Irish and I were offered the chance to join a group of boats headed to Alaska this summer (2017) in exchange for writing about the experience. There were many reasons not to go, including Irish’ fall and devastating injuries, my lack of experience, Foxy’s lack of real preparation…
So, of course, off we went. Foxy was ready enough, we were as ready as we could be.
The stories were shared on the Sail Alaska Facebook page, though they were designed to be blog-length. I’ve never really gotten used to Facebook, so I’ve decided to put them here, in sequence. They’re not really a travelogue, and certainly not a diary. I don’t know how they should be categorized, but I thought others might be interested.
Sail Alaska 2017 will set out just before summer solstice, the longest day of the year. That’s a good thing.
“The rough part this year is that the currents are against us in the daylight hours. There will be some early morning departures in order to get up there into some of the first anchorages, and an extra day to Booker Lagoon,” said Jim Rard, who will lead a group of as many as 14 boats from Anacortes, Washington, to South Sawyer Glacier / East Glacier Bay, Alaska.
It’s 700 nautical miles from Anacortes to Ketchikan. From Anacortes to South Sawyer and back to Ketchikan will more than double that, to about 1,500 nautical miles. Those making the full round trip back to Anacortes will cover over 2,000 nautical miles.
That will demand a lot of both boats and crew, said Rard. This has put some pressure on his boat yard, Marine ServiCenter in Anacortes.
“Everybody is really busy right now. We have boats coming from La Paz and San Francisco … we’re doing repairs and we’re commissioning some new boats for people. We have boats coming into yard for bottom paint, that sort of thing. A lot of boats are adding a portable little freezer unit so we can get salmon flown back home.”
Rard would not advise about specific brands, but said “there are some nice little 12-volt units you can set in there. Adler Barbor, Friggoboat, they all run on the same Dan Foss compressor.”
Some captains are upgrading electronics, and Rard said boats in the fleet need to have confirmed chart packs, life jackets, through-hole plugs, and spare parts for engines.
“We’ll be doing oil changes on all the boats in Ketchikan most likely, and again for the trip back home. Most guys like to change at 100 hours. We take ours out to 120, that’s a full load of fuel. We’ll check engines over, tighten belts. Look with a camera to see potential damage from any sticks we’ve hit, etc.
“We hope not to have to do any haul outs, and I’ve got dive gear in case we wrap stuff around a prop.”
There will also be knowledgeable people in the fleet who can help with mechanical or electronic issues. Solving problems is part of the fun of the whole journey for Rard.
“It’s another opportunity to learn about your boat. And with others around, there are always solutions.”
While setting anchor on one Sail Alaska trip, a boat’s prop shaft fell off as soon as the lever was shifted into reverse. “They sheered all four bolts from the transmission. We ended up stealing engine mount bolts from other boats and bolted the coupler back together. At 2 am we wrapped it up, had a shot of whisky and left — on time — the next morning!”
In addition to prepping boats in the fleet, Rard said he has his own list of things “prioritized into things I have to do, things I need and things I want,” on his boat, Ruby Slippers.
In addition to the annual wash and wax, he’s looking to add new rugs for the galley, clean up some of his canvas, buy a new satellite phone, build the perfect fish smoker for the back of the boat, install down riggers to catch king salmon, and put new propane tanks.
“This year’s route goes out and back into Dixon Entrance. We’ll follow the fish and whales back in to the inside part of the sound.
“I’m also putting out a list for members of the fleet, including crab and shrimp traps, a machete to clear trails to our little shelter in the woods … ”
One item of importance: Captains have to notify Rard soon about bringing people in to join the fleet at some point, or having people leave boats and head out of Alaska,.
“They need to call me so I can help with the schedule, and I am right now scheduling people in and out. Legs are about 10 days long, so people will be with us either one week or two weeks, basically. I have all the charter plane info, info on all the little towns where flights can be arranged. I need to make sure what ports we have to make it into.”
So, while time to prepare is becoming shorter just as days are growing longer, excitement is starting to build for this new adventure. Things that can be prepared for are on the to-do list. Things that can’t be are part of the adventure.
“The long range forecast is looking good for the summer. I hope they can predict that far out,” Rard said.
In Campbell River, two days into Sail Alaska, Jim Rard was stretched out over the bow of a boat, not his own, repairing a windlass. Not repairing, actually, but diagnosing a case of worn bearings. The windlass was 12 years old, and replacing it would be better than repairing it. A new one would be waiting in Shearwater.
