Essential Assistance from New Friends

Darwin Sound racking up the miles downwind under spinnaker.

Assistance given from one boater to another without concern for compensation or much acknowledgment is a wonderful and unique aspect of the boating community. After running eco-tours on our boat together for many years, my wife Irene and I were recently discussing the examples of this help and support when we were the fortunate beneficiaries. The following story took place 22 years ago and has stayed with us ever since.

We were on a voyage from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, at the western portion of the Aleutian Islands, and on to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, with as many stops along the way as 35 days would allow. One of those stops was in Whittier, located in the western corner of Prince William Sound.

Our boat at the time was Darwin Sound, an Ocean 71. Designed by EG Van de Stadt and built by Southern Ocean Shipyards in the UK, our vessel was a fast and seaworthy offshore-capable ketch that Irene and I had been using as an eco-tour boat for the previous 16 years.

Aboard for our adventure from Dutch Harbor to Prince Rupert were eight paying participants, Irene and I, plus our two daughters who were 14 and 9 years old at the time. Most of these participants were returning customers; between them, they averaged more than 100 days aboard Darwin Sound with us. We trusted each other, and knew they had arrived prepared for the challenges of high latitudes, remote wilderness, and rough sailing conditions.

With this group, we had sailed along Unalaska Island, down and across the currents of Unimak Pass, up the Alaskan Peninsula through Kodiak, then on to the Kenai Peninsula and north through the intricate passages to Whittier. Our journey had involved some long day sails — a couple with pretty big seas — as well as one overnight passage. It also included fabulous secluded anchorages, rugged wilderness backdrops, whales, sea otters, and an astounding number of sea birds.

Our brief encounters with civilization had been confined to Dutch Harbor, Cold Bay, and Kodiak, so as soon as we tied up at the Whittier docks everyone was eager to see the town. We all enjoyed our harbor day, wandering around, provisioning, and catching up on sleep. As skipper-guides, Irene and I were promptly invited aboard a large day-charter boat called Discovery to swap stories of our adventures.

Around noon the next day, thanks to encouragement from our new friends on Discovery, we prepared to depart Whittier and make for Harriman Glacier. However, while maneuvering to leave the confined port in a strong breeze we suddenly felt the panic of no reverse gear. Fortunately, fenders were still down, lines were yet to be stowed, and we quickly got back on a section of dock without damage or much embarrassment.

Darwin Sound’s approximate route from Dutch Harbor to Whittier and then on to Prince Rupert.
Though Whittier and Anchorage aren’t far apart, it took the author a train and borrowed truck to make the trek.

Our friends from Discovery came over immediately to assist. Darwin Sound had a 6-cylinder 240-hp Perkins diesel pushing a large Borg-Warner gear. We analyzed the situation and decided that the Borg-Warner gear likely had broken clutch plates and motoring in forward might cause the whole transmission to seize. We were disabled until we could make a repair.

We began to think about our timeline with some concern. We only had 16 days to get our crew to Prince Rupert where they had booked flights home, and we still had the open Gulf of Alaska to cross in the potentially challenging conditions of late September. Irene and I wondered if we should just give in and fly our clients from nearby Anchorage back to Canada immediately.

Not yet, said our benefactors. A repair might be possible. There was no mechanic in Whittier, and at the time there was no road between Whittier and the Seward Highway to get to Anchorage. But there was a train leading through a long tunnel and, from there, the highway. The train would leave the next morning at 10 a.m. and team Discovery kept a truck at the other end. Additionally, they had good contacts in Anchorage. With the promise of their assistance, we had the transmission out on the dock by evening. Discovery’s skipper handed me the key to his truck, made the connection to the best mechanic in Anchorage, and sent me on my way.

With the transmission loaded into a large duffle bag, I boarded the train, found the Discovery truck, drove into Anchorage, and located the mechanic. In just a couple of minutes the three broken plates were removed. Nothing could be done, the mechanic told me, as they were not repairable. New ones could come from Seattle, maybe by Wednesday, which meant an extra 5 days in port while we waited. This delay would make our remaining trip so tight that there would be no explorations, no special discoveries, and none of the magic serendipity that Irene and I had been delivering for 16 years. Again, we wondered if our best decision would be to fly our clients home.

