Monday, July 9, 2012

Singin' them songs about them storms at sea

This story originally was accepted and paid for by Cruising World magazine.  I watched issue after issue for two years and then one day it came back in the mail.  The accompanying letter said the new editors had chosen not to use it because they were moving in a different direction. But, I was allowed to keep the $500 they had paid for it. I never learned what that new course was because I never looked at the magazine again.

Copyright©Tim Jones. 2012

Evening conversation took a serious, personal turn.

"Just what is your goal in life?" Woody asked.

At times on long passages, the personalities of even the best of friends can chafe. The question chafed. Still, it demanded some sort of answer, an answer that wasn't coming easily.  Woody Cole's question came out of his own background as an Anchorage businessman and was aimed at a life apparently lived without even the nominal securities of job and home.

"I guess someday I'd like to write something worthwhile."
The crew before setting off from Bellingham, Washington

"What's worthwhile?"

More thought: How do you put an answer on that one?

"I guess I'd like to write something that lasts a generation beyond me."

Woody turned to Jim Lethcoe for help.  Jim's PhD in comparative literature and years of sailing experience  in Alaska's Prince William Sound should have provided Woody with an answer, but that answer gave him little satisfaction.

"He wants to write something that lasts a generation beyond him," Jim said in a tone indicating that was enough. It wasn't. The question came right back at him.

"What about you? What are your goals?"

Jim's answer was instantaneous.  "Right now all I want to do is get across the gulf."

The gulf was the Gulf of Alaska and we were approaching it at the exact wrong time of year, late September, the autumnal equinox, the time of storms in a gulf notorious for its storms even in the best of seasons.

We were delivering Jim's new Arctic Tern III, a Nordic 40, from Bellingham, Wash., to Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound and as we'd progressed north, the storms had started, hitting us at almost clockwork intervals every three days.  At times, sitting out one or another of those storms in British Columbia and Southeastern Alaska, Jim had considered foregoing the gulf until spring and spending winter on the boat somewhere in Southeastern. No matter what, the approach would be cautious, conservative.

We were prepared to wait in Elfin Cove, the last harbor in Southeastern Alaska’s Inside Passage before the gulf, as long as necessary for the right weather to make the approximately 348-mile passage to Hinchinbrook Entrance into Prince William Sound.  We estimated the crossing would take 48 to 50 hours at an average of six knots or better with a one-knot following current.

On the 16th day of our trip north, the weather turned clear, the winds calm, and we motored through Icy Strait toward Elfin Cove. Weather reports and forecasts we were hearing on the VHF radio sounded excellent.  A weakening low was expected to dissipate near Kodiak on the western side of the gulf, and behind it we could expect a ridge of high pressure.  Winds were forecast to be 20 from the southeast with a northwesterly swell to 10 feet, perfect for a broad reach all the way to Hinchinbrook.  As we listened and projected, the three-day weather window we were hoping for appeared before us.  We pulled into Elfin Cove just long enough to top off the fuel and water tanks.  Time had come to reach for Jim's goal.

After no more than an hour at the Cove, we turned westward into Cross Sound heading for Cape Spencer.  Pushed by a fresh southeasterly, we sailed past the cape and out into the gulf under full main and the 130 genoa. Clear skies gave us a spectacular view of the white and blue Fairweather Mountain Range and a golden Alaska sunset lighted the peaks in pinks and purples as we headed west.
"That's something you don't see very often," Jim said as he made a fix on Mount Fairweather.

  Those mountains usually are camouflaged in flat gray.  Captain James Cook happened to pass it on one of the few good days and misnamed the mountain, the cape  and the grounds that all bear the same name. In fact, the fishermen who work the waters here say the only time  you should be there is in fair weather, which is, by reputation, seldom.

By the time we cleared Cape Spencer, long, gentle ocean swells were lifting and dropping the Nordic as we turned onto a course of 270 magnetic. The trip north had been the first any of us had worked with Loran C, the hot new electronic positioning system of the day, some time before GPS, and while we'd been learning how to operate the receiver along the way, we hadn’t had a chance to navigate far enough from land, which warped the Loran signals, making them unreliable.  In addition, many of the Inside Passage charts had yet to be overlaid with Loran lines.  The gulf crossing would be the first true test.

