Andy Cross is partner and managing editor of Three Sheets Northwest. You can find him and his family cruising the Pacific Northwest and Alaska aboard their Grand Soleil 39, Yahtzee.
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Crouching at the water’s edge, I picked up a smooth black stone and gripped it in my palm. Magnus stood next to me — clad in his wetsuit with boogie board in hand — and I talked him through his latest attempt at setting out into the cold water of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Then he went for it and I smiled watching him splash his way into the clear blue water before launching the rock far beyond him.
Later, sitting next to a fire and fresh caught salmon roasting over hot coals, I thought aloud to Jill while watching Yahtzee bob just offshore: “Does life get any better than this? I don’t think it does.”
In many ways, that’s how 2017 went. By any and every measure we can think of, it was an amazing year of cruising aboard Yahtzee. Here are a few of our most memorable moments:
Several productive weekends have gone by since I started work on Yahtzee’s new headliner. Overall, the project is taking about as many man hours as expected, and it’s turning out far better than I anticipated. I’m loving the look — especially when compared to what we had before.
Since last checking in, I’ve fully finished the starboard aft cabin and have completed about 95 percent of the main salon. By far the hardest part of working with the pine tongue-and-groove bead board is getting all the cuts close to perfect so that everything fits snug yet is able to be taken down without too much trouble. Another difficulty is in making sure to keep the edges of the boards damage free. If the tongues and grooves don’t work well, a whole board can be wasted.
One major roadblock that I’ve hit is quite literally a road between me and getting the last of the supplies that I need. Due to a change in my design while constructing the headliner, I am now missing several long sections to finish everything. And, as many people in rural Alaska are, I’m now at the mercy of Anchorage and the road connecting it to Seward. Such is life.
The Seward Highway stretches 120 gorgeous miles from Yahtzee to Anchorage. Shortly after leaving the waterfront, the two-lane road starts climbing up, winding through alpine lakes and snow-capped mountain peaks. In the wintertime, when snow has fallen, temperatures are cold and the road is slick, I’m not in a rush to spend hours driving there and back in one day, let alone two. And on a day like today, it’s not even possible because a rock slide has closed the corridor. Also, delivery is not an option.
Fortunately, the work can still go on, and there is certainly plenty left to do. The boys and I created a painting shop in a heated and insulated space underneath our cabin and we’re cranking out coated sections of the headliner daily. Given that it all needs three coats, it’s going to take a good amount of time to finish everything. Plus, I can get going on all the stained and varnished trim work that needs to get done as well.
Looking ahead in our schedule, we have a planned trip to Anchorage coming in January, so the road will only stand in our way for another month. When we’re back with everything needed, this is a project that I’m excited to see in its final form.
Every weekday, I sit with Porter and Magnus to tackle some schoolwork. Porter has a workbook that teaches him to read and write letters and numbers, and identify shapes and colors. Today’s shape was an octagon and the instructions were to trace the shape and then be creative and draw any picture inside it. He couldn’t wait to draw the picture.
Peering over his shoulder, I watched him diligently craft a sailboat in the middle. He then turned to me and proudly pointed to each part of his new vessel and labeled the parts aloud: “Mainsail, jib, hull, mast, keel and rudder.”
It was a simple yet elegant sloop. Beaming with pride, I congratulated him on a nice boat and we turned the page.
I love that Porter draws sailboats. Without prompting and without pointing out what parts need to go where, he has been using shapes to create these simple designs for a while now. Whether on the chalkboard at the local aquarium, on a blank sheet of paper or on his schoolwork, it’s his go-to doodle. Funny enough, I used to do the exact same thing.
His drawing today, though, got me thinking about all shapes, sizes and designs of sailboats I’ve been fortunate to sail on over the years. And out of all of them, I truly couldn’t think of a single one that I didn’t like. The reason is that I just flat out love to sail. And I love sailboats.