The Anchorage mechanic started to take a personal interest in our travel and our repair. He phoned a business that bought, sold, and scrapped used transmissions. They were all from fishing boats, but one might work for us. We went out to look. First, we looked at restored gears on shelves inside the building, but none looked promising. Outdoors in the rain, there was a large heap of transmissions of all types and sizes, which seemed to be waiting for delivery to a scrap yard. This was the proverbial haystack, and we didn’t know if our needle was in there.

We began to look and, amazingly, my friendly mechanic found two different Borg-Warner gears that he thought might have similar clutch plates. They were certainly not housed to fit our Perkins engine, but it was worth a try. He was shocked at what we were asked to pay, considering the parts we wanted might cost $30 each. Negotiations ensued (with me as a bystander). Our deal at first was to be $600 for either transmission, but my mechanic-turned-negotiator got this reduced to both transmissions for $600, with the promise he would return one to the scrap guy. Regardless of whether the correct parts might be found inside, or not, I would not get any of my money back, but at least I might get my repair part. There are no guarantees on the ocean, and $600 seemed a small price to help our guests continue the trip we planned and for us to avoid the expense of flying them home.

The mechanic found the plates in the first gear he took apart, and put them in my transmission. Success! To my surprise, he refused any payment for his time because he insisted he had had a great day, and he thought I had already paid too much.

I thanked the mechanic profusely, stuffed the repaired transmission back into my duffle bag, drove back to the train, caught the next one into Whittier, and quickly re-installed the transmission.

Ready to sail again, we considered our next move. There was lots of weather coming in the forecast. While it might have seemed wise for us to wait for a better window, our Discovery friends reported that Whittier is not a necessarily good place to ride out a storm, and they urged us to leave as soon as possible.

Now, every good story needs a denouement, and we certainly got one. We did not find out just how critical all of these gifts of encouragement, information, and assistance from complete strangers had been until later that night. As the system began to build, we retreated to the recommended refuge near Harriman Glacier.

The Ocean 71, Darwin Sound, and crew passing the rugged Alaskan coast.

Our night in the chosen spot was harrowing, spectacular, and an experience to remember. Winds came in at 60 knots with stronger gusts, with variations in direction of over 150 degrees. We had two 100-pound anchors on ½-inch chain out at 30 degrees to each other. Even with our most robust anchoring set-up, we kept the motor running all night just in case; and were very relieved to have forward and reverse again. Everyone was prepared to take to the shore immediately — behind the boat was soft marsh, but it would surely have been a cold, wet, and chaotic landing. I’m sure each of our guests wondered why we had left a protected marina. Our ground tackle did its job all night long, and morning broke with clearing skies. We were all safe, but bleary-eyed.

Over the VHF, we learned that the boats in Whittier had not been so fortunate. A larger transport vessel had broken loose in the storm, careening around the harbor doing major damage to any boat in its path, and to the docks as well. We would have likely been among the disabled boats.

As we sipped coffee in conditions that finally allowed us to appreciate our breathtaking surroundings, we felt incredibly grateful — grateful to be on our way again, lucky that our guests believed in us and cared enough about completing our journey to endure some uncertainty, and unspeakably fortunate that friendly and generous fellow boaters had gone so far out of their way to assist and advise us.

We enjoyed the last couple weeks of our expedition and delivered our guests safely to Prince Ruper with time to spare, and with many memorable experiences and amazing stories to cherish. The one about the goodwill of new friends in Whittier remains one of our favorites.

Irene and Al Whitney ran nature, art, and anthropology expeditions under sail under the company name Pacific Synergies from 1980 until 2000 aboard their Ocean 71 Darwin Sound. Until 1990 these trips were mostly in Haida Gwaii and the BC central coast, but subsequently they ran expeditions in places from Spitsbergen to Cape Horn and the Patagonian fjords, as well as the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea and on to Japan and the Aleutians. They currently sail a refurbished C&C 37 (also called Darwin Sound), and this past summer sailed Southeast Alaska to Glacier Bay.