Joe's 1998 Alaska Cruise, Part 7

Stormfront Passage from Craig, Alaska to Prince Rupert

Click here to return to Joe's Alaska Cruise Overview Page
Click here to return to KatieKat Home Page

Port Hardy, Vancouver Island, September 91998

I am sending this from Port Hardy on September 9, where I've stopped for provisions. There's another front moving in this evening, but I'll try for a few miles because the southeast wind will be favorable for me to get close to Cape Scott. I intend to sail down the outside of Vancouver Island to Victoria.

For this part of my trip, I'll focus exclusively on the passage from Craig, Alaska to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. I'll provide you with some rationale for the decisions I made, explain what I did and why, and then make a few observations. I'm sending this out to everybody, but this is probably only of some interest to sailors, so feel free to hit the delete button and get on with life...

Over the last week or two a succession of weather depressions kept hitting the southeast Alaska coast - what I was doing is travelling down the outside coast in between these depressions - the wind is supposed to clock around to the west after a storm, so ideally I would have a broad reach as I travelled southeast right after a depression. There was a good-sized storm which hit Craig, Alaska, on Friday, but there was a forecast good weather window for Saturday, with another storm forecast to hit Sunday evening. With this in mind, I figured that if I could get down to Dixon Entrance by Saturday evening, then I would have all night and all day to transit Hecate Strait (about 80 miles) and get to Prince Rupert before the storm hit. I had originally intended to go to the Queen Charlotte Islands (only about 55 miles), but they have no customs port of entry there, so I had to go to Prince Rupert in order to enter Canada.

Well, I was up very early in the morning, had already calculated the transit time to cross Tlevak Narrows (notorious for its high currents) at slack tide, and hit that pass perfectly. It then became a lazy spinnaker run down Tlevak Strait and Cordova Bay going at about 3 knots for many hours - after all, I was in no hurry (was I?). I got to Dixon Entrance just as darkness fell, and proceeded alternately motoring and/or sailing on a straight line across Dixon Entrance and the top of Hecate Strait to Prince Rupert, with the first few hours bathed in lovely moonlight, then starlight with brightly-lit cruise ships passing in the distance. Somewhere in the middle of the night a light northerly breeze picked up, so I was able to comfortably broad-reach, slowly, towards my destination.

By early morning, I was able to pick up the Canadian weather forecasts, which are wonderful - far more detailed than the Alaskan ones because they explain the changes which will take place during the course of the next day or so in specific areas (and especially what happens to the wind direction and strength) - and I jumped up with a jolt: the timeframe for the storm had moved up to Sunday afternoon, and there was something about very strong northeast winds earlier that day ... hmm.

By now I was reaching along at a very good pace, heading for Brown Passage, which is a narrow cut amongst a group of islands and rocks leading into Chatham Sound about 15 miles out from Prince Rupert. Well, this northerly breeze kept gradually clocking over to northeast, making me harden up (nautical expression) more and more until, by mid-morning and only ten miles before Brown Passage I was pretty much hard on the wind when all of a sudden all hell broke loose: the the wind jumped up to 30 knots and the water started churning in the best San Francisco Potato Patch fashion. To compound the situation at that moment, a huge clump of seaweed wrapped around the rudder and when I tried to run the motor to help hold the boat on its course while I unscrambled the mess, it sputtered and died!

So, here I was, being very rapidly driven downwind and it was a tossup as to whether I'd hit the rocks first or be driven past them out into Hecate Strait to enjoy the storm which was coming that afternoon. To top things off, I had been overstanding the entrance and there was a shoal somewhere very close (judging from the cross-track error on the GPS) now invisible in that white frothy foam.

Anyway, in the best Hollywood fashion I reefed the main (20 seconds), replaced the working jib with my heavy-weather one (5-10 minutes?), and cleared the rudder (5 minutes), got the motor running but turned it off and stowed it (I always like to have an ace up my sleeve and didn't want to beat the motor up with all that horrible pitching and associated airborne prop unless I absolutely had to) and then spent the next four hours inching along those ten miles beating up to Brown Passage while the boat and I got the daylights kicked out of us.

[Telstar in Bay]This is what the Telstar looks like as it sails along in breezy conditions - this is smooth water compared to Brown Passage.