However, that meant Rard and his boat-mates would have the windlass-less boat, along with two young and energetic children, rafted to them every night for a week. Some, if not most, might have shifted the burden.
Jim never lost his smile.
He knows how things work, he knows how people work, he knows how to make things. He does what he needs to do with what he has on hand.
Another windlass failed in Pruth Bay. Jim repaired this one with a new shear pin he made by hammering a stainless steel tent stake into a shape that would hold the load.
“The hardest part was getting the knurling right so it would stay in position,” he said.
How did he do that?
“With a hammer,” he said with a laugh.
Last year a boat sheared its transmission bolts. Jim took engine mounting bolts from three other boats so the disabled vessel could make it to port, replacing those at the first opportunity.
“We haven’t had to work on boats much this year,” he said in 2017. With that smile, the laugh. One gets the sense that Rard just loves solving problems, finding fixes. It inspires confidence.
Rard took the Sail Alaska group through passages he “thought might have salmon.” More than one boat landed a few of the bright silver fish, 25 inches or more. He’s talking about halibut tomorrow.
Rard’s boat is named Ruby Slippers. Yes, there’s a link to the movie, but it’s indirect. Jim and his wife Jeanna named the boat from a song written by Mark Knopfler, sung by EmmyLou Harris: “Love and Happiness.”
“…Here’s a rabbit’s foot
Take it when you go
So you’ll always know
You’re safe from harm
Wear your ruby shoes
When you’re far away
So you’ll always stay
Home in your heart.
You will always have a lucky star,
That shines because of what you are,
Even in the deepest dark,
Because your aim is true
And if I could only have one wish,
Darling, then it would be this,
Love and happiness for you.
There are many reasons the extremely diverse group of cruisers in their varied boats travel Sail Alaska with Jim Rard. Jim Rard is the first reason for many of them.
“He’s one of the most easily underestimated people I’ve ever known.” said someone who has spent many hours with him on board.
The SailAlaska flotilla gathered in Campbell River on Tuesday, June 20. Some boats arriving a day or two early, the rest fighting steep chop driven by a head wind from the north pushing against the ebb tide from the south. All made it safely into the Campbell River Marina.
The group is as diverse as their boats, which range from new 50-foot trawlers to much smaller sailboats that have received decades of care. There are young children, several dogs, sailors with years of experience and those with only a year, couples young and not-so-young, musicians, businessmen, friends, and family.
Twelve boats in all, off to Alaska.
First, we have to get through Seymour Narrows and up Johnstone Strait. There are only two times today that leg can be run, 4:oo am and 4:00 pm, otherwise tides and strong currents will slow progress to a crawl.
“If I’m going to do that, I’d rather pull over and take a nap, or go fishing,” said group leader Jim Rard.
The current in Seymour Narrows at full flood can be as high as 12 knots, impossible to fight in a boat capable of 7 knots. There are rocks and whirlpools to navigate.
Johnstone Strait is presenting its own challenges over the next couple of days. Winds are forecast to be as high as 30 knots (35 mph) from the north-northwest after noon today, aiming right toward the SailAlaska group and into the face of the tidal current they hope to ride. That’s a set up for the same conditions faced coming into Campbell River: steep waves and a rough slamming ride for some boats.
But winds have been “over forecast” all week, so this afternoon we’ll squirt through the narrows, finding a place to anchor sometime before the 9:30 pm sunset.
Blind Channel Bail-out
Seymour Narrows posed no problem for the twelve boats of the Sail Alaska group. Riding an ebb current in the late afternoon, they encountered no whirlpools, no rocks, and little traffic besides a couple of barges and a few fishing boats.
It was a lovely smooth ride.
Until Johnstone Strait.
Winds forecast for NW 25 knots met the ebb flow head on. There was the promise of chop, and promise kept. True winds were closer to 30 knots, and chop became whitecaps on steep waves of four to five feet. For more than an hour, the boats were pounded.
Instead of pushing through to Port Neville, the original plan, a turn at Edith Point and up Mayne Passage provided some much-needed relief.
The first three boats, Lori Lee, Breakaway and Foxy, pulled into the small marina at Blind Bay Resort to wait for the rest of the flotilla. By the time the others arrived, the siren songs of flat water, a schnitzel or a halibut filet, touted to be the best near Johnstone Strait, had seduced the boats already tied to the dock.
