North to Alaska

We arrived back in Sidney on April 18, with what we hoped was a manageable list of projects to complete before we departed. Nancy’s activities involved reviewing, revising and checking off lists, mainly of fresh foods, and coordinating various service providers. Ron, on the other hand, was focused on what absolutely positively had to be done before we left, as his lists are never ending.

Obviously, the refurbished bow thruster jog lever needed to be installed, as the jump start method, while successful, wasn’t how we wanted things to work. This was a relatively simple job with a big payoff, as the new lever looked great.

Then there was the Iridium Go. While we were at home, Ron had spent quite a bit of time installing the various software for the Go, which included software on both smart phones and both iPads. The Go is an Iridium phone reconfigured to act as a wifi hotspot. You need a smart device to interact with it. The software installation went well and we were able to send a text and make a call on the unit. Admittedly, the unit was sitting on our outside deck and we were in our kitchen, but at least the signals were going up and down to the satellite.

 

We decided to use Ocens as our email and weather provider. We used Ocens on our Nordhavn 46 and are familiar with their services. Ron, after much testing, even broke down and bought their GRIB file reader. GRIB files are a way to download graphical weather information efficiently, and allow the user to do some manipulation of the graphics. Both our navigation software packages, Coastal Explorer and Nobeltec, provide GRIB readers, but after comparing them to a test version of the Ocens product, Ron ponied up for the more extended functionality offered by Ocens.

We also signed up for and tested Ocens email. The Go provides email via Iridium, but it can only be accessed via the Go, whereas our Ocens mail can be accessed from any internet connection. That way we can access boat email while not on the boat (where the Go is). Ocens software also has more functionality than Iridium software.

We purchased an unlimited text and data plan, which allowed us as many texts and emails as we could eat. The Go, unfortunately, however, still operates at the same data transfer rate as our Iridium phone did 15 years ago, namely 2400 baud. Even using compression software, which speeds this up by a factor of ten, it still takes a medium sized file about 15 minutes to download. Not only that, but the Go times out every 250k or so, and has to be restarted, so getting an attachment is a rather drawn out process. Surfing the internet, even using various tools designed to speed things up, is a non starter.

Our good friend Stan, of the Nordhavn 57 Crossroads, clued Ron into several sources of free weather info. Ocens provides a great service, namely they take a lot of weather info from across various sources, such as NOAA, sort it out and compress it for efficient delivery via a satellite connection. Needless to say, they charge for this service. So any sources of free weather that we can use efficiently over the Go is helpful from a budget committee viewpoint.

We tested all this stuff at home, but the unit still needed to be installed. On our 46, we put the phone on the table top in the pilothouse, ran the antenna cable for the external antenna out the window and that was that. The Go can be managed that way too, but Ron had figured out a way to install it pretty neatly, out of the way, on the pilothouse overhead. Duet had a satellite phone installed when she was commissioned, but it was long out of date, so it’s antenna was replaced with the Go’s unit. Power was hardwired, so the unit could be on all the time. All this took about a day and half, and we had satellite connectivity.



Ron also disassembled the salt water anchor wash down pump. It had been behaving oddly on our last cruise, and the problem was now apparent. The sensor switch, which tells the pump when to pump more water, had corroded through. Since we didn’t have time to get another, and we didn’t want to buy a new pump, we figured out a workaround. Ron tied the faucet handle on the end of the hose permanently open with a cable tie, and Nancy turned the pump on and off at the breaker in response to Ron’s signals from the bow. While this is a bit kludgey, it worked without a hitch throughout the summer.

 

 

In the meantime, Nancy was doing fresh food provisioning, which was a relatively simple task, in that Ron was only dragged to CostCo once, and it was a one cart day, which really cheered him up. Nancy rented a car, so she was able to go back and forth from the various Sidney food purveyors independently and only summon Ron for assistance when she arrived at the marina parking lot. Her vacuum packer, from our 46, managed to step up again, even though it’s automatic closers are broken (Nancy holds it closed with her fingers) and pounds of meat and fish disappeared into the maw of our pilothouse chest freezer.