I went below to program the set, put in waypoints and begin a series of fixes that would take us across the gulf.  Unfortunately the navigation table and the Loran receiver were inside the aft cabin on the Arctic Tern III.  Some condensation had formed under Jim's mattress and he'd lifted it and opened a bulkhead into the engine room to let engine heat dry the mattress while we were motoring into Elfin Cove.  In the confining cabin; with the residual engine fumes and the first of the rolling ocean, I felt the tinge of queasiness, the beginning of an offshore passage always seems to bring.  I opened a port light for air and made a quick fix.  Then I grabbed two pieces of bread and raced for the cockpit to breathe fresh air, only to see Woody and our fourth crew member Mike Anderson, already bent over the rail and Jim smiling worriedly at me, probably wondering what kind of land lubbers he had brought along.

The combination of bread and air worked for me and within an hour or so I had my sea stomach, enough so I could make regular Loran fixes and program waypoints along the course Jim had laid for south of the Fairweather Grounds.  The grounds form a relatively shallow area as far as 70 to 100 miles offshore and Jim wanted to stay south of them as far from land as practical.  The gulf's bottom rises sharply to a shallow shelf after a fetch the length of the Pacific and under certain storm conditions, waves will break as far as 50 miles offshore.  To avoid finding ourselves in surf, Jim set a course well south of the mainland and the grounds.

In the twilight of that first evening, Jim and Woody made regular dead reckoning  fixes with a hand-bearing compass.  Their positions confirmed mine with the Loran and we began to appreciate and trust the machine.  It was all we had during the night except for the dead reckoning vagaries of time, speed, course and distance estimations.

With the southeast wind pushing us at a steady six knots on a broad reach we headed into the night.  Cape Spencer light disappeared off the stern and we were on our own.  In the evening we separated into watches on a schedule that would give each of us one eight-hour, off-watch  period during the crossing and the chance to change watch partners.

Mike and I shared the first evening's 8-to-midnight which passed uneventfully  on the following swell.  We kept up the deck log at half-hourly intervals and made Loran fixes, alternating hourly at the helm,  At midnight Jim and Woody took over.

Mike and I returned to the helm at 4 a.m.  As the watch progressed into the morning, the sun tried to rise behind us into the gray of a stratus sky and the swell began building ever so slightly.  The deck log showed a slight but steady drop in barometric pressure, but we had expected that -- the weakening low around Kodiak.

Land had disappeared into the distant haze to the north and our attention turned to the sea on the dawn of the first full day in the gulf. The breeze freshened and the helm took more concentration, but still there was time to look around.  The ocean holds so much life but so little  of it shows on the surface.  We were constantly scanning the water for a view of that life and on one scan, looking forward to the next wave, I saw something in the water.  I didn't have time to stare as  an adjustment of the boat drew my attention quickly to the helm, but my mind drew a picture of a shark's fin.  I told Mike I had seen something and he turned in that direction.  As the boat passed the approximate location we saw a block of wood floating.  We guessed that's what I'd seen but that didn't match my mental picture at all.  Then, just as the stern cleared the piece of wood, a shark rose in the water and bumped it.  Farther along in that same watch we saw a Minke whale rise to breathe halfway up the wave in front of us. 

By midmorning the fathometer was confirming our Loran and DR positions near the Fairweather Grounds. We were due south of Yakutat and listened for the weather station that broadcast on VHF from there, but 80 miles offshore and well out of range of a normal VHF, all we heard was static.  Yakutat, about a third of the way along the coast between Cape Spencer and Cape Hinchinbrook was our refuge, a place to run in foul weather if we had to, one of the few along this coast.  We heard no weather forecast and our own observations still confirmed the weather window we'd seen from Elfin Cove. We sailed on.  Had we heard the Yakutat weather station, we probably would have run for cover. Instead of dissipating, that low near Kodiak had deepened and begun moving northeast toward us.  The weather service was broadcasting storm warnings with winds to 50 knots and seas to 28 feet.

Without the benefit of that knowledge we committed and held our course for Hinchinbrook Entrance in gradually building seas and increasing winds.  The barometer began dropping faster as the day progressed. Our weakening low was deepening.  As the seas and wind built,  and the barometer continued its drop through the afternoon, concern began to grow.  By nightfall we knew we were in for some unexpected heavy weather.  We took a reef in the main sail.  Then, we changed the head sail, lowering the jenny and hauling up a working jib.

