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Across the Atlantic
Alaska 2015

It was a long haul back to Kodiak for the Alaskan summer sailing season of 2015: Juba (South Sudan), Addis Ababa, Frankfurt, a nine-hour transpolar flight to Anchorage on a German charter airline, then a final one-hour hop on the Dash-8 of Ravn Air. The crew was despatched a week in advance of the captain, so she was able to get a lot of pre-splash jobs done, while living in the comfort of our favourite hotel, the Shelikof Lodge, and reacquainting herself with the denizens of McDonalds (mainly seasonal Spanish-speaking cannery workers).

Fitting Out and Shakedown Cruise

We found Bosun Bird in good shape, after what had apparently been a remarkably warm winter, with relatively little snow. Upgrades this year included a new solar panel and a new interior kerosene lantern; but we’d forgotten how light the days were in summer, even more so as we moved North from Kodiak, and so we never needed to use the interior light.

There are always a few things that go wrong after we’ve had a long break from sailing, and this year was no exception: we completely mismanaged the elementary manoever of backing out from our marina berth at St Paul Harbour for the first time and had to reverse most of the way to the open channel…Then, in the tranquillity of the lagoon at nearby Long Island a problem returned that we’d been trying for several years to ignore: the low-oil pressure alarm going off when starting the engine. It was tempting to think that the alarm must be faulty, but our boat maintenance manual – known in short-hand just as Calder, after its author – warned us in capital letters Never assume Error Messages Are Errors (presumably good advice for astronauts and pilots, as well). So, twice over and following the advice of our faithful long-distance Bukh diesel mentors in the UK, Norm and Al, we dismantled half the engine to clean out a pesky item known as the oil pressure relief valve. This worked for precisely one day – at which point we repeated…and thus far all has been well.

The other repair we needed to do was to the Windex: the sensitive, ultralight needle on the very top of the mast that indicates wind direction. An occupational hazard of berthing at St Paul is that bald eagles like to choose high points to perch and watch for possible prey: the Windex was not designed to support a 5kg predator (although it might have been funny to watch it gradually giving way)..

Female Steller sea-lions Male Steller sea-lion

In between bouts of wrestling with the Bukh, we went for long treks on Long Island, one afternoon out to a remote point that is only accessible via a rope-assisted cliff scramble and at low tide. Here we were rewarded with the spectacle of a half-dozen massive Steller sea-lion bulls hauled out in the kelp, grunting morosely at each other – perhaps contemplating the thirty or more much more svelte females crowded onto a pinnacle a mile or so offshore. The Stellers (no spelling mistake – they are named after the same naturalist responsible for Steller’s jay) are currently endangered and are very zealously protected, but it is not clear what has led to the decline in their numbers, as they have not now been hunted in almost fifty years – commercial salmon fishing may have something to do with it

Kenai Peninsula

The plan this summer was to move our base North and East: from Kodiak to Prince William Sound, the massive 100-mile square glacier-rimmed lagoon that is the mecca for anyone sailing Alaska. It would be about 250 miles, with the longest two single legs – about 75 miles each – demanding overnight passages; the good news was that overnight at this time of year was not a very meaningful term.

We began with a long first day of fifty miles, which took us between Marmot Island and Afognak Island, the smaller twin of Kodiak, immediately to the North. The Strait is three miles wide but currents run at up to five knots, so we sped through at eight knots over the ground, even though the winds were only light. We found secure anchorage at Seal Bay, on the North tip of Afognak, among a maze of small islands and drying rocks that had the crew puzzling for hours over our chart plotter, to find a way in. There are no roads on Afognak (and only a few km on Kodiak, for that matter) but there are a few residents.  Tucked away in the forest surrounding Seal Bay was Afognak Wilderness Lodge, an exclusive, fly-in fishing lodge. Luke, one of the young co-owners, greeted us from his aluminium fishing launch and invited us for a look around: five or six large log cabins in the woods, at the modest price (!) of USD $800  per night, plus flights…Luke later stopped by for a drink, and we found that we had mutual acquaintances, notably Phil, who had sailed with us for a year in the western Pacific aboard Mira, and whom Luke knew as 50-caliber Phil (for the gun with which Phil had shot his first moose).  In Alaska, Phil worked as bush pilot, flying yellow De Havilland Beavers for Andrew Airways.

