Sitka and Petersburg. A week in each has reacquainted us with these two gems in Southeast, as Alaskans call their panhandle.Both enjoy Tlingit culture, huge fishing fleets, and miles of docks along which you can stroll and talk to fishermen. But they’re quite different.
Sitka looms large in American History as the capital of Russian Alaska and the place where Alaska was transferred to the United States in 1867. Sitka’s multilayered past comes alive as you visit the National Historical Park with its totem poles, Castle Hill, St Michael’s Cathedral, the Bishop’s House, and the Sheldon-Jackson and city museums and attend performances of the Naa Kahidi Tlingit dance troupe, the New Archangel Russian dancers, and summer chamber music festival.For natural history, there’s the Alaska Raptor Center, a bear rescue operation, and the extraordinary Sitka Sound Science Center, to which the locals attribute their children’s documented high levels of science literacy. Everyone should spend a week in Sitka.
For me, Petersburg stands out as a bright story of immigration to America. It was founded by Peter Bachmann who arrived from Norway in 1897. He chose the site because of proximity of fresh ice from the nearby Le Conte glacier. In time recruited hundreds of his impoverished countrymen, who built houses on pylons and great wharfs with canneries over the waters of Wrangell Narrows.
Okay, you say, Norwegians settled many places in the Pacific Northwest; so where’s the story?Well, Alaska produces about 60% of all US seafood and Petersburg a good portion of that. The old canneries now house modern fish processing operations to which the catch is delivered 24/7 during the summer. People walking down Nordic Drive speak Tagalog, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Slavic Languages, and varieties of Englishes (thatfor Number 45, with his preference for Norwegian immigrants, mark them as potential terrorists from “shithole countries”).More than any agricultural community in the Central Valley, Petersburg hammers home the reality that workers like these, who willingly leave home to follow the harvests, are the heroes of our national food system. They are responsible for the food security we currently enjoy.
I talk about Sitka here; let me just share some photos of Petersburg this week.
Tuesday 3 July 2018 Appleton Cove on Peril Strait57º25’N 135º15.7’W
In Sitka we take shore leave from the comfort of our home base on Aurora. On terra firma our minds and muscles get a different kind of workout. For the first time in ten days, Jack and I spend some time apart – more than forty feet!I ride my bike to the laundromat or the library, clear email, have phone meetings, ensure distant aspects of my life are on track.Jack scoots all over town, works out at the community gym, and anguishes briefly over news from Washington that tumbles in all at once. We bathe in chamber music. We walk the docks talking to crews of trollers, gillnetters, seiners, recreational boats, and large tax-haven flagger yachts waiting for their guests. We revisit favorite sites: from the deep dark forest floor we gaze up at the totem poles and the eagles circling, singing above as ravens call out to us. We spend time with Sara and Brian, Gus and Emma and pepper them with all our unanswered questions.
We’d arrived thinking this is the last time we’ll visit Sitka on our own keel.We leave thinking it won’t be.
The clouds hang heavily over the spectacular peaks that rise sharply behind the city the whole week. Twenty minutes after we cast off, dawn breaks, enveloping us in its warm embrace.
We leave as we came, spending just enough time on the buoy at Schultz Cove for lunch and naps before transiting Serguis Narrows at slack.Going through we pass Teas for Two and wave to Helen and Ian, who call on the radio for a brief chat.
Whales, porpoises, dolphins spout and jump. The air is bone dry.Appleton Cove’s Alaska State buoy is unoccupied.Where are our fellow humans?
Wednesday 4 July 2018 Baranof Warm Springs 57º05’N 134º49.9’W
Another beautiful morning on Chatham Strait.We arrive at low tide and Jack turns Aurora 180º with inches under the keel for a starboard tie on the north side of the dock.We head for the bathhouse and get very clean.
Boats come and go, leaving a mostly convivial crowd for Fourth of July celebrations. The exceptions are a couple of larger boats with commercial guests and generators running.While barely audible above the roar of the falls, they spew fumes. Ted, the retired resident who helps collect moorage for the Sitka Harbormaster, requests they desist and they do. But after dark when the last of the outdated, disposable marine flares soar above the bay, the gensets come on after we go to bed. (Which inspires Jack to complain to the Sitka Harbormaster, who replies that a sign with the rule is a good idea.)
Friday 6 July 2018 Cannery Cove in Pybus Bay57º18’N134º08.7’W
There are a dozen seiners in the Bay when we leave Warm Springs, their crews sleeping off a couple of days of fishing. It was so much fun the last time when these big ships flouted the rules and rafted side by side from the float out across the Bay.
Saturday 7 July 2018 Unnamed Cove on Tracy Arm57º48.5’N133º38’W
Monday 9 July 2018 Cleveland Channel
Rather than go on to Portage Bay on the south shore of Frederick Sound, we decide to break the trip to Petersburg in two passages of approximately 5 hours each. So we drop anchor in Cleveland Channel at southwest end of Stevens Passage just north of Cape Fanshaw.
When we check the weather during before dinner drinks, all reports have been updated. It seems rapidly moving low pressure system is on its way, predicted to blow though and wear itself out in about 36 hours. We’re okay with small craft advisories of 15 to 25 knots of wind. This report, however, specifies gusting to 40 knots. And we are not yet around Cape Fanshaw at the point where two huge bodies of water meet: Stephens Passage and Frederick Sound.
We go to bed with the prospect of having to spend a day waiting out the storm and expecting to be awakened by wind starting in the middle of the night.
Tuesday 10 July 2018 Petersburg
We wake up early to the eerie calm that proceeds a storm. It looks like we’ll have no trouble rounding Cape Fanshaw and getting into Frederick Sound. By 5am the anchor is up and we’re underway. Before leaving Stephens Passage we see a couple of humpbacks, the only whales we see in days on two vast bodies of water known for their whales. On a previous trip through Frederick we had to wend our way through dozens of half-sleeping whales.
Soon enough it begins to rain and we lose visibility while neither the wind nor the sea state is troublesome. We don’t see a single ship until we approach Petersburg and find ourselves in the company of a large fuel barge on starboard and a tug and tow on port. Looks like everyone is on target to enter the Wrangell Narrows on a high tide at slack. No sooner do we enter the channel than the tug skipper, who had been shortening his cable, announces to “all concerned traffic” that he’s coming through. We scramble into low water on the side as the huge tug and barge slide by a boat length away.
We head for the fuel dock where the enormous tanker is already unloading gas and diesel. We fill up to ward off winter condensation that will put water not our diesel. I ask the attendant how the fishing is. Not too good. And where are the whales? “Yes. Where are the whales? I’ve been here ten years and a couple of times each week would see groups of humpbacks or orcas head down the Narrows. Not this year.”Aurora’s new home is stall 106 right in front of Ocean Beauty’s huge fish processing operations.
We break the usual long passage north with a stop in Klemtu, where we land at the fuel dock and are greeted by a smiling Alan at the fuel dock.The folks at Shearwater has advised against filling up with their diesel until the huge shipment piped off a barge had settled in their tanks.Alanis welcoming an accommodating.When we request permission to drop anchor in Klemtu’s small bay, Alan says, “You could just pull back onto that extension of the fuel dock.” Oh good. A leg-stretch in this interesting First Nation village without having to inflate the dinghy. When I go up to the office on the dock to pay, Alan asks if I’ve visited Klemtu’s Big House. I haven’t. He has me copy down the phone number of Shane Robinson, who can guide me.
And that is a story still to be written.
Wednesday 13 June 2018 Lowe Inlet53º33.4”N 129º34’W
We leave Klemtu at 6am and twelve and a half hours later drop anchor in Lowe Inlet. This can be a challenge but we nail it, our anchor grabbing the mud on a single narrow goldilocks band between shoal and depths.
Thursday 14 June 2018Kumealon Inlet53º52’N 129º58’W
The rising tide in Lowe Inlet entitles us to a mid morning start and a strong favorable current north on Grenville Channel.I sit on deck leaning back on the mast where I can look out for logs and signal to Jack, who zigs and zags around them. Twice a month, when the moon is full or new, spring tides float the drift from shore into our path.
Into Kumealon Inlet tonight,23 vertical feel of water will flow in and out – six hours to arrive and six to depart. Again we must lay down the hook in the sweet spot, which is just off a rock wall where you can see the rise and fall with your own eyes. We succeed.
Friday 15 June 2018 Cow Bay, Prince Rupert 54º19’N 130º19’W
The new Cow Bay Marina has space. Owner Robin Beattie and his employee Noora are at the docks to take our lines.Currents are strong here.We tie up in 150 feet of water and watch shore rise 25 feet with the falling tide.
In the fog that comes the next morning we can’t see shore. It will not be fun transiting the circuitous Venn Passage on a low spring tide in such conditions.In the end, the lack of visibility on the morning of our rest day enhances our joy when the next morning dawns clear.
