700 miles downwind to Alaska

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.

Sail On

Me and the boys hanging out on the foredeck, watching the waves roll by.

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.

Porter up and ready for his first night watch.

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.”

The totems at SGang Gwaay.

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.

Sunrise over Hecate Strait.

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.

Stephens Island off the bow.

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.

Flying the chute across the border! WhooHoo!

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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18 thoughts on “700 miles downwind to Alaska

  1. I’ve soloed toAlaska and motored nearly all the way to Ketichan. yes it was in the summer. So you planned a wonderful trip and enjoyed it immensely.

    1. What a wonderful adventure with family.
      I’ve soloed to Alaska with a buddy boat and motored nearly all the way to Ketchaken from Tacoma. Yes it was during the summer and there was very little wind to accompany us.
      What a wonderful trip.
      I don’t want to leave the impression that our adventure wasn’t really a great adventure, just different via the inside passage.

  2. You guys have revealed a secret that seems obvious in hindsight. Riding spring southerlies is so clearly the way to go. The only downside is it’s colder this early in the year. How much colder did it get as you moved north? As a reference point, Seattle is about 55-60F daytime high here.

    Fortunately the model you discovered will never become overcrowded because few people have that much time, and the rest will be scared away by the temperatures.

    1. It’s actually a route we’ve been contemplating for awhile in order to maximize sailing time. In theory, we’ll sail back on the summer northwesterlies along a similar route.

      I would say the temps have been about 5 degrees cooler. But when the sun is out it warms up nicely. We actually haven’t used our diesel heater since Barkley Sound. You’re right, this route is unlikely to get crowed. Along the entire way we anchored with zero other cruising boats and it was right near Ketchikan when we saw another sailboat, which appeared to be motoring south towards Prince Rupert.

      1. You’ve been getting amazingly good weather. 5 days in a row with no daytime rain, when we got rain on at least 3 of those same days, a couple times being torrential downpours. We’ve been using our heater a lot on weekend sails, because without sun it’s very cold, and we’re often drenched from heavy rain. We do get sun-breaks, but Seattle just broke a record for most rain between Oct – April.

        1. Yeah, the pocket of good weather we had pretty much made it possible last week. We’re back to rain for the moment, but AK is freaking gorgeous so I’ll take it. Apparently, winter here was just as bad as we had it down there.

  3. Also – Yahtzee has runners (running backs) right? Looks like you were using them in Hecate? Or is that just how you stow them?
    I’m asking because I’ve never used mine, and thought they would only be needed if running the staysail downwind (high winds+large waves).

    1. Yeah, we usually don’t use them. But we rigged them up so that if we needed to fly the staysail when the breeze piped up then we’d have one less step to do when things were getting crazy. They’re also good when sailing upwind in big seas with the staysail to keep the mast from pumping. As a friend of ours says about runners, “If you’ve got ’em, you might as well use ’em.”

  4. Epic post!

    As a member of the sailing community, thank you for writing this very educational piece. This post proves the efficiency of sailing northward in the early spring southerlies.

    I’ve also dreamed of using the early spring, southerly winds to ride steady down-wind breezes up north. I’m glad the plan worked so well for you! The last couple weeks has been very strong but steady southerly winds. I caught myself more often than naught thinking, “I bet Yahtzee is using this nice wind.”, and you were!

    1. Thanks, Chris! The key for us in using the southerlies was to really pay attention to the weather and find which breezes were usable, especially for the ocean sections. Too strong and we’d be dealing with large seas and everything that comes with them. Too weak and we’d be motoring, which did happen here and there. But it mostly took time, patience and a boat and crew to handle it, all of which we have.

  5. What an incredible month you’ve had! And Andy, the way you write, I can feel as though I’m right there with you guys! Amazing family time and amazing lifetime adventures! Can’t wait to find out what’s next! Enjoy Alaska! Love you all!

    mamajo

  6. Sitting here enjoying Laura Cove in Desolation all to ourselves you’d think I could be content but…colour me jealous.

    Awesome, awesome, awesome. You are quickly becoming the goal to which we aspire. Enjoy!

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