Whether gunkholing on a 20-odd-foot sloop, testing a full keel cruiser, steering an ocean racer, teaching aboard a roomy catamaran or ripping around an anchorage in a Laser with one sail, I’m on it. Basically, if it has sails and can be steered, count me in. Nothing else matters.
But to some sailors, it does matter — A LOT. And if you’ve sailed long enough you’ve certainly met those in the sailing community that will vehemently argue boat design and equipment until they are red in the face. Try asking a group of sailors what boat you should buy and wait for the reactions. It’s exhausting.
Rather than falling into the trap of being fanatical about one type of boat over another, or one style of sailing over another, I’ve always tried to find strengths in them all. Because the truth is that sailboats, like their owners, are moving targets that carry a variety of characteristics. And, certainly, no two boats or owners are ever alike.
In many cases, what is considered the right boat or the right way to outfit it depends solely on what the owner plans to do with it and what their personal tastes are. Will the vessel sit at a dock and on the hard most of the time? Will it cruise coastal or offshore waters continuously? Will it hit the race course? Or, will it do a bit of everything?
The overarching reality is that it doesn’t matter what boat you or someone else owns, whether you have one mast or two, a Yeti cooler or a refrigerator, freezer and ice maker. Oftentimes, the right boat is the one you have right now. And as long as you’re safe, it probably doesn’t matter if it is a boat as simple as Porter’s drawing or one with every possible piece of gear aboard. Most of us just need to go sailing more often and forget the rest.
With a green Bic pencil tucked back behind my ear, I picked up the saw and rained dust throughout the makeshift workbench inside Yahtzee’s main salon. Music blared in the background as I fit the next piece in my linear game of headliner Tetris, and I stood back, took a sip from a cold Rainier and admired the view.
It looked good. Better than I anticipated, to be honest. But it’s not done. Not by a long shot.
After re-finishing the wood on the main bulkhead and deciding to tackle the laborious job of replacing the old headliner, it took Jill and me a bit of time to decide what we wanted to put in its place, then how to source the material. What we knew was that we wanted something different than the vinyl wrapped plywood that had been up since Yahtzee was built in the early 80s. It was time for that look to go.
What we ended up getting was planks of pine beadboard that have a tongue and groove fit. When investigating these, I was a bit unsure about the longevity and quality of this type of wood in the marine environment. But my research overwhelmingly suggested that other do-it-yourself sailors had been successful with it in a variety of interior applications, so I figured we’d give it a shot. Now, after working with it over the past few weekends, I’m very confident that we made the right decision. Also, a final finish of Pettit’s satin EZ Cabin Coat will provide a nice look along with a durable finish that will withstand the humidity of a boat’s interior.
I started the project with a test section in the starboard aft cabin and when that turned out well, the main salon was a green light. So far, I’m working in stages and have taken down and covered the entire starboard side. I’ve been impressed with how easily and cleanly the material cuts and how durable it is.
Along with the new headliner, I am also taking the opportunity to install some new lighting and opted for a very low profile dome light by Lumitec that turns on and off, and from white to red, on a bezel. The first one is in, and I’m impressed with the upgrade.
Stay tuned for more updates as I keep chipping away at this project. It sure is a satisfying one to work on.
Sitting behind a group of kids at story time in the Seward Public Library, I watched and listened while the librarian introduced the topic and books for the day: Thanksgiving.
Before reading, she explained to the children in general terms what the occasion meant and then asked each child what they were thankful for. One-by-one they listed things they own, toys, stuffed animals, etc. When she got to Porter, who was sitting in his usual spot in the front row, he simply said, “My little brother.”
With wide-eyed excitement, the librarian turned to Magnus and said, “Magnus, did you hear that?! Your brother is thankful for you!” At that point, the boys looked at each other and embraced in an emphatic hug.
In the moment I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or both. I was so happy, proud and thankful. Thankful for the life we’ve been able to provide Porter and Magnus. Thankful to spend so much time with them each and every day. Thankful to have lived and cruised on Yahtzee as a family for the vast majority of their lives, showing them what an amazing world we live in and how to enjoy it to the fullest. Thankful for our future plans to continue doing just that. And thankful for the families we grew up in, with parents who guided us and showed us that all of this is possible.
