Soon enough, departure day dawned and off we went. Initially the trip went well, we exited via Cape Spencer and set our course north up the coast. The general plan was to reach Yakutat, which is about 200 miles north of Cape Spencer, and see how the weather, and we, were faring. If all was well and the weather forecasts were still good, we would continue nonstop another 200 miles to the entrance to Prince William Sound. If not, we would enter Yakutat harbor and anchor until the weather improved.
Unfortunately, this trip didn’t go as planned. Nancy became so seasick that she was completely incapacitated, despite repeated doses of scopolamine. We aren’t sure why this happened, she has seen conditions like this before, but, regardless, we stopped at Yakutat. Until we got there, 27 hours after we left Cape Spencer, Ron ran the boat. While it did remind him of his years as medical resident, it is definitely not the recommended way to do things, and stopping at Yakutat was definitely the right decision. Nancy wasn’t getting any better, she was getting worse, and Ron was getting more and more tired.
As an aside, conditions on the journey were 3-5 foot seas on the nose, with a period (time between waves) of about 5 seconds. The period seems even shorter when you are going into the waves. Wind was also on the nose, at about 15 knots. This is normal for the Gulf of Alaska at this time of year, but it does represent a pretty short chop, so it was bumpy. Head seas like this are uncomfortable even if you don’t get sick, as the boat tends to bang up and down as she travels up the wave and then drops off the back. Duet handled it with aplomb, although she did do a bit of bulbous bow slapping. We were pleased with her sea manners during this journey, as we have been with her on all the trips we have made.
As is predictable in these situations, the arrival at Yakutat, rather than being simple, was difficult. It was very foggy, we were running entirely on radar and electronic navigation, as we couldn’t see a thing. Not only that, but once we got into Yakutat harbor, we ended up in a narrow channel, surrounded by rocky outcroppings and shallow water, with significant current on Duet’s stern. Ron was steering, trying to find a buoy that we knew had to be there, so we could turn north into the anchorage. The radar was cluttered, due to traffic in the harbor.
As Ron steered a tight course, at slow speed, the boat began to wander, way off course. Basically, he would steer 10 degrees starboard, for example, and she would just keep going to starboard, no matter what he did with the rudder. We thought that the steering system had failed. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good, we were wandering all over an area littered with hazards, in the fog.
After a few minutes of this, during which, miraculously, we didn’t hit anything, including other boats in the area, the stabilizer alarm sounded. Suddenly a light bulb went off: The stabilizers were interfering with Ron’s efforts to steer. We don’t fully understand why this occurred, but we have heard of it happening on other stabilized boats with large fin systems. Our impression is that fast following current (which we had) in conjunction with lower engine RPMs (we were trying to go slowly in the thick fog) set us up for this mishap.
So Ron told Nancy to center the fins. She tried everything, pushed all the buttons, but nothing worked and the alarm continued to blare. We then shut the system off at the electrical panel, although we weren’t sure exactly what that would do to the system. Regardless, we couldn’t continue as we were. Silence ensued and steering control quickly returned.
We immediately reversed course and headed back to the more open area of the harbor. . During this time, several smaller boats had carefully worked their way around us, no doubt wondering what we were up to. We were happy to have the steering back, so we didn’t really care that we looked like complete idiots to the boating population of Yakutat, although we felt badly about boats we had cut off in our wanderings.
Once we got back on track out of the harbor and into deep water where we had some room to maneuver, we rebooted the stabilizers and they worked just fine. Another lesson learned. Actually, a lesson remembered, as we’d had this problem, in a much more minor way, on the 46. She had smaller fins and did not have the sophisticated (and fast) electronic control head that Duet has. So her fins, while they fought the steering in similar situations, e.g. current on the rear and very slow speeds, never actually managed to take control. Now, as part of SOP, we center Duet’s fins when we expect current on the stern and slow speeds, thereby removing the risk of the phantom wheel.
