Thursday, July 26, 2007

Post #1 from Haines


Today we sailed (and motored) from Bulldog Cove, in Resurrection Bay, to Fox Farm Bay, just inside Prince William Sound, leaving behind known cruising grounds for Pelagic. After a fits-and-starts beginning with fluky winds the southwesterly promised by the forecast filled in and we had a brilliant reach with the spinnaker. We could clearly see the clouds curving out from the low centered south of Kodiak, two hundred miles from us. The coast we traveled was so austere – cliffs to the water, glaciers unworldly clean snaking back into the mountains. Clouds low over everything, a nation of clouds building as the low crept closer, the smooth shapes contrasting with the jagged mountains. Everything gray, all color inaccessible to the eye. Even the greens of the mountainsides muted. A busy coast, with other traffic making the trip between the Sound and Seward, but the coast itself is remote, too rugged to land a boat in most places, too rugged often to even walk. Untouched, untouchable. A hundred places where no one has ever set foot. Alaska.

We anchored in a beautiful, serene little harbor, all to ourselves. Salmon jumping, beautiful upland crags around the bay. Everything, above and below the water, glacial carved. After dinner we play cards in the cockpit. Coming below afterwards I smell the typical boat smells – salt, must, oil. Then, going forward to check on Eli asleep in his little net pen, I come upon the sudden surprising smell of baby. His upper left tooth coming in.


From Fox Farm Bay we motored up Elrington and Latouche Passages, long fjords that are open on both ends and give us deep, safe routes for navigation. Dall’s porpoise join us in Latouche, cleaving the water off our bow, sucking perfectly timed breaths when they erupt from the water’s surface. They have the couch potato physiques of the cetacean world – bodies too thick to be called sleek – but they move incredibly fast with the tiniest flick of their flukes. We first know they’re coming when we see the rooster tails of them surfacing in the distance. I go up on the bow to watch them sporting in our pressure wave, darting back and forth across our track, and decide that any boat too fast for Dall’s porpoises to bowride is too fast a boat for me.

After Latouche we hoist a reefed main, staysail and reefed jib and beat into 20-25 knots of wind. We heel over hard, digging the gunwale into the grey water. Knight Island is close ahead to port, a mountain plopped down in the middle of this inland sea. I’m keen to see how we handle a beat in this much wind, the protected waters of the Sound removing the big seas of the open Gulf from the equation. With Alisa below we tack slow singlehanded tacks that leave us plenty of time to make leeway. Our boatspeed is almost six knots but after an hour and two tacks we’ve made two miles towards our anchorage. There’s water on deck and bullets of rain sizzling into the sea around us and the weather gets thick enough to hide all land from sight. I’m wearing two sweaters and the goatroper and X-tra Tuffs and raingear and getting distinctly moist around the edges and I look down from the rain slashing down at us and the crazy angle of heel that has the mast cantilevered out over the water, our three sails like three blades thrown into the wind, and there below the open companionway is Eli, standing up in his playpen, holding on with one hand and pointing at me with the other, smiling.

I pull down the main and roll up the headsails and we commence motoring into the weather. If I’m not paying attention, and sometimes even when I am, we plow the bow into a wave and take water on deck, crystal clear and six inches deep, the motion of the boat sending geysers into the air where the stanchion bases block the water’s passage. We’re slow and a little pool of water collects on the cabin sole from a deck leak we didn’t know about and the coast we motor by is lonely, racked by ragged driven clouds that tear themselves to pieces on the unbending spruce forests that are all we see above the water.

We pull into Snug Harbor, a short twisting fjord that gives us flat water but turns out to be a blowhole, winds gusting into the 30s. Even after two tries at anchoring we’re closer to the beach than I like, less than a tenth of a mile, anchored in 100 feet of water with the 5/8” nylon shackled to the back end of our 40 fathoms of chain.

I look at the radar again and again to measure our distance from shore but it never does change. For two and a half days we stay put while the wind knocks us from side to side, heeling the yacht over and sending us dancing around the anchor. We look out through rainsmeared portlights at dizzy images of sodden green mountains spinning past. Condensation drips from bronze and wind booms in the rigging. The back of every cushion is wet and mold sprouts in lockers, everything happens in a watery half light. Gusts of wind backdraft the cabin heater and fill the salon with acrid diesel smoke. We go about the business of the day, Eli’s care giving the day its only structure, our little family surrounded by a wilderness of water and land, seabirds and pouring waterfalls, mist-shrouded glacial valleys.


We spend the day in Cordova, where neither of us have been before. Nor Eli, for that matter. Alisa’s friend from Kodiak, Erik, has moved to town and bought a gillnet permit, and a mechanical problem with his boat has him in town instead of out fishing the opener, so we get to visit with him for the day. Cordova has been blessed by the success of the marketing campaign for Copper River salmon, which has prices incredibly high, and even with most of the fleet out fishing the town has the bustle and energy and working-for-a-living vibe that every coastal Alaskan town should have in summer, and which contrasts with a place like poor Seward, which is tarted up for the flesh trade, processing hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. The boats that fish the Copper are bow pickers, designed to work in the shallow flats and sandbars of the Copper River Delta, directly exposed to the Gulf of Alaska. They’re heavily powered and sound like stock cars as they thob through the harbor. There's one tied up on the right in this picture.


We catch the tide out of Cordova and motor out of Prince William Sound through Hinchinbrook Entrance. Sun, luminous flat blue sea, fluffly white clouds over emerald mountains wearing skirts of evergreen spruce down to the shore. In front of us, about 320 miles of open ocean to Cross Sound, the entrance to Southeast Alaska. It’s our first overnight passage as a family, and Alisa and I are both a bit taut – the combined work of the passage and taking care of Eli, the reputation of these waters, the vulnerabilities of the boat that I keep catalogued in my mind, where they are always ready for contemplation.

We pass a white fishing boat wrecked, listed at the pitch of the beach, listless, and then we are through the entrance. Light west winds are forecast and it is still, with just the pulsing ebb tide swirling the water around us. Now the clouds are cut from crystal, the water turquoise. Mountains disappear into the distance. We feel a sense of hope, optimism. “We’re pointing it south,” I say. “Warmer places. Australia.” Alisa is jovial, Elias querulous. We put our faith in the notion that fortune favors the bold.

What a privelleged time we live in, what an almost divine ability so many possess, to direct our lives in any pursuit of our choosing. And what do people do with this widespread freedom from material want, this freedom that would stun the imagination of past generations? Nothing. Watch American Idol. What a simple allure there is in the idea of living a life that will be worth the telling.

And meanwhile, Elias is changing into a little boy in front of our eyes. His third tooth is in. Suddenly, he has a new facial expression, a wise-guy, eye-squinting false smile that sometimes stands in for his sweet baby smile. He spends the day standing in the playpen, keeping a sharp eye on whatever Alisa is doing in the galley.

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