Shortly after leaving the library, my thoughts turned from us, our lives and this upcoming Thanksgiving to the past and to other people. I silently reminisced about those who are no longer with us, to things I’d seen living in Ethiopia and to a blog post I’d written prior to Thanksgiving six years ago while there (read it in bold at the bottom). I thought about what Jill and I experienced — the good and the bad — and how it all changed our perspective on many things moving forward in life. And I’m thankful now more than ever for that experience because it taught us about an incredible country and people, and set us up to be exactly where we are right now. Continue reading Giving thanks for life, family and others→
Gliding over a thin layer of frost carpeting D-Dock in Seward Harbor, I had a little extra pep in my step walking towards Yahtzee. My excitement wasn’t due to another day of work on the boat, rather, it was at the thought of heading south into Resurrection Bay towards the ocean swell for some surfing. Yes, surfing.
Sure, the air temperature was hovering around 40 degrees and the water temperature wasn’t much higher than that, but hey, that’s what wetsuits are for! Just a few slips down from Yahtzee I met up with our dock neighbor, Captain Scott Liska, who runs Alaska Surf Adventures aboard the motor vessel Drekkar. He was pulling out bins of thick neoprene wetsuits, gloves and booties for surfers who arrived and needed the gear.
Hopping aboard with an armload of rubber, I waited with a cup of coffee and some new friends as other surfers straggled down the dock and onto the boat. With about a dozen surf riders of various experience levels ready for a mid-day surf-sesh, we were soon underway out of the marina towards what sounded like a promising break.
There’s been a lot of progress going on aboard Yahtzee these days. While Jill’s been working during the week, I’ve been getting as much done with the boys as possible and then when the weekends come, I’m on it. The thing is, I’ve found that even though a number jobs have been started, there aren’t many that have been finished. And the ones that have been completed would probably be noticeable to only Jill or me. Ahh, such is the life of boat projects.
Upon last report, I’d ripped out some plumbing to the sink in the aft head and built a new drawer, re-finished the windlass motor and basically gotten the boat ready for an Alaskan winter. Since that time there has been a flurry of things happening, decisions being made and lots of indecision about which way to go on a few projects.
Though a lot may not be “finished” yet, here’s what’s in the works:
A primary consideration when thinking about moving off the boat for the winter was that we could tackle some work we otherwise wouldn’t with four souls aboard. Sanding and varnishing was very near the top of that list.
While Yahtzee has some nicely finished brightwork down below, there were some places that had become a little lackluster over the years. Chief among them were the areas around the companionway and the main bulkhead behind our cabin heater. Due to a lack of heat displacing material, heat from the diesel fireplace dried out the wood and made the finish look a bit off. Also, there were a few dings that needed fixing.
Woodwork isn’t necessarily difficult, but neither is it interesting or fun to write about. It’s just time consuming and relatively messy. I’ve spent days sanding, cleaning up the dust, varnishing and then sanding some more. And then I put in some new aluminum flashing to protect the wood.
It’s no secret that I’m absolutely infatuated with Alaska. The place is truly amazing. But I’m also not going to mince words in that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be the sailor and writer who can contentedly sit by and write about sailing while not actually being on the water. I know some folks can pull off the tired shtick of writing about their boats and telling years-old sea stories while rarely, if ever, leaving the dock. To me, all that bluster is for the birds.
I want to be sailing and writing about it!
I guess I’m having a hard time with it because the dock- and desk-bound sailor isn’t really my style. Never has been, never will be. And after the past three years and thousands of miles spent as a sailing nomad in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, I’m finding it’s not so natural for me.
With winter rapidly approaching here at 60 degrees north, I’m reminiscing more and more about past winters spent on the water. This will be the first in a long time that I won’t be out cruising or sailing on a regular basis, and coming to that realization is painful. Especially because wandering under sail has been such an integral part of my, and our family’s, life. Up until this point, it’s literally all we know together.
