Gone Floatabout

Sailing, Photography, Wilderness

Crossing the Gulf of Alaska, July 30 – August 3, 2014


Do your GRIBs do this??

Do your GRIBs do this?? 🙂

In a highly unusual turn of events, the weather gods were smiling on the Gulf of Alaska from July 30th to August 2nd.  According to our GRIB files from OCENS, a high pressure of 1025 millibars was moving up the coast and would be positioned over Cape Spencer just as we’d be exiting the Inside Passage on the evening of the 30th.  If all went well, we’d move with it along the northern Gulf as it strengthened to 1026, 1027, and 1028 millibars.  Our precipitation GRIBs were showing no rain whatsoever (amazing occurrence in this part of the world!); waves were forecast to be practically nonexistent (see image left); and OCENS’ wind predictions showed 5-10 knots, at first favorable and then shifting onto the nose.  If we were really picky people (or if we were sailing in places with more consistent wind like Maine or the trade wind latitudes), those extremely light breezes could have bothered us.  But this is Alaska, where everyone you meet rightly cautions you to ‘be careful out there.’  We were thrilled!

Wind predictions

Wind predictions

We were also much more familiar with OCENS WeatherNet and GRIB Explorer software than we’d been when first setting off from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and were thus feeling much more confident about the accuracy of our information and our reading of it.  Having spent an entire 32,000-mile circumnavigation using our SSB radio and a modem to download simple 2D black-and-white weather files, we had a lot to discover with the modern technology OCENS offers.  After selecting our lat and long parameters in WeatherNet and choosing which GRIBs (or traditional weather charts) we wanted, we’d download them using our Iridium Extreme satellite phone and high latitude antenna.  We usually went with wind, wave, precipitation, and surface pressure GRIBs, taking about a minute to download.  But at the end of that, instead of the strictly utilitarian graphics we used to see on our circumnavigation, GRIB Explorer would pop up displaying easy-to-read, high contrast, color files.  We could animate them, overlay them onto electronic charts, and turn them into 3D images on which we could drag the mouse around to get predictions for precise coordinates.  And all that in a minute-long download!

Pressure gribEverything was lining up in the weather charts: precipitation nil (as it should be in a such a high pressure), beautifully widely-spaced pressure gradient (see left), no seas, and nearly no wind (which we’d gladly take over getting thrashed out there).  We set out from Hoonah around midday on July 30th, coasting along with favorable tidal currents towards Cape Spencer, which we reached around early evening.  Currents around the Cape jostled us pretty badly: we were glad dinner was over—cooking, eating, or washing up would have been difficult, to say the least.  A dozen miles out into the Gulf, however, the chop eased and we could waft before a light breeze.

Off watch in the Gulf of Alaska

Off watch in the Gulf of Alaska

When I came on deck for my watch at 0100, it was clear and beautiful but terribly cold.  Fortunately I had plenty of warm clothes on board, so I bundled up in three thermal layers, down jacket, foul weather trousers, hat, mittens, wool socks, and insulated sea boots.  Then I could comfortably watch out for fishing boats and other traffic, occasionally trimming the sails and altering course if something looked even vaguely on a collision course.  Around 0330 the sky lightened enough for me to see an impressive outline of mountains on the horizon to the north.  The silhouette soon began to show gray rock and literally hundreds of glaciers cascading right down to the open North Pacific.  Since I’d known pretty much nothing about Alaska before our voyage (the usual: Denali, caribou, grizzlies, pipeline, ski movies), I was utterly blown away.  The rosy light on those huge peaks and their carpets of ice was almost as surprising and glorious a sight to me as it must have been for Vitus Bering and Georg Stellar and their crew back in 1741.

Route map


The wind came around from ahead on July 31, but we continued to have perfectly clear skies.  And since the wind wasn’t too strong, maybe 10 knots, we made steady progress and didn’t have to touch the sails or the helm once we’d got everything set up for the new breeze.  The temperature rose a bit, too, and the towering peaks of the St Elias Mountains kept us company.  We had an unrivaled view of the second-highest peak in the United States (4th in North America): Mt St Elias itself.  We were a bit further away than I’d been while on night watch so didn’t have quite the same feeling of it looming high above us, but it was an awesome sight nonetheless!

Snow-capped St Elias mountains

Snow-capped St Elias mountains


August 1 was essentially a repeat of July 31, except with higher temperatures (even got down to t-shirts for a few minutes!) and less wind, so we ended up having to start the engine.  Two or three blackfooted albatrosses came close to check out Celeste and some dark-morph Northern Fulmars appeared too.  They were interesting to see after having watched the pale-morph ones in the Gulf of Maine at the end of our  circumnavigation.  We saw a few humpbacks spout in the distance, but none came close enough to photograph.  Night watch was happily uneventful because we’d come too far out into the Gulf for most of the fishing boats.