We then repaired to an anchorage about two hours away. During that time the fog lifted and Nancy felt much better, since we were now in calm waters. The sun even came out, revealing the Yakutat area to be surrounded by beautiful mountains. We set the hook without incident, and the slept the rest of the day. We awoke for dinner and slept another 12 hours.
The next morning, after breakfast, we talked about what to do next. One choice was to set out again for Prince William. The weather was still cooperating, so we could go if we wanted to. Ron, however, felt strongly that subjecting Nancy to another 24 hours of this wasn’t a good idea. Nancy, honestly, didn’t want to go through it again either. So we decided to turn around, go back to Cape Spencer and spend the rest of the summer in SE Alaska. We also began to talk frankly about what this meant for our future cruising plans, such as crossing the South Pacific.
One of the things this journey really brought home to us, besides the fact that we either need to change Nancy’s drug regime so she remains functional during uphill journeys, or she should not go uphill, is that having just the two of us aboard for offshore runs where we can’t stop is risky. When one of us is out of commission, for whatever reason, the burden on the other is significant. This is especially true if the injured party doesn’t recover.
The trip also illustrated that it’s often not just one problem, they tend to come in groups. First Nancy was sick, then we had fog and, finally, we had stabilizer issues. Any one of these was significant, all three, taken together, could have resulted in damage to the boat or injury to her crew. We were lucky nothing else went wrong and we were able to manage the issues that did arise.
So we turned around and went back. The return journey was easy, with seas and wind behind us. Nancy felt fine, with light doses of scopolamine. As an aside, there is some possibility that her sickness was aggravated by too much scop, rather than too little. While the gel version of the drug is much easier to tolerate than the patch, it is hard to judge how much is being absorbed, and she had a lot. Ron is working on some other drug combinations that we will test on Nancy, which may be used in combination with light doses of scop or may be used alone.
Whatever, Nancy was just thrilled not to be sick. She took the night watch from 1AM to 4AM, talked to Stan on the Nordhavn 57 Crossroads, who was northbound while we were southbound, watched the whales, and generally had a good trip. Ron, happy she wasn’t throwing up everywhere, got some sleep and drank far fewer Diet Cokes than on the trip up. Three days after we left for Prince William Sound, we were back where we started, at Dundas Bay.
One of the side benefits of an ocean passage is you have plenty of time to talk. After discussing our recent experience and our cruising plans in some detail, we decided that, instead of setting off on an ambitious trip across the South Pacific, we will stay closer to home and take Duet to Mexico this fall instead. Should we then decide to undertake a long ocean passage, we will take crew, despite the fact that we would rather do it alone. We would also rather come back in one piece, and taking crew definitely increases our chances of doing so.
Serendipitously, it turns out that this year is the year of the biennial CUBAR event, which is a power boat rally from San Diego to La Paz, Mexico. The rally is limited to 50 boats, and nearly a dozen Nordhavns, most of whom we know, had already signed up. We’ve never done a rally before, so we thought we would give this one a try. Once we reached Juneau and had an internet connection, Nancy sorted out all the paperwork, and we were in.
Our biggest disappointment this summer was the caliber of our fishing. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to catch anything. We tried bait, we tried lures, we tried begging, we even tried running the fish over with the dinghy (not really but we did talk about it) but no joy. In the end, on our last fishing trip before we left, we did manage to boat a very small halibut. In fact it was so small we felt sorry for it and put it back, so it could grow into a big halibut we can catch next time we come north.
We did all the quintessential SE Alaskan cruising things, we went to Glacier Bay, we traversed Tracys Arm, we anchored in Red Bluff, we went to Juneau, etc. It was all magnificent. We enjoyed everything, from the whales to the fishing boats. The weather was good most of the time, actually the sun shone almost all the time, which is apparently pretty unusual for SE Alaska.
The pictures below are in no particuar order, and are some of many we took.
