Cruising the Inside Passage to Alaska – 2-day seminar

Cruising the Inside Passage to Alaska Seminar Instructors: Mark Bunzel, Mike Beemer, Lynette Brower, Leonard and Lorena Landon This two-day seminar covers all the information you need to cruise to Southeast Alaska, including exploring Northern British Columbia, Haida Gwaii, and the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Topics include routes to and from Southeast Alaska, customs clearances, weather and tidal challenges, favorite destinations, permit processes for protected areas, getting parts and crew delivered to remote areas, and much more.


A sublime farewell tour of The Great Land

When we sailed through Southeast Alaska for two months in the spring and summer of 2017, one of the places we wished we’d gone was south through Chatham Strait making stops in Kuiu Island and then east to Prince of Wales (POW) Island and the town of Craig. It was actually the plan had we returned south instead of sailing across the Gulf of Alaska. This time around, with little to no schedule dictating our moves, we took advantage of the continued gorgeous weather and leisurely meandered our way south over the course of a couple weeks.

With the end of the summer cruising season in Alaska coming to a close soon, we’ve realized that this portion of the journey has amounted to a farewell tour of sorts. Seasonal cruisers from the south are leaving or are long gone by now, and we’re mostly just seeing commercial and charter fishing fleets trying to end their summers here on a high note. We certainly are, too.

Our two-plus-years sailing through “The Great Land” from Southeast Alaska to Kodiak and the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound has been nothing short of amazing, and the first two weeks of August have certainly shown how special this place truly is. We’re exceedingly grateful to have experienced such raw wilderness and met incredible people along the way.

After our latest adventures on Baranof Island, we hopped southeast to Bay of Pillars and then Gedney Harbor on Kuiu Island, and then down to Coronation Island and Warren Island before cruising around the Prince of Wales and the Craig area. Each stop has been emphatically punctuated by astonishingly nice weather, which has certainly made life aboard and ashore quite a bit of fun. We've done a lot of swimming, fishing and hiking, and have even completed a few boat projects in preparation for heading south. It's probably best described in pictures, so have a look below.

And if you are curious about more information regarding some of the places we've visited in Alaska, feel free to contact me in the comments below. Also, if you're in the Puget Sound area in early September, come to the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend and check out my presentation "700-hundred miles downwind to Alaska: How a one summer voyage turned into three" on Saturday, September 7 from 2:30 - 3:30pm.

Bay of Pillars, Kuiu Island

Gedney Harbor, Kuiu Island


Endless Alaska summer rolls along

Anchored to the west of a tall mountain peak rising vertically from sea level, the sun is up and filling the bay, but not quite touching Yahtzee. Rowing towards a sun-splashed beach, we soon feel the warm sun rays and scurry ashore to bask in the morning light. In a flurry of excitement, the boys find the beach teeming with life and are quick to discover creatures and treasures galore. “Look over a here, a huge sea star!” “Whoa, do you see all these urchin!”

With the tide nearly 15-feet out, the beach is basically a massive science laboratory for us to explore. Crabs, geoduck, clams, mussels, urchin, limpets, sea stars and more, all fill the tidal zone, while four species of salmon jump just feet from shore. Above the high tide line, a grassy meadow of verdant greens stretches towards the base of a mountain and a trickle of spring water snakes its way down through tall conifers and past huge randomly strewn boulders. I climb atop a particularly flat one and scan the meadow for brown bears before doing a bit of yoga with the sun in my face. Damn, this all feels so good.

This summer in Alaska has truly been one for the books. The weather has been downright amazing, with long stretches of sunshine and warm weather gracing each of the three months we’ve been cruising, and short periods of rain in between to keep everything vibrant. If there ever was a summer to be wandering this incredible place by boat, it’s certainly this one…and it’s going to be hard to leave.

We’re over a week out of Sitka at this point and finding our cruising groove has come easier than ever before. Reminiscing on the past seven days alone has me thinking we’ve done and seen so much, and I guess it’s true. While rounding the top of Baranof Island, we stunningly happened upon a brown bear swimming across a narrow expanse of Peril Strait. Soon after, we watched humpback whales feed close to shore, and at our anchorage in Appleton Cove we feasted as well. A known hotspot for dungeness crab, we baited our crab trap with the remains of a decent sized ling cod and Porter caught nine huge crabs that kept us fed for days. We even shared the bounty with our friends Bill and Donna from SV Denali Rose over a beach fire that was, of course, accompanied by s’mores.

