Life on the Last Frontier

Valdez, Alaska, has bold scenery and an adventurous community of cruisers.

Valdez, Alaska

The marina in Valdez, Alaska.Nadine Slavinski

At 61 degrees north, Valdez, Alaska, is hardly a cruising hot spot, and sailboats are in the minority among the fishing and pleasure boats in the harbor. The sailors based in Valdez are a hardy breed, and they’re tight-lipped about their accomplishments: Pacific crossings, Olympic medals, or simply surviving long, dark winters as liveaboards and cruisers. As I discovered during a July visit, the Last Frontier is truly a land of superlatives, with a population to match.

Take John Garteiz, a retired teacher from Anchorage. Having completed the grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and climbed 20,110-foot Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, the highest mountain in North America, John has now set his sights on a circumnavigation on Arctic Tern III, a 1984 Nordic 40. After just one week aboard his new purchase, John was under the pressure of a self-imposed deadline to set off almost immediately down Alaska's west coast. "There's a lot to think about," he says of outfitting a boat for singlehanded sailing. "Yesterday, I fleetingly thought, what have I gotten myself into? The boat is solid, though, with quality parts and good attention to detail." His most pressing projects included installing self-steering and repairing the alternator.

My husband and I were in Valdez to enjoy Prince William Sound and to help John prepare for his trip. He’d been touting the incredible scenery for weeks: “It’s so beautiful here—mountains with snow on top, green trees on the sides of the mountains, eagles flying overhead, otters in the harbor.” He’d left out the grizzly we saw on our first day, not to mention the sea lions slashing through dense schools of salmon. Between projects, John treated us to a few days of sailing in the sound, where we collected glacial ice for the cooler and delighted in pristine anchorages. Despite a constant drizzle and a long work list, John remained cheerful and determined. “I want to make this trip as simple as possible by being efficient and still fast.” It’s a fitting mantra for a singlehander behind schedule.

While John is fairly new to cruising, Nancy Lethcoe is a veteran of year-round sailing on Prince William Sound, much of it aboard the sloop that she'd just recently sold to John. A past contributor to Cruising World, Nancy is a fountain of knowledge on local history, weather, and geology, with keen eyes that can spot an eagle a mile away. After a first career in education (not to mention a 1956 Olympic silver medal in swimming), Nancy focused on her passion for Prince William Sound. Together with her late husband, Jim, Nancy co-authored five editions of the engaging_ Cruising Guide to Prince William Sound_, among other titles. "We decided we loved Prince William Sound and wanted to make it our profession," she explained. Exploring the sound over decades, winter and summer, Nancy and Jim charted countless bays, filling in the many gaps in government charts.

The couple also built a successful sail-flotilla business out of Valdez. “It made sense to go in a flotilla with all those uncharted bays,” she says. Their work in sailing and wilderness preservation wasn’t without its setbacks, however. “The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was just devastating,” recalls Nancy, considering both the environmental and the economic damage. Still, the couple won other environmental battles, such as establishing protected status for the surrounding wilderness. Looking back, Nancy says, “Our greatest accomplishment was keeping this place undeveloped.” Hers is truly a legacy for future generations to appreciate.

Nancy may have sold her boat, but she remains a gracious ambassador for Prince William Sound. Moving in a new direction, she’s studying Spanish and preparing for a service project in Peru. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Nancy will ever be more than a step from the waterside. Her advice to sailors cruising on the region’s waters? “The best anchorage is the one you’re in right now,” she says, referring to the sound’s countless choices. On our own foray under sail, we could only agree as we marveled at majestic glaciers and plunging waterfalls.

Running a series of errands around Valdez, I later stopped by the local NOAA office. Behind the desk, Dave Noble stood ready to help with up-to-date weather data tailored to my individual request. “We talk with a lot of mariners on the sat phone, most of them from the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska,” says Dave. That doesn’t keep him from helping sailors, kayakers, pilots, and even skiers plan around the complicated local weather systems. Valdez is a small town, and I shouldn’t have been surprised when a walk along the rocky beach brought me across the same weatherman, now giving a guitar lesson on a glorious summer day. Now that’s putting a human face on the computer-generated weather report!

When I returned to the small boat harbor, the brass portholes and classic lines of another sailboat caught my eye. Soon, I was invited aboard Edelweiss, a 1984 Weatherly 32 recently purchased by Bob Preston. "My dream is to take her down the west coasts of Canada and the United States, go through the Panama Canal, then up the U.S. East Coast," Bob says. He hopes to retire in another few years and by then have Edelweiss fully ready to go. A native of California ("I escaped in 1976"), Bob works at the nearby pipeline terminal in weeklong shifts, using Edelweiss as a floating home between commutes to his family in Anchorage. Having purchased Edelweiss in Seward, Bob brought her over to Valdez by himself in March. (March! In Alaska!) Bob was pleased with his first trip despite rough conditions and snow during the 180-mile run. "It was nasty," he says in an understated way, but he clearly wasn't intimidated by the experience.
Bob is realistic about the work ahead—adding a roller reefing system, an improved tiller pilot, and more—and he has the time frame to manage it. One of his first projects had been to insulate Edelweiss for the winter. Jesse the dog keeps Bob company and seems content with the boating lifestyle—as long as improvement projects don't keep her from regular jaunts on shore.

Cruisers are drawn together by some mysterious magnetism, and I met several more during my stay in Valdez. One family had sailed their sloop around the Pacific for eight years. Now they were living aboard to see their New Zealand-born daughter through high school. Another couple drives regularly to Valdez from their home in North Pole (yes, this is a real town, near Fairbanks) to gunkhole in the sound with their motorsailer. Finally, I had an inspiring conversation with the Douglass family of Massachusetts: During their camper vacation, they’d wandered down to the docks out of nostalgia for their own three-year Atlantic circuit completed in 2006, when daughter Bella and son Nate were in elementary school.

Alaska certainly does attract the bold and the adventurous. But would I be tempted to join their hearty ranks? Faced with summer high temperatures of only 60 F, I’m not sure I’m made of the right stuff. But I do know that this won’t be my last visit to lovely Prince William Sound.

Nadine Slavinski wrote Lesson Plans Ahoy_, an educational resource for sailing families. She hopes to set sail across the Pacific later this year with her family._