Faithful readers are well aware that we’ve spent the last three winters continuously cruising the Pacific Northwest and loved almost every minute of it. Sure, the days were short, cold and sometimes windy, but we found fun, adventure and some magic in discovering the bountiful Salish Sea cruising grounds in the offseason. The Gulf and San Juan islands, in particular, were true gems when the crowds of summer sailed for home and the parks, anchorages and coastal communities were left for the few willing to explore them in the din of winter.
Sitting on a rocky outcropping next to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, I looked intently across the glacial plain towards a ridge of white peaks. Snowflakes swirled in the air and a broad smile beamed across my face. Next to me the boys were bursting balls of energy at the moment — we all knew we’d just witnessed something unique.
Minutes prior while hiking towards the glacier, we’d come across a large mountain goat in that very spot. We observed each other intently for what seemed like a lifetime before it made a slow and deliberate retreat down a shear cliff. Stunned at the close encounter, I wasn’t actually sure who was more surprised by the experience, us or the furry white goat.
The boys and I have made a ritual out of these Monday hikes, and each has become rewarding in its own way. The outings started with short walks to the river behind our cabin then extended farther afield and to other days of the week. There are so many places to get out and stretch our legs around here. So much to see and learn about each time we depart a trailhead into the woods. Continue reading Welcome to The Great Land→
From sociable friends made at the grocery store to folks walking the dock and new neighbors at the marina, we’ve fielded quite a few questions about our lives under sail and our journey through Alaska while getting settled here in Seward. And one query that Jill and I fielded separately yet agreed upon instantly went something like this: “What was your favorite?”
Meaning, what was your top moment from your spring and summer sailing north?
It’s a good question. Given that we left Puget Sound in late February, cruised the San Juan Islands and then sailed up the west coast of Vancouver Island to Haida Gwaii and Southeast Alaska before hopping across the Gulf of Alaska to Kodiak, the Kenai Peninsula and then Prince William Sound, you’d think the answer would warrant a long pause. It didn’t.
Of course, with that answer came a slew of other questions about weather conditions, timing, life aboard, watch-keeping and the big one, “how did they boys do?”
Now that winter is knocking firmly on our door, and boat projects are mounting, it’s fun to take a look back at our summer to recount our favorite moment and answer the questions that came our way. Here are a few:
Why did you love it so much?
While we realize that the gorgeous sailing weather was part of why our Gulf of Alaska crossing was so memorable, that’s not solely why it was our favorite. If that was the case it would have been easy to pick Glacier Bay or the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. The reason we both chose this particular moment is because it was our most indelible as a family — we absolutely loved sailing overnight for multiple days and nights in a row, together. It was awesome, and at the end of that big hop we truly felt like we could have kept going and going.
There are people who hate passagemaking, those who tolerate it and those who love it. Jill and I can firmly be put in the latter category. And after our passage across the Gulf we were ready to do more and go farther. When we thought about sailing south to California from Alaska, part of the reason we wanted to go was because we’re excited about doing it non-stop from Seward to San Francisco. We were thrilled at the notion of sailing offshore for what would have been 10 to 14 days. Actually, we still are. Continue reading Reflections on a favorite part of summer cruising→
Freshly cleaned lines dangle from the railing in our little cabin nestled amongst woods and mountains. Sails are neatly folded and stowed under our beds. The windlass motor has been removed, cleaned, sanded and re-painted. A pesky leak has been fixed. And more projects are underway on a long yet doable list.
Along with the boat stuff, firewood has been split and stacked. Our freezer is stocked with salmon. The cold morning air has become increasingly more crisp, causing us to pull on warmer clothes. Fresh blankets of snow have covered the many surrounding peaks and any day now we’ll get some of the white stuff down here, too.
We’re ready for winter and to keep working on Yahtzee.
