Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sailing across Gulf of Alaska

I finally joined Pat & Rebecca on their journey from Anacortes, WA to Seward, AK aboard their 46' Pan Oceanic bluewater sailboat "Koni Loa". I met up with them and their buddy Moody (who joined them in Sitka) in Yakutat Monday evening and the next afternoon we were off to Kayak Island, something like 140 miles from Yakutat, pretty much the only place in that vicinity to find protection. After several hours of sailing I started to get a bit nervous about the building seas because I'm not very experienced with sailboats so the whole sail art and keeling over, etc. are foreign and unsettling to me. Here's Rebecca standing on a tackle box to better look for lights mid-crossing...

Pat running the helm:

Then a bit later the mainsail ripped in two places - not good, and no replacement sail! So we went on with the stay sail and jib and at times the engine (Pat and I joked that this was a purely utilitarian voyage). About 24 continuous hours of sailing later, we neared Kayak Island and began to hunt for a place to hole up in an upcoming storm that was supposed to have SE winds. We found a decent anchorage, got hooked up on the first try, and relaxed in our calm semi-cove.

Caught a couple posers on the aft deck slacking off...

But not for long...the winds built and came at us from the NE, directly into our little cove, and soon had a 4' sea whipped up, with the boat straining and banging away on anchor. For 24 hours, we endured a relentless raging gale-force storm with winds often exceeding 60 knots (70 mph), and almost always over 30 knots. We often had to go out on deck to secure loose items, sails, and try to put tension relief devices on the chain anchor line. This was VERY gripping work with the boat pitching around and the hard rain plus heavy winds stinging any exposed skin, making the most pedestrian of tasks seem herculean. At one point the fore starboard cleat got ripped entirely off the deck, leaving a 4" hole in the deck which we stuffed with a towel. It's a miracle to me that the anchor and line held up. I was scared pretty bad the whole time and even now, days after, I'm still shook up about it.

Finally the storm blew itseld down to 20-30 knots so we began to take action. I used some plywood, screws, and a screwgun to patch the hole in the deck while everyone else hustled around getting things lined back out to travel again. Then came time to pull anchor...we still had a 20+ knot wind blowing into the cove with 3-4' seas and the anchor windlass clutch was slipping some, so Pat, Moody, and Rebecca began the process of hauling anchor by hand while I ran the helm. It took some coordination and calming of rattled nerves but finally we began to make progress and were nearing the anchor when chaos broke loose on the front deck. All of a sudden Moody sprawled across the port deck clutching his face while Rebecca and Pat chased him down. Moody got up and lumbered into the cabin with Pat and Rebecca in hot pursuit, blood streaming from a nasty cut on or above Moody's right eye! It looked really nasty and I was deeply bummed for Moody who must have been in a lot of pain. However, since we had almost no chain out and the anchor still attached, I still had my hands full keeping the boat into the wind and steady. I suggested to Pat that he should leave Moody with Rebecca and he should get back onto the anchor, pronto because I was getting nervous. After Pat played with the anchor a bit more, I sensed that we were losing ground and drifting toward the beach so I put more throttle in and pretty soon Pat had the anchor up! That was a huge relief, and much needed at this point. We got the boat stabilized, Pat and Rebecca doctored Moody up a bit more with a wet compress and ice pack, and we soon began to motor toward Wingham Island hoping for smoother water. We indeed did find smoother water but motored through it to poke into the ocean on Wingham's north side to see if we could just get on with it and start sailing toward to Cordova, especially since Moody's eye needed some serious medical attention. We found the seas favorable and all opted to "go for it". Soon after we got into the groove of some pretty decent sailing and could relax slightly, although we were gripped about getting into Cordova before another storm. Moody was doing pretty good although it certainly didn't look it...

Rebecca taking a shift:

Eventually we made it to Strawberry Channel and we all decided to attempt navigating the channel, which is notoriously difficult for non-locals to find. Sure enough, we got caught in the surf with almost no water and came super scary close to grounding the boat in the sand and surf. Ultimately a local fisherman came all the way out and escorted us into a safe anchorage behind the sand bars and took Moody to the hospital. The next morning that same fisherman aboard "Ragtime" came out at 6am and escorted us the rest of the way into the dock at Cordova, where we finally got tied up and let out a huge sigh of relief.

But not me! I was a day and a half late to a tango festival and was due to DJ that very night, so I hustled over to the airport, got a flight at 11am to Anchorage, and another flight at 2:30pm to Seattle...whew!

It was a truly memorable trip, a certified EPIC, and a real learning experience. I've had my fear quotient for the summer for sure!

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