In my life, I have lived many places, but the place of my heart has long been the state of Oregon. Especially the coast. Currently I live in a part of Oregon vulnerable to storms and high water.
A plucky group of forward-thinking people in our area trains volunteers to help first responders in emergencies. They also encourage residents to learn how to use hand-held radios to receive emergency messages.
I have taken their classes but find the little radio most useful for getting marine weather forecasts. Since I lived on a sailboat for six years, these marine forecasts are familiar. They also remind me how bad sea conditions can be just offshore from our cozy homes on land. Small Craft Advisories are common where the long Columbia River meets the Pacific at the Columbia Bar!
The historical novel
Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark
vividly describes what ships can face arriving at the Columbia Bar:
When the Tonquin arrived off the Northwest Coast and mouth of the Columbia River on March 22, 1811, it had left all tropical antics far in its wake. Here wind squalls from the northwest swept across the charcoal sea. Huge swells tossed the ship. Roaring white breakers smashed against the shoreline of this far edge of the North American continent, stretching away endlessly north and south in a misty gray-green band of impenetrable forest and rocky headlands. . . .
Whatever safety and shelter was offered by this wild coast was blocked by a four-mile-long sandbar across the Columbia's mouth. Still today one of the world's most dangerous navigational hazards, here the power of the largest river of the western continent, discharging an average of 265,000 cubic feet of water per second, collides head-on with the power of the world's largest ocean. The Pacific tides and swells entering the river's mouth fight against the outgoing river's discharge. This battle throws up ferociously steep mounds of water, up to twelve feet high, known as standing waves. They can literally stand a boat up on end. At the same time, incoming swells from the North Pacific, generated by powerful storms thousands of miles out at sea and thirty feet or more in height, tower over the shallows of the bar. Crashing down in a tumult of foam and spray further churned by the winds and tidal currents, these waves create what seems to be a giant cauldron where the earth's hydraulic forces converge.
Somewhere in this chaos of wind and wave and powerful tides the Seagoing party had to find the gap in the shallow sandbar. It was only through this single channel that the main current of the Columbia River exited the continent, and they could enter.
"The wind was blowing in heavy squalls, and the sea ran very high," wrote Franchière, about their arrival off the Columbia's mouth, adding that they could plainly see the breakers crashing from three miles off.
A small whaleboat with 5 men is inadvisably launched by Captain Thorn of the Tonquin to find the channel:
Alexander Ross watched from the rail with the others. The seas were so rough that by the time the whaleboat moved one hundred yards from the ship, he wrote, the onlookers at the rail frequently lost sight of it among the whitccapping swells. Mr. Fox's whaleboat soon became "utterly unmanageable." It turned sideways to the "foaming surges," spun around, then was flung up to a wave crest, before disappearing again into a deep trough. . . .
By noon two days after they'd arrived, March 24, the wind had dropped. Now Mr. Mumford, the second mate aboard the Tonquin, made another attempt at finding the channel across the bar. . . . They were approaching the bar but still two miles from shore when those in the longboat suddenly found themselves pulled into the ripping maelstrom of current and surf and wind and shallows for which the Columbia Bar was already infamous. Ross, at the oars, described "the terrific chain of breakers. . .rolling one after another in rapid succession" while a "fearful suction" pulled the longboat toward the bar. Before they had time to respond fully, the current had dragged the longboat into the bar's breakers, the crashing tons of water spinning them this way and that.
"[A]t this instant, Mr. Mumford, who was at the helm called out, 'Let us turn back, and pull for your lives; pull hard, or you are all dead men.'"
For twelve minutes, Ross wrote, the longboat hung in the balance, the men pulling with all their strength, but neither winning nor losing the battle against the current sucking them farther into the bar's breaking surf. Finally, "the boat obeyed the oars," he wrote. They managed to row themselves out of the imminent danger and to the relative safety of the heaving but open sea.
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In a more modern vein, Wikipedia summarizes the following facts about the Columbia Bar:
The Columbia River Bar is the portion of the Columbia River where the current dissipates into the Pacific Ocean, often as large, standing waves partially caused by the deposition of sediment as the river slows. These standing waves are usually mixed with ocean waves and wreak havoc with small (and not so small) vessels. To add to the treachery, conditions can change from calm and serene to life threatening breaking waves in as little as five minutes due to tide, wind direction and ocean swell direction. Since 1792 approximately 2,000 large ships have sunk in and around the Columbia River Bar. The nearby U.S. Coast Guard station at Cape Disappointment is renowned for operating in some of the roughest sea conditions in the world and is also home to the National Motor Lifeboat School. It is the only school for rough weather and surf rescue operation in the United States and is respected internationally as a center of excellence for heavy boat operations.
As a practical tip, small craft are advised to cross the bar during times of incoming flood tide, staying toward the outside of the navigational channel to avoid the frequent large ships which move at 20 to 30 knots.
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I'm not sure if this "You Have to See This" video is still available,
but if so, it's, um, entertaining?
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As a reader, I like essays and novels that are informed by ideas. Annie Dillard. Michael Ondaatje. I am hoping here to join others who feel the same. I look forward to thoughtful conversations!