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Japan to Alaska

The dilemma when attempting to sail from Japan to North America is that you want to wait late enough in the season so that the Pacific High, normally centered somewhere north of Hawaii, has strengthened to such an extent that you can ride up its northwest quadrant towards the Aleutians, then steer across the top of it for Alaska or British Columbia, all the time (supposedly) enjoying favourable winds. A mare's tail sky foretells bad weather within 24 hoursBut as the summer advances, so does the risk of typhoons in the Western Pacific: in both 2011 and (as we saw) in 2012, Super typhoons had spawned as early as late May. Accordingly, as and when you bite the bullet and leave, you must not attempt to head North too early: it's more important to make Easting and put yourself on the far side of the average track of typhoons and tropical storms.

For the first 1000 miles, we steered East. And the winds were invariably from the East, Northeast or Southeast, with the exception of one very uncomfortable period of 40 knot southerlies that pushed us onwards but made for a couple of very unpleasant, rain-lashed nights with us us progressively reducing sail until we were finally running under bare poles (i.e. with no sails at all).

This was not especially pleasant. But then, after one moderately sunny day with a glorious sunset, the fog also set in. It stayed with us almost all the way to Alaska, and day upon day would pass with visibility at no more than 100 metres, often accompanied by a fine drizzle. We had hoped to spend many of the night watched listening to our i-Pod but in these conditions it seemed wiser to be listening for ship's engines and/or for the alarm on our AIS (a VHF-radio based detection system) that would indicate a ship on a converging course with ours.

More positively, thanks to the help of our friend Adachi San from Suma and to the Japanese Coast Guard, we had discovered how to track the Kurushio (Black Current, the Western Pacific's answer to the Gulf Stream): for several days it gave us a free ride, adding sometimes two or three knots to our speed. And the there was the wildlife we were never without the company of birds, including a solitary Laysan Albatross and the rarer Black-footed Albatross, whom we named – respectively – Albert and Black Albert. At night tiny storm petrels squawked around the stern, by day dancing in the foam of our bow waves, and for several days a squadron of porpoises came by to give us company.

Albert shows off his low flying Beating to windward, east of Japan

Little by little we settled into our routines: downloading the weather every morning at 09:30 and sending our position and the climatic conditions to Yotreps, the crew sleeping in the morning and the captain in the afternoon, the position plotted again every evening at 18:30 and the daily run reckoned. Every day we oiled our trusty Aries windvane, checked the rigging visually, made minor repairs; a particularly delicate operation was taking apart one of the sheet winches in a heavy seaway when it developed the habit of popping off its base. Our Japanese-bought white bread lasted surprisingly long: 14 days (well, maybe not so surprisingly given the chemicals with which it is no doubt infused) but after this we would bake every three days. It was a sad afternoon when we ate our last Japanese Chocolate Chip Melonpan.

Downloading the weather forecast Oiling the Aries windvane

We read voraciously but the repertoire was not necessarily of the highest quality: for some reason we had this time ended up with a disproportionate number of second-hand paperbacks on serial killers, as well as the usual chick lit pulp. After a week of rain and fog, much of our library was almost literally pulp anyway, and we were reduced to drying out the worst affected and soggiest volumes on top of the oven (a literal version of Cooking the Books....??)

Cooking the books The crew goes off watch

At 1000 miles we reckoned the highest risk of typhoons was now behind us and we began edging more towards the North. But still the winds baffled us, sending us alternately further North and further South than we would have wished: only once we passed the meridian (i.e. the dateline: 180 degrees East/West) did we start to get some help from following winds. We celebrated first half way, then the meridian with photos in the cockpit, special meals and a daring glass of warm Shochu (Japanese liquor); it was particularly interesting watching the GPS flip from 180E to 180W in a matter of a split second.

Celebrating the meridian with gifts from our Japanese friends Crossing the Dateline: note the longitude reading

Contrary to our expectations, we did not encounter an inordinate amount of garbage left over from last year's tsunami: maybe once every two or three days we might glimpse a few square inches of foam or a PET bottle, certainly nothing that would endanger our progress. Four or five days would go past without our encountering a ship and then, when we crossed one of the Great Circle Routes to LA or Seattle, there would be four or five; there was a particularly intense and unexpected flurry of traffic on the Eastern side of Unimak Pass, near Dutch Harbour. The chances of a collision occurring, even if one were to take no evasive action, would logically appear to be very low but these encounters can still be very stressful as you attempt to figure out the light configuration of the ship in question, while fretting about Bosun Bird's limited manoeuvrability in heavy weather. Adding to the tension during the latter half of this passage was the increasingly erratic performance of our AIS receiver, which developed the habit of noting some ships only after they had passed.

Sunset south of Kodiak Landfall on Cape Sitkinak

Friday August 3rd and we were exactly six weeks out from Shimoda (we had Friday July 20th twice, on crossing the dateline). As dusk fell we were just able to make out the distinctive outline of Sitkinak Island, one of Kodiak's outliers. As if to reward us for our patience, next day the weather gods were generous: brilliant sunshine, pleasant following winds (the first time we had had such a combination) and there to port were the jagged snowcapped peaks of Kodiak itself. Albert and Black Albert were now joined by puffins, fulmars and dozens of juvenile Black-footed Albatrosses; a Humpback whale surfaced, sighed and sank again; for twenty minutes or so a squadron of killer whales went about their business some 100 meters away from us. For the first time in weeks were able to strip off the top layer of our cumbersome foul-weather gear and feel a semblance of warmth. A helicopter from the massive US Coatguard Base on the island briefly disturbed the peace by buzzing us and Jenny wondered if Kevin Costner (of Kodiak-set The Guardian fame) might be aboard.