Black-footed albatross

Black-footed albatross

On August 2 we were able to sail again, but the sky grew increasingly overcast and we worried inwardly that perhaps the low pressure to the south of us was moving up.  We sighted Kayak Island (first landing of the Russian explorers) in the afternoon, though, so we were closing with our destination: Prince William Sound.

Kayak Island

Kayak Island

Unfortunately we didn’t get there before the front!  At first we welcomed the increasing favorable wind as the miles reeled off, but it just kept getting stronger.  Twenty-five knots, 30 knots, 35, gust to 40!  Twenty miles outside Hinchinbrook Entrance to the Sound we also started to feel the effects of current and suddenly we had steep, breaking chop.  We’d long since furled the mainsail, but the jib we had up was much too big for the conditions.  The inner forestay was stowed away, given that we’d been tacking to windward in light air for the last three days, and in the dark neither of us wanted to rig it.  So we plowed on, hoping nothing would break, until daylight when—with the engine running full out—I steered us into what passed for the ‘lee’ of Hinchinbrook Island while Seth went forward to rig the stay and its small sail.

Due to the wind’s direction and strength, none of the anchorages in the southeastern part of Prince William Sound were viable options for us.  Most wouldn’t be protected enough; others had shallow or rocky entrances made dangerous by the gale; and still others would entail a beat to windward putting unnecessary and rather frightening strain on the boat and her old sails.  So we opted instead to race up the Sound towards Valdez, aiming for what looked like an ideal harbor advertising itself on the chart with the beautiful name Snug Corner Cove.

Snug Corner Cove is the first red dot upon coming in from the SE

Snug Corner Cove is the first red dot upon coming in from the SE

Some forty miles and 6 hours later, I steered Celeste behind a peninsula; the wind died; the rain lessened; a sea otter peeked at us; and we dropped anchor in a wide, protected bay.

Exhausted, wet, and salty, we put on the kettle for some hot chocolate, lit our kerosene heater, and took a most welcome hot shower.  We’d sailed about 450 miles from Hoonah, spent three and a half lovely days at sea and one uncomfortable one, and were now in one of Alaska’s most iconic areas.  That evening, reading James Cook’s account of exploring the region, I learned that he’d spent many a day in our cove and had given it its apt name.

Staysail furled after the gale

Staysail furled after the gale


Author: Ellen

sailor, writer, photographer

9 thoughts on “Crossing the Gulf of Alaska, July 30 – August 3, 2014

  1. OCENS’ is an amazingly sophisticated weather forecasting technology! Sure is a big step beyond receiving GRIBS over the SSB.

  2. Such a stunning (and possibly treacherous?) part of the world! Thankfully the Gulf of AK treated you with deference. An amazing adventure you’ve been on. Summer 2015 should be a stunner!
    Love to you both, Jeanie & Billy et al.

    • It definitely has been an amazing adventure, even if we didn’t reach the Arctic this time. Wonderful to see you before setting off and show you Celeste, despite her being all torn apart 🙂
      Love to both of you,

  3. Great to hear from you guys and sounds like a nice passage apart from the end. Trust Captain Cook to know a good anchorage. Some of our favourite spots in the Marlborough Sounds were places he spent lots of time. Ships Cove is a lovely spot where he hauled out both of his boats on different occasions. There is a memorial there and I love trying to imagine what it would have been like with his boat in there. The cove is in a National Park so I expect it hasn’t changed much since his time. I hope Snug Cove is much the same too.
    Safe travels

    • Captain Cook always did find the best places, didn’t he? Some of our favorite stops in New Zealand and Australia were places where Endeavour had pulled in. Unfortunately we weren’t able to sail around New Zealand as much as we would have liked, so never knew about Ships Cove. Have to go back! Across the Pacific, Snug Corner Cove is part of a National Forest—the Chugach—so I don’t think it’s changed much either. There are two small, unobtrusive houses now, but otherwise it’s still surrounded by forest and ‘muskeg’ (Alaskan for the spongy, boggy ground that’s quite common in the wet areas of Prince William Sound and SE Alaska). Quite pristine and beautiful with views of the huge Chugach mountains. The perfect end to the passage!

  4. Ellen: Jody and I are enjoying your posts. An exciting adventure. Do you think it would be possible to have a link to a map that would show where you are on the Alaska coast and the journey described. I went to a standard city map of Alaska for the most recent post, but it didn’t show Valdez. So we don’t know where you were.

    Regards to you parents.


    Tom Robertson

    • Hi Tom and Jody,
      So glad you’ve been enjoying the posts! I’d completely forgotten to include a map in this one—thanks for reminding me! I’ve now edited the post, so you should find our route marked out along with the landmarks I mentioned—Kayak Island, etc. Valdez itself, which we didn’t go to in the end, is at the head of Prince William Sound, just north of Snug Corner Cove. It’s the terminus for the Alyeska Pipeline.
      My best to Will, hope he’s well.

  5. the gods are with you!

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