With glorious sunshine and warm-ish weather, we moved off of Yahtzee and got her ready for the seasons ahead. It was bittersweet, to be sure. It’s the only home the boys have ever known and Jill and I haven’t lived in a house together in a long time. The adjustment period into a temporary land life has been understandably up and down, but mostly up.
When I recently wrote about some helpful upgrades that we’ve made to Yahtzee, I included a new preventer setup that I think needs some clarification. Well, I finally had the time to set it up at the dock and take some photos that will help explain it a bit better.
In my mind — and experience sailing downwind — a well devised and rigged preventer is an essential piece of gear aboard. And if it’s done right, it should be easy to set up, release and switch sides after an intentional jibe.
What any good preventer should do is catch the boom in the unfortunate event of an accidental jibe. That being the case, I like to lead the preventer line as far forward as possible. But, and this is the big caveat, every boat’s setup will be different. There is no one size fits all. After safe ease of use, what you want to achieve is a fair lead so the the preventer isn’t chafing.
Here’s Yahtzee’s preventer explained:
When installing a permanent preventer that can be quickly deployed on either side of the boat, the first thing I wanted to achieve was making it so that it could be stowed easily out of the way on the boom. To make this happen on Yahtzee, I measured and cut a length of Dyneema, attached the aft end to the bail at the end of the boom and then ran it about 3/4 of the way forward towards a cleat. At the forward end of the Dyneema I spliced in a stainless ring. This ring can then be attached to a short piece of bungee from the cleat to hold it taut, or to the second portion of the preventer line when it’s fully rigged.
When it’s time to rig the full preventer for use, I can simply unhook the coil or Dyneema line and ease the boom out to where I want it while broad reaching or running. The secondary line then runs forward to a low friction ring on a snap shackle that I can move from the bow to the toe rail depending on how and where I want the line to lead.
The great thing about this setup is that when it comes time to jibe, Jill or I can un-attach the two lines without having to lean out over the side of the boat. The Dyneema can get quickly stowed on the boom with the bungee and then we can move the other section of the preventer to the new side. Once the jibe has been completed, the ring-end of the Dyneema section gets taken off the boom and re-attach it to the secondary line. When it’s all set, we can tighten the whole thing up and sail on without worry. Simple, quick and efficient.
If you have any questions, please feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or ask in the comments below.
While driving south down two-lane Seward Highway towards Yahtzee, the sun broke through dense clouds in front of me, shooting a beam of bright light onto a blue glacier hanging high in a valley. I couldn’t help but crack a wry, happy smile.
The reason for the grin wasn’t just about the scene, though, it was about my next thought, which was, “Boy am I glad we’re here instead of California.”
Aside from family and a handful of good friends, not many people know how close we came to sailing straight from Alaska to California in early to mid August. If you’d talked with us candidly in May, June or July, California was the plan. We were set to go.
Yahtzee was ready. Our crew was ready. Then it all changed over a two or three week period in Prince William Sound. Plans have a way of doing that, which should teach us to make them less often. In that time, we wore the pros and cons of Alaska versus California and eventually Mexico. One morning we’d wake up and say, “California it is!” And then the next day it would be Alaska. We were literally teeter-tottering back and forth like never before. Eventually, the more we thought about it, the more the scales decisively tipped towards Alaska — and we’re glad they did.
Yes, a small part of the decision was financial. But in reality, we didn’t want to leave. We’d only been in Alaska for one summer, and though we’d seen and done more than most, we weren’t finished with its stunning, incomparable wilderness, secluded anchorages, towering mountains, friendly locals and pristine yet humbling waters. Not by a long shot.
Also, the more we thought about California the less it appealed to us when compared to living in the small town of Seward and cruising Alaska. Too many people. Too many boats. Too expensive. Too little real wilderness.
