After Hinchinbrook we motor southeast over the shallow continental shelf, across the waters less than 50 fathoms deep that make the area around Wessels Reef so treacherous in a blow.
The Coast Pilot, our constant reference and guide, soberly warns that “With a strong S gale and ebb tide… tremendous seas, steep and breaking, are encountered just outside the entrance…
During heavy weather, tide rips and confused seas are in the vicinity of Wessels Reef.
Many halibut schooners have foundered between Cape St. Elias and Montague Island.”
Happily none of that is going on. We’ve picked our weather and the engine has us making a bit less than six knots as we gain our sea room. We motor by an ancient murrelet and two dependent chicks bobbing on the little waves. Ancient murrelets are members of the genus Synthliboramphus, arguably the most marine of all birds, since the chicks go to sea when they’re only a day or two old, tiny little fuzz balls, and they are fed at sea by adults until they’re big enough to be independent. I’ve never seen ancient murrelet chicks before, and it feels, in a very small way, like one of the natural wonders of the world is slipping by us as we motor past the three little shapes.
All through the afternoon and into the long evening the St. Elias mountains ghost by in the distance, slowly turning salmon-pink in the alpenglow. We take bearings with our hand compass and consult the chart to pick out Mt. St. Elias, the biggest coastal mountain in the world – 18,008 feet tall, and, with recent glacial retreat, ten miles or even less from summit to tidewater, as maintains my spotty memory. Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, Corey Ford’s classic account of Vitus Bering’s voyage of discovery to Alaska from Kamchatka, tells us that Mt. St. Elias was first sighted by Bering’s crew on July 16, 1741. Georg Steller, the expedition’s naturalist who was to gain lasting fame from the contributions to science he made on that voyage (and I do mean lasting; any 21st century Alaskan biologist worth their salt knows who he was) had sighted land the previous day during a break in the fog. But, since he was a mere biologist, the salty crew of the St. Peter ignored him. Some things never change. The St. Peter was 40 days at sea when St. Elias was sighted, and short on water. The crew was overwhelmed with joy at the sight of land and the release from the unknown of the uncharted watery void they had been crossing. Bering, their captain, was sick and unimpressed by the sight. “We know nothing of this coast”, he is meant to have said. “We have no provisions to winter, and a west wind may come up and prevent our return to Kamchatka.” Bering had labored through the prime years of his life in the effort to organize an expedition to Alaska, and when that new land was finally before him, he was already a wrecked man, fated to die before the return trip was complete.
We, living in an entirely different age, think seeing Mt. St. Elias was neat because it reminded us of our junior crew, and because I know someone who climbed it in winter.
The wind came up a bit from the west that afternoon, but nothing like the 15 knots forecast.
Concerned about momentum, and not wanting to slat along at two knots, we kept motoring.
We put Elias to bed and Alisa and I took turns standing watch through the night, looking out at the mysterious sea as the sun sank behind the mountains to the north of us.
It never grew completely dark through the whole crossing, since we were still close to 60° north and solstice wasn’t too far behind.
Our autopilot is down, so while we can grab a few minutes away from the wheel for a quick trip below, that’s all the freedom we get while motoring, and when we run back up the companionway we’re likely to find the barky thirty degrees off course, merrily running down the meridian for Hawaii.
So for the most part we were tied to the wheel that first night, trusting the faint glow of the compass dial to tell us where to point her and listening to the slap of the waves on the hull.
Every four our five hours we would come below, aliens dressed against the ocean chill in X-Tra Tuffs and sweaters and rain gear, turn on the red night light over the port settee, and wake the off watch from the dewy slumber of the sleeping bag to take their turn.
The next day the west wind did come up, and we made sail, wing and wing with the pole out and everything prevented. The beauties of sailing in this situation are three. It’s quieter than running the damn engine. Sailing is really cool. And the wind vane steers us great under sail, so that suddenly we have no need to attend to the boat every minute while on watch. It’s hard to overstate how big a difference that makes. We can read, or make a cup of tea, and the wind vane and the sails work together to make us go where we want to.
