North to Northwest
Juneau, Alaska, had long since vanished astern, and the calm, hot June days that had accompanied our visit to the state's capital were fond but distant memories. Aboard our 64-foot steel cutter, Ocean Watch, we were now bound westward for the remote fishing outpost of Dutch Harbor, at Unalaska Island in the rugged Aleutian chain. Midway across the 900-mile expanse of the cold, gray Gulf of Alaska, we found ourselves crashing upwind with a double-reefed main and tiny staysail. There'd been a distinct change in the weather, and not for the better.
Over an eight-hour span, the rising breeze had swung from southeast to southwest, occasionally flirting with 30 knots. The ensuing roiled seaway was a jumbled mess. The National Weather Service forecast out of Anchorage helpfully described wave heights at 10 feet, and though it's impossible to accurately record such figures from a tossing deck while in the midst of them, we were in no position to argue or disagree. Temperatures were plunging faster than my 401(k), and with each passing watch it seemed like we were adding new layers of clothing in feeble attempts to ward off the elements.
We weren't even a tenth of the way on our proposed journey Around the Americas, a 24,000-nautical-mile voyage of discovery to draw attention to ocean-conservation issues, the sometimes thorny topic of climate change, and how the two are interrelated. Yet the voice that's come calling on numerous occasions over the course of my offshore-sailing career was whispering a familiar refrain: What in the world are you doing here?
At least I wasn't alone. Misery loves company, and on this first, long section of the expedition, from Seattle, Washington, to Boston, Massachusetts, via the Arctic Circle and an eastward go at the fabled Northwest Passage, I had that in spades.
The master of our bucking bronco was skipper Mark Schrader, a two-time solo circumnavigator and veteran of the BOC Challenge/Around Alone race. Schrader's perennial nautical wingman, first mate Dave Logan, had served as project manager during a year-long refit that saw the Bruce Roberts-designed Ocean Watch completely overhauled and transformed from a well-used liveaboard cruising boat/research vessel on the Golfo de California into a state-of-the-art oceangoing platform versatile enough to ply icy seas and also effect efficient bluewater passages.
Photographer and environmentalist David Thoreson, who in 2007 successfully negotiated the Northwest Passage aboard Roger Swanson's Cloud Nine, and yours truly, a longtime sailing writer tasked to chronicle the adventure, rounded out the four-man full-time crew. For the inaugural portion of the trip, from Seattle to the old Alaska Gold Rush city of Nome, scientist Michael Reynolds, boatbuilder and professional captain Andy Gregory, and Bryan Reeves, who handles shoreside logistics, were also members of our merry band.
Schrader and a longtime sailing pal, David Rockefeller Jr., hatched the notion of a spin around North America, Central America, and South America during a Mediterranean cruise a couple of years ago. The former had dreamed of an attempt on the Northwest Passage for eons; the latter, fresh from an eye-opening stint as a member of the Pew Ocean Commission, had been stirred to launch a conservation organization called Sailors for the Sea.
Together, they shared a vision of the vast continents as a single entity-a large island, if you will-surrounded by a common ocean challenged on numerous fronts that were all ultimately interrelated. A circumnavigation of the Americas seemed like a grand, adventurous way to direct focus on the health of our oceans, create awareness about local and international issues and themes, and perhaps even change some peoples' behaviors and outlooks along the way.
And that, in a nutshell, is how we found ourselves getting thrashed in the Gulf of Alaska.
In all honesty, I was walking shaky grounds for complaint, for our travels to that juncture had been mostly charmed. After several hectic final weeks of preparation, we departed from Seattle's Shilshole Marina on May 31, and several hours later Ocean Watch was secured in the wooden-boat haven of Port Townsend alongside the gleaming docks of the Northwest Maritime Center, a remarkable, glistening facility that was in the final stages of construction.
The next day it was off to the welcoming Canadian harbor of Victoria, British Columbia, the first of 31 scheduled port stops in 11 nations, with a contingent that included sailmaker Carol Hasse of Port Townsend Sails, who'd fashioned the new working-sail inventory.
In the spring of 2008, soon after Schrader purchased the boat, we'd bashed our way north from La Paz, Mexico, to Seattle, barely averaging five knots under sail or power. Now Ocean Watch had been repowered with a new Northern Lights/Lugger 135-horsepower diesel, which had us routinely ticking along at eight knots, and a fresh suit of Hasse's sails. We hoisted the crisp main and staysail, unrolled the big yankee-cut genoa, sheeted the lot home, and switched off the auxiliary. Almost instantly, the 44-ton Ocean Watch was coursing upwind at a sweet nine knots. Frankly, we were stunned. Happier sailors you'll never see.
After several busy days in Victoria, we set a course up the Inside Passage, leaving Vancouver Island to port, with engineer Paul LaRussa, who'd played a central role in the refit, still putting the final touches on an array of systems. We pulled into the fishing town of Alert Bay, home to the Namgis First Nation people, and received a rare invitation into the Big House to watch the kids perform traditional dances during a cultural day at school's end. We were alternatively honored and moved by the celebration, then disheartened to learn about the decimated fishing industry that's reduced the place to a shadow of its busy former state. Alert Bay was a bittersweet stop.
On tiny Quadra Island, we made a brief call to say hello to Ocean Watch's previous owners, marine biologists Steve and Pat Strand, who'd used the boat (then called Danzante III) as a floating laboratory and home during a decade off Baja California studying Humboldt squid. The Strands had relocated, and we could tell from their expressions that their beloved old girl had been put through some serious changes.
North of Vancouver Island, we took leave of the inside route and ventured into open waters for a mostly benign run up to Alaskan waters. As we entered Chatham Strait for the transit up to Juneau, we were greeted first by a majestic pod of Orca whales, then soon after by a swarm of the distinctly marked black-and-white Dall's porpoises frolicking in the bow wave. A pair of eagles wheeled overhead, underscoring a point that would be repeated on countless occasions over the next several weeks: There's no place else like Alaska.
My last visit to Juneau was 20 years ago, and the place had changed in the interim. The people were as friendly as ever, and the outlying landscape and scenery remained sensational. But the rapidly receding Mendenhall Glacier, diminished to a startling degree in just two decades, was my first unpleasant surprise, and the vast number of cruise ships that now make a pit stop there for souvenirs-at one stage, we shared the harbor with five of the monsters-was the second.
Once we were under way again, my faith in the place was restored. We negotiated a series of channels past Admiralty Island, then skirted the northern flanks of Chichagof Island, where we encountered yet another vast pod of whales, this time humpbacks. Andy Gregory and I deployed our pair of Little Wing carbon-fiber kayaks for an up-close-and-personal look at the graceful behemoths, a paddle neither of us will ever forget.
We continued on past Icy Strait and through Dixon Channel into the Gulf of Alaska on a gray and drizzly morning, but some 80 miles offshore, the clouds in our distant wake parted to reveal a stunning snowcapped mountain range, with towering Mount Logan, a peak of nearly 20,000 feet, standing sentinel above all the rest.
The long week it took to traverse the gulf proved to be a challenging shakedown, with the lumpy southwesterly described at the outset of this tale the definite lowlight. But we were rewarded on our approach to the rugged Aleutians with a dawn greeting from another impressive set of towers, the 9,400-foot Shishaldin Volcano and its neighborly sidekick, the 8,025-foot Isanotski Peaks, both stationed on the remote island of Unimak. Fresh sunlight set their respective summits aglow while casting severe shadows on the crags and canyons beneath. Alaska: the natural, visual gift that never stops giving.