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.
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.
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.
Sailing fast on a broad reach, volcanic Mt. Edgecume slid by our starboard side while Yahtzee tracked northwest out into the expansive Gulf of Alaska. We were just hours from Sitka and though a destination of Prince William Sound was our original intention, the plan wasn’t set in stone. As always, it depended on weather.
The weather rules, and here in Alaska, it’s everything. Accordingly, we deferred to our tried and true method of letting the conditions decide before making any hard and fast routing decisions. Using our last smidgeon of cell service, I gave one final look at what we’d encounter over the next four to five days. The verdict? Light winds out of the south.
Suddenly, Prince William was out. Kodiak Island was in. And with that, I changed course to the west and set us on the rumbline for a destination some 500-plus miles in the distance.
Brakes hissed, horn sounded. The train lurched slowly forward away from Skagway towards the mountains. With a clickety-clack, clackety-click, we climbed from sea level up through forests and dark tunnels, around cliffs, over bridges and past craggy, snow-capped peaks before reaching 3,000-foot White Pass.
All the while, we gently rocked back and forth with the rhythm of the tracks and the boys looked out the windows with wide-eyed excitement. Up, up, up. Pointing, laughing and non-stop talking, you’d think they’d been waiting for this moment their entire lives.
While Yahtzee leaned gently with the wind, I stood on the edge of the cockpit and took a long, awe-inspired look at my surroundings — mountains, trees, islands, animals, water. A wide smile spread across my face.
The breeze played with my hood as I spun 360-degrees, basking in the grandeur and pristine world that lives within the borders of this hallowed place. It had been a week since we entered Glacier National Park and Preserve and with each passing moment, I’d come to realize that I was experiencing the world around me in a deeper, more ethereal way than I ever have. We all were.
The park itself is immensely hard to describe in words or pictures, let alone the experience we had, and I can’t accurately provide a day-to-day rundown of our time there. It just wouldn’t do it justice. The concept of time was immaterial and our week unfolded from one anchorage to the next during a magical spell of warm weather, sunny skies, light breezes and just enough gentle rain to make wildflowers pop in bloom.
We spotted humpback whales everyday, multiple times a day, and many times while in the comfort of an anchorage. Bears roamed shorelines. Wolves watched us from a distance. Birds sang. Eagles soared. Oystercatchers squawked. Arctic loons cooed. Mountain goats munched on grassy cliffs. Porpoises dove. Sea lions hunted. Seals sneezed. Sea otters played.
“WHALE! There it is!” Jill shouted while pointing ahead of the bow.
Mere boat lengths in front of us rose the unmistakable fin of a humpback whale and I steered quickly to starboard to get Yahtzee out of its path. Just then, its massive tail gracefully broke the water close off our port side, arched skyward and then disappeared into the sea.
All of us looked at each other with huge eyes and shared a frenzied few minutes of, “Oh my … I can’t believe that just happened!” while replaying the event over and over, and from our different perspectives.
I’ve never been that close to a whale in the wild and to do it while sailing at 7.5 knots with a decent sea running was incredible. We didn’t see this one coming across our bow until the last second and, in retrospect, I wish I’d had the GoPro running to capture the moment. It was one of those sea stories that will forever be etched in my memory.
Early the next morning we were up to catch high tide and humpbacks surrounded us on our approach to Mirror Harbor on the west side of Chichagof Island. With no wind and little swell running, the scene was far less dramatic yet equally as stunning to be a part of and we watched them surface and give a spout before diving in search of breakfast.
Leaving the whales in our wake, we reached the narrow, rocky entrance to this diminutive harbor only to find it completely choked with kelp. Approaching slowly, Jill stood at the bow and I nosed Yahtzee forward before realizing that, to attempt a passage over the forest would be a fool’s errand. It was too late. Continue reading A whale of a time at White Sulfur Springs
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.