A Near Disaster

Michael Robertson recalls the night that he almost lost Del Viento and his family in a chain of events that spanned about five minutes.

Del Viento- fog

Del Viento heading into the fog a month ago, en route to Prince Rupert, Canada.Michael Robertson

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.”

“Yep.”

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.

Lights jump out from behind the big, white, unlit cruise ship and they’re close, and I realize this cruise ship is not a cruise ship, but a white wall that’s growing fast. I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing, but it’s all growing quickly, eclipsing the lights in the background.

“WINDY!”

I fumble with the AIS to see what it says, to help me interpret what I’m seeing. It’s set at five-miles and I can’t discern anything and I drop it, there is no time. I hear new noises, growing sounds of rushing water and rumbling engines. This produces a flush of panic because I usually hear little over the sound of our own engine.

“What is it?” Windy climbs quickly out of the companionway from the brightly lit interior. She knows something is wrong by the way I called her.

“HELP ME WHAT AM I LOOKING AT?”

The approaching tug is now close abeam, passing quickly. I take a second to look at the iPad to confirm we are where I think we are, headed the right direction. Then I turn back. The white wall is towering ahead and I see a bow wake, but it doesn’t look right. The lights beyond it are disappearing, but they had been moving alarmingly to our starboard side.

Windy turned to face forward. “Uh, ohmygod, uh, um…”

I know we are in danger and very close to something bearing down on us, but I still can’t orient what I’m seeing. Why isn’t someone blowing a large warning horn? Wouldn’t that happen before we’re run down? What direction is this thing moving? In the same moment, I spin our wheel to port, perpendicular and towards the transom of the passing tug. It seems safe to get into his wake, close to an object I can discern and know the direction it’s headed.

Windy points to starboard.

Immediately I see a line the diameter of a tree trunk lift out of the water in front of us. Then the towering white barge comes into focus and everything makes sense. The tug passing us to port has a large, white-walled barge under tow, but the tow isn’t trailing behind, it’s crabbing far into the opposing traffic lane of this narrow channel. It is dead ahead, less than 150 feet away from us.

Windy says, "No, starboard!" as I spin the wheel back, hard over to starboard about 140 degrees and throw the throttle all of the way forward.

Two or three or five seconds pass before I realize we are clear.

It races by us, right next to us, a big, metal wall.

Behind the barge another large, brightly-lit tug is there, pushing from the rear.

In this context, all of the elements present--the sound, the barge, the wake, the lights--the scene of what nearly happened plays in my head, sharp, sickening, and tactile imagery. I imagine the popping and cracking as Del Viento is caught beam-on, pushed sideways, a wall of water pushing over our side as we roll, break-up, and sink underneath the hard, flat end of the barge.

We both breathe deeply and stare at each other, wordless.

For the next hour we stood together, using the radar, AIS, and each other to gauge traffic in the channel. We used the VHF to announce our position and received appreciative responses from captains who had us on their radar but couldn’t otherwise see us. Both of us were buzzing from adrenaline and eager to get out to the open ocean. We were ten miles out before we could relax.

And all the while we talked about and learned from the mistakes I made.

In short, I trusted my senses even when I knew the darkness was disorienting, comfortable with assumptions I made and failing to use the tools I had at hand to verify my perceptions and broadcast my position. Specifically:

• I should have referred to AIS signals long before I tried to. I would have set the resolution and realized the tow was drifting into our traffic lane and could have left the channel to remain out of the way.

• I should have been broadcasting our position at each marker buoy all along. (I should have assumed I was invisible from the start.)

• I should have been using the radar too, from the start. Even though visibility was excellent, this hazard would have been clear long beforehand.

• I shouldn’t necessarily have been in the shipping channel. Though we sought to be in the channel for crossing the bar, the added depth was not important at this stage, more than an hour from that time.

• We should have had everything secured below before we untied. It seemed reasonable that we had almost a couple of hours before we both had to be topsides for the bar crossing, but we discounted the value of having both of us in the cockpit while we moved through this traffic corridor.

• I should have recognized the pattern of navigation lights displayed by a tow boat with a barge behind.

• I should have been less assuming, less cavalier, about my ability to avoid the potential hazards at the start of that passage. A different attitude would have gone a long way.

My dad, a private pilot, has long trumpeted a saying popular in the aviation community. The message is equally suited to the cruising community: Cruising is not inherently dangerous, but is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.

--MR

I__n our twenties, we traded our boat for a house and our freedom for careers. In our thirties, we slumbered through the American dream. In our forties, we woke and traded our house for a boat and our careers for freedom. And here we are. Follow along at http://www.logofdelviento.blogspot.com/