The others went on to Forward Harbor, trying to put a few more miles under their keel for the run to Booker Cove the next day. They anchored just as dark settled over the water.
The Blind Bay truants were up and about at 4:00 a.m., rolling back down Mayne Passage at 4:30 a.m. to catch an early tide.
Johnstone Strait still barked but had lost most of its bite. Winds stayed below 20 knots. and as the boats entered Queen Charlotte Sound, the water calmed except for upwelling from tidal currents. A few dolphin and perhaps a whale were spotted; the sun was out and the air was soft.
No longer in fjords fringed with snow covered peaks, the flotilla turned north in water that stretched like a mirrored pond to the western horizon, the smooth surface interrupted only by the occasional granite island, some small and treeless, some with pines soaring skyward.
Slack tide at 1:00 p.m. allowed easy entrance into Booker Lagoon. Taking it at the wrong time can cause trouble, with whirlpools caused by a seven knot current through a narrow neck capable of spinning a boat into the rocks that line the channel.
“Keep your speed up so you have rudder authority,” said leader Jim Rard, who had all boats safely inside and was soon scrambling up a steep rocky face, tying stern lines to trees in the dense Canadian forest.
Booker to Pruth
Booker Lagoon was a haven. The first night was warm, without any of the background roar of civilization that so often surrounds us, all around and overhead. Birds could be heard calling from a half-mile away. Small creaks in the rigging announced only a slight shift of position.
There were fish. The granite mounds that lay just above the waves outside the entrance to Booker are inhabited by amazing rock fish of all colors, yellow and blue, red and brown . The group that went fishing had great luck, but it was the captain of Zephyr Blue who landed a 36 – inch ling cod. We had a “How To Filet a Fish” lesson off the back of leader Jim Rard’s boat. Zephyr Blue shared his prize catch at the evening ‘ s pot luck.
Clams lay just below the sandy rock bed of a small channel that was exposed at low tide. The clams and the fresh shrimp some of the boaters caught were on the evening’s menu as well, along with various rice dishes, potato au gratin, brownies and apple crisp. For a couple of hours members of the group shared backgrounds, current stories and laughter, bonding over their common love of boats.
As the sun dropped low, bathing the landscape in a golden glow, the tide dropped to the bed of a channel about 100 yards long and ten yards wide where thousands of clams squirted little arched streams into the air that could have been set to music.
But that second evening also brought a chill wind, which announced a change despite the lingering sunset. The next day, some boats headed north at about two in the afternoon when the tide approached slack, hoping to break up the 71 – mile trip up Queen Charlotte Strait that was on the itinerary for the following day.
It was rough for all, with big water and wind. Several of the smaller boats turned into safe harbor along the route. Those who left Booker at about 4 a.m. with group leader Jim Rard had the best currents , but everyone faced tough going, exposed to the Pacific Ocean , until they rounded Cape Caution and were shielded by Calvert Island.
Fury Cove did not live up to its name, and though a bit crowded, the water was beautifully calm . A white shell beach led the way to ocean. The forested islands were primeval and dense, the rainforest of Pacific Northwest.
From there the group headed to Pruth Harbor, slowing along the way to about two knots to drop a line over the side at a few spots Jim Rard thought might hold salmon. A few were caught, fewer kept. The small fish signalling the salmon run ha s not yet begun.
The anchorage at Pruth was tight, and it was windy, but all settled in for the night. Some boats of the Sail Alaska flotilla left the next morning for the marina at Shearwater, where supplies are available and repairs can be made. The rest will lay over another day. It’s a short walk to the top of the island, and an even shorter walk to the white sand beach and a sunset over the unrestrained North Pacific Ocean.
Salmon to Shearwater
Calvert Island above Pruth Bay wore hard granite outcroppings like scabs. Trees seemed to fight for soil, but bald eagles flourished, two or three — even four! — seen in the air at any one time.
The sunset over West Beach on the Hakai Luxvbalis Conservancy Area was spectacular, and many Sail Alaska crews hiked to the top of Lookout Hill where an impossible pond nestled, with lilies, in a shallow rock basin.
The anchorage, though, was tight and the wind pushed the boats about, this way and and then that, like weather vanes.
The next leg, north of Calvert, brought the Sail Alaska fleet into a run of salmon. Not long after the morning flood tide pushed into Fitz Hugh Sound, a number of boats landed two or more fat Pink or Silver salmon.
