“We thought our voyage north, back to Alaska, would be a cinch. A straightforward journey under sail along the Pacific west coast of Vancouver Island to Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, taking us to the wonderful harbour of Sitka on remote Baranoff Island. The whole thing turned into a wild adventure we hadn’t reckoned with at all…” Dave.
Leaving Anacortes in Washington State after a fairly benign winter and a new engine transmission gear box meant saying goodbye to our good friends Tom and Donna. At first we couldn’t decide where to head but Alaska again toyed with our hearts – and we needed to be further north if our Northwest Passage plans were not to change for the second time. Being in the south, in the lower forty eight States wasn’t for us… the majority of boaters were of the more monied Seattle type with monster luxury motor cruisers that seem to be used only once in a while for, well, you know, sporty weekends and that sort of thing. No hardcore fishermen with their tough working boats here and not too many wild sailors around either…
We left, heading for Port Townsend to meet up with Leighton & Lynda on Morning Star who implored us to sail the thirty miles or so to see the start of the incredible Race to Alaska, the infamous six hundred and fifty mile cold water race to Ketchikan by engineless sailboats of all shapes and sizes – most of which you’d normally find on boating lakes and ponds. Over sixty boats were competing the treacherous course through British Columbia’s Inside Passage, through rapids and swift currents and whatever the weather rolling off the Bay of Alaska could throw at them. For those of you who are interested in this truly amazing race under sail, one of the toughest in the world in my opinion, you can see the details here. The early morning start of the race was a unique spectacle we’ll be forever grateful that we didn’t miss… and with hindsight the whole race event shaped our own vague plans.
Our plan was to head for the west side of Vancouver Island and then make for Alaska in one straight hit… five or six days of hard sailing north. Right at the last minute we changed our minds. Northwesterly storms off the Pacific were forecasted to hurl down the barren west coasts for the next week or so and we’d bear their full brunt heading straight into them. This would mean a tough voyage that could take far longer than we anticipated and we’d be hammered once again. Maybe I’m too long in the tooth nowadays. Why not take the easier route, Leighton rightly reasoned, through the Inside Passage and follow the tails of the R2AK Race? Marie and I sat with Leighton and Lynda, who we’d met two years previously in Hawaii and who’d crossed the northern Pacific to British Columbia only a day or so behind us, and listened to their advice. It was sound, they knew this region much better then we did and, to be frank, it made sense. We could return north to Alaska without the brazen storms hammering on our bows and we’d once again experience the incredibly scenic route through the islands, mountains and misty fjords of British Columbia and Alaska… although again we’d have to traverse the series of fierce rapids that cut the remote and desolate northlands from the populated southlands of Vancouver and Seattle. We could do that. Easy, we thought.
Checking out of US Customs couldn’t have been simpler – a simple phone call to Bruce in the office and we were clear, we could head through the scenic San Juan Islands to Bedwell Harbor in British Columbia’s Gulf Islands to formally enter Canada and I could begin my usual fracas with Canadian Immigration – why is it that Canadian Customs are consistently the most obnoxious officials we’ve encountered anywhere on our circumnavigation so far? By comparison, US officials are friendly and always helpful to the extreme – maybe this is why their brothers across the border have an attitude that’s sometimes difficult to understand? Anyway, to begin with, we never got that far.
Just a few hours later, whilst passing Friday Harbor to our port side with no wind and our engine running at only 2500 revs, black smoke billowed suddenly from our exhaust and we couldn’t increase power. Not our bastard Volvo Penta engine yet again! We’d just spent a small fortune over the winter with North Harbor Diesel in Anacortes and my relationship with our TAMD22P was supposed to be repaired. Marie quickly called the harbourmaster over the VHF to see if we could pull into Friday Harbor to see what was going off. Fine, no problem the harbourmaster said. Did we need a tow? No, we’re fine, she said. Tying up in this wonderful little harbour was all very nice but we clearly had a big problem.