Sunday 17 JuneFoggy Bay54º56.9’N 130º56.4’W
Above 54º40’ ! Alaska at last.Jack has called ahead to US Customs and got us permission to spend the night here along with two other slow sailboats.
Monday 18 June 2018 Ketchikan55º20’N 131º38.4’W
As we motor up Revillagigedo Channel we see our first giant cruise ship of the trip, then second, third, four, and fifth towering over the waterfront.Without a suitable dock the largest cruise ship (in the whole world it seems) – the Norwegian Bliss – is anchored out and lightering in its passengers to shore.Today this diminutive town of 13,000 people has nearly 13,000 visitors!
We duck behind the first of these behemoths expecting calm in Thomas Basin. There is none. Strong, noisy williwaws rush down the peaks.As we dock I manage to get the midline on a cleat but nothing else. Aurora fishtails into the neighboring boat whose occupants come out to help.Man rushes to stern, woman grabs a bow line. It takes us ten minutes of struggle to inch the boat in an get it tied up.
Ketchikan is 80º. To escape the heat and check my mail I take the city bus up to Ketchikan’s new library. The ride is pleasant, the chair comfy, the view spectacular, but Alaska libraries aren’t air conditioned. What was I thinking?
When the sun sinks and the big ships are gone, and the fishing boats return, and thing get convivial on the docks. Sage, who organized our rescue is a shipwright who lives aboard with his family. He gives us his card, which we tape to the nav station. It’s hard to find a ready shipwright in Alaska in the summer; Across the way from them on S/V Lionheart are Rachel and Jeff with their baby, toddler and teenager.They are moving from Prince of Wales, where Rachel taught all of Thorne Bay’s third, fourth and fifth graders, to the Olympic Penninsula. John and Jennifer of Cara Babbo visit, bearing fresh corn muffins: turns out they’ve just moved to Port Townsend, where it will be good to have them.Next visit is crew of Teas for Two – the third Foggy Bay boat – Ian from Victoria and Helen from the northern shores of the UK.
Wednesday 20 June 2018Thorne Bay55º40.9’N 132º31.4’W
Whew!We did it.Got into Thorne Bay. Jack on Navionics on iPad standing next to me at helm. Straight line zig zag. My knuckles white.Jack’s voice calm. “One or two more degrees to the right.” “Now hard turn to left and straighten out at about 275º.”
We’re the only boat on the guest dock.We tie up right in front of Toccata, which Sheryl and Greg spent 27 years building in Port Townsend.New Harbormaster, Ron, seems to know everything.Says Sheryl is doing the laundry and Greg is in crafting something in his shop on shore. Somehow we miss them but liveaboards Libby and Jim pay a visit.Once the largest logging camp in the world, Thorne Bay is a quiet community of 400 souls.Libby says 38 of them are named “Jim” and that the second most popular name is Sean/Shawn. Shows some demographic diversity, I say.
Thorne Bay has excellent, empty docks and a liquor store but no bar. Which makes it somewhat unAlaskan. Rachel the teacher and future home schooler suspects her family was “too hippy” for the place.
Thursday 21 June 2018Exchange Island56º12’N 133.04’W
Summer Solstice.A late afternoon west wind is strong enough to spins Aurora opposite the direction the incoming tide has pushed her. I let out 50 more feet of chain I pay attention to our GPS coordinates lest we drag.We don’t.
As the wind subsides and sun sinks, we enjoy drinks on deck. An enormous salmon jumps and splashes as a great blue heron, clearly outmatched, looks on in wonder.
Friday 22 June 2018 South entry to Rocky Pass 56º35’N 133º41’W
Lovely morning passage north behind the Kashevarof Island and into the vast Sumner Strait. Two hulking cruise ships steam south to disgorge thousands on the Ketchikan waterfront when the shops open.An orange blaze appears over the horizon off Pt. Baker. Not a ship on fire but a commercial trawler with its fishing lights on.A large work platform of a boat disappears down Prince of Wales’ west coast.Nothing smaller anywhere around.
We head for Keku Strait, which nothing larger than Aurora can transit.We’ve done it twice before. Cognizance of how tidal level and direction affect passage are essential, especially for the middle 20 miles sections known as Rocky Pass.
So we get the Douglasses’ Exploring Southeast Alaska: Dixon Entrance to Skagway: Details of Every Harbor and Cove.We rail against the outdated 2007 second edition, designed either to terrify or laud the courage of the authors: “Stories abound of good skippers who grounded or ruined their boats in Rocky Pass.Part of the problem is crappy editing by Fine Edge publications. They’ve left in pages of dramatic stuff written long before placement of aids to nav and dredging of a section near Summit Island in the early 00’s.Our aging chart includes 2007 datum and Jack updated our Navionics digital chart plotter just before the trip. Despite some magnetic disturbance at the north end of Rocky Pass, we should make it.
Saturday 23 June 2018 Kake56º56.8’N 133º53.7’W
Make that Peace of Kake.Kake is a Tlingit village at the end of Keku Strait where we are relishing modest triumphs. Our anchor held in the good mud of a vast shallow expanse of wind beaten water as we slept soundly.And when the tide was right mid morning we worked in tight collaboration to transit Rocky Pass.
Here on the good docks of this surprisingly empty harbor, we have been sandwiched by two other recreational sailboats.On starboard is Williwaw, owned by the surviving half of a cruising couple whose family members are delivering it to Anacortes where it will be sold.On port are three generations of Austrians on their third circumnavigation.“Via Panama?” I ask.“No, the Northwest Passage.” Wow. I tell them about Dogbark! and they mention seeing them on AIS earlier this week.
Sunday 24 June 2018Baranof Warm Springs57º05’N 134º50’W
Early morning fog persists all the way across Frederick Sound and up Chatham Strait.As we round the tip of Admiralty Island, a Stellar sealion surprises us with a huge splash off our port beam and explodes above the surface next to the boat on port side, an enormous salmon in his mouth.White; looks like a polar bear.Plays with his food. Throws it up in the air and snatches back in his jaws.
It’s late morning when we get close enough to the dock to see there are 45 free feet waiting for us.Everyone seems to sleeping.Finally the sun breaks over the snowy 4,000 foot peaks above us.Is there any corner of the good earth more beautiful than Baranof Warm Springs?
The docks come alive.We meet Sharon and John, who live aboard Gipsy Lady in Point Hudson.Stu in on Ripple a 26 foot gaff rigged boat built by the Northwest School forWooden Boats.He’s buddy boating with Terry from Powell River, who has a tiny trimiran and helps me tighten the shroud we stretched when we bent the whisker pole and free the main halyard stuck in the mast.
The waterfall roars.We languish in one of the tubs in the bathhouse.When the seiners arrive, four big ones raft to the smallest, which hangs off the end of the dock. The Sitka Harbormaster under whose authority this small dock now falls would not approve. This is a party. Dogs and children spill out of the boats.Good to see beloved traditions endure.
Monday 25 June 2018 Schulze Cove 57º23.5’N 135º35.8’W
A long day starts with spectacular views as we make our early morning exit from Baranof Warm Springs.
We decide to push on in hopes of getting to the Sitka side of Sergius Narrows. In our 10th hour underway, we pull off into Deep Cove to figure out our low slack transit of the Narrows.We try to ignore the dread the Douglasses inspire in Cruising Southeast Alaska so turn to the usually sensible How to Cruise to Alaska without Rocking the Boat Too Much. Here’s what Walt Woodward writes:
Make no mistake about it, Sergius Narrows should be navigated for the first time by an inexperienced skipper only at high water slack; positively and without exception at high water slack. ….Let’s see if I can command your respect of Sergius. In the first place, it is one of only four passes listed in the Pacific Coast Tidal Current Tables for special statistical treatment: the others are Deception Pass, Seymour Narrows, and Isanotski Strait. All of them are awesome in the sudden and sustained way that maximum currents surge through them. The critical portion of Sergius is just 450 feet long, the length of the dredged channel that is 24 feet deep and only 300 feet wide. On one side of the channel is the rock wall of Sergius Point; the other, marked by a nun buoys, includes covered rock and a submerged rock. Through this aperture race mighty and variable-direction currents of almost six knots on the flood and 5.5 on the ebb. At slack water, however, the thing can be a mill pond for about ten minutes, plenty of time to get through. The only problem then would be other ships waiting for the same slack period. An Alaska state ferry can fill most of the channel.
Hmm. We’ve done Sergius twice before but can’t remember if it was high or low slack. No other boats around, at least not westbound. All our tide tables agree that low slack water is at 4:05 pm. And we’re not really inexperienced skippers.
So we go for it. Two powerful eastbound local boats push against the current to transit a couple of minutes early, leaving Serguis for us alone. We go in a minute before dead low slack and emerge a minute after it. Absolutely smooth. Around the corner we find the Alaska State buoy in Schulze Cove waiting for us.
Tuesday 26 June 2018 Sitka 57º03’N 135º21’W
Sublime passage through the swells of Salisbury Sound. The rain stops and the sun breaks through on the early morning trollers.
