In my last post about Prince William Sound, I wrote about the benefits of sailing without cruising guides: wonderful unexpected places and experiences. But you also run the risk that the unexpected might turn out badly, as I hinted was the case for us in Whittier. We found out later that the locals call it Shittier. . . .
The horrors began almost as soon as we left Papoose Cove. We reeled in our stern line and weighed anchor early on August 7th, setting sail as soon as we cleared the entrance to our tiny bay. We were immediately surprised by the strong wind: NOAA had forecast strong winds, but not until midday. We were flying along at 7 knots and then 8 and 9. We reefed right down, reducing our speed to between 6 and 7 knots, but aside from dousing all sail and potentially losing steerage, we couldn’t go much slower. Seth hung onto the tiller as Celeste tore through the gray water and I tried to spot rocks and land through the driving downpour.
Then we came into a fishing fleet! There must have been at least a hundred gill-netters and purse seiners. They were setting nets with little white floats, impossible to see against the whitecapped sea. The driving rain and strengthening wind of course made things worse; for each boat we encountered we had only a few seconds to spot the net and change course to avoid it. Fortunately we quickly figured out the pattern: the nets were affixed on the boats’ bows and then the boats drifted downwind. For a nerve-wracking hour we dodged them, taking turns steering and squinting into the rain.
All the fishermen frequented the same area, so we came into empty water quite suddenly. The currents from College Fjord met the southeast chop there and Celeste corkscrewed. With the wind still hurling us forward, we flew into Passage Canal, a fjord with rain-induced waterfalls tumbling down its muskeg-covered mountainsides and a glacier poking under the cloud layer. Our first glimpse of Whittier was an abandoned barracks, concrete and water-stained, its windows gaping black holes. “Grim place,” we agreed.
After more squinting through the rain and a quick glance at our .pdf NOAA chart (American .pdf charts are free to download!), we spotted the gap in the breakwater guarding the small boat basin. We called the harbormaster on the VHF and she told us to tie up alongside a big fishing boat on the first pier. That done, we went up to the harbor office to register and she offered to drive us to the Laundromat! One big reason for our coming to Whittier was to do laundry, so we readily accepted!
When we returned to the harbor we found Celeste pressed hard against the other boat, her fenders mashed in between. This was definitely not a sheltered enough berth but it would be next to impossible to move in this wind. The other reason we’d come to Whittier was to wait out the storm: winds were forecast to reach 50 knots. At this point it was blowing about 35 (inside the basin!) and Celeste was already having a tough time in this berth. We couldn’t stay, but the basin was pretty much full.
Back we went to our kind harbormaster who told us she had one slip free that was more sheltered, but it was for a 37 foot boat. Fortunately Celeste is a very small 40 foot boat. Modern 40 footers are much beamier, especially at the stern, and are 40 feet on the waterline as well as on deck. Celeste is a toothpick at 11.5 feet wide and she has only 28 feet of waterline, so we would fit in the slip comfortably.
But first we had to get there! We got the stern line ready to slip, cast off spring and bow lines and then I gunned the throttle and put the tiller over as much as I dared while Seth pushed off as hard as he could. The wind pushed back a lot harder and I gunned it even more. We whisked by the boat in front of us with inches to spare, but in the end only the dinghy nudged the boat’s quarter.
Had we not just made that maneuver, we would have thought entering our new berth was tough, with the wind blowing our bow into the dock. But I managed to jump off with an aft spring line and hold us back while Seth secured two stern lines. With those plus a second aft spring (and some routine bow lines) we thought we could leave Celeste momentarily while we bought three more fenders at the chandlery. We put one on the dock side (making four total) and two on Celeste‘s other side in case the boat filling the other half of the slip came home.
Good thing, too, since she did come home late that night in 45-knot winds. We woke to the sound of an engine and a solid thump on our hull. We ran on deck to find the nicest group of Forest Service guys making fast: they were prepared with a solid row of bumpers, so no harm done.
Whittier was hacked out of the wilderness during World War II as a secret port/military base. A spur of the railroad was built to it through a 2.5 mile-long tunnel and today it’s a major port for shipping freight into Alaska. Only 200 people live in Whittier now, almost all of them in one condominium building that also houses the post office. There’s a basic restaurant/bar/motel/laundromat and a small grocery store. On the waterfront are a few more restaurants, the chandlery that doubles as a car rental office, and a gift shop catering to cruise ships visiting Prince William Sound. Everything is spread out along the wide streets common on military bases. (In that respect it brought back recollections of Luganville in Vanuatu, Cooktown radar station in Australia, and Ascension Island.) The physical setting of mountains, fjord, river, and glaciers would be quite beautiful if it weren’t a rain catchment basin where the clouds wring themselves out. That combined with the abandoned building (heavily damaged in the immense 1964 earthquake) gives poor Whittier a forlorn air.
We spent a lot of our time while waiting out the storm at the restaurant/bar since it had an internet connection where caught up on several weeks’ worth of e-mail and approved the comments that had piled up on the blog (thanks, everyone, we love your comments!). We went once to a nicer cafe on the waterfront when some relatives of Seth who live in Anchorage came down for lunch. And we watched it rain and rain and rain.
The tourist brochure in the harbor office told us that 16 feet of rain fall every year in Whittier as well as 20 feet of snow! That’s a full 7 feet more rain than falls in the Amazon rainforest, making it one of the wettest places on earth! We could believe it, too. We left out a cylindrical bucket that was about a foot tall and it overflowed not once, but twice, in the four days we spent in Whittier. We went everywhere in our foul weather gear and joked (semi-seriously) about needing an upside-down snorkel to breathe. . . . Even with the heater running the boat was mildewing, a smell we detest. The bedsheets I’d just washed felt damp. We were coming to understand the sweatshirts we’d seen around town that read: “POW: Prisoner of Whittier.”