Kodiak Island Killer whale (orca) and Northern fulmar, off Kodiak

The moon came up, the humpbacks returned. By dawn, we were negotiating the complex entrance channel to St Paul's Harbour, Kodiak, comparing those perplexing green, white and red flashes with the notations on the chart; chunky fishing boast chugged outwards.

Arrival at St. Paul's Harbour, Kodiak IslandIt had been 43 days and 3500 miles since the loom of Yokohama had faded astern.

Our base in Kodiak was St Paul harbour – one of two working fishing harbours in town, with sailboats in a very distinct minority. We were at the height of the salmon-fishing season so boats were coming and going every day, tying up for a few hours to change crews after unloading their catch at one of the several Kodiak canneries. The ocean is wilder and colder here than off Japan so the vessels are larger, more sturdy; the language of the fishermen is more robust as well, with every other word seeming to be an expletive beginning with F. Occasionally tourists would wander down onto the pontoons, looking for the Anne Marie or the Kodiak Belle; we learned that while we had been absent in warmer waters, a big hit on North American TV had been a “reality” series called The Deadliest Catch, filmed largely around Kodiak and Dutch Harbour.

On the FM Radio you could pick up three religious stations and two Country and Western: we were back in small-town America. Although Alaska has long been one of the wealthiest states in the US it has its share of homeless persons and eccentric characters whom somebody should really be looking after; in summer it also has a lot of temporary workers who, having come from afar to work long shifts in the canneries, are lodged in bare-bones bunkhouses with nowhere to go in their short periods of free time. This motley community gathers at McDonald's every morning to nurse single coffees for hours on end, then – as soon as it opens – in the public library. The grey-haired, bespectacled library attendants had a hard time of it as groups of lively Salvadorenos loudly discussed the rainy climate among themselves; students from “America” (the lower 48) ignored the no-eating rules and called “Hey dude!” across the stacks; mildly deranged men sought dates on the internet while muttering loudly to themselves.

Fishing boats in St. Paul Harbour, Kodiak McDonalds, Kodiak

We were very lucky to be able to hook up with Phil, an old sailing friend last seen in Kagoshima, Japan, fifteen months earlier; he now lives on his Amel, Victoria, at St Herman harbour. Phil was kind enough to lend us his pick-up while he was working in the day, as a bush pilot. Even more kindly, he got us seats one morning in the rear of his venerable yellow De Havilland Beaver float-plane, and flew us down to the south end of the island. It was a foggy day, so to begin with we hugged the coast, seemingly only a few feet above the ocean, but the cloud lifted and soon we were treated to spectacular panoramas of the bays and rugged mountains to port. We landed on a quiet lake surrounded by steep, green hills and Phil led us up a stream to an artificial weir and fish ladder.

Kodiak Island from the air Nick, Phil,Jenny and Phil's de Havilland Beaver

Here we were treated to the spectacle of two enormous Kodiak bears – the largest bears in the world – and their cubs, fishing for salmon in the pool twenty or thirty meters below us. Intent on feeding, they seemed scarcely to know we were there; but you would not want to get on the wrong side of one of these behemoths.

Kodiak bear, Fraser Lake, Alaska Kodiak bear, Fraser Lake, Alaska

After a few days, another yacht appeared; Rick on Freestyle. Rick had left Osaka Bay a few days after we had left Shimoda and for several weeks at sea we had been exchanging e-mails and commiserating about the fog; he had made a number of stops in the Aleutians en route. Now we could put a face to a boat-name; with Phil, we all went to eat sushi and sashimi at Kodiak's prime eatery, The Old Power House, run by Japanese-Californian disciples of the Rev Moon.

WW2 bunkers, KodiakA further excursion took us on foot to a densely forested reserve just outside town. The dark and dripping spruce forest, with its unique aroma, reminded us of home. At strategic points along the clifftop were the remains of WW2 bunkers, a reminder of the days early in the war when the Japanese took Attu, bombed Dutch Harbour and looked likely to threaten the Alaskan mainland. The enormous US Coastguard Base that now exists on Kodiak occupies the old naval installations; great red and white Hercules aircraft drone overhead several times a day.

Bosun Bird on her cradle at Fuller'sWe had decided prior to arriving in Kodiak that we wanted time fully to explore Alaska by boat before heading south to British Columbia; summer was already almost gone, so we resolved to haul Bosun Bird out of the water, place her in storage, and go back to work (in Juba, South Sudan) for at least one year. Putting the boat to bed involved all sorts of miscellaneous jobs from winterising the engine and plumbing to taking down the solar panels, storing clothes and sails in a commercial warehouse, having a wooden cradle built and so on.

We also replaced our forward hatch, which turned out to be more complicated than anticipated. It turned out that there was no new hatch on the market that fitted the hole in our deck so, rather than expand the hole, we constructed a collar to take a hatch that was slightly smaller than the hole. Several key bolts could only be inserted when the hatch was fully open, but in situ it would only open half way.....you get the picture. We also arranged to have a cover made for the rear third of the boat; when we return to Bosun Bird, this will effectively give us an extra cabin when at anchor or in a marina for prolonged periods.

When the day came to haul out – at Fuller's Boatyard – we transferred to a hotel and, a day or two later, to the Kennikott, an Alaska State Ferry. The six-day sail down to Bellingham (near Seattle) was unexpectedly spectacular – in that, contrary to our expectations of fog and rain, the sun shone the entire way, allowing us wonderful sights in Prince William Sound, the Gulf and the Inside Passage. While we luxuriated in having someone else worry about the weather for a change, our appetite was already whetted for a return to these waters in the not-too-distant future.

MV Kennicott (Alaska state ferry) Humpback whale, Alaska Peninsula

Alaska Peninsula

Mt. St. Elias from the Gulf of Alaska

More: Alaska 2013

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