Dusk closed around us, the waves grew into larger and larger proportions.  Judging the size of seas is inexact at best and depends a great deal on who is doing the judging and what size of vessel he's on.  By our best estimation, they went from big to large to immense and then they disappeared in the darkness to be felt and heard but never seen.  Later in the night we took a second reef in the main. But, even then it soon became evident this was not to be a night of easy sailing from the cockpit.

Long before midnight we were back on the foredeck, taking in the main to sail only on the working jib. Even that sail was too much and after a screaming run with the knot meter showing 9.6, a knot and a half past hull speed, we were back on the pitching, wet foredeck taking in the blade and running up a storm jib.  We sailed through the rest of the night with little more than a handkerchief for a head sail.

Sailing may be a misnomer. More, we were driven in a barely controllable direction by the waves. What had been a building swell by this time had turned nasty.  Cresting, bubbling white water passed into view next to the boat and then back into the darkness.  The snarling apexes of waves ran past at eye level.  Waves we could only imagine lifted the boat to heights we could only feel viscerally and passed underneath, dropping us into canyons the depth of which was only a fear.  Wind howled down those canyons from the northeast, stampeding short, chopping waves before it and occasionally driving spray from the surface into our faces, cold and cutting.

Controlling the boat in those waves from astern took full concentration and strength leaving little for the chop in the trough.  With feet spread, the man at the helm steered the boat for the big waves by feel, how the boat rose on the wave determined how he directed it to take them.  The chop was steered by sound.  As the icy tongues of wind-driven waves licked toward the boat they'd make a noise, a "snick" in the right ear just before they smacked the hull on the beam or slightly on the quarter, sending spray over the helmsman and the cockpit.  Standing at the wheel, we learned quickly when to duck by the sound just before those snicky waves crashed against the hull, but ducking  wasn't always possible as the boat signaled the need for an adjustment to address the next of the larger waves.  Twice during the night the snicky waves pooped us, filling the cockpit with cold, north Pacific water.  We discovered the scuppers were not nearly sufficient to clear a full cockpit and at times we had to bail.

Hour-long turns at the helm were cut to half hours and went by in minutes. All the steering was by feel and sound and the only light was the red one illuminating the binnacle which only served to highlight the constant swing of the compass in a 60-degree arc between 210 and 270.  We couldn't  hold our original course of 270 as we fought only to keep the boat within that arc.  To complicate matters, the shifty northeasterly wind made control of the jib touchy at best and several times over the course of the night, it jibed, slamming across the deck changing tack with a noise that sounded like it would take the forestay and the mast and part of the deck with it.

During the worst of the storm, a leaf fluttered onto the foredeck.  A leaf? Land? Impossible.  We couldn't have run that far off course, particularly to the north where the land lay.  Still, something had landed and it was fluttering aft until it dropped into the cockpit.  It wasn't a leaf at all, but a songbird, maybe a sparrow blown off its flyway by the storm.  We had no time to try to identify it, there was too much else to do.  Our own scurrying in the cockpit soon chased the little bird scuttling forward until it found refuge huddled between a winch and the mast. But the refuge was short-lived.  The storm jib slammed across the deck sending the frightened bird off again into the darkness of the storm to find another haven if there were one.

The little songbird wasn't the only bird with us that night.  At times when we could look over the side, we'd see the little storm petrels riding the wind, facing astern, gliding and drifting backward in the lee of the boat, holding their own as if this were the common condition, now and then dipping a beak into the water picking up some morsel only they could see.

Four hours of that watch seemed to take four days, but when it was over it seemed more like four minutes.  Midnight came and we were relieved.  We went below in darkness and I ate two more pieces of bread, all I'd been eating for the past 24 hours.  I stumbled into the forepeak exhausted but there is no sleep in a base drum.  Between the exaggerated rising and falling of the bow and the violent slams of the jib, I passed four hours, at best dozing at worst imagining what this could turn into considering what was going on over my head.  After growing up around the water in my youth, a couple of years sailing on Lake Erie, then pleasure boating in Alaska, and most recently a licensed boat captain for the previous two years, for the first time in my life I didn't want to be on the boat. Those hours barely dozing in the forepeak let my imagination run wild amid the sounds of the storm and gave time to think; I realized fear had crept into my mind.