We quickly found a local mechanic because I myself couldn’t find the problem… and nor could he. Get the boat back to Anacortes he advised. After visiting US Customs in Friday Harbor to check back in to America, I called North Harbor Diesel and said we’d try and make our way under sail back through the islands but to stand by in case we needed to be brought in under tow. Fickle winds are notorious in these parts and strong currents between the islands could easily set us upon the rocky shoreline. Nevertheless, we had no option. The thirty miles or so wouldn’t be easy and, as I expected, the winds died. Anchoring behind Spencer Spit gave us respite for the night and we actually stayed three nights there, sheltered behind the beautiful sandy headland, because it was now the weekend and no one would be there at North Harbor Diesel anyway. Monday morning we crossed the treacherous Rosario Strait with no wind and only low engine revs.
The currents ran strong approaching Anacortes and we were losing power. I called North Harbor and they arranged to send a tow. Just then, the breeze sprang up from nowhere and we quickly unfurled the foresail which gave us just enough speed to fight the current to round the headland into Anacortes Harbour. In fact, we managed to keep way and entered the narrow, shallow dredged channel to the harbour where North Harbor Diesel’s mechanic Jim was waiting for us…. and the engine fix was stupidly simple.
There’s a cheap plastic air filter housing that sits on the engine turbo unit. For some sudden reason it started to collapse under air suction pressure from the turbo and so blocking off the air supply, which causes all sorts of problems including loss of engine power and tons of unsightly black exhaust smoke. Of course, when the engine was powered down or switched off the air filter housing springs back into its original shape so, on inspection, nothing appeared wrong. Which is why neither I myself nor the mechanic in Friday Harbor could find anything wrong. Jim could though, because he’s a Volvo expert and had seen this stupid Volvo problem before. A ten minute fix with a new, quality, non Volvo air filter! After a night in the dock we were again on our way…
Back through the San Juan Islands, into the Gulf Islands and then Bedwell Harbour. Canadian Customs! Marie wasn’t allowed off the boat onto the dock, only the vessel’s skipper the big red warning sign said. Stuff that. I hate filling in paperwork and Marie knew the procedures much better than I did. My usual excuse to these people was that I was dyslexic, couldn’t read or write and that it was essential that Marie accompany me. It never worked and didn’t work this time either. Anyway, after my usual bollocking and Marie’s incredible charm we were given a cruising license number after convincing them yet again that British vessels do not carry weapons… in fact, truth be told, everything was done over the telephone because we’d arrived after normal working hours. Following a calm night on anchor we headed north through the Gulf Islands to the first of the dreaded rapids… the infamous Dodd Narrows.
My good mate Bob Jones and I had traversed the Dodd Narrows the previous Autumn when he visited out from England. He found loads of stuff about the Dodd Narrows on YouTube because he was rightly obsessed with our possible doom, wrecked upon the shoreline after our futile attempt to conquer the fourteen knot mid-tide currents. Vessels like Sänna get through only at slack tide, a fifteen minute break in the mayhem. Rather than me giving you the descriptive low down, watch Bob’s selected YouTube viewing choice here. Frightening eh? You’ll see…. even the Orca whales have to fight their way through.
We anchored up in Degnen Bay, a short distance before the Narrows to wait for slack tide. Marie had worked out the tidal timings to perfection as per usual and we pulled up anchor to begin our traverse. Everything went well and we drifted through without any problems just as the tide turned. It was now seven o’clock in the evening and we had ten miles to make so that we could safely anchor outside of Nanaimo Harbour before nightfall. Unfortunately, things once again all went wrong.
As daylight faded we manoeuvred amongst the packed line of boats tied to buoys or sitting on their anchors. Picking the perfect spot in nice easy depths I signalled to Marie to let go our anchor… nothing happened. Marie turned to look at me in despair. She tried again and managed to get a slow drop, rather in haste because we were now drifting onto a line of moored boats. But then the anchor windlass motor stalled and that was it. With not nearly enough chain length down we were neither here nor there and Marie couldn’t even raise the anchor up again. Swearing and cursing in the way that Derbyshire girls do sometimes she had no choice but to break out the hand cranking handle and began to laboriously raise the anchor by hand using old fashioned female muscle power. I held Sänna in position with the engine on tick-over for the twenty minutes Marie was cranking the chain and 33kg anchor up by hand. She’d been complaining earlier in the afternoon about her lack of exercise whilst onboard the boat and I stupidly reminded her that now was a good time to count her used up calories. Of course, Marie was not amused.
