We left Petropavlosk in Kamchatka on 20th June 2000 bound
for Alaska. From there the sail across to Attu, the first
of the Aleutian islands was 550nm and we had favourable winds,
although at times, rough seas. We could see a big Low behind
us so after 4 days we took shelter in Chicagof Bay on the
north side of Attu.
It took 4 attempts to get the CQR anchor to hold as the bottom
was broken volcanic shale covered in Bull Kelp, a kind of
huge seaweed with a stem about 10m long and 80mm dia with
wide leaves. If the anchor dragged even a little, there would
soon be a 2m ball of kelp at the end of the chain which just
rolled along the seabed. There was no wildlife and not a single
tree on the island, just low grass and very small shrubs,
some with minute flowers that could withstand the wind howling
across the low hills. Through the fog and rain we could see
many relics from WWII on land and in the sea so it was a pretty
gloomy anchorage. However, we were glad to be able to rest
for a few days.
illywhacker approaches Attu Island, the most western of the Aleutian
islands. All are treeless but the covered surfaces are muskeg with tiny flowers. These are the islands of the
Pacific "Rim of Fire", they are bleak but spectacular.
|Clearing bull kelp from the anchor
On the 3rd day the weather fax looked as though things might
improve and although the wind was still NE, "on
the nose" for our course, we decided to head for Dutch
Harbour and hope for a change in strength and direction. That
was a WRONG decision as the sea was a mix of SW swell and
NE wind waves and we made very slow progress with all of us
feeling "lethargic". To learn to read the weather
in different parts of the world you need help from local experts
and ours was Hiroshi Takada, a friend whose job is to provide
weather information to JAL pilots and we were very fortunate
to have him e-mail us a daily forecast. The information we
received from him in Attu was right but HF propagation was
poor and it was some time before we established new times
and frequencies for our radio e-mail.
The nearest relief looked to be at the island of Shemya and
after 12 hours we dropped anchor (which held after 3 attempts
.... so we were getting better). There was very little protection
from the NE and none of our cruising notes from previous yachts
who had made this passage had mentioned the anchorage except
to say that it looked bad. We would be breaking US Customs
law too if we went ashore since it is US territory, actually
the most western outpost and an important military base. The
first point at which we were able to complete formal entry
procedures was at Dutch Harbour some 800nm away to the east.
From our roly anchorage we could just make out through the
fog, several concrete buildings, a solid concrete wharf 12m
or so high and 2 wrecked ships The place looked deserted so
we were surprised to hear a voice challenging us on the VHF.
It was the Station manager who was asking if we needed assistance
but politely forbidding us to come ashore. However, we got
the feeling that he and a number of the others we spoke to
on the radio over the next few days would have loved us to
come ashore just to make a change in their social calendar.
Rolling in a 1.5m swell at anchor we were sorely tempted to
break the rules especially when a voice in an armoured vehicle
called us over to the wharf for a few drinks one night. Getting
ashore in a dinghy then would have been extremely difficult,
let alone getting back aboard, but coming alongside in illywhacker against
the more exposed wharf with no bollards was suicidal so we
declined with thanks.
The lack of trees, the concrete blocks and the apparent lack
of human habitation was made more sinister by the continual
fog, but one night the "voices" told us they were
having a "landing" and the length of the island
behind the low hills from us lit up with orange sodium lights.
Shemya Base is an airstrip operated and maintained under US
Govt. contract and used by the USAF and occasionally by international
air carriers in an emergency. The island is on the route from
Europe via Anchorage to Asia over the North Pole as well as
on the Great Circle route from the USA to Asia. We learnt
later that it was also the base from which the US kept a watching
eye on the USSR during the Cold War and the place from which
a 707 spy plane took off to shadow a Korean Airlines 707 and
which resulted in the tragic shooting down of the passenger
We realised at Shemya that we had passed the International
Dateline as well as moving on to Alaskan Standard Time even
though we were well west of the real longitude time. It was
light at midnight and took some adjustment. So we used the
2 days here to acclimatise and wait for the worst of the seas
to subside. Departure this time was no mistake and we had
light winds with some sailing and motoring the 130nm to Kiska
Island. By now we had decided that island-hopping was the
best way to make best use of the ever-changing weather patterns.
Takada San was still kindly sending us daily e-mails and we
were receiving faxes from the Japan Weather Service in Tokyo,
both sources being dependent on radio propagation but after
a while we learned to read whatever information we could get
to make the passage as comfortable as possible.
Gertrude Cove at Kiska
was an overnight stop were we anchored in calm water beside
the wreckage of a wartime tanker. Again the island was low
and windblown and sea and animal life minimal. From there,
a motorsail of 167nm brought us to Kanaga Bay on Kanaga Island.
