Sitka, Alaska is a flat out cool spot. Pulling into the harbor’s western anchorage through the breakwater, we could instantly tell the place was special. On our approach from the north after spending a quiet night in a nearby cove, Jill and I remarked to each other about how beautiful the town appeared to be from the water. With sun gleaming off of craggy, snowcapped mountains that seemed to shoot straight up from the city’s subdued skyline, and tall, green conifers growing thick underneath it all, there was just something about the scene that instantly captured the senses.
After rounding the top of Baranof Island en route from Warm Springs Bay and stopping at a handful of anchorages along the way, it had been over three weeks since we left Ketchikan and Yahtzee and her crew were in need of a good stock up and cleaning. If there ever was a place to enjoy some time ashore, get things done and eat a few good meals, our five days in Sitka was it.
Sliding sideways with the flood current through a narrow, rock-strewn channel called Devil’s Elbow, I watched the depth sounder read 6 feet under the keel then 4 before Jill came out of the companionway as it reached 1.8. The sun was nearing the tops of the mountains on our bow and I held a hand up above my eyes to shield them from the bright light. Picking out the next navigation aid, I waited and gave the engine a burst in forward to ease through the shallow water and around a small island to a perfectly protected anchorage.
That was the skinniest section of water in the aptly named Rocky Pass, and local fisherman we’d talked to had recommended reaching it at or near high tide. To get there from Port Protection we’d sailed too fast, which is a good problem to have, and chose to anchor short of the elbow to wait for more water to come in. To pass the time, we went ashore to wander around and then made dinner before getting underway again prior to sunset. The days are getting long and with useable daylight from 5 a.m. until after 9 p.m., we had time and flexibility to move the few extra miles if we wanted. Such is life in Southeast Alaska.
The Rhythm of Cruising
What we’re learning about cruising here is that it has a lot in store for those who have time to wander around by boat — more than we ever imagined. We’ve sailed a lot and motored some while playing the 13-plus foot tidal swings and their associated currents to our advantage. We’ve gazed at sweeping mountain views in awe and have relished the sight of whales, moose, seals, sea lions, eagles and every manner of sea bird.
The wind was up and lunch was on the stovetop when I hoisted Yahtzee’s mainsail outside of the tiny cove and community of Meyers Chuck in Southeast Alaska. Whitecaps crested the wave tops and when I looked south and saw a long line of rain enveloping tall, snow-capped mountains in the distance, I knew more wind was coming.
Accordingly, I tucked a single reef in the main and after turning north and easing the sail out, Yahtzee gathered speed and shot forward with a rush. The real wind came shortly after I finished my lunch, and with it came a drizzle that turned into a steady rain. Soon, the seas in Clarence Strait were whipped into a frenzy and Porter and I shared “Whoo-Hoos!” while surging down the waves.
With a favorable current, and breeze that eventually topped out in the high 30s and low 40s, we zoomed north at a brisk pace and even hit 14 knots on one big surf. Our destination hadn’t been determined when we left but by late afternoon a safe harbor was on the mind and we ducked into Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island. Except for what we’d read in the cruising guide, we knew virtually nothing of the place and were surprised to find a near empty marina sitting in front of a quaint Alaskan town.
Finding True Alaska
It’s days later now and I’m still smiling about the whole experience. Yes, the sailing has remained awesome since arriving in Alaska, but our time here has become more about the places and people along the way — about slowing down and connecting with the wilderness and communities that are inextricably woven within it.
We weren’t in a rush to reach Alaska, but by the time we got here we’d put in a fair amount of miles and decided it was time to take it easy and soak in a destination we’d dreamed of. When we bought Yahtzee five years ago, sailing to Alaska was a goal. A dream. We didn’t know when it would happen, how long it would take or what the actual route even looked like, we just knew we’d get there. Being that we’re not the type of sailors to sit at the dock and ramble on about fixing our boat and half-baked aspirations for what we’d do with it, we chipped away at the dream and made it happen. And here we are.
Pardon my lack of posts lately. We did a bit of sailing this week.
It started last Thursday (4/20) when we caught an extremely favorable southerly wind for a 160-mile overnight passage from the northwest corner of Vancouver Island to the bottom of Haida Gwaii. Continuing north with the breeze, we went up through incredible Gwaii Haanas National Park before sailing across Hecate Strait to the northern BC coast. Then on Tuesday afternoon we made the hop over the border under a shining sun and our bright blue spinnaker to Ketchikan, Alaska.
Pulling into Bar Harbor Marina here in Ketchikan and checking into the USA was a wonderful feeling. Greeted with the last sun rays of the day, snowcapped mountains and friendly locals, it was exactly a month to the day since we departed Victoria with a simple plan to head north under sail. In that time we’ve put over 700 miles behind Yahtzee’s stern and only 90 of those — 90! — have been upwind.
