Reading Weather, Bar
& Ocean Conditions for a Small Boater


Some boaters may loose their position in the food chain when they hit the salt water if they are not that knowledgeable about seamanship.  The upper LH photo is of the USCG doing training at LaPush WA.  The RH photo was taken in Australia.


Ocean fishing in the Pacific Ocean off the Washington and Oregon coast can be a rewarding experience.  It can also be rather exciting AND/OR dangerous under the wrong conditions.   Below you may find some tips that may help remind some of us that we loose our position in the food chain whenever we hit the salt.  


Description of a Bar : To many landlubbers, maybe we had better describe the word "bar" in relationship to this article.   A bar here is described where a freshwater river empties into an ocean.   There are basically 2 high and 2 low ocean tides every day.   When the river water flows downhill and meets the ocean, the ocean, because of it's mass has a massive resistance.  Now take into account with a high ocean tide of say 8 to 10' and the river water has to flow out, and or overflow into the surrounding low areas, this out-flowing water is met by ocean water resistance, creating water turbulence where the two meet.  This meeting is considered the bar.  This turbulence will be rougher if the tide is really running either part way in OR out, than when the tide is out (lower water) and the river flow has least resistance.  The high tide situation can also have a somewhat similar calm condition IF there is no wind.


You have to also take into account the water depth on the specific bar.  If the river mouth is wide and deep, the turbulence will be less than a narrow shallow river mouth.  You also need to consider the river mouth location in reference to the prevailing weather and /or storms (as the LaPush entrance).


Listed below will be information for you to help understand what you may be getting into.  This is not to scare you off, but to expose you to some of the things to look for that may help bring you back to port safely.


One recommendation, is if you are inexperienced or have a relatively small boat AND are intent on fishing out of a west coast port, if at all possible, is to plan your trips around a medium tide and where you can cross the bar a couple of hours after low tide or up into the high tide.  In this criteria you have to also consider the WIND, here wind creates waves, which then equates to rough water.  So if you plan to cross going out on a low tide, do your fishing and come back in on the high incoming tide.  There are at least 3 reasons for this all things considered, (1) it will be smoother on your bar crossing going out. (2) you ride the incoming waves back across the bar. (3) The wind WILL pick up in the afternoon and things WILL get rougher, so head in before the wind effects the waves.


The picture below is spectacular enough ocean conditions to warrant sharing with fishing persons who may never have been in situations like this in a small boat and made it safely back to shore.   Some who have made it back, have been known to even kiss the ground afterwards.   The skipper in cases like this has to be GOOD, plus having an angel sitting on both shoulders doesn't hurt either.


An 18' Boston Whaler  heading for Swiftsure Bank out of Neah Bay in 1991, they however turned back soon after this photo was taken.  I don't see any PFDs either.  And just how could they keep any gear down in this weather fishing for halibut in 500' + of water?


The photographer here being Tim Dahl, running from a companion identical Boston Whaler boat


The start of the normal bottom-fish seasons in the Pacific Northwest is usually in late May, with halibut and salmon to follow.   There are days early in the season when even the 50' charter boats cancel out due to weather conditions.   When the normal salmon seasons begin, (middle of June or the first of July) the weather may still be somewhat unpredictable.  If the Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife give us a early Chinook season, you can expect to stay on the beach for possibly 1/3rd of the days because of bad weather, even up to a few days near the end of July.  As the season progresses, the weather tends to stabilize up to the end of October or so, but the ocean salmon seasons are usually ended by then.


If there has been a storm, the ocean may take from 2 to 4 days to lay down afterwards.  So even if the flags are not flying right after a storm, you can still encounter rough seas no matter what the tides are.  


It is advisable to listen to VHF Weather channel 3 or 4 depending on your location, for an updated marine weather report.  


In the areas that the Coast Guard is stationed, they usually have a tower that flies the NOAA marine weather warning flags.  It is advisable to look at this tower to see if small-craft warnings are flying before launching if the weather is, or has been questionable.   


Weather:  Few people are affected more by weather than the mariner.   An unexpected change in winds, seas, or visibility can reduce the efficiency of marine operations and threaten the safety of a vessel and its crew.   You have to bow down to those old time mariners who had little of the weather forecasting other than looking at the horizon and then using their gut feelings when heading out.  However, many did not make it back to a safe port.


Fog will usually be one of the worst conditions you may encounter, sure bad seas are nothing to sneeze at, but if you do not know where you are, that also can be dangerous even on a clam sea.


The National Weather Service (NWS), a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), provides marine weather warnings and forecasts to serve all mariners who use the waters for livelihood or recreation. 


As seen in the illustrations below, it is pretty well self-explanatory the differences between West Coast and East Coast of the United States weather/wave conditions.


Warning and Forecast Services:  The warning and forecast program is the core of the National Weather Service’s responsibility to mariners.   Warnings and forecasts help the mariner plan and make decisions protecting life and property.    NWS also provides information through weather statements or outlooks that supplement basic warnings and forecasts.   The following are the basic marine warning products the NWS offers.

Small Craft Advisory:  Forecast winds of 18 to 33 knots.   NWS may also issue Small Craft Advisories for hazardous sea conditions or lower wind speeds that may affect small craft operations.   Small Craft Advisories may be issued up to 12 hours before the onset of adverse conditions and warnings up to 24 hours in advance.
Gale Warning:  Forecast winds of 34 to 47 knots.
Storm Warning:  Forecast winds of 48 knots or greater.
Tropical Storm Warning:  Forecast winds of 34 to 63 knots associated with a tropical storm.

Hurricane Warning:  Forecast winds of 64 knots or higher associated with a hurricane.
Special Marine Warning:  Potentially hazardous over-water events of short duration (up to 2 hours).


Weather Warnings:     You can have small craft advisories and not have a rough bar restriction in place as you could also have a rough bar restriction and not have small craft warnings in effect.  Therefore the NOAA warning flags are not a reliable means of predicting if the bar is restricted.  The primary cause of rough bar conditions is a combination of swell and tidal conditions.  It behooves the fisherman to be as informed a possible (matter of fact the US Coast Guard says it IS your responsibility as a boater) and in this computer age, listed below are some of the links that may be useful.


There are numerous online weather connections, where it would behoove you to not only look at one, but as many as possible.  Listed here are a few to look at    NOAA/NCEP WAVEWATCH III Plots    This one will give you current and projected wave height and wave periods.  You have to use the color of the chart then relate it to a color bar to understand these projected readings.


Here is a weather forecast site that is pretty simple to use & is usually more accurate than the NOAA sites  Fishweather   

Another is NOAA Bar Cam    Bar cameras for Washington and Oregon coastal rivers

Another  NOAA CoastWatch Browser     

Another  NOAA National Westher Service Seattle  This one gives wave heights and swells

Another  NOAA typewritten forecast  Here is the actual written NOAA weather reports.

Another  NOAA National Data Buoy Center  This give maps of the buoys which report wave height, swell time, temperatures, etc.


Another  Here is just a wind predictor.  You click onto the icon in your area & it gives a chart of wind speed and direction.

Another SeaSurface Temperature   This is a charge site but gives sea surface temperatures.  Very useful for the Tuna chasers.


One thing that has been observed is that if the wind/weather is coming in from the south or southwest, NOAA's predictions are not as accurate as if it was coming in from the west or northwest.  These southerly weather predictions are usually calmer than it will actually be.  The thought here is there appear to be a lot more offshore weather buoys along the northwest coast along with the new Doppler radar station on the hill just north of Ocean Shores, Washington.


Rough Bar Closure:  The NOAA weather warnings and the USCG Rough Bar warning system are two different things altogether.   Although NOAA will on occasion forecast for rough bar conditions this is strictly due to a offshore weather pattern that has developed abnormal swells.   The Rough Bar signs have been in place at the marina areas since 1980 when the regulation was established.   The US Coast Guard is authorized to impose fines up to $1100 to pleasure boaters and uninspected commercial passenger vessels for failure to obey imposed bar restrictions, pursuant to 33CFR177.05.   At the entrance to most river bars from the harbors where there are USCG stations, there is a large diamond shaped sign as shown below.   As shown in the Rough Bar photo below, visible when exiting a boat basin or before you get to the closed area from upstream, if the bar is closed, when the amber lights are flashing alternately.   In the past they would place a Lifeboat on the bar to turn boaters back, but now that the home Land Security missions have exploded, they are having to find more innovative ways to get the message out to the public. 


These flashing lights would not be visible from the ocean outside the bar, but a Coast Guard boat would usually be stationed just outside the bar patrolling back and forth.  If the bar is closed, this Coast Guard vessel will be displaying a blue flashing light.  


To determine whether the bar will be closed, usually a 47' CG vessel goes out at day break, is stationed inside the bar watching the water conditions.   It is their call and they do have some latitude in making this decision as the minimal criteria set forth by the Coast Guard would probably close bars the majority of the time.   

Regardless of the means and technology they can not update the restrictions in the dark, so updated conditions will not be posted until first light in the morning when the vessel does an actual bar check.  This does not help those who are traveling to the area from inland but it is the best they can do with the technology available.  The best way to help boaters in my opinion is to teach them how to look a the weather forecast and make informed decisions.


