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Floating hazards threaten yacht traffic

Jan 1, 2003

Shipping containers that fall from the decks of merchant ships are common enough to give offshore sailors nightmares at the thought of colliding with one of these boxes in the middle of the night. But monster-size logs and stumps that routinely drift out to sea from West Coast rivers can be just as horrifying.

Massive stumps and logs litter the coasts of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, as is displayed in this picture taken on Dungeness Spit, Wash., on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. While traditional logging practicesallowing logs to float downriver after being harvestedare now illegal, some logs, which can be as long as 40 feet, have a diameter of two to four feet, and weigh several tons, often escape and drift out to sea, according to recent reports.

Log and stump debris is in some cases deliberately discharged into certain rivers, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, because the "woody debris" contributes to a healthy environment for spawning salmon. But imagine the terror of crashing into a gnarled, floating stump the size of a Volkswagen while 30 miles offshore.

"We offer regular rescue assistance for boaters who run into this sort of debris," said Mark Dobney, commanding officer of the Coast Guard's National Motor Lifeboat School on Cape Disappointment, Ilwaco, Wash. "On our motor lifeboats we've had broken skegs, damaged props, and damaged shafts. Sometimes we're running along at nightor even in broad daylight because the stumps get waterlogged and can float just at or a little below the surfaceand you hear that nasty noise: 'Thunk!' That's when it's time to check the hull, the propulsion, and steering."

The Coast Guard broadcasts regular notices by VHF when floating hazards are known to be in a certain area, and, whenever possible, deploys small boats to tow debris out of shipping lanes, according to recent reports.