But it was never really about the miles. It was all about the sailing. From day one until crossing the border, our goal in reaching Alaska was about sailing as family. Not pushing it, but waiting for it and living it — and we’ve done that.
The green mountains of the Brooks Peninsula shot up into the clouds off our starboard side. In front of us, Solander Island and its rocky, toothlike shape pierced straight from the depths of the sea. A deep blue Pacific Ocean with frothing white waves, meeting an equally blue and white sky, rose and fell around and under us. And Yahtzee’s white sails spread out wide full of breeze, moving us fast downwind.
With all four of us in the cockpit, we surfed the swell, smiled at one another, whooped it up and danced to the rhythm of the boat moving with the waves. There’s nothing I love more in life than my family and sailing, and if this day could have continued forever or been bottled and kept for a rainy day, I would have.
Shortly after arriving in Barkley Sound, I took my usual long hard look at the weather and began to notice a string of intense lows setting up for a long march eastward across the vast openness of the North Pacific Ocean. The frequency and pattern of the systems seemed somewhat atypical for this time of year and I remarked to Jill, “I have a feeling the weather is going to get real weird for about the next 10 days to two weeks.” Turns out, I didn’t realize how right that assessment would be.
Fast forward about a week and our intended one or two day stop in Ucluelet — or Ukee as it’s affectionately known — started to slow down when an intense low, followed by a slightly weaker one, was forecast to sweep in off the ocean and pummel the Pacific Northwest. The pressure of this low was something more akin to the storms we get in late fall and early winter, and having cruised through many of those, we had no intention of being at anchor or underway when the storm force winds started driving ashore.
When the sun burst through the clouds it felt like a dream. Standing with arms wide open, face pointed skyward, I finally felt like spring was upon us. And Barkley Sound came alive.
The days following our arrival in the Sound had been quite the opposite. It seemed as though a hose was being aimed directly at the Pacific Northwest from the ocean and we endured multiple days of pouring rain and gray skies. At times it rained so hard that I awoke suddenly and laid in bed thinking, “How long can this continue?” Everything was wet it seemed — inside and out.
Before we reached the long ocean swell of the Pacific I could feel what was coming. The wind was going to build, the waves were going to stack up and oppose one another, and the sailing was going to be a mix of awesome and miserable. All of that and more came true.
Our journey started in Victoria’s Cadboro Bay on a sunny morning with an unfavorable westerly gale. It was howling out there but our intention was to only get about 15 to 20 miles so we’d be within striking distance of Barkley Sound the following day.
The gale was set to subside as the day wore on and we waited in Cadboro Bay until the late afternoon before heading out. At Trial Island the strong ebb tide slung us westward and the once palpable breeze soon began to die. With a modest southwesterly left in its place, we motorsailed towards Race Rocks and had three anchorages in mind: Pedder Bay, Quarantine Cove and Becher Bay. The first two are before Race Rocks, so if the wind stayed up and we had to beat slowly west we’d stop there. If we moved faster and could get through the rocks before nightfall, we’d stop in Becher Bay.
This is the sixth in our ongoing series called “5 Favorites” in which we’ll explore a range of topics including memorable anchorages, marina showers, cruise-in breweries, parks of the Gulf Islands, the joys of winter cruising, fun things to do, meals to make aboard and much more. The aim is not to make a list of “bests” or to rank things, but rather to provide an entertaining and insightful look at what we’ve enjoyed while cruising the Pacific Northwest. And since every boater has their favorites, we invite you to share yours in the comments below.
Fuel, water, provisions, a trip to the chandlery, showers and laundry, and the proposition of a hot meal cooked by someone else are some of the many things that boaters look for when stopping during a cruise. Most experienced Pacific Northwest mariners have their favorite marinas and ports of call along the way, and whether they’re utilitarian, charming or both, one of the great things that makes cruising the Salish Sea so special is the immense amount of quality stops we can make. Just like all my 5 Favorites articles, my top five cruising towns were difficult to narrow down. But here goes…
In a way, San Juan Island’s Friday Harbor has turned into a home base for us while cruising the San Juans over the past three winters. For cruisers who are paying a quicker visit, though, there is U.S. Customs & Immigration, ferry and floatplane service to drop and pickup guests, ample room to anchor, a welcoming marina operated by the port, two grocery stores for provisions, boating services, a fuel dock, a small chandlery, a hardware store and more. Friday Harbor also houses several great restaurants and bars on or near Spring Street, a welcoming library, numerous specialty shops and is home to The Whale Museum, which promotes “stewardship of whales and the Salish Sea ecosystem through education & research.”