This freezer makes it possible to freeze things like bread and fruit, whereas the 46 only had one small under counter freezer which was completely occupied by fish and meat. In the best deal of this particular provisioning exercise, Nancy found freshly made bread, sliced to any width, for $1.50CDN per loaf, at the local grocer. On the 46, we made our own bread. The bread maker, however, takes up a lot of room, so it hasn’t migrated to the new Duet. We are also trying to eat less bread, and other carbs, so we didn’t bring our muffin pans either. 

On the service provider front, we had scheduled a visit from the local dive service, to clean up Duet’s bottom, and, if necessary, change her anodes. They arrived right on time and dove under. The bottom was pretty clean but, after some discussion, we decided to change all Duet’s aluminum anodes back to zinc anodes, since she would be spending all her time in salt water going forward. The picture on the right below is an aluminum anode, after time spent in salt water. This process took a little longer than planned, and the bill was nearly the cost of a short haul out, but we saved quite a bit of time not moving Duet to and from the haul out well. So everyone was happy with the end result.

 

As usual, something unplanned appeared. The washer, after doing well for a few months, decided to act up again. Ron, by now an expert on this appliance, diagnosed the same problem, namely too much drain hose for the pump to push against. So, rather than just removing a few more feet, like he did last time, he took out all the loops. The washer then ran like a champ, which is a good thing, given the amount of laundry we generate.

 

Ron also serviced various bits of equipment, and had a chance to use his new impeller puller on the generator. We didn’t get the new prop on the dinghy, as the departure committee had to draw the line somewhere or we would never leave, but this seemed a pretty simple project, so we left it for an anchorage somewhere along the way. Needless to say, installing the new prop was anything but a simple project, but we did get it sorted out in the end. It turns out that when you put on a new prop you also need a new thrust washer, which we didn’t have. So we ended up putting the old prop back on and will get a new thrust washer this fall so we will have a nice new prop this winter.

As planned, for once, Duet left Sidney, BC on April 25, bound for SE Alaska via the Inside Passage. Naturally, the weather did not cooperate, so we holed up for a few days in Montague Harbor while things calmed down in the Strait of Georgia. Even though we left with what seemed to be a pretty benign forecast, we got slapped around by head seas north of Nanaimo for several hours. Nancy, and Ron, got a little seasick, as we hadn’t been out in some time. Duet just chugged along, with some bulbous bow slap in the bigger seas, and we arrived at Pender Harbor none the worse for wear.

Unfortunately, we aren’t able to get many pictures of Duet underway, but to give our readers an idea of what she looks like in head seas we have included some pictures of the Nordhavn 50, Worknot, going to windward on her way north from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. You can clearly see the bulbous bow in the first picture, and the second and third demonstrate the bulb slap pretty clearly. The noise is considerable when the bulb slaps. It is due to the water hitting the hull, and you can feel a significant bang through the hull. The boat is built to do this so it has no effect on her, and, aboard Duet, we have quieted everything down to the point where the only noise you hear is the bulb slap, there are no extraneous bangs or thumps from the galley, for example.

 


 
 

The next step of this journey involved Seymour Narrows, which had become a bit of a bugaboo for us. Last summer we dodged it on the excuse that there were large tides and, hence, large currents. We were late enough in the season that we could reasonably say it wasn’t worth it to go further north as we would have to come back almost immediately. This argument, however, didn’t hold water this time, to get to SE Alaska we had to go through Seymour Narrows, or wait until the weather on the outside route calmed down enough, which would be at least four, and probably closer to six, weeks later. We wanted to arrive in northern SE Alaska early for our crossing to Prince William Sound, so Seymour Narrows it must be.

We moved over to Cortez Island to better position us to cross the northern end of the Strait of Georgia, round Cape Mudge and enter the Narrows. The initial plan was to cross the Strait in the afternoon, anchor near the Narrows and go through the next morning on the first slack. There were several issues with this strategy. First, the first slack was right at dawn and the best anchorage was at least 7 miles from the Narrows, requiring us to get up around 4AM to make the slack. Second, when we tried to cross the Strait, the winds were strong and against the current, which created a rather bumpy situation.