In Neva Strait we pass a couple of Sitka black-tailed deer, a small subspecies of mule deer that are a stable of the Alaskan diet.
In a narrow passage between Sitka’s first small islands, we pass Dogbark! and chat with Graeme and crew until they disappear into Olga Strait.They’ll head out across the Gulf of Alaska toward Dutch Harbor and continue north along the Bering Sea coast to Nome, where Janna, Talia and Savia will meet them.We’re getting their dispatches online.
We’ve been moving between bergs and burgs. You never leave the wilderness here in Southeast Alaska, even when you finally see other boats or get cell service, If anything, you grasp the of the wild when you tie up somewhere and talk to folks who have carved out a life within it.
In the rest of the Pacific Northwest, we talk about resilience. Here that’s a fundamental given; the skills you need are for subsistence.
Another of my misconceptions fell and broke just this morning. I’d been under the impression that the subsistence lifestyle was that of Alaskan Natives, the folks here from American pre-history, many of whom self describe as Indians. But it’s far broader. Any rural Alaskan has access to fish stocks and game populations “customarily and traditionally” used for subsistence. Take pukka Petersburg, founded in 1896 by a handful of Norwegian pioneers led by Peter Buschmann, who emigrated to Port Townsend and headed north. Norwegian flags still fly here. Employment is mostly commercial fishing and federal, state and local government jobs. But with only 3000 people and no road connections to any other place, Petersburg is one of the subsistence communities we’ve visited: people proud of their ability to live off the land and sea. (More on legal aspects of Alaskan subsistence here and here.)
Sunday, June 15. Appelton Cove, Rodman Bay, Peril Strait. 57º28’N 135º15.7’W We leave Kake at 5:15 am in anticipation of Frederick Sound and Chatham Strait. Isn’t this supposed to be all about strong winds? Not for us. Strong seas for sure, especially where the two large bodies of water meet at Point Gardner, the south tip of Admiralty Island. We rock and roll, taking it wide, too far off shore to see the sea lion rookery on the island just south of the point. We give Baranof Warm Springs – and the promise of a warm soak – a miss and continue up the Strait. In time, the sun burns off the mist on the Baranof peaks, improving the scenery but dampening chances of a breeze and making us feel sleepy.
But then comes the narrow Peril Strait that separates Baranof and Chicagof Islands and a swimming mammal show that doesn’t quit. First we pass a pod of orcas on port, right where they were when we went by two years ago! We give them some distance only to see a group of spouting humpbacks on starboard! There are six of them and they are bubble feeding as they move into the strait. We make sandwiches and enjoy an hour-and-a-half lunch together, humans and humpbacks all moving along at a lazy 3.7 knots. With remarkable regularity, every 4 to 6 minutes, they perform a 60 or 90 second show. There’s spray, a ruckus of glistening grey backs, splashing and churning as they sound, their marvelous flukes in the air.
In the course of our transit of Peril Strait a pair of frolicking sea otters swim past, harbor seals play the shallows, a solitary sea lion powers through the current looking a bit like a bear and three large mother deer who, at the narrowest part of the strait, walk into the water to cross. And then the sudden sound, a snort, a nasal rush of air. Midships starboard. I rush forward to see the first one announce its presence. Suddenly there are five synchronized swimmers diving into our bow waves. A celebration of explosive joy. In a minute or so, they are off. What are they? Pacific wide-sided dolphins with short attention spans? Or the larger, more powerful Dall’s porpoises, also at home in these waters? A cameo performance but I can’t identify the actor. (Note to self: To learn to discriminate among waterborne choreographies, try YouTube. Oh, and get some video from our lunch with the whales up soon.)
Monday, June 16. Sitka.57º03’N 135.21’W There’s too much to say about Sitka. Above what I’ve said before here and here and here. This is largely thanks to Cruz’s old friend Gus and our new friend Sara and stepping into the world of normal/exotic Alaskans.
So I won’t say anything except that after a Sitkan had asked where we were from, I commented that their town was “the second best on the Inside Passage”, only to be corrected. “But we’re on the Outside.” Yes, remote, far away, outlying, off any track, beaten or otherwise. Peripheral, almost extraterrestrial in sense that Sitkans are half oceanic.
Sunday, June 22 Appleton Cove, Rodman Bay, Peril Strait. 57º28’N 135º15.7’W One amazing sail across Hoonah Sound. Gusts to 25 knots and the rail practically in the water. Rough, invigorating. But then we lose sight of a sailboat we’d seen dangerously over powered. We search with the binocs. Then in the distance along the far shore, we spot the little boat (maybe 25 feet?), bare poles now. An hour later, Canadian flag flapping, it passes us! Is this some magical back eddy? Is that outboard supplementing a diesel engine? What about hull speed?
The next morning, we raise anchor before 5am and see the sail covers on the little vessel, its dinghy drawn abeam covering half the length of the hull, its astute crew sleeping off their adventure. We look for the but do not see them again.
Monday, June 23 Tenakee Springs.57º46.69’N 135º12.22′ Travel took us east out Peril Strait to Chatham. then north, then west 9 miles to Tenekee Springs, population 98. The tiny city is stretched out along the shore on either side of the mid-town: the dock, the float plane landing, the store, the bakery, a cafe, and the bath. There’s no natural harbor here, just nice wide floats behind a couple of floating breakwaters. You write your boat’s name on a used envelop crossing out the previous name, leave some money and write yourself a receipt. It’s a rather expensive for Alaska $0.60 a foot. We forego electricity, which costs another $20 because Tenakee has to make all their own, currently by diesel generator although they are going to supplement with micro hydro. Other infrastructure: a combined city hall and library, a fire station and a school, which closed last year when a family decided to home school but which will open in September as there are again enough kids. The bakery serves breakfast 9 to 2. The Blue Moon café serves food “when Rosie feels like cooking”, according to an old Southeast guidebook and “on several hours notice,” according to Rosie, a fixture here for 58 years.
At the library, I join another reader, settling in with an intriguing mid-century biography of La Pérouse and a collection of essays on Alaska by Alaskans, designed to counter dubiously informed views such as mine. “Two readers of real books!” exclaims the librarian, most of whose other interactions are chat about the latest films on DVD. I’m actually there to learn about this strange, endearing town, so she gives me a fat three ring binder with several years copies of The Store Door. Issued by the Tenakee Historical Society, it includes obituaries, historic photos, excerpts from old newspapers and current projects, the most ambitious of which is the recent renovation of the bathhouse.
Tenekee sprouted up in the 1870s or 80s, balm for discouraged Gold Rushers. Seems today it provides respite for Juneau folks weary of cruise ships, part-timers though with admirable kitchen gardens. The ferry calls twice a week, going to and coming from Juneau. Passengers only; Tenekee is carless.
Some of the year rounders, like the librarian, live “off grid”, that is a mile or so by skiff beyond either end of the path. Everyone is high on the place. It seems to have just the right diversity of age and Native blood and, like Meyers Chuck, a balance of tiny and not so tiny houses. Gentrification-immune, it has the usual amount of surplus stuff, charmingly overgrown with salmonberry bushes and cow parsnip. An outhouse on a dock above the beach behind the fire station is its only public toilet.
After supper, I hear snorting and take my book up to the deck. A humpback is swimming in the opening between the breakwaters. No wonder, herring are jumping out of the water all around the boat. I wait to see if the beast will come into the harbor but with bounty everywhere, there is no need. I watch him blow through the former-nose-evolved-to-the-top-of-the-head until the light dies and I turn in, closing the hatch to block out the snorts.
Wednesday, June 25 Funter Bay, Admiralty Island. 58º14.6’N 134º52.9’W A rare perfect wind took us up and across Chatham Strait on a broad reach. Lines taken by Bea, half of the crew of Salty, a tiny, well-used, outboard from Juneau that was drying out after a wake wave had drenched sleeping bags and everything else in the boat the night before. She’s Asian, Brian a blue-eyed blond, celebrating 20 years together. When I awoke from an I was sad to see this welcoming, upbeat couple had pulled out, presumably to drop the hook in some romantic anchorage known only to them.
Funter Bay has a nice 150′ government float, though a bit too shallow on the shore side to get out on the next morning’s spring low. So we switched sides and took Salty’s place behind two larger boats. A Juneau banker – and climate change denier – remarked nostalgically that back when the state floats were built, they’d accommodate far more boats. 21′ footer s like Salty being more the rule.
Thursday, June 26. Juneau58º18’N 134º25.7′ An early morning departure takes us up Chatham into Lynn Canal. The Fairweather, the catamaran ferry that links Juneau to Sitka, As we turn into Auke Bay, as we turn into Auke Bay. For once we run into it in ample waters, although we’re so taken with the hanging glaciers we hardly notice. Since the day is still early, we decide to go around Douglas Island and up Gastineau to Juneau rather than tie up with the big boats at Auke Bay. It’s a quick decision we will later reevaluate.