Protected from the strong winds now blowing we anchored after
2 attempts and set the depth alarms before going to bed. An
early riser but a heavy sleeper, our crew John gave us a call
at 0500 with the comment "I see you guys re-anchored
in the night, why didnt you wake me?" Of course,
Id set the alarm incorrectly and wed all had an
uninterrupted sleep while the anchor rolled its ever-growing
ball of kelp some 300m to the lee side of the bay. Luckily
it was heavy enough to prevent an uphill roll into shallow
water. Cutting it away at the bow in 60C though was the penalty
for our neglect.
We were again able to motorsail in light conditions to the
magnificent protection of South Arm Bay on the west side of
Adak Island. Here we saw otters, sea lions and our first Bald
Eagle and enjoyed a walk through the icy lakes scattered across
the low treeless hills. Adak is a US Naval Base but not a Customs port so we were
unable to legally go ashore. However, we needed fuel after
an unexpected amount of motoring (which we didnt mind
if it meant smooth going!) so we entered Sweeper Cove some
45nm around the island to plead our case over the VHF. Although
the Navy were preparing for a withdrawal from the Base in
September this year they were strict in their interpretation
of the rules and allowed us to take on fuel only. The Aleut
people inheriting the remains of 60 years of military occupation
and busy in the reclamation of their island were more helpful
and kindly did a shopping run for us.
This is all we saw
of Adak - the fuel dock
WWII wreck at Gertrude Cove in Kiska
A welcome tieup in Finger Bay, Adak
The wind was picking up with a forecast
of 45 kt for the next 3 days so we scuttled around the point
from Sweeper Cove to narrow Thumb Bay where we spent an anxious
night riding the gusts. By the morning the wind had shifted
and was howling straight down the bay. With difficulty we
lifted anchor without running aground backwards and with
the motor running hard, moved around into the conveniently
nearby Finger Bay, wondering how we would ever convince the
anchor to hold. Our luck was in for right in the middle of
the bay was a Navy buoy suited to 100,000 ton vessels
you US Navy, that will do nicely!
The 400nm leg to Dutch Harbour was
a mix of motoring and sailing in light winds and the sea
and birdlife improved considerably. There we saw Humpback
and Orca whales, Dalls porpoises, thousands of seabirds
of a great variety, otters and seals, just what we came for!
It was comfortable going for a change, edged with anxiety
knowing how quickly conditions can change in these waters.
The island chain of the Aleutians offer a slowly-growing
skyline to those lucky enough to sail past in good visibility.
From west to east, the islands grow from low, treeless
and bleak to high volcanic peaks but it is not until
the Alaskan mainland do trees appear. On this leg we
witnessed some of these changes and were fortunate to
get a good view of the mile-high volcanoes on "The
Islands of Four Mountains".
Stunning to see steam issuing from such perfect snow-cones
surrounded by sloping lava flows levelling out to the
tops of the vertical cliffs dropping to the sea . After
these islands, Umnak at 7000ft seemed to signal bigger
things to come.
||Active volcano in "Islands
of Four Mountains" group
What a great feeling it was to enter Dutch
Harbour after 19 days on board with thoughts of fresh
food and walking ashore and meeting people whose language
we could understand
The Russian Orthodox Church at Unalaska welcomes us in the early morning
The twin towns of Dutch Harbour and Unalaska are on
the island of Unalaska and Dutch Harbour, the industrial
side is the most westward commercial port in Alaska.
It is certainly a town with a "frontier" feeling
with a look that comes from doses of very severe weather.
It is populated by Aleut Indians, Filipinos, Mexicans
and adventurous Americans. To experience a Friday night
at the "Sportsmans Bar" is to be transported
back to the days of the Klondike goldfields!
Fishing boats leave here to fish the Bering Sea and
Bristol Bay where the going is really tough. The boats
have names like Arctic Angel, Northern Venture, and
Northern Spirit often making the run from as far as
Seattle to ports in Alaska for the Summer season. There
are some locally owned but mostly, these expensive well-equipped
boats are skippered by out-of-towners who live elsewhere.
the fishing boats at Dutch Harbour Customs dock
floatplane leaves the small boat harbour past the famous
cold weather sailing yacht "Cloud Nine"
a small Aleutian halibut next
door to illywhacker at the harbour marina - well-heeled
tourists were flying into Dutch harbour from all over
the world to fish halibut in these waters. On arrival
back at the dock there'd be lots of photos standing
alongside the fish then back off to the hotel. It
was Manuel's task to fillet and pack the for freighting
the trophies home.
