Our "First" Offshore Journey

At long last, we are actually going to take the new Duet somewhere. Not just somewhere, but 400 miles, including about 180 miles offshore and then across the Columbia River Bar, which is one of the more dangerous river entrances in the US, if not the world. What were we thinking? As Wikipedia defines it, the Columbia River Bar is:

Where the river’s current dissipates into the Pacific Ocean, often as large standing waves. The waves are partially caused by the deposition of sediment as the river slows, as well as mixing with ocean waves. The waves, wind, and current are hazardous for vessels of all sizes. The Columbia current varies from 4 to 7 knots westward, and therefore into the predominantly westerly winds and ocean swells, creating significant surface conditions.Unlike other major rivers, the current is focused “like a fire hose” without the benefit of a river delta. Conditions can change from calm to life-threatening in as little as five minutes due to changes of direction of wind and ocean swell. Since 1792, approximately 2,000 large ships have sunk in and around the Columbia Bar, and because of the danger and the numerous shipwrecks the mouth of the Columbia River acquired a reputation world wide as the Graveyard of Ships.

We know that the Bar is where the Coast Guard trains its white water rescue teams, so we figured it had to be rough, on occasion. We have, however, spoken to several Nordhavns that have crossed it several times without incident. Also, folks cross it every day to go fishing, in boats much smaller than Duet, so it must be doable.

The key to a successsful voyage is planning, planning and more planning. A big part of planning is weather, good weather can make all the difference. Also, the more local knowledge we could gather the better, preferably from boaters with boats like ours who had actually crossed the bar. Finally, we knew that, if worst came to worst, the Coast Guard wasn’t far away. Actually, if we timed our disaster right, they might even be right there training.

So, we planned, we prepared, we practiced and then we planned, prepared and practiced some more. While this blog and the one before it are dated in the spring of ’13, we had actually been thinking about this trip since late 2012, once we decided to take Duet to Portland. Why Portland you ask, why not stay in Seattle or somewhere in the beautiful cruising grounds of the San Juans?

In a word, cost. Washington state collects sales tax, even from non residents, on boats which remain in their waters. British Columbia, while it doesn’t collect sales tax, is an expensive place to keep a boat, especially if you can only visit every 8 weeks or so, like us.

Oregon, on the other hand, has no sales tax and is a relatively short non stop flight from Reno, or a 10 hour drive. As a deal clincher, Nancy’s brother, Tom, lives in Portland, so we would have someone we trusted locally in case there was a problem when we weren’t there.

So Portland it was. Nancy started on charts, cruising guides and local knowledge. Ron worked on weather. Between us, we put together enough information that we felt comfortable making the journey. As Ron said, worst case, if we can’t cross the bar, we go back to British Columbia or on to San Francisco. We had enough fuel for either, as well as charts and access to weather. While we wouldn’t want to, we could.

We have to thank the owners of N50 Colibri, Christopher and Diana, who have made this journey several times. Also, the previous owners of N46 Four Seasons, and now the N57, Orion, Douglas and Jerry Cochrane, who have also done the journey and even sent us the draft of their Columbia River Cruising Guide. And last, but not least Sean of the trawler Orca, who fishes the Bar regularly and wrote us several detailed emails (buoy by buoy) of how to cross and when. Nancy met Sean on the Nordhavn Dreamers site. He, his wife and his 3 year old daughter Elizabeth, regularly cruise Orca on the Columbia, so he also had some good ideas on river anchorages.

Essentially, our plan boiled down to going when the weather was good, defined as winds and seas from the north and northwest, namely behind us. We would cross the Bar on a rising tide, preferably after a mild ebb tide. If we could arrive and cross the Bar in the early morning, so much the better, as it gave us the rest of the day to sort out whatever problems might arise, before we had to find an anchorage for the night. We would not, if we could possibly avoid it, cross the Bar in the dark. We will go in and out of harbors we know in the dark, but prefer some light when dealing with a new place. 

Since the journey would only take about 24 hours and we had two weeks to get to Portland, we decided to stage Duet as close to the departure point as we could get. This turned out to be Neah Bay, a small town at the very tip of Washington state, which is literally at the entrance to the Straight of Juan de Fuca. There we would wait until we had good weather and then we would go. Fortunately, it turned out that Scott and Diane, of N47 Sea Eagle, had often run their dive boat out of Neah Bay, so they were able to reassure us that it had a good anchorage, and we could get internet service, so Ron could stay in touch with the weather.