Pulling ourselves away from Appleton, Denali Rose went north and we split south towards one of our favorite places in all of Alaska, the glorious hot springs at Warm Springs Bay. En route we came across more whales, a female orca with what looked to be two calves, and more humpbacks always in search of a meal. The bath house and natural pools at the hot springs sang their siren song and we took every opportunity to soak our sailor bones in the warm water between fishing excursions near the huge waterfall in the bay or up at the picturesque alpine lake.


Soaking in the experience of Sitka Sound

When the anchor was set, I scrambled to get the dinghy off the foredeck and Yahtzee switched from offshore mode back to cruising mode. We’d just made landfall after four days crossing the Gulf of Alaska and Goddard Hot Springs was calling. Our crew had certainly earned a good soak.

The crew of Arctic Monkey was hot on our heels and for the next day and half our two families shared tubs, meals and cocktails aboard, and lots of laughter while swapping stories from the crossing. With no real reason to be in Sitka for a few more days, we then moved on to nearby Kidney Cove to continue the fun. Hot dogs and s’mores were gobbled up quickly at our beach fire and fast dinghy rides around the calm anchorage were a hit.

From there began a gorgeous stretch of sunshine and warmth that definitely isn’t associated with Southeast Alaska. We found warm water in Leesoffskaia Bay and literally spent three days rafted up, swimming and fishing. The water was 71 degrees and the air temp hovered in mid-70s, which meant the kids were in the water for most of each day. I was even able to scrub Yahtzee’s waterline and rudder without a wetsuit on. For a change of pace, we then moved over to nearby Samsing Cove where we found great beach combing and a bounty of blueberries for pancakes.

Being back in the cruising lifestyle and pace is certainly suiting all of us quite well. Pictures of the fun probably do it justice better than my words, though, so enjoy the eye candy!


Retracing our steps across the Gulf of Alaska

By all measures, the Gulf of Alaska is a large, imposing body of water. Even in the summer, weather windows to get across are short and can be few and far between. Because of this, many mariners choose to take a longer northerly route to make stops along the way, or they go on a schedule with marginal weather and suffer most of the way across. Having sailed the 560-mile east-to-west passage from Sitka to Kodiak Island in 2017, we knew what we were getting into and that when the opportunity to cross presented itself, we had to take it without hesitation. In our experience, patience pays off.

Yahtzee romps southward towards Kodiak

After a rip-roaring sunny sail from Tonsina Bay on the Kenai Peninsula down to Kodiak, we resupplied and then headed out to a couple beautiful nearby anchorages to meet up with good friends and wait for the weather to turn. We rendezvoused with SV Arctic Monkey at Long Island and spent several days exploring the island’s verdant forests and the interesting remains of a U.S. Army outpost during World World II. Over that time, as we’d hoped, the weather began to shape up. Lows with adverse easterly winds moved through and high pressure was behind it. That was our window.

Both boats scurried back to Kodiak to prep for the crossing and when Tuesday morning dawned bright and sunny, it was go time. Arctic Monkey and Yahtzee slipped dock lines together at 10:45 am and pointed east on the rhumbline with a planned landfall four days later at Goddard Hot Springs near Sitka. Light winds were expected for several portions of the 500-plus mile jaunt across the Gulf and it certainly started out that way. We chugged along under power through the day and into the night with a gap of about 5 to 10 miles between us.

Our crew seamlessly switched into offshore mode and the routines of sailing round-the-clock began to take shape. Porter and Jill took the first night watch together and I came on deck just in time to experience a stunningly beautiful sunset at 11 pm. With no land on the horizon, the ocean lit up and then slowly faded through shades of orange, red and finally cool blues. Certainly, one of the highlights of the passage was the amount of daylight we had. Day three was the summer solstice and most nights never really got truly dark, rather, a dusky combination of sun and moonlight lingered gracefully on the horizon.