Manuel (that's his arm on
the leftl) was a nice guy and there was so much fish
that well .... we had many wonderful meals thanks
to his generosity!
Its not only the fishermen who are tough out here,
the yachties we met are quiet achievers too. At a get together
on a 60 Kiwi yacht "Evohe", the New Zealanders
were discussing with the American yacht "Cloud Nine"
the possibility of a Northwest Passage transit as this year
it was likely to be open. (We heard later the following year
that they'd made it through!). "Evohe" was under
charter to Discovery Channel for a wildlife series on the
Aleutians. I was taken with their rubber dinghy which had
been converted to an amphibious ultra-lite aircraft! "Cloud
Nine" had already made an attempt on the NW Passage,
been to the Antarctic and had made 3 circumnavigations. In
addition, "Nomad" was heading north to the Pribiloff
Group in the Bering Sea known for its spectacular wildlife.
While illywhacker sat amongst these veterans of Arctic sailing,
a 33 Jenneau arrived after a non-stop passage from Sendai
on the Japan east coast. Kenichi Yamashita, his wife and 2
small children had sailed through a serious typhoon in freezing
temperatures, in a very light boat with a bendy rig and a
15 open cockpit, a real racer. Yamashita San is a famous
mountain climber and the yacht was rigged with equipment from
this sport. The family were in great shape and looking forward
to more adventures; we were most impressed and quietly went
to bed with our arthritis pills as the party raged on.
|The 60' New Zealand yacht "Evohe"
left from here to transit the NW Passage
||The Yamashita family
arrive after a non-stop crossing from Japan
We cleared into the USA at Dutch Harbour, and after we had
enjoyed the restaurants, the supermarkets and toured the sites
we departed during a weather break and anchored at Unalga
Island. When the wind suddenly turned NE again and the anchorage
became untenable we decided we needed more partying so illywhacker
returned to Dutch and waited out the Low for another 4 days.
It was a very productive time as we were introduced to a number
of Alaska Marine Pilots. Through them we obtained electronic
charts for the area and now are absolutely sold on them. With
a GPS accuracy of 15m and NOAA charts we can sail between
rocks navigating from below decks
. well, we peer out
into the fog sometimes!
Heading for Kodiak Island we planned our course via the Alaskan mainland in the
hope of a bear sighting. So we sailed past the magnificent
volcanoes of Unimak and enjoyed the now more prevalent sightings
of whales, sealions, otters and birds. The scenery was changing
and we spoke with several enthusiastic fishermen who not only
loved fishing but also the natural wonders of the area and
they planned our route for us to ensure the greatest diversity.
We spent a night at King Cove where we were taken on a tour
looking for bears: didnt see any, but did see 20 or
so otters "rafted up", all floating head to toe
munching on clams or with their babies on their stomachs.
Next stop was Sand Point, another fishing harbour were we
took in the underwater petrified forest nearby. Another daysail
of 80nm (easy when there are 18 hours of daylight) to the
calm anchorage of Kupreanof Harbour at Paul island then on
to visit our fishermen friends who were taking their catch
to the cannery at Chignik Harbour. Anchorages were now becoming
really secure with narrow entrances and high mountains for
protection inside..AND they were tree-covered. Typical of
these was Port Wrangell, a very protected spot AND we saw
our first 2 bears. After that it was a zoo. At Geographic
Harbour for example we crept in as close as we dared
to the beach where a family of 3 brown bears were looking
for clams, what a wonderful sight! . Kodiak Island nearby
is the home of the largest brown bears in the world. They
grow to 1000Kg and one towered several feet over me baring
its teeth. Luckily I was in a museum and it was stuffed,
at Geographic Harbour
Baranov Museum in Kodiak
After a safe crossing of the infamous Shelikof Straits to
Kodiak Island we spent another night at anchor, this time
in Onion Bay where we met an Economics Lecturer and part-time
fisherman who invited us to his comfortable cabin. These Alaskans
are a breed apart, their love of country and outdoor life
give a sense of reality and keep the dream alive for the millions
who slave in the cities of the "lower 48". We find
our lifestyle strikes a chord with many Alaskans and together
we enjoy learning of and admiring the natural wonders of Planet
Earth . The major difference between us was the American enthusiasm
for "huntin", but if you live long enough in the
area and see the abundant wildlife as a renewable resource
or maybe get chased by a hungry bear you might develop another
view from ours.
