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.
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.
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.
In a quest to make life aboard a little easier, safer, more efficient and comfortable, sailors and boat owners are always looking to make upgrades to their vessels. We’re no different.
And even though Yahtzee was well kitted out for blue water cruising when we bought her five years ago, she always needs work and upgrades, and we’re happy to do them. From the moment she became ours, we’ve constantly worked to improve our home and adventure mobile in big and small ways.
Here are five upgrades that we’ve made in the past year that have made life aboard easier, safer or just a bit more comfortable. (Beware, some of this is very heavy in sailor jargon.)
Reef Snap Shackle – This first one derived from a tip I got from my friend Carol Hasse from Port Townsend Sails and it has made reefing the mainsail quicker and a bit safer.
It’s no secret that we like to sail downwind in heavy weather and we’ve done our fair share of it over the years — especially while cruising during the winter in the Pacific Northwest. With Yahtzee’s sails reefed to an appropriate size, she does well in a blow and can be easily handled by Jill and me. But one thing that long frustrated us was how the new tack gets attached to the reefing (rams) horn at the gooseneck when we’re reefing the mainsail. Enter Carol’s tip.
I don’t have good images of our setup, but what I did was attach a stainless steel snap shackle to a Dyneema strop at the gooseneck. When it’s time to reef the main, instead of putting the dog bone that runs through the sail at the new tack around the reefing horn — which can slip off if the sail is flogging or looses tension — we simply snap the shackle to it and we’re done. We can then tension the halyard and reef lines from the safety of the cockpit. With this setup, we no longer have to stand and tend the tack at the mast while reefing, and we know the new tack will be secured firmly while finishing the reef. One clip and it’s set!
Ram Mount iPad holders —Though we have charts and a chartplotter at Yahtzee’s nav station down below, we bought an iPad and Navionics (plus a LifeProof case) for easy navigation and piloting in the cockpit. The problem was, fumbling with an iPad in the cockpit is not fun. Add rain, a heeling boat and strong wind, and it can get downright tricky to navigate safely.
Looking for a way to mount the iPad for easier use, we found Ram Mounts (a Seattle company!) to be the perfect solution. The spider-looking mounts are simple to attach to stainless rails, and we put one at the helm and another under the dodger. We can now use the iPad while steering or keep it protected and out of the elements. Continue reading Upgrades that make our boat go→
When I first sat down to write this post, I thought I’d share a little about why we chose our 1984 Grand Soleil 39, why we named her Yahtzee and what some of our favorite things have been about her over the past five years. But the more I wrote about favorite pieces of gear and things we’d like to change, the more it didn’t really seem to fit. They were just objects. And it sounded too much like a boat review. (Plus, you can read all that here.)
All boats have sails, rigging and innumerable pieces of equipment, and most vessel owners love their boats — we’re no different. But, to us, owning Yahtzee for the past five years has never been solely about the boat itself or the things on it. It has been about what we’ve done with her and the stories and memories that have unfolded in that time.
Readers of this blog are well aware that I rarely, if ever, talk about our plans for the future. Instead, we thrive on uncertainty, seize the moment and live within the confines of a cruising world defined by tides, weather and whims of our own devise. All of that, bracketed by a need to work in order to keep us going. In our minds, we’ve always found our nomadic life to be more rewarding when we’re actually out living it than when we’re planning it. Cruising plans and schedules rarely work out as planned and far too many sailors sit at the dock and talk and talk and talk about where they’re sailing, yet never go a mile.
For the crew of Yahtzee, those cruising miles have stopped … for now. By the end of 24 hours we’d paid for a year of moorage in Seward, Alaska, found a quaint winter cabin and, oh yeah, Jill got a job. Wow, that happened fast.
To be sure, it was a whirlwind romance here in Seward. We fell in love with the town when we stopped in a few weeks ago, Jill quickly applied for a couple jobs and when she got callbacks, then interviews and a job offer, we were making decisions and plans faster than we have in years. Literally, it has been three years since we have paid for permanent moorage. Though that’s a hard pill to swallow, the reasons are sound.
Why stop, why here, why now, what about the blog?
Our spring and summer of cruising Alaska has been far more incredible than we ever imagined, and one of the outcomes for us is that we now firmly know this cruising life is for us. We always thought it was, but the farther we went, the farther we wanted to go, and go, and go. And in assessing our future plans we realized that we have to stop now to make money and do some work to the boat before we can take off sailing south to Mexico and beyond. How’s that for sharing plans?!
Of course, the money thing is a big part of this decision, but not our sole reason for stopping. As I said in a recent post, we could keep going with what I make writing and editing from the boat, but we need to pay off debt from last year’s boat work and build up a cruising kitty again to do it right and responsibly.
Career-wise, we also understand that Jill needs to get a job in her field now if she wants to work again — which we’ll need her to do. After months of applying for jobs from Alaska to California, she was finally fortunate to get a couple interviews and a job offer, but potential employers along the way pointed out that her gap in work history was a problem. That said, she’s broken back into the field of social work and we’ll be more careful moving forward to make sure the gap doesn’t get too big. As a friend and fellow cruiser aptly yet half-jokingly quipped, “The machine doesn’t like vagabonds like you because it needs workers to keep it going. And if you’re not one of them, you’re out, and it’s hard to get back in.” That’s reality.