Midnight on the Gulf of Alaska
Porter and Jill stand watch together
Champagne sailing conditions with no land in sight for days

A southerly breeze trickled in overnight and by mid-morning on Wednesday we were sailing fast under our big blue spinnaker. All the while, Porter and Magnus did schoolwork and played in the cockpit. We listened to music, read books and told jokes with Yahtzee shooting eastward at a pleasant 6 to 9 knots. A highlight of the passage was how comfortable the boys were back out on the ocean under sail in a variety of sea conditions. Not much phases them, and whether sailing or doing dishes, they love to lend a hand. 

After 12 hours of gorgeous spinnaker sailing, the wind went light. Down came the sail, on went the engine and we plodded eastward through the night with hopes it would return the next day. Much to our dismay, only light zephyrs appeared and Thursday wore on with Jill and I turning our attention toward the fuel gage. We really needed one more full day of sailing so we wouldn’t get low on fuel or have to bob on the sea like a cork waiting for breeze. Sure enough, Friday morning brought party cloudy skies and at 5 am we were under full sail again with the thought that more wind was on the way. Boy was it.


The Kenai Peninsula is a stunning cruisers' playground

Looking up into the cockpit at Jill, Porter and Magnus, sunshine bursts over tall mountains and fills Yahtzee with warmth and light. I reach for my phone on the nav desk next to me and take a single picture that embodies so much of what being out together in this incredible place means to us. Simple moments like these, doing schoolwork in the cockpit on a gorgeous morning, are what make life underway immensely rewarding and can turn difficult times and less than perfect weather into distant memories.

When the sun showed up in Taz Basin the day before, it kicked off a staggeringly good stretch of weather and our Kenai Peninsula playground was ripe for adventure. We obliged accordingly.

Working our way southwest down the deep fjords, we seemingly lived every day in a dreamworld of sunshine and light breezes. This is what we'd been waiting for—summer cruising at its finest. In Thunder Bay our crew took to exploring the numerous beaches and roasted s'mores over an evening campfire. We showered in glacier-fed waterfalls and were constantly in awe of our surroundings.

From Thunder Bay we reluctantly moved westward to Midnight Cove and then Palisade Lagoon. Another narrow entrance greeted us at the lagoon, reminiscent of Taz Basin, and once we were in it was another breathtaking cathedral of mountains, trees and waterfalls. Our cruising guide mentioned remains of an old gold mine located about a mile up the river at the lagoon's head and we quickly set off to find it. Removing layers while walking deeper into the woods, it was though we were stepping into a completely different time and place. Sure enough, we came upon the nearly 90-year-old mining claim that was strewn with old equipment and dilapidated buildings. Looking through the remnants, it was hard to grasp exactly what life would have been like in this isolated slice of Alaskan wilderness.

It was also about this time when our minds started to turn towards civilization and a planned stop 120-miles south at Kodiak Island to provision and fill up on fuel and water. To make the crossing in favorable conditions, we holed up in Tonsina Bay at the southern end of the peninsula for two days and nights. A perfect end to our time since leaving Seward nearly two weeks prior, we found a dazzling sand beach to kick our shoes off and play, and were treated to a small pod of orca that swam right through the cove.

When our time cruising the Kenai Peninsula was up, there was certainly a bittersweet feel to the entire experience. We'd sailed by this area two years ago not knowing that we'd winter-over in Seward, and as we put Tonsina Bay over our shoulder and sailed south it was with a fond "see you next time!", not "goodbye".

THUNDER BAY
Dwarfed by the mountains in Thunder Bay, Yahtzee is barely visible in the bottom right.

Jill and her mom, Donna, tending the fire.
PALISADE LAGOON

Bottleneck pass into Palisade Lagoon.

MORE IMAGES AT SAILINGYAHTZEE.COM


Are You Ready For Alaska?

Your Boat, Your Skills, Your Expectations

The article below, written by Mike Huston, was published in the September 2015 issue of 48° North. After our recent Alaska themed issue, we decided it was a good idea to share it once again. It's a nice complement to Marty McComber's excellent Alaska article in the June 2019 version. They're both high quality writers and sailors with great experience and thoughtful advice.

Glacier Bay, AK

Thinking about going to Alaska? A ways back, maybe fifteen years ago, my wife and I met a couple who had sailed to Alaska several times. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I clearly remember my feelings of envy – I wanted to go, but doing so seemed daunting. I felt we lacked the skills and experience needed to make the trek – and I was right.