As we reached the halfway point, Duet got whacked twice on the beam in quick succession by waves that even Ron admitted were at least 6 feet high. Nancy thought they might be bigger, as they were just below eye level in the pilothouse, which is at least 10 feet off the water. While Duet can handle seas of that size, we were still some distance from Cape Mudge, which has a nasty reputation in these conditions, so we figured things were going to get worse, not better, before we finished crossing the Strait. We have a lot of confidence in Duet, but we try not to get beat up unless we absolutely have to. In this case, we didn’t absolutely have to, as we could try again the next day, so we turned around and went back to Cortez to regroup.

 We thought it through a bit and decided to travel thru the Narrows on the evening slack and anchor just north of them to continue the next day. We would cross the Strait in the morning so that the current would be with the wind rather than against it. This should make Cape Mudge much more manageable. We would anchor near the Narrows for the afternoon and then go through. We waited for lighter wind conditions and crossed the Strait in flat calm conditions two days later. Cape Mudge presented no major difficulties, other than a big following current. Duet, reined in to almost idle RPM, was traveling at 10-12 knots. This presented another problem, we were going to arrive awfully early, actually we were going to arrive early enough to make the noon slack.

 

One of the keys to the Narrows is to figure out which way the current goes after you pass through, as that impacts your ability to make progress on one side or the other. We had picked an evening slack as we would have current behind us for the 18 miles to the anchorage on the other side of the Narrows. If we traversed the Narrows at noon, we would have current on our nose, but we would have enough time to easily make the anchorage before dark. Duet can be pushed pretty hard, due to her continuous duty motor, so we figured, worst case, we could hammer on to the anchorage at 5-6 knots even with 3 knots of current in our face. 

So, operating on the principle that there is no time like the present, and, frankly, because neither of us relished the idea of sitting staring at the Narrows for the entire afternoon, we decided to head on through. We speeded Duet up a bit to ensure we would get there in time, so she was doing better than 13 knots. She tracked like she was on rails in these conditions, with the autopilot steering, which was a nice confidence builder. She also just bulled her way through the small tidal rips we encountered. They do affect her, in that she turns a bit when she first hits them, but then she straightens right up and continues on her way.

We arrived at the mouth of the Narrows about 20 minutes before slack, along with two other boats. It is worth noting that it was a Sunday, which we thought might reduce the commercial traffic. Also, not many folks time their trip thru the Narrows to end up with current on their nose going north, as it really slows you down. There was no southbound traffic on the AIS, which meant that there were no tugs or cruise ships bearing down on us.

We waited about 10 minutes, while trying to figure out what a Canadian Coast buoy tender was doing anchored south of the Narrows. There was also a small inflatable buzzing around, but we had no idea what it was doing either. After 10 minutes, small boats moved in to fish in the Narrows. We figured if they could go in, so could we, and off we went. As is often the case, traversing the Narrows, after all the build up, was an anti climax, except for the Canadian Coast Guard. 

It turned out that the buoy tender was doing it’s job, namely tending a buoy, in particular the buoy on the starboard (right) side of the Narrows entrance. Actually they were replacing it, which involved attaching the new buoy to a helicopter and flying it from the tender to the appointed spot. It waved around under the helicopter on a long rope, while the helicopter flew right over Duet as we were going thru the Narrows. The small inflatable turned out to be a Canadian Coast Guard boat, which chased along under the buoy, presumably in case it fell in. Both the helicopter and the inflatable were all around us during our transit. We chugged serenely along, figuring, hopefully, that we were more important than the buoy, and therefore they would give us plenty of room.

We anchored that night north of the Narrows and had a toast to our crossing. From this point on, while there were rapids, and there were channels, and there were currents, and there were tides, there were no more hazards on the scale of the Seymour Narrows!

Over the next few weeks we traveled, as fast as we could, north. We traversed approximately 800 miles after leaving Sidney, in about 3 weeks, arriving in Ketchikan the week before Memorial Day. We passed many places we wished we had stopped, but we were on a mission to get to Cape Spencer, the northernmost jump off point for our journey to Prince William Sound.

We traveled, occasionally, in the company of other boats, including the N55 Enterprise III, often accompanied by her smaller sidekick, the Nordhavn 43, Navigator. We also ran into a flotilla of Krogen 42s, one of whom we got to know later, nice folks from Washington. It was their first trip north too.

