We were approaching the Coos Bay bar after having spent much of the previous 24 hours hove-to off the Columbia River weathering a gale that had detonated like a meteorological bomb. There was still a heavy swell running. The mate standing beside me at the lower helm looked exhausted; the owner just looked bilious.
We had taken delivery of Blitzen at the LeClerq boatyard on Lake Union, Seattle, and were taking her south to San Francisco. She was a stout hull originally built by Delta, a hull often used for fishing boats in the Pacific Northwest where strength was always admired and often required. Blitzen had been refitted as a yacht at the LeClerq yard. She was rakish looking—black hull and topsides painted with gleaming linear polyurethane (LPU) and gold pin striping. She looked fast still secured at the dock.
The new owner and his party were along for the experience. At the moment he seemed to have thought better of his decision.
He had brought a hand-held video recorder with him and filmed each aspect of the delivery—the covered birth at the yard on Lake Union, sea trials, the run up the Strait of Juan de Fuca, our first attempt to round Cape Flattery, the inner harbor of Victoria where we laid over waiting for a window between winter storms, even the fuel dock at Grays Harbor. When we were caught by the gale off the Columbia River bar, the waves so close you could hardly slip a shoehorn between them and the deck pitching through 90 degrees, I asked if he’d like to get some footage of the storm. At the time the waves were so large we couldn’t see their crests from the lower helm station.
“A unique opportunity,” I quipped.
“I never want to remember this day,” he answered, and disappeared into his cabin for the next eight hours.
They were all now crowded on the flying bridge wearing bulky Type II life vests, the kind they used to call a “Mae West” for its obvious attributes. It was a request of Coast Guard Group Coos Bay—an understandable precaution for a boat that may capsize in the next few minutes but cumbersome for me to work the throttles and transmissions. The owner’s party was clinging to the rails, the blood pressed from their knuckles by the strength of their grip. The Coast Guard’s request to wear life jackets had them spooked.
I had called the Coast Guard at Coos Bay to see if the bar was closed. When sea conditions on West Coast bars becomes hazardous, the Coast Guard will often close the bar to inbound vessels that might be at risk. They now have a neat formula for determining risk.
L is the overall length of the boat from stem to stern, F is the minimum freeboard, and W is the maximum wave height to the nearest whole number. It’s obvious from the formula that a bar may be closed sooner to smaller vessels. A bar is also likely to be closed when the ebb reaches four knots.
The reality is more messy than the formula might indicate. Sea conditions on a harbor bar depend upon the wind, height and direction of the swell, shoaling, strength of the current and state of the tide. Conditions can change dramatically, suddenly, and dangerously. Fifteen foot surf can build in a matter of minutes on a clear day with the right conditions. Those conditions may exist on different parts of the bar at different stages of the tide. Sailors on the Pacific Northwest coast never treat harbor bars cavalierly, at least, not those that live to gain experience.
When returning from sea, conditions on the bar are rarely obvious. The rounded back of a breaking wave looks entirely different than its steep face. I’ve entered Humboldt Bay on a clear, calm day at dawn with no early warning only to find myself suddenly surfing down the face of ten foot swells goaded by a strong ebb current, the mate looking astern and calling the approach of the next wave while I struggled to keep the boat from broaching. I’ve learned to call the local Coast Guard for bar conditions as a routine precaution.
That day the Coos Bay Coast Guard reported a large swell running with the flood but the bar was open. As a precaution, they were sending a 44 foot motor lifeboat out to guide us across the bar.
In fact, they sent two. They took up position ahead and astern as we motored into the bay. Turns out their interest wasn’t entirely altruistic. An alert had been broadcast along the Northwest coast for a possible drug smuggler—a black hulled boat with gold detailing that had entered US waters from a foreign port, failed to clear customs, and was moving south fast. It had been reported in Grays Harbor briefly, sighted by a Coast Guard aircraft, failed to respond to VHF broadcasts, eluded an intercept by a motor lifeboat out of Yachats Bay, and sighted holding station off of the Columbia River bar in weather that would preclude any legitimate purpose.
By the time we explained that we had cleared US Customs by phone at Grays’ Harbor (apparently the call had not been properly logged), we had monitored only garbled broadcasts from the Coast Guard at Yachats Bay and didn’t realized the motor lifeboat was attempting to intercept (I was pushing south fast in worsening weather), and the simple fact that not even a drug runner would loiter near the Columbia River bar in a gale, by that time the owner had already chartered a private plane from Coos Bay and was somewhere in the air over Mendocino.