Let’s face it, at the time we were competent sailors but we lacked cruising experience. We had visited the San Juan Islands many times, but little else. Over the next several years we slowly, but steadily, expanded our knowledge, abilities and range. By 2011 we felt confident enough to make our first trip to Alaska. We went again in 2013 and both trips were fabulous and both went smoothly.

The motivations for a trip to Alaska are real – awe inspiring scenery, encounters with wildlife we don’t normally experience and a fabulous sense of achievement come to mind. But this is not a trip for everyone, as the challenges are also real; to go from Seattle to Glacier Bay and back is a 2000 mile journey and it will take at least 10 weeks (sure it could be done in less, but it would be unfair to you). There are two open ocean crossings and several tidal rapids to transit. And, there are dozens of unfamiliar ports and bays you will need to navigate in order to anchor or find moorage.

Please understand, my wife and I are not the most experienced Alaska cruisers. There are others who have done this trip for years. But we learned our lessons recently enough to still remember the process. So what was it we needed to learn and what did we do to our boat to prepare for the trips? I will do my best to share what we learned. It is my hope this information will help those of you intrigued by an Alaskan adventure to realize it is doable, but it takes some preparation.

The first thing you will need is a competent cruising boat and some basic skills. Your boat does not have to be large, I know people who successfully cruised Alaska in a 24’ sailboat. But it will need to be outfitted with appropriate gear for the trip (see Boat and Gear section). And you will need to have a basic foundation in boating skills to work from. For the purposes of this article I am assuming the reader is a competent local cruiser and has the associated skills (boat handling, VHF radio use, chart reading, anchoring, boat maintenance, etc.) as I am going to discuss only the things which go beyond this level (see the Skills section). And last, I will share some observations and helpful information (see the Expectations and Tips section).

Sawyer Glacier

Boat and Gear:

Listed below are some Alaska-specific comments on general boat systems:

Fuel Capacity – The distances between fuel stops can be sizeable (100 NM) and sometimes they are out of fuel. Having the range to pass one or two can be very handy. We added fuel tanks to our boat giving us a 500 mile range, others carry several jerry cans.

Full Enclosure – We added a full enclosure to our boat just before our first trip to Alaska and we still consider it one of our best boat investments. Unless it was really nasty or cold out I was usually in a t-shirt or sweatshirt. Of course, we did not know this ahead of time, so my wife packed several pairs of thermal underwear and a number of sweaters, most were never worn.

Water – Potable water is generally available but showers are not, so having enough water onboard for showers makes life feel cleaner.

Maintenance – All systems should be maintained and tested prior to leaving – this is an important item. DO TEST EVERYTHING BEFORE you leave on your trip. A multi-day shake-down cruise is best. And this assumes you have been busy all winter doing maintenance.

Spares – There are basic spare parts available in the main ports but some of the areas are a long way from nowhere. So having a good supply of spare parts onboard is recommended, for example, we carried an alternator and starter. Several fuel filters (in case of bad fuel) and oil changing supplies are also a good idea. Then there are the ‘normal’ spares like impellors, head parts, etc.

Furnace – Having some form a heat is a necessity as there will be cold, wet days and the nights can be chilly.

Chatham Strait

Navigation will be made easier and safer with the following gear:

Chart Plotter – Probably the most important and helpful of the electronic devices one can put on a boat. It provides two crucial pieces of information: where you are and your COG. The COG is your course over ground which tells you what direction your boat is really traveling.

Radar – I think it would be impossible to make this trip without running into fog. Therefore, having radar, and being comfortable using it, are both worth the investment in time and money.

Automated Identification System – While AIS is not mandatory, it will make the trip less stressful. Here is why – in Alaska there are more tugs, cruise ships, fishing vessels and ferries than there are other pleasure boats. All of these vessels, except for the smaller fishing vessels, will have AIS. AIS will allow you to identify them and know how close you will pass to them. And, assuming your AIS transmits, they will have the same information about you. Because there is no traffic system in Alaska, all these vessels are responsible for arranging their own passings, so you can expect them to call you on the radio in a tight situation. AIS makes this process much easier as they can call you by name and vice versa.

Autopilot – Again, not a necessary piece of equipment, but ours was a well used item during our trips north. It does not reduce the need for constant watch, especially for logs, but it does make the long days underway easier on the muscles.