If you are planning to go out of Westport, Washington, get there with the bar being closed, you would like to go out and put in some crab pots in half moon bay, you may reconsider, but try for upriver instead.   By looking at the bar closure photo boundaries below, you will notice that you really can not even exit the boat basin under a full bar closeure.  It is recommended that you call the Coast Guard, ask permission to cross thru the closed zone to slide upriver for your pot setting until the closure is lifted.

Also at the Westport location, there is a manned lookout tower near half moon bay where coastguardsmen continually monitor the bar plus all the boat traffic both in and out.


Unsafe bar conditions are defined as:

· Wave height four feet or greater, or,
. Wave height is greater than the length of the boat divided by 10 plus the freeboard, or,
· The surface current is four knots or greater.


These conditions are the minimum criteria of what is considered unsafe for the boater who has minimal experience.  It is hard for the Coast Guard to make a safe call on a new boater with a 26' fiberglass boat as compared to a boater with 50 years of crossing the bar and over 500 crossings under his belt even in a 18' Alumaweld.


The USCG are directed by legal stature and do have to direct their closures toward the inexperienced boater.   This will no doubt restrict the experienced boater however.  But the experienced inland lake operator's idea of whitewater is not anywhere the same here and he may well be overconfident, creating potential problems.  


The Coast Guard places different degrees of restrictions, as for 20',  26' or 30' boats.   If you are bigger than the restriction, you may usually legally cross.  They also apparently place different degrees of bar closures, but I have not been able to have the commander at the Grays Harbor station really define this in explainable terms.  Maybe it relates somewaht to the above boat lengths??


If the bar is closed, some Coast Guard stations may place personnel at the launches and on some of the docks to inform boaters.  There is in the process at many bars to have an Low power AM Radio Transmitters that broadcasts repeating weather forecasts on frequency 610 with bar warnings to provide readably accessible information to the boater as they enter the local area.   Also at Westport there in the works for the 2005 season, to install a large white board at the launch area with the weather/bar conditions.  however on my last trip there, this seems to habve been abandoned.


When the bar is restricted, there is a safety broadcast on channel VHF channel 16, likewise when the restriction is lifted.  There is a recorded phone message that the public can call to get the restrictions; it also is updated when the conditions change.  The stations also notifies the local radio stations who in turn broadcast the conditions and restrictions.    It is also there to relieve the communications watch stander at the local Coast Guard Station from having to answer numerous calls on the radio for condition updates.  This will also be handy to inform the boater of a restriction prior to launching or paying ramp fees, just to be turned around on the bar.


When the lights are flashing and there is no Coast Guard boat in sight, hail them on VHF radio Channel 16 and ask for a bar report, and if there are any restrictions.  They will probably have you switch over to Channel 22 to give you the report.   Knowing how to use a VHF radio is also very important.   VHF radios come equipped with three different transmission modes:  US, International and Canadian.  In International mode Channel 22 is a duplex frequency which means you will not hear the Coast Guard calling you back.  Make sure that you read your owners manual and know how to set your VHF radio to US frequencies. 


However according to the documents and prescribed boundaries below, if you even launch and motor in the boat basin you are in violation.   More well meaning Governmental regulations that have unintended consequences to the public.


Copied below was info taken from official internet regulations


US Coast Guard
33 CFR Part 165 [Docket No. USCG–2008–1017] RIN 1625–AA11

Regulated Navigation Areas; Bars Along the Coasts of Oregon and Washington

AGENCY: Coast Guard, DHS.

ACTION: Notice of proposed rulemaking.

SUMMARY: The Coast Guard proposes to establish Regulated Navigation Areas (RNA) covering specific bars along the coasts of Oregon and Washington that will include procedures for restricting and/or closing those bars as well as additional safety requirements for recreational and small

commercial vessels operating in the RNAs. The RNAs are necessary to help ensure the safety of the persons and vessels operating in those hazardous bar areas.  The RNAs will do so by establishing clear procedures for restricting and/or closing the bars and mandating additional safety

requirements for recreational and small commercial vessels operating in the RNAs when certain conditions exist.

DATES: Comments and related material must either be submitted to our online docket via on or before March 16, 2009 or reach the Docket Management Facility by that date.

The following documentation was taken from the following website.  I recommend that you plot out these coordinates of the location you intend to frequent.  As they are VERY ENCOMPASSING and YOU WILL BE SURPRISED at where you can not be.

§ 177.08 Regulated boating areas.

For the purpose of this part, the following are regulated boating areas.

Note: Geographic coordinates expressed in terms of latitude or longitude, or both, are not intended for plotting on maps or charts whose referenced horizontal datum is the North American Datum of 1983 (NAD 83), unless such geographic coordinates are expressly labeled NAD 83. Geographic coordinates without the NAD 83 reference may be plotted on maps or charts referenced to NAD 83 only after application of the appropriate corrections that are published on the particular map or chart being used.

(a) Quillayute River Entrance, Wash. From the west end of James Island 47°54'23" N., 124°39'05" W. southward to buoy No. 2 at 47°53'42" N., 124°38'42" W. eastward to the shoreline at 47°53'42" N., 124°37'51" W., thence northward along the shoreline to 47°54'29" N., 124°38'20" W. thence northward to 47°54'36" N., 124°38'22" W. thence westward to the beginning.

(b) Grays Harbor Entrance, Wash. From a point on the shoreline at 46°59'00" N., 124°10'10" W. westward to 46°59'00" N., 124°15'30" W. thence southward to 46°51'00" N., 124°15'30" W. thence eastward to a point on the shoreline at 46°51'00" N., 124°06'40" W. thence northward along the shoreline to a point at the south jetty 46°54'20" N., 124°08'07" W. thence eastward to 46°54'10" N., 124°05'00" W. thence northward to 46°55'00" N., 124°03'30" W. thence northwestward to Damon Point at 46°56'50" N., 124°06'30" W. thence westward along the north shoreline of the harbor to the north jetty at 46°55'40" N., 124°10'27" W. thence northward along the shoreline to the beginning.


The Rough Bar RNA closure for Grays Harbor is inside the red boundary lines, pretty encompassing

(c) Willapa Bay, Wash. From a point on the shoreline at 46°46'00" N., 124°05'40" W. westward to 46°44'00" N., 124°10'45" W. thence eastward to a point on the shoreline at 46°35'00" N., 124°03'45" W. thence northward along the shoreline around the north end of Leadbetter Point thence southward alone the east shoreline of Leadbetter Point to 46°36'00" N., 124°02'15" W. thence eastward to 46°36'00" N., 124°00'00" W. thence northward to Toke point at 46°42'15" N., 123°58'00" W. thence westward along the north shoreline of the harbor and northward along the seaward shoreline to the beginning.


However since there is no Coast Guard station here anymore, you will probably not see any bar closures here.  It would be prudent to associate this somewhat with the Grays Harbor bar conditions.  But since this bar is SHALLOW because of all the shifting sand washing off Wash-Away beach, it is a lot worse than any others.  And no assistance is near.

(d) Columbia River Bar, Wash.-Oregon. From a point on the shoreline at 46°18'00" N., 124°04'39" W. thence westward to 46°18'00" N., 124°09'30" W. thence southward to 46°12'00" N., 124°09'30" W. thence eastward to a point on the shoreline at 46°12'00" N., 123°59'33" W. thence eastward to Tansy Point Range Front Light at 46°11'16" N., 123°55'05" W.; thence northward to Chinook Point at 46°15'08" N., 123°55'25" W. thence northwestward to the north end of Sand Island at 46°17'29" N., 124°01'25" W. thence southwestward to a point on the north shoreline of the harbor at 46°16'25" N., 124°02'28" W. thence northwestward and southwestward along the north shoreline of the harbor and northward along the seaward shoreline to the beginning.

§ 177.09 Penalties.

An operator of a vessel who does not follow the directions of a Coast Guard Boarding Officer prescribed in §177.05 is, in addition to any other penalty prescribed by law, subject to—

(a) The criminal penalties of 46 U.S.C. 4311, which provides that a person willfully operating a recreational vessel in violation of 46 U.S.C., Chapter 43 or regulations issued thereunder, shall be fined not more than $5,000, imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.

(b)(1) The civil penalties for violating 46 U.S.C. 4307(a)(1).

(2) The civil penalties of 46 U.S.C. 4311, which provides that a person violating any other provision of 43 U.S.C., Chapter 43 or regulation issued thereunder is liable to the United States Government for a civil penalty, and, if the violation involves the operation of a vessel, the vessel is liable in rem for the penalty.


The common thought was that if the bar was closed say at Westport, WA. the upstream side will usually be from the Westport marina entrance buoy #2, north to buoy #13.  The ocean side closure would usually be from buoy #8 to the tip of the north jetty.  NOT SO ACCORDING TO THE ABOVE.


This sign is just outside the Westport boat basin on the river side of "The Point" with the lights flashing on a not so bad day. Here is a newer sign currently at the top of the Westport boat basin launch ramp.

