I did not see this one coming…I went surfing in Alaska! And it wasn’t even on an ocean wave; it was on a tidal rip.
Tidal rips are created when a large body of water empties through a narrow constriction during a tide change. Gazillions of gallons of water (yes, I fact checked this) must flow through a narrow rocky opening in just a few hours creating amazingly powerful whitewater.
We met a great couple, Dave and Kelly on S/V Arctos, upon anchoring in Fords Terror. Dave was a former river guide who had always wanted to try and surf this channel (which we had just taken our sailboat through a few hours before, at slack tide—yikes). I had my wetsuit and he had a surfboard and extra wetsuit for our guest, Micah, so why not give it a go. We made an afternoon of it with the boys providing the entertainment and everybody hooting and cheering from a viewpoint above.
In order to surf it we found a spot where a rock or ledge or obstruction forced the water to stand up in a steep breaking wave. Next, we had to jump into water that was just a few hours prior… ice. As the current rapidly pulled us downstream we had to frantically paddle across the current and, facing upstream, attempt to align our boards with the large wave that we were about to smack into while being drug backwards downstream at a high rate of speed.
As the smack occurred we would paddle as hard as possible to try and slide down the front of the standing wave and, if everything went right, we could jump up and surf in place on a virtual treadmill of water flowing beneath our boards.
None of this is easy, of course, or the same twice, and the punch line is that whether or not you succeed, you’re still going to get drug downstream in a violent mess of freezing whitewater sooner or later. When that happens you have to try and stay on your board and paddle for all you’re worth to get across the whitewater on the side of the current that doesn’t pull you out to sea.
A lot of you might be shaking your heads thinking this doesn’t sound fun at all, but picture doing something completely new and exciting in the most astounding setting that you can imagine (think Yosemite Valley filled with water), with a great group of friends, and you have one perfect day. Alaska, you continue to surprise me.
The natural beauty of Alaska is stunning, a postcard perfect setting at nearly every turn… as advertised and expected. What we weren’t expecting was the incredible hospitality we’ve experienced since we entered the state. It’s not that we thought locals would be other than friendly, but we didn’t anticipate the openness and generosity we’ve been shown throughout the trip.
In Ketchikan, we were assigned a slip next to a purse seiner, a type of fishing boat that deploys a large wall of netting around an entire area or school of fish. . Her owners, Jim and Debbie, have both been commercial fisherman for 40 years. They welcomed us to Ketchikan, shared some great stories, and gave us recommendations on where to eat (and not to eat) in town.
In Wrangell, we chatted with a man and his daughter after they stopped us with a “Boomer Sooner!” when they saw Wags’ Oklahoma Sooners shirt. They are local to Wrangell but have spent a considerable amount of time in the Seattle area (as have most Alaskans, it seems) so we spent some time comparing notes on our favorite haunts.
In Petersburg, the town known as “Little Norway,” where commercial fishing rules the roost, we were lucky enough to have a local connection through our friend Paul. We met Paul’s brother, Pete, earlier this year in Anacortes and he told us to look him up if we came to Petersburg. Fortunately he had just returned from a trip on the fishing vessel Providence the day we arrived. During our visit, Pete was a fabulous tour guide and host. He invited us to dinner with his family and his good friend, Andy, who owns a commercial crabbing operation. Besides a home-cooked meal, we were treated to fishing stories and local knowledge, recommendations and things not to do, all of which we took to heart. Andy even offered to take us on a day trip to Le Conte Glacier in his aluminum-hulled boat (unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate). On our last day in town, we walked to the airport, an easy mile walk from the harbor, to greet some arriving friends who would be traveling with us to Juneau. On the way back we stopped at the grocery store to provision for the next ten days. While at the store, we ran into Pete’s in-laws, whom we had not yet met. After a few minutes of chit-chat, Brian offered his vehicle for us to use to take our groceries back to the boat. “Just leave it at the harbor when you’re done,” he said. That evening, as we headed out the channel on our way north, a fishing boat came along our starboard side. It was Andy wishing us farewell, a wonderful gesture that perfectly captures the Alaskan hospitality we’ve seen so far on this trip.
