PACIFIC NORTHWEST - The Pacific Northwest coastal estuaries boast vast recreational appeal that attracts thousands of people annually. Whether they are power boaters striking off in search of fish or paddlers adventuring out to view its scenic beauty, boaters who are not familiar with the area's inherent challenges can quickly find themselves in extreme danger. Nature's forces, where river meets ocean, change constantly and paddle craft operators are extremely vulnerable.
The coast of the Pacific Northwest can be especially challenging. The effects of distant storms travel unobstructed across the expanse of the Pacific and continually affect our local river entrances and beaches. Even on a beautiful, sunny day, when weather conditions seem calm, ocean swells converging with ebb tides or rain-swollen rivers can build creating dangerous, hair-raising conditions especially on coastal bars. Many Northwest rivers, fed by mountains, have cold waters with levels and flows that fluctuate seasonally. While the waters of some small, protected coastal estuaries can warm a bit during summers, the water temperatures found year-round remain a significant danger to any unprepared boater.
By not observing these conditions or gathering updated information and properly preparing prior to setting out, boaters can be lulled into a false sense of security that can lead to tragic results.
As the numbers of people turning to manual powered craft increases, so does the risk for novice or unprepared operators getting themselves into trouble. During recent heavy weather, the Pacific Northwest experienced unusually heavy rains which caused significant flooding. During this period, a paddler decided to duck out of a local coastal marina and into the river without first checking the conditions. The 6-knot current immediately swept him out across the bar and into the surf where he capsized. Rescuers were quickly at the scene and underwent great personal risk to swim from the beach, through the breaking surf, to rescue the man. Although this scenario turned out for the best, it could have easily been a tragedy.
Many boating accidents and fatalities are attributed, at least in part, to hazardous coastal bar conditions. A federal law was enacted in the early 1970s establishing the ocean entrances to Northwest rivers and bays as Regulated Boating Areas under the National Boating Safety Act. This law gives the Coast Guard authority to suspend or terminate the voyage of recreational vessels and certain passenger vessels that attempt to operate in these areas when hazardous or unsafe conditions exist. Failure to comply can result in a $1,000 civil penalty.
When imposing restrictions, the Coast Guard first evaluates the conditions at the bar. Restrictions are then based on the type and size of vessel and the following criteria:
? 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 for what is considered unsafe. There are several methods available for the public to get notification of bar restrictions. The local Coast Guard commander will make safety broadcasts on channel 16 VHF/FM when bar crossing restrictions are imposed, indicating what size boats are covered by the restriction, and again when bar restrictions and conditions change or subside. The Coast Guard also provides bar condition reports and updates to the local area through a radio broadcast on channel 1610 AM as well as local community radio stations. In addition, there are visual warnings at local boat ramps from signs indicating that when the amber lights are flashing that bar restrictions have been implemented. Each estuary has an additional warning sign located in the harbor or near the river entrance activated with amber flashing lights on the "Rough Bar" warning signs. When these signals are illuminated, boaters should take the necessary steps to learn what hazards exist.
The regulated area is not just at the jetty tips - it can be many hundreds of yards up river and extend for miles north, south and seaward of the jetties.
Contact the local Coast Guard station and learn where the regulated areas are located. If you are out of the local broadcast area call the Coast Guard weather phone recordings for information regarding any restrictions that may be in place.
For the Columbia River, weather information is available at 642-3565; the Coast Guard's business number is 642-2382.