The route along Douglas is long and Gastineau seems endless. The weather’s been hot and the seas calm so there’s no excuse for impatience. It’s just that 11 hour days are tiring. In fact, it’s almost worse without the adrenalin of facing continual challenges or simple driving rain that calls for hourly soup, ginger tea or hot chocolate. You find yourself complaining, like a spoiled child.
We’re barely by the cruise ships, when Jack hails the harbor master and Cruz and I get the fenders and lines ready. Remembering the strong currents we encountered entering the Harris docks four years ago, I note it’s slack and ought to be okay. We pass smoothly under the bridge that links Juneau to Douglas, but what’s that scraping sound? Yikes. It’s a high slack and this is Alaska! We tie up and assess the damage. Gratitude that it’s minor mixes with alarm at my/our, well, mindfulnesslessness and I start to cry like a child.
Within minutes, Cruz has rigged the bosun’s chair and we hoist him up the mast using our two spare halyards. (The tallest mast north of the bridge, we now note.) He bends the wind vane so it rotates again but has to remove the 10 inch cylinder that contains the white anchor light and the tricolor for sailing nights off shore. The plastic attachment ring has snapped, sacrificially. A sailor from Bellingham comes from across the docks to send up the tools we lack. We let Cruz down, he spends the rest of the afternoon fashioning a fix with epoxy, and – after a night on the town – goes up the next day to put the light in place.
By then I’m off hiking. I arrive at Mendenhall Glacier on the first bus, determined to get a good leg stretch. A girl in a National Forest Service uniform gives me a photocopied trail map and I’m off. The 3.5 mile circle route is lovely I pass only four people: a young Tlingit couple and an Alaskan grandmother pointing out her grandchild how far the glacier has receded. I’ve add another two or three miles by branching off on the Nugget Creek Trail, where I find myself crawling across fallen trees. When the trail meets a lake above the waterfall and I’m even farther away from vistas above the tree line so I retrace my steps, figuring the NSF greeter must be a summer intern.
Later, a mature ranger says, “Nah, nobody much does the Nugget Creek Trail. Brown bear up there.” As for the the loop trail, it’s designed to be short enough for cruise ship visitors. I mention I didn’t see a single one “They just get overwhelmed.” Yeah, I get that. And down near the lake, I see a lot of strollers and hear a lot of Japanese and Hindi. But a couple or three miles of wheelchair able trails that make a 13-mile blue glacier accessible to everyone? You can’t knock that.
The Mendenhall is special and everyone should visit. And it’s especially special to the residents of Juneau, despite a their abundance of outdoor options. How good to see bathing-suited families lying on the beach, kids building glacial silt castles, toddlers splashing around in water liberated after thousand of years in the ice field. I want to return to Juneau in the winter and join these folks in their little sliver of daylight to drive along a city street to the lake to walk or skate among the blue bergs to look the glacier right in its towering face.
Saturday, June 28. Snug Cove on bay behind Gambier Island off Admiralty Island. 57º25’N 133º58’W.
The scenery along Stephens Passage south of Juneau is overwhelming. This is the Alaska of the State Ferry and the big cruise ships if the weather is perfect, with just a few clouds for effect. As I sit on the spinnaker box, leaning on the mast, wandering, wondering musings take over. This is no time to write.
We puzzle about a couple of large islands in the middle of the passage that are not on the chart. They turn out to be ice bergs, better known as “bergie bits” since they’ve calved from glaciers. They are not at all bitty but big. The one in the photo has about fifty Glaucous Gulls on it and they are big birds – over two feet from head to tail.
Our attention turns to navigation as we approach Snug Cove, a little nook on a bay in Admiralty Island behind Gambier Island and a string of reefs. It’s a wonderful place with good mud holding the anchor. Real wilderness. A day from Juneau and a day from Petersburg, with nothing but wildlife in between. Would like to spend a week here sometime.
Sunday, June 29 Petersburg. 56º48.8W 132º57.6’W. Yet another 11 hour day motoring on flat seas, though broken by encounters with humpbacks. By now, the Captain knows he can push the crew so rather than drop the hook and laze around Portage Bay, we press on through Frederick Sound until dropping south into Wrangell Narrows. We call the harbor master as we wind thought the northernmost aids to navigation, including red 63, a sea lion bunk bed buoy.
It’s barely and hour after high slack so Peterburg’s legendary currents should be relaxed. (The last time we were here the stream has slammed the Alaska State ferry into its own dock, disabling it; other errant ice bergs have ripped through pylons)
At that moment it begins to pour. Straight down hard. We head into our slip and find the opposite half empty. A blessing as the current pushes us to the wrong side. No problem, Aurora’s worn teak rub rails are in the right place for the new docks. We back out and try again, succeeding with the help of extra hands which suddenly appear on the finger to catch our bowline. When I go to register, and express my surprise at the current, the harbor master explains that all the rain rushing into Hammer Creek suddenly flows into the harbor. A large power cruiser with bow thrusters doesn’t even try to come in, but spend the night outside on the end float.
Nonetheless, the new docks at Petersburg are generously designed with lots of space. Broad tenders share space with slender wooden schooners. Lighting, fire hose connections, electrical outlets are state of the art. At night the place looks more like my idea of Saint Tropez than the rough and tumble fishing port that it is.
Tuesday, July 1. Wrangell 56º27.8′N 132.22.9′W We had a civilized morning today waiting for slack before navigating the 70 or so aids to navigation that guide us through the Wrangell Narrows. It’s low tide, in fact a negative tide. The crab pots are sitting on the mud next to their buoys.
At last we emerge into the open waters of Sumner Strait and the peaks of that tower over the Stikine River Valley come into view. The Stikine ice field, which is shared with Canada, has the southern most tidewater glaciers and is even larger than the Juneau ice field (which is the size of Rhode Island.)
The Wrangell docks finally have some rec boats in addition to transient fishing boats of all kinds. This week there are openings for seiners, gill netters and crabbers and the ubiquitous trollers seem to fish all the time. There’s no room for us near town so we tie up across the way.
Wrangell has the best laundromat in Southeast, it’s open until 9 pm and I’ve got three weeks worth of dirty clothes and linens. I get on my bike and ride past houses festooned with bunting and bows for the Fourth of July. I mentioned, didn’t I, that Wrangell claims to have the best celebration. Wish we didn’t have to move on, but we’ve miles to go.
Mornings are good, but there is nothing like evenings. The slow “set” of the sun in a great arc is what helps you notice. Oh, I know, the sun doesn’t set and the earth is not turning at a reduced speed. It’s the length of the northern rays. The way they can slowly disappear behind the rise and then sneak back into the bay through the clearing. When you least expect it. You’re getting ready for bed and suddenly you run up to the deck to catch the last act. It’s magic. Some examples.
The beautiful double ended sailboat across the bay at Port Protection. The light on the shrouds and halyards Christmas treeing up its low mast. The shadows on the lapstrake woodwork of its yellow hull. Its reflection in the still water.
The golden glow of the hand adzed cedar of the long house on Shakes Island in the middle of the old port. At last light the three frogs on the famous totem flash red smiles.
A lone boat returning across the board bay to Wrangell. A dozen shades of blue, silver and rose gleaming in its wake.
The play of eagles and ravens on the wing with mist, sky blue and yellow sun dancing against snow capped peaks around Sitka Sound, beyond windows of Centennial Hall as pianist Natasha Paremski pours power and passion into Chopin, Brahms, and Prokokiev. (We’ve all watched nature films with great soundtracks. Imagine Nature’s visual tracks rolling in the background of performances of Sitka Summer Music Festival. Wow.)
It’s not like this in the lower latitudes. On the Equator the sun plunks down. One minute it’s light the next it’s dark. Uganda is certainly as colorful a place as Alaska but how sad that no one there can really see the colors! Imagine the bright green of a tea plantation and with a line of colorfully attired women picking the buds. Imagine what it would be like if the sun took many hours on to transit from low in the sky to the horizon. What a light show! But maybe it’s just as well as those workers would likely be pressed into longer days rather than being set free by the night. Alaskan workdays are long. Multi-day fish openings take stamina. Other days the mysteries of salmon runs take over, with some boats pulling out at first light, others at last. If you’re building something it has to be squeezed into a couple of months. Four seasons in the Pacific Northwest says Jack. Almost Winter. Winter. Still Winter. And Road Construction.
Sitka’s Harbormaster assigns us a spot at the “L” where the main docks of Old Thomsen Harbor converge. Which means everybody has to pass us. Eighteen hours of greetings and chat from the standard “Beautiful boat” to “Where you off to?” and “I’d love to sail” to “Crew of three, right. Here’re some sockeye steaks for your supper.” Wow.
We’d had our sights set on Sitka since casting off a month ago from Port Townsend. Not only is it a completely wonderful place, Cruz had childhood friends here and his mom and brother would be flying up at the end of the week.
