Weather or not to go? Transiting the Pacific Northwest Coastline takes careful planning and preparation

by Petty Officer First Class Aaron Bretz, Coast Guard Station Grays Harbor

SEATTLE – Imagine you’ve been underway transiting your sailboat south from Puget Sound to a destination along the southern Washington Coast, or even the Oregon or California Coast. The weather has deteriorated, and you’ve been underway for about 18 hours. You and the passengers on your boat are fatigued, and all you want to do is pull in to the nearest port. You contact the Coast Guard station there, only to be told that due to hazardous conditions, you will not be permitted to cross the bar. The first questions that come to your mind may be, “What am I supposed to do now?”, or “How did this happen?” This scenario is played out time and time again at bars up and down the Washington and Oregon Coasts.

Most of the bars on the coast of Washington and Oregon are regulated bars. This means that the Coast Guard routinely restricts recreational and uninspected commercial passenger vessel traffic when rough bar conditions exist.  The bar restrictions are put in place by the Coast Guard stations operating under a federal law that established regulated boating areas in the vicinity of nearly all of the navigable bars on the Washington and Oregon Coast. This law was passed after many recreational boaters lost their lives, or needed to be rescued by the Coast Guard because of rough bar conditions.

River bars are inherently dangerous due to the combination of shallow water, incoming swells from the ocean, and tidal currents all coming together in the same location. When these factors are combined with even a mild storm system, the result can be extremely dangerous. Boaters on a long transit often get so fatigued and overwhelmed by the conditions they encounter during the transit, that they have difficulty understanding that no matter how bad the conditions seem to be in the open ocean, they are often much worse on the bar. Pulling into a port on the Pacific Coast in the Northwest is generally not as simple as ducking into a harbor along Puget Sound. Prior to reaching the safety of the harbor, the river bar must first be navigated, and rough bar conditions combined with unfamiliarity of the local area can be a deadly combination. Bar restrictions are put in place in order to try and prevent boaters from making poor and dangerous decisions.

Several times in recent weeks, sailboats have departed Puget Sound and rounded Cape Flattery only to encounter weather that was worse than what they had bargained for. As they hammered their way south along the coast, they became tired and weary and decided to pull into Grays Harbor, only to find that bar conditions were hazardous, and the vessels were not permitted to cross the Grays Harbor Bar. Their only options were to remain several miles outside the entrance to Grays Harbor and await favorable conditions, or to continue south to try the same plan at the Columbia River. This situation is not unique to these two bars, and it remains to be the case further south down the Oregon Coast.

The good news is that most of these cases are avoidable, if only the boaters had employed several steps in planning their trips:

  • Read and heed the weather forecast for the area you will be transiting through, including bar forecasts (if available) for any ports that you may need to pull into. Amazingly enough this seems to be the most overlooked step for boaters who transit along the coast in the Pacific Northwest. Remember that the forecasts are divided into zones. Simply because the conditions in Puget Sound aren’t hazardous does not mean the same for the open ocean or the bars along the Pacific Coast.
  • Plan your trip around the weather rather than when you can get vacation time, or when you can afford to leave your business for a couple weeks. The weather waits for no one, and must play a major role in deciding when to leave for a trip on the ocean.
  • If you have never made a trip down the Northwest Coast, do not attempt the journey without someone who is very experienced. Do not attempt the trip without other people on board who can operate your boat while you rest. If you are forced to wait for bar conditions to improve, you will need to rest in order to be able to operate safely.
  • Plan on a longer trip than is minimally necessary i.e. carry plenty of food and water, and a full load of fuel. This gives you some leeway to wait for favorable conditions. You can hit port under conditions that you feel comfortable with, rather than being forced to cross a bar in conditions that are worse than you had planned on.
  • Winter months in general should be avoided, as the weather is often worse than in the summer months. Many boaters transit during the spring and fall in order to enjoy the summer months in one of their favorite ports. Making a trip in the early spring or in the late fall should be considered as a last resort, and you should pay the utmost attention to the weather forecasts.
  • Contact the Coast Guard prior to leaving for information on bar conditions and weather forecasts. Always call the Coast Guard (channel 16 VHF-FM) if you plan on crossing a bar, no matter what the weather conditions are. If you plan on crossing a bar that is out of radio range, contact the nearest Coast Guard unit for a phone number of the Coast Guard unit where you are planning to go. Call them and let them know of your intentions.
  • Make sure that your vessel is in compliance with all safety gear requirements, whether they are state or federal.

If you ignore these steps, you may find yourself in a dangerous situation. You can also expect to meet a Coast Guard Boarding Team upon arrival to port and the possibility of being cited for negligent or gross negligent operations with maximum penalties of up to $5000. A trip up or down the Washington and Oregon Coast can be a beautiful and exciting experience. It can also turn into a dangerous or deadly trip in the blink of an eye. Listed below are some helpful links for weather:

If you have any problems viewing this article, please report it here.