Columbia Notes: Ships

DSCN4509 If there’s one thing you’re guaranteed to see on the Lower Columbia- it’s ships. ROROs, grainers, tankers, tugs, barges… They steam steadily along day and night. Although you can get an app to track their comings and goings, I like the surprise of seeing them plowing down the channel unannounced.  

My wife and I often banter about the likelihood of getting crushed by a ship. I respect, but don’t fear them. Kate worries that a sleepy captain will run me down or a giant wake will swamp me. A guidebook on my shelf sides with my wife: “A wake from a large ship can toss your boat around like a toothpick.”

Size matters.
Size matters.

But really, the rule for coexisting with ships is straight forward; stay out of their way. Having a small boat, my friends and I can easily scoot out of the channel into safer, relatively shallow water.

Bill keeps his distance from a bulk carrier. I call them log ships.
Bill keeps his distance from a heavily-loaded bulk carrier. I call them log ships.

Still, there’s always a strange feeling in the air when a ship comes on a narrower section of river. If the wind isn’t in your favor and you have to heave to while it  passes, everything around you seems just a little more menacing than when you’re alone.

The Roll On Roll Offs or car carriers: a ship only a mother could love.

The biggest ships don’t really take up the whole horizon, but there are times when it sure seems that way.


In the end though, ships are a human invention, controlled by people. And I don’t think they want to run me down any more than I want to have a brush with death.

Don't try this unless you see the anchor chain deployed.
Don’t try this unless you see the anchor chain deployed.

The crews are often invisible, whether doing tasks or just bored is hard to say, but when I do see someone on deck, I wave and hope they are as surprised to see me, as I am to see them.


7 thoughts on “Columbia Notes: Ships

  1. And therein lies a great reason for having a boat that can be rowed. I once sat becalmed in a 15 ft Potter off Hayden Island. The ship that seemed so far away at first was suddenly bearing down on me. I pulled and pulled on that awful, little, unreliable outboard until the pilot delivered the dreaded five long honks. What to do? Paddling, if it worked at all, wouldn’t have produced enough distance as quickly as I needed it. Thank the stars that the little motor started up and I just escaped in time. I couldn’t see the pilot’s face, but I’m sure she/he was not happy, and I was sweating bullets. I would have given my paycheck for a set of oars!

  2. I once sailed as crew on a Folkboat inbound under the Golden Gate bridge on a nearly calm day (yes, an open boat on an open sea passage), when a huge container ship approached, headed west. The bow wake towered ten or twelve feet over our heads. All we could do was head into the wall of water and hope. (And draw our life jackets on). The sturdy Folkboat climbed that wall of water like a floating leaf and swooped down the other side like nothing.
    As I threw my floatation vest on, I remember asking the skipper if we’d be Ok and he said, with confidence, yes. Years later he admitted he hadn’t a clue how things would turn out, either.

  3. I’ve wanted to canoe part of the Missouri River for some time. The section between Kansas City and St. Louis, but the barge traffics scares the tar out of me. Not sure how you deal with this so easily. My only experience is in power boats off the Florida Keys as a kid. Oil and cargo boats ran just outside the shoals and reefs off the Atlantic side all of the time. We had to pass outside their paths to do any deep water fishing.

  4. RE: Your photo of the anchored vessel and the skiff. Some caution here. There are vessels in the Columbia River that DO have a Security Zone as determined by the Port Captain. One should be aware of such Zones of Security ,, before a close approach.

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