The Secrets of Seward

Last summer, when my wife, Lenore, and I set out for Alaska for a weeklong bareboat charter, I couldn't help but think of President Andrew Johnson's feisty secretary of state, William H. Seward, and all the undeserved flak he took for purchasing the massive piece of real estate in 1867. The Russians were eager to unload what they considered an economic wasteland, and Seward obliged them with a deal. But even at 2 cents an acre, the U. S. press corps lambasted Seward, calling his decision to purchase Alaska a colossal folly. Fortunately, Seward knew a good buy when he saw one, though it took some 20 years for the Klondike gold rush to redeem his name. This also marked the point when sailors started thinking that the long haul to the land of the midnight sun just might be worthwhile after all.

Eventually, even the detractors developed a fondness for "Seward's Icebox" as the worth of the region's forests, fisheries, and, later, oil reserves became apparent. For cruising sailors, the true value of Alaska is inestimable. Now, as in Seward's time, Alaska is a place where even modest adventures unfold on a grand scale.

Today, the name Seward is best associated with a vibrant seafaring town on the south-central coast of Alaska. It's the home port to sailors and fishermen alike, and the locals in this close-knit community have developed a savvy understanding of how to play the weather odds. Fair or foul, weather dictates whether or not it's time to sail or seek shelter. Even the steep, glaciated mountain peaks that surround the bustling harbor town seem to cooperate by holding gray, scudding clouds at bay.

Our arrival in Seward was postponed by a day: A vigorous cold front over the U.S. heartland upended flight schedules and detoured our Alaska-bound flight to Dallas. When we finally arrived in Anchorage, we were happy to discover that our sea bags had beaten us there. The summer of 2003 was ending, and the rainy season was setting in. Fleece jackets, Gore-Tex foul-weather gear, heavy socks, hats, gloves, and sea boots were essential. We coaxed the gear into an economy-size rental car, and after a couple of hours of squally but highly scenic highway driving, we rolled into the parking lot of Sailing Inc. (www.sailinginc.com, 907-224-3160), a Seward-based charter company. Owners Deborah and Randy Altermatt were at a boat show in Seattle, but their helpful assistant, Misty Peters, checked us in, shared some local knowledge, and pointed out where our Catalina 30 Mark III, Denali Mist, was moored and awaiting our arrival.

On our way into town, I'd noticed that many of the tourist shops were already closed for the season. I hoped this meant we'd have plenty of solitude, but I also recognized that the shopkeepers' sudden migration to Key West might indicate that the rainy season had set in for good. A few local sailors on the dock hinted that it just might continue raining until Thanksgiving.

"The sun was out a couple of weeks ago," said our dock neighbor as Lenore and I climbed aboard the well-maintained boat that would be our home for the next week, but we were prepared for wet weather. We marveled at the clean air and craggy mountains that peeked through the clouds. The size and angle of the ramp on the floating dock convinced us that 20-foot tides are no fantasy in this part of the world, and I made a mental note to unload the boat at high water when our charter was over.

Denali Mist proved to be a lot of boat packed into only 30 feet. Her functional galley, compact shower/head, and chart table were housed in a two-cabin layout with a quarter berth tucked snugly under the cockpit sole. She made sense as a bareboat, and we tested her well during our time on board. Through it all, she proved to be a squared-away little sloop. Among her user-friendly attributes were a roller-furling headsail, a Dutchman mainsail-reefing system, and a reliable, smooth-running diesel engine. All systems were functional when we stepped aboard, but it was the Webasto diesel heater that would become our best friend. At first, the rasp of the unit's blower seemed a bit intrusive, but as Pavlov would have appreciated, we soon associated the sound with warmth and found the noise more appealing than any music.

When Lenore and I provisioned at the well-stocked local market, we were reminded of Sydney, Cape Town, or any number of other stops we've made while cruising aboard our own Ericson 41, Wind Shadow. In many ways, a bareboat charter mimics many of the emotions and disciplines of cruising aboard your own boat. The anticipation that precedes getting under way is almost the same, and so is the elation associated with departure. The duration of your time aboard may be shorter, but the process is identical. As usual, our expectations of adventure overshadowed concerns about bad weather, excessively deep anchorages, and temperatures sharply lower than those we'd left in Annapolis, Maryland. With provisions on board and tanks full, we were ready, but the weather forecast looked bleak.

Stormbound
"Heavy weather" is a relative term among cruisers, but in this part of the world, where the gales are turbocharged, local sailors know better than to treat any blow lightly. Alaska's low-pressure systems can take on Herculean proportions, and when the robotic voice of the VHF weather channel droned on about 60-knot winds and 25- to 30-foot seas in the Gulf of Alaska, Lenore and I quickly took note. I'd promised that this would be a vacation, not an ordeal, and although the local forecast for Resurrection Bay called for 40-knot winds and relatively demure 15-foot seas, out of caution we rethought our departure plan.

Fortunately, the Seward locality provides some rewarding options for stormbound sailors. Our itinerary began with a double-check of dock lines and a drive to nearby Exit Glacier. A short hike to the foot of the receding glacier provided an up-close look at the azure glow of old, highly compressed ice exposed by the summer melt and global warming. These coastal glaciers are receding at an alarming rate, further evidence of climatic change. Although the behemoth blocks of ice move at a pace that makes turtles seem like sprinters, their sheer magnitude gives an impression of dynamic energy.