We struggled against the current and we zoomed along with the current in our favor. In the end, we averaged about 7 knots. We were running Duet slowly, at about 1410 RPM, to see what kind of mileage she could deliver. After about 1,000 miles we had some basic numbers, at 1410 in all kinds of conditions, she will deliver approximately 2.5-2.7 nautical miles per gallon, excluding our best guess of generator usage. That gives her a range of about 2,900 miles with a 15% reserve, again excluding generator usage.

During the trip we had outstanding weather. Ron did some projects underway, and we worked out a general scheme of having one of us either working on something or resting, while the other ran the boat. That way we could run 12 hours a day, and still eat pretty normal meals, shower, etc. We often showered underway, laundry got done, dishwashers ran, breakfast got eaten, as did lunch and even, sometimes, dinner. Duet ran flawlessly and our confidence in her increased day by day. We anchored every night of the trip and by the time we got to Ketchikan we had only set foot on land once, in a beautiful anchorage called Pruth Bay, where the local research institute welcomes cruisers. We took a great beach walk and enjoyed being on terra firma, even if only for a few hours.


 

Finally, Ron actually installed our new LED anchor light, which has been something that Nancy has wanted for literally years. The light required some reengineering at home, Ron made a starboard base for it so that he could completely waterproof it. The light itself is sealed, but the wire comes out the bottom, so the base was used to get the wire into the pole atop the radar arch without water intruding down the pole. The radar arch has many many wires in it, the majority of which need their contacts and connections cleaning and redoing, so Ron wanted to at least get this one done right.

 

During the trip, we saw eagles, bears, whales, seals, sea lions, sea otters, and all sorts of ducks. We managed not to run over any logs that were big enough to damage the boat, although we came close a couple of times. The scenery became more magnificent with every mile we traveled. The towns got smaller and cell phone reception went to pot completely north of Cape Caution and south of Ketchikan, other than in little areas off Shearwater, Bella Bella, etc.

The Iridium Go worked flawlessly throughout the journey. It lost the signal occasionally, when we were in areas with very tall cliffs, but it got it back, eventually. Since we were paying for unlimited access, we wrote endless emails, got the weather, texted friends and generally remained connected regardless of where we were.

We spent 3 days in Ketchikan, mainly adding to our provisions. Liquor is cheaper in Alaska than BC, and we aren’t allowed to bring much into either place, so a few bottles were added to our store. We also loaded lamb, which for some reason is not allowed to be brought from BC to the USA. Finally, we took on 980 gallons of diesel and 8 gallons of gasoline for the tender.

During fueling we redid the sight gauge on the port saddle tank, so now we actually know how much fuel is in it. The original gauge was relatively accurate, although the more fuel in the tank the less accurate it became, as it is impossible for a linear gauge to measure a non linear tank. The gauge stopped at 450 gallons, but we confirmed that the tank holds closer to 575, which was also helpful to know. The Nordhavn 50’s tankage is approximately 1,320 gallons according to her spec, in reality Duet can probably hold closer to 1,400 if we really pack it in.

 During our stay in Ketchikan, we spent some time with the wonderful crew of the Krogen 42 Rekindle. We had traveled on and off with them and their companions on our northbound trip. They also rescued us from a rather tricky and somewhat embarrassing landing in Ketchikan.

When we arrived in Ketchikan we had called the Harbormaster for a slip assignment. Most marinas in SE Alaska are run by the local municipality and don’t take reservations. You call when you reach a certain defined point in the harbor and are assigned a slip. Boat slips have several critical dimensions, first, of course, is the length of the boat, followed by the width (beam) and power requirements. So not every boat can fit everywhere, which makes assigning slips pretty complicated. Also cruisers like us often want to be in a particular harbor, as it is close to the supermarket, near friends, or whatever.

Alaskan harbormasters and their staff have our respect, juggling the constantly moving target of boats coming and going, along with their different and sometimes conflicting requirements, isn’t a simple job. It’s also a hard one to do with a constantly positive attitude, which all these folks seem to have.

In most harbors, fishing boats have permanent slips but are out fishing in the summer, so their slips can be rented to cruisers like us. The fishing boats return occasionally, but so far we have not seen any differences of opinion over who should be where, although the Juneau Harbormaster did tell us some tales of boats listening to slip assignments on the radio and then jumping into the slip before the assigned boat shows up. This behavior is not well tolerated by Harbormasters and results in summary eviction.