We left Petersburg this morning the same way we had arrived, in the rain. Our destination was Ideal Cove, a small, secluded cove across Frederick Sound from the entrance to Le Conte Bay. Originally, our plan was to use Ideal Cove as a stepping off point for taking the boat into Le Conte Bay to check out Le Conte Glacier, the southernmost tidewater glacier in North America. After some additional research on the volatility of this particular glacier, however, and some local knowledge from our friends Pete and Andy, who are in the commercial fishing and crabbing business in Petersburg, we decided to forego that adventure. Pete’s exact words were, “Glass boats don’t go in Le Conte” (meaning fiberglass boats like ours). We chose not to prove the reason behind his statement. Glacier viewing aside, Ideal Cove was still highly recommended as a wonderful anchorage. Andy keeps a float in the cove with his crab pots and spends a lot of time there. He assured us it is one of the most beautiful places in the area. As if we needed further validation of our choice of anchorage, Pete said it’s not unusual to see sunny and 70° in Ideal Cove when it’s chilly and raining in Petersburg (we considered this a promise).
With the current in our favor the trip from Petersburg took a mere 2-1/2 hours. On the way out of the channel we slowed to watch the sea lions on the red channel marker – there were 3 or 4 laying on the marker and considerable jockeying for position from the rest of the gang milling about in the water. Looking across the channel at what we thought were boats on the opposite shore, we realized, upon closer observation through the binoculars, that we were seeing the first bergie bits (large chunks of ice from the breakup of larger icebergs) that had floated north from Le Conte Bay. Halfway down Frederick Sound we spotted our first whales of the trip, two humpbacks. We look forward to seeing many more of these graceful creatures.
Pulling into Ideal Cove we instantly understood how it got its name. Well-protected and surrounded by woods, with a backdrop of mountains outside the entrance, it is, in fact, ideal. We anchored in 7 fathoms near the head of the cove. As we scanned the shore to see what it had to offer, a mama black bear and her two young cubs ambled out of the woods and spent the next half hour enjoying a light lunch of grass. After enjoying our own lunch we launched our kayaks to explore the shoreline as multiple streams emptying into the cove provided a relaxing soundtrack. When we got back to the boat the sun came out and I checked the thermometer… Amazingly, it read 70°. Unfortunately, the sunshine and warmth lasted only briefly. As evening set in, bringing with it a storm front, the temperature dropped, the wind kicked up and the rain began, coming full circle from the morning. We settled in below deck and enjoyed a warm dinner, a rousing game of cribbage and a movie to wrap up an ideal day.
Eagles are everywhere up here in Alaska and they are really fun to watch. So I guess you can assume a certain amount of arrogance when you are the national emblem of the most powerful nation on earth, but it has come to our attention that Bald Eagles, by and large, are jerks. It was first observed back in Anacortes, Washington when Paula watched an eagle flat out murder a cormorant then leave. He didn’t eat it, he didn’t use the feathers to make a pretty headdress or feather boa, he just committed murder and left. We thought that maybe this was an isolated incident. Like maybe this one eagle was a member of that small homicidal percentage of the population that so many species have, but while enjoying a nice dinner in Ketchikan we witnessed it again. (I doubt very seriously that same eagle flew all the way up to Alaska…) Right in the middle of downtown we watched as a whole group (flock, gaggle?) of Bald Eagles knocked a large black bird to the ground and while it tried to protect itself with outstretched wings they mercilessly dove on it and ripped it apart. It took longer to die than I would have liked. At least this time they ate it. My final evidence that they are jerks—when we arrived in a recent port a Bald Eagle immediately swooped down and landed on the top of our mast, essentially high-fiving us for having the tallest mast and best view in the harbor. While we were ooh-ing and ahh-ing and taking pictures the giant bird (the size of a large dog) became annoyed with our VHF/AIS antenna that was apparently in his way and decided to try and remove it with his super-powerful beak. Yelling and banging of halyards only seemed to amuse him. Eventually he got annoyed and left, and we think the AIS still transmits ok, but my impression was cemented. You may be drop-dead gorgeous, a national icon, an apex predator and all that, but you don’t have to be such a jerk about it.