The fear wasn't one of  total panic but it felt very real.  I tried to force it into the background until my mind settled on a story I had read once about a Dutch sailor named Willy de Roos who at the time had just completed a single-handed journey across the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.  During the course of an interview, a reporter asked him if he had ever been afraid and he'd answered, "of course."  Then he went on to describe a fear that had heightened his sensitivity, a fear that brought with it an alertness, tuning everything into sharp focus, an awareness of everything in the immediate environment at once.  He had described a fear that could save your life.  Such was my fear only maybe a step beyond; I didn't have the perspective of hindsight like de Roos, I still had to go through this.

I didn't want to be there; I didn't want to take the helm; I wanted someone else to do it and I wanted to stay below as if it were any safer there.  I recall at one point just wanting to put on my survival suit and wait for the inevitable.  The situation had grown bad enough that we did take our survival suits out of the locker.  Oddly the fear wasn't of death.  Death never entered into it and yet the choices were only two: Either we lived or we died.  There was no middle ground, no rescue; nobody even knew we were out there for sure and if by chance somebody did hear a Mayday, the response time would have been far too long. This wasn't fun and I didn't want to be there.  But there was no time to dwell on that.  This had to be done.

I pulled on dry socks, dry clothes, my rain gear and boots and lurched up to the cockpit with Woody, in abject terror.  I took the helm for the first half hour.  There was a boat to steer, a course to maintain and the only thing between us alive and us dead was our own abilities and  a Nordic 40 that was performing beyond all expectations.  The boat took the beating much better than we did.

Nothing had changed in four hours: the waves felt as big, the wind just as strong as they had at midnight.  About five minutes into the watch a snicky wave pooped us, filling the cockpit and my boots and soaking my last pair of dry socks.  No stopping, we just went at it, wet socks or not, steering for the next wave and the next through the half hour.

Woody's half hour passed quickly as I lost myself in thought and then I took another.  We pressed on across the waves in the dark.  By the time of Woody's second turn, the sky began lightening and we could  see the waves we'd only  felt through the night.  They were monstrous, steep cliffs rising behind us, walls overtaking us, raising the boat to dizzying heights and dropping us into deep canyons. If someone could have measured accurately and told me they were 50 feet, I would have believed it.  In fact I do recall at times in the trough looking up and seeing the crest of the next following wave above the mast.  Later Jim told me that mast was 53 feet tall.  With all the movement, it's difficult to say whether that was an accurate measure, however.  Thirty feet was not an issue.

Sitting in the cockpit I learned quickly not to watch, if only to protect Woody at the helm.  To see the wall rising behind the boat would only bring some profound exclamation like, "Gees." That would only scare the man at the helm more.  He was looking forward.  He couldn't see it coming, only feel it and the exclamation would cause him to look around and maybe throw the wheel off at the same time.  Better not to look or talk.

After half an hour we changed positions again and I took the helm to look forward and see what I'd chosen not to look at while hunched down in the cockpit.  The first wave took the boat skyward and it rose to the top of the world.  It was the top of the mountain, the view forever across unending wave tops.  Pools of green water floated in the troughs and on the backs of the waves closest to us.  Snarling white wave tops crawled ahead of us toward a horizon extended by the heights the waves were taking the boat. A glimpse into the trough from the top of the wave generated a feeling close to vertigo, we were so high above it. Then, as the watch progressed, the fear gave way to concentration and then concentration gave way to a newer, quite different sensation.

Motion flowed into a single entity.  The feel of the sea, the way it moved the boat, the way the boat responded, the way the boat moved me and the way my, muscles adjusted unconsciously,  the way I directed the boat, all became a single, fluid motion: one force, sea, boat, helmsman, even the vanguard of storm petrels, a universe with its parts indistinguishable.  Everything turned serene, a dream world.  I was aware of every element in my surroundings at once yet nothing existed except this flow of a single energy generated by the sea, the  wind, the boat and me. I had no concept of time or space or anything but the flow as if we were sustained by a single heart and nervous system that melded water, fiberglass and flesh into a living, breathing soul. Fear disappeared, replaced by that serenity and maybe even joy at the feeling the power I was drawing from the storm. I could have gone on forever, but the reverie broke when Woody told me my time was up.  I had gone to such a depth that he had to call me three times before I responded.  This time I didn't want to relinquish, but the spell had been broken.

In retrospect, I'm not sure what I felt was all that good for us.  I'm not sure I wasn't lulled into a false sense of security that could have been dangerous.  Yet, in that half hour there were no steering errors, no jibes, a steady course no matter what the wave or wind.