The sailboats in the group then received a special treat. A wind from the southwest wafted them up FitzHugh on a broad reach. Some maximized speed, tacking across the channel. At least one boat balanced sails wing-on-wing in the 12-knot breeze. These waters are not known for summer sailing, and any wind is usually from the north and slows progress.
The textures of Fisher Channel and Lama Passage were much softer than Calvert, heavily-treed rounded hills feeling much more like the old Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington, uplifted and then worn down, formed before the volcanoes.
It was only a 41-mile passage, but nearly the slowest. Salmon like to strike lures moving at less than three knots, and the sail boats didn’t often go above seven. Shearwater Marine Resort was the destination, and the crew of Lioness, which arrived at Shearwater the day before, hosted an arrival party for the rest.
Most of whom would be scrambling to do laundry, purchase provisions, and fill water and fuel tanks for both their passage makers and dinghies before a departure scheduled for 10:00 am the next day.
Shearwater to Bottleneck to Bishop to Lowe
A few Sail Alaska boats fished around shoals after Shearwater, but a small halibut was the only catch. Sailors, though, caught some great wind.
As the boats rounded Keith Point on Dowager Island, the Pacific Ocean sent a breath of breeze up Milbank Sound. There wasn’t supposed to be a southwest wind, but soon nearly all the sailboats had sails up in different configurations as they made their way up Finlayson Channel. Sheltered Bottleneck Inlet on Roderick Island, was home for the night.
The next morning the fleet was off to Bishop Bay. But it took some work.
Graham Reach again provided some sailing, with steady winds from the southwest at around 14 knots. Then, on a dime, the wind changed about 180 degrees. Sails came down and everyone motored on. Most crews elected to bypass the decaying cannery at Butedale, built beside a beautiful wide waterfall, only to face winds reaching 25 knots that hit the group right on the nose for the length of Fraser Channel.
There was a reward waiting, though. Arriving at Kingdom Point on Princess Royal Island, the wind that had been against them went with the boats up Ursula Channel. And there were whales! A pod coming up Mackay Reach went right by some of the boats as they rounded the point.
Bishop Bay was tough, deep anchoring with a steep drop-off close to shore, but group leader Rard thought there was plenty of room for the boats to swing, and the winds were not expected to be significant. Almost all the boats decided against a stern tie, and a hot spring lured some crew to shore.
Instead of the planned extra day in Bishop Bay, Rard had the group leave for Lowe Inlet the next morning. Those leaving late were treated to a humpback whale rolling and breaching in the bay. Steep granite cliffs scarred by passing glaciers rose abruptly from Nordic-like fjords, waterfalls tumbling from a thousand feet above.
Water depths matched the height of surrounding ridges, and depth sounders gave blank readings for waters too deep to read. After the tumult of previous legs, flat glassy water felt strange.
As boats rounded Promise Island, it wasn’t long before a dense mist trying to become fog settled on the water, and rain began to fall. The gray weather lasted most of the way to Lowe Inlet, but the nearly magical Nettle Basin was waiting at the end of the day.
The entrance to the basin is winding and narrow, guarded by Mark Bluff and Pike Point. But it opens between rocks to show bright grassy banks on one side; a dark, steep forest on the opposite shore, and a wide, shallow waterfall just right for one of the extremely rare white “spirit bears” to fish by the entrance.
The three power boats in the squadron arrived first and set to work. Sea Pie bagged a huge male crab in the first hour and a half. A fishermen on Lioness hooked a 70-pound halibut on twelve-pound gear, and almost had it lassoed by the tail before the fish had enough, broke the line and headed back to the depths. Lori Lee had the shrimp traps out before the sail boats showed up.
There are three dogs on the journey, from pocket size to a large, young golden retriever. Owners were cautioned to take an air horn, or a shotgun, to shore when walking their dogs. A pack of wolves had been seen on the banks of the inlet and could be territorial.
And very soon after the golden retriever had been to shore, a wolf appeared right at the same patch of grass. Believed to be a female by how she marked her territory, she stared at the boaters, lay down for a while where the young dog had peed, rolled, stood, and was very explicit in her message: “Mine.”
Boaters who missed the show suggested that the ten-month old puppy could return to the same spot so others could view the wolf. The owner politely declined.
Weather reports confirmed that Dixon Entrance, the wide passage that leads to the Pacific Ocean, should have light winds and fair skies for the next day or so. The weather has to be right to cross this channel, so Rard has the group heading to the tip of Dundas Island for an early arrival in Ketchikan.