Sitka is only a few souls larger than Port Townsend but isolation makes it so much bigger. It’s always had to fend for itself. People have had to manage differences and where they haven’t the consequences have taught lasting lessons. Residents are a mixed lot with distinct identities. A full quarter claim native Tlingit status (through at least one great grandparent, as I understand it). Russian heritage is represented, evidently, by three old families. Plus the priest at St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The rest are a mix of pioneers of European descent, I think largely Scandinavian, and newcomers. The Coast Guard station, US Fish and Game and the Forest Service account for a number o federally-employed people, many who stay on or come back. Sitka is also an important regional center for education and health care, serving dozens of even more isolated communities. There’s a boarding school for Native youth from all over Alaska, for example.
Isolation means lots of attention to transportation. Direct flights from the lower 48 arrive at an airport on Japonski Island that happens to be within walking distance of downtown. Ferries link the city with points all over Southeast ad beyond. The Fairweather, a catamaran ferry that travels at 36 knots and has space for 35 cars, gets passengers to Juneau in a mere four hours. Then there are five harbors, by and large filled with commercial fishing boats. Others are sports fishing vessels, the small boats that families use to fish for personal consumption, a very few recreational boats and the a handful of floating abodes of cruising bums like ourselves.
Although there are bicycles everywhere – Sitka has been designated one of America’s Bicycle Friendly Cities – Sitka has a lot of cars. (Did I hear that there are three vehicles for each inhabitant?) But unlike pointless urban cars, these serve multiple purposes: safe transportation through the many hours of winter darkness; carts for hauling provisions and gear from ferry to home and home to boat; shelter to get out of the rain; portable offices to keep one’s affairs in order. The best part is that drivers make eye contact with cyclists and pedestrians and wave to one another. (I wonder what they do after dark.)
How strange it is to go for more the a month with no real “after dark”; how sobering to think of winters with no real daytime brightness. But, as a noticed during my first visit to Seattle over thirty years ago, darkness brings people inside and together. Los Angeles seems to empty and lonely. Sunny places become human-scaled and convivial only when people are thrown together, like in Marrakesh. Of course Marrakesh has walls, albeit walls with bright blue sky over them.
So how did we spend our time in Sitka? First day back, Cruz was off to see his friend, Jack was off to the Hames Center Gym and I to Balanced Practice. How delightful and healing to be able to do everyday yoga with Chrystal. No matter Petersburg’s chiropractors had been out of town, the kink in my neck that had come with an awkward snatch of a mooring buoy disappeared after several sessons of yoga. Although I’ve loved having this cruise force me “off the grid”, it was good to finally get to the library and my email. From my table next to the windowed wall of the Kettleman Memorial Library I could ruminate on whatever had come in while gaze out on the water, islands, mountains, and sky. This was the week to submit abstracts for the Summit in Durban in December and magical cooperation among six colleagues produced the necessary by the deadline.
Solstice at mid-week brought many celebratory offerings and the need to choose how to spend our time. On top of that, we’d arrived in the middle of the Sitka Summer Music Festival and the Fine Arts Camp was in full swing. How a town of 8,000 people can pull of things like this boggles the mind. The Fine Arts Camp recently purchased a building on the historic campus of the Sheldon Jackson College, which closed abruptly in 2007 and is gradually being saved from the ruin of time and weather by the community. Every day there was at least one performance or exhibit. The week we were there the The Sitka Music Festival, under the direction of cellist Zuill Bailey, has been stretched out to a full month. I heard the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet perform at Harrigan Centinnial Hall for a spellbound audience in rain gear and Xtratufs. The back stage is a wall of windows overlooking the entrance to Crescent Harbor. As the black and white clad musicians played, iconic trolling vessels would glide past through the mist like ballerinas on a monochrome set. A midweek concert at noon, featured a trio of favorite Alaskan musicians. As a couple of hundred folks traipsed into the forest clearing at Sitka’s renowned totem park, there was a sudden sun break in six days of nearly ceaseless rain! Throughout the performance the eagles and ravens voiced their astonishment and delight.
The community has done some good number crunching to investigate the economic return on investments in the arts, which is reminiscent of what Mayor Sam is doing for Portland. (The night after we left and I was still in range of KCAW radio, I listened to the City Council meeting. There’s an agenda slot for new of available grants and proposed action to meet deadlines.) This past year Sitkans responded to an opportunity for a matching grant with 20,000 volunteer hours and $500,000 in the space of four months! For a town so small this shows stunning citizen engagement, including from the large Native population which enjoys deserved special access to federal fundings.
In addition, Sitka’s main social events are fundraisers. For the annual all-you-can eat crab fest on a Sunday in the pouring rain, Jack took our place in a line that snaked all all around the wooden pavilion which the rest of the week serves fishermen as a net loft while I set up our little teak table with a cloth, wine and glasses. We chatted with the Cypress viola player and a dear elderly woman who’d played for years with the Anchorage symphony. After finishing off our first round with rhubarb cobbler, we went back for more.
Our most memorable evening was meeting Cruz’s friends, the Bruhls. Eliott is a family physician with SEARHC, the Native-run group that provides health care to throughout the far-flung settlements of South East and Sara is a physical therapist who can be seen going from visit to visit on her bike. As we dined on halibut tacos with Baranof Inland Brew in their hilltop house with water views all around, we talked about things I hadn’t thought much about. Like what does it take to provide safe childbirth in mid-winter to a woman from an isolated settlement. Answer: Ask her to come into town at week 28. And how do you hunt without a car? Answer: You anchor your boat, dinghy to shore near a cabin, and eventually shoot the deer. But as soon as you do, the animal has to be quartered, carried to shore, put in the dinghy and taken out to the boat before the bears appear for a free lunch. The ABCs – Admiralty, Baranof, and Chicagof Islands – have no black bears, only brown ones, otherwise known as grizzlies. Wow!
On Wednesday when we were having supper with Cruz and I mentioned that he just had to meet Peter Frost, the young captain who helped us bring Aurora back offshore two years ago. Jack suggested I phone there and then so I did leaving a message. On Thursday as I was swabbing the decks in the setting sun, who should row up in a small dinghy but Peter and Kelsy! Privateer was at anchor just a couple of hundred yards away. What a wonderful reunion! They love Sitka. have moved the base of Pacific NW Expeditions here and become Alaskans.
Our final day in Sitka started with a rainbow,a blazing bright sky, and everything in sharp edged techincolor. I went to Highliner Café shortly after 6 am for one last double shot latte and a final shot at email. Then back to the newly cleaned boat where Cruz appeared with mom Tracy and brother Penn. Everyone was making such a fuss about the good weather that even the Californians felt blessed. Just fine in the worst of weather, Sitka is spectacular under the sun.
With Cruz at the helm and instructing the rest of us, we headed out across sparking swells toward Mt. Edgecomb. By lunch we were in shirt sleeves making a big circle under sail in a nice breeze. As we headed back to the harbor, we saw Sitkans in bathing suits on the neighborhood beaches that dot the shore along Halibut Point Road.
Tracy is as taken with Alaska as we are. She talked about her kayak trip in Misty Fiords last summer with Sara Bruhl and two other Alaskan women with long experience in the wilderness. No sooner would they pull their kayaks up on a beach to camp for the night, than they would gently, ceaselessly call out to their fellow land mammals. “Hello, Bear. We’re here, Bear. Just want you to know, Bear. No, Bear, we don’t want to surprise you. We’re here, Bear. and if you don’t mind, Bear, we ‘re going to set up our camp.” I hope Tracy will write a great book about hiking around Sitka. It needs to be done and she is the person to do it. Over the years Tracy Salcedo Chourré written a couple of dozen hiking guides. This summer she’ll update a ten year old guide to the trails on Mt. Lahssen. She’s hoping her three boys can meet her there for an update of the author’s photo, where she is pictured with her nine-year old twins Cruz and Jesse and 5-year old Penn. I desperately want to go hiking with her.
After Hoonah and Sitka, worsening problems with Aurora’s 29-year-old transmission made it unwise for us to return to the lower 48 through the Inside Passage. Without a reliable engine how could we anchor at night and cross the numerous rapids along that route? But since Aurora is a tried-and-tested offshore vessel, we figured it was time for us to try blue-water sailing. And maybe the sooner, the better, since we might not like it at all.
So we engaged a young licensed captain from Port Townsend named Peter Frost. After walking us through the preparations, he met us in Alaska on July 6th along with his partner, Kelsey Boesch. Here is the account of our voyage on the Outside, a hundred miles off the Alaska and British Columbia coasts.
In struggling find the words to describe this extraordinary voyage, I feel a bit like a space traveler who knows she’s done something few others have had the opportunity to do. But it should be clear that we loved the trip. In fact, it promises to alter the course, reorder our priorities and reshape our dreams.
Day 1 Wednesday, July 7, 2010 Seasick!
