Where Might & Majesty Meet
A cruising couple sailing the North Pacific arrives in Alaska to discover that where there's smoke, there's desire. A feature from our November 2010 issue
On the SSB radio we overheard a fisherman, pinned down on Kiska Island as we were at that time, ask the weather reporter in Dutch Harbor when he thought this train of early easterly gales might subside so that he could make his way back to Dutch Harbor.
Without a hint of humor, the weatherman responded, "Next spring."
The constant pounding to windward and roller-coaster rides in the turbulent passes took a toll on both ship and crew. As we approached Adak Island, the thick metal gooseneck shattered, rendering the mainsail useless.
I shouted through the wind to Diana, "Don't worry! We still have the yankee!"
That night, a fierce williwaw tore the yankee's leech apart.
Diana groaned. "What next?"
Her answer soon came when she started the engine and slapped the transmission into gear. Nothing happened. She looked at me in disbelief. We limped into Chapel Cove under the staysail.
For the next two days, Diana sewed furiously on the foredeck while I jury-rigged a temporary gooseneck using a hacksaw and a hand drill. I tried to concentrate on the task at hand, but when two mutant caribou, weighing at least 400 pounds each, scampered up the steep mountainside, I couldn't help myself. I dropped my tools, grabbed a camera, rowed to shore, and set off in hot pursuit.
From a distance, the treeless tundra appears featureless but is, in fact, a lush, albeit stunted, type of forest. I hiked for miles, reveling in the expanse and the exercise. Even though I was never able to sneak up on those wily caribou, I had my best day in the Aleutians-a day far from the madding crowd yet close to nature.
Back on board, I found that by keeping the engine rpm very low, the transmission would stay intermittently engaged. Useless in making miles against wind or current, this might help us maneuver in tight anchorages. Once the other carnage was repaired, we pushed hard for Quail Bay, on Kagalaska Island, in hopes of beating yet another approaching easterly gale.
Our series of misadventures left Diana with a vague sense of foreboding. I assured her that our luck would change. It did not.
As we approached the craggy cliffs of Kagalaska, a dark cloud filled the northeastern skies. At first we thought we'd lost our race with the gale and would have to heave to and forfeit precious miles. Then the air turned a gaseous yellow, and the mountains began to shimmer as if strangely out of focus. The acrid smell of sulfur filled our lungs. Then, although it was only midday, the skies suddenly went completely dark.
Diana yelled, "What's happening? Please tell me what's happening!"
I wished I could. But when black ash began to rain down so thickly that I had to grab ski goggles to see ahead, there could be no doubt: We'd sailed smack into a volcanic eruption.
"What if there's a tsunami?" Diana yelled. "We have to get out of here!"
"At five knots? How far could we go?" I asked. "And a gale is coming. We need to find shelter."
"But we can't see!"