The first question we get after describing “The Plan” is “What kind of boat do you have?” The degree of detail in the response is usually based on the inquirer’s level of boat knowledge, sailing experience, boat techy geekiness, etc. I usually respond with a question myself, “are you a sailor?” This is definitely not intended to be a butt-sniffing question because there is plenty of that in the sailing community and I abhor the judgmental one uppers with their comparisons of experience and bona fides. Rather, I ask the question to understand how broad or narrow to craft my description of our wonderful vessel. So, for instance at a dinner party conversing with someone who has little sailboat knowledge I’ll keep it broad: “It’s a 48 foot sailboat. A heavy displacement boat built for open ocean sailing.” After that I am thrilled to drill into the particulars if they want to go deeper but I’m careful to watch for those bored furtive looks for an escape route as well. So, without further ado here’s the boat, from general to specific. You can stop when you get bored or enter geek level nirvana with me.
“Gadabout” is a 2008 Tayana 48 DS (meaning Deck Saloon) sailboat. That just means that she has a raised cabin that has more headroom and bigger windows. “Tayana” is the builder located in Taiwan and the hull is a Bob Perry design. Tayana has been building solid, ocean-going boats for a long time and Mr. Perry is an icon in sailboat design. She displaces about 18 tons and has a three quarter keel and skeg hung rudder underneath. The bigger the keel the more stable the vessel but sacrifices are made in speed and maneuverability. Three quarter keels are a nice compromise in this regard. A skeg hung rudder means that the rudder is attached to a protective leading edge (skeg). This is good to protect the rudder from underwater hazards (see log strike in “Dock Lock Broken” blog post).
Gadabout has two staterooms, each with its own head and separate shower. The forward head is electric and we have kept the aft head manual. It’s nice to have options should the electric ever poop out (yes, pun intended). She carries 250 gal of water and 140 gal of fuel (this should equal about 800 nm depending on conditions).
For sail plan, she is cutter rigged with roller furling on both. The cutter rig seems to offer a lot of options for managing the amount of headsail. We currently don’t have a big downwind headsail. OK, actually we have an old school symmetrical spinnaker that we never use. Just rigging the SOB requires a spiderweb of lines, four strong backs and a PHD in applied geometry. I may be exaggerating, but only a little. Bottom line is that it isn’t easy. In the meantime we’ll keep our eyes open for some sort of asymmetric cruising spinnaker, gennaker, code zero or the likes. Donations accepted. The mainsail is roller furling, as well, on a LeisureFurl in-boom furler. We like this a lot as it allows easy reefing from the cockpit, though it came with a few growing pains. The furler can be really fussy if the angle of the boom isn’t just right when you furl it in causing the sail to walk forward or backward on the mandrel. After numerous test and evaluation periods with lots of ups and downs of the mainsail (and enhanced “adult” vocabulary words) we think we have all the marks in the right spots to ensure consistently smooth furling.
Additional stuff we added:
Solar. I added two super-thin, Solara brand, 115W, semi-rigid (walk-on) solar panels to help out the batteries. The panels are dead sexy (if you’re in to that sort of thing) and have a real nice low profile to them. Of course, all this sexiness came at quite an upcharge but I was in the throes of a spending frenzy at the boat show and kinda lost my head. I am using two Victron MPPT controllers wired in parallel and monitoring the whole mess with a watt wizard power monitor. The panels are mounted on the dodger, as we don’t have a solar arch like all of the cool kids (ran out of money at the boat show). The set up looks nice and works well so far; the only issue is that with this location I almost always have one panel shaded by the boom. At anchor I can sheet the boom out but depending on the point of sail underway we are often not getting full output.