Coordinates at noon: 56º45’N 135º46’W
We cast off from Sitka at 7 am and motor straight out through a couple of remaining “piles of rocks” until we we’re in the open ocean. A curious sea otter, his breakfast on his stomach, watches us go by. Looking up, we notice instrument failure number one. The wind vane at the top of the mast has lost its tail and is bobbing around uselessly. The damage is recent, certainly done by a large bald eagle, undeterred by the bird proofing mechanism. Seagulls abound in other fishing harbors, but in Sitka there are none to be seen. Eagles rule the roost, hovering over vessels as they unload, darting after what they can get or just standing watch on masts.
The fog is thick so I volunteer for bow watch, and a shot at real concentration because the queasiness I’d feared is taking hold. When I start vomiting it’s the best place to be so I just stay up tethered in front and tough it out.
Finally my stomach settles a bit and I head back along the jackline to the cockpit. On my way, I stoop down to move the jib sheet car back along its track. With that simple gesture my right thumb joint gets stuck in flexed position. I can straighten it manually but it doesn’t stay. As I climb into the cockpit puzzling over this, the other four fingers of my left hand spasm out and become useless. Within a minute my left calf lumps up with a painful cramp and immediately after that a whole complex of muscles in my right thigh contract violently. Imagine my confused terror as four limbs fail at once!
Peter calmly reassures me that this is a common symptom of sea sickness. My body is making a bunch of micro adjustments as it gets used to the motion of the waves and swell. And he’s dead right. Within a couple of minutes the paralyzing cramps and spams subside. I continue my watch, feeling a strange kind of gratitude that my body knows what it’s doing. Soon enough my nausea has waned and the physical self confidence I had been so carefully nurturing with daily yoga has returned.
The familiar fauna soon yield to albatross, ponderous in size, dark in color, and nearly horizontal in flight. (According to Wikipedia,”Albatross have high glide ratios, around 22:1 to 23:1, meaning that for every metre they drop, they can travel forward 22 metres.”) I am tempted to see them as creepy but suppose it’s just a figment of fragment of Coleridge haunting my imagination. But then Peter dispels any doubts by recounting an incident during a voyage back from Hawaii, when an albatross flew into the mylar sail of a racing vessel and ripped it in half with its beak!
When we are well off shore – about 40 miles out – we adjust our course toward the south. Aurora’s engine works fine since we have no reason to idle nor reverse and the transmission is regularly nurtured with small doses of fluid. So we continue to motor through weak and uncertain weather. Peter has carefully thought out our route so that we’ll be in a position to catch the northwesterlies when they begin. At noon he pencils in our coordinates on the chart and consults his GPS to verify our course and strategy. Soon we discover instrument failure number two: the cigarette lighter-style DC power outlet in the companionway does not work. So we must use AA batteries, of which we have barely enough. Throughout the trip, Peter will combines his years of experience in navigation with judicious use of his GPS. Since a compass fix is needed in the open ocean, he determines the course and we stay on it using the compass on the binnacle.
We’re still far north and the days are long. Toward the end of our 2000 to midnight watch, Jack and I can no longer read the compass. But we have no idea how to turn on the red night light in the compass, and neither does Peter. In fact, since we’ve never navigated at night, we had neglected to include the compass when verifying the instrument lights according to the checklist Peter had sent about a week earlier. With calm aplomb the captain moves us beyond equipment failure number three by duct taping the little red flashlight Jack bought to the permitter of the dome on the binnacle.
Day 2 Thursday, July 8 Routine
Coordinates at noon: 54º46’N 134º55’W
Segmenting this account into days is misleading since we never stop. Every day includes night and the period of darkness lengthens as we cross parallels going southward.
We’re setting into our watch schedule, which combines two daytime watches of six hours each with three evening-night-early ones of only four hours. Today’s looks like this:
0800-1400 Peter & Kelsey
1400-2000 Jack & Carol
2000-0000 Peter & Kelsey
0000-0400 Jack & Carol
0400-0800 Peter & Kelsey
This rotation is a flip of yesterday’s. In the last 24-hour period Jack and I had 14 hours on duty at the helm; in this one we have only 10 but it includes the midnight to 4 am watch. The new team comes up from below on ten to fifteen minutes before the previous watch ends to be briefed and get the feel for the point of sail, the height and intervals of the waves, and the (steady or gusty) quality of the winds.
When Jack and I go above for our 4 am watch, Peter and Kelsey brief us on the graveyard shift saying they’d enjoyed the Northern Lights.
Nice as it would be to see everything, it’s more important for us to go below, cook some hot food, and get some sleep. We are very small beings in the middle of vast seas and our bodies seem to know what they need. Sleep comes easily; the best we can be is ready for the next watch as well as anything for which extra hands are required.
Peter has been doing 24-hour watches since he was a child and now as a licensed captain sleeping in snatches while being alert to ship and crew seems to be instinctive. No only does he come up the companionway to check on us, he uses whatever issue Jack and I are musing about as an opportunity for hands on instruction.
Unlike Steve Plantz, Peter was not one of those kids raised at sea. Thanks to a fortuitous set of circumstances, however, every summer he was able to step out of an otherwise normal American childhood. Starting at the age of nine he spent summers crewing on a sailing vessel which plied the Great Lakes 24 hours a day. Peter credits the Canadian youth program that seems almost a throwback to British naval training in 18th century with providing a solid foundation. He returned to the brigantine every summer until he was fourteen, when they were shipwrecked. As only of three of a crew of 33 neither injured nor a victim of seasickness, Peter recounts the details of this unwelcome opportunity to perform under stress. Jack and I listen in grateful amazement that this seafarer, not yet thirty years old, has nearly twenty years offshore experience.
We are under sail about 100 miles out. Our southeast course takes us past Prince of Wales Island in the morning and past Dixon Entrance in the afternoon.
Day 3 Friday, July 9 Weather
Coordinates at noon: 53º18’N 134º21′
At reports of worsening weather, we make a detour, motoring several hours to get out its path. Now southerly winds mix with rain and push us on. Opposite the Queen Charlotte Strait, the weather turns nasty. Peter and Kelsey take over at the helm and Jack and I go below.
Although we’ve cleared the deck of most everything, the preventer – a line that restrains the boom to prevent an accidental jibe – gets caught on on the aluminum swim ladder, bending it and forcing Peter to go forward to unhook it. Now that we’re rid of the old hard shell skiff that covered the place where the ladder is bolted to the deck we’ll have to do something about it. At the same time, the absence of skiff has vastly improved visibility. In fact, now we can sit on port or starboard and maintain our course by lining up numbers on the compass with stationary guides positioned 45º degrees to either side of the desired heading.
Sitting at the helm and using the compass works less well in coastal cruising. Along a coast you have one eye on the chart, the other usually on the point of land to which you’re headed. Water depths constantly change thanks to irregular bottoms and the high tides of the North Pacific. The shape of the land affects the velocity and direction of the winds and accounts for crazy currents and roiling rips. And you need to pay attention to other boats, and hope they are paying attention to you. After thinking about it a bit, Jack and I realize that offshore sailing under the tutorage of a skilled instructor and navigator can work for fledgelings learning to sail.
At the same time we’re thankful the skills in coastal navigation we’ve acquired and the different sort of concentration sailing in more sheltered water takes. We rarely do more than ten or twelve hours at a stretch between anchorages but long days are exhausting and often leave the First Mate pleading for extra hands on deck. But unless they’ve got specific assignments and really want to be there, having friends on board can be distracting. So we ponder ways to manage more challenging voyages and the practicality and prudence of well-thought out watches.
Watches also make a small boat feel much bigger. Except for a pre-departure dinner, we have not shared a meal with Peter and Kelsey. We’re hot berthing, sleeping in the same places close to the mast. That leaves accessible space for personal effects fore and aft. Finding things in a hurry is important. My undocumented stashing of foodstuffs in fridge, lockers and bilge has had us rifling a bit but [almost] never for important things like headlamps, gloves, wrenches, extra line, binoculars, duct tape and the like.
Day 4 Saturday, July 10 Musings
Coordinates at noon: 51º48’N 131º58’W
Jack and I pull daybreak and afternoon watches. The gleam of morning sneaks over the horizon covering the enormous swells with a skim of crinkled, pink foil. Minutes later the sea is billows golden chiffon. The hues are so vivid that we are tempted to wake up Peter and Kelsey but we regale them with stories and photos when they come on watch. After all we missed the aurora borealis; in 24/7 passage making you just can’t experience everything happening around you, although this comes pretty close.
Our six-hour afternoon watch follows a long satisfying nap and a good meal. Winds are from the northwest, seas are high, sun is full. In sweater sleeves – it’s warm – Jack and I alternate 30 minutes at the helm. We’re headed southeast – 135º magnetic – with ten knot winds moving Aurora along at five and a half knots. The lightness of the winds make it all the more difficult to keep the compass needle between 130ºM and 140ºM.