Rule of 12: 

The formula below is used to calculate the amount of river flow at a bar.  It is called the "Rule of 12".  This flow will be best described as:

  1st hour after a tide change will have  
of the flow
  2nd hour will be 2/12ths      3rd hour will be 3/12ths
  4th hour will be 3/12ths    5th hour will be 2/12ths    6th hour will be 1/12th


From this table you can see that the maximum flow will be the middle 2 hours of an exchange.  This USUALLY equates to the bar being roughest at that time. 


Slack Tide ; THIS IS IMPORTANT & MAY SAVE YOUR LIFE ; It's surprising how many fishermen believe that slack water occurs simultaneous to high tide and simultaneous to low tide (as listed in the tide books), when in fact it could occur significantly later.  Sadly, it has been written and ingrained in the uninformed so such, that only the tide book is looked at for bar crossings and in many accounts and once something is imprinted in a brain, it then becomes the gosphil.  In reality, the time lag between printed low tide to actual low slack water, (a tidal current velocity of ZERO that occurs sometime AFTER low tide) is about 1 hour per 3 foot of tide differential.   That is to say, if the difference between high water and low water is 6 feet in your locale, it may take about 2 hours for the momentum of the tidal current to unwind.


The ocean tide tables and Bar crossings are two different animals.  Think of it as the Tide Tables are for ocean beach conditions (CLAM DIGGING).  But for a bar crossing at low tide, the river is still pushing out against the ocean and it takes a while for things to level off.

And the slack water lasts approximately 30 minutes, then there are two slack water periods per tide cycle, low and high.  Despite popular belief, the tidal current does not flood for 6 hours and ebb for 6 hours, because the tide is running only 11 out of the 12 hours.


The above all being said, wind can also add considerably to this situation.


The above is a very important thing to keep in mind when you intend to cross any bar that could become dangerous.


Here the average boater does not really have to be that much concerned with a high slack as compared to the low slack, because high tide is a lot more forgiving than a outgoing low tide.  As you have one heck of a lot more water under you where the ocean is backing up the river but against a lesser ocean force (imagine a stagnate river pool), whereas on a low tide, the river is doing a lot of pushing like when the boater would be running a rapids.


How to Somewhat Understand Offshore Weather Forecasts:  It is advisable to go to at least one of the  internet marine weather sites, , and also the buoy site  to get information that at least will give you some idea as to what to expect.  On the buoy site, look at it often enough so you can tell the wave height and time between the waves as a comparison.  It is recommended that you look at this site before you go there and then when you are there, make some notes as to the sea conditions so you have something to actually compare or visualize what they are saying.


You can pretty well do some of your own water weather predictions going off the wind predictions.  Under normal weather, if the wind is up to 10 knots the wind waves will be 1 foot or less.  With a prediction of from 10 to building to 15 knots, wind waves will be from 1' to 2'.  With a prediction of 10 to 20 knots, you will have from 1' to 3'.  And a prediction of 15 to 25 knots wind waves will be 3' to 5'.  Then small craft warnings kick in at 18 knots.  You will have to go to the above sites for swell height and time intervals.


Many knowledgeable boaters use this general rule, if looking at, or listening to a marine weather forecast, if the sum of the Wind Waves + the Height of the Swell MEETS or EXCEEDS the Time, in seconds, STAY HOME.  This is called by some as the waves/time being squared.


Wind Wave, 2-3 ft  +  Swell, 7 ft. = 10 total
Time, in seconds = 10    STAY ON THE BEACH
(Wave + Swell exceeds Time)

I have been at Neah Bay under these exact forecast conditions.  You may sneak out between the slot at Tatoosh and look at the ocean for an assessment, but I will guarantee you will not be able to fish it.  Everyone in the fishing group came back inside and hid behind islands fishing for rockfish instead of going for halibut.  The one boat that did venture out for a short time said his depth-finder was showing a 23' variance.

Usually the WAVE heights are not the only thing to look at, as the TIME between the swells can be a contributing factor.  When it gets down to  Wind Waves 1', Swell 5' with a Time at 6 seconds, no matter a lesser height, there is also a closer time, it will be about the same criteria to stay home, as it WILL be choppy for a small boat.   A more ideal day on the water could be a 1 ft WW, 4 ft Swell, with 10 seconds Time.  But if you look ONLY for this condition, you had better take up golfing to fill in.  Now if you are watching the buoy reports, the actual height measured on these buoys is usually less than the Wind Wave + Swell (height in the forecasts).


Here is an actual marine forecast that should shake the boots off any knowledgeable boater.  30 knot winds and combined seas of 30' at 12 seconds.  This would probably be close to ocean conditions of the opening photo at the beginning of this article.



9:09 PM PDT SAT MAY 21 2005







------------- Here is another --------------  NOTE  the abbreviation of TSTMS means Thunderstorms





230 PM PDT SUN SEP 29 2013






Most NOAA marine forecasts are for a 24 hour period, this means the forecast is to cover the overall long range period, even with a somewhat bad looking forecast, you can possibly get out early in the AM and be off the water by the time a wind picks up in the early afternoon.  Look at the forecast as close to the day you intend to go out, as 2-3 days in advance is a long range estimate which they can change.  I have been there on a  4 day forecast of 10 to 20 knot winds, Wind Waves of 1-3' & a Swell of 6' and a Time of  7 sec.  Later it was changed the day before to 10-15 knot, WW of 1-2 and a Swell 4' and a Time of 9 sec. This is a considerable change that may have persuaded some to not make a long drive and just stay home if only looking at the long range forecast.


Sometimes I think the forecasters, (for liability reasons) stretch the forecasts.  Some of my calmest days on the water called for 25 knot winds and small craft advisory in the forecast the day before.  One particular day, I listened to the NOAA weather report for the following day, with 4' seas, 1-2' wind waves at 5 seconds.  I was there and stayed to see if the water was fishable the next day, but recommended for a friend to not make the drive.  Actuality the water was slightly choppy in the morning, but rather flat most of the day with the timing closer to 10 seconds.  I guess you just have to listen to the report, be there, decide for yourself if the CG doesn't do it for you.  The above is not to downgrade the forecasters, but don't think you or your boat are invincible, as if you go out on your terms, you may then HAVE to get back on mother natures terms and she does not bluff while and is holding all the aces. 

In most coastal areas, it can be foggy all day offshore, but it will usually be clear during the regular salmon season on shore.  Later however during the bay fisheries, or Buoy 10, it can be foggy at least up to noon inshore.


The wind, if there is any, will be coming from offshore and usually from the southwest to the northwest.  If you are trolling, after the wind picks up in the afternoon, it can get hard to control the boat unless you put the wind on your stern or at least quartering to the side of the boat.  It seems that a 10 MPH wind is going to be normal in about any normal fishing day here.  It would be considered normal for the wind on most days pick up and be up to 15 -20 MPH about 1 to 2PM, then later in the evening will slow down again.


The recommendation is that anyone using these waters, acquire a marine chart of the area, look at it enough before you head out so you have an idea of the water depths, starting GPS locations, and keep the chart, or photo copies of it on the boat.


Some people think if the ocean is rough enough for the Coast Guard to close the bar, you MAY still be able to fish for bottom fish along the jetties to or drop off crab pots inside.  (AFTER READING THE ROUGH BAR CLOSURE BOUNDARIES THIS WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE).  If they do close the bar, it is for your protection.  Most closures however will be only for a period of time until the tide has changed & the bar has settled down, unless there is a storm.  These same closures WILL also NOT allow you to re-cross to come back in without a Coast Guard escort if the weather is bad.


The word is now that the Coast Guard has orders to watch the bars closer and/or broadcast these closures earlier after a guide boat went down on the bar and one person was lost.  This would have been worse if another private boat had not been following the guide boat in.


Watch the Wind Direction :   When heading out in the morning into the open ocean, it is a good idea to look at the prevailing wind direction.  The wind will usually pick up in the afternoon.  You do not want to buck heavy waves coming back to port, but to have them somewhat on your stern.  Burns a lot less fuel and a lot smoother ride this way.  So If the wind is coming from the NW (or a NWerly), head that direction in the morning.


Sometimes you don't have a choice if you are following the fish, but in this case be observant of the weather conditions and react sooner than later.


Fog :   Fog is something fishermen may have to deal with at times.  With the new GPS and plotter units, the modern mariner has considerable advantage the early boaters who only had a compass and possibly a flasher depthfinder.   Those days we used compass headings from one location to another with a known timed run between each leg.  But we did this during a good daylight day BEFORE we really needed it and recorded it on our chart.


It is suggested that when running in fog, to have observers looking out for anything from floating debris, crab pot buoys, AND other boats.  As a skipper, do no become distracted by also being on watch, but concentrate on your compass course and or plotter headings.  If you are running in the ocean, you may even, (beforehand) change your shallow water alarm from 5' to 25' just as a pecaution. 


Another thing to remember is IF you slow down AND the tide/wind is holding you in the same position, your GPS plotter could not have your bow pointing where you think it is because you will normally be moving so slow.  For your GPS to function, the data from the satellites need for your boat to be MOVING.  In this rare occasion, you may not be moving, but sitting still in relationship to the bottom, so if you powered up going the direction the GPS boat arrow is pointing on the plotter, you may actually be going opposite or in a inaccurate direction, UNTIL you see the arrow change on the plotter once you start moving at a faster speed.  This could be disastrous in heavy fog and close to a beach or a jetty.  Watch your compass also.


