Gone Floatabout

Sailing, Photography, Wilderness

Ketchikan to Petersburg


Thirteen feet of rain fall in Ketchikan every year, but we almost couldn’t believe it in the days that followed our departure. A high pressure built and the sun shone warm on Celeste as she sailed north. We had a brisk beat to windward leaving Ketchikan on July 10, the kind of summer sailing people associate with Seth’s home waters in Maine.

Beating out of Ketchikan

With the sun sparkling on the ripples, Celeste charging ahead at 8 knots, and forested mountains surrounding us, we didn’t mind taking all day to tack upwind to our next anchorage on Prince of Wales Island. The sun was setting over the distant snow-capped peaks by the time we came level with the cove, bathing the sea in purple and pink, and the moon was rising full behind us. As we were admiring the sunset, thinking it couldn’t get any better, the spouts of a whole pod of humpback whales broke the golden surface. They spouted and dove and showed their flukes repeatedly while we ghosted into the bay and made our way slowly to our anchorage – magical!

Midnight whale

Because we hadn’t dropped the hook until almost midnight, we made a shorter hop the next morning, about 15 miles to Coffman Cove, a little village on Prince of Wales Island. The wind was with us and the sky was clear, a perfect combination for flying the spinnaker. Of course the wind built to about 15 knots once we got it up and then died back down again to a comfortable 10 knots once we decided to douse it, but it was a good run anyway. We saw a bunch more humpbacks spouting and one breached right close to the boat as we came into Coffman Cove (we weren’t fast enough with the camera, though!).

Flying the 'chute to Coffman Cove

The VHF radio told us we’d continue to have sun down in our area but rain was blanketing the north, so we decided to spend an extra day before venturing further. We switched anchorages to an uninhabited inlet where we rowed our dinghy into another marsh hoping for bears, but without luck this time. We spent a lazy evening bottom-fishing from the dinghy (catching only a sculpin too small for the table) and watching the current take great masses of kelp past the boat.

At anchor near Coffman Cove

Another beautiful day dawned on the 13th as we sailed for St John Harbor, a cove on the north of Zarembo Island where we could spend the night and wait for the right tides in Wrangell Narrows, the tight strait that would take us up to the next biggish town, Petersburg. Again we had a gorgeous day, starting out completely calm but then with a great wind filling in so that we were beating to windward in flat seas. Fast currents let us make about 30 miles in only 3 hours before the tide turned against us and we started making only 6 knots over ground despite sailing at 8 knots through the water.

St John Harbor was one of our favorite anchorages from a practical point of view: soft mud bottom, only 30 feet of water to drop the hook (or get it back up!), plenty of room to swing, and well protected by beautiful islands alive with eagles. Anchorages like that in Southeast Alaska are more difficult to find than we expected: most are much deeper, many are rocky, and some are exposed from one direction or another. Mostly it’s the depth our windlass finds tricky, though we’re getting used to anchoring in 60 feet of water on a regular basis.

We timed our transit of Wrangell Narrows pretty much perfectly, right on high slack tide. Although we couldn’t sail this part of our journey (too narrow and too much traffic), we thoroughly enjoyed the passing scenery: wooded hills and rocky shoreline very close to the boat at first, opening out into a wider bay where immense glaciated mountains became visible in the distance.

Platy in Wrangell Narrows

Our stowaway, Platy, checks out the view in Wrangell Narrows. It looks wide here, but the channel is in fact really narrow with deceptively covered mudflats on all sides.

At the northern end, we came into Petersburg. With its newly renovated marina, clean streets, lack of cruise ships, iconic mountains, and historic Norwegian heritage visible in the sweet little wooden homes, Petersburg is probably our favorite town in Southeast Alaska. We wanted to stay longer than our one night, but the weather was still fine and about to return to normal rainy conditions. We had to set sail and take advantage of the sun.

Petersburg and Devil's Thumb

Devil’s Thumb rises above Petersburg’s canneries

Ketchikan to Petersburg map

Route from Ketchikan to Petersburg

8 thoughts on “Ketchikan to Petersburg

  1. Great writing and photographs Ellen & Seth! – can’t wait to hear about your next adventure. Awesome Show, Great Job!

  2. Seth & Ellen, your beautiful experiences and wonderful writing makes us feel like we are buddy-boating with you. Hugs, Carmen & Larry

  3. Gorgeous photos! You should publish a compilation of them after your trip (knowing you, though, you’ve already thought of this!).

  4. Gorgeous photos!! You should publish a photo book compiling them (somehow I think you’ve already thought of that, knowing you!).

  5. Beautiful isn’t it! Lucky you with the whales! We saw some, but only from afar.