Radar Reflector(s) – While radar allows you to see other vessels, they may not be able to see you unless your boat returns a good signal. We found we needed two radar reflectors in order to be seen well by our boating companions. We mounted them up above the top spreaders which proved to be effective.

Vessel-to-vessel communication is key

The lack of traffic lanes in Alaska puts vessel-to-vessel communications somewhere between likely and mandatory. In addition, many areas of the Inside Passage and Alaska are quite desolate, no cell phone, no Internet, and at times, no VHF (this is rare but if can happen in some places, like Fords Terror). Therefore, having good communications gear is essential, here is the gear we found useful:
Cockpit Mic – This is a must. It is not safe to travel these waters with the only radio being below decks. We used a RAM (remote access microphone) tied into our main radio and it worked very well. A second radio is another good option.

Hand-held VHF – Our hand held radio was useful in several ways: First, it played back-up to the main radio. Next, it was helpful when we were traveling with another boat – we would have the hand-held set on our inter-boat channel so we would not need to change channels on the main radio. And, it came in handy if someone went ashore or exploring in the dinghy – just in case.

Sat phone – We did not take one, but depending on your needs and/or comfort level, a satellite phone can provide that extra level of communication.

Computer/Tablet – In most of the main towns we found we could get a Wi-Fi connection somewhere. It was frequently the local pub, but at least we were able to get updated weather info and connect with friends and family.

As we started to spread our wings we headed to Desolation Sound. It was there we learned some valuable lessons on anchoring. As one goes further north the anchorages tend to be deeper, 70 ft in Alaska is common. And in many places it is necessary to anchor on a sloped bottom, requiring a stern-tie. Making matters worse, the tidal swings become greater as one goes north – swings of 20-25 ft. are the norm in Alaska. Taking these factors into consideration we found the following items to be necessary:

Anchor and Rode – All chain rode is the way to go, assuming your boat will tolerate the weight up front. We carry 320 feet and more would be better. Also, be sure to have a secondary anchor.
Stern-Tie Gear – We have a 600’ roll of poly line that fits nicely in our transom walk-through. Many boats have reels mounted on the stern pulpit.

Trip-line – Be sure to have a sturdy line and a float for use in areas where the bottom might foul your anchor. Typically rocky bottoms or areas where there has been logging and cables on the bottom are a real possibility.

Information – Tide tables, charts and weather data will all be needed for the area. For more extensive information on anchoring techniques, see the Sailing Tips articles in the August 2010 (page 32) and July 2012 (page 42) issues of 48° North, available at www.48north.com

The following reference materials would be considered a bare minimum:

Paper Charts – In Canada paper charts are legally required and are essential anyway. The set of charts we purchased for our trip north cost about $1500. Also, having Chart #1 (both US and Canadian) will be handy as some symbols used up north may not be common in your area. Be sure the chart chip in your chart plotter covers the full area of you trip.

Tide and Current Tables – Ports and Passes works well from Olympia to Prince Rupert. I have not found a substitute for the NOAA Pacific Coast tables for
Alaskan waters.

Cruising Guides – Waggoner has worked well for us and covers everything up to Ketchikan. In southeast Alaska, Douglas seems to be the preferred book for Alaska.

Optional – Books about the flora and fauna are useful if you are interested in such things, and hopefully you are, because they are a major attraction in the area.

Skills

Having reference materials onboard is one thing, being competent at using them is another. And the only good way to gain this competency is to practice. The same applies to using the radio, anchoring and navigating in unfamiliar waters. Training, such as an ASA Advanced Cruising class, can help shorten the process.

Tide and Current Tables – Because of the large tidal swings it is crucial to know what the waters are doing. Some areas require high water to transit (Rocky Pass) and there are many tidal rapids requiring a slack water passage. And anchoring will require tidal data. So, reading the Port & Passes or the NOAA tables becomes a more-than-once-a-day ritual. The NOAA tables have very few primary readings so being able to use the secondary listing is a must.

Weather – Listening to the VHF weather reports is another daily ritual. Knowing the weather reporting locations is a must, as they are not the names one would expect. There is a good map of these in Waggoner (around page 35) that covers the inside passage. In Alaska, the naming is not as confusing but knowing the area ahead of time will help. We did a lot of pre-planning using Google Earth and the cruising guides – this familiarity helped. And when the Internet is available, getting a longer term overview of the weather is a good idea.