The change at the helm brought a return to stark reality, yet at this point I think we had progressed past the original fear and given how far we had come, were beginning to realize we could do this.  Woody and I actually conversed as he steered.  We talked about the possibilities of pitchpoling the boat, going down the front of a wave, driving the bow under and flipping it end over end.  We decided it couldn't happen given the relative speeds of the boat and the waves.  Five minutes later we found ourselves on the wrong side of a wave, careening down the face into the trough.  Woody threw me a glance of realization, then corrected to carry the wave, steering slightly off it to the quarter and bringing us down into the trough perfectly.  But, the adjustment was so violent, Mike, who was trying to sleep below, flew out of the settee berth. He said he woke up in midair just before he crashed into the table leg, taking out the table is he went.  In the cockpit we redecided you could pitchpole the boat.

Woody guided the boat through the rest of his watch and after half an hour I took my last term at the helm.  I tried to regain the serenity of the pervious turn but it would not come.  In time I began anticipating breaks in the storm.  Now and then the wind would drop, at least opening some room for optimism, but each real or imagined lull would end with another gust slammed against the boat driving any hope deep inside.  As I searched for any break in the storm I began to realize the immensity of the power before us.  This was bad, but what was to keep it from being worse?  What kept the waves from growing twice this high, or the wind from blowing ten times more fiercely? The power was infinite. The serenity never returned.

At 8 a.m. Jim and Mike came up to take their first look at the waves in daylight.  Woody and I went below and I made a Loran fix, ate two more pieces of bread and crawled forward to rest.  But, in the turmoil of the forepeak a mental wrestling match kept me awake.  "Take a picture," one part of my mind was saying.  "I don't want to go out there again." another part responded.  "Go."  "Don't go."  "You'll never forgive yourself."  "So what?"  At last I realized I wasn’t going to sleep unless I made at least a tacit attempt.  So, with the wrong lens and not much thought, I stumbled up the companionway and snapped three out-of-focus, poorly lighted pictures and with the argument resolved, went back to try to sleep.

In the cockpit with the advantage of visibility and perhaps a little confidence, Jim's mind was going to work on the possibilities.  In the heavy seas coming from the southeast we could not make the course change for Hinchinbrook Entrance.  The northerly course would put those waves right on the beam.  As with all of Jim's decisions, he let us know about it by starting a discussion.  He wanted to extend on the current course to the southwestern end of Montague Island, a 45-mile-long barrier protecting Prince William Sound from the open gulf.  The course would keep us correct with the waves but extend the trip by 200 miles, leaving us exposed in the gulf longer.  The alternative was to make for Middleton Island, one little three-mile-long rock out in the middle of the gulf almost due south of Hinchinbrook.

Jim asked around what people wanted to do and I said Middleton Island.  I had had enough.  I wanted to hide if we could and wait it out.  After more discussion, Jim talked through it several times and as usual came back to his original decision.  We headed for the south end of Montague Island where we'd be safer over the long haul, even though getting there would leave us exposed longer.

The decision held until we hit what must have been the center of the storm.  The barometer had dropped more than an inch in the previous 18 hours, sometimes as much as a millibar an hour, until it bottomed.  The wind died, the barometer didn't move, but the waves were the largest we'd seen in the storm.  Unable to sail, Jim fired up the engine and we took down the storm jib.  Our only guess was we were in the absolute center of the low pressure system and we motored through it for about two hours.  Throughout, the waves generated by the low pressure grew even larger.  As we emerged from the center, the wind picked up again and the barometer showed a small rise in pressure. Jim started to worry aloud about what was pushing these larger waves.  He came into the forepeak and asked, "What do you know about Middleton Island?"

All I knew was what I'd heard or read.  You could anchor behind it on its west side in a southeasterly and you'd probably be all right.  He asked me to figure a course for Middleton and stay awake to make Loran fixes along the way.  We'd try to make it before dark.  I made a Loran fix and then a DR fix and gave him a course which rode well with the direction the waves were pushing us.  For the rest of the day, through my eight-hour off-watch, I made the fixes and noted our progress, keeping a wary eye on that barometer which by then had begun reporting a steady rise in pressure.