That’s not to say we won’t ever sail there. It’s just that we weren’t ready to leave here yet — which surely came as a surprise to some, and even to us. When I was back in the Puget Sound area for the Wooden Boat Festival in early September, I talked to a lot of folks about our summer, our plans and cruising in Alaska. Friends and other sailors were overwhelmingly supportive and excited about our latest endeavor. But I also got a few comments and questions about why we didn’t follow the very well worn path south down the coast. In essence, what we were doing was unusual compared to most cruisers from the Pacific Northwest who literally cannot wait to make the “big left turn”. To them, our decision was utterly baffling.
“Why?” they asked. “The sun, sand and better weather are all south!”
In the grand scheme of things, our decision to stay north wasn’t that much of a surprise. What we shouldn’t have done was tried to plan so far ahead. We know that never works — for us at least.
By looking too far ahead to the future, we risk living outside the moment instead of in it. Fortunately, we caught ourselves, which comes with the experience of doing this time and again. In our years of cruising, we’ve learned that we shouldn’t get caught up in wishing away time to be somewhere else and over-planning an adventure. Because very few real adventures are planned to every detail years or months in advance. What’s the fun in that?
The reality is that every cruiser has a varied set of goals and plans, and a different way of making them work. No one set of plans is right or wrong or good or bad, they’re just different. That’s part of what makes living and cruising on a sailboat so amazing. And it doesn’t matter where in the world you are. For new or less experienced cruisers, my one piece of advice from this would be: Don’t overdo the planning. Just get out and start sailing and let the plans come later.
Cruising to us has never been a planned endeavor of, “We’re leaving for 1 year or 2 years or 5 and going along this exact route.” It’s a lifelong thing. And it’s a big old world out there. We figure, why put time and place limits on it? Instead, let’s take the time to enjoy life and the places we’re in now, and see what happens next.
Sure, staying in Alaska wasn’t “the plan” a few moths ago. But hey, who needs those plans anyway? Not us.
A steady rain pitter-patters on the deck above the nav station while I type. Magnus naps in the V-berth and Porter is taking some time to himself after we finished working on reading, writing and making a map of Seward. Jill, well, she’s off at work earning that cheddar to keep everything afloat and to improve our sailing home.
After visiting friends and family in various locales throughout the lower 48, we arrived back in Seward on Monday night. When we dropped down the companionway for the first time in many weeks, we were struck by a couple things. The first for me was that it was great to be home — great to be back in Alaska and on the boat again. I love this place and this boat. And the other feeling was that we couldn’t wait to get going with our life here.
Sure, the air down below was cold and clammy upon our return and a musty odor was pervasive. But the bilge and most of the boat was was dry, and we all couldn’t wait to climb into our bunks after weeks of sometimes restless slumber in foreign beds. We always sleep best at home on the boat.
Jill was off to work the following morning under a brilliant sunshine that illuminated the mountains encircling Seward. For the boys and me, the start to daddy preschool was to move Yahtzee to her assigned slip for the winter, and they stepped right back into boat work and life like the old habit that it is. Watching them on deck brought a smile to my face.
Tucked into her new spot, we plugged into shore power and got the battery charger going. I flung all the hatches and ports open, and with a perfectly crisp breeze the boat was soon aired out. Yahtzee seemed like she was breathing a sigh of relief, happy to have us home too.
Throughout the rest of the week, we fell into our new routine. While Jill was off at work, I took the boys to play time, story time, playgrounds and walks on the beach and waterfront. But I also want them to keep learning by getting their hands dirty and feet wet exploring the incredible natural world around them. So, one day’s lesson was to catch, fillet and freeze salmon for the winter, and the teaching included parts of the fish and how to safely use a filet knife. Also, they got to spray the hose a lot.
The next step for our crew is to start unloading the boat into our winter cabin in the woods. We’ve never felt like we have a lot of things aboard Yahtzee until now. But while taking stock of what we have and need to move off, I’m amazed at what a 40-foot boat can accumulate throughout five years of living aboard and cruising.
Overall, we’re excited for our new chapter and to start in on boat projects — stripping Yahtzee from the inside out, cleaning and working on her. After all the years and thousands of miles she’s safely carried us, she surely deserves the love that we’ve got to give. And we’ve got a lot.