It would be advisable to as you are exiting a marina/river/bay to lay in a few way points instead of just using buoys.  I found this once when my GPS plotter reverted back to the basic program.  This did not show any navigational aids (buoys), but it did show the waypoints I had previously entered.   I was not lost, but confused until I stumbled on a marker piling.  And it took a while to figure out why my unit did not recognize the map chip I had placed in it.  And this is something you need to NOT DO while you are in the fog, and near shore.


Years ago when I commercially trolled for salmon out of Westport, when it was foggy, when heading out in the morning, I would NEVER headed straight west once across the bar, but a few miles distance either north or south.  This gave me the advantage that when it was time to return to the dock, and IF it was still foggy, I could run east until I picked up the beach at 30' of water, (either north or south beach) and if from the north follow the commercial crab pots south toward the river entrance where the water depth deepened to 45', then turn east and come on in the river mouth.  If from the south, I could come up nearer and behind the south jetty, then once we knew where we were, could adjust, running west to buoy 6, then head to buoy 8 and swing into the river. 


If I went out in the morning straight west, taking into account of any wind or drift, I would not be sure which side of the mouth I was on.  Way better to error on the safe side than to run a LONG ways, the wrong way before you realize where you were not.


Then a radar unit is also a very comforting item to have mounted onboard in times when you can not see beyond 100 yards.  If there is any boat traffic (recreational and commercial) radar can be a survival item, where in foggy situations, you can "See" a ship coming, or you coming up onto one, so you can maneuver out of it's way if need be.  It is very unnerving to come upon a situation like the photo below, even if you are not moving fast, but what if both boats were moving on a collision course?


Almost like being hid with 100' of visibility


PFD's :   It is highly recommended that while under way, especially while crossing ANY bar, that a Personal Floatation Devices be worn by ALL on board ANY small craft.  The reason for this is, that if you get in trouble especially ON THE BAR, when something happens, it will happen so fast that you will not be able to get to, (possibly less than 5 seconds) or even find your PFD, much less put it on.  The new inflatable suspender type PDF's are comfortable to wear and will accomplish the desired effect, which is keeping you alive if you get thrown out or the boat goes down.  


I recommend that you purchase the best one you can afford, and preferably a self-inflatable one.  Then check and or replace the "pill" yearly and the CO2 cartridge at least every two years.  At least blow it up by your mouth to check if it holds air.  The better units may have small pockets that  small survival gear like a knife, flashing strobe light, whistle etc. can be stowed.  The offshore models usually have "D" rings in front where you can snap a lanyard to that is in turn attached to the boat.  This could be a plus or a detriment depending on the circumstance, but that is where the readily available knife comes into play.  When I fish alone, I ALWAYS snap a 10' lanyard strap to my D rings.


Bilge Pump :  It may well behoove you to check your bilge pump/pumps before you make this venture.  If you have one pump, consider installing a second one.  Have at least one of these on a automatic switch.  Any water you take on over the bow or in the rear open deck will add extra weight, making your boat sluggish by being heavier and your response time could be devastating.


Open Bow Boat :  This can also lead to a bad situation if you take a wave over the bow and your scupper drain holes can not let large volumes of water escape FAST.   Your bow is now DOWN, meaning your stern may be UP with the prop is not accessing the water needed for full control and a second wave is coming at you.  These boats are becoming popular, especially in the aluminum boats.  If this is what you have, and are considering fishing the open water,  you should consider having a snap on bow cover made that also has some form of wooden bows underneath for support.  


Along with this could be considered any open boat, normally used in freshwater lakes, rivers or bays, as a wave could drop lots of water (and weight) into one of these, incapacitating it.   

Fuel :  Always carry more fuel than you think you may need.  If you intend on running farther, or in bad weather and can not carry enough fuel, DON"T GO.   Your motor will consume considerably more fuel when the boat is wallowing through rough water than when you get it up on a plane in good weather.  If you take a Coast Guard course, you will be taught to always count on using 1/3rd of your usable fuel to go OUT, 1/3rd to come IN, AND the other 1/3rd  as an emergency backup. 


One day when my 22' inboard V8 motor was running badly, needing a valve job, but the season was nearing it's end and I was trying to stretch it as far as possible.  The fish were farther away, (about 20 miles) and when running out that morning, just as we neared the charter fleet, my brother-in-law stepped up to the helm and said, WE NEED TO TURN AROUND NOW--LOOK AT THE FUEL TANKS.  These tanks were fiberglass and above the deck at the stern and we could see the fuel level inside them.  We had used about 2/3rds of our fuel.  I shut it down ASAP, then trolled back toward the bar in the travel pattern of the returning fleet hoping that we made it before they limited and bypassed us on the way in.  I had turned one tank off, using the other until there was maybe less than 1 gallon left.  Then turned it off for an EMERGENCY.  I turned the other tank on and finally came in at a high idle.  This boat was basically a displacement hull with the weight and motor size, so not economical to run.  We made it across the bar and inside the river, outside the boat basin I stopped and pulled a crab pot and upon starting it back up, ran out of fuel.  That mostly empty emergency tank then got me back to the dock. TALK ABOUT TIMING !!!!


The Coast Guard is there to help you if needed, HOWEVER if you do run out of fuel, they may not be as friendly as normally you would encounter them.


General Rules :  Rough weather is one time when bigger is definitely better as far as recreational boats are concerned.  Generally, I consider a 18' deep sided boat with plenty of power (at least 50hp) about minimal for ocean fishing.  Bigger is better as a 26'er makes a easier and safer ride.  This is not a lake or even the Puget Sound.  Be observant.  However the boating industry manufacture do not have to put floatation in boats larger than 18', which  adds to the pucker factor for larger boats if you are concerned.


The one thing that will get you in more trouble than any other thing is SPEED.  This is not a boat race, find a speed where you can maintain headway and yet get where you want to go safely.   Keep your hand on the throttle lever at ALL TIMES when under power.  Hold your speed down if it is rough, and then cut the throttle as you ride up and over the a crest, almost doing a balancing act so that you do not slam the bow of the boat into a deep trough on the backside of a crest (that you never saw).   NEVER take a wave head on if at all possible, but ride over it on a slightly quartering direction.  You may not be able to go the exact direction you want to in quartering, but if you seem to be getting way off your intended course, change 90 degrees and quarter the other side of the waves.


All the time you need to watch your stern, you may have to jockey by applying power or maneuvering to where you avoid a wave over the stern, while you are also watching your forward movement.


As evidenced here, speed & even not so large a wave do not mix & here the skipper is already in the water


Most rivers on the coast, you will need to be observant of the tides if operating a small boat.  Tidal exchange is the main key to crossing any bar.  Probably the ideal time to cross is on either an hour before to two hours after high or low slack.  However the time of this tide many times does not allow you as a fisherman, to cross on one high tide and then come back on the next high tide about 6 hrs later during daylight hours. 


Under normal condition the roughest bar will occur on the middle of an outgoing tide when the river is rushing out and being resisted by the ocean.  Usually if nothing else is encountered, (as wind conditions) on the outgoing tide, the bar will be roughest from about 3 to 4 hours before a low tide.  All else taken into consideration, the bar usually tends to not be as rough on the incoming tide.   Again the flattest of any tide will possibly be the 1 hour before to 2 hours after the tide low or high listed on a tide book.


It is also my opinion that the main flow of the river at it's fastest, will be on the out-flowing and in the center of the channel.  Therefore it is recommended that if you must cross at a higher runoff, is to stay away from the center of the river on anything other than a slack tide.  You don't want to hug the shore or jetty either, as there could be a slightly slower "rip" somewhere away from the center.  Look for it, but you will have take into account that it may change with each tide.  The center flow may not be there depending on shoaling and or dredging also.  It seems that on a incoming tide this roughness (all else being equal) is slightly of a lesser degree.


If you get caught trying to cross a bar in rough snotty water, DO NOT TRY TO TURN AROUND, so be ever vigilant and recognize your situation before it materializes.  Usually the waves are so close together that it would be disastrous if you tried to turn around because the chance of you NOT making the complete turn before the next wave hits you, catching you broadside, breeching (rolling) the boat over.  Along with the fact that even if you did get turned around, and did not stay ahead of it that next wave could dump a LOT of water on/into the stern, possibly swamping you.  Probably your best shot here would be to slow dawn, stay slowly throttled into the wave but let it push you back inside (upriver) kind of like back trolling, just be ever watchful where it is pushing you.  If you get out of this, you will probably have to change into clean shorts, as it could get exciting to say the least, BUT better than being foolhardy and stay on course toward the open ocean. 


Remember if you went out, you are going to have to come back in. And being able to visually see the waves, they look considerably less intimidating when looking at them from coming in as compared to going out.  But if you do not have enough power to keep up with the one you are on and trying to ride in on, and the following one overtakes you, a wave over the stern could be worse than taking one over the bow.