As an aside, Duet is equipped with a Single Side Band (SSB) radio, which can receive the NOAA high seas forecasts. She also has a WeatherFax, which receives the same forecasts, as well as weather maps, and prints them out. The advantage of the WeatherFax is that it is automatic and it can print whatever forecasts and maps you set it for, whereas you have to listen to the SSB and write down the forecasts. Also, the SSB doesn’t get maps. Prior to departing Seattle, Ron tested both the SSB and the WeatherFax. The WeatherFax works. The SSB does too, after a fashion.

We had an SSB on our 46, but no WeatherFax. The SSB could get high seas forecasts, but it couldn’t transmit out, nor could it receive voice transmissions. It could receive voices, but only from what Nancy calls the Ewoks on the Planet Zar. These squeaky voice like noises were not understandable, but they were entertaining. The SSB on the new Duet does better than that, we can understand the voices, barely, but Ron hasn’t had time to test it’s outgoing transmission quality. For this journey, the WeatherFax would suffice, if we couldn’t get wireless internet somehow.

Aboard Duet, and elsewhere, we use a Verizon Wireless Jetpack for internet connectivity, which we usually referred to as the hockey puck. It has worked well everywhere we have been so far. The key is increase it’s gigabyte allowance prior to visiting the boat, as we tend to use a lot of data when aboard, especially for weather. We understand from other folks that this unit would stay connected 10-15 miles offshore, which would be great but not critical, for this trip. 

So Ron had plenty of weather info. We even had the VHF forecasts. We had food, safety gear, fuel, Racor filters and just about anything else we would need. What we didn’t have was a weather window.

Ron had been watching the weather at the mouth of the Juan de Fuca, down the coast and at the Columbia River Bar for weeks. This allows him to get comfortable with the weather patterns for the area. About a week before we were due to leave, things started looking up. The weather was moderating and Weatherman Ron guessed we might get a nice calm period, provided we could get going quickly.

We flew to Seattle, watching the weather all the way, and arrived late on Friday night. Saturday was a whirlwind of provisioning, final maintenance, and returning the rental car. Sunday we set off early, cleared the Ballard lock with no difficulty and arrived at our first anchorage, Discovery Bay, without fanfare. It was a nice area, completely deserted. We believe that boats often don’t like big wide open anchorages, and often with good reason, as they can be open to wind or sea, or both. In this case, however, little wind was expected and we tucked right up at the end of the Bay. We chose the Bay specifically because, not only was it an easy entrance, it was an easy exit. We planned to leave at sun up, so an easy exit would ensure that we reached the Straight of Juan de Fuca quickly and could start our long run to Neah Bay.

As the chart below indicates, we were traveling a long way to reach the end of the straight. We started at about halfway between sections 14 and 15 and Neah Bay is in the middle of Section 12, just before the tip of Washington state. Overall, it’s about 65 miles from Discover Bay (at the very right hand edge of section 14) to Neah Bay. 

All went as planned, we rose in the dark, fired up the coffee and then the main, pulled the hook and set off. Fortunately exiting Discovery Bay took about an hour, which allowed Nancy to serve bagels, fruit and more coffee. Actually the early part of the day was pretty calm, until we reached Dungeness Spit.

As we have mentioned before, the advent of AIS (automatic identification system) has revolutionized boating. With an AIS unit you can “see” what is ahead of you, not necessarily before the radar can see it (assuming you have a relatively direct line of sight) but definitely before you can see it with the naked eye. Using our AIS, it became apparent that we would have a close encounter with a large freighter as we passed Dungeness Spit.

For those of you who have traveled this area, you know how this works out. Duet was heading west outbound, traveling just south of the traffic scheme to stay out of the big boats’ way. Dungeness Spit sticks right out into the Straight and the traffic scheme almost touches it as you go around it. So it was all about timing. If Duet could round the Spit prior to the freighter, things would be much easier.