By late afternoon we were seeing a lot more birds: puffins, kittiwakes, gulls, fulmars, shearwaters and more of the storm petrels  who had been our companions along the way.  On the chart I noted the progress toward the island, all the time wondering just how accurate this Loran C was.  This was the first time we'd actually tried to find something with it.  An old fisherman in Southeastern Alaska had told us one day on the way up, "Loran A used to tell you what country you were in.  Loran C not only tells you the street and house number, it tells you what corner of the bathroom to use.  If you go to your Loran coordinates and you look over the side and your (fishing) gear's not there, it sank."

Now we were depending on it.  Slowly we made way toward the island until at my last fix it looked like we should be able to see land, or at least the radio towers on the island.  I went up to the cockpit and stood for a minute.  I pointed to the northwest and told Jim Middleton Island should be about half a mile right there. At the top of the next wave, the island appeared right at the end of my finger.  Hooray for Loran.  Jim said later they'd been watching what they'd thought were low clouds on the horizon until the Loran confirmed it was land.

Rocks litter the water to the east and south of the island so we carefully worked our way around the breakers to anchor on the lee side in six fathoms.  We put out two 35-pound Bruce anchors on 100 fathoms of line each, all the while almost in the shadow of the hulk of a wrecked freighter on the beach directly in front of the boat.

We took compass bearings from the radio towers and noted Loran coordinates to check for drag and then collapsed in the cabin.  Jim heated a can of beans but nobody ate besides him.  There was no dinner conversation about goals either.  We were still 120 miles from home.

I tried the Coast Guard in Valdez on the VHF radio and through a network of repeaters received an answer.  The guardsman said the North Gulf Coast weather forecast called for gale warnings, 35-knot winds from the southeast changing to 25 southwest with seas to 20 feet.  When he'd finished, I thanked him and then couldn't help telling him I'd never been so glad to hear gale warnings.  He responded, "Yeah, you've been through the worst of it." I think that set us all a little more at ease.

Wind still howled over the island and through the rigging but the land broke the waves and the boat rocked very little while all hands fell asleep for the first time in two days.  No mention was made of an anchor watch, but none was needed. Three or four times during the night I headed up to take a look and on each trip, I either met Jim when I was going down and he was coming up or going down when I was going up. The boat never moved an inch.

Morning came early, brought on by an uncomfortable rolling that threatened to pitch me out of the bunk.  Jim was up.  The wind and waves were coming from the southwest just as the forecast  had predicted.  What had been a haven the night before was now a dangerous lee shore that made the wrecked freighter look all the more ominous.

"Maybe we ought to move."  Jim was starting another discussion.  Fifteen minutes later we were hauling anchors and heading out from Middleton Island.

But, our world had changed for the better.  The southwesterly gave us a broad reach on a port tack directly toward Hinchinbrook Entrance and instead of 30- and 40-foot waves, we were looking at 10s and 15s as swells more than steep waves.  The ride that day was the best sailing of the trip and we screamed northward through the gulf averaging better than seven knots.

Jim again asked me to stay below and keep up with Loran positions preparing for the landfall.  In the idle time between half-hourly fixes I began to feel a little guilty at the light duty, what with everyone else working on deck.  I began to regret taking the time early to learn how to use that primitive Loran set and now I was chained to it.

I asked if anybody could eat and heard a round of affirmative answers.  Then I set out to make a breakfast, the first prepared food, if you could call it that, since the night we passed Cape Spencer.
We were still in pretty rough seas and the heel of the boat wasn't going to make things any easier.  With both feet braced and elbows jammed against bulkheads, I laid out eight pieces of bread where they couldn't slide too much.  One by one I managed to get some butter on most of them and then some jelly.  I also managed to get butter and jelly on the countertop, the bulkheads, the cabin sole and myself.  The process took the entire time between fixes.  I started passing this excuse for breakfast through the hatch and all eight slices disappeared before I thought to save one for myself.

After fixing another position, I made another set of bread and butter and jelly and then in two more half-hour sessions I had enough ham and cheese sandwiches to keep us going for the rest of the day.  We were on our way, fueled by food and a fresh wind filling the main and Jenny again, heading for Hinchinbrook Entrance and the shelter of Prince William Sound.

We passed through Hinchinbrook well ahead of our estimates and skipped our planned anchorage.  The next good one was 41 miles but well out of our way and a quick check on the chart showed Valdez, our destination, lay only 51 miles away. We decided to run into darkness, deal with oil tanker traffic if there was any, and make Valdez that night.