With the wind vane working the passage looks like this.
We’re crossing one of the truly wild places on the planet, just one tanker, one cruise ship and two fishing boats on the whole three day crossing to distract us from our reverie. The days take on the rhythm of the sea, as the wind builds and fades and the waves change according to the wind. We watch Leach’s and fork-tailed stormy petrels flitting by, and more and more frequently the grand shapes of black-footed albatrosses wheeling low over the waves. At one point when the wind leaves us and we pull down the sails thirteen albatross gather around us, evidently mistaking us for a longliner about to set gear. Alisa wonders if we can feed them, and remembers the canned clams and mussels that have been on board for three years. She flings the bivalves at the assembled albatross one by one and drizzles the enticing oil on the waves, but gets no takers.
Each night watch lasts just long enough. We are tired, but also alone with our thoughts while the others sleep below, alone in the half light and the ineffable peace of the sea. Alisa asks one morning if we have the voice recorder on board. “My mind just gets going,” she says. “It would be great to get it down.” I get to thinking one night about the value there might be in taking the world as it is, accepting the evidence of our senses and turning our backs on the endless cacophony of spirituality and religion. Being satisfied with the notion that what we can touch, and see, and deduce, is all there is to the world. I even come up with ironclad arguments in support of this perspective. Whatever might lie beyond the reach of our senses, whatever mystery there might reside in the universe, can only be revealed to us through our senses. Everything else is just telling ourselves stories.
Another night I see a sperm whale, about a half mile away in the half light, its blow angling 45 degrees forward the way sperm whale blows do.
The crossing is also a roller coaster of crew morale, just like the roller coaster ride that any traveling presents. One day sunshine, good speed, and the wind vane taking care of all the drudgery, and Alisa and I revel in each other’s presence. Then the long night with each of us standing watch with our solitary thoughts. Then the morning made bitter by short sleep, working together to set the chute and pole it out as the breeze dies, me fuming, Elias below screaming, screaming.
We pass north of the Fairweather Grounds at night, seeing the two fishing boats of the trip as white lights on the horizon, beyond the reach of the radar. We bring up the coast of Southeast in the morning, sullen glaciers and impassable mountains.
We pass the entrance to Lituya Bay. I’ve been there once before, on a work trip, and know it as perhaps the single most impressive spot in coastal Alaska. In the 1950s a giant rockslide created a wave that crested at 1,700 feet above sea level and swept the two fishing boats that were anchored in the little fjord away, one to be lost, the other to find itself floating outside the bay, in the open Gulf of Alaska. Everything below the high water mark was swept clean, so today you can follow the path of the wave as it swept out the bay – everything above its path is spruce forest, everything below is alder, and the line between the two is so sharp that it might have been drawn with a pencil. I’ve been thinking about visiting Lituya every since we decided to travel down the west coast of North America, but now that we’re in sight of it we pass it by. The entrance is dangerous, and tidal, and though we could surely navigate it, our crossing of the Gulf feels like enough, enough for two people new to cruising with an infant on board. Spending a few days rowing and hiking around Lituya feels like a trip for a different crew. Alisa asks me if I mind passing it by, and I honestly don’t. “I feel like I’ve had my visit to Lituya,” I say.
And then, a few hours later, we pass through the granite islands on each side of the entrance to Graves Harbor, just north of Cross Sound, the northernmost entrance point into Southeast Alaska. The granite islands are like a gate. As we pass through we leave the swell of the ocean behind. We motor through the flat bay, our bow cutting a path across the mirror-still water, our wake sending wavelets out in a v, little packets of information traveling to the spruce-clad shore. The bay takes a hard right turn and we anchor far in back, protected from the Gulf. It’s a beautiful spot, and all to ourselves. Paradise. Sun comes out and we dry musty cushions on deck and break out the solar shower. Harbor porpoise breaths break the stillness, common and red-throated loons swim by. The first passage of the trip is over.