Captain Peter emerges briefly from the companion way to demonstrate the micro movements the helmsman must master. I keep my hands steady on the wheel, note the approximate orb and make it part of my rhythm. There no need to twirl the wheel or make big adjustments, if one stays attentive. And without headlands, mountains or stars to head for, all my focus is on the compass in front of me.
The sky is cloudless and the line of the horizon distinct. From where we are sitting in the cockpit, the horizon is a mere three and a half miles away. This is our own tiny patch of the Pacific. No wonder we’ve seen no other boats since that troller in the fog less than an hour out of Sitka.
The nearness of the horizon inspires reverence and respect. Our planet is small: it drops off quickly. When we gaze out on successive ranges of mountains, as you might do heading inland from the Oregon Coast, or looking northwest from Islamabad or Boulder, the world seems much bigger than it really is. The seas don’t lie. If we stand up on the spinnaker box on the deck against the mast, we might see a seven or eight miles radius to the horizon, from the top of the mast perhaps 25. A very compact area. Almost cozy. Nothing like I’d imagined. No wonder the ancient mariners knew the earth was a sphere, something it took centuries for their land-lubbing cousins to grasp.
I get better at keeping the yellow needle of the compass on target. I watch intensely as the black disk, all 360 degrees calibrated in white, bibs and spins in its ocean of oil under the glass dome of the compass. The compass is about 7 inches across, the radius to its horizon three-and-a-half inches, which echos the three-and-a-half miles of ours. Our great dome of the sky is now evenly light grey, like milky glass, the slate purple grey of the sea gently rocking and bobbing Aurora exactly in its center. I imagine a miniature sailing ship in a glass bottle, although this time it is a tiny Aurora floating at the center of the compass enclosed in the hemispherical glass dome atop the binnacle.
Day 5 Sunday, July 11 Encounters!
Coordinates at noon: 49º55’N 130º00’W
At about 50º10’N 130º30’W, when I am at the helm facing heavy seas, something smacks low against the keel. “Look at that sunfish!” Peter exclaims I manage to stay focussed and not turn around but Jack says it looks something like a huge barn door. “A barn door that must really hurt.” [ Wikipedia on sunfish: “unique fish whose bodies come to an end just behind the dorsal and anal fins, giving them a “half-a-fish” appearance….the largest of the ray-finned bony fishes, recorded at up to 3.3 metres in length and 2 tonnes in weight.]
The winds are stiffening now, but I am getting the hang of the helm. The helm is usually Jack’s task so this is great experience for me. To keep the ship on our heading of 135º magnetic, I need to keep that compass needle somewhere between 1-3-0 and 1-4-0 on the dial. Despite the good wind, the seas are rolling us a bit. My attention needs to be sharp and complete but my shoulders and hands relaxed as I turn the wheel. Toward the end of my watch, I enter yogic space between ease and effort and feel my practice is finally bringing results.
Then suddenly, the boom whirls across the cockpit in an accidental jibe. Worse, the force pulls the preventer, a block and line designed to prevent the wind from getting on the wrong side of the sail, right out of the boom. I am devastated.
Peter rushes up to deck and gets Aurora back on the proper heading. With a spare line about sixty feet in length we rig a makeshift preventer, tying one end to the boom and the other to a cleat in the bow, dipping and rising between great following waves. When Peter finishes, he asks me gently if I’m “ready to get back on the horse.” It’s noon, so I take the helm briefly while he goes below to check our position and progress of the past 24 hours and pencil them on the chart. When he emerges from the companionway, he says with a broad smile, “You’ll be interested to know that we’ve just crossed an area of magnetic disturbance.” Ah, ha! It was the compass that got mixed up!
For four days we’ve had our bit of ocean to ourselves, but on the evening watch Jack and I spot a southbound ship on the horizon and then another and another. Their massiveness is half hidden by the horizon and the huge swells make them disappear all together. At a distance of a couple of miles they are as benign as the three ships of the Christmas Carol sailing toward [landlocked] Bethlehem. But we know we are near an open ocean shipping lane and we intersperse visual checks of the horizon every five minutes with checks of the radar, which is bouncing with all the noise the waves are throwing up.
At midnight Kesley and Peter take over at the helm and shortly afterwards (49º30’N 128º20’W) Kelsey calls me back on deck. There’s a ship bearing at 2 o’clock and the disposition of its lights suggests it’s headed toward us and they are not responding to radio calls. Peter has turned into the wind in an attempt to speed past it, moving from his 090 heading to 060. Kelsey and I each take one of the high powered emergency lamps we’re carrying. I flood the sails with strong light while she flashes her light at the ship.
But the distance is closing and soon we see red and green: when both the port and starboard navigation lights are visible it indicates a collision course. I take the VHF and just keep hailing “the northbound freighter off the west coast of Vancouver Island”. No response, nothing, silence. Then miraculously, a weighty, Slavic accented voice responds. It’s a miracle. The Zim Djibouti asks our heading. “Okay,” says the captain, “I’m changing my heading.” Slowly the red light disappears and the white masthead lights creep apart to tell us we have their starboard safely abreast of ours. To come that close in such a huge ocean! The guy on the Zim Djibouti is clearly surprised but as relieved as we are. He is very nice. Explains that he couldn’t see us on his radar. Advises us to get a new reflector but our radar reflector is a good one and designed for offshore. It’s interesting how nearly everyone seems to have suggestions on stuff you can buy for your boat, even the captain of a passing freighter. [Later I check the Internet and learn that M/V Zim Djibouti is “one of the largest container ships operating in the world” and travels at 25.8 knots. And btw our radar detector is top of the line. Swells just too big. ]
As the night lengthens, my gratitude for the escape from danger multiplies and Nature co-conspires to regale us with a sublimely glorious encounter. Aurora’s wake is now a broad phosphorescent path behind the stern and the waves breaking around the cockpit are full of light. It’s the phenomenon of bio-luminesence, tiny marine organisms that emit light when surrounding waters are disturbed. It’s the sprinkles of sparkles seen when paddling at night, or in the splashes of a bucket drawn from the sea, or whirling around in the bowl of the head when it is flushed. But tonight we have a full-blown show. All around us – even at some distance – are light-capped waves. Billions and billions of creatures are performing for us! And then suddenly there are ribbons of light streaming alongside the boat, forward and aft, port and starboard. Dolphins! They dart to and fro, playing in our bow waves, enjoying their strength. In the tubes of light in which they swim we see their large white spots. Like firework-spouting tug boats escorting a great ocean liner into port, a pod of Pacific-white sided dolphins are our escort through this patch of wilderness night.
Beyond the continental shelf along Vancouver Island, the ocean floor slopes down to minue 10,000 feet or more to what is known as the Abbysmal Plain. But from these depths rise seamounts, knolls and ridges, giant underwater mountains. A few rise to just 1500 to 2000 feet below sea level, bringing rich habitat and dolphin feeding grounds just beneath our keel. This time the short intense blackness of our night has coincided with a wondrous display.
Day 6 Monday, July 12 Speed
Coordinates at noon: 48º52’N 126º30′
The adrenaline is flowing, keeping Peter’s judgement sharp and energy unflagging. He’s been at the helm most of the day and is totally in his element. He and Kelsey have double tethered and opted to stay on deck through our watch. Jack and I hand up Clif bars and exchange words from the companionway.
It’s too rough for Jack to go up to the cockpit; we both struggle to move around safely below as it is. Whereas we’ve been been using one salon berth and the floor below it – port or starboard as appropriate – now we are both bedded down on the sole. Were the boat to get tossed Jack would too and land on top of me. We feel the speed through the length of our spines as Aurora creaks and groans.
Peter has been sailing the Gulf of Alaska for years. In fact, this his second trip this summer, the first taking him from Seward to Juneau following a coastal cruise down the Inside Passage. Back when he started college in Olympia, he bought an old 27-foot Oday to have a place to live. Soon enough he had it fixed up and seems to sailed up the coast at every possible opportunity. So when the Environment Canada announces 25 to 35 knot winds he knows that not only is that fine, it’s also probably an exaggeration. Indeed, Jack and I have rarely experienced winds as strong as official Canadian predictions.
But today the winds are forty knots and gusting well above that. We thought that the Brooks Peninsula, which sticks out from the top of the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, might break up the swells a bit, but it is not to be. Kelsey has put the drop boards in the companionway hatch but occasionally will take the top one off and shout down “Fourteen and a half knots!” Anybody who knows anything about hull speed knows a forty foot boat can’t move this fast. But under these extraordinary conditions of high winds, broadly spaced swells and following seas, Aurora is surfing, riding half out the water, surfing.
A blend of intense concentration, physical strength, quiet confidence and sheer joy can be seen on Peter’s face every time we look up the companionway. He’s been at the helm fourteen hours straight and is going strong. There is nothing quite as efficient as forty feet of Valiant with Carol Hasse sails and free air.
