This is the story of the loss of
a cruising yacht in the Gulf of Alaska. I have changed the
names to avoid identifying our friends in deference
to their wishes. It was never published.
The Gulf of Alaska can be a treacherous ocean for yachts,
especially in winter. From the comfort of the saloon of his
yacht illywhacker, Peter Aston tells of the story of friends
John and Maree who lost their yacht Seabird in February
For the first time ever, there were 6 yachts this year with
liveaboard owners braving winter conditions in the Small Boat
Harbour of Cordova. The slips are constructed to ensure all
vessels face the prevailing icy blasts funnelling in from
the Copper River Delta. There can be no firmer reminder of
the severity of the weather in the North Pacific than spending
a dark winter at 600N hunkered below decks listening to the
tearing rain and feeling the yacht stretching her lines as
she heels to winds frequently over 100 knots. Peering through
illywhackers portholes in such conditions at the shadowed
forms of snow encrusted fishing boats and the few other yachts
tied up nearby gives visiting tropical cruisers such as my
wife Lyndall and I a warm sense of security knowing that we
are securely fastened to land and among friends.
These same fishermen who winterise their boats in October
each year and head south or to warm houses in town are very
clear in their advice to sailors who venture out on to the
Gulf of Alaska dont even think of it before April
and be in harbour by the Fall equinox. Pilot Charts of the
North Pacific show even the summer months as subject to intense
Lows which can generate fierce storms, but these are fewer
and interspersed with calmer periods making fishing and cruising
in the long hours of daylight the worlds best.
John is a New Zealander who sailed Seabird to Alaska 2 years
ago taking a direct route via Wake Island to Dutch Harbour,
the most western US Port of Entry. He has owned 32 yachts
in his life, 5 without engines, has sailed many of the worlds
oceans including a passage around Cape Horn and has been in
rough weather at sea many times. In recent years of cruising
he has deployed a sea anchor 3 times. He is a fascinating
character and a very experienced cruiser and during the winter
months we were harbour-bound he and his Canadian partner Maree
became good friends to us and great company. They were a cruising
couple on the move and, keen to move south, they watched the
weather patterns for the first sign of a break.
From Cordova the safest route south is via the Inside Passage
from Sitka to Seattle down the SE Alaskan panhandle. Getting
to Sitka involves a 400nm sail from the protection of Prince
William Sound across the Gulf with maybe a midway stop at
Yakutat if things go wrong. Around 20th February the weather
fax showed a 4-5 day window ahead with possible fine weather
and westerly winds. After the usual pre-passage preparations
Seabird left Cordova on 2nd February.
It was a great sail and Seabird continued for 36 hours under
a quartering breeze. Although the faxes regularly showed fine
weather ahead, an intense front appeared to the east when
the yacht was some 90nm SW of Yakutat and 250nm west of Sitka.
The wind shifted to an easterly so John chose to hove-to to
assess the change. After 8 hours and a revised forecast it
became apparent that conditions were worsening and would stay
that way for quite some time. There was sea room for deployment
of a sea anchor but for how long that would be needed was
uncertain. This was also Marees first storm at sea and
increasing winds, zero visibility and below freezing
temperatures were making life at sea less than attractive
for her. Shelter seemed the best option.
It took 20 hours under bare poles to reach Cape Hinchinbrook.
It was midnight when they arrived and the seas had built considerably
under the 50 knot winds. Tossed by freezing winds and steepening
seas it became apparent that currents were taking them to
the NE into the shallowing waters to the SE of the island.
In no time at all the relatively easy run to the Cape became
a fight to windward to clear Hinchinbrook Island: it was necessary
to hoist a small staysail and eventually to start the motor.
The eventual rounding ended an extremely hazardous operation
and it was a great relief for them to reach the lee of the
island and feel the winds ease to around 30 kts. It was a
relative picnic to then motor into Port Etches and drop the
anchor at 0700 hrs at the head of the bay on 26th February.
Seabird was in good company, the Tug ATTENTIVE was at station
in readiness to escort inbound tanker traffic through Prince
William Sound to the oil terminal at Valdez. ATTENTIVE is
the newest, most powerful and most manoeuvrable of the worlds
Tugs. She has no trouble "hovering" in position
in all weathers. Many fishing boats also use Port Etches as
a haven from Gulf storms and in severe weather tie to rocks
at the head of the bay. The place has a fearsome reputation
however and winds hurtling down the pass have turned over
more than one fishing boat anchored or moored this way.
With the anchor holding in an increasing 35-40 knots, the
Seabird crew fed and rested in relative comfort and John took
the opportunity to pump up more fuel to the heater header
tank. It was 1100 hrs when the GPS alarm indicated the anchor
was dragging. The bottom of Port Etches like many in the North
Pacific is of volcanic rocks covered in bull kelp and holding
is often difficult to achieve. Once dragging starts, a ball
of kelp forms on the anchor and it must be cleared and reset.
Peering out the saloon portholes John and Maree were alarmed
to see dark shapes slipping by and after shutting down the
fuel pump John was soon struggling once again into his wet-gear.
As he later related, the situation offered 3 options:
- Reset the anchor not much going for it as the
full 250 of chain was already out
- Get permission from ATTENTIVE to use the VERY large buoy
on the northern side of the bay
- Motor further into Prince William Sound and find a quieter
The anchor chain HAD to come in if options 2 and 3 were to
succeed. The engine was started and John crawled forward against
the freezing blast. But before Maree had begun to inch the
yacht forward under power, the engine stopped. John had been
distracted when Seabird began her backward slide and the fuel
changeover sequence had been interrupted; the pump had been
turned off but the Y-valve to the engine had been left in
the heater tank position, shutting off fuel to the engine.
