Swimming the Bar – Learning the Hard Way on the Columbia River

“Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from exercising poor judgment.”  – Reg Lake

When we kayak rough waters, the mantra, never come out of the boat, never swim, is one we must repeat and to which we must strive to adhere.  Unfortunately, reality has a way of confounding our plans. This story will describe an incident, happily not serious, though it could have been, where that dictum and others were violated.  The lessons I learned will hopefully be useful to others as well.

It was a late July weekend in 2011.  I was on a paddling trip on the Columbia River estuary out towards Cape Disappointment and the Columbia River Bar.   The entire trip would be about 10 miles out and back.   My companion and I planned to spend our time investigating the nooks and crannies of the rocky coast.  The Bar, though a possible destination, was not part of the day’s itinerary.

Columbia Bar, National Weather Service Portland

Columbia Bar, National Weather Service Portland

The Columbia Bar is notoriously rough.  Unlike many rivers that have a wide delta, absorbing the energy where they enter the sea, the Columbia enters the Pacific Ocean like a shotgun fired between Oregon and Washington. The enormous volume of water flowing over the sediment dumped at this point creates a series of bars and shoals notorious for rough water and horrible conditions.  The Coast Guard maintains a station at this area just to respond to ships in trouble.  Since records have been kept at the turn of the 19th century, over 2000 ships have gone down there.

My companion for the day was a seasoned and expert kayaker. I am neither.  My two-year paddling anniversary came up in October 2011.  That said, I have done my best to fast-track my skills, taking classes and seminars and hanging out, when I can, with paddlers far better than myself.  I am in my early fifties and though still fit, my energy reserves become depleted much quicker than they did when I was in my thirties or even my forties.

From the moment I began kayaking, the skill I desired above all was rolling.  Rolling, I felt, would make me safe and let me venture into the kind of environments I was pining for-rough water, open sea and rocky coasts.

I went through the usual stages while learning to roll: Stage 1 -“Ah, I’ll never get this.” Stage 2 – “Hey, I just rolled!”  Stage 3 – “But I rolled just last week.  Really!” Stage 4 – “No pool can conquer me now!”  Stage 5 – “Yeah, rolling in the surf ain’t so bad, the waves help you.”

Even though I have hit stage 5, truthfully, it’s not 100% consistent. I still can flub a roll when I am submerged in chaotic water and sometimes come out of the boat.  Not often, but it happens.  On a beach, if you have picked a sane day, it’s really not such a big deal.  Sometimes it’s a long swim, but surf tends to push you back in.

Ilwaco and the Columbia River Bar

The trip began great.  We paddled west from A Jetty towards Waikiki Beach, playing in the rocks and caves. The caves were fantastic, one in particular, in Dead Man’s cove (itself lovely), was long, narrow and apparently had a dragon huffing and puffing at the end.  I did quite a few practice rolls in Dead Man’s Cove and was feeling solid.

I say we played in the rocks, but really, I spent a lot of time observing.  I thought I could do what my partner was doing, but I was not sure. I kept back and would fool around when I felt it looked reasonable (i.e. easy).  This is called common sense; it is a good thing.

The day was quite calm, so my companion suggested we venture out past the long jetty to look at, and perhaps even paddle through, the Bar.  “Not many people get a chance to do that,” he said.

Even from Waikiki, I could see that the bar, calm though the day was, had agitated and active water. Breaking waves were clearly visible and given the distance we still were from the end of the Jetty, I knew that they must be large.

When we finally got to the end of the Jetty, I could see that things on the Bar were indeed rough. Large waves were breaking in different directions – it looked hairy to me.  Even so, the most violent area was quite small.  Past the end of the Jetty, there was large swell and the odd breaking wave, but it looked well within my comfort level; if I just bypassed the chaotic area, I thought, I will be fine.

My companion charged right into the breaking waves, the heart of the maelström.  I followed.  Why?  I don’t really know. I was content to watch the rock hopping when it looked too technical for me. Why did I follow here?  Common sense breakdown.  My first, and worst, mistake.

It was difficult knowing what to do as waves were coming from many directions, but I was managing.  Suddenly, I saw a large swell rise, crest and break right in front of me.  I remember thinking, “I will not be able to cope with this one.”  A rolling foam and water wall hit me hard in my chest and face.  I went over and was swirled and spun underwater by the wave. I tried to set up for a roll but could not get positioned right.  I have been in similar situations before.  You wait it out.  Eventually, you’ll float up and you can roll.  I knew this.

Nonetheless, I did not wait. I tried to roll too quickly while the wave was still working me. The roll failed and I thought, “I better come up.”   I was not panicked.  If I felt anything, perhaps it was discouragement.  It was the old, “Ahh, this will never work” feeling that I remember when rolling still felt impossible.  I pulled the spray skirt and wet-exited.

As soon as my head broke the surface, I knew that I had made a mistake.  I was in the midst of many waves, some quite steep and tall.  The end of the Jetty was not far off; that could be a danger.  Still, I was not scared.   I thought, rightly or wrongly, that I could always abandon my boat and swim.  I am in reasonably good shape, a good swimmer and dressed for immersion.

My first, most childish, fear was looking like an idiot in front of my companion.   Worse was the thought of having the Coast Guard, who I knew were poised nearby, come charging in.

My partner yelled, “Do a reentry and roll!”  Unfortunately, at the time, I had never attempted this let alone learned it. I do have a very strong paddle outrigger reentry, having practiced this numerous times.  I paddle with a very buoyant Greenland stick and it makes this maneuver surprisingly solid, though I had never tried it in conditions approaching what I was in now.