 Anyway, we got the harbor we wanted, we got a slip we could fit into and it had the right kind of power. What could go wrong you ask? Well as it turned out, plenty, and all of it was our fault. Once we got the slip assignment, we needed to traverse the Ketchikan harbor, which is extremely busy. There are cruise ships, fishing vessels, tugs with or without tows, recreational boats like Duet, mega yachts and, to add to the excitement, sea planes landing and taking off straight down the middle. There is also the occasional whale, which surfaced without warning and then disappeared, to reappear, or not, somewhere else.

Ron set off at cruising speed with Nancy watching for various hazards. The first thing that happened was one of the cruise ships started to move off it’s berth. We knew this would happen, as cruise ships sound a Securitecall on the radio giving their intentions before they move, e.g. this is the Amsterdam, pushing off Dock H in 15 minutes.

What we had missed with this particular Securitie call was that, by the time we got our slip assignment and started across the harbor, 15 minutes had actually passed and the ship was pushing off. We were passing in front of her as she came off her berth and started down the harbor towards us. Ron hailed her on Channel 16 on the VHF radio, which is the standard hailing channel. The captain did indeed see us and said go ahead and cross but make it quick. Of course with Duet quick is a relative word, but we did our best. All we have to say is watching a vessel that size move directly sideways using her thrusters is quite impressive close up.

Having survived this encounter, we slipped past a mega yacht anchored in the middle of the channel, as it was too big to tie up anywhere, dodged a couple of fishing boats and a tug with a tow and then ducked a seaplane taking off down our starboard side. Finally, miraculously unharmed, we reached the entrance to the marina. Our lines and fenders were ready to go, as the Harbormaster had told us how we would tie up, so in we went.

 At this point it might be worth mentioning that there is a lot of current in Ketchikan Harbor. The harbor sits on a canal with big bodies of water at either end, so the current is usually barreling from one end to the other. We knew this and we knew the current was coming up Duet’s stern at this time, which is the worst place for it to be. We had asked the harbormaster whether there was any current in the marina itself and he said no not much, don’t worry about it. Those words, in our experience, mean the current is awful, good luck, so we should have known better than to just mosey on into a tight space without figuring out what was going on first. We also had about 20 knots of wind blowing so it would be directly on our beam once we tried to dock.

But we didn’t stop to figure it out and we have no excuse. Nancy was outside readying lines, we had both identified the slip and Ron was piloting from the fly bridge. All went well initially, although Ron later admitted that he knew we were in trouble as soon as he made the turn into the fairway which led to the slip, as he had plenty of current behind him. At that point he was not able to easily recover by turning around, so he figured he might as well give it a go. Nancy was blithely ignorant of all this, as she was down on deck level waiting for Ron to neatly pull Duet up to the slip finger pier so she could step off and tie her up.

Duet’s bow made it into the slip just fine. Unfortunately, her stern did not follow. With current behind her, Ron was unable to straighten the stern up enough to get it into the slip, so she was gracefully turning sideways and bearing down on the boat in the slip next to us. These were double slips, so there is no barrier between the two boats on one side. Fortunately for us, the crew of Rekindle, having just had their own close encounter with the current, came to our aid, catching lines and pulling Duet in far enough that Nancy could get off and we could manhandle her into the slip with help from Ron at the controls. Once she was safe, we asked Rekindle to join us for dinner that night, we owed them at least that much.

We also did a review of what went wrong, which we try to do with all these situations, once the adrenaline has worn off. Obviously, we should have looked at the slip and how the current was running in the marina more carefully before we committed to the entry. We have always done this in the past, so why didn’t we do it now?

Well to put it frankly, we had gotten cocky. We had had very few problems docking this boat since we got her, so we figured we knew how to handle her. We did, but not with about 2-3 knots of current on her stern, not mention about 20 knots of wind on her beam. Unfortunately in this case the wind was on the wrong beam, if it had been on the other side it would have helped push her in, but instead it added to the current pushing to get her sideways in the dock. So it was a learning experience, of which we have had many and expect to have many more. We just try not to make the same mistakes more than once or twice before we understand the lesson.

