Continuing the Voyaging with Velella series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Harvey. Meghan and her husband Prescott have been cruising aboard their boat Velella for the past 8 months, first in Mexico and now in the Pacific Northwest.
Rites of Passage, Part 2
Anyone who has decided to sail South from the Pacific Northwest faces the dangerous prospect of having to “cross a bar.” The Northwest coast of the United States is considered a “hostile coast,” in that there are very few shelters to pull into over hundreds of miles–and those harbors that do exist are 90% of the time protected by a big sand bar entrance. While these “bars” create great quiet harbors protected from the wave swell of the Pacific Ocean, they are often dangerous and sometimes impossible to cross, depending on the weather.
On our first trip down the coast a couple years ago, we were hit with buckets of awful weather, compounded by HUGE ocean swell (8-10 feet on a good day;10-14 was also common). Sailing was nearly impossible because, in addition to seasickness I prefer not to recall in detail, every time we would slide down into a trough of one of these enormous waves, our sails would be completely blocked from the wind by the next upcoming roller. Then we would surge up with the wave, the wind would snap our sails taut, send a shutter through the entire rig, and slew the helm sharply to one side or the other. It was the kind of weather that gets you to start thinking about putting your boat up for sale in the nearest harbor.
The problem is that, as the weather gets worse, so do the bar conditions. When large swells, waving hundreds of miles across the unobstructed deep ocean, all of a sudden reaches a shallow little sand bar at the coast, all that enormous wave energy has nowhere to go but up, constricted on the sides and below by land. So the swell builds vertically into huge, steep breaking waves in an effort to cross over the bar. It often becomes bad enough that the Coast Guard will simply close off the bar to any vessels intending to cross. And truthfully, staying out at sea is often safer than attempting to cross a bar.
This summer, as we left Cape Flattery astern for the second time and turned our bow South, I couldn’t help but worry a bit about the Columbia Bar, the hurdle we would have to jump in order to make it to Portland, Oregon. The Columbia is the biggest and baddest of all of the bars on the Pacific–-over 2,000 boats have been lost trying to cross it. (In fact, here’s a website dedicated to documenting all of those wrecks!) Still, we’d made several successful bar crossings before, and learned a few things in the process.
Timing your bar crossing is critical. Tidal action moves water in and out over the bars and either compounds or subtracts from any swell that’s coming across. When the tide starts ebbing, pulling out against wave trains crashing in over the bar, this is the worst combination. Not only do the opposing forces multiply the height of the waves and their tendency to break, but certain geographical features can also cause dangerous tide rips on a strong ebb. But timing your bar crossing at the right tidal moment can drastically improve the experience.
The key is always to cross a bar on a flood tide-–preferably at the very end of the flood where the water has slowed to almost slack. It’s amazing how very dangerous bar conditions can lay down in a matter of hours with the turn of the tide.
So before we left Neah Bay to passage South to the Columbia Bar, I checked both the weather forecast and the current tables repeatedly. I wanted to make sure that we arrived during a favorable tide, AND during the daytime, because crossing an unfamiliar bar at night would be unthinkably imprudent in my mind. Luckily, we had a tide flooding until about 3pm that day, very light swell coming from the West, and only a hint of Northwest breeze. Ideal conditions for crossing. We calculated how long it would take us to sail the 145 miles in light wind, and departed from Neah Bay right on time.
Using the Coast Guard as an information resource is another important step in preparing to cross a bar. As dawn arrived and we started making our way towards the mouth of the Columbia River, I switched on the radio and started receiving periodical bar condition reports from the Coast Guard. All along the coast, the different USCG stations broadcast bar reports regularly–-and if you don’t hear one you can always call them for the current report. They provide up-to-date conditions on the bar, sometimes even breaking it down into particular sections (for example: the North main channel has breakers 4-6 feet, the South outer channel 1-3 ft). Luckily for us, as we approached the Columbia, conditions at sea were almost glass calm, and there were 4-6ft waves reported in the main channel over the bar.
You don’t know how big a wave really is until you’re on top of it. Viewed from behind, rolling waves look a whole lot smaller than they do from the breaking side. No matter how calm the conditions appear, it’s important to prepare your boat for strong forces and rough seas when crossing a bar. Secure everything down below and make sure deck-stowed gear and anchors are lashed down tightly. Everyone should be on deck, wearing PFDs, and preferably clipped in to the boat on tethers and jacklines. We had little to do to prepare Velella for the bar crossing because everything was already stowed securely for passage at sea, but we clipped ourselves in to strong padeyes in the cockpit for good measure.
One of the major causes of boats foundering on a bar is engine failure. It’s not just Murphy’s law that would cause a motor to quit just when you need it most. What often happens as you pass through the turbulent waters over the bar is that gunk sitting on the bottom of your fuel tank gets churned up and sucked through the lines, choking the engine. Or, the extra work the engine has to do to get over the rough bar waters uses up much more fuel that you’d expect, so people run out of gas! Then you’re left adrift right on top of the worst part of the bar, and good luck getting your filters changed and lines bled before your boat gets sucked sideways in the currents. We had planned for this, and brought an extra jerry jug of fuel, which we topped off our tank with before entering the channel. We also changed our fuel filters out for clean ones, just to be safe. And lastly, we kept up our main sail while going through the channel, because a sailboat is still under control if its engine dies–-as long as its sails are up!
Our preparation paid off in the end, because crossing that big bad bar turned out to be a cakewalk. As we passed over Clatsop Spit and rounded the corner towards the port of Astoria, the breeze filled in from dead behind and we unfurled the genoa into a beautiful wing-on-wing run. So, contrary to my fears of becoming “trapped” in the Columbia, I think we’ll be able to easily slip over that bar again soon, and point our bow South once again.