I you are a newbie to the area, and in doubt, ask for local situations as shoaling or any conditions that may not show on charts.


Also in more recent years with the advent of the aluminum jet boats designed more for use on the Columbia River, they will also be used in ocean fishing simply because that is what the owners have.  They will work, but are not the most desirable because of the normal shallow Vee or more of a flat bottom needed for the jet to function properly.  They then are not one of the most desirable hull types and will take a pounding or rougher ride in rough water. 


One recommendation if you do try it with a jet, is that since about all of them have an open walk-thru bow, is to have your marine upholsterer make you a vinyl snap on bow cover with the twist locks at least at the corners instead of just the snaps.  Also you need something under the center of this cover to support it as you do not want the cover to come unsnapped if covered with a wave of water.   The one thing you do not want, if you happen to get into bad conditions is to have your open bow full of seawater if a wave comes over and into/in it.  When this happens, can you imagine how much weight may be up there and those small scupper drain holes surely can not allow all that water out soon enough.  Your bow will go down AND the stern will then have to raise slightly.  Now, just how much steerage do you believe you will have with a jet or even an outboard for that matter out of water.  You are basically at the mercy of the ocean during this time, you will in all probability have a quick heart to heart talk with a higher power until most of this water drains out, and you may have to change your shorts later, as you will be in DEEP DO DO if you do manage to survive.


As said above, always try to plan to ride in to the dock WITH the wind as compared to AGAINST the wind, go north on a North wind day, so the ride in is not as bad, or finish your day trolling South, for a better angle coming in, doesn't always work out as planed, and sometimes the wind is greater than forecasted, I been caught more times than I care to admit in my little 19' river boat AND it can be a choppy, wet ride back min.

Many boats and skippers are capable of 20kt winds, although not comfortable, there is a big difference between 10 to 15kt with gusts to 20, versus 15 to 20 with gusts to 25, also a big difference from 3' swell versus 6' swell, know your boat, and your skills.  Heavy following seas has it's own set of very real hazards, especially in some boats.  Here having enough power to ride the back of a wave can have benefits.  But be
CAREFUL not to break over the crest at a high speed as you will then be pushed instead of being pulled along.  If you are surfboarding and not being VERY VERY WATCHFULL, when you slam into the bottom of the next wave and are not exactly bow on, you can be breeched and rolled over broadside.


Never feel comfortable on the water, comfort kills people.  With that being said, there is no need to be paranoid either if you know your limitations first, then know your boat limitations second.  And of course one reflects entirely upon the other.   Knowing both these limitations is most valuable, however this is a learned situation from "being there/done that" and the crap scared out of you a time or two.  Most small boats in the command of a skilled skipper are more safe/seaworthy than the large boat in command of a inexperienced skipper.

If you look at most boating accidents, most people were "comfortable" and not knowing doom was just around the corner.   Just be observant and keep asking yourself "what if this happens" as compared to "what else could they have done".


Tale of a Boat Down on the Columbia River Bar June 20th, 2014 :   The incident described below is for your information, which is hoped that may help you become a bit more focused on what can happen on the water, AND FAST.  This is told by Lonn C. Sweeney, the skipper of the recovery boat.


 "The intent of this post is to provide information that may save a life.  It is about things done right and things that might be done differently.  The focus is on what occurred on my boat and what my partners did to rescue five out of the six folks who were on a guide boat that capsized on the Columbia River Bar June 20th 2014 at approximately 09:17 hrs.


With me that day was my long time fishing pal and co-worker Randy Vanderhoof and his girl friend Lenka Frank, who is an RN.  Randy and I have fished together for close to 20 years.  He is a licensed fishing guide and runs RBV Adventures.  The other crew member was my wife Teri we have been fishing together for 44 years.  It is because of their efforts that we were able to save those five souls.   Words can not describe my respect and feelings for them.


Prior to leaving the dock I had checked the weather and ocean conditions.  We were looking at one to two foot wind waves with five foot swells at about ten seconds.  High slack tide was at 07:32 hrs.  We crossed the bar at about that time and proceeded north to fish for Chinook salmon off the Long Beach Peninsula between the lighthouse and the Condominiums.  We had three lines in and were about to put the fourth out when Lenka  hooked and landed a nice Chinook.  As we were about to put the lines back out the coast guard broadcast on channel 16 via VHF radio.  The broadcast was to the effect that the conditions on the Columbia River Bar were deteriorating and that it would be restricted to vessels 30 and under after 10:30 hrs.  We all agreed to call it a day and head back in. 


As we turned and headed south we saw another boat and Randy said we should go make sure they heard the broadcast.  I believe the boat was an Alumaweld Formula Vee with a full windshield and a soft top.  We pulled alongside and made sure they got the message, they had and were headed in.  They were pulling in line so I slowly motored south.  Randy said we should stick with that boat and go in together.  I completely agreed and asked my wife to keep an eye on the other boat, and not lose sight.  I turned a couple of times and saw that the other boat was coming in behind us.


As we got closer to the mouth of the Columbia we could see breakers between the north jetty and the first green can.  At that time our course was southwest.  We wanted to make sure we would clear those breakers and by gaining ground to the west we would be able to do that.


As we came closer to the middle ground the other boat swung past us and continued on a S.W. course.  Shortly thereafter they made a turn to the east and began to cross the bar. I continued at the same speed and swung in to follow them.  The swells were of such a height that when their boat dropped into the trough all we could see of them was the tops of their fishing nets when we were on the top of a swell.  I was attempting to stay on the back side of the swells, when one would out run on us I would chop the speed and let the next swell run under us until we were on the back side of it then throttle up again.   As we came back on top of a swell we could not see the other boat.  On the next swell we saw the hull of their capsized boat and debris in the water.  The first thing I did was chop speed. The next thing was radio the coast guard and advise the of the capsizing and request assistance. 


The skipper of the other boat had his folks put on their life jackets.  When we first saw the other boat we just saw the bottom of the hull and debris floating, but we did not see any individuals.  The boat settled by the stern and the bow raised and pointed skyward.  Holding onto the bow was an individual not wearing a life vest. Others popped up to the surface of the water.  The one not wearing a life vest was holding onto another who was wearing a life vest.  The two who were not wearing life vest had been wearing them.  Their life vests had become tangled in the boat and were trapping them underwater. They had removed the life vest so that they could come to the surface.


By this time Randy had moved to the stern of my boat and had opened the door to the swim platform and dropped the swim ladder into the water.  My boat is a new boat.  On my other boat a 22’ Larson offshore I did not have the swim platform, ladder, or door.  I made sure they were on my new boat because I heard about the accident a couple of years ago out at the Chicken Ranch out of Newport.  An individual went overboard and the other folks could not get him back on board.  He died as a result, tied to his boat.  That is the reason I ordered the setup that I have.


One of the major concerns I had running through my mind was to get these folks on my boat without causing them any harm.  My boat weighs over two tons.  There was an ugly mass of water pushing and shoving the boat.  As I approached the other boat I tried to anticipate the push on my stern and throttled way back.  I put my boat in between the sinking boat and three survivors.  Randy was at the swim platform with Lenka and they would yell to me to reverse the motors and when to put them in neutral as they pulled in three survivors.  My wife had taken the boat pole and was keeping debris out away from the motors.  During this time the other boat slipped below the water.  The individual who had been holding onto the boat was attempting to swim to my boat.  I had been keeping a close eye on him while the rest of the crew was pulling in the other three and keeping an eye on a fourth survivor who was floating out to the west.    The four of us were keeping in constant communication with each other by yelling what we were going to do.  When I had to maneuver the boat I would tell them.  If they saw something that I needed to do they would tell me. 


My wife, Teri, tossed a type one life vest to the fellow who had been holding onto the bow of the lost boat.  He was brought around to the stern and brought on board.  We now had four survivors on board. Lenka and Teri kept an eye on the fifth person.  Randy positioned the survivors into the cabin and in such a manner so that we could keep the boat trimmed.  In those sea conditions this was an important act.  The last survivor was too far away to try to back up to the waves coming on the stern just would not allow that.  I looked for a hole and timed my turn all the time, telling the crew what I was going to do.  I motored passed the survivor and executed another turn all the while keeping an eye on the survivor.  I motored the boat back past the survivor so that we could bring him to the swim platform.  Randy had tied a type one vest to our rope and after several attempts Randy and the others were able to bring him onto the deck.  The hard part was keeping the right distance from the survivors in the water so that they would not be hit with a two ton boat, yet get close enough to do an effective rescue.  Communication and trust was the key.    Randy and I had fished and worked together for years.  He is an intelligent individual and has spent his whole life on the water.  With men in the water on our stern if he said reverse, I put it in reverse.  When I heard neutral relayed to me I put it in neutral.  He could see back there. I could not.  I had complete trust in him.