What to do? It was now dark. We could either break out our spare anchor and rode or make our way into Nanaimo to find a tie up berth. We had no real choice and headed into Harbour. Marie called the Harbourmaster on the VHF who advised her there was nothing available and, anyway, he was just on his way home. Stuff You, she told him. We headed into harbour anyway.
Nosing our way around the packed harbour we could find nothing free. We would either have to raft alongside someone and suffer their wrath in the morning unless we could find a fishing boat. Fishermen are professional men of the sea and are used to such things, helping other Mariners in trouble, but private boat owners are not nearly so obliging in this part of the world. Then Marie, perched strategically on Sänna’s bows, spotted a gap alongside the wharf – a rather tight corner gap just beyond the bows of a very large and salubrious eighty foot motor cruiser that would be difficult to avoid if we made the attempt. “Go for it,” Marie instructed, “you can do it.” There was a guy sitting drinking beer in the stern of the cruiser and he suddenly seemed alarmed as we headed straight for him. Marie called out and he instantly jumped onto the wharf to take our lines. Immediately, I recognised he was a professional skipper rather than the overbearing owner of the vessel and he readily took our lines to assist us in inching into the very tight space. No problem he said. His name was Lee, he said. He was from South Africa.
Our anchor windlass motor had, for some reason, burnt out. I’d been expecting a problem at some point, ever since our anchor fouled back in Hawaii and we’d attempted to raise it before finally cutting the chain with an angle grinder to free ourselves. I carried a spare motor…. just in case. The next day, Marie and I spent hours removing the windlass but the replacement motor needed checking because I wasn’t sure whether it was new or a recovered motor from our old windlass. Marie took the motor apart, removed the bushes and springs and reassembled it in perfect working order. Derbyshire girls are good at that sort of thing you know. Lee was impressed.
With our windlass now in good working order we decided to stay another night in Nanaimo, to enjoy the Canada Day holiday weekend and the glorious sunshine. Lee came over to talk to Marie. “I can see you two know a thing or two about boats,” he said. Could we do him a favour? He asked if we could crew for him whilst he took the big motor cruiser out for sea trials? He’d been working on the two engines and needed to test them before the owner and his family arrived in a day or two. Marie eagerly agreed and instructed me to get changed, she was not about to pass up the chance of a luxury cruise. Could we be ready in hour, Lee asked? “Of course,” Marie replied, “we’ll be ready in less than that.”
We left the harbour in rather a different manner to which we’d entered the previous evening. Lee powered Annabell up to 24 knots out in the bay with Marie and myself still trying to take things in like a couple of kids. We were so enamoured that we left the six great big black fenders out on the starboard side… not the mark of an experienced crew. After gently suggesting we get them inboard because we looked rather a spectacle cruising at 24 knots with fenders still out and with the harbourmaster calling on the VHF to inform him so, Lee asked if I would take the helm whilst he went below into the engine room to check the running of the engines. And so, that’s how I came to be in charge of the helm and the navigation of the eighty foot luxury power boat Annabell, cruising at 24 knots, fighting Marie off with one arm because she wanted a go too.
Back in harbour for the evening Lee rustled up pizzas and told us to drink whatever we desired from the owner’s drinks fridge as a means of payment for our crewing services. I have to say that Marie rather overcharged the owner somewhat. The next morning, with thick heads not conducive to sailing, we left Nanaimo Harbour to continue our voyage north to Alaska. We now had to prepare ourselves for the series of narrow rapids, a real bonafida barrier that prevent a large majority of pleasure craft from ever venturing north into the incredible wilderness that is wild British Columbia. The Yakulta Rapids, The Dent Rapids and Greene Point Rapids have to somehow be traversed in succession, all at slack tide which means a race with the currents between each of the rapids to time each one at slack turn of the tide.
