Whale Wakes

Passage: Newport to Florence, Oregon

Upon arriving at each port, Rob and I plan our next passage.  We research possible destinations, their distances from us, and their entrance geography.  We estimate how long the passage will take, check weather forecasts, determine the accessibility of their marinas or anchorages, study potential hazards, and review any other information that could help make the passage predictable.  We always make plans B and C, knowing that nature or the boat could disrupt our perfect plan A.  From Newport, Oregon, we decided on Florence as our next destination, despite some people warning against it.  

The seafaring community is decidedly opinionated.  In an Internet search of any one place to dock or anchor a boat, you likely will find a half-dozen forums and blogs plus another half-dozen social-media posts carrying-on about how awful AND how wonderful it is.  Some opinions are based on personal experience, while others are based on stories told at the local pubs or the virtual pubs (social media, sailing forums, and blogs).  For the western U.S. coast, Rob and I considered that diverse “dicta,” but ultimately relied on port descriptions in three books: Charlie’s Charts, the U.S. Coast Pilot, and Cruising the Northwest Coast.  The Charlie’s Charts book series is the cruisers’ “bible” when it comes to ports and anchorages.  The series is divided by region.  It provides detailed descriptions and drawings of approaches, marinas, amenities, and local resources.  The U.S. Coast Pilot books provide similar but drier descriptions of major ports with definitions of navigation markers and rules, as might be expected from a government book.  Cruising the Northwest Coast is a small book, independently published by sailor George Benson, sharing his first-hand knowledge of little-known, free, and budget anchoring spots on the Pacific Northwest coast.  Those three books acted as our guides for our trip from Portland, Oregon, to Ensenada, Mexico.  We intend to continue our reliance on books as we circumnavigate.  And, of course, we will consider other cruisers’ and fishermen’s advice, but with the grain of sea salt it deserves.

In researching Florence, we heard from sailors who avoid it because of the long, narrow, and ever-changing channel through the Siuslaw River that leads to the town, and because of the bascule bridge that must be opened to access the town and marina.  Fishermen warned us to avoid Florence because of the strong and unruly current, which has caused some boats to get pushed off-course, run aground, and, a few, to sink.  But every port has its naysayers, and any port could be dangerous for a captain lacking attention to the tide or their boat.  The books represent Florence as a beautiful, quaint coastal town with a nice marina and convenient restaurants and shops.  The books also warn of the channel, bridge, and current, but describe how they can be managed.  So, we set out for Florence, leaving Newport at 6 a.m., which allowed us plenty of time to arrive at the Siuslaw River bar entrance with sunlight and a favorable tide. 

Animals often grace our passages, and we view the sightings as good luck.  On this passage, we were massively lucky, sighting a pod of humpback whales fishing or playing some 100 feet from the boat.  We could smell them before we saw them, because their blowholes spray their fishy burps high into the air.  As we watched the whales breach and dive, Rob noticed a large wake crossing close in front of us.  He quickly scanned the area for the boat he had missed, then saw the wake’s actual cause: a 40-foot humpback rolling up to the surface about 30 feet ahead of our bow.  As its slick, dark back gracefully arched to dive, I knew that its roll down would take much longer than the time it would take our boat to cover the sea between us.  I turned and yelled to Rob to TURN.  He was already disengaging the autopilot and spinning the wheel hard to the left.  His actions came just in time, and our boat paralleled the giant while it continued its dive and we motored on a perpendicular course.

Whales continued to amaze us along our West Coast journey.  We saw many humpback pods, some gray whales, and a few Sei whales.  Some gracefully powered alongside of us, rolling up for breaths and above-water spies of our boat.  Others communicated with each other through leaping belly-flops or repeated slaps of their massive tailfins.  Witnessing the sound and power of their tail slaps made us understand what tiny mortals we are in their watery world.  Throughout our journey, we recognized whale presence through the smell from their pungent spouts and a fuzzy, disturbed area on the horizon.  With those telltales, we would keep a stern eye out for whale wakes just in case we needed to again quickly turn off of a collision course.

Mapache reached the mouth of the Siuslaw River around 2 p.m., it was a 4.5-mile river ride to get to Florence.  I contacted the bridge controller as we entered the river’s channel.  The closest bridge operator lived in Eugene, which is over an hour drive from Florence.  That was no problem for us, because we had expected a wait and already planned a safe anchoring spot just before the bridge.  As we motored to that spot and prepared the boat for docking, Rob pointed out that someone was taking photographs of us.  Our wait at anchor was long enough to eat lunch before the bridge operator hailed, “Captain Robert Martin,” on our VHF radio.  That was the first time Rob had officially been called “Captain.”  For him, it was a surreal and proud feeling to be recognized as more than some drifter.  

