Cruising the Columbia River

Cruising on the Pacific Northwest’s mighty Columbia River offers plenty of twists and turns during a family voyage.

December 18, 2017
Cruising the Columbia River Jit Lim / Alamy Stock Photo

With a rollicking version of the Talking Heads anthem “Take Me to the River” pulsing loudly from Yahtzee’s speakers, our family crew bounced, danced and sang with the rhythm in excitement and anticipation of getting underway to head up the mighty Columbia River. My wife, Jill, and I, along with our sons, Porter and Magnus, were waiting for the fuel-dock attendant at Astoria, Oregon’s West Basin.

Just days earlier, we had crossed over the infamous Columbia River Bar, jubilantly ticking off one of the first major milestones of our journey. It was early April 2016, and our plan to sail down from the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea for over a month of cruising on the river was coming to fruition. The offshore passage south from Neah Bay, on the northwest corner of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and subsequent bar crossing had been as uneventful as we’d hoped. A following northwesterly breeze pushed our 1984 Grand Soleil 39, Yahtzee, quickly south under spinnaker throughout the day and night, and at first light, the river’s mouth, complete with an orca welcoming committee, was fine on the port bow.

Two hours later, and with sun bursting through a gray layer of clouds, we tied up in Oregon’s old port town of Astoria. The picturesque river city bustled with maritime history, numerous breweries and a charming waterfront park, making it a fine first stop. But we were eager to get up the river, and departed knowing we’d make time to explore it again prior to competing in the Oregon Offshore Race in early May.


Discovering the Lower Columbia

From Astoria, we pointed Yahtzee’s bow upriver toward the low-slung islands of the lower Columbia. As we weaved our way through the narrow, shallow channels, it was hard to believe we were at the mouth of a 1,200-mile-long waterway that stretches through gorges, mountain ranges and high deserts all the way from the Canadian Rockies to the vast Pacific Ocean.

Columbia River
Yahtzee, a 1984 Grand Soleil 39, scoots up the Columbia River wing-and-wing on an afternoon therma Andy Cross

Bald eagles soared overhead while we picked our way through the brackish backwater, searching for a suitable spot to drop the hook for the night. A couple of small fishing boats buzzed by as the anchor chain poured over the bow, and when all was quiet, the scene became one of perfect spring tranquility: Birds sang in the trees, the current churned beneath us and a slight afternoon breeze kicked up from the west.

We’d been warned by experienced Columbia River cruisers not to trust the charts of the lower river’s winding channels, and we found out how true that was when motoring back toward the main part of the river the following day. While transiting a twisting side channel that by all accounts seemed deep, we soon found ourselves at an impasse where the depth of the water simply wouldn’t let us through. How did we know that? We went aground, of course.


Fortunately, the grounding was done with the dexterous touch of keel braille on sand and only told us that our end was right there. I spun Yahtzee 180 degrees and we hightailed it many miles back to the deeper water of the Columbia. By that time, a strong afternoon thermal blew the river into a frenzy, and we enjoyed an absolute sleigh ride past rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, leafy-green trees and lofty conifers. And when a giant car carrier approached from astern, we jibed to the edge of the channel like a slow-moving vehicle signaling and moving into the right lane. Indeed, it was an adventurous beginning to our time on the river.

Savoring a River Surprise

Whether sailing, motoring or both, heading up the Columbia River is generally slow, and with the warmth of spring in full effect, snowmelt from the looming peaks of Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams accelerated the river’s swift currents. Sometimes plodding along at a diminutive 3.5 knots, all we could do was enjoy the sunshine, scenery and quaint villages while winding our way inland toward Portland, Oregon.

Columbia River
The author and his sons soak in the sun while docked at Astoria, Oregon’s waterfront. Andy Cross

Along this stretch, the Columbia forms a state boundary, with Washington to the north and Oregon to the south. Towns like Cathlamet, Washington, and St. Helens, Oregon, made excellent overnight stops, but it was one charming out-station that captured our imagination. Acting on a tip from a friend and avid Columbia River cruiser, we found the private river house and moorage at quirky Batwater Station to be one of the most distinctive stops we’ve made in all our years of cruising.


Located on the Oregon side of the river, just past Crims Island, Batwater Station is a charming retreat that lies on a 60-acre waterfront parcel of restored wetlands and usable horse pasture. We weaved our way through a narrow, current-swept channel, and owner Karin Hunt caught our lines and promptly gave us a tour of the grounds and Batwater’s compelling history.

The site was purchased in the early 1990s by Karin and her partner, Michael Tillerson, and they’ve since transformed it from a derelict riverside farm to a beautiful property that they graciously share with passing cruisers and campers for a nominal fee. Over the past few years they have completely revitalized the wetlands, renovated the old pier and added 320 feet of linear dock space, a gorgeous floating home and a boathouse that houses a fully restored 1946 Shain Cabin Cruiser named Merlin. They also constructed a river kitchen at the head of the pier that has propane and wood-fired grills and a full kitchen, bathroom and shower for the use of guests.

We spent the better part of two days at this whimsical property hiking by the river, relaxing on the porches, cooking and celebrating our son Porter’s third birthday.


When we departed Batwater Station a day later, I couldn’t help but think of it as one of the most peculiar yet special cruising experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a true gem on the river.