We were nervous about the next stage: a 70-mile crossing in the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, to the mainland’s Kenai Peninsula, leaving the aptly-named Barren Islands to port. The Barrens had their own segment every day on the weather forecast, and the conditions were always a lot worse than anywhere else, partly on account of the massive tides that flow in and out of Cook Inlet daily, which the Barrens straddle. The US Coat Pilot, normally quite sober, warns:

The wind among the Barren Islands is often twice as strong as it is a few miles away and the seas are often three times higher, attaining speeds of 100 knots and heights of thirty feet respectively.

Barren Islands sunsetBut the forecast was good, and it held. The visibility was astounding, allowing us to glimpse the peaks of snow-capped volcanoes on the mainland a hundred miles away, and bathing the Barrens in an ethereal golden light as dusk set in around eleven p.m. It never really got dark.  The glow in the Northwest left by the setting sun merely moved slowly around to the Northeast, and even though the sky was cloudless, it was only dark enough to see a few stars. But the sea was black and as we raced along in a brief period of brisk twenty-knot winds, I was startled and horrified when a gleaming, wet grey rock suddenly appeared a few meters off our port side…only to sink again.  It was a humpback whale proceeding ponderously on his way; I wondered if he even knew we were there.

We made our landfall on the rugged Kenai Peninsula (the Eastern arm of mountains that forms Cook Inlet, at whose head Anchorage stands) at Gore Point and then began working our way into a complex maze of channels and islands, out of the ocean swell. This is a spectacular location.  The peaks rise steeply to at least 1700 meters all around, densely forested almost to the snowline, with hanging glaciers – a few massive tidewater glaciers too. A hundred years or more ago, people lived here: fox farmers, gold-miners, fishermen, but all the homesteads and mine works are now long-abandoned, and the only visitors come in by float-plane, kayak or sailboat.

Starting at Tonsina Bay – emerald, glacial waters with extensive tidal flats at its head – we worked our way up Nuka Passage, pausing at Home Cove to let a drizzle-bearing front move through. Home was an old native settlement.  There are no village remains left but a few of what are known in politically correct terms as Culturally Modified Trees: trees whose bark was harvested for the construction of kayaks, or in which holes were made for the extraction of resin, also for kayak-building purposes. 

Petrof Glacier Entrance to Palisade Lagoon

Anchorages were not always easy. One of the most tempting was an almost landlocked lagoon called Palisade, with impossibly steep mountains on all sides, entered through a 50-meter-wide breach only at slack tide. It was certainly protected, but far too deep for anchoring except off the tidal flats at the head of the bay; the problem here was that the depth went from two meters to over 30 in the space of two boats’ lengths, which meant for an uneasy night, as the depth sounder registered 25 meters one moment, only to have us almost aground the next. A compensation at Palisades was spotting a large black bear ambling along the beach as we cautiously motored in.

Black bear in Palisade Lagoon Thunder Bay

We sailed slowly on a beautiful sunlit day across the mouth of McCarty Fiord, with its massive glacier tumbling into the sea ten miles up-valley, through McCarty Narrows, and to our most dramatic anchorage yet: Thunder Bay. Great bare rock walls all around, with just enough of a breach at the head of the bay’s reverse L-shape to allow us to land and scramble part way up a rock fall to the first patch of snow. Here we collected salmon-berries, just before their northern range gave out and they were displaced for the rest of our cruise by blueberries.  

From Thunder, it was another overnight sail, to the western entrance of Prince William Sound. Glassy seas most of the way, but with an awkward swell that had us creaking and rolling all night. Away to port, hidden at the head of Resurrection Bay, must be Seward, the southern terminus of the Alaska railroad: we could tell it was there because a brilliantly-lit cruise ship, the Oosterdam, suddenly appeared out of the blackness and crossed our track. There were more boats, but much smaller, as we felt our way in to our intended anchorage at Fox Farm Bay, Elrington Island.  It was now the height of the salmon season, and from now on we would find fishing boats off most headlands, blocking two or three hundred meters of water with their seining nets.