When the fifth person was pulled onto our boat we thought we had it made.  We had understood that there were only five on the capsized boat.  We were then told there was a sixth.  By this time a Coast Guard buoy tender was on scene.  I had been advising Cape D as we had pulled each man from the water and had maintained a constant communication with them I asked if the buoy tender could they see the sixth man because they had the advantage of height.  The buoy tender replied that they would be looking but no sight of him at this time. We continued to search in the area until two 47’ Coast Guards vessels arrived.  Initially when we were looking for survivors the first five came to the surface.  The sixth person never came to the surface while we were there.  With three Coast Guard vessels on scene and the chopper on its way I felt that the prudent thing to do was get the five survivors I had to shore ASAP.  Searching in that location on the ebb and in a 24 foot boat with nine individual onboard was just not wise.  I was well aware of my location and the wave sets.  I knew I had to move north to gain the channel and safety.  I would gain as much north as I could when I was on the back of the swells.  I had as much power as I could get out of those engines.  As the swell would leave us I would throttle back and quarter the oncoming wave trying to balance the chance of a pitch pole or a broach.  Randy was standing by me at the helm to watch over my left side for the swells as they came under us he would give me the all clear to speed up and gain ground north.  I had radioed Cape D and requested that one of the 47 footers keep an eye on us as we tried to crawl off Clatsop Spit.  One arrived and shortly after we reached buoy 10.  When we reached the other side of buoy 10 the swells calmed a bit and we reached a calm area just before we entered the Ilwaco channel.  One of the things that hampered our move out of the Clatsop spit area was my swim ladder was stuck in the down position.  I did not get it back up until we docked at the Coast Guard Station at Cape D.


What I learned from this experience:


* I never imagined pulling five guys from the water.  I always figured perhaps I would have someone fall overboard.  I now am going to have throw bags on every corner of my deck along with two life rings.


*The rope on my life ring was too short.  We lost it right off.  This was my fault not the fault of my crew.  I should have had a longer rope.


*The secondary rope I had on the deck (to my surprise) did not stay afloat.  It got pulled down by the current.  My float bags and life rings will all have floating line for sure.


*It is amazing how fast the strength of the survivors dissipated in the cold water.  Some had more than others.  When a rope was thrown to them some could hardly grasp it. 


*I was lucky to have some very good people on my boat.  We had great communication and made sure we knew what each other was doing.


*I learned that anytime I cross the bar either way I will have the deck cleared.  I will put all tackle boxes, fishing gear and anything else away.  We were lucky this time they did not interfere but the possibility was there.


Things that helped:


  I recognize that I am a daytime summer sailor on a 24’ sports fishing boat.  I don’t have the training like the true heroes that do this sort of thing year round The USCG.  What I have done to help in that regard is read a lot of books about sea disasters of small boats on the Pacific coast.   I have a copy of Chapman’s Piloting and have read and reread those chapters on bar crossing to learn about broaching and pitch poling.  Then I put hose thing into practice.  I have talked to a few friends of mine who were in the Coast Guard Reserve and picked their minds over boat handling.   As a summer time sailor for the last 25 years I have tried to learn from others.  I have learned you don’t try to fight the swells you try to make them work for you.


The other thing that helped is my former occupation.  Randy also does that line of work.  Actually there are many vocations where this comes into play.  That is controlling the sense of fear or being out of control.  Adrenalin flooding your system must be controlled.   Adrenalin causes you fine motor skills to diminish, causes you to have tunnel vision, and sometimes perceptional distortion.  Getting your mind to focus on the task at hand, step by step, will help control the adrenalin and let you uses it to your advantage.


Watching out for the other guy.  We made a conscious decision to watch out for this boat.  That is what we should all do in any condition.  This is the first and most important thing we did.  I only wish I would have let him know on the radio that we were watching out for him.  We were the only two boats crossing the bar right at that moment.  It is something Randy and I believe in. 


The Coast Guard is a great organization.  They worked hard to locate the last fisherman, and stuck with it until they did.  I would like to thank them all for their response.  Having that person on the other end of the radio when you need them is a good feeling.  Knowing that help was on the way was reassuring and a big thank you to them for being there 24-7."


Lonn C. Sweeney


Little did we know that some of my information that you are reading here may have been put into practice within months as shown from this e-mail communication below. 

 "December 19, 2013;  I enjoyed reading your article about cross a bar safely.  I sports fish out of Warrenton and found your information useful.  I am a moderator on the Oregon Fishing Forum in the Saltwater section.  I'd like to put a link to your article in that section with your permission.  I think anybody that reads it would pick up some very good information especially on safety issues.   Thanks for writing it.  Lonn C Sweeney"

After his rescue above, when I asked Lonn if I could post his account above, I also asked if they per chance had any photos of the rescue.  Sadly no, they were so busy that no time was available.

Navigation Equipment :  Your boat should also be equipped with a VHF radio, GPS and Sonar.  Also have a functioning backup hand-held VHF and GPS, just in case.


Heading Out From Illwaco :  From Illwaco you will go out the channel to the southwest, past the fish buyers buildings on the right, follow the west shore past the State Park launch, then as you come to the Coast Guard station, you need to slow down as there is a sign "NO WAKE".   Past the CG station, the channel makes a bend to the left, then heads more to the south and into the river.  As you go past the pilings on the left and then out a bit more, you will then be in the Columbia River.  At this location, depending on the tide and river flow, you could encounter water turbulence.


From here you turn to the west then head toward buoy 11.  Now you will need to observe what you see in front of you to make a decision as to IF you are going to continue to go out, to decide which side of the river to exit from.


Wind and Big Swells can make the crossing interesting anytime.  If there are 2-4 feet waves and favorable wind and ocean conditions, you can usually cross at about anytime, but this is rare.  If the wind is from the south be careful as it can pick up real fast and make for a miserable crossing and an awful ocean.  This bar is wide and conditions can be very different on the North, South, or mid channel.


Protecting the Columbia River Bar :  The "bar" here, is defined as the location where the river enters the ocean.  And this transition will vary depending on numerous  things, like the tide, the river flow and the wind velocity AND direction.   Depending on these conditions, it can be almost flat at times to VERY TREACHEROUIS.  On most all major west coast rivers entering the ocean the USACE will have built rock jetties on both sides of these river to protect  these entrances for commercial traffic by giving protection and keep a clear shipping channel free of sanding in by the natural sources.  The worst sanding was on the south side of the river exit (Clatsop Spit).  The original South Jetty was completed in 1895 and an extension completed in 1913.  Much damage was done and during the period from 1932 to 1938 the south jetty was repaired and improved.  Construction was done with large rocks that were hauled out on a railroad trestle built especially for this.  After these large rocks were placed, most of the trestle was left at the mercy of the ocean, or to rot a way.


The North jetty was originally built in 1916/1917.  


2014/15 saw the North Jetty being rebuilt.    A $257 million project to shore up the jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River.  For the North Jetty alone, 40,000 tons of rock from 11 to 30 ton each were hauled in on trucks carrying from 1 to 2 rocks the size of small cars from a quarry over 150 miles away from a rock quarry at Vail Washington on the NE shore of the Skookumchuck Reservoir.   These large rocks were spray painted with numbers relating to ton size for identification for their intended placement.  They were unloaded in a staging area at the base of the jetty and then individually hauled out on a primitive road where a larger crane places them individually.  Because of a relatively mild winter/spring, the 2.5-mile long North Jetty at Cape Disappointment State Park, work is expected to be finished October 2015.


Rehabilitation work on Washington’s  A Jetty, ( a one-mile-long jetty located south east of North Jetty), begins after the main jetty is finished and is expected to continue through 2016.

Work on the South Jetty, which starts in Fort Stevens State Park near Warrenton, Oregon, is scheduled for 2017.


Shown here is the size of the equipment used Here is the actual placement process with a spotter directing actual placement

For a history of the Columbia River Jetties, click below

Crossing the Columbia River Bar : In your recreational bar crossing, what exactly are you looking for here? 

(1) Large swell - don't cross on an an outgoing tide, especially on a large tidal exchange.  Check your tide book.

(2) Swell from the SW - best to hug the south side but don't run much south of the red buoy line until you get past buoy 12.  After 12 you can pretty much cut to the tip of the south jetty - but early in the year there are lots of crab pots to get caught on - so be on the lookout.  The jetty extends underwater from the tip of the visible jetty out to buoy 2SJ - gets to about 10' depth at low tide near the visible tip.   I would stay at least 100 yards west of the tip if running out.  There can be a pretty good rip that develops right on top of the sunken jetty that you have to slow down to get across, but once across - smooth sailing.  This can many times cut several miles off a lumpy bar crossing (again watch for out for crab pots).

(3) Swell from the NW - hug the green buoy line (North side), but don't go much north of that line until past buoy 7.

(4) Swell from the W - your guide here is the south (red) buoy line stay with them until get past buoy 8 or so.  By the time you get to buoy 10 you can make a decision where to get across to the S. Jetty by looking toward the tip of the Jetty.  If you see them rolling in and breaking, don't go there.  Continue down the red buoy line until past the breakers.  Ultimately, south of the S. Jetty is the smoothest, but getting there can be tough at times.

(5) Small swell, small tidal range, your pretty much good to go any time (small swell is something in the 3' or less, small tidal range is something in the 6' or less).

