Western Trips

Western Trips

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cape Disappointment / US Coast Guard

One of the finest venues in the United States to learn about the Columbia River, the Columbia River Bar and the history of this treacherous area of water is found at the mouth of the Columbia River. You will learn about Guard Station Cape Disappointment and the emergency services they render at the mouth of the Columbia River. The venue you want to add to your western road trip to Oregon is the Columbia River Maritime Museum located in Astoria Oregon. This museum has one of the largest displays of maritime artifacts and photos on the West Coast.It is the official maritime museum of Oregon.

oregon maritime museum
Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria Oregon
The museum contains six galleries and the Great Hall which showcases the maritime history on both the Columbia River and the Northwest Pacific Coast. Included are interactive activities for visitors of all ages. It’s one of the best stops to add to your Oregon family vacation planner.

The Treacherous Columbia River Bar

It’s very fitting to have such a large maritime museum in Astoria Oregon where the Columbia River flows out into the Pacific Ocean. It’s also fitting because one of the most elite of Coast Guard stations located there as well. This particular area where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean sets up a big challenge to shipping. The Columbia River Bar Pilots have long worked the fierce winds and waves during winter storms. It is at this excellent museum that you can experience what these ships and bar pilots have encountered over the years. The Columbia River Maritime Museum presents this information with photos, artifacts and videos.

What is the Columbia River Bar?

ocean emergency survival gear
Emergency survival enclosure
The Columbia River Bar, sometimes just referred to as the Columbia Bar, is a series of shoals and bars extending about three miles wide and about six miles long at the mouth of the Columbia River. The river water is flowing west into the Pacific Ocean and meets the ocean’s mostly westerly winds. When conditions are just right, tremendous wave action can occur in just a few minutes. In other words, conditions can change on a dime. Things can go from bad to worse quite quickly. This trait alone can make the Columbia Bar very dangerous. The river action seen at the mouth of the Columbia is unlike any other seen in the U.S. As a result, the U.S. Coast Guard has seen plenty of action in this area.

United States Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment

Cape Disappointment Coast Guard Station is unique for a variety of reasons. In addition to being the home of the National Motor Lifeboat School the Cape Disappointment station also has the task of having to operate in some of the world’s most treacherous seas. The Columbia Bar is part of a very dangerous coastal area that actually extends northward to the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. There’s really nothing along either the U.S. Atlantic or Pacific coast quite like it. 

coast guard rescue craft
Coast Guard rescue boat exhibit
The Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment is well equipped. The station boasts five search and rescue vessels ranging in length from 25 to 52 feet. The station has a complement of about fifty Coast Guardsmen. With these vessels and Coast Guardsmen, station Cape Disappointment is responsible for search and rescue of both commercial and recreational vessels in an area about fifty miles north and south from the mouth of the Columbia River. According to Coast Guard records, the Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment receives anywhere from one hundred to two hundred calls a year for assistance. Most of the assistance activity occurs during the summer months when recreational boating is at its highest. 

The Columbia Bar Pilots

Just like in harbors all over the world, local ship pilots take over from the ship’s captain to safely guide the vessel around the local hazards. The difference with the Columbia Bar pilots is that they work in a very tricky environment. Columbia River Bar Pilots number about fifteen. Beginning in about October, the Columbia Bar pilots have their work cut out for them. This is when the fierce winter storms begin blowing in from the Pacific and head straight for the river’s mouth. While recreational boating begins to wind down, the larger ship traffic continues. Talk about dangers on the job, the bar pilots usually have to board the large ships by a rope ladder and many times in very heavy seas. The bar pilots do however have the authority to close the bar crossings if conditions warrant. 

coast guard rescue cutter
Coast Guard rescue exhibit showing pilot house
Avoiding Accidents at the Columbia Bar

Large vessels regularly transit ports in the Pacific Northwest. Due to their draft and for the most part their limited maneuverability, these large ships must navigate within the dredged ship channel. A good number of accidents happen when a tired crew thinks they can make a bar crossing even though weather conditions aren't right. Smaller vessels must always be cautious and also stay well clear of the large ships. In every instance the Columbia Bar must be crossed with caution. In some instances you might have a tug boat pushing a barge with a pretty large blind spot ahead of it. It's up to the smaller craft to stay well away. The Coast Guard advises small craft to cross the bar during the incoming flood tide and stay on the outer edges of the channel to avoid the large ships.

Capsizings of smaller vessels can occur due to improper loading and/or overloading. This situation makes the small vessel unstable and much more likely to take on water in heavy seas. Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment reminds boaters to be aware of any warning signs. Warnings are displayed by two alternating amber lights. They appear when seas on the Columbia Bar exceed four feet in height.

Two additional photo articles you will enjoy are the Columbia River's Bonneville Dam and a Visit to the Columbia River Gorge Country

One of the best things about visiting Oregon are the number of day trips available within an hour or so from Portland. Whether you take a road trip east or west of the city, there are enough interesting and historic stops to fill up a weekend or an entire week. The book below is an excellent source to help plan your Orgon trip.

columbia river maritime museum
 The Columbia River Maritime Museum

The Columbia River Maritime Museum was the first Oregon museum to meet national accreditation standards. It is also designated as the official state maritime museum of Oregon. The museum is operated by a private non profit organization established in 1962 and is funded by membership dues, donations and admission fees. The Columbia River Maritime Museum has a reputation for the quality of it’s exhibits and the wide scope of it’s collections. It’s considered one of the best maritime museums in the U.S. The museum  is located at 1792 Marine Drive, Astoria Oregon.

(Photos from author’s private collection)


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