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North to Alaska

by Ernest and Jane Guenther

Several years ago, after reading about the Inside Passage, I got the idea of taking that route to Alaska. I considered a cruise ship but thought that too luxurious. Then I considered the Alaskan Marine Highway (ferry). Too easy. I really wanted to do it myself in my own boat. So I started to educate myself about boating. A powerboat would be too easy but a sailboat would take forever -- so I compromised and got a Macgregor 26X. A power sailer.

I told my wife Jane that this would be no afternoon cruise around a lake. It will be cold, wet, windy, just plain miserable and also scary and dangerous. Nevertheless, she signed on as First Mate and Chief Cook and bottle washer.

Our boat is a 26-ft. ´99 Macgregor 26X sloop with water ballast and centerboard, main and 150 Genoa. It has a 50 hp Honda and with extra tanks carried 48 gallons of fuel. This equaled 300-nm range at 6 kts. motoring. The inflatable dinghy has a 3.3 hp motor plus oars. By the helm are a large Ritchie compass, depth sounder and a Garmin 48 GPS. Cabin heat is provided by the alcohol stove and a propane radiant heater. We used the V-berth for sleeping and the aft berth for storage. We could have spent the winter on all the canned and dehydrated food on board. On the backstay was hung a radar reflector. One VHF radio is permanently installed and the other is a handheld. Another receiver would get AM, FM and marine and aviation frequencies. In the icebox we used block ice to preserve perishables. I carried three anchors and 600 ft. of rode. Only the claw anchor was used. Emergency signaling equipment included a flare pistol. We had no firearms on board. The casting and trolling rods were rarely used, as we bought no fishing licenses. We both always wore PFD´s and mine was auto-inflatable with harness. Whether under power or sail, I was tethered to the Jackline.

We departed Albuquerque on the 17th of June ´01 and towed Kilo Whiskey to Bellingham, WA and launched her. Provisioning was completed by picking up a Bruce type anchor, an Etrex GPS (to back up the primary) and some fresh groceries. We departed Bellingham on the 20th of June.

Our goal was to run the bow of this boat up to an iceberg. More specifically to take her to Juneau, Alaska and back. Never having done something like this before, I had serious doubts about making it all the way. Was this boat and Skipper and First Mate capable of navigating 1000 miles across 10 degrees of Latitude? And then return?

The first couple days were uneventful, as we had sailed these waters the previous summer (´00). We entered British Columbia and went through customs at Bedwell Harbor, moored in Retreat Cove overnight and made Nanaimo (on Vancouver Island) the second afternoon. Here we walked to a bank and changed to a bunch of Canadian dollars, not knowing the credit card situation further north. So far, so good though we were not encouraged by a local couple who said they would never take a small boat like ours north of Port Hardy (on the north end of Vancouver Is.).

The next morning we were faced with sailing all the way across the Straight of Georgia, about 20 miles. After leaving the harbor I shut down the Honda 50 and raised all sail. When the winds built to 15 knots I reefed the main and foresail. The 4 to 5ft seas slowed us to 4 knots but we made it all the way close hauled on a port tack. On the East Side of the Straight I motor sailed and then motored in to Powell River where we got a slip for the night.

The 52 miles that we put on that day was to be the average on our voyage. We were not really in that much of a hurry. We made so many miles a day for two reasons. First the nights are very short and the days very long (16+ hours). Second, the weather was so lousy one might as well be under way when all you can do is watch it rain from the cockpit. Besides, I wanted to get as close to that iceberg as possible before my First Mate mutinied, the boat broke or her skipper chickened out.

Powell River is a rather dull fishing town with a large paper mill. The breakwater forming the paper mills harbor is formed of 10 World War II Liberty ships sunk in place. These rusting wrecks are called "the hulks". Not a pretty sight but rather interesting.

Departing Powell River at 05:30 am seems early but is well after first light. Due to local politics, fuel was not available there so we stopped at Lund to top off. I carried 48 gallons of fuel, about three times more than needed. My research led me to believe that fuel may not be available at certain times or places. Not true: fuel stops are adequate and they all took credit cards. Credit cards, by the way, get you the best exchange rate so its best to use them whenever possible. We carried Canadian money and used it but I think most any places would have taken U.S. dollars.

We proceeded north through Thulen Channel to look at Copeland Island Marine Park. Here we crossed 50 Degrees North - eight more to go. Beautiful scenery here. And it became even more beautiful as we proceeded through Desolation Sound. Snow capped mountains and many inviting channels just begging to be explored. I want to return to this area and spend time here.

It has become apparent that we can make Big Bay. That´s the good news. The bad news is that we must go through Yaculta Rapids to get there. I referred to my tide and current tables which I had copied off the Internet ( The tables told me I would be 1.5 hours past slack current. Now, I had read where one should be within 20 to 30 minutes of slack but I (dumb, dumb) decided that an extra hour would not make that much difference (super dumb). As the piloting directions suggested, I stayed on the West Side of the ever-narrowing channel.

The water became more turbulent and rapid with swirls and whirlpools all about. These swirls would suddenly lurch the boat 90 degrees off heading against full rudder. Against this 10-knot head current we slowly came through and I could see Big Bay on the East Side. Then I made a serious mistake: I turned from the West Side to cross the main part of the rapids. Then it really got wild. One could barely hang on. Using almost full power I retreated west and found a better position from which to cross in to Big Bay. Then we made it and I was very thankful for smooth water. The man at the gas pump said he had been watching us and was ready to start up the rescue boat because a sailboat could not overcome that current. Then he saw the 50 hp and understood how we made it.

That was a lesson learned the hard way and will not be repeated or forgotten. I really knew better but had not acquired the proper respect for the power of those tidal currents.