Prince William Sound

Prince William Sound is essentially a large rectangle of water stood on its end, with the bottom (Southern) end of the box almost blocked by two high islands – Montague and Hinchinbrook, with Hinchinbrook Entrance between them – and the other three sides formed by high but glacier-riven mountains. There are three very small human settlements: Whittier in the far Northwestern corner, linked to the outside world via the longest road tunnel in North America, Valdez in the Northeastern corner – famous as the southern terminus of the Alaska pipeline, with a road out – and the small fishing village of Cordova in the Southeast, with no access except by sea or air.    The Sound is unfortunately infamous as the setting for the best-known of all environmental disasters, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez on Bligh Reef, near Valdez, in 1989, and the subsequent spilling of most of its 200,000 tons of Alaska crude.  But recovery from that disaster has been considerable, and Prince William is now a sailor’s and kayaker’s paradise, with its literally hundreds of secure anchorages, protected waters, and dramatic mountain scenery that includes dozens of tidewater glaciers. We were told that if you dig down on beaches, you will find oil: it will be many years before recovery is truly definitive.

We were blessed with uncharacteristically fine weather as we worked our way first up the deeply-indented western side of the Sound: hot, cloudless days, but very little wind. Most days on the VHF’s Channel 16 we’d hear the commercial fishermen talking to each other but on fine weekends a small flotilla of sports fishermen with their runabouts based in Whittier would be on the water. They weren’t always that well-prepared: in the space of one weekend, we eavesdropped on Coastguard Sector Anchorage orchestrating no less than three non-emergency rescues for boats that had run out of gas or had mechanical issues. The recreational boats seemed somehow to have characteristic names – Ciao Baby, Bonecrusher, Saltwater Addiction – distinguishing them from the working fishing boats (Icy Cape, Akatan Lady).

Fishing boat in Prince William Sound Purse seiner in Prince William Sound

We diverted deep to the Southwest into a complex of fiords with the name Port Nellie Juan, spending a couple of nights in a tight one-boat nook called Nellie’s Rest. Using the nautical chart for guidance, we bush-whacked through a couple of kilometres of dense rainforest to emerge at the terminal moraine of the Nellie Juan glacier: a long gravel spit all but blocking the fjord, with dozens of icebergs marooned by the tide on its glacier side. Some of these bergy bits would die on the strand, for we were at the highest tides of the month and they would not float off again, but many of those in the bay would eddy back and forth for weeks, a few of the smaller ones being caught up by the torrent that pushed over a low part of the moraine at high tide and drifting out to the wider world. We edged around the bay until we could see the face of the glacier: two kilometers wide, a hundred meters high of blue, white ice from which a great chunk would occasionally detach itself and rumble into the water. On some of the more hospitable ice-floes, harbour seals lolled as if sun-bathing.

Nellie Juan Glacier Bergy bits at Nellie Juan Glacier
Harbour seals Nellie Juan Glacier

Barge transported inland by 1964 tsunamiAt Mink Island, off Port Nellie Juan, were reminders not of the Exxon Valdez but of another disaster. In 1964 a 9.2 Richter Earthquake, the second most powerful ever recorded, devastated much of this part of Alaska.  The Chenega native village was destroyed (and has now been relocated) and canneries, sawmills, homesteads all over the coast were inundated or collapsed. 100 meters deep into the bush at Mink is a wooden barge, half the size of a football field, lifted here and dumped by the tsunami; it now has tress growing up through its grey, rotting boards.

In view of the lack of wind, we were doing a lot more motoring than we had anticipated, so we decided to call in on Whittier and replenish our diesel supplies.

Whittier is in the most unlikely of locations, at the very head of a steep-sided channel called Passage Canal, directly overlooked by several glaciers. It was established in WW2 by the US Army at a time when a sustained Japanese attack on mainland Alaska looked possible: Whittier, shrouded in cloud most of the year and all but surrounded by near-vertical granite peaks, was a rare ice-free location on the mainland accessible to ships and, once a rail tunnel was bored under the Portage Glacier, it was linked directly to Anchorage. In Cold War days Whittier saw a new lease of life as a secret Army base and two massive, monolithic building were erected to house hundreds of servicemen. the14-storey Begich Tower and even larger Buckner Building. The military are long gone, and all of Whittier’s 140 permanent residents now live in the Begich Tower, which has its own Post Office, shops and gym and which is linked to the few other buildings in town by tunnels. The Buckner complex is in post-apocalyptic ruins, half-engulfed by the rainforest; apparently its asbestos roofing makes it too dangerous to demolish. It is all very weird indeed.

