North to Alaska ! The Finish Line



Did I say the Gulf of Alaska? Must have been an error. This is more like the Lake of Alaska. It has been so calm that a few days ago we only made eight miles from noon to noon and could not run the engine. It is now the beginning of day 21, Saturday and the second day of a complete calm, and the fifth day of ever diminishing winds, 66 miles from the harbor at Sitka, and we are dead in the water. On Wednesday we started the engine because the wind was dying. Ten minutes later we found the engine temperature over the top and shut down quickly. After many hours in the engine room, looking for the problem, changing pumps and a lot of bruised knuckles and, yes, a few four letter words, we discovered that the problem which requires a new welded part and is not reparable at sea. The engine can be run for about five minutes without damage, just long enough to reach a dock once in the harbor. But we have to sail all the way in… with no wind.

Late that night a tiny breeze was offered by Aeolus and Neptune. Slowly but surely it increased to a light sailing breeze… making two knots, then three and four and finally during the next day we were up to six at times. Sitka, here we come! But the unknown was whether we could get close enough to the harbor to allow us to run the engine for just a few minutes, long enough to dock and short enough to avoid burning it up. The tide was coming in, and the wind was dying. Right at the opening to the breakwater, the wind went from 1 knot to .9 and finally zero, but Holy Grail drifted in on the tide. We lost steerage too soon, forced to start the engine for a few minutes, then off and coast, on for a few more, then coast. The tension was high, and maybe the blood pressure too. But at the harbor opening we started the engine for the last time rounded the corner and came to rest in the slip assigned by Sitka Harbormaster by radio. He picked a big one for us with easy access, and offered to come tend our lines. Moreover we were right next to a big fishing boat that had arrived just a few hours earlier. We had fresh King Salmon filets for dinner. How’s that for hospitality???
Sitka proved to be an extremely interesting and delightful town, a jewel dropped on the edge of incredible natural phenomena, dramatic scenery we had never seen before.

North to Alaska ! Part three


It was finally July 1 when we left our little R & R anchorage for the second time and headed north, pushing to windward to pass to the east of Maui, and be away from the islands on that first night. The wind spirits banned together to produce an east wind which made for a lovely crossing and an easy sail to clear Maui, and we were off at last! By the next nightfall, the islands could only be detected by the heavy cloud that formed over each. And by the warm land colors of the undersides of those clouds we knew that an island was anchored beneath each one. As we sailed north looking for the end of trade winds and the beginning of temperate latitude westerlies, we skirted the western edge of the Pacific High pressure zone watching the barometer carefully and hourly to make sure we did not sail into the windless high pressure area. A small MahiMahi gave himself to us for three days of delicious meals, and in colder water we began seeing more sea life, first with an escort of false killer whales just 20 or thirty feet abeam and cruising along with us, almost hand in hand, and sea birds too. About that time we also began passing scraps of floating fabric, fish floats, foam, and lumber, more and more of it until we could see several pieces of flotsam at one time any time we looked – a sad reminder of last year’s Tsunami.

Now we are nearing the end of our fifteenth day at sea, wind of 18 knots right astern, sailing with the full main and jib poled out on the windward side making about 6 knots. The night is black, the fourth day of fog, sometimes pea soup dense at sea level, sometimes higher and sometimes wet as rain. The moon was just past full when we left but has now become dark all night. We glide on into the blackness watching radar from time to time, monitoring our new AIS (automatic identification system which warns of ships nearby and continuously gives information of their speed and course), and watch for changes in the wind. Thoughts of a quick passage have long vanished. Light and adverse winds have now persisted for half the trip. Wandering Gypsy (GPS) tells us we have sailed 2055 miles and still have 516 to go to Sitka. And it’s cold. Running a diesel heater every night has the kept the cabin toasty warm while on deck it is in the low fifties. These barefoot Hawaiians are dressing warm and getting used to it.

In the Gulf of Alaska we have had nearly continuous fog, little sun and mostly light winds. At night the trail of bright bioluminescense speaks of the rich nutrients in this cold water. In the dark we hear seabirds calling to each other as we press on. It is now evening of the seventeenth day, a day with nearly sixteen hours of light, 317 miles to Sitka. The wind spirits have favored us today with fair winds up to 24 knots. Holy Grail smells the barn and is sprinting at seven knots to the finish line.

The subtlety of the sea change has never been more highlighted than on this trip. We have transited three major climate zones in a few weeks – tropical, temperate and now polar. Hour by hour the sea changes. An hour ago, the we had six foot following seas that were close together and propelled the boat semi surfing down the face of each swell. We thought storm conditions were brewing, as the barometer has also been falling all day. At this moment, while the wind, cloud cover and barometer are all the same, the seas have flattened to the extent that we do not feel any rise or fall – in the course of one hour. And while changes in sea state and cloud may be harbingers of imminent changes in wind or precipitation, one never knows.

