A Near Disaster
A Near Disaster
I’m not a great sailor, not even a very good one. But I enjoy moving from one place to another in that way and I’ve long thought my seamanship knowledge and judgment are sufficient to get me, my crew, and boat wherever we’re going, safely.
Then I almost lost Del Viento and my family in a chain of events that spanned about five minutes.
After almost a week in Astoria, Oregon visiting family and friends and waiting out storms, it was time to continue south. We planned to sail direct to Eureka, California, a 350-nautical mile coastal passage that would require we cross two notorious bars: the Columbia River Bar departing Astoria and the Humboldt Bay Bar arriving Eureka. In each case, timing and good conditions would be important. As our trip would cover three nights and two days, we paid attention also to wind and sea-state forecasts for the stretch.
On Wednesday, we readied for a Thursday evening departure. On Thursday evening, Windy took another look and determined it might be better to hold off until morning, that leaving as-planned, we risked arriving at Humboldt too late if our speed was even a bit less than projected. And arriving too late could mean having to wait outside for several hours.
“But if we make good speed, we can still leave tonight and make Humboldt on time?” I asked.
“Yes,” she hesitated, “if everything is goes perfectly.”
I don’t like change. I bristled at the prospect of plan upheaval. We’d sent emails to everyone announcing our imminent departure. We’d just finished refueling and successfully arranged with the fuel dock to remain tied there for a few more hours until departure time.
“I say we go.”
And we did.
And you think you know where this is going, right? You think this is a story of calamity that will stem from a decision based on convenience or from poor planning? Nope.
At 7:30 p.m., we left the fuel dock and motored out of the marina at the base of the Astoria-Megler Bridge. We had nearly two hours of narrow shipping channels to navigate before we reached the bar. Windy went below to clean up after dinner and I stayed in the cockpit.
“Call me if you need anything.”
This would be our fourth transit of this channel and across the Columbia River Bar. Now, even in the dark, this is pretty boring stuff. I’ve got all the channel-marking buoys, the channel, and Del Viento displayed on the iPad clamped to the bimini frame beside me. Most of the channel traffic is reflected on the tiny AIS screen of our remote VHF on the binnacle. And the conditions are severe clear; I can see everything around me for miles, a sea of lights. I’m bundled up against the cold night on the water and we’re doing about 5.5 knots under power.
For 45 minutes, I do little else besides make adjustments to the autopilot to keep us on our side of the 600-foot-wide channel. There is a current and we repeatedly drift off-course. A couple small fishing boats pass in the opposite direction, but there seems to be little traffic. I look for anticipated marker buoys ahead and I look for unanticipated traffic from behind. I listen to big ships on the radio fifteen miles out, coordinating bar pilot rendezvous.
The running lights of the next opposing traffic are about a half-mile away. I think that it may be a large fishing boat. There is no question in my mind we will pass port-to-port as we should.
Recall I said that I almost lost Del Viento and my family in a chain of events that spanned about five minutes. Well, I know that at this point in the story we haven’t yet crossed the fear-inspiring Columbia River Bar, we haven’t entered the Graveyard of the Pacific, we haven’t even sailed night and day and night and day and night along a North Pacific coastline where gales this time of year are a dime-a-dozen and come on quickly, and we haven’t made it across the next bar and into Humboldt Bay. But none of those potential, perceived hazards are relevant; we can go ahead and start that five-minute clock…now.
There is about a half-mile between me and the oncoming vessel in this narrow shipping channel. Given our roughly 13-knot closure speed, we’ll pass each other in just over two minutes.
It’s night, a very dark night. My depth perception is off and I’m trying to make out a shape. I make a million subliminal mental calculations as I watch this traffic, continuously trying to make sense of the lights all over the boat, of the lights on the hills and shoreline beyond it. But my interest is pretty subdued; I know it will all be clear as we get closer.
Then I realize we are a bit closer, closer than I assumed, less than a quarter-mile now and getting brighter, but still not a concern. We’ll pass by, two proverbial ships in the night. I wonder if they see me—my little LED running lights so low on the water—but there’s no need to call on the radio to be sure, we’re going to pass port-to-port, sure as rain.
Then a larger boat grabs my attention, off in the distance, just a smudge in the darkness about a mile beyond this approaching boat, way outside the channel on the other side, heading the same direction as me and merging into the channel. It’s like a large white hull and the first strange thought that occurs to me is that it’s an unlit cruise ship heading out to sea, strange indeed.
My approaching traffic is closer, right where he should be. I can see now it looks like a large tug.
But I’m focused on the new guy, wondering about this big, white, unlit cruise ship—but not concerned, he’ll merge into this channel way ahead of me.
Suddenly my perception of everything changes.