We chose our moment carefully. The head of Passage Canal, where Whittier sits is, as the crow flies, only a few miles from Cook Inlet, otherwise reachable only by a 350-mile detour around the coast.  Begich Tower, WhittierBoth Cook inlet and Prince William Sound generate their own weather systems, such that there may well be high pressure in Cook Inlet and low in PWS (or vice-versa); this in turn generates regular gale force winds up and down the Passage, and means that a feature of daily weather forecasts is a computer generated lady’s voice that reports on the pressure difference between Whittier and Anchorage. So in the space of a few hours, we tied up at the boat harbour, loaded up on diesel, renewed our wine supplies, had a fish and chips meal out at the Swiftwater Restaurant, and retreated once again to the wilds of Prince William.

Now we were at 61 degrees North and working our way across the top of the chart, from left to right. Many of the fjords coming down from the dramatic mountain skyline were shown only in dotted lines, and there was wild divergence between our single, overall chart and the more detailed, up-to-date charts we had of specific regions.  This is because most of the glaciers, especially the massive Columbia, the second largest in North America, are in what is termed by the scientists as Catastrophic Retreat: indeed the face of the Columbia can no longer even be seen from the point where it is shown as terminating on the 1970s chart.

Each anchorage seemed more dramatic than the last; by now we agreed that we had never cruised in such a spectacular landscape. The challenge was finding slopes that were gentle enough to walk up, so we could fully appreciate the scenery. We were using an excellent Cruising Guide, by Jim and Nancy Lethcoe, that gave number of hints about hikes, but it took us a while to figure out that when Nancy referred to, for example, Peak 2561, this meant that this was a 2500ft mountain marked as such on the chart; generally, we were best off taking the hikes she recommended as Suitable for Children. There are no paths, no trails, and it can take an hour or more to traverse a hundred meters of steep, densely forested hillside at this, the lushest time of year – with an eye over your shoulder, all the time, for bears. The consolation was that, by now in August, the blueberries were at their peak.

The salmon runs were also peaking. In more and more locations, we would find the flats at the head of our bay strewn with dead salmon, the streams choked as desperate, thrashing Pinks and Humpies fought each other to gain a meter or so up-current, and at Beartrap Bay the entire anchorage was literally strewn with hundreds of dead, floating salmon, borne in and out by each tide.  It was quite moving to observe this phenomenon: the amazing sense by which each fish knows, after as many as four years roaming the Pacific, exactly where it must return to, the urge to spawn and then die. The phenomenon attracts bears, of course, and gulls by the thousand, in an orgy of feeding and excess before the lean times of winter set in. 

Dead salmon after spawning More dead salmon

The Sound is also a favoured haunt of Sea Otters. Hunted nearly to extinction starting in the 17th Century, they have now recovered dramatically and can be found lolling around on their backs, preening themselves, in large gatherings known as rafts. You would not be surprised, such is their apparent laziness, to come across one with a cocktail on his chest, perhaps topped with a red paper parasol. They sleep on the surface and often do not hear sailboats approaching until the last moment – at which they look up in a comically startled manner before diving seal-like and emerging in your wake.

Raft of sea otters Sea otter swimming
Sea otter relaxing Sea otter snoozing

Columbia was the second great glacier we inspected close-up. So fast has been this glacier’s recent retreat that the amount of bergs it generates can often clog the waters for many miles around, so we did some quizzing of local boats before we edged our way into Glacier Passage and then Heather Bay, right to the very place where the old chart showed the face to be.  There were a few house-sized pieces we needed to dodge, and quite a lot more vehicle-size, but nothing too threatening. We walked the last three or four kilometres to the 1970’s limit: a great field of icebergs as far as you could see, one as large as a three storey house grounded on the beach in front of us, but the main face of the glacier already out of sight around a distant bend.