We even saw a boat using a tidal grid, which many of the Alaskan harbors have. When the tide goes out, the boat sits on a “grid” and is tied to the railings beside it. This allows it’s crew to clean the bottom, or repair gear. The key is getting it all done before the tide comes in. This free Travelift is only possible in areas with a really large tidal range, like Alaska.
The distances from one place to another are significant. We frequently traveled 60 miles a day, which seemed a lot to us, as we were used to the 20 mile days of the Bahamas and the Chesapeake Bay. The anchorages can be quite tight to enter, although we got bolder with time and experience. We used the radar and PC navigation in conjunction, to ensure that the charts were accurate. This was a skill we had developed in the Bahamas, where the charts aren’t very accurate. We did find that the NOAA rasters and the Canadian rasters were extremely accurate, while the vectors occasionally had issues, which usually involved missing information.
In the pictures below you can see the radar image of Blunden Harbor and the chart image. We take bearings and distances to charted features that are also recognizable on the radar. If there is not close agreement, we know the charts are off– the radar never lies. We have also found that, in the narrow anchorages and approaches, the charts are not really that useful because 95% of the time GPS is only accurate to within up to about 15 meters or 50 feet. This is straight GPS without a WAAS or Differential correction. If you are receiving one of those, accuracy improves to within 3 meters or 10 feet. Duet has a Differential GPS, but in most of the areas we were cruising there was no differential signal so we were operating with straight GPS. So in a channel that is only about 100 feet wide, the radar is more useful, but you need the chart as well to tell you what to expect.
This process has worked well for us. Some of these entrances are hard to see until you are right on top of them, so having the radar showing the entrance as it emerges (sometimes well before you can discern it with the eye) combined with the chart showing what to expect beyond the radar’s view, allows us to take good advantage of both navigation technologies. We entered narrow channels, that emerged after we had committed to the overall entry, with rocks on either side, and, while these were never easy, they were much less stressful using the combination of radar plus digital charts.
A good example of this is Red Bluff Harbor. The entry channel is narrow, and you can’t see it until you are already around the corner, so you have to have faith that it is really there. To the eye, it actually looks easier to go between two islands (the wrong way) than into what looks like a blind bay (the right way). The first time we entered we had a sea running on our beam, which made things more interesting as we had to keep Duet lined up while the seas were trying to push her sideways.
We also couldn’t see the channel at all, although Nancy figured out where it was by looking high up for the cut between the cliffs. Ron took Duet close enough that he could see it, turned her around and then approached with enthusiasm to control her sideslipping, once he knew where the entrance was. The radar showed it clearly emerging, as did the chart, but we also wanted to see it with our own eyes, to get a sense of how to enter it. Red Bluff was worth all this effort, it was a stunning deep fjord, with a big meadow at it’s head and a huge waterfall. We spent several days there, twice.
As an aside, the radar can occasionally deliver too much information. The picture below is of our large (12KW) Furuno radar at night, traveling north along the coast. The bigger blobs, with the solid trails, are logs or other debris in the water. The little trails going every which way are birds. Nancy is convinced that the local birds, when they know she is arriving, put on foil hats and go flying around, just to produce this kind of radar image. Ron has learned to tune the radar well, so that we don’t often have this kind of confusion. Debris in the water at night, however, is a cause for concern, hence he was using the enhanced sensitivity in this situation.
This photo shows ice on the radar. It was taken at Tracys Arm, when we were approaching a glacier. There is a lot of small ice floating around and it can form what looks like an impermeable barrier. As you get closer, though, you realize that the bits are, mostly, small enough to go straight through. The key is to spot the bigger ones without running over them.
Anchorages in AK are often deep. Most of the time we anchored in more than 50 feet of water, although we tried to stay under 80 if we could. Often the bottom is rock or gravel and there isn’t much room for boats to set a hook, but our big Rocna never let us down. It did once tangle with a large rock, which took some sorting out, but we managed. We anchored on short scope, about 3 to 1, in deep waters, so putting out 250 feet of chain was normal and 300 didn’t occasion comment. Supplies were easy to come by, at least compared to the Bahamas, and we even managed to go to the movies in Juneau.
