Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

Archive for September 2011


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The Columbia River Bar was behind us. We were well away on the downhill run to San Francisco, moving at 17 knots before a following sea. Grey skies minimized visibility. This far out, though, there really was nothing to look at except steep swells. But Regatta rode them with little effort. We’ve sailed over 3974 nautical miles. It was well worth the trip. The Captain said we’d be under the Golden Gate Bridge and past Alcatraz Island around 5:30 AM. I was awake but the usual morning fog probably didn’t help with the view.

A blast from the ship’s horn stired me out of my half sleep. The falling tether lines were loud enough to wake me completely. A tug pushed a large barge right under our balcony with steely bang. Diesel fumes rose up into our stateroom. They are refueling the ship. In a couple of hours it sails for the Panama Canal. We have been instructed to disembark no later than 9:00 AM and that’s that. What will stay with me when I’m back on shore and homeward bound? Pictures….

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September 22, 2011 at 5:34 PM


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We left our berth under full power, Regatta’s prop wash, wake and the ocean’s swells melding into an angry, foaming, swirling mass behind us. It looked like we were leaving a trail for someone to follow.

I was surprised at the speed of our cruise ship. Usually, the Captain left Port gently, slowly, slipping away on little cat’s feet. This was a curious change in his pattern. Why would he be in such a hurry?

From our window table in the grand dining room aft, we watched Astoria, Oregon disappear into the oncoming mist. Under my feet I could feel the vibration of the huge diesel engines straining to drive us forward.

As the sun set the horizon burned with an equally angry red glow matching the mood of the sea. Tiny white fishing boats boldly slipped into our wake bouncing like bobs on the end of a fishing line. A large trawler cut across our stern fearlessly challenging our churning wake. Pelicans darted by, big and brown, their strong, long wingspan carrying them effortlessly forward.

Chasing us a yellow Pilot Boat jumped the swells and soon sprinted along side. Regatta cut one engine, settled into a deep trough and began to roll with the motion of the sea. We were approaching The Bar and a Columbia River Bar Pilot was coming aboard to lead us out.

At the mouth of the Columbia River there is a system of bars and shoals about 4.8 km wide and 9.7 km long. This is where the river’s current dissipates into the Pacific Ocean, often as large standing waves. These waves, the wind, and current are hazardous for vessels of all sizes. The Columbia current is focused “like a fire hose” and varies from 4 to 7 knots westward. The predominantly westerly winds, ocean swells and strong outgoing tides create conditions that can change from calm to life-threatening in as little as five minutes due to changes in wind direction and ocean swell.

Behind us we could see big breakers crashing on the rocks of Cape Disappointment. The Pacific was churning like boiling water as the Columbia River brazenly emptied itself into her waters. We were in that danger zone that has earned these Pilots their vaunted reputation. No big ship enters or exits this channel without one of them guiding her.

Our big ship seemed to be moving cautiously, slowly forward now. She was in the safe hands of the Pilot who has memorize every inch of sea bottom, wave pattern, shoreline, rock formations, sand bars, weather patterns, winds, tides and currents. He was taking us out to the safety of the open sea from memory.

How he got on board I have no idea. The first open deck of the Regatta is 25 feet above the water line. I’m told they basically tie themselves in and climb the ship’s ladder. Sometimes they rappel down from a helicopter. These Pilots and their crew are clearly cowboys – daredevils – brave men who meet the challenge of the Bar no matter when or what the weather.

Suddenly, it felt as though Regatta was dead in the water. From my vantage point directly at the stern I could feel the ship shutter as waves hit her broadside. I could see the sea swells and troughs, their every motion shifting the horizon to unsettling angles. Dinner was going on all around me but I was transfixed by the scene unfolding beyond the glass. Then I felt the engines kick in.

The propellers hummed confidently as they pushed us out to open ocean.

A flash of yellow darted by. The Pilot boat skipped forward over the waves, slowed, turned to face us, watched and waited as we sailed away…like a mother watches a school bus carrying her child away from her. She hung back a while, then, satisfied that we were well past the Bar, she turned her head and sailed shoreward into the gathering fog.

(With notes from Wikipedia and

A NOTE TO MY READERS: We’ve just returned from a 14 day cruise from San Francisco to Alaska and back to San Francisco. I’ll be blogging about my impressions of the trip over the next couple of weeks. I’ll try to keep it interesting and not a travelogue. Thanks for reading.

Mountains above Skagway Alaska