To familiarize ourselves with the local flora and fauna and better prepare us for the experiences that lay ahead, we visited the Alaska Sealife Center, a museum and aquarium built with the help of settlement money from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Anyone who's curious about wildlife or has an interest in photography will enjoy the displays and the captive marine life, which ranges from invertebrates to marine mammals to birds. Even more meaningful, though, is the view from the observation deck that looks out over Resurrection Bay, which left us feeling like children on Christmas Eve, sorely tempted by a box we knew we'd unwrap in the morning, when we planned to depart.

Our port layover concluded with a tour of eclectic Seward and a bit of dockside sailor talk with the locals. After dinner in a local fish house, we ambled back to the marina and prepared for an early departure. The delay had showed us that Seward is much more than just a place to provision. If indeed you find yourself weatherbound in this rugged little corner of Alaska, there's still plenty to discover.

A Sea Otter's Blessing
We climbed into our berths with the wind rattling the rigging and awoke to calm seas and a clearing sky. Denali Mist's diesel purred, and we pointed her bow toward open water. As soon as we exited the marina, a well-fed sea otter surfaced, rolled onto its back, and gave us what seemed like a nod of approval. We were under way at last. The great wall-like breakwater that contained the small-boat harbor testified to battles waged between heavy granite and stormy seas. Fortunately, the tempest had worn itself out overnight. Only a lingering misty fog floated just above the water's surface. The sudden weather shift left no doubt in my mind: Alaska is a place of climatic extremes. As we motored through the still air and mist, I could only imagine how different the Gulf of Alaska would have been a day or two earlier.

Lenore steered a course for deep water, and I hoisted the main with the hope of coaxing some breeze out of the windless sky. Even if we had to wait awhile to shut off the engine, the flat-sheeted mainsail would help dampen the roll caused by the remnants of swell from the gale. I penciled a GPS fix on the chart just to confirm our visual plot with the satellite system we've grown too reliant upon. The soundings on the chart told the story: Resurrection Bay is nearly the antithesis of Wind Shadow's latest home waters, Chesapeake Bay.

While the Chesapeake is famously shallow, Resurrection's fjords bring deep water right up against vertical cliff faces. Likewise, the navigational challenges here were entirely different. In this part of the world, running into a log or a growler--a big chunk of ice--is much more likely than running aground. And a change in water color often indicates shifts in density and salinity. The dark-blue deeper water turns to a pastel hue as glacial melt water accumulates near tidewater glaciers. In these areas, glacial moraines form sandbarlike shoals that are well noted on charts.

A Sculpted Anchorage
Before long, a modest breeze sprung up on Resurrection Bay, and our destination, Thumb Cove, grew closer as we tacked toward it. Puffins and guillemots dived for baitfish, and an occasional bald eagle flew by after growing tired of dining on coho salmon. What had appeared as a dash of snow on the top of the coastal mountain range turned out to be a field of alpine glaciers that had carved several granite ravines, creating a massive natural sculpture that surrounded our anchorage. The sun was still fairly high, and I judged it was late afternoon by my built-in midlatitude sundial. But because it was summer and this was Alaska, late afternoon translated to about 1900. A few Seward-based cruisers already had their hooks down and were broiling salmon dinners on stern-rail barbecues, enjoying the sunlight as it accentuated new crags on some mountain peaks and backlit others. The breeze faded, and the afternoon chop soon settled, leaving the sea as flat as a millpond. We decided to forgo our usual post-anchoring ritual, drinks and hors d'oeuvres, in favor of a closer look at our surroundings, and this became our policy for the whole trip. As soon as the anchor was set, we'd put the outboard on the dinghy, grab cameras and binoculars, and explore another pristine anchorage. In fact, the remainder of our days afloat passed much like the first: a bit of motoring, some beautiful sailing, and an unforgettable anchorage with a backdrop that only Alaska can provide.

Looking back, one of the most remarkable aspects of the cruise was how chartering allowed us to enjoy the experience of cruising Alaska (if only a small slice) without requiring several months or more in which to sail there and then do it. Compared with long-term cruisers Tom and Vicky Jackson's sail in these very same waters the year before (see "Winding Along Alaska's Great Glaciers," May 2003), we had it easy. Their voyage mandated a lengthy passage to and from Resurrection Bay and exposed them to the Gulf of Alaska's fury, an experience that bareboat charterers can avoid. Among the small fleet of sailboats we saw meandering among the fjords of the Kenai Peninsula were a dozen or so Hunters, Catalinas, and Beneteaus, the same boats based in harbors throughout the lower 48. Hardcore expeditionary craft may be de rigueur for extended stays in Alaska's open waters, but for those ready and willing to plot their cruise in concert with the weather, Alaska can be a very manageable bareboat-charter experience, one that you'll never forget.

In our case, waiting for fair weather in Seward proved to be a not-to-be-missed experience in itself. And once the gale was spent, a spell of fair weather and moderate sailing breezes followed. In the short time we were there, we weren't able to explore extensively, but we were able to penetrate a few of the spectacular fjords in the Kenai Peninsula--just enough to whet our appetite. If fortune allows, our first cruise in Alaska won't be our last.

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Ralph Naranjo is CW's technical editor.