knowledge with each other. Dan and I went to classes held by other members that have done it often and very knowledgeable about it.  Thanks Capt Ron and Ashley @ Zephyr NW  and Pete Grillo for putting together the CRYC class book about “Going North”. We continued our planning to make sure we were doing the best options.

anchor pic

BTW, Dan is a retired US Navy Captain, has tons of experience and started boating at the age of 4 . He understands the risks with any bar crossings and does the work to learn and does not assume he knows it. 

Our planning: We wanted to do a one time jump to San Francisco, so we started watching ocean and weather conditions from Astoria to San Francisco for future dates. First we determined that our weather window needed to be 3 days (72 hours) based on the cruising time (listed below) We also had to watch the timing with the Columbia River Bar. We figured out options to stop along the way if weather changed or issues came up.

  • Wind/Wave/Weather Ocean Conditions:
  • Windy – Shows winds and waves on ocean area graphical view for up to 10 days out. There is a Phone app but shows only wind
  • We were looking for light winds that are not on our bow for the best conditions.
  • Buoyweather  – Lets you pick a spot and see a forecast for winds and waves at 3-4 various points along the route.
  • We were looking for less than 6 ft waves at 8 seconds or longer intervals. Again, not on our bow
  • Predictwind app – Phone app that lets you see offshore ocean area wind and wave combination display for 10 days out. Watching for same conditions.
  • Garmin BlueChart phone app  – to get the distances and times for our runs
  • We planned 9-10 knots and with 2-6 hour safety cushions on arrival times.
  • We identified ports along the way that we could pull into early if any need arose, but stayed focused on being ready and achieving our goal of San Francisco.
  • Bar Crossing Timing: 
  • We used the built in tide and current tables in the Garmin Blue Chart phone app to find the best times and dates.
  • We were looking for flood tide near the peak incoming slack water for smooth bar crossing in and out.
  • Good conditions = Flood tide, ocean level is rising, river current speed slows.
  • Bad conditions = Ebb tide, ocean receding, river current speed increases.
  • Networking:
  • Advice from knowledgeable/experienced friends (Ken Williams and Ron Micjan) about the planning process to understand their thoughts on conditions.
  • Materials from Class, as mentioned above, “CRYC Going North book”

Vessel Readiness – BEST decision is, do before you leave. We wanted any known issues that could cause problems taken care of before we headed out. You are on your own in the ocean. No timeline is more important than getting your stuff fixed before you leave.

  • We had some identified repairs and maintenance that needed to be done. (ken helping with our fix)
  • Stow items, lock cabinets, etc. if it can move, it will.

Crew – Number of crew members depends on time you are gone

  • We spent time determine the speed and distance to understand the length of time we would be out in open ocean.
  • Ilwaco to San Francisco Bay – 10 knots / 600 nm = 60 hours non-stop
  • We needed at minimum 1 more crew, Don’t leave with not enough crew, you get tired and make mistakes, not worth it.

Fall back plan – Good to have one if ocean, vessel or crew issues arise.

  • Our option was to stop at Newport or Brookings. We called ahead and made sure we could arrive if needed.

Provisions – The ocean can change quickly and having food, snacks and drinks ready to grab it the best solution, especially if you have guest crew.

  • I had Chicken Pasta salad, sandwiches, fruit, nuts, snack bars, coffee, pop. (drinks with caffeine is good) Easy to grab or warm up without cooking

***Disclaimer*** This assumes you have the correct safety gear, seamanship knowledge, captain of your own vessel or hired one, understand your own route/layovers and the workings of your own vessel. This is not an all inclusive “how to” guide. This is what we did. You take responsibility for your own risk and decision as we did for ours.

With all this planning, our “actual adventure” will be in Part 2. The article was just too big to put all of it into one blog. REMEMBER to say tuned... you will see, what it was like during our travels, what the sea was like, how we survived, videos and pics AND our surprise “stow-away” guest. Coming soon! 

**All my blog posts are public and can be shared if you know someone that is interested.

Blessing to you all from Angelique with fair winds and following seas!

10 thoughts on “Columbia River Bar Crossing and Ocean Transits South…#12 – Part 1”

  1. Great post Angela. Keep them coming! We are home now form a long summer up North. So your blog posts are one of my few escapes from reality. Safe travels and keep Dan on the up and up!

  2. You know Angela, it was Dan’s willingness to “work to learn” to understand technology development in his area of expertise, (Litho, CapEx, etc…) is like boating and sailing, and what made him effective in his work while he was at Intel. Sailing / boating in treacherous waters, like the “Columbia River Bar” is very similar to developing new technology and bringing it to market, because if you get it wrong, you lose your job…. Tell Dan I said hi.

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