What Kind of Bar Is This Anyway?

  • Tuesday, November 27, 2012

At Sea With A Gentleman Pirate

By Ashley DesMarteau

On our first house hunting visit to Georgetown, we took a break from the listings and lockboxes and found ourselves on the Harborwalk. Needing to clear our heads, the February wind at our back, we walked along with heavy hearts, pondering all the decisions we needed to make for our family — to move or not to move — in a nutshell, that was the question. Our three boys had just gotten settled into a new school, new home and new neighborhood in Tennessee and the idea of a move so soon after starting to put down some roots had them all ready to jump ship. It was a lot to consider. Heading back to Front Street, the nautical storefront of the South Carolina Maritime Museum caught our eye with the colorful nautical flags snapping in the breeze. We had always enjoyed visiting maritime museums with our children, and after seeing the exhibits, talking with the Museum Director, Susan Sanders about the Wooden Boat Show and plans for the museum, we both felt that this was a good omen — our red right returning beacon, welcoming us to our new port.

In retrospect, maybe visiting the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon so often wasn't such a keen idea. Running through the entrance, our boys would dash past museum visitors, each jostling for position so they could push the buttons to light up the wall. Their chubby, apple-juiced-sticky little fingers tried to cover as many of the buttons as they could, and then they would pulse the lights so they twinkled like a Christmas tree. The giant map in front of them showed the mouth of the Columbia River, the great body of water where the Pacific Ocean roared in with such force daily. Jetting out six miles was a sandbar caused by the river carrying out sand and silt, depositing it, making the entrance to the river even more treacherous. The heavy Pacific swells would collide violently with the river discharge and this combination was notorious, and had proven to be deadly. Displayed all over the map next to a tiny light bulb were names of boats — some historic like the century old Peter Iredale, others pleasure boats, many fishing vessels and even a freighter. Lights all ablaze with the help of 30 little fingers, our boys were delighting in their accomplishment which unbeknownst to them was just short of ghoulish. At the top of the map, the ominous heading was “The Columbia River Bar: Graveyard of the Pacific” because more than 2,000 ships had sunk in the area since 1792. Every little light represented a vessel and lives lost to the awesome force that is the Columbia River Bar.

Our home up on the hill now had new owners who were busy making it their own, planting bulbs for fall; our cars at Springer's Garage would soon be riding around Astoria playing something other than Reggae and NPR; and now everything we had in this world was either sold or stored away inside our Morgan 45.2 ketch. We did leave some items behind in a safety deposit box at our bank, and thankfully when it burned down later that year my lovingly crafted macaroni necklaces, collection of baby teeth and treasured love letter from my husband were all spared.

Pulling away from the slip that August morning, I quietly whispered a prayer they wouldn't be adding a light bulb to the map tomorrow with s/v Ketching Up next to it. Our first passage, on our very first day of cruising would be to cross the ominous Columbia River Bar. No more recreational sailing, this was the big leagues. This isn't an ideal first passage, but as my husband is fond of saying, “it is what it is” and what 'it' was was a daunting first passage.

We had some local knowledge aboard, a fellow sailor, Ron Ash, who joined us for this passage. Our departure day was a moving target; we had no choice but to wait for the absolute best conditions on the Columbia River Bar and also good sea conditions for our overnight sail down to Newport, Oregon. We had the luxury of waiting for the ideal combination of good weather and seas, but crab and fishing boats head out across it as soon as the season opens despite the conditions. It can be ugly — so ugly that the US Coast Guard Motor life boat rescue school trains their recruits in these conditions. Gulp.

Departure day was an anxiety-filled event already, but having to cross the bar was insult added to injury. We set out full of confidence and smiles on the outside, but I was feeling more like a jelly donut on the inside. We were graced with beautiful sunny skies, something to be grateful for in Oregon, and optimistic salmon fishing boats bobbed up and down all around the channel with fishermen happy for a break from wearing foul weather gear.

Our sails were filled with a strong breeze and as we neared the bar I had the sensation that I did inching up the hill on the Zambezze Zinger roller coaster right before reaching the summit and then falling into the black abyss. A wave of anxiety took over, washing me with doubts — was the boat ready? Was I ready? Were we crazy? How will we do this? Is it too late to change my mind?

Every sound seems to amplify — the water slapping into the hull, the halyards snapping in the wind, the wind whistling and billowing of the sails. Happily, my fears were interrupted by cheers from the crew, my family, celebrating that we had just crossed the Columbia River Bar. Smooth sailing ahead.

The celebratory spirit carried on long into the afternoon as the Oregon coast slipped away from us. We were one tiny boat in a sea of blue, headed for adventure.

•  •  •

At Sea With A Gentleman Pirate — Next installment: I've Only Got Three Words For You.

Ashley DesMarteau grew up with the summer sand of Pawleys Island between her toes. She and her husband and three sons recently put roots down in Pawleys Island after 20 years, two continents, seven states and eight homes. The water voyage took two years and covered 13,000 miles to come home.

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