A word on tides and current. Tide refers to the vertical movement of water. Current refers to the horizontal flow. The tides rise and fall 20 feet in this area. That´s a lot of water to fill and empty in and out of the Straight of Georgia. Thus, there are very strong currents: in Seymour Narrows they reach 16 knots. It is essential to have tide and current information for your area of sailing. Many fueling places give out free tide booklets. To get complete coverage I copied my data off the Internet. With the proper data you can make the tidal currents work for you. Go with the tide and you can sail at 10 knots in a light breeze. Go against a strong tide and you will just convert gasoline into noise.

Big Bay Resort, British Columbia is really nice. This is where the rich and famous come to fish and play. They have electricity so you know some one has a generator running. We ate at the resort dining room and ate well. On the whole trip the only steaks we ate were on the boats gas grill. In restaurants it was Salmon one night and Halibut the next. Each meal was better than the last; it seemed, as they really know how to fix the fish, which just came out of the water.

Our departure time of 0620 from Big Bay was carefully calculated the night before. I needed to get it right this time as we had three major rapids to go through today. It worked. We sailed through Gillard and Dent rapids at their slack and hit Green rapids at its ebb. We rode the ebb all the way through Cordero Channel at speeds up to 12 knots. We entered Johnstone Strait at Yorke Island well before noon. I wanted to get as far west in Johnstone Strait before its notorious Westerlies blew us down. It started to rain making me wish for a dodger and the wind picked up, as advertised at mid-afternoon. It being early, we passed Alert Bay, our planned destination, and pulled into Port McNeil after 13 hours under way. We made 80 miles thanks to the free ride on the current in Cordero Channel.

The next day was an easy 25-nm hop to Port Hardy and we arrived before noon. The showers at the marina are great as they come with the slip and do not need to be fed "loonies" (Canadian Quarters). We spent the afternoon looking around town and provisioning. Since weather, wind and tidal conditions were all favorable we scrubbed a day off and decided to continue in the morning.

Port Hardy, located on the north end of Vancouver Island, is the provisioning and jumping off point for vessels going north. From Port Hardy to Prince Rupert is what I call "the wilderness". Very few pleasure craft venture north of here. A few small Indian villages are the only signs of civilization. So for the next 300 miles we will be on our own.

Leaving Port Hardy one must cross Queen Charlotte Strait. This, according to all I have read, is the most dangerous leg of the voyage north. This 50-mile leg is exposed to the Pacific Ocean and as the ocean swells roll in over shallowing ground they build higher and higher. The prevailing Westerlies also build in the afternoon. Meanwhile, if the tide is ebbing it will be in opposition to the wind and waves making for some very mean seas. Additionally, after crossing one is faced with a lee shore that is very rocky with few safe havens. I calculated conditions to favor an early morning go.

We were under way at 05:15. After passing some outlying islands were in open sea. The clouds were at mast height so I could not see much and was relying totally on the GPS. Though rather eerie, the crossing was uneventful. The seas were only about 3 ft. Finally, though I never did see Cape Caution, Egg Island showed dead on the bow and we were across. About this time the clouds lifted, then dissipated, and under clear blue skies we continued past Safety Cove, the first safe haven , and made it to Fifer Bay under sail. This is our seventh day out of Bellingham.

We had Fifer Bay all to ourselves. We expected to anchor but found an old float and tied to it. Due to a leak in the forward hatch we had bedding to dry out in the sunshine. We did some steaks on the gas grill and took a break and had a restful evening.

The radio wx channel predicted wind and rain for the morrow. I was already tired of rain and spray in my face and glasses, on my instruments and on my charts. So, I rigged an 8 X 10 tarp over the bimini and boom. It looked el cheapo tacky but this "poor mans dodger" was quite effective and I could see well enough to motor and sail with it in place. It stayed in place for much of the trip.

The morning proved the weatherman correct - it was a "full-foulies day" (rain gear, top and bottom). All day long we had high winds, heavy seas and heavy rain. Going north in Fitzhugh Sound we passed Namu and then 52 degrees North Latitude. We stopped at Bella Bella for fuel and since it was early and raining, con-tinued on. Proceeding west in Seaforth Channel we were nearing Milbanke Sound which is exposed to open ocean. I could already feel the ocean swells and conditions were getting rough so it was time to bag it. Berry Inlet was the only shelter I could find and was not mentioned in "Waggoners Cruising Guide" nor "Northwest Boat Travel" so I had no information on hazards. I slowly felt my way in to a nice cove, relieved to find calm water, and set the anchor. It was too inclement to go ashore so we were confined to the boat. Then at 8 pm it stopped raining and the sun came out. We again dryed bedding and I again tried to fix the leaking hatch.

I had hoped to sail across Milbanke Sound since it was pretty open but we had no wind. So we motored over the ocean swells. From here north we mostly motored with occasional motorsailing. Continuing north we traversed Finlayson Channel, refueled at Klemtu and entered Graham Reach. Navigating these channels requires a sharp lookout as there is alot of debris from logging in the area. The large logs and trees are easy to see but the little pieces of wood are hard to see and can get in the prop. We saw a brown bear on the shore passing 53 North Latitude. We set anchor in Aaltanhash Inlet.

This is a typically beautiful inlet surrounded by high snowcapped mountains. Streams and waterfalls come down to the sea. A rare surprise in this remote area: a lone commercial fisherman steams in, waves, and sets anchor abeam us and spends the night. His anchor chain, and mine, are the only disruptions to the solitude. We do our evening chores, drying things, cooking and eating and planning the next days activities and then retire. The fisherman next door apparently and quietly does the same. In the morning he is gone.

Stay tuned - In the next installment we make Prince Rupert,
Ketchican, Sawyer Glacier, Juneau and more.

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