When the Alarm Bells Ring (in your head), Listen!

When the Alarm Bells Ring in Your Head, Listen !

A few years ago, a friend asked if I’d like to go on a sailboat delivery to Newport Oregon. It would be a three or four day trip. A run down river from Portland to Astoria and then down the coast to Newport. Normally it’s would be a walk in the Park job.
I asked him what he knew about the boat and owner. He said that he didn’t know much about it, but the boat dealer, a friend of his, had told him that the boat was a big old CSY 44 that had been in charter in Florida and had been purchased by some Lawyer in Newport. We were warned NOT to use the forward head. It seems like someone had pumped so much pressure into the holding tank, A hose had split and “painted” the insides of the head with.. (I peeked in. TP and Brown stuff was from floor to overhead. It was ugly. Fortunately, the Aft head was, sort of, clean.
The dealer went on to say that he’d hired a professional delivery Captain and that he would meet us at the boat in a couple of days. Since my friend had confidence in the Dealer and the trip had a Professional captain, I told him I would go.
Before I said Yes, I should have asked “What condition is the boat?”, Who is THIS captain? “, “Why the rush? ”
I didn’t listen to the alarm bells in my head ringing.

A couple of days passed when finally we got a call from the dealer saying that the boat was leaving the next morning at 0400. They wanted to get to Astoria by evening.
Since Astoria is about 100 miles from Portland, leaving early is prudent. We told him that we would be there around 0330.
The next morning we dragged down to where the boat was moored. There it sat,
A dirty, raggedy looking monster. Aboard was the dealer and a skinny guy he called “Captain”. We all shook hands and introduced ourselves. With meeting formalities over, the Captain announced that we were getting underway immediately as soon as his wife showed up with the food. ( All this seemed “last minute”. The next set of Bells went off. I didn’t pay attention).
She arrived a few minutes later and we prepared to shove off.
“Before you go, you have to buy some belts for the engine. One of them is missing !”
The dealer advised.
Now, finding engine belts isn’t normally hard to do, but it WAS 4:00 am and we were a long way from the city. My friend suggested that we dash over to the Freightliner Truck Stop a few miles away. He and I jumped in the car and went on a Belt Search.
After running around for an hour, stopping at 3 locations, none having a matching belt, we finally found one. Wondering around at 4 in the morning in Truck stops is not for the faint of heart!
Back to the boat. Now we’re almost two hours late. We may get to Astoria in the dark. Not a great idea. but we think we’re ready to go. a few grunts and groans later, getting the missing belt replaced,.. Then…
Ignition key on, start button pushed….. Nothing !
Well, except for one or two “clicks” of the starter solenoid.
“Oh the battery’s down. The boat was just taken off the trailer yesterday”, the dealer announced. (loud bells ringing now).
“I’ll check the battery level”. Off came the cockpit decking and there below us was the Brute. A huge Perkins diesel engine.
The dealer checked the batteries and found that he could see no fluid. “No problem” he said. And with that, he picked up a bucket nearby, threw it over the side, into the river and pulled it back aboard. He then poured the dirty river water into the batteries.
After about a half hour on the charger, Key On, start button pushed. The old Perkins belched, bucked a couple of times and started. “There, that’ll work” the dealer said. The Captain yelled to throw off the mooring lines, we were about to start the journey. (There was loud ringing in my head. I should have listened).

The Columbia River has one big impediment to river travel. The railroad bridge at Vancouver Washington. It’s nominal water to bridge height is around 35 feet. Most sailboats have to wait for the bridge to open for them. It may take as much as an hour depending on train traffic. After we had been waiting for about 10 minutes, I heard the Bells in my head really start to loudly ring.

Our captain went a little nuts. No, A LOT NUTS.
He shouted, he screamed, he all but threatened to run the boat into the bridge. He was “upset” because he had to wait. Both my friend and I tried to reason with him, saying that it was normal, but the Captain wouldn’t listen. He kept shouting at the top of his lungs to the bridge operators (They couldn’t hear him anyway).
Now, I did hear the bells in my head say “Get off this boat, He’s a crazy man”, but as soon as the bridge opened up and we went through, he turned into this apologetic, gentle little man. He was “sorry” and “it would never happen again”.. My friend and I decided to give him a second chance.

