If the third time’s the charm, I’m not sure what the fourth is….
After our time in Seward, we got a weather window to cross the Gulf of Alaska back east towards the Inside Passage. Light southerly winds were predicted, and that’s what we got: so light, in fact, that we motored most of the way in order to avoid being caught out there when the next gale arrived. So the crossing itself (our fourth) was fine, and we docked in Yakutat, a big bay and Native village on the outer coast of the Gulf of Alaska, thinking we’d have another decent window to continue the rest of the way to the Inside Passage.
Wrong. Autumn arrived in force the day we reached Yakutat. To say that the southeasterly gales followed each other in quick succession implies that there were breaks between them, which there really weren’t. To paraphrase a friend of ours who lives in Dutch Harbor (remember, she lives in Dutch Harbor, the home of “Deadliest Catch”), Yakutat is pretty much the worst place in Alaska for weather. The way the weather systems circulate in the Gulf, combined with the enormous St Elias Range there (the mountains rise right from sea level to 18,000 feet), means that low pressure systems crash into the Yakutat area and stay there, raining and blowing themselves out.
We’d banked on getting in and out of Yakutat before this autumn pattern began but, alas, it began two weeks early this year. We tried to leave at one point when the southeasterlies moderated from 30-40 knots (with 50-60 knot gusts) down to 20 knots, but the combination of headwinds and a strong NW-setting current, made this attempt futile. We returned to Yakutat.
We began to wonder if we’d be there all winter, and we started to settle into the community. Like so many places with terrible weather and harsh physical conditions – remoteness, solitude, wildlife that could kill you… – the people in Yakutat are incredibly kind, generous, and welcoming. As soon as we walked into the general store, we made friends with Lloyd, an Alaskan Native with deep roots in Yakutat. In the harbor, we made friends with the crews of the fishing boats, and the young crew of Pelican, an historic wooden fishing boat, took us out to the surfing beach for a rain-soaked bonfire, a lot of laughs, and yes, surfing.
About the only good thing about Yakutat’s weather (minus the obvious – it keeps the crowds down) is that the village itself is beautifully sheltered by a group of islands. So while it raged outside at 50 knots, we had glassy calm in the harbor every day. Twice (in two weeks) the rain stopped and the clouds cleared enough to show us the awesome spectacle of the St Elias Range, dusted with new snow and reflected in the still waters of the harbor’s bay.
On days of moderate weather (20-25 knots outside), cruise ships still braved the trip from Juneau to show their passengers the largest tidewater glacier in America, Hubbard Glacier, which dumps icebergs into the head of Yakutat Bay, 40 miles inland from the harbor. We never ventured up there ourselves, not really savoring an overnight passage in the pouring rain just to look at some ice and get back to the same harbor we started at (are we becoming jaded high latitude types??), but we jumped at an invitation to ride on the pilot boat to meet the cruise ships. Pilot boats put pilots aboard big ships in coastal waters, and so the Yakutat pilot boat met every ship. It was quite a change to zoom along at 25 knots after our usual sedate sailing pace of 6-8 knots…
…and it was even crazier to come alongside the enormous cruise ships, both the pilot boat and the ship cruising at 10 knots so that the pilot could climb safely aboard. So strange to feel stopped, but in fact be moving at 10 knots.
Given all the wonderful people we met, Yakutat might not have been a bad place to spend the winter after all (minus the rain and snow – the annual rain total alone, not counting snow, reaches over 16 feet!). But after so many years without what most people consider summer, we were still hoping to reach slightly more moderate latitudes…. So we were thrilled when a short weather window – 30 hours – appeared and we could nose back out into the Gulf and make an overnight sail to the smooth, protected waters of the Inside Passage.