Cape Disappointment's chaotic waters give rise to dramatic Coast Guard training ground

Massive waves crash into the shore at Cape Disappointment during a windstorm on April 7, 2017. (Photo: Kevin Russell / KR Backwoods Photography)

It's one of the most dramatic places in the nation, if not the world, to watch the forces of nature battle it out.

Kevin Russell was down near Cape Disappointment on Washington's southern coast during our rare April windstorm and took several dramatic photographs as the large waves crashed ashore on the rocky cliffs. It's a favorite place for local photographers to flock to when the weather is ornery, as while "disappointment" might be in the location name, Mother Nature rarely disappoints when it comes to making a scene. But try to sail through that area and "pretty" turns to "nail-biting."

Cape Disappointment sits in a unique geographical location -- set in a shallow inlet near the strong outflow of the Columbia River, which dumps 1.2 million cubic feet per second into the Pacific Ocean. But when powerful ocean swells being to bump up against the sea floor, these ocean swells collide with that immense outflow of the Columbia River and a strong ebb current.

The result is a swirling cauldron of chaotic waves and currents that can challenge even the most experienced captain. The area is regarded as one of the most treacherous river bars in the world and is also called "The Graveyard of the Pacific" because of the large number of shipwrecks near the river entrance. Add in seasonal storms that contribute powerful wind and heightened seas, and the "Graveyard" lights up ferociously. A storm two winters ago registered waves in the region over 50 feet tall! Even in calmer summer, conditions on the Columbia River Bar may deteriorate in as little as an hour with the predictable changing of the tidal current.

And with such a dangerous spot comes the need for brave men and women to be ready to help when the seas get the upper hand. Enter the United States Coast Guard, where "Semper Paratus" (Always Ready) is more than just a motto at Cape Disappointment, it's a requirement.

Commonly known as Station Cape "D", station crewmembers there respond to 300-400 calls for assistance every year. The station's heaviest workload occurs during the months of early June through mid-September, when an abundance of recreational boaters transit the Columbia River entrance in search of salmon and bottom fish.

And while it's treacherous on any given day, it's gets to extreme levels during our intense autumn and winter storms.

"Through November, December into January, it's not uncommon for one of those larger storms to produce 30-foot swells or more," says Bosun Mate First Class Andrew Sadler with the U.S. Coast Guard National Motor Lifeboat School, stationed there at Cape Disappointment. "On occasion and on certain years, you'll see 40-foot swells just out offshore right here on the Columbia River Bar." And that doesn't even count adding in heavy rain and thick fog to make visibility a challenge.

Conditions are routinely rough even when the weather isn't, but add in some stormy weather, and it can quickly go from "rough" to "life-threatening." With such dangerous conditions, boaters can frequently get into trouble, which is why the Coast Guard stands at the ready nearby. The main Coast Guard search and rescue station at Cape Disappointment has about 55 crew members manning five search and rescue boats, and there's rarely a dull moment.

"Station Cape Disappointment deals with almost on a weekly or monthly basis pretty intense or critical search and rescue cases on the Columbia River Bar," Sadler said. "You talk about all the water that flows out, you have a lot of debris that flows out and it's not uncommon for vessels to hit large logs or debris and take on water. Station Cape Disappointment has had two cases in the last couple of months where they've been able to go out there and assist in de-watering and get these vessels safely back into port."

Can conditions ever be too dangerous to send out a rescue?

"That is dealt with on a case-by-case basis," Sadler said. "One thing that we've learned over time is the Coast Guard is that it can be too big. History has shown 'That go get 'em every time' mentality often times is met with disaster, so the Coast Guard has become very proficient in developing risk management and that discussion is had with the crew and routed up through the command as far as whether they will be responding once you reach the upper end of those limitations."

Sadler says their 47-foot lifeboat has a 30-foot surf limitation. "So it's not designed to take surf greater than 20 feet," he said. "Can the boat handle it? Yes, but once you go past that 20-foot mark, you're beyond the limits of what that boat was designed to take; potentially asking for trouble and putting the crew in a very risky situation." The boats are designed if and when they do flip over, they will right themselves, and the Coast Guard does have a 52-foot lifeboat that has a greater surf limit that can go out in larger swells.

Cape D: The best training spot in the nation:

But before you can go out and tackle those massive swells on the way to a rescue, you need to learn how to do so, and where better to train for search and rescues than at the most challenging locations on the nation?

The U.S. Coast Guard National Motor Lifeboat School is the only place in the U.S. where members are sent from all across the country get trained by certified instructors.

"This place is very unique, and this place was chosen for the sheer fact that it's on the Columbia River bar and it consistently produces such a rough environment," Sadler said.

The school runs three different courses. "In the summer months, we teach a basic operator course to run the 47-foot lifeboats," Sadler said. "In the winter months, there's four heavy-weather specific courses where they take experienced lifeboat operators and teach them to operate in heavy seas."

How heavy?

"We try to keep it around 15 feet or less," Sadler said. "It's not uncommon for us to be out there and have swell height pick up to 15-20 feet, but we try to keep it 15 feet or less to keep it conducive for a training environment for the students."

Then, there's practice in the heavy surf. Each January they run a one-month course that takes nine students to get lessons operating along the surf. Again, they try to keep it under 15 feet, "but it's not uncommon for us to take breaking waves 15 foot-plus-- upwards of 20 feet," Sadler said. "The 20 foot's not the goal, it just happens on occasion we see larger swells that roll through."

I asked what was his most harrowing experience as an instructor.

"Last year during the January 2016 winter training, there was one of those 360 degree rollovers with a student at the helm and that was definitely one of those worst-case scenario moments," Sadler said. "Everybody was OK -- a lot of damage occurs on the boat itself when that happens, but the boat stayed running, the boat (righted) itself as it was supposed to and the crew was able to navigate that boat to safe waters."

How the cape got such a disappointing name:

If you're wondering how the unique location got such a unique name, according to the Coast Guard, the Cape Disappointment headland was first charted as "San Roque" by Spanish explorer Bruno Heceta while exploring the Northwest Coast in August 1775. Heceta recognized this area was probably the mouth of a large river but was unable to explore the entrance, since his crew members were weak and suffering from scurvy.

However, an expedition by the British Royal Navy some 13 years later found the cape area, but couldn't find a river entrance or channel and renamed it "Cape Disappointment." Captain Robert Gray first successfully crossed the bar in 1792 aboard the USS Columbia Rediviva and that's how the river got its name.

The area has been manned as a safety base since 1877 which has become the Coast Guard base today.

More Resources:

U.S. Coast Guard Cape Disappointment Web Page
U.S. Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat School
Current conditions on Columbia River Bar
Safety Information for crossing the Columbia River Bar

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