Appointment in Sitka
The first morning I woke up in the waterfront town of Sitka, Alaska, I went for a walk in the clean but chilly summer air. A totem pole loomed over the downtown square, and off a ways I spied the steeple of a Russian Orthodox cathedral.
Oily black ravens were cawing, and the bald eagles, so numerous they'd run out of perches on town tree limbs, had settled in on top of streetlights. Clouds and mist hung low over spruce-covered, snow-capped mountains.
A Boeing 737 had brought me to town, yet within minutes of taking to the streets, I realized that the proliferation of markets, marine-hardware stores, and mountain trails only footsteps away from the water make Sitka a perfect landfall or sailors.
But as a destination, locals are quick to set you straight about the town once called the Paris of the Pacific for the wealth the Russian fur trade introduced a couple of centuries ago.
With coordinates of roughly 57 degrees north and 135 degrees west and situated on the northwest corner of Baranof Island, Sitka isn't a place you stumble upon on your way to somewhere else. You have to need or want to get here, and those who do, whether by land or sea, tend to be rugged, purposeful individualists. In Sitka, they're as plentiful as the salmon jamming local waters.
It was these folks aplenty whom I met on the docks of the community that boasts the state's largest small-boat harbor system, an interesting fact brought to my attention by harbormaster Ray Majeski. "We have five harbors, moorage in 1,350 slips, and can handle up to 1,600 vessels," he explains as he monitors arrival of day-tripping passengers in lifeboats from a cruise-line behemoth. "We're a little off the beaten path, but the cruising waters are some of the finest in the world."
Majeski, who's originally from Long Island, New York, and once worked as a police officer in Los Angeles, is delighted to call Sitka home. "The culture here's rich, and the outdoors is spectacular. The quality of life here is wonderful. And cruisers have an opportunity to partake in the cultural offerings."
Natural beauty and cultural offerings, mainly the Sitka Summer Music Festival, draw cruiser and classical-music fan Ethan Windahl to Sitka year after year. "The setting is spectacular," he says of the annual June event, which draws internationally acclaimed talent and jams the town with visitors. He'd arrived in time for the music series after a 1,000-mile sail from his home in Olympia, Washington, aboard Alaska Blu, a Bill Garden-designed Gulf 32 pilothouse sloop.
"'Sail' is a misnomer," he corrects me, noting that the wind simply shut off most of the time. "It was pretty uneventful, and I ran the engine mostly." He called his route inside Vancouver Island the classic Inside Passage trip. "I've made the trip several times, but this was the first time on this boat, which I've owned for two years."
A retired district-court judge, Windahl moved to Alaska in 1971 as a recent law-school graduate working on cases related to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. "It kept us busy," he says.
I had to scurry to catch up with the crew of Volo, a one-off lifting-keel monohull designed for the shorthanded duo of Max and Sandy Riseley, of Sydney, Australia. Veterans of a 1980s circumnavigation, they'd departed this time from Australia and made stops in New Zealand and French Polynesia before deciding to explore the Americas. They were now in full-on departure mode, checking the weather and intent on heading south to Mexico as soon as possible.
"We need to thaw out," says Sandy, to my ready agreement. Though it was midsummer, snow lay at the base of the mountains, and the temperature was stuck in the rainy 50s F, about 10 degrees lower than average. "We've circumnavigated but had never been up the U.S. West Coast. We hadn't seen this area and wanted to get here," says Max.
The Riseleys are avowed loners. "We tend to be around the edge of the cruising fraternity," says Max. "We don't go to marinas, we're not plugged in to shore power, and we're not set up to plug in. The boat is solar powered via four 80-watt solar panels."
The motive was more than logistical. "We go to meet the locals," says Max. "It's how you absorb local culture."
And despite the persistent chill, Sandy felt they'd reaped some of the best of what Sitka offers. "Alaskans are very friendly," she says. "Sitka is a little more personal and not overpowering, not all glittery. It makes us glad that cruising is our lifestyle," says Max, arms outspread. "We were always fitting in work and this. Now it's all this."
While sailboats dotted the docks, purse seiners, power trollers, and long-liners dominated the mix. Minutes after I wondered whether there were was such a thing as a sailboat rigged for commercial fishing, skipper Dave Glazier popped his head out of a companionway, prompted by the watchful barking of Wow, his energetic watch dog.
His Jason 35, Ulla, is a Ted Brewer design with an insulated fish hold capable of storing 5,000 pounds of salmon. "Originally, I bought this boat to go cruising," Dave says. The fiberglass boat was built in 1978 in Poulsbo, Washington, for sailors who wanted to finance their voyage to French Polynesia via commercial fishing. Glazier bought the boat after they returned to Southeast Alaska 14 years ago.
"I've paid for the boat by working it," he says. "I've one more year before I retire. I fish here in summers and head back to Fairbanks in mid-August. I do double duty-teaching and fishing."
Turns out he teaches music, repairs band instruments, and, at that time, is president of the Alaska Music Educators Association. After he retires, Dave says, "I want to start an itinerant piano-tuning business serving Southeast Alaska."
Dave Zeiger and Anke Wagner live aboard Luna, a three-masted, junk-rigged schooner. The 31-footer is engineless. Dave describes the boat, which they launched in 1997, as "Phil Bolger-esque," meaning that they were inspired by Bolger's simple, functional plans. "We basically took his hull form and lengthened it," says Dave. "It's an advanced sharpie."
Alas for Luna, the design bug had bitten hard. By the time I encountered her owners, they'd sold her and started Triloboats (www.triloboats.com), a boat-kit business as well as the design of the boat they've created and were building. "The idea," says Dave, "is to be able to build it in three days." The new plywood boat will have solar panels, and its hull will be copper plated, rendering bottom paint unnecessary. The draft is nine inches, and there's no engine or head.
After nosing around a bit on the Triloboats website, I also learned that these cruisers are devotees of the subsistence lifestyle, which in my book, also qualifies them as quintessential Alaskans. But Dave says, "We're into comfort. We're hedonists, though some people would call us purists."
Hedonists, purists, retired judges, loners, piano tuners, musicians all-call these cruisers whatever you want. I'll think back on them as drawn to America's final frontier because of the dominant characteristic they ironically share: individualism.
Elaine Lembo is managing editor of Cruising World.