After we left Ketchikan, we headed north to Cape Spencer with alacrity, hoping to leave for Prince William Sound by June 1, if not earlier. Unlike most cruisers, who slowed down as soon as they hit Ketchikan and followed a meandering course north, Duet roared along the fastest path, with just the occasional overnight or one day stop. We rumbled through Wrangell Narrows and, anchored that night in Thomas Bay, saw our first glacier. We stopped in Red Bluff, hoping to see bears. We didn’t, but we saw a mother grizzly and two cubs several nights later in Cosmos Bay. We skipped Glacier Bay National Park, but spent several days in Dundas Bay, which, while it is part of the Park, doesn’t require an advance entry permit.

 

Once we reached Dundas, we began preparing for the offshore journey to Prince William Sound. We had been corresponding with a weather router, a gentleman recently retired from NOAA who now spends his days routing tugs back and forth from Seattle, SE Alaska and more remote areas, such as Prince William Sound, Anchorage, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor. He and Ron identified a good weather window, at least for the Gulf of Alaska, and we set off.

 

Prior to this, of course, we did the usual offshore prep. Nancy sorted out meals, which consist mainly of prepared food that can be heated up in the microwave. For offshore journeys we completely abandon the South Beach low carb diet we normally hew to, and eat higher carb meals. The main issue is to ensure enough protein gets through to keep our energy up.

Ron checked all our equipment and prepared the sea anchor, in case we should need it. On the 46 we used to actually deploy the anchor by setting out the rode, attaching it via chain with fire hose around it to the samson post, etc. On the 50 we don’t go quite that far, we get out the rode and the anchor but don’t set it up. Our assumption is that it will need to be deployed in the event of a break down not a storm, so we should be able to hook it up relatively easily in medium sea conditions.

We also tried on our survival suits. We’d not done this since we entertained the folks in the store where we bought them. It actually went pretty well, as we have learned to lie down on the floor and wiggle into the suit, rather than try to don it standing up. Even Nancy, with some help from Ron, got into hers inside a few minutes. We did not go so far as James on the Nordhavn 62 Pendana, who has actually jumped into the water wearing his, although we probably should. In case it’s not immediately obvious, Nancy is on the left in the pictures below, and Ron is on the right. 

We also rehearsed our abandon ship procedures. We now have two scenarios, the slow version and the get off in a hurry version. The slow version means we have time to gather the abandon ship bag, which is always sitting on the salon floor ready to go, get the Go off it’s mount, manually deploy the life raft, put out a call via VHF to the Coast Guard, try to stem whatever is leaking or put out whatever is burning, etc.

As an aside, the biggest disadvantage to the Go is that you have to get it off the wall mount and remember to bring a smart phone (Nancy’s is kept in a waterproof housing for this reason) into the raft with you. With our old Iridium shoe phone we just needed to throw it into the bag. We have also added an extra Go battery to our abandon ship bag and make sure both batteries are charged, as is the smart phone, as part of our preparing for offshore procedures.

The get off in a hurry version of our abandon ship procedures is a new one for us and is the result of extensive reading and discussion about how sinkings actually happen. In some cases the scenario evolves extremely rapidly, e.g. the boat hits an uncharted rock and sinks in 5-10 minutes, or catches fire and goes up like a torch.

In those scenarios all we do is get into our survival suits (already ready to go in the salon), grab our individual Personal Locator Beacons, set them off and jump into the water. The Gpirb on Duet’s boat deck will deploy once Duet reaches about 12 feet below the surface, as will the life raft. Presumably the life raft will come up near enough so we can board it. If not, we can float almost indefinitely in the survival suits. The key to surviving in this scenario is to make sure you have the suit on, so you don’t freeze to death before the life raft shows up. Also, we might have no time to radio a distress signal, so the PLBs are critical to us being found. We would try not to get separated in the water, but both of us should have a PLB, just in case. 

We will also not wear our auto inflating life vests, as the suits float on their own. If we go into the raft in an orderly fashion from the boat, we will do it with our vests on and take the survival suits with us for donning later as we figure it will be harder to get into the raft from the boat in the suits, which are awkward to move around in. We are still thinking these scenarios through as the survival suits are something we haven’t worked with before. So we talked through these exciting scenarios, watched the weather and generally prepared to go.

The rest of our trip and subsequent return to BC will be covered in the next blog