We stayed at Kodiak long enough to stock up and do the tourist
walks but these days the Oz peso is so low the daily costs
of the Small Boat Harbours are frightening so we kept them
to a minimum. From this point in our journey we had the option
of following the usual course of sailing direct to the North
American coast and making landfall at Sitka or Juneau, or
taking a gamble on the good weather continuing and heading
north to what is actually the best part of Alaska, Prince
William Sound. As a backup precaution we enquired from as
many fishermen and the few local yachties as we could find
as to where the best places would be to "hole up"
for winter in the Sound should the weather close in and prevent
us making the crossing of the Gulf of Alaska. The answers
varied greatly from Homer or Seldovia, to Seward, Valdez or
Cordova but their responses gave rise to 2 conflicting considerations.
The first was that since we have travelled so far to get to
the best part of the world DONT MISS IT! The second
was more frightening for us as we had no experience of cold
climates and the severe weather that this area cops in winter.
As explained graphically to us, the freeze/thaw cycle that
ocurrs for up to 5 months a year with continuous rain and
snow can easily demolish a boat. Water that seeps into even
small surface cracks or under fittings expands and widens
the crack, allowing more water in and so on. If that wasnt
bad enough, in some areas up to 2m of snow falls in one day
and when followed by warmer rain, the snow changes to ice
and boats roll over and sink! Maybe thats why we hadnt
seen so many yachts! But we still had a few weeks left before
the autumn equinox when all fishermen and sailors should be
off the Gulf so we sailed from Kodiak north to Afognak Island
on 28th July.
Kitoi Harbour on Afognak is dominated by a salmon hatchery
and on our entry into the bay we had to line up with several
million other ocean travellers waiting their turn to enter
the river on their extraordinary journey up into the lake.
I find a touch of sadness in the story of the contemporary
salmon, perhaps I identify with the futility of a life that
never allows fulfilment, even after overcoming such incredible
obstacles. After circling the Pacific for 5 years or so, these
beautiful fish arrive at the fresh water stream in the peak
of condition, their bodies charged with enough oil to sustain
the swim of up to 1000miles - upstream and uphill to the SAME
place they were hatched. Under natural conditions only 1 or
2 percent of salmon eggs result in fish that reach the spawning
grounds, natural selection really working there! The hatchery
intercept the salmon at the stream entrance to obtain eggs
from healthy natural fish. Hatcheries have up to an 80% egg
to fingerling release rate thereby creating many more fish
than the stream can accommodate. Salmon receive their home
GPS position from the first taste of salt/fresh water mix
at the entrance of the stream to the ocean. This phenomenom
enables hatcheries to release fingerlings wherever they may
be caught as adults most conveniently on their return years
later. Together with the practise of monitoring upstream numbers
on all salmon streams, this allows the Fisheries Dept to manage
the catch. Over the summer season, fishermen are advised; "the Chignik east arm will be open for 5 hours"
and a small fleet of Seiners from a Cannery area are able
to harvest 100s of tons in a days work.
For me though, to see these salmon prevented from heading
upstream and throwing themselves on top of each other in their
desperation, or swimming endlessly around in bay with NO entering
stream seems a sad ending to a noble life. The bears think
its great though. At Kitoi they were in great numbers,
taking a bite from one then swiping up the next. Those fish
that did find a chute found themselves swimming up to a gutting
table where the eggs and sperm were removed and mixed in a
bucket to commence the next generation. The carcasses were
thrown back into the bay or into a huge net to be towed out
to sea and dumped. Still, the industry was in good shape and
the fish are "natural" and not farmed. Probably
no difference to a free-range egg??
Anxious to get past the treacherous Barren Islands, we left
Afognak in what we thought was sufficient time to make the
150nm crossing to Seward before a forecast Low pressure system
swept through. We made good time for the first 50nm but so
did the Low apparently and soon the wind swung on the nose
and the seas built up to the usual washing machine
opposing swell from the SW and windwaves from the NE. Rain
and a heavy fog set in as well to make the whole journey thoroughly
forgettable. There was one moments relief from the maelstrom
in the form of a protected passage shown to us by our fisherman
friends. Several islands en route formed "Petes
Pass" through which was a VERY narrow, rock-studded and
tortuous stretch of water. Always one to seek comfort in a
storm we tested our computer electronic charts with me steering
with the autopilot from below while Lyndall gave encouraging
shrieks from on deck. The normally placid crew John was even
heard to mutter "I cant believe this". We
emerged unscathed though and had the joy of bearing away 300
into Resurrection Bay at the head of which, 30nm away was
the town of Seward, our first in Prince William Sound and
the "Gateway to the Kenai Peninsular".
Seward is a spectacular place, set in Kenai National Park
which is an abundant marine and forest wildlife area. The
town surrounds the harbour in a narrow fiord of high snow-capped
mountains with several glaciers nearby. At last we had arrived
at a true Alaskan frontier town, a few hardy souls struggling
to fight back the elements of the wild north?