Dungeness Spit is shown at the lower right of the chart below, surrounded by light blue and green. Duet was approaching the traffic scheme (purple) from the white area to lowest right section of the chart. The channel buoy at the edge of Dungeness is the red blob at the tip of the spit. Duet needs to go very close to that, on either side, to stay in water deep enough for her draft.

So we stepped on the gas, which with the 50 is much more meaningful than with the 46. Our other choice was to go slowly and wait for the freighter to pass, but we had a very long day ahead of us and decided to push it a bit. Ron calculated that we should round Dungeness Spit at least 10 minutes before the freighter got there, based on the radar and the AIS, so we could sprint back into shallow water and get out of his way.

All worked exactly as planned. Duet cleared the Spit handily, the freighter passed close by, without having to change course. The only downside was a large head sea from the freighter’s wake hitting the shallow water where Duet had taken refuge. We banged right up and over with no problem. This also allowed Nancy to see how her storage decisions were working out.

Storage on a boat is a tricky business. You want things where they are easy to access, but they also need to be secure. Glass and china, in particular, are problematic, as they break. On the previous Duet we had only plastic wine glasses, plates, etc. On the new Duet Nancy took a risk and went with the real thing. This was the first big bump our new china had encountered. All went well, there were no crashes, bangs or unexpected noises.

Noise at sea is not only tiring, it is disconcerting. Nancy, in particular, does not like loud bangs while cruising. So far Duet had proved herself to be a quiet boat, with predictable motion and limited banging. The biggest bang on this meeting with the freighter was the bulbous bow, which came up and slammed down. This we expected, it had happened before and we had been warned about it by other 50 owners. The plus of the bulbous bow is that once it slams down the pitching stops, which is a big step forward over the 46. The Nordhavn 46, while a great sea boat, does have a tendency to hobby horse in head seas.

Interestingly, the 50 is the smallest Nordhavn with a bulbous bow. The 57 and 62 also have them, but with the new generation of boats, the 47/52, the 55/60/63 and the 64/68, PAE decided not to include them. Some of this is a result of tank testing but also the noise associated with the bulbous bow can be intimidating. Larger Nordhavns, such as the 76, can elect a bulbous bow as an option.

Other than the meeting with the freighter, our trip to Neah Bay was uneventful. We did take 20 minutes or so to run Duet up to wide open throttle (WOT) which Bob Senter (aka Lugger Bob) recommended that we do every time we take her out. Nordhavn 50’s have relatively large engines (300HP) for their daily cruising routine and the engine should work hard every now and again. At WOT Duet does chew up some water, as shown below. She also reaches a speed of 9-10 knots, depending on conditions. Her main engine is continous duty, which means it can do WOT all day long, but it burns a lot more fuel that way, so we tend to cruise at about 70% of WOT RPM.


The seas got steadily worse, bulking up on the nose, due to the wind against current scenario that was expected during the afternoon. We arrived at Neah Bay about 5PM and studied the entrance. In our experience, time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted. So it was at Neah Bay. We were approaching from the east, the entrance to the bay is oriented to the north/south. So we watched a couple of fishing boats make their run, lining up with the big rock to the NW of the entrance and then maintaining a direct course in the channel. We lined up the same way and had no issues.

Once we entered the harbor we noticed that there were no other anchored boats, if one didn’t count the two Coast Guard cutters tied off to a buoy outside the Coast Guard station. The anchorage was as Scott and Janet described, relatively large and sheltered by a rock jetty. So we picked a spot and anchored, without too much fuss, although the wind, as usual, chose that moment to gust into the mid 20’s. It helped set the hook, so we were fine with that.

Once we were settled, we took a bead on the rock jetty to our stern. Or at least we tried to, it turned out that our trusty range finder had finally given up the ghost. So Ron took a bearing with the radar, we were about ¼ of a mile away and we remained there throughout our stay.

The mountains behind the jetty in the photo below are on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, as we are facing northwest. As Duet swung around, we were stern to the open Pacific, just beyond the jetty.

At the time we anchored the wind was freshening out of the southeast, as opposed to the forecast for light winds from the northwest. Ron correctly interpreted this as a local phenomenon, which would pass after the sun went down. This is complicated at Neah Bay by the surrounding cliffs. It blew hard both evenings we were there, but the wind died at sunset and we spent a quiet night.

