Back in my dinghy racing days, I was out on the river one day when it occurred to me that there was more to the Willamette than the familiar patch of water where our meets were held. “Wouldn’t it be fun if the fleet raced there and back?” I asked a fellow sailing club member, pointing to a bridge about two miles downstream. He looked at me doubtfully, as if I’d asked about holding a nude sailing day. “Why would we do that?” he said. “How would we get back if the wind died?” 

That’s when I knew I needed to join a different club. 

After I quit, I never missed the competition, or the talk of fairing rudders, or the stress of right of way rules. Still I couldn’t replace the strong drive to get out on the water and sail in the company of others. I went out often, but being a solo small boat cruiser felt lonely. Where were all the other dinghy cruisers? Having found none by 2015, I decided to take action. I created a listserv and made a handful of flyers aimed at my tribe: “Attention seafarers, dreamers, and fools who love small craft and actually use them. The Portland Sail & Oar League is a randomly gathered network of nautical explorers who boat at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. We sail, row, camp, fix boats, talk dirt, run aground, and have fun regardless of the weather. You may already be a member.”

After that, at the boat ramp, in the neighborhood, or out on the water, whenever I spotted someone with a small boat, I’d approach with my flyer and a low-key membership speech. Some folks looked at me with trepidation, as if I might be hawking vacuum cleaners. Others expressed mild interest, and in a few, there was a genuine spark of recognition. Slowly, a group came together, eventually growing to about 25 members and a small core of regular sailors. Whether it was an afternoon sail or weekend overnighter, we managed to get on the water a lot.

During the League’s heyday, a supermoon was predicted one Saturday night, and the forecast called for clear skies. It occurred to me that the perfect place to observe this lunar phenomenon would be a dark location with lots of water — and what better way to get there than by small boat? I put the word out to the group: meet up for a messabout and star party on the Lower Columbia River Estuary. One by one the RSVPs came in, and few weekends later, five boats and seven members (including two teenagers) turned up at our favorite launch ramp at the Elochoman Slough Marina.

The motley fleet that afternoon consisted of a pram-bowed SCAMP sailboat, a slight pulling boat, a pair of sail-and-oar sister ships, and a 12-foot peapod. The tide was falling, the weather fair. Everyone was excited to get on the water, but with our campsite only a few miles away, no one was in a hurry to head straight there. Instead of going into the broader Columbia River, we eyed the thick cottonwoods and lanky Sitka spruce lining the muddy channel of the Elochoman Slough — an inviting backwater route. With a few strokes of the oars, we were swept into the downstream current, bobbing along the undulating slough. 

The slough kept getting narrower, and our small flotilla passed under an unexpected bridge. Down came the masts. Soon the water grew shallow, and piles of branches and cut logs barred the way. “I’m sure the mainstem is just around the bend,” someone said. “I bet all this debris settled during the last big winter storm.” We all agreed, and my son clambered out of his boat to try to dislodge the pile. We were getting impatient to be out on the broad waters of the Columbia, sailing instead of nudging our boats along the thin water, when I realized that actually, we weren’t close to the river at all. In our enjoyment of the moment, we’d failed to consult a chart and taken a wrong turn.

After a mile of backtracking, the sight we’d all been waiting for appeared: the Columbia River’s shining waters, and in the distance, a wide sandy public beach. Up went a sprit sail and four square-ish lug sails that pushed us on a speedy beam reach. We spent the afternoon joy sailing in circles, buzzing each other, and seeing how fast our boats would go. It was a bit like the races I remembered from my sailing club days on the Willamette River, but this time with no rules, protests, or finish lines.

Late in the afternoon we hauled the boats high up onto the beach, out of reach of ship’s wakes, and built up a fire. As the sun set, a honey-colored supermoon rose above the river in a peach-tinged sky. We sat up late into the evening swapping stories. 

These days there’s just a trickle of activity on the listserv and on the water. But the sailors, individual souls and free spirits, are still out there. That knowledge and the memories of the Sail & Oar League’s earlier incarnations induce me to keep a handful of those flyers close at hand whenever I’m out on the water. Would you like to join us? Perhaps you’re already a member!