About three hours out, the wind died, the water went glassy and we motored the rest of the way.  A friend overheard our call to the Valdez Traffic Center inquiring about tanker traffic from the pipeline terminal and a skiff came out to meet us as we approached the harbor.  Jim's wife, Nancy, their daughter Athena, and probably more friends than the skiff should hold safely, brought us a bottle of champagne to celebrate the passage.  But the storm had driven celebration out of us.  We had endured, not conquered and I don't think any of us felt anything more than relief.  Numbly we stood on deck watching the skiff and answering hails, passing the bottle around without enthusiasm.  Everything around the boat seemed alien, the people, the lights, the noise, land for crying out loud, and we stared at it all without celebration.  We'd made it across the Gulf of Alaska and that was enough.  We had reached, after all, the only goal that existed.

Middleton Island

AN UPDATE: Some time ago I wrote about the ocean storm we experienced aboard the Arctic Tern III several years ago.  That was the maiden voyage for that vessel. Recently I came across another blog that detailed more recent voyages on that very same sailboat. A couple of years ago this fellow blogged a trip on her down the West Coast to Cabo. His account of that voyage is on Captain Howard's Blog here. I left a comment on his blog pointing to my own post about the maiden voyage and, twice now he has added a comment to mine.
The first:
Thanks for that comment Tim, particularly the website/blog_ ’60* North’. Readers; On the left hand side there is a posting on the ‘HMS Bounty’ with an interesting human interest note about one of the crew lost in the Bounty disaster… Claudene Christian.
Err… that would be the blog/website ‘Alaska with Attitude’. My step dad grew up in Alaska so I have provided him with the Link…thanks again for the post, Tim.
Then today came a second one, an update.
I just reread your experience on Arctic Tern III — somewhere between South Africa and the Caribbean at present I think.
That one put a chill through me; the boat is still adventuring and I want to be there.  So it goes.


  1. I think I'm glad I didn't know this happened like that.

  2. Patricia MonaghanJuly 11, 2012 at 4:53 AM

    Very vivid writing. I understand again while I am not a sailor!

  3. wow Tim. I felt like I was there with you reading this. I miss your stories.

  4. Great to relive our passage Tim. I still have many great pics from that trip, but as you said....none from the "storm". As the late Jim Lethcoe said, "The real pictures are forever etched into our memories". (Woodie Cole)

  5. Woodie, I just now noticed your comment on this story. I was glad to hear from you and your reaction to the story. And I think you are right, the real pictures and for that matter the real story remain etched in out minds. I did the best I could. :)


Interesting quotations

· " “Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” — Ernest Hemingway

When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth. Kurt Vonnegut

“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a cheque, if you cashed the cheque and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” Stephen King

The thing about ignornance is, you don't have to remain ignorant. — me again"

Never debate with someone who gets ink by the barrel" — George Hayes, former Alaska Attorney General who died recently

My dear Mr. Frost: two roads never diverge in a yellow wood. Three roads meet there. — @Shakespeareon Twitter

"The mark of a great shiphandler is never getting into situations that require great shiphandling," Adm. Ernest King, USN

Me: Does the restaurant have cute waitresses?

My friend Gail: All waitresses are cute when you're hungry.

I'm not a writer, but sometimes I push around words to see what happens. – Scott Berry

“The rivers of Alaska are strewn with the bones of men who made but one mistake” - Fred McGarry, a Nushagak Trapper

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

We are all immortal until the one day we are not. – me again

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio announcer

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

"Atlanta is capable of doing what they're doing."

"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

"You can't come out and be aggressive but you can't come out and be unaggressive."

"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

Best headlines ever

Sister hits moose on way to visit sister who hit moose.

Man loses his testicles after attempting to smoke weed through a SCUBA tank

Church Mutual Insurance won't cover Church's flood damage because it's 'an act of God'

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Meerkat Expert Attacked Monkey Handler Over Love Affair With Llama Keeper

GOP congressman opposes gun control because gay marriage leads to bestiality

Owner of killer bear chokes to death on sex toy

Support for legalizing pot hits all-time high

Give me all your money or my penguin will explode

How zombie worms have sex in whale bones

Crocodile steals zoo worker's lawn mower

Woman shot by oven while trying to cook waffles

Nude beach blowjob jet ski fight leads to wife's death

Woman stabs husband with squirrel for not buying beer Christmas Eve