The Siuslaw River Bridge is a historic site, built in 1936 with a distinct Art Deco style.  It has a Gothic spirit with a meaty concrete base and chunky embellishments.  As a bascule (or draw) bridge, it splits to open, allowing each half of its middle section to swing up to a steep angle.  Rob and I are accustomed to much larger drawbridges in Portland, where our almost-60-foot mast (measured from water level) could enjoy a football field’s length to maneuver side-to-side as it passed underneath.  However, the open Siuslaw River Bridge left a significantly smaller gap between its two pieces, appearing to us to be a mere 15-feet-apart.  That means that a sailboat with a tall mast must precisely shoot the gap, especially with the river current between the cement bridge-legs rocking the boat as it passes through.

Rob lived up to his professional title and captained Mapache neatly through the drawbridge opening.   We docked the boat at the marina as a man approached and offered to email us the photographs he had taken as we were coming in.  He also encouraged us to start the boat log that we had been planning.  So, from a Florence coffee shop, I launched this website, and that photographer became our very first virtual crew.  

For the next couple of days, Rob and I enjoyed the beauty and amenities of Florence, including comfortable marina accommodations, accessible stores and restaurants, and Rob’s first proper British high-tea at the local tea house.  We also learned about the town.  Perhaps appropriate, following our first close-encounter with the great beasts, Florence has a history with whales.  In 1970, a whale body washed onto one of Florence’s beaches.  The authorities decided that the best way to dispose of the massive carcass was to blow it up.  But the 20 cases of dynamite accomplished little more than rocketing chunks of whale flesh like a morbid fireworks display, and covering an over-quarter-mile area in blubber.  Still, Oregon’s Florentines have a sense of humor, and during the year we arrived in their town, they renamed that beach Exploding Whale Memorial Park.  The video of the explosion reportedly became the world’s first “viral” video, well before the Internet established a marketplace of viral sensations.  I suppose that Mapache’s launch into her Internet space could not have been from a more appropriate location.

Two of the guides to our trip from Portland, Oregon, to Ensenada, Mexico (top right is Charlie’s Charts pages on Florence)

Rob planning one of our passages while we wait on laundry

One of our whale encounters (sorry I did not get video of the near-collision with the humpback)

Another whale encounter

Motoring up the Siuslaw River (the orange sky is caused by wildfire smoke, which stuck with us along the entire Oregon and northern California coasts)

Photo by Mike Brotherton

Waiting for the Siuslaw River Bridge to open

Bridge opening

The approach

Shooting the gap

Success! A look back after we made it through

Sarah, after we docked Mapache at the Florence marina (you can see the bridge through the ever-present wildfire smoke in the background)

A different view of the Siuslaw River Bridge

Rob enjoying his first British high tea at Lovejoy’s Restaurant and Tea Room

20 thoughts on “Whale Wakes

  1. Thanks for your entertaining posts while we are still in lockdown. Chapters for your forthcoming book?


    Sent from my iPad


  2. Florence is a beautiful town. Nice to hear what it’s like coming from the sea, not the hwy. We are enjoying your updates and look forward to each episode. Safe sailing Mapache!

  3. I want a Captain Rob shirt. Glad you’re finally contributing to the site so I can live vicariously through yous.

  4. I’ve enjoyed “our” Adventures from the day I saw you go by the house. Thank you Rob and Sarah for taking us all along with you. The Book, Great idea!!!
    Mike Brotherton

  5. What a life you are living. We spent loads of money, cruising Alaska, hoping to see whales or a good look at at least one, all we got was a glimpse of a spurt! The upside of our cruise was meeting Susan and Keith then being able to follow you on your travels. I feel so proud of you both even though we have never met. Mum and dad must have very anxious moments but surely pride rises above any doubts. Fancy having to wait so long for and work so hard over many months to eventually sit down to afternoon tea. Delicious. Take care and safe onward travels. XX Gill

  6. Thank you so much for this latest post which I enjoyed very much. You do write in beautiful English and I love that! Florence was definitely worth it, but that bridge!!! Gosh!

    Keep well, both of you

    love, Liz

    On Tue, Feb 23, 2021 at 4:52 AM Leaky Little Boat wrote:

    > mapachecaptain posted: ” Passage: Newport to Florence, Oregon Upon > arriving at each port, Rob and I plan our next passage. We research > possible destinations, their distances from us, and their entrance > geography. We estimate how long the passage will tak” >

  7. Great pictures I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner anyhow I’ll try to be a little bit more current

    On Mon, Feb 22, 2021, 12:52 PM Leaky Little Boat wrote:

    > mapachecaptain posted: ” Passage: Newport to Florence, Oregon Upon > arriving at each port, Rob and I plan our next passage. We research > possible destinations, their distances from us, and their entrance > geography. We estimate how long the passage will tak” >

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