The scenery was incredible, no matter where we went. The people are very friendly, and we saw some great fishing boats. We ran into old friends, made new ones and generally lived the cruising life. We saw many trawlers and few sailboats, which is the complete reverse of our east coast cruising. We also saw a lot of cruise ships, we grew used to their schedules and managed to avoid their comings and goings, as they tend to take up most of the water they are in.
We had some amazing experiences. We listened to ice bergs crackling in the water at night as they floated down the channel. We heard eagles screaming as they argued about who caught what. We saw a young moose walking on the beach at dawn. We were woken by fishing boats roaring out of their slips at 3AM when the season opened. We heard, and smelled, whales spout. We watched the sun set at 11PM and rise at 3AM. We floated in front of a glacier and listened to the cracking and rumbling and then the splash as it calved. We heard wolves howling at night near our anchorage. The list goes on and on.
Looking back on the journey, the time we spent with whales stands out. They seem to feel an affinity for Duet. We’re not sure why, although she is of a similar size to the humpbacks. When we toured the Glacier Bay National Park the ranger said that the whales rely on their hearing to identify things to avoid, such as boats. Duet is very quiet, so we had a number of close encounters, primarily with humpback whales, although Nancy almost ran over a killer whale in Icy Strait.
This was the first time we had seen whales in the wild and it was a truly amazing experience, even if it was a little hair raising each time, as the whales don’t seem to have gotten the memo about staying at least 100 yards away from the boats at all times. They appear without warning, and are completely unpredictable, so our standard reaction was to shift into idle and drift until we had some sense of whether they had passed by or were still somewhere under us. After watching one jump completely out of the water and land with a truly enormous splash, we only hoped that they had the good sense not to do that while near, or worse, underneath Duet. Meeting whales was most disconcerting in the fog, as you could hear them breathing, but not see them until they were literally only feet away from the boat.
Needless to say, we never got any really decent pictures of the whales, as they come up and disappear while we are still pointing and saying “whale”. So we have included just a couple to give our readers the general idea.
Too soon it was time to start south. Captain Ron was to turn back into Dr. Ron for a good part of August, so we set off south in mid July, planning to leave Duet somewhere in Washington or southern BC, while we returned home to Tahoe for a few weeks.
We had hoped for an offshore window for our southern journey. It would be a down hill run, hence easy for Nancy, and it would also give us a chance to try out some of Ron’s new seasickness cocktails. Unfortunately, as is typical when you are on a schedule, no window appeared and we set off down the inside route. While this is, at least to us, more tiring, as it requires long days to complete in the two weeks or so we had to do it, it does have the benefit of magnificent scenery and a good night’s sleep every night.
On July 14, we departed Ketchikan after taking on 750 gallons of fuel. We anchored out for a day to see if, by any chance, the weather would improve enough to sneak offshore. Naturally, it got worse, not better, so the next day we made tracks for BC. We anchored the first night in Brundidge Inlet, where we had stayed prior to our arrival in Ketchikan on the trip north.
Unfortunately for Ron, at this time of the year Brundidge is dominated by a small black biting fly, which Ron turns out to be highly allergic to. After pulling our hook the next morning, he was covered in quarter sized welts, which swelled considerably, itched like mad and took several days to resolve, despite steroid cream and ice. So we established a new anchoring outfit, which included long pants, a sweatshirt, a hat, socks and shoes, lots of bug repellent and latex gloves. That worked pretty well elsewhere, as he wasn’t bitten again, but he did look a little odd.
We averaged about 70 miles per day on the trip south. We were running Duet harder than on the trip north, at 1610 RPM, and she delivered about 7.25 knots per hour on average on the trip. When we fuel later this summer we will calculate the mileage she delivers at this higher RPM. Her bottom is pretty dirty, so we figure it’s costing us at least half a knot. Since it will be redone when we get to Southern California in September, having it cleaning in Alaska didn’t make sense. We did our best to take advantage of the current where we could, but did spend time chugging along at 5-6 knots, although we also did our fair share of zooming at 9.