The distant shore of Vancouver Island finally begins to recede as we round the southern tip. Once we have been soundly shaken by the confused winds and currents of the approach to the West Entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we got up on deck in the waning sun. This is our first time here but years of marine weather reports have established its reputation for being pretty terrible most of the time.
Dusk brings weariness. Justifiable for Peter and Kelsey, it becomes contagious. The shore of Washington state is in the distance: in a way we have arrived. As we cross the great shipping lanes of the Strait, we need to inform radio vessel traffic service that we’ve entered the strait. We hail “Seattle traffic” on channel 5A but get no response; maybe our VHF defaults to channel 5. We then try VTS for south of Seattle on channel 14, but they fail to respond. We’re down to our last set of fresh AA batteries for the GPS unit, though we can recycle the old ones and ones stolen from ordinary radios and flashlights. Remaining on the lookout in all directions, we cross the lane for the local westbound traffic, then the one for ships bound for the Pacific, then the mile-wide separation lane, and the eastbound, for vessels headed to Vancouver and Seattle, finally landing in the lane for local eastbound boats. Jack is consulting the Navionics charts on his iPhone, but the information he’s getting doesn’t gel with what Peter’s has. As black night closes tightly in, a ship passes in a place it clearly shouldn’t be. The currents are troubled and although I’ll confess it to no one, I suddenly feel my first discouragement all trip.
Peter reviews our options. We are opposite the reservation of the Makah Nation at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, where the lights of Neah Bay twinkle seductively. The promise of sleep brings the alertness we need to guide our ship and anchor in its tiny harbor.
Day 7 Monday, July 13 Stars
Coordinates at noon: 48º21’N 124º36′W
The sun streaming through the plexiglas of the aft cabin hatch finally wakes me from long uninterrupted sleep. The others are up. Kelsey and Peter smile broadly, as if on a drug-induced high, but thoroughly revived after going without sleep for more than twenty-four hours. Peter pencils the noon coordinates on the paper chart and discovers that we have covered 150 miles a day for three days in row. This is unheard of. Who gets back from Alaska that fast? Peter recounts how at one moment clocked a speed of 17.5 knots, the fastest he’s ever gone in any sailboat. It happened when a gust of 60 or 70 knots shoved a cresting swell from behind causing Aurora to soar and surf. On either side, walls of water shot past, enclosing the cockpit.
At last able to cook and safely cut up our remaining fresh fruit, we sit down to a huge breakfast. Some of us check voicemail and messages, others are just not ready. After a singular grasse matinee we lift anchor, tie up at the village dock, top off with fresh water and head to shore for AA batteries. Neah Bay is by no means affluent, but the waterfront seems forward looking with finishing touches being put on a new casino. Interestingly, Neah Bay is a dry town, like British Columbia’s Hartley Bay. Unlike the latter, however, there are stores. The big hardware store sports a bulletin board with up to date notices. Out front a girl at a card table is signing up people for an event. When pay for our batteries, we admire Makah baskets, drums and shell jewelry newly crafted by Neah Bay residents.
It’s already early afternoon when we head back out into the Strait. It’s blowing with gentle steadiness from the West. Soon our broad reach turns into wing and wing and eventually we pole out the jib on starboard. It’s a beautiful day, but there are hardly any other boats. We stay a mile or two off the Washington shore, passing Clallam Bay, Crescent Bay and Freshwater Bay, relishing the growing heights of the snowy Olympic peaks. Warm sun floods the cockpit. We thaw out a huge hunk of the king that Mike gave us back early June and feast on salmon, vegetables and rice and the dregs of plastic bag of Franzia merlot we find hiding behind the water bottles.
The mainsail on one side and the genoa on the other signal our forward progress as the fiery orb sinks behind a luminous horizon.
Then the stars appear, more and more and more of them. They come right down to the blackness of the land, to the jagged line where the Olympics fall to the sea. The firmament is a star-speckled blanket with a great cream stripe of Milky Way in the middle. We are still wing and wing with Peter at the helm. Unwilling to miss any part of it, he recommends three hour watches. I get to stay on deck while Jack and Kelsey go below.
The glow of lights that is Port Angeles passes on starboard and on port those of Victoria in the distance, on the more familiar shore. A westbound ship briefly breaks through the darkness and the silence and is gone. There is nobody else around. The Milky Way arches above us, framing the sails perfectly parallel to our beam. Engulfed in the theatrical resplendence of it all.
Suddenly Peter asks me to go below and bring up the high powered lamps. He has eyes in the back of his head and has seen or heard something I missed. Indeed, when I return I notice the green and red lights of a ship headed toward our port side aft. I throw a bright beam on our sails while he aims the second straight on the approaching vessel. Soon enough they hail us on the radio. It’s the Coast Guard and it’s their practice to board recreational boats, which after some discussion on their end, they decide they will do “as soon as we can get a boarding party together.” They ask if we have any arms; we reply no.
For the next two hours the peaceful silence of our run under sail is broken first by the Coast Guard cutter out of Port Angeles, which follows us throughout, and eventually by a noisy inflatable that draws up alongside. Weird as it is to have armed men enter your home in the middle of the night, we are ready. Back in Sitka, Jack has checked all the safety equipment according the checklist provided by Pacific NW Expeditions and Aurora’s documents are all in a plastic envelop in the nav station. Since my name’s on them as co-owner, I can handle it; Jack opts to stay holed up in our diminutive “aft cabin”.
Neither boarding a boat under sail nor being boarded is easy, much less in the black of night. But Peter’s cool at the helm and we figure we’re providing an excellent training opportunity to young Coast Guard recruits. The first man to stumble on says he needs to check to see if it’s safe for others in the boarding party. He goes down the companionway and checks all the bilges before giving the all clear. The inflatable pulls alongside again and dumps out two more guys. They are polite as they go through the checklist: Everybody’s got life jackets. Fire extinguishers recently checked and tagged. Emergency flares up to date. VHF works. “No Oil Dumping” decal posted (fortunately they have no authority to cite us for a dirty bilge). Navigation rulebook on the shelf. Correct illumination of navigation lights (this catches them up since few ever board boats under sail at night.) Documentation in order. The team leader sits in the cockpit, working on a little backlit PDA. I wonder why I need to sign on the screen before he prints out the little receipt but when I do everything checks out. He assures me that the receipt should protect us from routine boardings for three years. But, gee, two hours time with twenty men burning fuel idly in a 72-foot cutter and an 18-foot tender. Doesn’t the Coast Guard have more important things to do? Couldn’t we do this at dock? Just like we take our cars to garages for DEQ emissions checks?
We are still running gently wing and wing when Kelsey comes on watch to enjoy the quiet stars before the dawn dims them.
Day 8 Tuesday, July 14 Home
Coordinates: 48º6′N 122º46′W
I have just fallen into my deepest dreamiest sleep, when Kelsey wakes me. Deep fog has closed in, the currents are rushing together confused, and we’re nearing the point where the traffic lanes from Vancouver, Seattle, Bellingham and the Far East converge. It’s time to unhook the whisker pole that holds out the genoa and take down the sails. The fog shoves the horizon in near the boat. With the engine now, we won’t hear the behemoths that ply these waters so attention to both radar and our circle of horizon is all important. Even though we can see nothing, this is familiar territory. Juan de Fuca filled with fog and the crazy currents you endure rounding Point Wilson are the price you pay to get to Port Townsend. And today we are facing the height of the ebb with Puget Sound and Rosario Strait rushing into one another as they empty into the Pacific. Getting home seems to take forever.
But there is a silver lining in our slow, at times non existent progress against the current. Shortly after we have heard the last blow of Point Wilson’s fog horn, the sun breaks and its lovely red and white lighthouse comes into view. As we round the headland, we see the first of more than a hundred Native canoes. The annual canoe journey of the coastal tribes has come to Port Townsend this year! In two months in Alaska we saw Tlingit canoes every day: the ceremonial canoes of Hoonah are kept in front of the school, under a wooden canopy guarded by great totems, while Sitka’s great painted canoe is displayed on the waterfront park next to the library. But this is the first time we see one underway.
The canoes are long and short, with anywhere from six to twenty paddlers. Some are dressed in full regalia, others are bare chested. Some paddle confidently, others are flagging. There are vessels with high, elegantly carved bows. Others are covered with the distinctive stylized designs in the traditional red, turquoise, black and white. Many sport large flags. We watch the first canoes beach just west of the Marine Science Center and their tired crews disembark. As we round Point Hudson we see the long line of canoes emerging from Puget Sound. We later learn that this year’s Celebration will take the paddlers, and their accomplices in power boats laden with supplies, all the way to Neah Bay as it is the Makah Nation that is hosting the crowning event. Having just come from there, we have an idea of what they will be up against, and applaud their determination.
As wonderful as is Sitka, there is no town more beautiful and welcoming to mariners than Port Townsend. Still, when we tie up at the dock, I feel that familiar pang of regret. This voyage is over.