Marie spent two hours with the charts, tide tables and plotter working out the timings and said we could get through the first two sets, the Yakulta Rapids and the Dent Rapids but there wasn’t time to get to and traverse the third lot, the Greene Point Rapids. We’d have to anchor and wait. Well, we didn’t do that. We easily made the Yakulta Rapids and the Dent Rapids whilst the fierce rips, whirlpools, standing waves and currents were slack. We approached the Greene Point Rapids apprehensively as we’d lost time and the tide had now turned. Although running with us at six knots we could see the rips, whirlpools and waves beginning to race. But a sailing boat that had quickly passed us was now in front of us beginning its passage through and seemed to be ok. If he could do it then so could we, or we could anchor and wait until the next morning but we’d lose a whole day, we’d already lost days in Nanaimo, Anacortes….
I rashly decided to go for it. Marie screaming at me in surprise from the bows and came running back with that look on her face I know well. You know how it is, when you make a decision that you know is never really going to be a good one. The sailing boat in front twisted and turned, caught in the whirlpool which then threw the vessel out at a strange angle. The skipper only just recovered in time to avoid the rocks to his starboard side, but he was through. Now it was our turn. My mouth was dry and I was worried. Marie quickly donned her lifejacket which, I thought, was very perceptive as I’d completely not given that a thought. Sänna was now under her own speed and control, not mine – we hit the rips and then the whirlpool in the same manner as the upfront sailing yacht and exactly the same thing happened. I caught the helm, pushed it hard to port, felt it whip back which, I think, very nearly broke my arm. I immediately thought there was no way of avoiding the rocks but some unseen current caught hold of our keel and rudder…. and we were through.
Later, when we dropped anchor, I spoke to the skipper of the vessel that preceded us through. “Hell!” he said, “My tide tables turned out to be last years. I saw you heading up and thought you knew what you were doing. I was out of control when I passed you.”
After anchoring in Forward Bay, now deep within the remote Broughtons wilderness area, we found our bow navigation light was not showing the starboard green. This state-of-the-art Lopo LED had given us problems many years before and I’d returned it to the manufacturer in Denmark under its ‘ten year lifetime warranty’. They’d sent a replacement… twice! So I had a spare. It took a couple of hours to swap it out but, as things turned, that was not the end of our unseeming run of bad luck… there was an ominous pool of black oil collecting beneath our engine. Our refrigerator was also cutting out, which was strange. Of course, in the morning our service batteries were totally dead.
We made our way northwards to Alert Bay. Once again, on anchor, our batteries died overnight and the oil beneath the engine persisted. We needed to pull in somewhere to sort ourselves out and the nearest port of any consequence was Port Hardy on the north eastern shore of Vancouver Island. A good place, I’d heard, if you’ve got last minute problems with your vessel before heading into the wilds of Fiordland or the infamous storm ridden Hecate Strait, both leading northwards to the Canadian border with Alaska. Our batteries were indeed dead, I’d hoped to get another year out of them since replacing them back in Malaysia over seven years before. Where the hell was I going to find four huge AGM deep cycle batteries in this neck of the woods? And where was the engine oil leaking from?
Of course, my Volvo Penta relationship is a loveless affair and I’m convinced my engine hates me. The earlier problem with the air filter housing, it seemed, had caused a vacuum within the engine block which had forced oil out of the rear crankshaft seal, out into the flywheel casing which then leaked from the unsealed casing joint. I called Jim at North Harbor Diesel. “Yep,” he said, “thought that might happen but I didn’t wanna ruin your plans.” Well, what are we to do, I asked? Are we safe? “Should be,” Jim said, “just keep it topped up and come wintertime we can fix it.” So it wasn’t a $50 fix after all. It was going to be another big job, needing the transmission, prop shaft and flywheel removing to replace a ten dollar seal. What’s more I was going to have find somewhere in Alaska to get the work done if we couldn’t make the eight hundred miles south back to Anacortes. We’d only made three hundred miles north so far and we’d been dogged by problems all the way.