As we approached by the light of the late summer night the
fog slowly lifted for us to see a wisp of smoke coming from
.but wait, whats that next to the
fireplace? On the waters edge was a centipede of Winnebagos
parked side by side. Not one or two, not ten or twenty BUT
hundreds and hundreds in a row that stretched for miles. And
in front of each was a fisherman casting for silvers with
a large wife and a small dog in the van watching tele. Welcome
to roughing it USA, grey nomad style? Seward is at the end
of the Alcan Highway, the road from the "Lower 48",
and this is a far as you can go into "huntin n
fishin" territory. The road goes through Fairbanks and
Anchorage to Seward and Homer which become tourist towns during
the short summer months. The Small Boat Harbour is alive with
sightseeing tour boats and has a continuous stream of huge
liners with up to 1000 people disgorged for day or two before
the next liner docks.
We were surprised by the number of yachts in Seward, some
40 or 50 belonging mainly to Anchorage people who drove the
3 hours each way to sail during the summer season. We felt
much relieved, if these people could leave their new 40
Beneteaus etc here over winter so could we AND it must
be fantastic sailing in the Sound to make it all worthwhile.
The sailors here were very helpful in advising us on "winterizing"
techniques to minimise the chance of damage. Although the
harbour does freeze at times it is the fresh water on top
that does so and usually thaws quickly so the hull of the
yacht doesnt freeze and water inside below the waterline
is safe. Nevertheless, antifreeze is used throughout the fresh
and saltwater systems, in the bilge, behind sea-cocks and
in all lines. Fuel is topped up to minimise water due to condensation
and a small heater is deployed to keep the interior above
freezing whilst minimising condensation. The main concern
after all that is done is the snow load on the yachts
deck and horizontal surfaces as well as on the pontoon walkways.
Snow shovelling is a winter necessity and people are employed
to do this by the Harbourmaster and by individual owners.
We were fortunate to meet Kerry and Nick, locals at Seward
who loaned us their car for a 2-day drive to Homer. Kerry
is a Kiwi running a silk painting shop and Nick is a surveyor
who spends a good deal of time in Barrow and Nome near the
Artic circle. His stories of "bear encounters" may
have eclipsed Lyndalls terror of sharks, only time will
tell but our walks in the forest here are interesting events
I can tell you!
We enjoyed Seward and from there took the trip to Anchorage
by car, returning a few days later by the truly magnificent
train journey. We stayed in Anchorage with friends of John
who showed us the local sites and drove us to the surrounding
hinterland. Our visit to Homer confirmed the locally aired
view that wintering there would be more difficult than Seward
or Cordova so after 2 weeks of heavy socialising we said goodbye
to John and his wife Marg who had flown to meet us in Anchorage
and headed off into the best cruising of all.
Prince William Sound is protected cruising with a great many
snug, keyhole anchorages, great fishing and superb scenery.
There are a number of places where you can sail close by a
glacier, at 9 oclock at night the sun is low and the
snow and ice fairly twinkle in a warm glow, a photographers
delight. In one small bay we had chunks of ice floating about,
called bergy bits, growlers or brash ice depending on their
size. At Beartrap Bay, the best anchorage at the head is reached
by motoring over a mile up the narrow fiord, there the salmon
are spawning, the Bald Eagles soar and the bears roam. Alone,
we stayed a few days and watched fascinated as the fog and
rain rolled back and forth, sunshine bathed the bay from different
angles and the wildlife kept us on deck entranced. Yes this
place has it all.
Just 25nm away is the little town of Cordova where illywhacker
is tied up for winter. It is a small fishing town at the eastern
end of Prince William Sound at 60N, 146W. There are 3000 people
living here yet the harbour has 830 berths, all boats are
fishing trawlers except for 7 yachts whose owners are living
on board and keep warm with electric and diesel heating. We
also have a telephone and internet on the boat so we can catch
up on writing to our friends and write a few stories of our
Fortunately, the weather has been mostly fine and the skies
crystal clear, providing many opportunities to go fishing
and walking in the beautiful country surrounding Cordova.
Alaska is empty compared to our last temporary home, Japan
and this country is vast. We are surrounded by huge snow-covered
mountains, there are 7 glaciers nearby feeding the largest
wetlands in North America so the animal life is plentiful,
particularly during the migratory bird season. These last
few days hundreds of Canada geese have been flying south in
the traditional V formation, honking goodbye as they go. The
snows must be coming. So for a while we will experience life
in the frozen north. Next year we hope for an easier time
with much of our cruising in the enclosed waters of the Alaskan