When planning a summer cruise in the Pacific Northwest, the target date to leave San Francisco is April 15, aiming for the window between late winter storms and early summer fog and wind. September and October, though, are the best travel months for the entire coast.
In Part 1 of this article series, I described the trip up the southern and central California coast. Continuing north from San Francisco, the dynamics of the trip change. Crab pots will be an issue if night cruising is planned. Swells become larger, so the importance of using travel windows to their maximum advantage moves up a notch. Those same swells will play a bigger role in crossing the bars, so trying to hit them at a proper tide also becomes vital. (By trip’s end, tide swings will reach 14 feet.) Numerous near-shore rocks and reefs populate the coastline the rest of the way.
The first stop after San Francisco is Bodega Bay, 54nm away. This is an east-facing entrance that is jettied on both sides and protected. However, the narrow channel can be tricky, especially in the dark—there is a switchback and a dogleg with shoals on both sides, then a sharp port turn into Spud Point Marina, where guest docking is available. This harbor is remote from any city activity.
Leaving Bodega, I opt for going south of Bodega Rock. From here forward, I will not enter or leave a harbor in the dark. Crab season lasts into the fall, and frequently pot strings are near harbors—double floats, and some triple. There are also abandoned sanded-in pots, with algae-covered floats that are hard to spot. I met a boater in Gray’s Harbor who snagged a small one and didn’t realize what the drag was. The line wound around his prop shaft until the pot slammed into the running gear. The times I do choose to run at night, I leave a harbor before dark and head west to 40 fathoms where there are no pots, then turn north, heading in after morning light.
The next harbor, 87nm away, is Fort Bragg (Noyo River). This harbor has a narrow entrance, with shoals and rocks near the mouth. It is a picturesque place—lots of commercial fishing activity on both sides of the waterfront, lots of trees, lots of nice people. Guest slips are available at Noyo Boat Basin, just past the Coast Guard station. (Note that the harbormaster’s office is closed on Sundays.) From here on, fresh fish and crab are readily available. And the crab could very well be from the pot you just missed—get even at dinner!
A RUGGED AND BEAUTIFUL COAST
It’s a 102nm run to Humboldt Bay and the town of Eureka, California. With no fog, this is a beautiful coastline. At the 70nm mark, rounding Cape Mendocino and Blunts Reef, stay well clear of the cape and pass outside Blunts Reef buoy “B.” This is a weather-change latitude and can be a raggedy spot; the weather call is an important one.
The entrance to Humboldt Bay can be difficult if seas are up. The Coast Guard gives a current bar report when asked, and many harbors maintain bar advisory signs on the breakwater. (Once past San Francisco, I fill up with fuel and water frequently; Norma Jean digs in and yaws less on the bars with a lower center of gravity.) The Humboldt entrance faces west and is jettied; once in the bay, it’s another 45 minutes to Woodley Island Marina. Across the channel is Old Town Eureka, a charming Victorian reminder of the local redwood lumber-baron era. The marina has a good restaurant, and marine supplies are nearby. The fuel pier (Englund Marine) runs a short day on Saturday and is closed on Sunday.
Brookings, Oregon, is next, a run of 84nm, passing St. George Reef on the way. There is a near-shore channel that’s usable in clear weather, but I opt for going outside the reef. Brookings, on the Chetco River, is a cove-protected south-facing entrance, but the channel is shallow, with shoals and rocks alongside. Recreational boats use the north basin. This is a pleasant town, with shopping and restaurants nearby.
Skirting both Orford and Blanco Reef, Coos Bay is a 90nm ride and is the first of three harbors in a row facing west with a breakwater on either side. At all three, caution and planning are required to pick a safe entrance time. Be sure to stay in the marked channels. Charleston Boat Harbor is convenient, with guest docks across from the fuel dock. From this harbor forward, simply pick an empty guest slip and then go check in. I like parking next to commercial fishing boats, since those who work aboard are nice people and are always willing to answer questions and pass on local knowledge. You’ll find supplies and restaurants in the harbor, but the town of Coos Bay is another 8 miles up the bay.
Leaving Coos Bay, I head 81nm to Newport, Oregon, on Yaquina Bay. This is a well-marked channel; just past the Highway 101 bridge, Newport Harbor is off to starboard. Again, you’ll find guest docks directly across from the fuel dock.
Newport is one of my favorite spots. The north shore is for commercial boats, and the waterfront is a fun and bustling place, with fish processing, shops, restaurants, and art galleries. If time and weather permit, it is well worth a visit. Try to also fit in a trip to the restored Yaquina Bay Lighthouse and the Oregon Coast Aquarium, both nearby. Rogue Brewery is next to the harbor and has a terrific brew-pub restaurant on top.
CROSSING THE BAR
It’s 145nm to Grays Harbor, Washington. I make the run overnight, traveling outside of 40 fathoms, so that I reach the Grays Harbor bar and enter crab-pot territory in daylight. One trip I made was glorious; I saw whales and dolphins and was treated to a fabulous sunset, followed by a full moon and starlit night. On the way, you will pass the Columbia River and its infamous and dangerous bar. I was abeam 10 miles out during a large negative ebb tide (courtesy of the full moon) and had 20 miles of lumpy seas. Keep in mind that you will also intersect shipping traffic heading in and out of the Columbia entrance.
The Grays Harbor bar can be surly, with crossing akin to a large following sea with cresting swells. Once in the groove at the proper speed, follow the range markers in and head for Westhaven Cove. Limited guest slips are available one finger west of the fuel dock. The waterfront is an eclectic mix of fishing, tourism, shops, and restaurants. After Grays Harbor, the crab pots seem to diminish, but logs—escapees from waterfront logging operations—begin to replace them as potential hazards.
The village of La Push, Washington, 68nm ahead, is the fascinating home of the Quileute Nation and has been for thousands of years. It is now a 1-square-mile reservation surrounded by the forest of Olympic National Park. Find a guest dock and go check in; someone may or may not be there. The village has a small store and restaurant. It is a time- and weather-worn place; where some may see rundown, I see life’s patina. Try a hike through the woods down to charming Second Beach.
Cape Flattery, the final destination, is 36nm ahead. Passing west of the Umatilla Reef buoy, I clear the buoy north of Duntze Rock before turning in to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The village and harbor of Neah Bay are nearby; this is the jumping-off spot when heading south. Alaska-bound boats may opt to cross the strait and head for Canadian customs in Victoria, on Vancouver Island; vessels staying in the U.S. can head 60nm to Port Angeles, a good resupply stopover.
Leaving the ocean swells behind, the dynamics of the trip change again—this time for the better. You’ll find more coffee in your mug, and less on your shirt and on the chart table. And the windshield wipers catch a break.To me, the real magic lies in the personal satisfaction I get from completing this adventure, and from the anticipation of the scenic destinations ahead. Reflecting on his 1888 journey from California to Alaska, John Muir penned in his diary, “These beautiful days must enrich my life…and live always.”
I think he got that just right.