(6) If your running the red buoy line, don't go much south of buoy 12 or 14 (stay in 30 ft of water).  A good line to take if coming from Hammond, is buoy 20 to 14 to 12.  After that, you can cut south to the jetty (see 2 and above)

(7) Hard ebbs (lots of tidal exchange between a high high and minus low tide) - stay away from the buoys and breakwater pilings, especially the north side around "A" Jetty, (Illwaco entrance).

One of the worse spots can be around buoy 14 (south side of the channel).  Many folks turn around (if coming from the Oregon side) when they get to 14 as they think the bar is too rough.  Just slide across the river to the north side (run north) until you are past the rip and keep heading out.   The north side can be very dangerous and unpredictable plus very rough while just several miles south at the CR buoy it can be flat.  One of the reasons for this is that the current flows north (into the swells and often into the NW wind) on the north side and flows south on the south side.  Peacock Spit (on the North) can be a very dangerous and claims a lot of boats each year if the skippers get complacent.  The winter of 2003 during a storm  the waves where breaking over the top of buoy 10, and on peacock spit the breakers were 45' high. 


Here is the Columbia River buoy 10 being pulled under on a nasty day.  Note - that this buoy is the westerly boundary of the B10 river fall salmon fishery

Other situations to look for?  Probably appropriate but not enough space to cover it here,  it is advisable to take a basic seamanship course regarding following seas, trim tabs, broaching, etc. here.  There are lots of more learned discussions in other places like even boating/fishing message boards, especially

Heading Back in Over the Columbia River Bar :  If any roughness is to be encountered, you will be able to see it better from inside looking out, as you can see the white water off the tops of the waves.  Coming back in, you are looking at the backs of these waves and can not see if there is any white water coming off the tops.  Therefore the water looks calmer when you are outside looking in.  If the Bar is humped up and you are coming back in listen to your radio (many monitor VHF 68 or 69  and 13 CB) and don't be afraid to ask for a Bar report.  Also, the coast guard will respond to your request for a Bar condition report if you fail to get a report from other boats .  If they don't then ask for it from them on VHF channel 16.


Heading Out from the Willapa :  The normal launch for this area would probably be the Tokeland marina.  The Port of Willapa has installed a double lane launch and docks.  They recently re-dredged the boat basin.  There is a small tackle shop at the head of this ramp.


This is not a bar crossing for the novice boater nor a small river boat ANY time.  And I would recommend if you are considering trying this, look/listen to the NOAA weather forecast, and the regular radio/TV forecasts AND the tide tables for that area.  Pick a calm day with the low (non extreme run-off) tide in the morning.


Leaving the boat basin, you will be heading south, once you get out past the markers, you will need to head west.  Then stay along the RH (north) shore.  You will have to pass a short rock jetty that protrudes into the river that was installed to protect the highway.  You may encounter turbulence between the end of this breakwater and near the D buoy during a mid tide because of 100' depth coming up to 30'.  There is a large sand island with breakers on the ocean side of the river channel.  The river channel follows the RH shore to the ocean and then you pick up the closest buoy (C buoy) at 46-44.008 124-05.987 at about the outer edge of the beach line.   This buoy is slightly south of the center of the river channel.   You can pull up the the C buoy at the inner edge of the bar and make your decision at that time.  And it is highly suggested that you run out with some other boater who has done this bar before.


Looking outward at the Bar, from the Washaway jetty, with Cape Shoalwater on the far right, notice breakers of the bar on the horizon at far left A crab-boat heading out at the bar on a pretty flat water minus tide, overcast day.  Photo taken from Washaway beach


Crossing the Willapa River Bar :  Crossing the bar here can be dangerous for a small boater if you are not VERY observant.  As just outside the point of land, the chart's channel angles off to the Southwest somewhat paralleling behind the breakers.  My first crossing (2012), I followed the old chart that showed the channel SW about 1/4 mile out from the C buoy, but it put me in 15' of choppy water a hour before low tide. This puts you in a situation where you do not want to take the waves head on and in jockeying for your best position, you need to continually watch the compass or you WILL get turned around as you are trying to take the waves on, not caring where you are actually originally headed.  Intended navigation comes secondary in this case.   The mistake I made was that I should have waited a couple of hours to put me into slacker low water.


Later in 2013, after talking to locals and now using my own experience, heading West from C buoy will put you into slightly deeper water (20').  You are heading to Willapa "W" entrance buoy 46-44-053  124-10-594.  This 20' shoaling off Wash-Away beach tapers for 2 miles to about 70' within 1/2 mile from "W" buoy  where it drops off to 95' and then tapers off again of the normal ocean bottom there.  NOTE, as of early 2014, this W buoy was removed for repairs and NOAA decided that it was not needed for navigation anymore.  So write down these numbers as I acquired them by circling this buoy in 2013.  This would be your GO TO destination when heading out this location.


Watch your GPS plotter and water depth as this bar can get snotty if you slide off and get close to the shoaling on the north, which it changes every year.  If anything, error by slightly heading south a bit before heading west.  Numerous recreational boats and human lives have been lost here over the recent years.  STEER CLEAR of any water even out a mile from this ocean beach north of the Washaway entrance.


I would recommend that you look/listen to the NOAA weather ocean forecast, watch/listen to radio/TV weather forecasts AND look at the local tide book.  Preferably you would like a non extreme runoff tide (no minus).  And I would try to make all these combined at a low morning tide so you could sneak out from daylight to 9 or 10AM, fish a few hours and slide back in on the high incoming tide.


If you insist on using this bar, then it may be best, that on your first time out for each year, to explore it somewhat making GPS readings on just where the channel really is for that year.  If the tide is a high slack with no wind, then it should be no problem, except when you want to come back in in the afternoon when the wind WILL pick up.   If you have a wind and the tide running, it is best that the small boater to seriously consider remaining inside. 


Heading Back in at the Willapa :  Pretty much follow the east-west buoy line (from W to C) in and basically head for the headland behind the river mouth.  Once you get part way in, you can pick out the green metal roofed house that has rock rip-rap around it on the inner Washaway beach as you can see this landmark from farther out.  Once you get closer you can pick out the inner bar C buoy.  Note - NOOA has also determined that C buoy is destined to also be removed when it needs repair.


Heading out from Westport / Grays Harbor :  Leaving the boat basin from the launch, head straight out through the slot in the breakwater piling, then hang a left and head north for the end of the short rock breakwaters at the point. DO NOT GO EAST OF PILING MARKER #7, as it designates the edge of Whitcomb Flats. 


As you enter the main river off the point, there are a couple of rock breakwaters.  Just outside of these, there is a shallow bar of about 15-20’ depth, you may encounter a turbulence here for a couple of hundred yards depending on the tide.  Once you get beyond this little bar, the main river deepens and the water flattens out.  There is a small red can buoy "4 T" in the middle of the exit channel.  Head toward the "4 T" buoy, then turn to the west and head out the main river.

The location you may want to cross the bar will depend on whether you are going to be fishing either North or South of the harbor.  For crossing on the south side it is suggested that after you enter the main river and can see west with the south jetty on your left in the distance, head straight out the southern middle of the river to #11, the next one will then be #9.  This #9 buoy is beyond the end of the south jetty by about half a mile.  If you are going to encounter any roughness it will be about this #9 buoy to beyond #8, which is about 500 yards.  From #9 you want to head toward #8, but depending on the currents and roughness off the old submerged jetty, you may have to hold slightly north of it.  When you get beyond the old jetty turbulence, you then can head close to either side of #8.  At #8 you can immediately swing to the left, head southwest toward #6.  Buoy #8 and buoy #6 are fairly close together.  After you head toward #6 you will usually be beyond any bar wave conditions.

Distance from the launch to buoy #8 is about 5.5 miles. From the end of the existing South Jetty to buoy #8 is about 1.5 miles.  Buoy #8 is about equal in a westerly direction as the end of the North Jetty.  The original South Jetty extended to within about 100 yards from buoy #8, and it has been rebuilt at least twice but never to it's original length, so you can see why there is turbulence between the end of the existing jetty & buoy 8.  It is recommended & frowned on by the Coast Guard to not attempt to slide across the sunken jetty off the end of the South Jetty as depending on weather you may be playing with disaster.


For crossing on the north side, as you enter the river from the boat basin, I would head for #11 as before, but then head for the north jetty.  You can be near it (100 yards or so).  If the wind & current is coming from the NW as it usually does during the summer months, it is easy to go west out from the end of the jetty & then swing north once you are clear of any turbulence.  This will put you into 30 'to 40' of water behind the breakers off Ocean Shores.  Head up the beach for a ways & then you can head NW to your intended fishing grounds.


If you head straight out from the north side of the bar you will hit turbulence for for a couple of miles as this area has sanded in over the last 30 years & with the river's force & the tidal influence plus the wind, you will be bucking choppy water for some distance.  So either go north of this shallow shoaling or south of it.


Crossing the Grays Harbor Bar :   As mentioned before, the actual bar will be from about buoy #9 to just beyond buoy #8 under most conditions.  Timing of the tide can make a great difference as to whether you may encounter a flat bar or a rough one.  If there is no wind, or about a 10 mph one, when you try to cross and the tide is slack or within an hour after, you MAY be able to cross at 25 mph.  However if you try to cross in the middle of a tidal exchange, things WILL be different. 


