After a great visit to scientist George Divoky and his seabirds, we headed back to Barrow to say goodbye to Craig and Cyd before beginning the return passage to Dutch Harbor. While much of the reason why we’d spent so much time around Barrow was because we’d been having so much fun, another factor was the weather. There simply hadn’t been a favorable window long enough to permit us to head south without getting a complete thrashing. Low pressure system after low pressure system kept sweeping across the Arctic Ocean from Wrangel Island north of Siberia and hammering the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
There’d been 24-hour windows between lows, of which we’d taken advantage to visit George and to explore the edge of the polar pack ice. But there’d never been a window long enough to make tracks south. Not only had the systems been frequent, but one thing about very cold air is that it actually makes bigger waves than warmer air. It’s denser and thus exerts more force on the water, so that 20 knots in the Arctic feels a lot worse than 20 knots in the Caribbean. We didn’t realize this on our own – Craig the bowhead whale biologist pointed it out to us. However, as autumn – a notoriously bad season in the Chukchi and Bering Seas – approached, our standards for what constituted ‘good’ weather got lower and lower.
Factors in our personal lives came into play as well, so when our GRIB charts showed light SW headwinds for the next few days, we figured we’d take it and hope to beat the very strong NE winds (30 knots on the GRIBs, which can mean quite a bit more in real life) that would come a few days later.
Unfortunately, when we departed very late on August 13, we encountered a 3 knot current running north against us. This happens in SW winds, but we hadn’t expected it to be so strong. We made a long tack offshore to try to get into deeper water and thereby hopefully out of the worst of the current, but when we tacked again and came back in sight of land, we’d made only 10 miles good in 8 hours! Feeling pretty disheartened, we decided to return to the lagoon and anchor to wait for the wind to shift and the current to die down.
We downloaded more GRIBs over our satellite phone and they kept showing the same story, so we knew that we probably would get trashed by those high winds.
It would only get worse the longer we waited, though, so on the evening of August 14 we set off again. This time the wind was blowing from due west at about 10-12 knots and the current had died down to nothing, so we were able to make progress in cold but actually quite pleasant conditions.
Conditions stayed pleasant through August 15, with light winds, though still overcast and cold. We saw a pod of gray whales quite close to the bow, which was exciting, although they dove before we could get a photograph.
But then on the 16th, the strong northeasterlies came just as predicted. The log reads: “Wind building and shifting NE, sailed past Icy Cape without seeing land. Motion getting uncomfortable.”
By the 17th, a log entry reads: “Wind NE 30-35, seas around 15ft, drizzle, visibility <1/2 mile, temp 40*F, course SW under jib + staysail. Making fast time, avg. ~8 knots.”
What this means is that we were screaming along, occasionally surfing breaking waves, and really not having much fun despite the impressive speed for an older boat with only a 28ft waterline.
Fortunately by the 18th, things had “calmed down a little” to 25 knots, 10ft seas, and fog. I wrote in the log that when we’d passed Cape Lisburne and Pt Hope we’d seen lots more birds, “murres and fulmars. Going to re-cross the Arctic Circle today.”
On the 18th, we sailed back through the Bering Strait in very reasonable conditions: 15-knot NE winds, 8ft seas, and medium-high overcast. This time we actually got to see Russia (and Alaska), unlike on the way north when we’d barely been able to see the bow of Celeste on account of the fog. We could pick out both Diomede islands (American and Russian), as well as Fairway Rock, and the Seward Peninsula.
By the 19th, we were between Nome and St Lawrence Island, but the wind had abruptly shifted into the south and built to 20 knots. After trying in vain to make progress on our course against steep chop and strong wind (20 knots feels much stronger when you’re fighting it than running with it), we hove-to for the night to get some rest. (Heaving-to on Celeste means backing the staysail and lashing the helm to leeward so that she holds her position with only moderate leeward drift.)