With the boat lurching backwards, John quickly found the
problem and bled the diesel. Anyone owning a Perkins 4108
will know how difficult this is under ideal conditions and
all would be impressed to learn that it started on the second
try. Seabird had covered quite some distance but was still
safe as John again struggled forward to operate the electric
anchor windlass. By this time the wind had increased to 60
kts and temperatures on the foredeck were well below freezing.
This had the effect of solidifying the tropical grease in
the windlass which sat unmoving. John was further dismayed
to find that his normally tough hands could not raise the
chain either, conditions on the foredeck in February in Alaska
at that moment were beyond endurance.
Back in the saloon over the VHF, the welcome voice of Captain
Stevenson of the ATTENTIVE told the Seabird crew that for
the first time in 18 months, due to bad weather, Prince William
Sound had been closed to tanker traffic and the buoy was available
for their use. Furthermore the ATTENTIVE would remain on standby
if needed by Seabird. Good news indeed and with some difficulty
Seabird motored with 250 of chain and anchor bouncing
across the bottom toward the buoy. A circuit round the buoys
anchor chain and Seabird was safe. Once more John battled
his way forward this time to pick up the floating 3" line from the buoy losing the boathook in the process. At
the second attempt he plucked the heavy rope by hand from
the freezing water and tied it securely to the windlass; nothing
will shift that he thought.
Over the next 3 hours the wind increased to over 100kts and
Seabird was really jumping. John noticed that the chain was
now hanging loose at the bow but the buoy mooring line was
holding despite the boats gyrations. At this point darkness
had fallen and while life on deck was impossible, life below
was hopeful for although the noise and motion was unbearable,
all that was needed was to hang on until the storm passed.
At that point Seabird did not deserve any more
fate dealt another cruel blow.
With a BANG, the headsail unfurled. Although several turns
had been wrapped around the headsail, the windage provided
by the sheets parted the lighter furling line
Hell broke loose. Seabird heeled and bucked savagely, alternatively
tearing at her mooring and threatening to charge into the
buoy. Within seconds John had the sheets free which allowed
the headsail to rip itself in half against the inner forestay
but not before the flogging sheets quickly demolished the
It was pitch dark with the winds and sleet unrelenting but
they appeared to be safe though shaken and uncomfortable.
John then figured it was wise to advise the ATTENTIVE that
the flapping sail may bring down the mast and render the VHF
unserviceable. The Tug Captain quickly responded with the
information that their radar image showed them to be moving.
A frantic check of the Seabirds GPS confirmed a speed
of 4 knots, in the dark it was impossible to see any land
for reference but it didnt take much imagination to
know they were headed for the western shore.
Somehow the line to the buoy had parted or perhaps the windlass
and bow fittings had sheared away but they were now in 30
of water and shallowing for the first time in his life
John found himself in a situation at sea where the safety
of he and his crew were critical. Just a few minutes in the
water would be fatal even the yacht finished up in a position
that allowed them to miraculously reach the shore. It was
time to refocus their efforts toward a rescue attempt. Both
were close to exhaustion, but Maree later related having every
confidence in Johns ability to try and to keep on trying
and she was overcome with a sense of peace and able to accept
The voice of the ATTENTIVE Captain over the VHF provided
the comforting thought that warmth and safety were somewhere
in this Bay but the words were urgent;
reach you unless you move into deeper water". Seabird
at this point was surrounded by trailing lines and debris
though strangely not including the anchor chain which appeared
to have parted company with the yacht. John started the Perkins
and broke through the throttle safety gates as he rammed the
smoking engine into reverse. Miraculously, they were making
way out into deeper water near the entrance to the bay. ATTENTIVE
loomed out of the dark and with searchlights blazing approached
Seabird. The crew were lying on the deck, it being impossible
to stand and attempting to throw a life-ring to Seabird. After
several unsuccessful throws the water was again shallowing
and the Tug withdrew into the darkness. John scrambled below
once more and sensing a fruitless situation, called the Captain
and to express his gratitude and that he understood a rescue
was out of the question. The response was a firm; "hang
on there, were coming to get you! Just get into your
survival suits and well come in from a different angle"
Not many Kiwi sailors used to tropical cruising own survival
suits and John and Maree were no exception. There was a slight
pause when they informed the Captain before they were told; "2 are coming over, get them on
the next pass ATTENTIVE was only a boat length away, backing
toward them. The superhuman throw by the crewman was matched
only by John catch and buoyancy and warmth in the form
of 2 immersion suits landed on deck. John fastened the line
to Seabird, they struggled into their survival suits and hauled
over a life-ring. Maree had prepared an abandon ship bag but
it was clear theyd need every ounce of strength to hold
on the the life-ring let alone another bag, so in typical
optimism, John said "leave it on the saloon berth, well
get it in the morning". Before John left the saloon for
what was to be the last time he flipped the position-reporting
switch on the Inmarsat C unit, more in hope than confidence
as the yacht was mostly landlocked and heeling heavily. The
opportunity to tie a heavier line to Seabird just never was
an option. The bow of the yacht was invisible and dangerous
with a still flogging sail and the ATTENTIVE was already stretched
in a lifesaving rescue to consider the implications of salvage.
Alaskan fishermen know the value of a survival/immersion
suit. It is a life or death aid and both John and Maree were
quickly converted as they were hauled across to the Tug floating
on their backs. Looking back to Seabird they were dismayed
to watch the staysail furler suddenly open and to see their
cruising home lunge away into the darkness and out to sea.
It was never found.