Another reality is that, even though Yahtzee is set to go wherever we need her to take us, after living on her for five years total and cruising full-time for three of those in a damp environment, she needs some love. And the only way to dote on her properly is to move off for some time — which, among other reasons, makes Alaska perfect. On top of cheap moorage, we rented a beautiful, inexpensive cabin in the woods so we can get the boat emptied, dried out and cleaned. Or as Jill perfectly put it, “Because I love this boat and life so much, I can’t wait to get everything off of it.”
That makes the other part of this equation here in Seward absolutely perfect. We’ll be in our rental cabin from October through the end of April and then living on Yahtzee from May through September. That will allow us to focus on working on the inside of the boat during the winter months, and then we can tackle some outside projects once we move back aboard in the spring. Seward has marine professionals we can turn to for help with some of the jobs, and parts are easy to come by.
Overarching throughout all of this is that Alaska is freaking amazing. I’ve fallen madly in love, and Jill’s happy to be home for a while. Whether its winter sports or summer, sailing or fishing, mountains or the sea, when we’re not working or working on Yahtzee, there is plenty to do. And when summer does come, there are numerous anchorages nearby to explore, the Kenai Peninsula is a cruiser’s paradise and Prince William Sound is just a hop away. That’s a win win.
Even though we won’t be cruising full-time for a little while, I’m still planning to keep the blog rolling. I have lots of content that has yet to be shared and I’ll be able to write about some of the projects that we’re starting to outline. We’re excited about what the future holds for our crew and boat here in the great state of Alaska. So stay tuned.
I woke early on Sunday morning. It was 4:33 a.m. when I rolled over to illuminate the clock next to our bunk. After a few deep breaths, I was up. Jill had preceded me and water was coming to a boil over a blue flame on the stovetop while I did engine checks, switched on instruments and lights, and headed on deck to weigh anchor.
Underway and working southwest out towards the dusky North Pacific, a heavy blanket of fog enveloped Yahtzee. I could hear distant waves crashing on a rocky shore. Birds chirped and cawed through the morning dew and the bow cast aside a sloppy leftover chop from the previous day’s breeze.
I gave the AIS a once over and then scanned a formless steel gray horizon for the lights of commercial fishing vessels that I knew were out ahead before my eyes settled astern. Prince William Sound was back there somewhere and I nodded and smiled in a silent farewell after three splendid weeks, “It’s not goodbye, but, until next time.”
Ahead of us was the Kenai Peninsula and Seward. Other than that, I had no idea where else we were going. And in the moment, it didn’t really matter.
Around the Sound
When we left Victoria and started working our way up the west coast of Vancouver Island way back in March, our only real plan was to make it to Southeast Alaska and then take life from there. But I don’t think we ever expected that we’d make it to Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island or the Kenai Peninsula — it just wasn’t on our radar at the time.
From east to west Prince William Sound (PWS) is roughly 85 miles wide, from north to south, roughly 85 miles long. Though it’s not as big as Southeast Alaska, it does seem quite large. Alaska itself is a humongous state, and all its cruising grounds have to be some of the best in the world. It’s no wonder that sailors settle here after circumnavigating the globe and cruisers from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia return here — Southeast Alaska in particular — year after year. It’s truly that incredible, and I still find it impossible to fathom how sailors leave the Pacific Northwest without spending time in this amazing place.
If there is one consistent truth about cruising on a sailboat, it’s that everyone out here makes it work in different ways financially. There really is no one size fits all approach.
Some save money and go for a set amount of time — 1, 2, 3 years, etc. Some use their retirement to sail off into the sunset. Others save and then save some more before setting out to see how far they can make it before needing to refill the kitty. Yet others employ an on again off again approach. And still others — like us over the past three years — work from the boat as they go.
With all of these varied approaches, there are tough and sometimes stressful decisions to make about when to leave, where to go next or whether to stop for some time in order to get back out. While this is hard to write, we’re going through these financial and life decisions now.
One of my least favorite subjects is money. I loathe thinking about it and the stress it causes. I dislike what it does to people and relationships, how it creates and perpetuates greed, and permeates through nearly everything in society. Everyone is beholden to the almighty dollar, making it, saving it and spending it. That’s life.
But the single biggest thing I hate about it, is owing it — debt. Which is part of our current predicament. This past fall and winter, when Yahtzee needed a new rudder and far more work than we anticipated, we went through our cruising kitty quickly and then accrued debt just as fast in order to get her back in the water. Our reality was that we had nowhere else to go. Yahtzee is our home and we couldn’t let her sit on the hard while we tried to make money to pay for all the work. At the time, that simply wasn’t possible. So debt it was.
Fast forward to now, and we’ve been put firmly between a rock and a hard place because of that debt, and need to pay it off so we can keep cruising on what I make. With no car, childcare or moorage to pay for, we have very few bills in general, but the debt part has to get fixed so we can go farther. Or so we think.