I flipped my boat upright, jammed the paddle in the deck rigging behind the cockpit and pulled up onto the back deck.  I wiggled towards the stern, keeping my center of gravity as low as I could to the deck.   As I grabbed the rigging to pull myself into position to slide my legs into the cockpit, I felt something grab and hang at my chest.  What was it?! I raised my body up a bit to try to free myself.  Immediate disaster, the boat flipped and I was in the water again.  I looked up to see I was on the wrong side of the kayak with another wave barreling down.  I ducked underneath the kayak just as the wave careened it towards my head. Yikes!

I tried again a moment later. I scrambled up on the deck and then got stuck again.  This time I looked down and saw that it was the antenna on my radio, which I keep in my PFD chest pocket.  Irony!  I wrenched the antenna aside and actually got into the seat.  The cockpit was completely flooded, however, and I was very tired.  I managed a few strokes and then went over again. This time I was determined to roll.  I stayed in the flooded boat and rolled up.  Yes!  But the boat was still awash and unstable and I was running out of steam.   And the waves, oh the waves. The first one to hit me, Bang! in the drink again.

I was now very tired.   I yelled out something along the lines of, “Can you steady the boat?”  My partner charged in and grabbed my deck lines. This was dangerous for both of us as we were sliding up and down wave faces with our boats very close together.  I got in.   The kayak was still flooded and unstable.  Over again and swimming.   A few minutes later, he came in again during a break in the waves.  This time, he quickly dumped about half the water in my flooded kayak. He held the boat and I climbed in.  Success!  With some water out of the cockpit, I was able to paddle and stay upright.

“Paddle like crazy for the buoy!”  he shouted.  My arms were like lead and I was very winded. Still, I managed to limp forward, get out of the worst of it and finally get to a safe area where I could pump and fasten the spray skirt on the coaming.

It was still a long paddle back to A Jetty, but once I was out of the chaos and back in my boat, my strength returned.  The return trip was uneventful.


So what happened? What went wrong and what went right?

The first failure of judgment, the most critical one, was a failure of common sense.   It would have been easy to just go around the worst of the waves on the Bar.  Why did I respect my limits in the rocks, but ignore them in a potentially much more serious environment?   I truthfully don’t know. All I can remember thinking was that I thought I could probably handle it. It didn’t look much worse than some hairy surf launches I had done successfully in the past.

The second failure of judgment was missing the roll.  I say failure of judgment, because I know that if I had just waited, I would have floated up in position to sweep up in a standard Greenland layback roll. The roll failure was a psychological, not a technical hurdle.

The third failure was insufficient skill training.  I lacked two critical skills.  The first was a reentry and roll.  The second was that I was unable to paddle a flooded boat in conditions.  Thanks to training myself in outrigger reentry, I managed to get back into my kayak in a pretty challenging environment but it did me no good at all because I could not paddle a flooded boat! Paddling a flooded kayak is a skill that can and must be learned if you want to venture into such an environment.  You need to train for the whole rescue scenario, not just isolated components of it.

What went right?  I did not panic.  In my younger years, I spent quite a bit of time on multiday technical rock climbs.  I learned that even if you get yourself into a bad situation, a cool head will make it much more likely you’ll get out.

I remained determined to help myself.  I tried what I could think of to self-rescue.  In the end, I needed the help of my companion but I paddled out under my own steam.

The decision to delay fastening the spray-skirt was also the right one.  At that point, it was all I could do to stay upright and paddle. I was still in the thick of it.  If I had paused to fumble with the skirt, I would doubtless have been hit with another wave and capsized.

Lessons learned.

Trust your common sense, stop and listen to it.  Analyze what you are doing before you do it.  Are you putting yourself at danger?  Are you putting your companions at danger?  Ambition is good but there is no hurry.

Train for the conditions in which you want to paddle.  If you are going to learn to roll, learn to roll in the environment you’ll most need it.  I’m still going to work on my fancy Greenland rolls on flat water, but I’m also going to spend as much time as I can in breaking surf until I get the rolls I actually need down pat!  And really, the Columbia Bar is a hell of a place to try to figure out how to paddle a flooded boat or learn a reentry and roll!

The same applies to rescue.  Practice it in rough water with a full kit and practice the entire sequence.  A little thing like the antenna of the vhf radio, which I never wear in practice sessions, turned into a significant barrier to recovery.  Your strength in conditions like these is a precious and finite resource.  Every failed attempt brings you closer to a potentially serious breakdown.  This is even more true to those of us who are subject to such objective demarcators of middle age as AARP letters on the doorstep and expanding collections of medicine bottles in the bathroom.

So I swam the Columbia River Bar and lived to tell the tale.  It was a wonderful day and a bit of drama on the tail end did not diminish it.  The progression of faulty judgment, leading to a failed roll, leading to a rescue in hazardous conditions was a great if tough learning experience for me.  I hope this story may be of use to other ambitious, but still green, paddlers pushing their limits.


Since I wrote this piece back in July 2011, I have been working over-time on rolls as well as other self-rescues. There is no substitute for practice.  Those of us who want to paddle off the Oregon coast, which is both beautiful and dangerous, must be willing to put in the hours of practice.  I look forward to more trips with everyone so motivated.

3 Responses

  1. rabatstolaf says:

    Great story, Paul. Helps me realize just how much goes into this sport!

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  3. Mel Wishan says:

    Just learned of your blog via your recent email to the OOPS listserve. Great story, even better storytelling, a very sobering message to all of us.

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