Don’t Be Shy – Locals can be a very good source of information. We frequently would wander over to a fishing boat or harbor master and ask questions about the area.

Cruising Guides – These books are written by those who have done this trip many times and know the areas. Become familiar with their format to get the most out of them.

VHF Radio – The radio is your primary communications device, so you will need to be very comfortable using it. You should know how to setup scanning of several channels (I usually do 16, 13, the VTS channel (Vessel Traffic System such as Victoria Traffic), when near a traffic lane, and 22A in the US and 83A in Canada for the Coast Guard. And, you should be comfortable talking to large ships – they will talk to you, just be professional and concise. I would suggest listening to their conversations with each other to learn their lingo. For example, they might say “I’m planning on red to red if that is okay with you?” This means a port to port passing. For an overview on radio usage see the Sailing Tips article from the October 2011 48° North.

Navigating – Being able to navigate in unfamiliar and tricky waters is a must. This skill requires the ability to merge information from several sources, but first and foremost what you see.

Then merge in the charts, plotter, radar, AIS, cruising guides, etc. to make sound decisions. For what it is worth, my wife and I found our first trip to Barkley Sound to be very good practice for these skills. It required crossing open ocean and, at the time, navigating unfamiliar waters.

As mentioned earlier, being able to run safely in fog is necessary, so practice with your radar during non-foggy times. You should be able to safely maneuver in open water without looking up from the screen, but have someone else watching for logs, boats, and hazards as you are learning. When running in fog for real, look up from the screen and do so frequently as your view of the water is shortened and logs will come at you quickly. If you can, it is best to have one person on log watch and another on the radar.

Another form of specialized navigation is running tidal rapids. They really are not that difficult, the trick is to run through at slack water so there are no rapids – it’s all in the timing.

Anchoring and Stern Ties – This simply requires some practice. Being able to read the charts to find an area where the protection is good, the bottom will hold, and it’s not too deep is what it’s about. The cruising guides are very helpful in this area. Anchoring with a great view or maybe bears roaming the beach does not hurt, and both are very doable. By the way, I have run into a bear while stern tying – I quickly aborted that mission!

Wildlife, like these bubble feeding whales, is a highlight of any Alaska cruise
Wildlife, like these bubble feeding whales, is a highlight of any Alaska cruise

Expectations and Tips:

As indicated at the start of this article, the trip up north is a bit out of the ordinary – here are some of the things your can expect:

Long Distances – This area is not like the San Juan or Gulf Islands where you can get from one anchorage to another in a couple of hours. We found an average day’s travel was between 50 to 75 miles. Some days less and some days over 100 miles, the point is the distances are large. This means running 6 to 10 hours per day is the norm.

Lots of Stuff in the Water – During our first trip up north we happened to be there when the rivers were high and the tidal swing was large, this combination put lots of logs and sticks in the water. At times it was hard to get through and we had to slow to an idle. Also, north of Petersburg, it is common to find icebergs, especially near the mouth of glacial fjords.

Weekly Provisioning – The long distances and the spectacular sightseeing create routing where stops at towns with good provisioning will likely be 7 to 10 days apart. So, plan meals and storage accordingly. This also applies to fuel.

Weather – Some years are great, some are not. So, be prepared for wet and/or windy conditions as they will happen, but fortunately are not usually the norm. We found, in general, the daytime temperatures in May and June to be in the 50’s and 60’s – not really all that cold. Some days and most nights were cool, so the furnace got its share of use.

Sailing vs. Motoring – During both trips we sailed about 10% of the time and motored the rest. This was caused by two factors, there was not much wind and we needed to travel 50 to 75 miles per day. An added obstacle to sailing was the geography of the inside passage - when the wind did blow, it was on our nose or stern, neither one truly good for making way. Many days we would sail for a while, enough to get our fix, and then motor to get to port. And, we did a fair amount of motor sailing.

Changing Plans – Having some flexibility in your scheduling is a good idea. For example, we built some ‘weather days’ into our schedule around the two ocean crossings (Queen Charlotte and Dixon Entrance). And if the winds are blowing, staying put for a day or two will range somewhere between a good idea and completely essential. On the other hand, if you get some really nice weather it would be a good time to see Glacier Bay, Tracy Arm, or the Misty Fjords. These areas have spectacular scenery and are best seen when the clouds are not down to the top of your mast.