We spent one day at Neah Bay waiting for a weather window. We didn’t go ashore, we slept late and then spent the day doing boat chores. We only had one moment of real excitement, involving Indian racing canoes. The evening races used Duet as a marker for the canoes to round on their turn for home, so we got to see some serious canoe racing up close and personal. It turns out that Neah Bay is the capital of the Makah Nation, People of the Cape, who use these canoes to travel far and wide in the waters of the Juan de Fuca. They also still use the canoes for whaling, as part of their tribal tradition.

After the canoes, the rest of our second evening at Neah was pretty tame. We departed the next morning, around 8AM. Our trip out the mouth of the Juan de Fuca was uneventful, the waters were calm. We turned south for the Columbia, planning to do the trip about 25-30 miles offshore. At Duet’s cruising speed of about 8 knots it would take 3-4 hours, traveling on a diagonal, to reach our planned southbound track.

A quiet day was spent chugging along in the calm and beautiful blue Pacific. We did see one whale, although we didn’t realize what it was until after it had already sounded. We are accustomed to seeing dolphins in the wild, and have seen Right whales on the east coast, but this was a much bigger creature, presumably a humpback, as they are now feeding and migrating along the coast. It was very large and black, and surfaced right off Duet’s nose, then sounded and disappeared. After a few minutes we saw it, or possibly another one, much further away. It was a special moment for us, as we regard the arrival of dolphins, porpoises, or, in this case, whales, as a portent of a good journey.

We also had another first for us, Dahls porpoises, which are small and black with white patches on their bellies. They are very fast. During the day, several different groups of 6-8 animals came to play with Duet’s bulbous bow, and show off their speed and strength. We had not seen these creatures before, they look much like a very small killer whale. We also saw grey dolphins, with which we are familiar from the east coast. So all in all it was quite a journey from a wildlife perspective.

This picture is courtesy of the Nordhavn 43 Three@Sea, which traveled north from Dana Point, CA to Astoria about the same time we did. They had the sense to take a picture of the Dahl’s porpoises, rather than just stand on the deck clapping while they went zooming by. 

The day trudged on, as offshore days do. The weather was good, but both of us were feeling rather out of it from the scopolamine. We have used these patches many times before, and they always leave us feeling rather out of it, so this was nothing new. Nancy, in particular, felt poorly, funnily enough she felt worse with the patch in calm seas than she had on our journey to Neah Bay, where the seas were much rougher and she was only using her special eucalyptus goop. We plan to see if scopolamine is available as a gel which can be spread on the skin, which would let us titrate the dosage better.

Regardless, soon it was night, and we settled into our watch routine. Ron takes the first watch from about 9 to 1, and Nancy takes the night watch from 1 to 4 or 5. That way Ron is relatively rested when we arrive. 

Nancy did manage a nap in the master stateroom after dinner. It proved very comfortable, cool and quiet. Ron woke her around 12:30, so she was in pretty good shape to handle the night. When she came on deck, conditions had become somewhat more boisterous.

We now had following seas of 4-5 feet and winds had freshened to the mid teens. Our new Naiads, which had been upsized from 6 to 7.5 feet, coupled with the Datum electronic head, were making easy work of it. They kept the boat quite level, she just moved up and down as the waves passed underneath her.

In the change of watch, Ron noted that he had monitored numerous fishing boats, even 30 miles out, but hadn’t seen any other traffic. Nancy queued up her frozen Snickers bar and settled into the big chair.
Ron slept well too, on the sofa in the salon, to be close by if he was needed. The sofa in Duet’s salon is 7 feet long and pulls out into a double berth. We didn’t pull it out this trip, it is quite comfortable for one person in it’s normal position.


We arrived at the Columbia River entrance around 4:30AM, despite several speed reductions. At this point, Nancy was forced to wake Ron, as there was a large container ship preparing to enter the channel and she needed some help figuring out how to deal with it. While Ron was asleep she carefully watched several fishing vessels maneuvering inland of us, but other than that her watch had been quiet until the appearance of the container ship.

We err on the side of caution, and wake the off watch when either of us has the slightest concern. We would much rather be woken for nothing, than not woken for something. So Ron came up in the pilothouse. Naturally, once he appeared the ship decided to clearly indicate it’s intentions by turning to port, just as Nancy turned to starboard, so all was well.