Did I say the Gulf of Alaska? Must have been an error. This is more like the Lake of Alaska. It has been so calm…

to be continued

North to Alaska ! Part two


Then there was the rigging. You know the part that costs more than the hull. In this case I mean all the stainless wires that support the mast. Every one needed to be closely inspected under ultraviolet light for flaws, cleaned and reinstalled. Weeks were spent in a bosun’s chair taking them down and then putting them back up – another five weeks.

By then Holy Grail knew she was going on another adventure. SHE called softly, ”Captain, oh Captain, you’d better clean and flush my dirty water tanks. No, that;s not good enough. Flush them five or six more times so my water is really sweet. My radio does not seem to be working right. You’d better check it. And oh, by the way, while you’re at it, my radar seems a little weak. And you know there is that little problem of sea water getting into my engine oil in a rough seaway, and don’t forget….” SHE called to me all day, every day, and woke me up at night with soft warnings and reminders. Finally SHE became aggressive and would not let the engine start until I found the little problem SHE cooked up just to get my goat. SHE sprung a leak in the toilet pump in an invisible place just to make sure I could not easily find it. SHE created another problem with the generator that took three days to solve. SHE badgered me about this and that until I finally had had enough! We set a date and just left. WE were ready!

The Admiral had been working feverishly to list and provide all the provisions, make sure we had the necessities and the niceties too, clean and reorganize every locker, nook and cranny, and finally document the entire contents of the boat so all those items could be found, while SHE just sat there and waited.

We gave up the slip and sailed thirty-three miles north to a little anchorage in Kohala for a day of R & R before heading across the Alenuihaha Channel between Maui and the Big Island. The forecast was perfect, the best all year for crossing that dreaded channel. After a great day of sunning and swimming, reading and lounging, we were up at two a.m. ready for our new adventure – up anchor, out to sea, turn over helm to autopilot to steer into the wind while we put up the sails… Otto what are you doing? Where are you going? Otto, what’s wrong with you? What the …? But Otto would not respond. After several hours of testing and trouble shooting, we gave up and headed south for Honokohau. Holy Grail had spoken again. We may have been ready, but SHE was not.

It was finally July 1 when we left our little R & R anchorage for the second time and headed north, pushing to windward to pass to the east of Maui, and be away from the islands on that first night. The wind spirits banned together………………. (to be continued)

North to Alaska !

Where to start this tale is a quandary that has taken more than a week to figure out. As I start to write, we are near the end of day eight of our passage from Honokohau Harbor, Kona Hawaii to Sitka Alaska, 1188 miles along. We thrashed north from the harbor on the wrong day, against a close together washboard sea, Wednesday, June 27 early in the morning. It was a 40 knot noserly… noserly? That’s a breeze right on the nose. It was a rough, fresh start weeks after our first departure and more than a month after we planned.

Darkness is just falling on this Sunday. Holy Grail is hard on the wind reefed and going well against a NW wind of up to 22 knots in the rain squalls, and moving gently at 5 ½ to 6 knots in the 16 knot winds as the squalls pass. The Admiral has just crawled into the big aft cabin bunk alone while the Captain takes the first night watch, 7pm to 1am. The horizon ahead in the gloom is dotted with black squalls under the full cloud cover. As it becomes darker, the sky from the horizon to the cloud deck above is the lightest, so that squalls appear as black funnels touching the horizon, the blackest ones containing the most rain, and sometimes the most wind. But you never know if it will have lots of wind or none at all, especially at night. The strongest of them packed winds of 32 knots for about 15 minutes, while we just ran downwind until it blew itself out.

But this is not where I wanted to start. Let’s start before the beginning, back in November or Dec when we thought we had plenty of time to prepare the boat for a May passage to Alaska. We were making our lists, ordering new gear, shopping for odds and ends and still enjoying chartering several days a week. The boat was in pretty good shape as we had been chartering for about four years, keeping her fit and active. Boats are people too, you know – needing to keep moving for good health. There were a few jobs that needed attention for an ocean passage that were not important for the calm waters of Kona, mainly making sure all the hatches and ports were water tight when INUNDATED. It is a rare day sailing in Kona when even one drop of salt water contaminates our decks. Testing with a relentless high pressure hose released torrents into the boat – hatches, ports, prisms, and other corners too. Get to work, captain! Some must be removed and re-bedded. Some just needed new gaskets, and some needed complete reconstruction. Suddenly, it seemed, eight weeks disappeared.

Then there was the rigging… (to be continued)