Just as I got to the pass, the wind died as suddenly as it had begun, and the seas flattened, and so, in an anticlimactic ending, I simply motored on in to Prince Rupert just ahead of the predicted storm, which made staying up for 42 hours worth while, after all :-)

Some observations:

I had become lazy that night and stopped taking hand-compss bearings and thus was not tuned in to my surroundings - I was just looking at the nearby portion of the chart. Had I more carefully checked the charts, I would have realized that instead of fighting the wind/waves I could have run downwind and tucked in behind an island about ten miles down and thus been sheltered in an alternate approach to Prince Rupert - it would also have given me some upwind room should I have still been out there when the storm with its southerly winds hit.

In listening to the Alaska weather forecasts, I had failed to take into account the fact that the storm was clocking in from the south, so naturally, it would hit Prince Rupert earlier than up in Alaska (there is also a one-hour time difference between Alaska and British Columbia).

Once I learned there was going to be a strong northeast wind, I should have hanked on my heavy-weather jib and had it ready to hoist - I wasted too much valuable time doing that later on after the winds hit. Whereas I can put a reef in the mainsail almost instantaneously, I still haven't developed a technique for changing headsails quickly (especially when having wind-whipped buckets of water dumped on me and a bouncy deck under me).

The water depths in that area are over 200 feet and the only thing I can think of which would create such a jumbled sea is that it must have been tidal current induced - it was very strange. The seas weren't particularly high (6'?), but were most confused - simply very unpleasantly rough - and with a sustained wind close to 30 knots. I have the Coast Pilot for Alaska, but not the one for British Columbia - perhaps that would have given me a clue as to potential problems in this area.

I didn't have the appropriate waypoints entered into the GPS in the cockpit - only the one down in the cabin. In those conditions, leaving the tiller to the mercy of the autopilot for the few seconds while I scurried below to check the position, cross-track error, and desired course (not trusting the compass alone because of the drift) added some more needless crashbanging to the already hard-pressed boat.

The chart I was using was ok (I didn't dare turn on the computer) but my unfamiliarity with the area made it difficult to see exactly where I had to go - It turned out that the shoal I was worried about had a buoy on it (not shown on the chart) so I actually had to fall off and lose some ground getting around it once I figured out what the buoy represented (frankly, I was afraid to go around it to windward). Lesson: I should have entered the shoal as a waypoint into the GPS.

I still don't know the reason for the motor stoppage I experienced, although I suspect it was air in the fuel line from all the bouncing that was taking place (despite having kept the gas tank pretty well topped up). Continued pumping on the very handily-located (by the tiller) priming bulb seemed to work well, and it hasn't hiccuped since (knock on wood).

Despite going through some awful contortions and very large angles of heel, at no time did the boat feel like it was going to fall over - it was certainly secure and seaworthy in that respect despite having the decks all awash and spray flying everywhere. As it was, I had no choice but to sail a scalloped course trying to maximize going to windward amongst those confused waves, and the sailing itself was fairly routine (by SF Bay standards) as I tried to keep boatspeed up.

The SeaCycle just happily bobbed along behind the big boat. At no time did it appear to be in any trouble (thank goodness!). I had its full 100' towline out to minimize jerking from the trimaran. It has a very low CG but does offer some windage which makes it crab somewhat.

[BikeBoat on Waves]BikeBoat just dances on the waves. (This photo taken in mild conditions off New Caledonia.)

Everything down below was properly stowed and strapped down, so nothing came loose at all. Years of sailing on San Francisco Bay gets this down to a fine art. Also, I had moved and stowed most of the heavy items on the forecabin sole for this passage.

I was certainly happy that I have oversized standing rigging keeping the mast up - the jerking was quite violent.

I've always make it a policy to overstand my destinations when sailing on an increasing wind - so even though I had to fall off to avoid a shoal, I still had a straight close-hauled shot to Brown Passage and did not have to tack to beat up to it (as I would have had to do if I gone straight for it earlier).

I'm in reasonable physical shape, so was able to handle all the goings-on without too much stress and spilled only a little blood - although I sure slept well after making Prince Rupert! Let's face it, it was really no big deal since the problem sailing only lasted a few hours.

All right, enough of the sea story - as I write this a few days after the event, it is already mellowing in my perception and will probably get more distorted as time goes on...

Joe Siudzinski


Click here to go back to top of page

Click here to go to Joe's Alaska Trip Part 8

Click here to return to Joe's Alaska Trip Overview Page

Click here to return to KatieKat Home Page