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New ferry takes the torch on historic Columbia River crossing

Mar 27, 2017 12:02 PM
Capt. Ray Peek is one of three skippers working on rotation aboard Oscar B. Fog, tidal currents and passing ships are frequent navigational challenges on the short run across the Columbia.

Capt. Ray Peek is one of three skippers working on rotation aboard Oscar B. Fog, tidal currents and passing ships are frequent navigational challenges on the short run across the Columbia.

“The last of the dairy farms on the island shut down because it wasn’t worth sending a truck down to haul the milk,” said Capt. Ray Peek when asked about the economy on Puget Island, a flat piece of verdant meadows and sloughs in the Columbia River. While life may have slowed on the island, which is joined by bridge to Cathlamet on the Washington shore, the state’s Wahkiakum County has shown tremendous support and recognition of the ferry link between the island and the Oregon side of the river.

When the county, with fewer than 4,000 residents, decided that it needed a new ferry, it employed a grant writer who raised the funds necessary to get the process going. After a long and involved effort, the county was able to contract Elliott Bay Design Group to design a new steel-hulled vessel capable of carrying 23 cars in four lanes of deck space. The 115-by-47-foot Oscar B was built by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, Wash.

The Nichols-built ferry approaches the landing in Westport Slough. The crossing from Puget Island takes about 15 minutes.

The vessel, the last cross-river ferry on the Lower Columbia, went into service in February 2015. It replaced a 12-car ferry built by Nichols Boat Works in Hood River, Ore. The final cost of Oscar B, approximately $6 million, included state and federal grants.

The ferry’s name, like the boat itself, is a fine tribute to a professional mariner. Oscar Bergseng ran vessels on the route 365 days per year for 17 years starting in 1948. In 1962, he was instrumental in having the county take over the ferry from a series of private-sector operators. Bergseng continued as a manager for the ferry until his death in 1985.

Oscar B, shown offloading at the Puget Island terminal, can accommodate 23 vehicles.

Oscar B operates with two nine-hour watches. Each watch has a skipper and mate. Both of the crew on each shift have their 100-ton licenses, as do two more skippers and mates that work on rotation. Peek was skippering the ferry on a late November day with Shawn Mace acting as mate in charge of loading and offloading. The morning “rush hour” of commuters from the pulp and paper mill on the Oregon side was over. It was past the tourist season that sees cars with license plates from all over North America. Life on the Lower Columbia had, like the river itself, taken on a steady but calm flow.

The ferry’s crew can expect to cross paths with up to six oceangoing ships in any given watch.

It is a 15-minute run from the landing on Puget Island to the landing a few hundred yards up Westport Slough on the Oregon shore. The route is only about 1.5 nautical miles, with half of it in the protected slough and the other on the main channel of the Columbia River. With up to 10 vertical feet of tide and periodic freshets from a huge drainage area, currents range from 1 to 3 knots across the direction of the ferry’s travel. Heavy fog is not uncommon and winter southwesters can blow upriver with enough force to set a side drift on the ferry. All of these navigational challenges are made manageable by excellent wheelhouse electronics including chartplotter, radar and depth sounder.

The greatest potential danger is the deep-sea ships passing up and down the Columbia. “We can get up to six ships per watch or sometimes none,” said Peek, “but I keep in touch with the pilots on Channel 13. The ships have the right of way.”

With its two drives set well apart, Oscar B can turn in its own length.

It is a simple formula to prevent what could be a devastating collision. No matter how many leisurely crossings Peek and the other skippers make, they never become casual about the very real dangers of moving water and other vessels. When the weather and daylight are such that he doesn’t need the radar, Peek maintains a familiarity with it and the other electronic aids. “I don’t want to suddenly need it and not be familiar,” he said.

On the car deck, familiar is the order of the day. Mace greets locals on the ramp as they board, and he exchanges pleasantries with visitors as they give him the $5-per-car crossing fee. Passengers in the cars ride for free and foot passengers pay $1. The ferry is recognized as a subsidized part of the highway system.

Mate Shawn Mace keeps the cargo moving on the ferry as he welcomes visitors and locals aboard.

The ferry is the only crossing between the Astoria Bridge, about 25 miles downriver, and the Lewis and Clark Bridge another 20 miles upriver. “If they shut either bridge down for any reason, we can make back-to-back crossings to handle the traffic,” Peek said.

Dredges from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers keep the landing from silting up too badly, he said, “and from time to time they bring in a clamshell. Sometimes dredged material is placed upstream and washes into our landings.”

The boat’s bell carries the name of longtime ferry master Oscar Bergseng.

The landings are composed of ramps, staunch steel piles and dolphins. On the Puget Island side, Peek typically tucks the boat’s forward port quarter into the pilings and swings the stern into place with the rudders before backing down just a touch to bring the stern up to the ramp. Mace puts up a single line on the port or upstream stern quarter while Peek maintains reverse thrust on the twin Cummins 290-hp engines for the offload. The landing on the Oregon side allows the boat to come straight in to offload and load. On departure, Peek and the other skippers back off the dock and use the power of the engines, set well apart on the wide hull, to spin the vessel in its own length.

The ferry then begins its short run between the alder-lined banks of the slough to face the river crossing one more time, as has been done for nearly 100 years.

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