There are a few problems with stopping to work, the largest of which is Jill getting a job. Even though she has a masters degree in social work, credentials and work history, she doesn’t get rewarded by any potential employer for raising two children for the past four years. We’re finding out that having a gap in work history is quite tough to overcome. It’s a truth in our world that, generally, if a mom stops working to raise children, it’s harder to break back in.
Once Jill does secure a job, though, the remaining issues become paying to basically re-enter society. We’d need to pay for full-time moorage again, and would more than likely need to buy a car (hate that thought!) and put the kids in some type of childcare. All three of those are expensive and would immediately take up a large portion of what she would be making.
The difficulty then becomes that the trappings of land and jobs ashore will effectively suck us in, literally forcing us to pay so much to “live” that it might not be feasible to actually reduce our debt quickly. In this day and age, that’s how it goes. And that reality, the one where we’re just spinning our wheels on land, is a hard one to come to terms with. Because, in essence, we know that it’s actually cheaper and more personally fulfilling for us to keep cruising. Far more.
Sharing all of these life decisions and hurdles that we’re facing isn’t meant to come across as complaining. Rather, it’s to share the truths of life and cruising as we know it. I’m sure we’ll go through similarly difficult trials and tribulations again, and other cruisers will too.
Our reality right now is figuring out what to do next. Currently, we have some ideas but nothing set in stone — and we’re comfortable with that. For the time being, we’ll keep cruising, living in the moment and enjoying where we are with the ones we love. That’s how we roll.
Sitting on a broad, sun-warmed pebble beach, I gazed out at sweeping mountains with glaciers hanging in their valleys. Yahtzee sat just offshore in a sea so clear I could pick out every rock and piece of seagrass below. The boys splashed and swam in the water, jumping in and out, laughing, and I couldn’t help but revel in the moment. It was perfect in so many ways.
When we thought that Southeast Alaska was about as good as it could get, we were wrong. Over the past two plus weeks, Kodiak Island then the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound have upped the ante. Days like these have made us feel as though we’ve shed our Alaska cruiser’s training wheels and are riding blissfully free now, unencumbered with the wind in our hair. Life is here and now.
After landfall in Kodiak City and then spending a week enjoying the fruits of town and a few incredible anchorages, our sights got set farther north towards the Peninsula. With summer at this high latitude (60 degrees north) beginning its unfortunate downward spiral, we decided to keep moving 160 miles to the north to the Seward area and then into Prince William Sound to the east.
There are no two ways about it, we love salmon. Catching it, eating it, we love this tasty gift from the sea.
Fortunately, thanks to generous Alaskan fisherman who took a liking to our boys, plus catching our own, we’ve been up to our ears in fresh salmon lately. So much so that we’ve been trying hard to find different recipes and ways of preparing it than we ever have.
To move away from our tried and true salmon dishes, we turned to our favorite cookbooks we have aboard: San Juan Classics and San Juan Classics II by Dawn Ashbach and Janice Veal. We made the following recipe on a “hot” summer day here in Alaska and it was perfectly enjoyed in the cockpit with a glass of chilled rosé (boxed, of course). How’s that for fancy! Continue reading From the Galley: Salmon Salad with Lemon-Dill Dressing→
Blasting into a sudden 15 to 25 knot northerly towards the Kenai Peninsula, Yahtzee heeled sharply to starboard with the wind. Cutting through a steep chop, white water pushed off the bow and I did my best to steer us through it to windward.
With a steady rain soaking me, I could barely see wave sets through my sodden glasses let alone the tell tales on the genoa. It was somewhere around four in the morning on Monday and I’d just told Jill I’d take her watch, she could stay below to sleep with the boys instead of coming on deck in this mess. She didn’t need to deal with this. I did.
With daylight arriving in earnest, the miles wore on and I tried to keep my mind in the game. We’d already come 120 miles from Afognak Island, north of Kodiak, and there was no turning around, no pulling in somewhere for rest. Not yet, anyway.
Gripping the helm with cold bare hands, rain still pounding hard on deck and running down the inside of my jacket, my mood turned sour. I cursed the wind: it was supposed to be south. I cursed the rain: it was supposed to be clear. I cursed our blownout sails that were struggling to keep us pointing to windward: they were supposed to be moving Yahtzee to weather like I knew they should.
But then I stopped myself. Snapped out of it. “Weather? Who cares. I don’t. Sail the boat, Andy. Embrace it.” I told myself while wiping drops of rain from my face.
We weren’t in any danger and the conditions weren’t that bad. It just wasn’t what I’d expected. Plus, this was sailing. I was doing what I love with the people I love.
In essence, I decided, it was the cruiser’s version of a “case of the Mondays”. And on we went.
Weaving through tall, rocky islands off the Kenai Peninsula a couple hours and cups of coffee later, I turned to the south to look back across the Gulf of Alaska. Much to my surprise, I watched as the trailing edge of the rain moved over us to reveal bursts of sunshine. With the passing of the rain, the wind did an abrupt about-face and switched to the south. Because of course it did.
Reaching now under a morning sun that dried me and the cockpit, all I could do was laugh at the whole situation. The unpredictable weather had humbled me. Proving once again that it makes the rules, I play by them.