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.

Sunday, July 8, 2007


The most-repeated cautionary question that we heard before setting out was, "Does Eli get seasick?". This question always seemed implicitly critical - maybe because Alisa and I were being thin-skinned, and maybe because it flew in the face of the "we'll just figure it out when it happens" attitude that is required for an undertaking like ours. If you wait until you have everything figured out, you'll never go. In any case, I'm very pleased to report that Eli showed no signs of discomfort on this trip - he's apparently a right natural sailor. What we did discover is that if the barky is rocking along on a beam reach in a five-foot swell, feeding Eli down below makes us sick. There's something about getting the little spoon heaped with rice cereal into the little open mouth, swinging back and forth, that brings on the green sheen in the person operating the spoon. And meanwhile Eli just keeps opening the little mouth, wanting to be stuffed with more rice cereal, please.

In addition to being a fun companion in the cockpit, E. also assists with tasks below - the only member of the crew to volunteer to give Alisa's splice of the new anchor rode the taste test.

There was lots of getting used to life afloat on this first leg to Seward. Lots. But there was also some incredible sailing. We waited for our day to make the crossing from Afognak to the mainland, a nice west 20 romp that had the barky banging along famously under jib alone, the Monitor taking care of the age-old question of which way to point the pointy end. The westerly weather continued as we moved along the Kenai coast towards Seward, and we had some great sailing through the fjords. Working the ship with Eli aboard is largely singlehanding for me, just as we planned, as Alisa is often stuck below with endless morale-boosting exercises for the squirt. The downwind sailing that we had is the toughest point of sail for one-person work, with spinnaker pole maneuvers and boom preventers, low apparent wind acting on the windvane and the eternal question of jibing: intentional or un-? But the recently-rebuilt windvane worked like a champ, and the green crew worked out the bugs.

One of the great events of our trip was meeting up with the Gyre, the USGS research boat with, among others, our good friends Shiway and Yumi and John Piatt (above) aboard. We knew that their study of the elusive Kittlitz's murrelet, and the glacial fjord habitat of that mysterious bird, would overlap with our transit through the Kenai Fjords, but I lost my copy of their itinerary on the rush out of Kodiak. So it was the happiest of luck that showed them anchored up in Moonlight Cove as we steamed in out of the fog one evening. We rafted up for a visit, and our paths crossed a few other times during the next week. Good fun.

With some navigational hints from the captain of the Gyre in hand we decided to brave the sill that bars entrance to the spectacular landscape of Northwestern Fjord. Depth in the fjord goes from 50 fathoms, to 30, to 3 across the sill, with boulders and no depth not too far away. The tide was flooding when we crossed, giving us this scary view of the hazards as we crossed. But, gray hairs aside, the entrance was easily made, and we got the great ice age views we were looking for.

We dipnetted some floating 10,000 year-old ice for G&Ts that night. And, small state that Alaska is, we turned the corner and found the Gyre. Here's the Gyre for scale, and a picture that Shiway got of us in front of the ice.

Seward has been great, after an unexpectedly strange shift from a week of life afloat back to life in the harbor. We've had a great week of visits with friends, but now it's time to go! More from Cordova or Haines.



Leaving town was so unpleasant.

We had a fun party on our boat the night before we left, just seven friends and us sitting around the salon. We put up some decorations that we use for birthday parties aboard so that things would remain festive and not descend into a dreary prolonged goodbye. It worked. Some time after midnight we turned on the red night-vision lights for atmosphere and people stayed until two in the morning, talking beneath the red lights and drinking cocktails. It reminded me of the best part of Kodiak, the social life that used to support parties where lots of liquor was drunk and the conversation roared and subsided all night. We and our friends had lots of parties like that three or four years ago, and then gradually stopped. But over the last few weeks we spent almost every evening with friends.

Our departure day was a jumble of painful goodbyes and last minute jobs that went on all day. It was raining intermittently, hard, and a south wind blew the barky hard into the dock so that I wondered if we’d have to pull ourselves off with lines. Ian and Rich MacIntosh came down to say goodbye. Patty and John Mahoney came down to say goodbye, and Patty gave us an Aluutiq spirit pouch that whalers in kayaks used to wear around their necks, carrying a little pinch of Kodiak soil to ensure their return to land. We filled ours with a little piece of Kodiak to bring us back safely. Zoya came down, carrying her five month old, Stuart, with one hand and holding on to two year old Nora with the other, staring in through the portlight to see if we were around, her hair blowing across her face in the rain. Carrie Worton came down with her two kids and took the title and key to my truck to pass along to the buyer. Gregg Rosencranz came down too, and Lisa and Bill, and we all walked up to the parking lot. When Alisa hugged Carrie goodbye she told her she’d miss her, and then as we drove away, Alisa said to me, tears running down both cheeks, “Carrie’s one of the people that I’ll probably never see again.”

And then we dropped off the truck and had yet another tearful goodbye after Sara Persselin drove us back to the boat. It wasn’t blowing too hard anymore but the clouds were thick and just above the water, cutting the verdant island off low and making Kodiak look more than ever like the Aleutians. Then Mark came by and gave us some fish, just like he did the day he delivered Elias, and we left. Elias was crying and Alisa was cooking dinner and I was getting last minute things ready while the engine warmed up. Then I cast the lines and pushed off and as I accelerated backwards out of the slip Alisa came up the companionway with wide eyes, wondering how I could have just gone ahead and cast us off on this odyssey without involving her.

She called John and Patty to say we were coming up the channel and when we reached their house, drinking in the view of Kodiak spooling by that we had both watched from different boats so many times, they came out front to wave goodbye to us. I turned out of the channel to go around the south end of Woody Island and looked back to wave at the little figures of Patty and John, waving with both hands over their heads in the rain. And that’s how I remember leaving Kodiak, looking back to see those two waving people, with the Island so green, and so many mountains, and the town so small.

Motoring out of the Kodiak channel.

Jay and Steph and Elise were waiting for us on their boat at Long Island. We visited for a while the next day and then they left to go back to town, one last painful waving goodbye. It was still foggy and rainy, and late, and we decided to stay put. The head backed up and Alisa took the pump apart to unclog it, the worst job on the boat. As I write the cabin heater is down and the high today was 46 degrees. Rain beats on the cabintop and condensation forms on the insides of the hull, getting everything wet. We are simultaneously lonely and too crowded, buried by baby gear on this little boat. “This is a big undertaking,” says Alisa. “It just doesn’t seem possible that we can sail to San Diego.” I feel the same way. “All those guys who say they would do this but their wives won’t let them don’t know how good they have it,” I say. “They miss out on a lot of work.” We have been working hard for this moment for years. Now it is here, and we feel that we’ve bought ourselves nothing but uncertainty and a kernel of fear in our stomachs. And, cruel irony, we’re only five miles from town, listening to the Kodiak public radio station.


We stayed anchored up at Long Island for two and a half days, waiting for lumpy east weather to lay down before our green crew crossed to Afognak. It was the strangest limbo, simultaneously missing Kodiak and being able to see town, relieved to be gone but also dumbfounded at the thought that we could ever pull off the trip to Oz in that wet, cold boat hopelessly crowded with baby gear.

As a gesture towards crew morale, I declared a day ashore on Long Island, and Eli got to wear his lifejacket and ride in the dinghy for the first time. Note the attire for late June at 58° N.