It has been over two months since we crossed the border from British Columbia into the great state of Alaska. From Ketchikan to Sitka, Glacier Bay to Skagway, Juneau to Ford’s Terror, and everything in between, we’ve been in constant awe of this immense cruising ground.
It’s easy to see why cruisers come here year after year to explore the many nooks and crannies that the wilds of Alaska have to offer. For many newcomers, though, questions abound about logistics, routing, itineraries, provisions and more. While we’re certainly not veterans of the area, and we know that many people have different ways of making the voyage work for them, their boat and crew, here are a few things we suggest bringing when planning a cruise to Southeast Alaska (and one thing not to bring).
A Reliable Engine:
The bottom line is that you’re not getting far in Southeast Alaska without a reliable engine. Of course, we always hope to sail as much as possible, and did so to get here, but the fact of cruising Alaska in the late spring and summer is that there are quite a few days of no wind, light wind or wind directly on the nose.
Apart from the wind, current is king. If you don’t play it right, you’re not getting very far very fast, or you could find yourself in some exceptionally dangerous situations. Yahtzee can be painfully slow under power, and sails much faster, but whether we’re sailing or motoring, we always pay close attention to the current and use it to our advantage whenever possible. Continue reading What to bring when cruising Southeast Alaska→
It’s June and I’m cold. A heavy rain pelts my black Musto jacket and I pull the brim of the hood down slightly to let water drip off. I watch the drops fall on the toes of my boots, roll off and disappear onto the cockpit floor. Looking up, I scan the water in front of Yahtzee and see nothing but grey. Well, there are white caps whipped up by a brisk wind, but other than that it’s all shades of grey — water, clouds, rocks, mountains.
Clenching my hands together into a loose ball, I bring them to my mouth and blow a steady breath inside for warmth. It does little. I was warm yesterday. Hot, even. And I know it will come again. Maybe in 10 minutes when this squall passes.
Sure enough, the precipitation turns from a downpour to a steady rain to a surly drip. Then it stops. A patch of blue sky breaks over Stephens Passage and within minutes I’m closing my eyes, lifting my face to the sun. Smiling.
Rain, sun, wind, no wind. Rain, sun, wind, no wind. This is the end of spring in Southeast Alaska and I love it. There’s no place I’d rather be.
That night the rain pounds hard on deck and I lay awake, listening. When the alarm goes off at 5 a.m. I’m thinking about the tide instead. It’s low and we need to move 25 miles up Endicott Arm with the flood to catch it high and slack at the entrance to Ford’s Terror. I’ve built in extra time and go through my daily engine checks leisurely. Water is on the stove for coffee when I climb on deck to hoist the anchor. I find patches of blue sky breaking over white mountain tops and am happy yet not surprised.
Nearing the entrance to the long fjord we pass a massive iceberg that we stopped to admire the day before. Leaving it on our starboard side, I think about Jill and the boys paddling around it just twelve hours earlier and how much it has changed and how far it has drifted since then. A metaphor for life. It’s much smaller and in a completely different place. The brilliant blue emanating from its craggy shape is still breathtaking and its color is something that truly can’t be duplicated.
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.
“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.
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.