Provisioning Stops – On our first trip up we planned two days in port to re-provision, do laundry, see the sites, re-fuel, and any needed maintenance. As you might guess, this proved to be a bit of a panic. During our second trip we scheduled at least three nights for these stops and found they shifted from a tiring rat-race to something more enjoyable.

One other hint worth mentioning is to rent a car in Juneau and Sitka. In Juneau the distances are large and there are two worthwhile stops, Costco and the Mendenhall Glacier. In Sitka, the really good grocery store is a couple miles north of the docks and there are some interesting sites, like the bear preserve. We rented at the airport in both places and I think we saved enough by buying in bulk to pay for the rentals. At most of the other main stops, the stores are an easy walk from the docks.

Transiting Canada – The route to Alaska goes through Canada so know the rules on what you can take. Waggoner has a good article on clearing customs. In fact, Waggoner has many good articles; there are general ones in the front forty-or-so pages and ones on specific areas, such as rounding Cape Caution, located near the area’s section of the guide.

Start Early – During most summer days the winds are calm at night and build during the day. Then as the sun starts to go down they are dying again. When this pattern is in place leaving early, meaning like 4 AM, is a good way to avoid rough waters. This is most useful when doing the two ocean crossings or on some of the main straits in Alaska, all of which can get very lumpy.

Hopefully, this information will be helpful. I am sure I have forgotten many things, so feel free to send in a letter and let us all know about your trips and what you have learned.


Mike Huston is an ASA instructor, Flotilla Leader, and Partner at San Juan Sailing in Bellingham, WA.


Taz Basin: Sunshine and a “hole-in-the-wall”

From my vantage point atop a large, round granite boulder, sweeping views of the Gulf of Alaska and rugged Kenai Peninsula coast seemingly stretch on forever. Turning the opposite direction to the east, my view is quite different. Yahtzee sits on a still pane of dark water in the corner of a small cove. Behind her, rock walls and thousand-foot mountain peaks tower skyward, leading my eyes from sea level to the tops of tall waterfalls. From here, it’s easy to understand why this distinctive anchorage earned a locals nickname of “Hole-in-the-wall”, and is rightly referred to as “…one of the most scenic and secluded small boat anchorages on the outer coast.”

Above the boat, low clouds spill over the rocks and trees, and the fine mist we've had all morning finally ends. It's a sign. Just hours later, the grey skies slowly get brighter, spots of blue appear and before we know it the cove is being gloriously bathed in sunshine. Finally, our patience with the weather has paid off and a taste of summer is upon us.

Like sailors possessed we fling open hatches, shed wet layers, hang foul weather gear to dry, and I happily watch our battery level rise while our solar panels soak in the sun. Soon I'm off barefoot on the SUP paddling to waterfalls and around the infamous rock that guards the entrance to the cove. Speaking of the entrance, it's the final major obstacle to experiencing this isolated little basin.

Getting In

Surely, Taz Basin deserves all the praise it gets from those who are fortunate enough to grace her hallowed walls. But getting in or out of this sole anchorage on aptly named Granite Island is not entirely carefree. Prominently marking the narrow entrance to the basin is a big old flat rock smack in the middle of the channel, essentially creating north and south passes. Also, being open to the full brunt of the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Alaska from the southwest, Taz can’t, or shouldn’t, be entered or exited safely if a sizable swell is pounding the island. Get it wrong and rocky cliffs on either side will not be forgiving. That said, in even moderately calm conditions, the entrance isn’t too intimidating.

The common approach is to stay north of the rock when coming or going and you’re good. Mid-channel depths at a plus 5-foot tide weren’t lower than 30 feet when we exited into minimal swell. Passing south of the rock offers a narrower slot, but if you stick closer to it instead of being mid-channel or farther south, depths of 17 feet at an 8-foot tide will allow passage. Having done both, I’d say go in and out of the north side.

Once you’re past the entrance, take a deep relaxing breath as you watch depths quickly descend back into the 100-foot range. The north and south coves are said to have good holding, and we dropped our hook in 85-feet, backed into the northwest corner to firmly set it, and ended up swinging comfortably in 55 to 65 feet. And though we had Taz all to ourselves, a half-a-dozen boats or so could probably fit comfortably.