The rest of the trip down river to Astoria was uneventful, even a bit fun. We ate fried chicken and told sea stories for the remaining 95 miles. Oh, we did learn a couple of things about our captain.
First, He had JUST been released from Federal Prison after a 10 year “Stint” for armed robbery! Of course he was Innocent of the charges. He’d met and married his wife (twice his age) while in prison.
Secondly, He’d NEVER really been a professional captain before this. IN FACT he’d taken all the Tests while he was in prison.
(Did I mention, Bells going off in my head? )
As we were moving down river, I said to him that I hadn’t noticed any Nav Charts.
He said that the new owner was meeting us in Astoria with his GPS and besides, He “knew” these waters. (Bells ?)

We finally got to Astoria late that evening. The new owner met us and invited us all to dinner in town. We got back rather late and everyone was a little drunk and a lot tired. Checking the Tide charts showed a nice flood tide around 3 or 4 the next morning. A good departure time to get to Newport before too late.
We all went to bed.

Awake at 2 the next morning only to see a dense fog had closed in around us.
It’s not uncommon for Astoria to have heavy fog in the early morning. Locals use Radar to get in and out of port in those conditions.
But, the CSY had no Radar.
The Captain now showed another side to his personality. Panic !
He panicked. He paced up and down, whined and cursed. We all tried to calm him, but he was in such a state of excitement and angst , no one could talk to him (Bells! Bells!).
We sat in the slip for about two hours. The fog was beginning to lift and the captain was making preparations to leave. At that point the tide had already beginning to turn.

A side note: Any crossing of the Columbia River Bar should be done at Flood Slack. To try to do a crossing during an Ebb .. is Ill advised.

Sitting at our slip in Astoria, we already had missed the Slack by almost two hours. The Bar is 15 miles away, The CSY was averaging about 7 knots. I did the Math.
If we left now we’d be hitting the bar at peak Ebb. (Lots of Bells going off).
In fact they were so loud, I made my first appeal. “We can’t go now” I pleaded.
But the Captain wasn’t listening.
I know I should have jumped ship at that time. Did I tell you that I am sometimes Stupid?

After leaving the slip at the marina in Astoria, still a bit dark, Our captain panicked again. “Where do I go?”. “I don’t know where we should be”, he was shouting.
I grabbed his coat collar and pushed him around so that he could see forward.
“Look at those Green Lights there on our Starboard side! ” I yelled.
“Just follow them. They are like street signs showing the channel”..I was a little rude to him at that point.
He settled down.
Then my friend asked the big question… “Where is your GPS?. We could follow that” “I forgot it” was the owner’s reply.
Both my friend and I froze in a state of shock.
“How in hell are we going to navigate to Newport? ” we asked
The captain, now calm, said.. “I know this trip by heart. I’ve done it lots of times”..

A side note: Months after this experience, both my friend and I talked about that. how could he have done it “dozens of times”.. when he had spent the last 10 years in prison?.
On we went toward the entrance to the Columbia River.

Those who’ve done this trip know that you really can’t see the actual bar until you’re almost upon it. The river channel a little past Astoria heads North then bends around around 90 degrees or more, then heads Southwest. The West turning Southwest section is really The Bar.

It was now daylight as we started to make the course change to head into the Bar. I looked forward and almost got sick. The first view of the channel at the Cape Disappointment section was nasty looking. Big white stuff everywhere.
Now ..I.. Panicked !
I went below and turned the volume up on the VHF.
The Guard Bar radio was saying,
“Columbia River Bar advisory. Conditions at the bar are extremely dangerous . Swells and wind waves to 24 feet …Breaking ! ”
Now the Bells in my head were like Big Ben!

I shouted to the Captain and owner that we had to turn back NOW before it was too late. The captain stood frozen to the wheel. No amount of yelling could jar him loose. He kept saying that he had done this a dozen times. At this point the boat’s SOG must have been near 10 to 12 knots and we were headed out, Fast!. In what seemed like a tick of the clock, we were in it. Too late to turn around now.
To take one of those monster waves Abeam would have been suicide.