Water maker. When it comes to water makers there are a lot of tradeoffs to consider, especially for a sailboat. The most obvious are water making capacity, power draw and cost. High capacity water makers draw a lot of power so running the generator or engine while making water is usually a prerequisite. But, they can make a lot of water fast, which is nice. On the other end of the spectrum there are low amp, low capacity water makers that have to run much longer but use less power. It’s a tortoise vs. hare comparison. Fast and furious or long and slow. Ultimately we settled on the tortoise. We installed a Katadyne PowerSurvivor 40E which makes a paltry 1.5 gal/hr but does so while sipping only 3-4 amps (see what I did there). Our logic was thus: In a worst-case scenario where the generator croaks, or the fuel tanks get fouled, we can still make water. The solar panels alone can generate the power we need. For two people we should be able to keep up with basic daily consumption but we’ll probably not be able to totally keep up with extravagances like long showers. I’ll keep you updated on whether this was a good choice.
AIS. I installed a Vesper XB-8000 AIS. It was a little bit of a challenge to get it to interface with my 2007 Raymarine E-120 system but most of that was self-induced (since when does a white wire go to a green wire and a green wire to a white wire!?!) Now the two are talking to each other and I can see contacts on my chart plotter and they can see me. I even had a barge hail me the other day based on my AIS contact. He was very professional in asking which side I would prefer to be struck. Overall this was a great purchase and I love the situational awareness it adds.
Dinghy and motor. We went with a 10ft aluminum hull AB brand inflatable dinghy. The aluminum hull is much lighter than the fiberglass versions and is much tougher for rocky beach landings (i.e. every beach landing in the PNW). It weighs about 80lbs and we store it on the foredeck using an extra halyard as a crane. We have our roles pretty well sorted: I am the crane operator, a.k.a. the guy who cranks the winch (no joke there…yet) and Paula guides the dink to the water attempting to keep the soft side of the cheaper little boat facing the scratchable parts of the higher priced boat. For power we purchased a Tohatsu 9.8 hp motor, which lives on the stern rail. It weighs 80 lbs, as well, and we have a small hoist for this with a 3:1 purchase. We reverse roles for the evolution of getting the motor onto the dinghy – Paula lowers it from the safety of the mothership and I manhandle it aboard the dinghy while trying not to go overboard. I need to talk to my union rep because it seems like I come out on the losing side of these roles more often than not.
Mast Height 70’
Ballast 11,675 lbs
Displacement 35,000 lbs
Sail Area 1,316 sq ft
That’s it for now as I’m rushing this out the door while we have a fleeting wifi connection in Prince Rupert, BC. I’ll add more as I get a better feel for what people are interested in. Let me know what questions ya’ll have.
I seem to recall a song, maybe a 70s one-hit wonder type, with lyrics along the lines of, “I love to feel the wind in my face… blah, blah, blah…” I don’t know whose idea it was to write those lyrics but I’d like to set the record straight… Feeling the wind in my face is good only if said wind is generated from the speed of our boat plus the wind at our backs. Taking 18-24 knots directly in the teeth for most of the day, four days running is NOT something I love. As any good sailor knows, fair winds and following seas is the desired state under sail. In the Pacific Northwest, this is, more often than not, simply that: a desired state. The predominant wind direction here, regardless of the direction in which one is headed, is in your face. At 3-5 kts, 10 even, wind directly on the bow is nothing more than a minor annoyance. When it reaches 15+ kts, however, it becomes a frustration and, more importantly, a hindering factor in getting anywhere quickly (yes, I realize “quickly” is used in a strictly relative sense when speaking about sailing). So, after a very rough crossing of Queen Charlotte Sound in a 15-20 kt headwind, followed the next day by 15-20 kts in the face for most of the day in Fitz Hugh Sound, we found ourselves this morning motoring north along Fisher Channel in 16-24 kts, again, right in the teeth… a bit disheartening, to say the least, when the fastest we were able to eek out was only slightly faster than walking speed – unless we were racing a speed walker, in which case we would lose. Thankfully, our luck was about to change. After two hours, we made it to our first turn and, magically, it seemed, the wind was finally, after all this time, on our beam. Oh, wind, the kind not in our faces, how we missed you! Up went the sail to provide some much-needed assistance, and our speed ratcheted up to 8 kts. For much of the afternoon, with 15-20 kt winds, sometimes gusting to 25 kts, at our backs (Did you hear that? Our backs!), we relaxed, soaked up the sun, and enjoyed the sound of water rushing past Gadabout’s hull. Then, we reached our next turn. And the feeling was gone. So it was that we finished out the rest of the day with a headwind before dropping the anchor in a small cove protected from all but the 15 kt gusts popping over the island, in our faces. It may be a long night.