The weather remained difficult for most of the trip, although we had a lot of sunny days. We were held up for a day north of Cape Caution, waiting for the wind to die down. We knew this was the right decision when we passed a parade of tugs with tows running inside to avoid the weather outside. We also saw a number of fishing boats anchored along the sides of the channel, waiting for the weather to improve.
Most nights we stayed in anchorages we had visited on the way up. Since we were arriving late and leaving early, it made more sense to go to places we knew. That said, we found a couple of new anchorages on the way, including the beautiful Discovery Bay, just north of Bella Bella. We arrived back at Sidney after 9 days of running and 2 weather days, having covered over 750 miles. It was the fastest journey we have ever made anywhere, and clearly demonstrated Duet’s ability to cover the miles if necessary. We tied up again at our old favorite, Van Isle Marina, two slips down from where we spent the winter, and readied Duet to be left along for three weeks. We did experience a little culture shock upon our return, southern BC seemed awfully crowded after SE AK. The radar image below is of Montague Harbor when we arrived looking for a parking spot.
On the technical front, Duet ran extremely well throughout the summer, over a journey of about 2,500 miles. The biggest project of the summer was a new wifi multiplexor, which lets our various instruments to communicate with our PC based electronic navigation. For our technically inclined readers, all of Duet’s navigation gear is NMEA 0183. The multiplexor required some programming to keep it running smoothly but Ron got it all figured out in the end.
This new bit of gear also allows us to run two systems simultaneously, one on our main computer (hard wired) and one on our laptop (by wi fi). So we started a new process, we put one type of chart on one screen and another type on the other. Sometimes different chart types show different hazards, so this is useful. We have found the NOAA raster charts to be extremely accurate in Alaska, as are the Canadian Hydrographic Service raster charts in BC. This system can also talk to the navigation system Nancy has on her iPad. We have tested this but not used it yet. As an aside, we also learned to use the split screen function on Coastal Explorer, which was useful in situations where we needed the charts side by side on the big screen.
We have had some issues, the most complex of which is an intermittent electrical problem involving voltage drop from the generator when our air conditioning units fire up. This causes our inverter to become confused and switch to invert from charge, which isn’t good for it when it does it frequently and rapidly.
In a clear demonstration of the reach of the Nordhavn family, we were tied up behind the Nordhavn 50, Colibri, in Juneau. In his professional life, Colibri’s owner, Christopher Dent, is the brains behind Dent Instruments, which makes high end electrical testing equipment. It so happened that Christopher had one of these testing machines aboard Colibri. He kindly spent a morning with Ron, testing our equipment. The results of these tests have helped Ron narrow down the problem and should help with figuring out a solution, when we reach Newport Beach.
Christopher doesn’t spent all his time at docks testing equipment. The picture below was taken by his wife Diana, when they were cruising in Prince William Sound. Christopher decided to test his survival suit in the cold water, and reports that he stayed quite warm, although his stern got a bit chilly after sitting on an iceberg for 30 minutes. Ron and I are glad that intrepid voyagers like Christopher are carrying out these kinds of tests, so we don’t have to.
Back on the technical front, finally, we have decided to deep six our Vacuflush heads (toilets). They are high maintenance and we prefer the simplicity of the new Tecma units. We shall have the new ones installed when we reach the yard in September.
Other than that, we have no major technical issues to report. Despite her age, Duet functions flawlessly. The more we run her, the better we like her. She handles the sea conditions, current, anchoring challenges and any other things we throw at her without drama and is eminently predictable.
We expect to leave the PNW in late August, planning to journey to Newport Beach nonstop, weather permitting. In the meantime, we are looking forward to seeing friends in Tahoe, while Ron does a little work and Nancy catches up with the mail and gets us organized for the next round of cruising combined with trips home, boat yard work, etc.