Alaska is Spectacular! Having come south through the Inside Passage from Sitka, Alaska last autumn, this year we decided to travel quickly north so we could spend the best of the summer months in Alaska. The scenery and wildlife have been sensational, and we have not seen the best of it yet. Alaskans are friendly and relaxed. The atmosphere is that of a big small town, steeped in history, surrounded by enormous wilderness. The native Indian presence and influence have enriched our experiences, as we meet them and learn about their sophisticated culture, connections to the natural world and inventive technologies and enjoy their beautiful arts.
We departed Bainbridge Island, Washington on April 17, and mostly-motored 1,520 nautical miles to Juneau, Alaska in a little over two months time. This included 22 days in Port Townsend, Friday Harbor and Victoria and a detour of 300 nautical miles and 13 days back down to Victoria to repair our starboard engine saildrive after hitting a log north of Seymour Narrows at the end of the third week of our journey. When we were making good time we would gain one degree or more of latitude north per day, sometimes traveling as much as 85 nautical per day. The long daylight hours allowed us to travel for 12 hours or more each day if we wished. Why do we care about daylight? Because these waters are full of dangerous logging debris, which can only be spotted by 100% attention to the water in front of the boat (no more 24 hours a day sailing up here). As it turns out, had we not been delayed, we would have found ourselves much wetter and colder farther north. But we still managed to stay ahead of the thundering summer herds of boats from Seattle and Vancouver.
With the luxury of waiting in port for favorable weather, which for us means less than 15 knots of wind, sometimes rainy, but no storms, we have had many opportunities to see the local sights. We have had plenty of sunny days for photographing the scenery and wildlife. When the winds are howling offshore, and water becomes rough in the main channels, the minor channels can be placid. What wind there is follows the channel. The prevailing spring southerlies have brought us mostly following breezes. Visibility has almost always been good. Our only fog was in the Juan de Fuca Strait. The Pacific High has seemed slow to move north this year, but that could be changing.
We follow a flexible schedule, asking visitors to come to us, by float plane if necessary. We change our plans and destination, delay our departure date or choose a different anchorage, at a moment’ s notice, if the weather conditions do not support our original plan. We NEVER travel after dark (logs). We always have alternative anchorages noted on the chart.
Another hard and fast rule is that we ALWAYS look out for logs! If we cannot, then we stop the boat, until we can. The necessity of having to stop the boat quickly to avoid hitting a log, crab pot float or fish net just about eliminates the desire to actually unfurl sails.
Compared to British Columbia, there are fewer hazards to navigation in Alaska, but icebergs and bergy bits float around in the northern inlets and sometimes out into the channels. In addition to floating logs, fishermen set crab pots marked by red or white floats, by the dozens, often in the middle of a channel, and sometimes they are submerged by high tide or carried under by strong currents. Fishermen also set their nets out into the main channels. In the harbors we dodge float planes taking off and landing, kayakers, tourist boats, racing sail boats, and huge ferries.
It requires a close study of the tide and current tables to ensure safe transit through the numerous narrow channels, rapids and passes at slack tide. Tide rips, eddies and whirlpools become strong and fast at max flood and ebb. We have been entertained watching the gyrations of another boat as it attempted to pass through a rapids before slack tide, as the force of the water spun the boat around and threw it off course. When we could take advantage of favorable currents we boosted our speed over the ground by as much as 4 or 5 knots.
Cellphone coverage has been about 90% this year – since Steve installed a high gain CDMA antenna before leaving Bainbridge. This is particularly useful for calling ahead to marinas, as VHF range is very limited due to the surrounding mountains. Similarly due to our high gain 802.11b antenna, we have had useable wireless internet access in most marinas, and even a few anchorages, very useful for downloading weather forecasts.
We have made it safely to near the top of SE Alaska, and have slowed our pace to savor the glaciers, forests, waterfalls, whales, eagles, orcas, sea otters, puffins and bears. We made the right decision to hightail it to Alaska.