Onward to Portland

Columbia River
Shipping traffic is everywhere throughout the Columbia River. Andy Cross

Portland is a relatively large metropolitan area that sits at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. When approaching the city from downstream in the Columbia, cruisers basically have three options: simply continue up the river to Hayden Island and then Government Island in north Portland; turn into the Willamette in northwest Portland to head to downtown; or turn off the Columbia and into the winding, rural Multnomah Channel that will eventually feed you into the Willamette near downtown. As is typical for us, we had time, so we wanted to ­traverse all three routes.

The most logical way to accomplish that feat was to transit Multnomah Channel and head downtown first, and it was an unusually hot April day in the Pacific Northwest when we did so. Salmon fisherman were out in full force along the channel’s sandy banks, but we wove our way through and savored the verdant landscape, abundant wildlife and distinctive floating-home communities before stopping at a small fuel dock to top up on diesel, water and ice, plus cold beer for the adults and frosty ice-cream bars for the boys.

Just a few miles past the fuel dock, we pulled in for the night at Hadley’s Landing public dock and park on Sauvie Island. Docks at Oregon’s public marine parks are all free, and we used our time at this one to laze around, grill out and hike in the woods before taking off the next day for downtown Portland.

Any trip into the city by sailboat needs to be taken with care because there are numerous bridges of varying heights crisscrossing the Willamette River, and the ones that need lifting are closed for rush hour. With a mast height of 56 feet, we needed to have at least three of them raised, and after a series of phone and VHF calls, the bridge tenders had us through and on our way to the public transient moorage at Riverplace, right in the heart of the Rose City.

Landing in downtown stirred up some of the same feelings of arriving in Astoria. While different, they were both milestones in the journey that we’d met, and the jubilation of achieving those goals was very gratifying. After covering more than 100 miles along the river between the two points, we felt as though we’d gotten a real taste of what the Columbia River was all about — and we loved it.

Government Island
The dock at Government Island is a busy place on a beautiful weekend. Andy Cross

Portland by Land and Sea

Our first day in downtown Portland had us off to run a few errands, only to stumble upon a kids’ event in Pioneer Square. It was one of those truly spontaneous moments that comes with cruising, and Porter and Magnus had a blast playing with makeshift musical instruments, oversize wooden blocks and a big mound of clay and flowers.

Portland’s iconic and very unique Saturday Market was a few blocks from there, and between the impressive people-watching, rhythmic drum circles, brave gentleman swallowing fire and all the locally produced products, our attention was piqued for the remainder of the afternoon.

Just as a journey into downtown wouldn’t be complete without attending the market, the same goes for a leisurely daysail or two. Since Jill and I went to the University of Oregon, in Eugene, many of our friends from school reside in Portland, which made it only right to get some of them out for a sail. The morning we chose started windless and cloudy, but we ended up with enough breeze to move Yahtzee around the Willamette, and by midafternoon, the sun was shining. While meandering about the river, we tossed food on the grill and enjoyed plenty of laughter, proving that no matter where you are, there is nothing like being on the water with friends on a nice day.

Though our time downtown was highly entertaining, it was also fleeting. Before we knew it, Yahtzee was pointed north on the Willamette back under the bridges and out toward the mighty Columbia. After hanging around Hayden Island for a few days, we decided to sail farther east up the river to spend the weekend at Government Island.

The island is a large park that is only accessible by boat, and when we arrived on a Friday evening, there were several Hunter owners who welcomed us with open arms to their annual safety cruise. We obliged, and in doing so got to participate in Coast Guard Auxiliary vessel-safety checks, a flare demonstration and an impromptu dock party. The balance of our time at the island was spent hanging with new cruising friends, lounging in the summer-esque sun and delighting in the splendor of being on the river. The weekend turned out to be the farthest we’d make it up the Columbia, and we could tell from those cruisers who call the river their home waters that it certainly is a special place.

Willamette River
Jill steers Yahtzee downwind in the Willamette River. Andy Cross

Go Time

It had been more than three weeks since we first crossed the Columbia River Bar, and the time came to start thinking about the next stages of our voyage. We’d signed up to compete in the Oregon Offshore Race from Astoria to Victoria, British Columbia, and needed to get a few things done to the boat before making the trip back down the river, which effectively switched us from full-on cruising mode to working on the boat in relatively unknown places.

We pulled Yahtzee out of the water at Danish Marine on Hayden Island for a spa treatment that included a bottom scrub, topside wash and wax, and rudder check. It was also time to replace the shaft seal on our saildrive, and we needed to pick up the remaining pieces of safety gear to satisfy race regulations. Though pulling the boat from the water in unfamiliar locales while cruising can oftentimes be intimidating, the folks at Danish did a commendable job working through our punch list, getting us ready to race and on our way toward Astoria.

My dad joined us for the trip back down the river, and our leisurely, if slow at times, pace on the upriver leg was perfectly contrasted by this rocket of a ride to the coast. With the river flowing at a powerful 3-plus knots, we covered the 100-mile stretch in just two big day-hops, and settled back into West Basin to finish prepping for the race and to complete what we’d promised when we left: exploring the charming city once again.

Race day was quickly upon us, though, and as we headed out to the Columbia River Bar before sunup for the start of the 198-mile race north to British Columbia, I couldn’t help but think about a question I’d answered at the skippers meeting the night before: “Was spending all that time cruising the river really worth it?”

My answer was a quick and emphatic, “Yes. And it was amazing.”

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Freelance writer and editor Andy Cross and family have cruised and raced in the Pacific Northwest for five years aboard their Grand Soleil 39, Yahtzee. They are currently getting ready to winter over in Alaska before sailing south to warmer climes.


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