On the 20th, with winds now in the SW at 15 knots, we started sailing again on a southerly course. At first we kept in the lee of St Lawrence Island in order to increase our speed by staying protected from the choppy head-seas, but once past it we headed straight south. We had beautiful views of the mountainous island and saw many, many seabirds – mostly shearwaters – a wonderful sight!
We kept on south on the 21st when the wind shifted into the west and made our course a nice beam reach. On the 22nd, though, when we checked the GRIB weather forecasts again, we discovered a big low that would bring 30-35-knot southwesterlies. Exactly what we didn’t want!
We didn’t think we could reach the Pribilof Islands before the big winds arrived, so our choices were to heave-to when it came or to alter course for Nunivak Island, a permafrost-covered island lying about 30 miles off the Yukon Delta. (It’s the big island (outlined in white) just above the red box in the GRIB above.) We decided on Nunivak and picked out a bay to shelter in on the northern side, Nash Harbor – although, as it’s abandoned/uninhabited, there’s nothing much like a harbor about it! Nonetheless, we were grateful for a place to shelter!!
By midday on the 23rd, we were anchored in 25 feet of water with 150ft of chain out. We spent the afternoon cleaning up the boat and pumping out the bilge (and then sponging it completely dry – we’re kind of fanatics about having a dry boat). Pretty much all the water in the bilge had come down the anchor chain’s hawse-hole during the many times that the bow had plunged under green water in the weather we’d had.
The next day the wind had built even stronger than predicted and we even had a 2-3ft chop right in the bay. It was obviously much too windy to launch the dinghy and go ashore (the chances of getting blown downwind of Celeste and out to sea were not at all worth it), so we stayed on board, reading, writing emails, and sorting through our thousands of pictures.
We had our anchor alarm on and we frequently went on deck to make sure everything was fine and to double-check that we weren’t dragging, which fortunately we weren’t.
Tuesday the 25th brought the peak of the winds, just as the National Weather Service (as relayed by our parents over email) and the GRIBs predicted. We actually saw about 40 knots with 4-5ft seas right inside the anchorage. Our anchor continued to hold, but it wasn’t a fun day. We stood anchor watches that night.
Fortunately, the winds had calmed down to 30 knots on the 26th, so we got a little bit of rest and also spotted some muskoxen on the cliffs above our bay! (Through binoculars – it was still much too windy to go ashore.)
We also saw a lot of birds, including a common loon in winter plumage… definitely time to be getting south!
Unfortunately, although we’d avoided the worst of that weather system, we were about to be right in the center of another one. The wind was supposed to come from the NW at 25 knots the very next day, so we couldn’t stay in our anchorage – it would become a lee shore, fully exposed to the strong northerlies. But the following day, the 28th, the wind was supposed to shift back into the west and then southwest, again at 30+ knots. So we had a dilemma – leave the anchorage and return to it? Or leave and keep sailing in less-than-stellar conditions?
We decided to leave and keep sailing. Our tactic was to sail due west as long as the winds allowed it and then turn southeast with wind and waves on our beam/quarter. If we made enough westing, we’d have plenty of sea room to run with the waves if it turned out that we needed to. And, of course, our Jordan Series Drogue was ready and waiting if things got really bad and we needed to deploy it.
In the end, our W then SE tactic worked well and we had a manageable – if a bit uncomfortable – three days. Then something wonderful happened: NE 10-15 knot winds, absolutely perfect for running down the remaining miles to Dutch Harbor! The sun came out, the seas lay down, and we stripped off our wool hats and down jackets. And, as if to welcome Celeste back to her winter home, a pod of enormous fin whales swam right up to her stern!
We weren’t quite there yet – we had one more day to go – but we could almost smell the islands! In a straight line, it’s 1200 nautical miles from Barrow to Dutch Harbor, although our slightly round-about route added 100 miles or so. Including our false start and our stop at Nunivak, we did it in 19 days, not too terrible considering the hand we’d been dealt by the weather gods. We hadn’t stepped on land in all that time.