Columbia Glacier Moraine of Columbia Glacier

Bligh ReefStill moving clockwise, now we started South, down the Eastern side of the Sound. We crossed Valdez Arm, taking good care to avoid the triangular black marker on a pole that now indicates the location of Bligh Reef. The story is that, on that March night in 1989, Captain Hazelwood had a Scotch-on-the-rocks (or a Tanqueray on the Rocks, if you go in for dreadful puns) at the Pipeline Club in Valdez before easing his 200,000-ton supertanker through Valdez Narrows and into the main Sound. There was a lot of ice about from the Columbia, so he asked permission briefly to deviate to port from the designated shipping lane, and avoid it. Why no subsequent course correction was made remains unclear.  Tthe Pipeline has now become an unusual tourist attraction in its own right (although Lonely Planet suggests that ‘if you have ever hugged a tree in your life…this smoky lounge may not be for you’).

At Olsen Bay, in Port Gravina, we made another heroic bushwhack all for the sake of a fine view of Bosun Bird from far above, and then – with bad weather finally forecast – we scuttled for cover in the imposing but dark and claustrophobic Beartrap Bay, where it rained for 36 hours solid and we floated among thousands of dead salmon. No bears here, but a few miles on, in Comfort Cove, a black bear ambled morosely along the beach, 100 meters way, nosing at the dead salmon on shore.

There were signs now – in late August - that Alaska’s short but spectacular summer was coming to an end, with deep lows sweeping in from the Aleutians, threatening winds of 40 to 60 knots. We made for Cordova, our final destination.

Cordova, one of only three settlements in the Sound and with a population of 2000, is snugly located on a narrow, shallow inlet, with high mountains all around, and has no road to the outside; the only way in and out is by the Alaska State Ferry or by air. We tied up in the crowded fishing harbour just as dozens of salmon fishing boats were also decommissioning and readying for the winter: the walkways were busy with bearded young men carting duffel bags ashore, a few holding earnest conversations by cellphone with patient (or not so patient…) girlfriends and wives in the Lower 48. Sea Otters rolled around lazily in the harbour, even hauling themselves out – very occasionally – on empty docks; you almost never see a Sea Otter out of the water. Cordova Harbour

There weren’t too many sailboats around.  Anne, a veteran Alaska fishing captain, lived on a Vancouver 25 (we never knew there was such a thing) and was learning to sail: a tough classroom. Then, after a couple of days, we were surprised to see another Canadian flag flying from a tough steel boat called Balthazar. Claire and Guy, from Montreal, we were soon firm friends; they were working their way South towards Canada having traversed the Northwest Passage, starting in la Gaspesie, and had many adventures to tell.

Down at the boatyard, Glenn, the Travelift driver, confided that he had not hauled many sailboats but his professional pride was piqued when we mentioned that Bill Fader, back in Kodiak and one of only three or so Travelift drivers in the entire region, had twice put us out and in without any problems.  He measured us carefully, Googled our bottom, and gave us precise instructions – to the minute – about when to arrive at the Travelift.

Bosun Bird weighed down for the winter williwawsAll went well. Jerry, whose standing supports we would rent for the winter, was also a little preoccupied.  He confessed he had ‘lost’ the last sailboat he had blocked: it had simply taken off into the air when the boatyard was hot by a 140 knot williwaw. So we jointly pondered how to make Bosun Bird safer than ever.  The solution (fingers crossed) was to truck in three exceedingly heavy blocks (two of lead, from the keel of the defunct sailboat; the third of concrete) and strap Bosun Bird down to them.

It took us a surprising amount of time to decommission for the winter, and we virtually filled a garage-size storage unit we rented. Adding a little to our stress levels was the now rapidly deteriorating weather. Two days running the ferry to Whittier (the road connection to Anchorage and our international flight out) was cancelled due to high winds, and the day for which we had reserved, there was a forecast of 70 knots for nearby Valdez Arm. But weather is really, really local here: we had a fast crossing at 36 knots, retracing in three hours what had taken us nearly five weeks of meandering sailing.  Fairweather ferry

Back in Juba, where our combination of seemingly interminable flights terminated, it was 36 degrees. It was sad to leave Bosun Bird, but the Cordova harbourmaster had given us a tip before we left: there is a webcam mounted just above the harbour that gives us a view of the weather and over the harbour, in real time; the only trouble is that whenever we remember to look…it’s pitch dark and only a few lonely lights can be seen.

More: Alaska 2016

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