Voyage to the Columbia River: Neah Bay to Astoria

With Yahtzee sandwiched between the bright lights of two fishing boats, the three of us turned westward in unison towards the Pacific Ocean and Cape Flattery shortly before 5 a.m. The boat behind soon passed and we had two escorts lighting the way out through Tatoosh Island and Duncan Rock.

Jill and I sat together in the cockpit watching daylight slowly appear and the boys slept as we rode the gentle swell. It was good to be heading out in the ocean again and even more exciting to be doing it as a family. And just like the previous few days in the Strait, it seemed like beautiful weather would make the trip even more pleasant. When we made the turn south around Cape Flattery and shaped a course down the coast, the mainsail was drawing just slightly and the engine chugged along, as any semblance of a westerly breeze was yet to fill in.

Jill and the boys hanging out as we motor along under gray skies just south of Cape Flattery
Jill and the boys hanging out as we motor along under gray skies just south of Cape Flattery

With the sun on the rise, the dark morning slowly faded to gray and it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the sea began. The cloud cover seemed thin and we knew that at some point it would burn off. Sure enough, by mid-morning specks of blue began to pop through the dull sky and by noon it was sunny. Shortly thereafter, a northwesterly began to toy with us and we rolled the genoa in and out several times while it shifted up and down in velocity.

When it finally filled in, Porter said, “Dad, we should get the spinnaker up.” And I had to laugh because I hadn’t even mentioned it yet. He knew though, and we brought it on deck and got it rigged and flying. Off went the diesel and one of the most glorious days of ocean sailing in my life was before us.

Flying the spinnaker under blue skies
Flying the spinnaker under blue skies

With the spinnaker flying and breeze building, Yahtzee gained speed from 4 knots, to 5, to 6 and then 7-plus. In the afternoon sun, Porter practiced moving forward and aft on deck while clipped on the jackline — which can be tricky — and he and Magnus played with their Lego trains in the cockpit by themselves for far longer than I thought they would. Down below they did art projects, read books, played instruments and had a normal nap and sleep routine. Overall, nothing seemed to phase them.

Porter takes a turn at the helm with the spinnaker up (and the auto pilot on).
Porter takes a turn at the helm with the spinnaker up (and the auto pilot on).
Porter does an art project and Magnus plays with toys while underway
Porter does an art project and Magnus plays with toys while underway

At one point Jill and I sat in the sun side-by-side on the cabin top and talked about the passage. “I could just keep going,” she said. I could only agree.

The northwesterly breeze kicked up stronger later in the afternoon and before making dinner we decided to douse the spinnaker. We had no desire to fly the sail at night, and since we’d been sailing so fast, we were actually way ahead of our timing to get into the Columbia River Bar the following morning.

When the sail was stowed, we rolled out the genoa and sailed downwind wing and wing for hours. The wind and swell continued to increase as sunset loomed and we surfed fast down the larger waves. We were still sailing too fast.

Wanting to reach the bar on a flood tide rather than a max ebb, we rolled the genoa up and decided to just sail with the main through the night. This slowed us down a bit and Jill and I started our watch rotation when darkness fell.

She had the fist watch and dealt with erratic fishing boats hauling crab pots. As is normal for me on passage, I fell fast asleep and was roused only by Jill’s gentle nudge when it was my watch. On deck the wind had calmed some, but the sea state was still boisterous. Yahtzee’s pace was a bit brisk, and I hated to slow her down because she was really in a nice groove. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

As the calendar switched from April 1 to 2, the wind subsided and gave us a suitable speed to reach the bar on time, and all that was left to do was take in a wondrous star show that can only be found upon the ocean.

When I got up for my last watch, the wind had all but died and Yahtzee slogged along in the sloppy seas. I came on deck and Jill immediately said, “Turns out, I love the Grateful Dead!” Which was pleasant news to me. I’d been listening to it on the cockpit speaker during one of my previous watches and it had become our go-to night sailing soundtrack.

When the speed dipped to 2 knots I finally turned the engine on and we motored the last few miles towards the long entrance channel to the Columbia River. Much like the previous day, our skies entering the Columbia were steely-gray. Fishing boats passed in and out and the Coast Guard gave a rather benign bar report for our entry. Even though we’d only been offshore for a little over 24 hours, the anticipation of making landfall was palpable aboard. The excitement was accentuated by the sight of two orca whales as we entered the river and when Jill turned on some music, we all couldn’t help but dance.

The sun tries to break through as we reach Astoria, Oregon.
The sun tries to break through as we reach Astoria, Oregon.
and it turned into a sunny, fun day.
It did.

We landed at Port of Astoria’s West Basin just after 9 a.m and almost on cue, the sun broke through the clouds. As we tied up in the joy of finishing a successful passage, Porter summed it up best by saying, “Dad, life is good.”

Yes it was — and Astoria’s great breweries were calling all sailors.

10 thoughts on “Voyage to the Columbia River: Neah Bay to Astoria

  1. Astoria is a cool place! Uncle Frank started a camping trip down the coast years ago with our family there- we loved touring the old fort, and going to the Coast Guard museum to learn more about the Columbia River. Enjoy! I can’t believe how fast you guys made it there 🙂

  2. It’s great to see friends getting out and leaving the Sailsh Sea. It brings us comfort to read your account. I wonder where you will go from there? s/v Tuwamish

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us. Watching your boys grow up on the boat makes me so excited to take our grandson when he is big enough…he is only 3 months now! Can you give us some tips about kid life jackets? Any recommendations? Hope we see you on the water this summer!
    Sue & Brian
    SV Cariba

  4. Happy Birthday to our little sailor, Porter! Have fun celebrating his 3rd birthday exploring the Columbia River.

    Love to all,
    Mom/Nana

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