The tide exchange will govern how rough the bar is going to be. The low tides will have one real low tide each day and the other low tide will be somewhat higher.  Look at the tide book, compare the difference between two tides closest to the time you intend to cross.  From a fisherman’s standpoint, if we look at the Pacific Beaches tides for July 13, 2002, the high tide was 8.4’ at 3:33AM and the following low tide is –1.0’ at 10:26AM, you therefore have a 9.4’ run off.  The next high tide is at 4:59PM at 7.7’ with a difference of 8.7.  For the inexperienced, this is not a really good week-end to try to cross on your time-frame.


Using the above figures, if you want to fish and cross at about 6:00AM, this means you will be bucking the roughest section of the bar at that time.  However you may consider waiting a couple of hours.  This bar was crossable at 7:30AM on this day with no real problem, it was however a little snotty.  You then can come back across about anytime from up till 8PM with little problems because you will be coming in on the incoming tide, into high slack and beyond.  If you cross during  the mid tide you may encounter incoming swells pushing you in.  These swells will probably never be right on your stern, but quartering, usually from the NW.  You will be going slower than they are, so his means as these swells will catch up with you, then pass under you.  You will be rocked to the right as it rides up to you, then to the left as it passes under you. 


This can get dangerous if you are going too fast as you may get into a surfboarding effect and not realize it.  AND IF YOU ARE NOT CAREFUL when you get pushed downhill fast and when you hit the bottom of the trough, you had DAMNED WELL BE STRAIGHT and have everything tied down AND your passengers hanging on, as you can become broached, be rolled over sideways very fast.  I have been there ONCE with an inexperienced skipper who was lucky, we were straight, but those of us aboard, I for one had a bad back afterwards and the other guy came sliding on his butt forward on the deck the full length of the boat when we bottomed out in the trough.  This skipper had an angel sitting on both shoulders, never had a clue as to what was happening.  I NEVER again went with him.


Another situation can be looked at for August 4, 2002.  The high tide is at 10:31 AM & is 5.6’, with the next low tide at 3:27 PM at 3.1’.  This gives a runoff of only 2.5’. With this low runoff, it means you can cross the bar about anytime you wish during normal fishing hours.


Heading out from LaPush :  The Coast Guard has a yellow "Rough Bar"sign on the upper end of their boat coverage to the east of the launch, IF the wave height is over 4' the there will be 2 yellow flashing lights on the upper sides of this sign.  This indicates a rough bar and they have closed it for any crossing.


Indian fisherman netting in the channel Looking back at the channel


Coming out the Quileute River from the boat basin, you will head west.  The channel is not wide, follow the south jetty out to it's end, James Island is a short distance to the north, (RH).  You pass between the island & the jetty. The slot is minimal (about 150') in comparison to other river bars.  Once you are past the jetty you are basically in the ocean. You will however notice the rock on the north side of the channel near the island.  Most boaters head south out of here until they get out beyond James Island & then make their heading change.  The above pictures were taken at near a high tide.   


Conditions are usually not severe as the island and the jetty protects most of the entrance except possibly with a southerly wind and at low tide.


It is suggested you take a GPS reading of this entrance for a safe return if happens to turn foggy because there is little room for miscalculations.


Neah Bay :  Big Salmon Fishing Resort, PO box 140, 98357  1-866-787-1900, is run by the Makah Indian tribe, which has a installed good marina and tackle store about the year 2000.  Good ramp with moorage, with sleeping rooms and with RV parking / cabins nearby.


One thing to look out for here, is that if there is a East wind blowing down the straits, don't go west out into the straits, unless you tuck in south behind Cape Flattery out of the wind and fish near the shore.  You however may be best to head east, bottom-fish around Wadda, Sail or Seal rocks.   This easterly wind can get rough unless you are in a protected area.


There is no real bar here as the entrance to the harbor is protected by a breakwater and Wadda Island.  But if you intend to fish the ocean, you will need to go out past Wadda, turn around it, head west following the mainland.  You will be heading toward the south end of Tattosh Island.  Here there is a slot, (about 300 yards wide) that you will have to run thru between the mainland and the island.  There are a couple of submerged rocks in about the middle of this slot. So it is best to hold close (48-23-32  124-44-02) to the south side of the island as you pass it.   Once you pass the island you are in the ocean, the conditions will usually settle down unless there is a strong westerly wind blowing.


Coast Guard Boarding :  You can be stopped by the US Coast Guard and boarded for about any reason.   Number one is SAFETY, are you compliant with the required equipment aboard your boat?   You have to allow them to board you, EXCEPT if you feel that the location is too rough and it will put you or your boat in jeopardy.   Under these circumstances you may request that they move the boarding location to calmer water.   They should not be trying to board you in rough water anyway just for an inspection.  However it is possible that they have young trainees or skippers who are greenhorns who have little knowledge of rough water situations in close proximity of anything. 


They will also be looking for possible drug smuggling as a second reason.


If you DO NOT have operational Life Jackets, a Fire Extinguisher or Flares, you WILL be escorted back to the launch/dock.   If your flares are expired, you just may be asked to return to shore and purchase current ones.  It is recommended that you get a USCG Auxiliary boating safety inspection and the sticker attached to your port side window.   These volunteer inspections give you a heads up as to what is required.   To look at the requirements of this inspection, CLICK HERE.   These volunteer inspections can also be of benefit in that if the CG were to inspect boats and time may be a requirement on their part, if there were 2 boats together, and you had the current inspection sticker, the boat next to you did not, you could possibly get passed by with a wave this time.


Once they do inspect you, you will receive a yellow copy of their boarding.  If you happen to be boarded again later that season, show the new captain your yellow copy and they will verify that it is indeed from your recent boarding and usually let you go on your way.


The local Coast Guard does not write any tickets specifying specific fines for violations.  They forward their report to a central hearings officer that looks over the papers then will then send you an actual citation and fine in the mail.  This is good and bad as it lets the officer off the hook as being a bad guy, BUT the hearings officer has no real contact with you so is just reading what was written down.  Also there could have been mitigating circumstances that he may not be aware of.


Problems on the Water & the Coast Guard is Called :  If you contact the Coast Guard for a mechanical breakdown, depending on where you are located, they may or may not tow you in.   The reason is that legally they can not compete with commercial towing companies.   So if your breakdown was in the San Juan's, Elliot Bay or out of the Columbia river, where a towing company was close, the Coast guard would have to pass you off to a commercial boat towing company, unless you were in an emergency situation where the boat was sinking or there was a medical emergency involved.   And these towing companies are known to charge excessive amounts of money for their services.  Probably because they have you in a situation where you have no control, so it is advisable to purchase towing insurance.


If you have contacted the Coast Guard and are waiting for the tow boat or if the Coast Guard is busy with a life threatening situation, they will call you on VHF on their designated channel every 1/2 hour to verify your situation.   If your situation starts to deteriorate, by either weather conditions, or your boat is taking on water etc., they will then contact you every 10 minutes, which could speed up their response from stand by to go get you.


Once they have a line on you and render assistance, be prepared for a formal boarding where your flares, fire extinguisher, bilge pump, etc. will be looked at when they get you to a dock.  Also stay in radio contact with the towing vessel so that if you develop any problems during the tow they can be aware of it.


If you are being towed in by another fisherman/boater if the Coast Guard approaches and offers assistance, if the towing boat turns you over to the Coast Guard, then once they (the Coast Guard) have a line on you, again look for an inspection at the dock.


When being towed, be sure to attach the tow line to the lowest eye on your bow.  Not the mooring cleat on the bow's deck, but your bow eye where the trailer winch line is attached.  The reason is if you attach it to the top of your deck, your bow is being pulled down and when they get you to the bar the waves are now different, if there is any turbulence, your bow will be pulled down into the wave, since you have no means of power or steerage, your boat wallows in the water and you will be at mother natures mercy like a salmon shaking it's head on your line.  BEEN THERE, DONE THAT.


They usually/should will let out enough tow line so you will be riding on the back of a wave behind in their wake.


US Coast Guard phone numbers for the NW.  The weather phone is a recorded message, while the business phone gets you a person.


                              Weather Phone    -    Business Phone

Neah Bay                                                   360-645-2237
Quillayute River        360-374-6993       360-374-6469
Grays Harbor            360-268-0622       360-268-0121
Columbia River         360-642-3565       360-642-2382
Nehalem River          503-322-3234       503-322-3531
Tillamook Bay          503-322-3234        503-322-3531
Depoe Bay                541-765-2122        541-765-2122
Yaquina Bay             541-265-5511       541-265-5381
Siuslaw River           541-902-7792        541-997-2486
Umpqua River          541-271-4244       541-271-2183
Coos Bay                  541-888-3102        541-888-3267
Coquille River (Memorial Day to Labor day, WX and Business) 541-347-2038
Rogue River    (Memorial Day to Labor day, WX and Business) 541-247-7219
Chetco River          541-469-4571         541-469-2242


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Originated 06-22-2004  Last updated 01-03-2020
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