Note: The South side of the Columbia Bar is the worst. It’s called the Clatsop Spit. That spit of sand and sea has claimed more lives than anywhere else on the West Coast. The water there gets confused and whipped up to a froth making control and buoyancy difficult. Any boat in trouble THERE is likely to die.

We were now hugging the South side of the Bar, running alongside the Red buoys.
I’m screaming at the captain to “Get the hell over farther to Starboard. Away from Clatsop Spit”.
He’s yelling back at me, ” I can see the Red buoys, I can’t see the Green ones” !
He’s frozen in place and seems to be frightened to death. (He should have been).
My friend is doubled over seasick, no help at all, the owner is so petrified he can’t move (did I mention that the new owner had never been on a sailboat before ! ). The captain is so scared he’s wrapped himself around the wheel and won’t let go.
I finally give up and figured that if we did wander into Clatsop Spit, we’d just die. A kind of calm came over me, even though really scared, I sat in the cockpit hanging on, watching huge, breaking waves tower over our boat. The boat pitched up and down like a Teeter Totter. At times almost going vertical bow to stern.

The whole of the worst part of the Bar is only about 5 mile long, so after an hour or so, we were out of the heaviest seas and starting to stabilize. I looked off to our Starboard and saw the yellow science buoy that sets out there sometimes. (That observation will come into play ).
We had gone about another hour when…. that big old Perkins coughed, slowed, hiccoughed again… And STOPPED !
If it had happened an hour ago, You wouldn’t be reading this. We would have been on the Clatsop Spit, sunk. I would have been another statistic. One more lost in the Graveyard of the Pacific. But, now, there we were, in calm water, no wind and with an engine gone ….dead.

Two hours later, after many efforts on the part of the Captain to restart. (He went through two cans of ether trying) He decided “We’d” better call the Coast Guard for help.

Note, At the Columbia River, there are at least 3 Coast Guard facilities that monitor channel 16. The buoy tender base in Astoria, The Air Rescue group Astoria, and Cape Disappointment. Cape D handles most of the emergencies at the bar and off shore.

Our Captain gets on the VHF and shouts ” Coast Guard Astoria, Coast Guard Astoria”
A voice comes back saying “What Coast Guard station are you calling sir ”
I yell at the captain, Say CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT !. He does.
The Cape D guy comes on asking what our problem is.
(At this point, I’ll use the dialog as it happened. Verbatim (I’ll never forget it)

Cap: “I’m out here and my motor quit”
CG: ” Where are you sir? ”
Cap: ” Off the coast”
CG: “Sir, What coast?”
Cap: “From Astoria”
CG: “Sir, Do you know your coordinates?”
Cap: “No”
(At this point I yell up “about 5 miles due Southwest of the CR science buoy”)
Cap: “We’re somewhere past the .. buoy”
CG: “Sir, What buoy? ”
Cap: “I don’t know”
(I’ll never forget this) CG: (with disgust) “SIR, where do you THINK you are? ”
Cap: ” Astoria..I don’t know”
CG: “Sir, do you have a depth gauge”
Cap: “yes”
CG: “What does it read?”
Cap: “Zero” (it hadn’t been working since we’d started) (more Bells ? )
A Voice breaks in.. “Cape D, this is the Peacock. I have them spotted (gives position)
CG: “Vessel in trouble, standby, all personnel in life jackets, we’ll be there in 45 minutes.

Sure enough, 45 minutes to the tick, here comes that big aluminum boat.
They toss us some lines and drag us back over the NOW calm Columbia River Bar.
Finally pushing us up alongside the docks at Ilwaco Washington the adventure is done.

Next time..
I Will Never ride a boat with a Captain I don’t know personally!
I Will Never ride in a boat that JUST came in from a charter business in Florida!
I will never cross the Columbia River Bar at peak EBB.
I WILL listen and follow those Alarm Bells that go off in my head..

`Post Script:
The CSY’s engine’s fuel pump had failed. It took the captain and owner two more tries to get that boat to Newport. There was NO crew with them either time.


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