Dock lock: the inability to finish your boat projects (or at least those that are truly necessary for cruising) and actually cast off all lines to start the adventure you’ve been telling everyone about for so long.
Our original plan was a Monday, 9 May departure. That plan changed slightly when our life raft delivery was unexpectedly pushed from Friday to Monday, dashing all hopes of leaving the dock at slack tide that day. [A side note… We have been moored in a lovely marina – great harbormaster, full shop at our disposal for boat projects, wonderful neighbors. There’s only one issue: we can’t come or go from the slip except at slack tide. Several people warned us of the consequences early on, complete with their own stories of ignoring the warnings they received, and we chose to honor their recommendation and never tempt fate. So, we moved our departure date to Tuesday, 10 May.]
Slack was a bit earlier than we’d have liked, at 0555, although neither of us slept much, anyway, with the excitement of starting our journey dancing in our heads, so waking up was no problem. We cast off, patted ourselves on the backs for hitting Donut House in Anacortes the prior evening, and settled in to enjoy our donuts and coffee on a beautiful morning. We texted a friend so we could wave as we passed her house (albeit too far for either of us to see the other). Conditions in Rosario Strait were good, only a slight chop, nothing out of the ordinary and as we neared Thatcher Pass, our entrance to the San Juan Islands, autopilot engaged, we were content. Then, BANG!!! We hit something. What the… ??? We weren’t close to land, rocks, anything. “LOG!,” I yelled, as out of the corner of my eye I saw the submerged beast we had just t-boned pop out of the water at the side of the boat for another go at our hull. Wags quickly threw the boat into neutral and disengaged the autopilot while we determined if there was any damage to the rudder. After a few minutes to assess – thankfully, there was no damage other than a slight rub on our freshly polished bow – and allow our adrenaline levels to normalize, we continued on our way, with a heightened awareness of all detritus in the water. Coming off an extremely high tide, in an area known for logging and transportation of logs via waterways, it’s not at all uncommon to see full-size tree trunks in your path. Most are easily seen and avoided, but our morning experience had us in a slight state of paranoia. “Log, one o’clock!” “Log 10 o’clock!” This became our chant, of sorts, for the rest of the day.
Our first stop of the day was Bedwell Harbor, Pender Island, to check into British Columbia. Canadian Customs agents were on hand and ready for a boat check. As we sat on the dock listening to them open what seemed like every compartment on the boat, we hoped they would see eye-to-eye with us on which bottles were considered “ships’ stores.” To our delight, they were friendly and expedient and didn’t confiscate anything. We did need to pick up a few items that we weren’t allowed to bring into Canada, such as fresh fruit, and the store in Bedwell wasn’t yet stocked for the season, so we headed around the point to provision in Port Browning, where there’s a grocery store a half mile from the marina (they have the best homemade chicken pot pies, if you ever have a chance to visit). The harbormaster gave us an end spot on the dock to allow us to pull in easily and leave the same way. Unfortunately, when we got back from our provisioning run, the wind had kicked up to a healthy level, in the wrong direction, pinning us to the dock. One of the dock hands was fantastic in his efforts, and willingness to nearly sacrifice his own body, to help us push 18 tons of boat away from the dock as the wind acted as our challenger in a feats of strength competition. We escaped with a slight (but still painful) rub down the port side of our stern – again, nothing a buff and polish won’t fix, but for those keeping score… Nature 2, Wagners 0.
Some may think we would be discouraged by all this unwelcome excitement on our first day. We reminded ourselves, though, that this is an adventure, and adventures are made up of good, bad and everything in between. Anchored in a beautiful bay that evening, with the sunset glowing shades of pink and purple, and the sounds of nature settling in for the night, the good made up for the bad, and we looked ahead, knowing that everything from here on would be new, be it good, bad or in between. At least we’d broken dock lock.
The journey begins May 9th. First up, the Inside Passage to Alaska. Check back for regular updates and photos.