We figured Ron might as well stay up, as we would be slowly approaching the river, while waiting for the ebb tide to cease and the flood tide to build a bit. Conditions had calmed right down. Nancy napped on the salon sofa until first light and then we approached the river entrance.

After all the buildup, crossing the Bay was a nonevent, which we really didn’t mind. The channel is wide, well marked and we came in at full cruising speed with a tidal lift, so we traversed the channel prior to the jetties easily and quickly. There were a lot of little fishing craft outbound for a day on the water, which we ignored. They are shallow draft and fast so they can go right around us.

As you can see in the chart below, there are areas which we needed to avoid (A, B,C, D, and E) and the channel narrows down at the jetties. There is also a traffic scheme, similar to the San Juans. 

Once we got closer to the beginning of the southern jetty ( the jetty is the dark line just south of B, above), however, we had company in the form of another large container ship off our stern. There wasn’t much room to get out of the way and there was another large ship outbound. The passing vessel’s pilot hailed us on VHF Channel 16, asked us to switch to Channel 13 and he and Ron chatted about passing strategies.

The ship would maintain his course, after working out where his companion vessel would be on the outbound side, and we would go as close to the channel buoy marking the jetty as we could. The pilot also suggested that we monitor Channel 13 while in the river channel and complimented us on Duet, saying she looked like a fine vessel. Little did we realize at the time that to talk to a Columbia River Pilot was an honor and to have one compliment Duet was a rare moment indeed.

Soon enough we cleared the jetty, and moved outside the buoys as there was plenty of water and it was calm, so there were no surf problems. We reached the town of Astoria, some 15 statute miles up river, by around 9:30AM. The photo below shows the town of Astoria and it’s bridge, as viewed from upriver. 

The Columbia, like the ICW on the east coast, is measured in statute, not nautical, miles. Statute miles are about 80% of the length of a nautical mile, so there are lots of complex calculations one can do to figure nautical boat speed in statute miles per hour, etc. We were just happy to have crossed the Bar, so we steamed on, ignorant of how fast or how far we were going.

As we traveled through Astoria, we passed our pilot again, his ship was anchored in the Astoria commercial ship anchorage, presumably waiting to proceed or unload. The pilot hailed Duet by name, asked if we were planning to anchor in Astoria and offered some advice on nearby anchorages. Upon hearing that we were continuing up river, he wished us well. We wished him the same and rumbled on, still ignorant of the great compliment that Duet had received. Sean, our font of local knowledge, later informed us that even talking to a river pilot was a great honor, never mind being singled out by one.

Nancy had marked several possible anchorages for our first night in the river. The first, which we reached just after Astoria, was an area that had once been used for submarines. It appears that now it is undergoing a renaissance as a commercial docking area, so we decided to pass it up in search of something more pastoral.

We found an acceptable candidate another 15 or so miles up river, in the form of a little indentation to the south. We were gradually getting a feel for the river, which is big, commercial but also rather primeval, with large cliffs rising to the north or Washington side, and huge trees everywhere (as shown below). We were also getting the idea that a recreational vessel of Duet’s size is somewhat of a rarity on the river and anchorages we could fit into were going to be few and far between.

So we carefully maneuvered Duet into what looked like the center of the anchorage, dropped and set the hook. Just as we completed this, the phone rang. It was Nancy’s brother Tom, who was following us on AIS, wondering why we had stopped, as he was hoping we would be in Portland that very day.

After explaining that we probably wouldn’t make Portland until the weekend, and requesting that he keep the beer cold, we caught up on news. Tom is an arborist, namely a tree guy, and Portland has lots of trees, so he’s been busy. As the senior tree guy at his company, he gets all the interesting jobs, so we looked forward to tales of trees, electric lines, owners who think they know how to cut down a tree over said electric line, etc.

Once we were settled, we noticed a dredge further upstream, and remembered that we had seen some pipes on the side of the island we were anchored behind. Even though dredges are a particular bugaboo of ours, we decided to ignore this one, it was upstream of us, how much harm could it possibly do? We had lunch with a nice glass of wine and took a nap.

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