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.
Sailing downwind to Alaska. Yep, it was epic. Here’s how we made it happen.
North to Alaska: The Plan
Over the winter when Jill and I started setting our sights on sailing to Alaska, we laid out large planning charts of the Inside Passage and began pouring over our options. The route, which covers hundreds of miles of water lined by mountains, forests, islands and rocks, is typically transited by heading up the east side of Vancouver Island and then up the central and northern BC coasts.
Two common gripes about voyaging from Washington to Alaska on a sailboat along this route, though, are that you motor a lot and sail a little. And when you do have wind to sail, it’s on the nose — which makes sailing less possible, difficult or uncomfortable.
Looking to completely turn that narrative upside down, we hatched a loose plan to use spring southerly winds to work our way up the outside of Vancouver Island. Then once at the top, we’d make a decision on which way to go. Besides a few general parameters, there was no timeline of when we wanted to arrive in Alaska or on what exact route. If we had to wait for wind we would. If the sailing was too much too fast, we’d slow down. But if the winds were good and in our favor, we’d keep going.
That’s it. That was our whole plan.
The Actual Route
After reaching the top of Vancouver Island in several glorious downwind leaps, it became time to set our sights farther north and the main goal in our minds was Alaska. To us, it didn’t really matter how we got there, we just wanted to keep going with the wind. Once we left Quatsino Sound, our options were to turn northeast and hit the central and north coasts of British Columbia, weaving our way up through the narrows of the Inside Passage. We could whet our appetite for more days of ocean sailing by hopping out into the ocean, leaving Haida Gwaii to starboard and after three or four days and nights, checking into Alaska in Sitka. Or, we could make an overnight passage to the bottom of Haida Gwaii, move through the islands and then hop over to the north coast of BC, which would put Ketchikan in easy reach.
What came of it was a free-flowing journey that had us moving with the wind and our attitudes, and changing our minds several times along the way. Many days we’d leave port without a set destination and let the wind sort it out as we went.
But there were other factors at play, too. When we called U.S. Customs & Immigration in Sitka, we actually got ahold of someone in Arizona who said that he was dispatched there to protect the southern border and wouldn’t be back in Alaska until May. So that was out. Also, the weather always gets a huge vote, and in watching the forecasts, we saw a couple favorable windows forming that would allow us to jump straight north, wait, and then jump north again. That’s what we did.
With full sails drawing, Yahtzee ripped off the miles northward and Vancouver Island was quickly in our wake. The excitement of being on the ocean again after a week in Quatsino Sound was evident among our whole crew and we were all looking forward to a night at sea. Nobody more so than Porter.
He was thrilled at the proposition of standing his first night watch, which we’d talked about with him on and off throughout the day. When his watch came, he was out of bed, in his gear and popping out of the companionway with a zeal I wasn’t expecting. He diligently stood watch for two hours while drinking tea, gazing at the stars and planets, and talking to Jill nearly the entire time. And when it was his turn to retire, he said I could have the remainder of the night’s watches.
By morning, Haida Gwaii was on the bow and the wind was fresh. We sailed fast towards Anthony Island on the southwest corner of the chain and were greeted by humpback whales just miles from our anchorage. Anthony Island, or SGang Gwaay, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and to say the area is breathtaking is a gross understatement. It is a very remote place and certainly feels that way while navigating the waters and walking the trails and beaches, especially this time of year.
Carved cedar mortuary and memorial totems stand tall in a grassy cove here, and according to the UNESCO website, the island and totems “…illustrate the art and way of life of the Haida. The property commemorates the living culture of the Haida and their relationship with the land and sea.”
We made two more stops in Haida Gwaii before jumping across Hecate Strait and it really left us yearning for more. Though it is similar in many ways to other places we’ve cruised to in the Pacific Northwest, it truly is unique in an indescribable sort of way. We’ll be back.
From the east side of Haida Gwaii, our next big push started early in the morning and with a forecast that flip-flopped more than a politician, it was really anyone’s guess as to what we’d get. The morning started with a following breeze that turned into a solid westerly, putting us on a beam reach sailing northward at a good clip. Thinking the wind might go north, we stayed close to the islands and then when it did slowly veer, we cracked off to the northeast and close reached for a while before making it to Stephens Island motor-sailing close hauled in a light wind.
What was left to Alaska was another big day from the northeast coast of BC up to Ketchikan. Fortunately, it was sunny and windy for most of it, and to cap off our run from Vancouver Island to Alaska under spinnaker was something I’d dreamed of. It was awesome.
All along, Jill and I said that if it seemed we weren’t handling all the miles and long days well as a family that we’d slow it down. But we were in a sailing groove that we seemingly couldn’t shake and we didn’t feel like we were rushing. It was also very helpful that the breezes were good, the rain stayed away and that we had more consistent sunshine than we’ve seen since last summer.
By the end of our monthlong voyage north to “The Last Frontier” we began to realize that, even when we have a plan and end destination in mind, the journey to get there is what matters most. This past month of cruising has proven that not only be true, but to be what we love about our life under sail.
Now it’s time to enjoy Alaska.
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