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Columbia River Cruise: Kalama to Martin Island

PostPosted: Mon Sep 03, 2012 12:01 am
by jeffd
I've sailed on the Columbia River, from Kalama earlier this summer. The big draw to me is the consistent winds, generally from the northwest. But there is a current on the Columbia, and there are other large "surprises" to watch out for.

I first sailed out of Kalama in July. The wind was stronger that day. The first thing I noticed sailing upwind (e.g. down river - with the current) is that the GPS was showing over 6 knots - once 7.4 knots! So there was some current that day! My downwind speeds (against the current) were 4 to 5 knots - it was very exciting, surfing against the current. That day, I sailed down the main channel to Martin Island, then turned around and beat back upwind/downstream - Trip stats that day were average speed 4.3 knots with a maximum speed of 7.7 knots! (quite a current!). And that was sailing upwind with a reef in the main (my sails are very old and don't do very well with a reef). It was a great day of sailing!

On my way home from Waldo Lake, Oregon, I noticed a number of boats anchored out inside Martin Lagoon, which you can see from Interstate 5. So I decided that I need to check that place out. Mind you, it isn't what I'd consider a place you'd like to spend the night at - you get to enjoy I-5 traffic and BNSF and UP trains all night! But the area is wooded and natural, and It looked like a good place to check out for a day cruise.

Below is a map with my sailing track. The lime green track is my downwind run to the lagoon inside Martin Island. The Blue track is my beat back upwind, back to Kalama.

Columbia River: Kalama to Martin Island

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A while back, I was browsing a fishing bulletin board and found a discussion among anglers as to which ramp was the steepest boat ramp in Washington State. It seemed that the consensus was that the Kalama boat ramp was the steepest. So with interest, I decided this I got to check out.

Steepest Boat ramp in Washington?

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Maybe photos don't give you a real feel for it. Yes the ramp is steep (a whole lot better than say, many of the ramps I've encountered in British Columbia, like Ucluelet!) but when I unhooked the bow strap after backing down the ramp, the boat did NOT slide into the water. OK, I have bunks, and a rough bottom, so there's friction. But it didn't take much backing to get the boat off the trailer, so maybe I'd agree the ramp is pretty steep. Retrieval wasn't a problem either - and I could operate the winch without getting my feet wet.

After departing from Kalama at 12:30, I put up the main, turned downwind (heading south) and launched the spinnaker. The wind wasn't as strong as it was last time, but I think the current wasn't as strong either. The boat ramp was very busy, with a lot of trailers parked kind of haphazardly here and there. Apparently, the salmon are running, and so lots of fishermen are out. Below is a shot of the totem pole at the park in Kalama, with a nice view of the row of fishing boats.

Kalama Totem Pole

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And here's a better lineup looking south. I had to sail out into the channel to avoid these guys. Funny, most of the fishermen were bundled up in coats or rain gear. I was in shorts and a T-shirt. But I was going downwind, and pretty fast at that. The GPS was showing over 5 knots most of the time.

Looking South: Lots of fishermen

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Sailing on the Columbia River has other interesting things to see. Here is a freighter at a dock, but the fishermen are still lining up around it.

Freighter, and more fishermen

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Finally, I think I am clear of most of the fishermen. It was a great downwind run - plenty of wind, not too much current, not much chop, and a nice, warm, sunny day! Much to be thankful for.

Downwind Run

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Since the Columbia River is a navigable waterway, there are large vessels that you need to watch out for, and stay out of their way. I am cheap and I have the Fish-n-map chart of the Columbia (about $8) - not the NOAA charts ($20 each). But the channel and buoys are marked on the chart I am using, so I remember to keep an eye out for large ships. They move pretty fast, and can really sneak up on you! Here I am sailing to the east, in the shallows, to give this guy a lot of space. He passes pretty quick.

Getting out of the way!

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Shortly after, a tug pushing a barge passes. Similarly, I give him lots of space. These large vessels push a lot of wake too, so I stay very clear.

More sights on the Columbia

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As I am approaching the North end of Martin Island, I see another sailboat - sailing north. Good! I'm not the only sailboat out today enjoying the great wind.

Off the North tip of Martin Island

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While I was preparing for this trip, I managed to stumble upon a newsletter for the Small Yacht Sailing Club of Oregon (SYSCO), which just happens to have a great section on Martin Island and the Slough. It gives some pretty good local knowledge about navigating the area. Here is the link (look for "Novice's Guide to Martin Island Lagoon, on page 16):

I also found a Columbia River Cruising Guide (note: It is a pretty good sized pdf, so it takes a while to load): ... aguide.pdf

The above guide has a bunch of cruise suggestions along the Columbia. I'm going to have to check out some of these other places too.

Running down Martin Slough

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The wind is still blowing pretty well from the north, and the channel looks a bit tricky. After reviewing the above local knowledge, I decide it to be prudent to douse the spinnaker before entering the channel. I proceed, running on main only, and watching the depth sounder (note: a depth sounder will not prevent you from running aground - it will merely give you information about how deep it is. I've run aground many times, even after getting a sounder!). I follow the local knowledge, and it seems deep enough, although I found a few shallow spots. As I am running down the channel, I get a surprise! A Union Pacific train overtakes me. One of my other hobbies is Railroading - following and photographing trains. So today, I get to sail and photograph trains - what a treat!

Railfan sailing

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As I turn the corner and enter the lagoon, I decide its time to motor. I take down the main, and put put my way slowly into the lagoon. I get to the lagoon about 2:15 pm. It is pretty big and open, undeveloped. I did notice a sign indicating the property was private - no trespassing and no hunting, signed by the Martin Island Duck Club. But it is nice to be able to come and visit, and enjoy the lack of development on the island. At the east end of the lagoon (see photo below), it looks like there are a couple of docks with pilings. On the way in, I noticed a few of the pilings that looked like they used to be used to tie up log booms. There were a couple of powerboats at the east end. I decided to anchor out on the west end.

Martin Island Lagoon

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I did see several kayaks exploring the lagoon and areas around. I brought my inflatable kayak, but I got a late start this morning, so I decided exploring the area by kayak would have to wait till next time. There is a lot of shallow waterway around Martin Island - all wooded, with plenty of neat places to explore, although all of the land is private.

I stayed for about an hour. After eating my lunch, enjoying the peace and quiet (OK, the sounds of I-5 and the trains in the background), I cleaned up the boat a bit and prepared for what I thought would be a splashy upwind beat back to Kalama. Last time I did this beat, I took a lot of spray, so I put on my foul weather gear. Then at about 3:15pm, I pulled up the anchor, and slowly motored out of the lagoon. As I left the lagoon, I saw a Red white and blue spinnaker in the distance. Great! Another sailboat enjoying the great wind, and heading downwind!


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I put a reef in the main, as I raised the sails, expecting a lot of wind. As I beat north, I realized the wind wasn't' as strong as it was last time, so I shook out the reef, and proceeded to beat north. I had to keep my eyes out for the "big guys" again, and met a couple of large freighters, as I proceeded north. It is kind of fun short tacking up the shallows, while giving the big guys the center channel.

The beat today wasn't too splashy - I probably could have gotten away without the raingear. The wind started blowing harder as I approached Kalama. I made pretty good time on the beat, and it was great sailing, and good scenery too. Most of the fishermen have gone home by now. I make it back to the dock at Kalama about 5:15 pm.

Trip Statistics:

Total Distance on the GPS: 13.6 nautical miles
Total Time : 4 hrs (not including 1 hr stop in the lagoon)
Average Speed: 3.4 knots
Maximum Speed: 5.7 knots (downwind)