Beyond all of that, we’ve found the town to be particularly welcoming to our family and have met residents during the offseason that befriended us like we are one of their own. For the boys, the Family Resource Center, library story times, A Place to Play and the pool at San Juan Island Fitness are all great entertainment, especially during the wetter and darker days of winter. And joining in the town’s Halloween festivities and Turkey Trot for Thanksgiving have been highlights of our time there.
After a quick jaunt through the dense, electric-green forest on Portland Island, we came to a grassy clearing that sloped quickly down to the sea. I laid my backpack on a rock, grabbed a water bottle, two beers and snacks from inside and passed them around, officially kicking off our family’s impromptu celebration in honor of being back in British Columbia’s beautiful Gulf Islands.
The boys were soon off exploring and I stood next to Jill for a moment taking in the sunshine and gorgeous views of Salt Spring Island across Satellite Channel. It was great to be back in that spot and Porter echoed the feeling when he found me to say, “Dad, I’m so happy to be back here.” The sentiment absolutely melted my heart — he was right. Continue reading At home among friends in British Columbia→
Due to the unconventional lifestyle that we lead while cruising aboard Yahtzee, we tend to field a lot of questions from sailors and non-sailors, friends, family members, strangers and folks who follow Three Sheets Northwest and Rollin’ With Yahtzee. You can find many of these basic questions on our FAQ page, but we’ve recently had quite a few new ones so I’ll answer some of those below and will then post them to the page later.
If you’ve got any questions of your own, please feel free to leave them in the comments section and I’ll get them answered and posted.
Do you have a TV?
No, we don’t have a television. The reason is that we don’t really like TV and therefore have no need to sit in front of one. It isn’t that we’re anti-TV necessarily, it’s just not something that we want or find useful on a sailboat. I get plenty of “screen time” working on the computer and really the only thing I could think that I’d even like to watch on TV would be football. And for Jill, since housesitting this winter and getting hooked on the show “This Is Us”, she’s now hopeful to find a way to finish the season. Continue reading TVs? Enclosures? Rain? and other recent FAQs→
“I tell people that you guys are annoyingly content.” Our friend Chris said with a chuckle while sitting at Yahtzee’s nav desk. “It’s a good thing. What I mean is that you’re the most content people I’ve seen handle the unknown. Most people have a hard time dealing with that, and you do it so seamlessly.”
Over the past couple weeks, we’ve had several conversations with friends and family about what we’re up to next aboard Yahtzee. And several of those have led to quesitons about the precarious nature of it all and how we deal with it: Are you nervous about what’s next? Is the uncertainty frightening?
Our answer to the basic question of where we’re going next is that we’ll head north to British Columbia in March and see what happens from there. How far north and upon what route, we’re not sure, but we’re thinking Alaska.
The lines of questioning then become less about where we’re going and more about our lack of concrete plans and dates. The underlying concern here is how we deal with the “maybes” of it all — the unknowns of not having an exact route and time frame. And how some days we might not even know where we’re going that day.
Jill was at the helm when we coaxed Yahtzee off the dock in Anacortes against a stiff cross-breeze, and while closing the gate and stowing fenders I heard a voice yell, “Hey, Yahtzee! I hope you guys are feeling better!”
The salutation — from a blog reader who noticed the boat — brought a smile to my face and I answered with what else but an uncontrollable hacking cough. That wasn’t the response I was digging for but we all got a good chuckle out of the moment. It’s always fun to meet readers and his well wishes sent us out towards the San Juan Islands on what would end up being a turning point day for all of us and our battle with the flu.
The perfect cure
Sailing westward into the San Juans, it felt like a heavy weight was slowly lifted from my shoulders and left somewhere on the east side of Rosario Strait. The tranquility of the islands beckoned with open arms, welcoming us home to a place we know well and love dearly. We’ve missed not being around here as much this winter, but we don’t need to anymore. Continue reading That good old San Juan Islands cure→
The vast majority of the time, living our nomadic life under sail is highly entertaining, rewarding, stimulating and challenging. It’s an amazing way to raise our children and to see the world, especially the great Pacific Northwest, and there’s nothing more we’d rather do.
That said, we’ve recently dealt with a couple realities of this life that are particularly difficult and often get amplified by our situation. Fortunately, they’re typically ones that we can live with and move past in a positive direction.
Small spaces can be tough
While out for a short sail last weekend, I knew something was up. Rather than being on deck sailing like usual, Porter really wanted to take a nap. He never naps.
Not long after I put him in his bunk, he called up to me and mustered the effort to get his gear on and come out. But a short time later he just wanted to be held. While cradling him in my arms in the cockpit it hit me. He was sick. Uh oh.