But, a single phone call to the excellent Penner Automotive and Marine Services in Port McNeil, about seventy miles to the south resolved our battery problem. They said they could arrange to ship them overnight from Victoria, three hundred miles to the south on Vancouver Island, over the mountains to Port Hardy by eleven the next morning… but we’d have to install them ourselves. They arrived at eleven fifteen! And that’s how we came to hump four big AGM batteries off the boat, along the pontoons and up the steep ramp at low tide. The harbourmaster arranged to dispose of the old ones whilst Marie herself humped the new ones down the ramp on a trolley whilst I installed them onboard. Every guy on the dock was in awe! Once we’d got them onboard, fitted and working – about five hours hard work, three guys off the fishing boats came and asked where the hell I found a wife like that, who’d hump four heavy batteries up the ramp and four more down the ramp plus the quarter mile along the pontoon wharfs? They were impressed. “I know,” I replied proudly, “and she doesn’t even want feeding. She just licks my plate clean which also saves on washing the dishes.” Unfortunately, they related this back to Marie in great amusement and she went berserk!
Fortunately, the predicted winds remained from the south rather than the prevailing north westerlies, which would give us a weather window to keep heading north for the border. This was important as we were now so far behind schedule that we’d have to miss out the sheltered Inside Passage route and make our way directly up the exposed Hecate Strait. The five day forecast was good and we’d be up on the border in three days hard overnight sailing with good winds to keep the strain off the engine and its ominous oil leak. We left Port Hardy after two nights there – well pleased that I’d also found a small restaurant that served true Yorkshire puddings with fine roast beef and a horseradish sauce, with a gravy that I declared was so good it must have been homemade by a choice English chef. Marie said the gravy was from a powdered packet. I told her she was wrong and I asked the waitress for the gravy recipe… she said it was a McCormicks Value gravy mix from a packet. Available in every supermarket it seems.
The Hecate Strait is infamous with local Mariners and fisherman. In any southerly gale it transforms along its whole two hundred and fifty mile length into a fierce seaway, with the winds channeled by high coastal mountains on the eastern mainland shoreline and the long chain of islands of remote Haida Gwai which funnel into high Graham Island. The Straights shallow as they progress north and, when the strong southerly current builds twice a day, high winds create dangerous seas. The forecast we had was for southerly winds no more than fifteen knots and decreasing. Perfect! Twelve hours out there was a Pan Pan warning over the radio. It was a weather warning. A low pressure system west of Vancouver Island, out in the Pacific, was deepening rapidly and would produce gale winds up to 40kts overnight in the southern Hecate Strait. Our nearest safe anchorage on either shoreline was around six to eight hours away or we could head into the shelter of the Inside Passage… but that would mean encountering the danger of dead-heads. These are large trees floating in the water that cannot be seen in the dark and represent a real danger… we’d already holed our bows the year before. See our blog Holed & Sinking. Right now, whichever option we chose, the forecasted gale would soon overtake us..
We set ourselves up, just as we normally do. We prepared hot drinks, lifejackets and lifelines, readied our storm sails. Marie, as usual, put her kindle into our emergency grab-bag containing important possessions such as money, passports, handheld VHF and flares etc. “I’ve put your glasses in too,” she told me. We weren’t that concerned… we’d faced numerous storms in the past and had almost a nonchalant attitude nowadays, a routine that we always follow which every time seems to get us through somehow. And that’s how it was, it was nothing too bad. We were ahead of the storm and raced it north without sheltering. We both stood our four hour watches through the night without bothering to wake the other and two days later we entered the Dixon Entrance Straights. At last! The Alaskan border…
Deciding not to head in to check back into US Customs in Ketchikan nor having the need to check out of Canada in Prince Rupert, we made northwest for Prince of Wales Island, setting our course to take us around Cape Chacon but ensuring we’d stay well off the infamous rips and currents. We’d follow the Pacific coastline on the west side to enter the inner island channels behind Dall Island heading for Craig, where we could refuel after transiting yet another series of narrows and rapids – the Tlevak Narrows. Again, Marie predicted the timings for slack tide to perfection and we approached the narrows without breaking stride… straight through, twisting and turning through the fierce dogleg turn. We illegally dropped anchor for the night in the incredibly scenic Port Refugio Bay and watched bald eagles squabbling in the still evening air. We saw a pair of black bears prowling along the shoreline. This was just grand and we cooked steak on our barbecue as darkness descended – the aroma of sizzling meat attracted the attention of the two bears, their noses sniffing the air in our direction.