The ups and downs of Aialik Bay

Reaching south out of Resurrection Bay past the Rugged Islands, an easterly swell rolls from our port side like small grey hills and a dense rainy fog envelops jagged Aialik Cape to the southwest. The glorious weather we basked in days before is but a fleeting memory, as a gale has been turning up the Gulf of Alaska ever since. Our true welcoming party back to cruising, then, is a washing machine ride around the cape. A rip-off-the-band-aid sort of sail that opens our eyes, turns our stomachs and makes us say, “Hello again, ocean”.

The ominous cape we’re rounding deserves the wide berth we give it. Rain pours off my hood while I steer through the 10-plus foot swell and mixed up sloppy seconds reverberating off the rocky headland. To be sure, it proves to be a sporty rounding that is invigorating in an odd way that only a sailor can appreciate. But once we tuck around the eastern side of the peninsula into Aialik Bay, our crew (including Jill’s mom Donna for this leg) finds relatively calmer seas and what will turn into five up and down truly Alaskan days of cruising. The payoff is worth it.

Ups and Downs
I sit in Yahtzee’s companionway staring across a glassy cove. A waterfall plummets from a verdant forest and tumbles into the sea. Clouds swirl between mountaintops and a heavy mist reminds me that indeed, we are cruising in a rainforest. Just in case I wasn’t fully aware.

From this nook in Three Hole Bay, we motor-sail northward to Coleman Bay and then Abra Cove. Though Aialak Bay (pronounced I-al-ick) is named as such, it is actually a glacial fjord—hence being part of Kenai Fjords National Park. Moving north or south in the bay, mariners quickly notice steep mountains rising from a deep sea. Razor-sharp ridge lines and impressively twisted coves and valleys make up the eastern and western shores where hanging glaciers reside in cirques and three huge glaciers creep seaward down self-made valleys like fingers of ice: Holgate, Aialik and Pederson. The former two are tidewater glaciers, meaning they terminate in the bay and we watch as they do just that, calving with a thunderous roar into the water. Motoring carefully between bits of ice, we dip a net in to collect our fair share for coolers and cocktails before anchoring with a stunning view of both Aialik and Pederson glaciers looming in the distance.

 

 


The Dream Continues

With Yahtzee’s anchor set, I attached the snubber to bow cleats and rolled out the last few feet of chain. Though our family has anchored in this spot dozens of times over the past year-and-a-half, it felt different this time. Very different. Looking at the familiar shoreline, at the green trees above it, at the rock walls reaching skyward, at the craggy snow-capped peaks and a brilliant blue sky, I smiled. The difference is that we’re no longer merely here for a weekend. We’ve hit the play button and the dream continues—we’re cruising again and this is just the first stop on our newest journey.

Soaking in the moment, my mind shot back nearly 16 years to when this whole dream was but a flicker in my imagination. I’d grown up sailing, but after a summer of working on sailboats in Newport, Rhode Island, I’d returned for my sophomore year at the University of Oregon with an ignited passion for it. My adventurous spirit insatiably craved a life under sail, of seeing new places, of meeting new people, of visiting far flung anchorages and ports, of cruising on my own terms. I was determined to make it happen.

To do so, I decided to blend jobs in the sailing industry with another passion—writing—and with that I set my mind on turning my goals and dreams into reality. When I shared the idea with my advisor while choosing a fall class schedule, I thought he was going to burst out laughing. I never saw him again. Friends and family had doubts, too, some of which were shared openly. I knew people thought I was just a starry-eyed college kid with an overly idealistic dream that would soon pass and certainly never happen. Sail and write for a living? Get real. You’re dreaming! You have to get a real job, and a house, and a car, and so on and so on. Not me. Not us.

Fortunately, in this same timeframe I’d found the perfect adventure partner to believe in and share the dream with, and over the years Jill and I have made it happen together. Now, seven years after buying Yahtzee and cruising to Alaska, we find ourselves pushing off for the next adventure. On Friday afternoon we waved heartfelt goodbyes to friends on the dock, pulled out of Seward Harbor and set sail back into the cruising life. Back into our dreams. Because, above all else, life’s short, and it’s not going to live itself.