We’d increasingly begun to encounter humpback whales once north of Vancouver Island. Now they were numerous. Once we’d refuelled in Craig, carefully avoiding the reef I’d struck the year before (see our blog ‘On the Reef’) we continued northwards heading for Baranoff Island and Sitka. We could officially enter the US in Sitka although we were not supposed to stop overnight in any anchorage in the meantime. But our engine oil leak meant that we now needed to rest it overnight – so maritime safety under International Maritime Law took precedent and we could easily argue our case should we be challenged. By now we were deep into the Alaskan wilderness with only the occasional transiting fishing boat to bother us. We now encountered dozens of humpbacks all around us and needed to be careful, Ken & Juanita onboard Island Rover, our good friends in Hoonah, had once been sunk by a marauding humpback whale and at times it was hairy, especially when they surfaced and dived close to our bows.
Once clear of the sheltered Islands around Craig we hit the full force of the Gulf of Alaska, especially when crossing the entrance to the Chatham Strait. The weather Lows and big Pacific swells roll all the way from Japan, through the Aleutian Islands and break upon the truly magnificent towering coastlines of Baranoff Island and Prince of Wales Island. Here we were absolutely on our own. There’s no ports or harbours north of Craig for two hundred miles of total, inaccessible wilderness… just high snow-capped mountains with deep inlets, numerous secluded coves perfect for overnight anchoring with stunning wildlife before reaching the old Russian fur trading port of Sitka.
These are incredible anchorage and, inside those we chose… Egg Harbor, Sandy Bay… we dropped our hook alongside the hardened fishing vessels themselves seeking shelter overnight. All of these boats were salmon fishing out of Sitka, trolling long towlines for fresh line-caught Pacific salmon… Cohort, King and Pinks mainly. Inside the inlets and anchorages, rough-house factory mother-ships wait for the tireless fishing vessels, some no more than thirty foot in length, to offload their fresh catches each evening. The next morning the fishermen are back battling the big seas and high winds to earn their living. You’ve got to respect these guys, they don’t suffer fools or take any prisoners. No hairs and graces – but a grudging recognition of an English sailing yacht that suddenly appears in their midst. In places like Port Edward, Sitka, Craig, Hoonah, Petersburg and Wrangell we get asked our business with genuine interest, when we refuel or tie up alongside they come and talk. Have we really sailed all the way from England? These folk know full well how tough it can be on the sea. We get offered cold beers and the best of fresh fish, we listen to their tall stories about the sea which we ourselves know are not made up. Marie is always keen to talk like she does, to engage with these guys in small talk and banter, always returning with fillets of fresh halibut, cuts of the finest salmon and my uniquely favourite black cod. She’s a true blue Derbyshire girl you see.
We easily made beautiful, historically Russian Sitka in eighteen days out from Port Townsend, tying up in the fishing harbour with the replenishing or unloading working boats. Long liners, trollers and seine netters mainly. As I write now, Marie’s off to get Henry who’s joining us again for the next two months. We’re then going to head through the Peril Strait with, worryingly, yet more rapids – the Sergius Narrows and twelve knot currents, to take us to our favourite Hoonah for the winter. Our plan is to film the highest concentration of grizzly bears, humpback whales, orca whales and Bald Eagles in the world and our friends Ken & Juanita are gonna come along to protect us with their rifle. No doubt Ken will have his beloved guitar along too. Old Jim Betts, my friend from Juneau says he can easily repair our oil leak and I need to look at this windlass again… it seems we’ve also sheared a crucial pin somehow. In the meantime, Braden and Scott onboard Icy Queen, the fishing boat that’s around and about here someplace, has been messaging Marie to find out where we are? Are we in Sitka? Do we need fish? Have we got beer?
She’s a sophisticated no nonsense Derbyshire girl you see.
Port Townsend to Sitka – 864 nautical miles. Eighteen days fast track sailing using charted harbours and anchorages in Washington State, British Columbia and Alaska. Five days overnight sailing. Maximum wind SE 35 knots. Four border controls and four emergency stop overs.