North Pacific Voyage
In April 2020, Matt Thomas invited me to join his staysail schooner Terra Nova for an attempt at the Northwest Passage, west to east. I would join in Poulsbo, Washington, across Puget Sound from Seattle. We would depart Poulsbo mid-May, sail to the Beaufort Sea via Sitka, Homer, Unimak Pass, Nome and the Bering Strait, enter Amundson Gulf in early August, and proceed to the Baffin Sea by Coronation and Queen Maude Gulfs, Peel Sound, and Lancaster Sound. We’d enter the Davis Strait in mid-September and make the Maritimes in October.
Terra Nova is a sixty-foot Grahame Shannon design, steel. Originally 53 feet, Matt added seven feet aft, giving additional deck space and a cavernous lazarette, and allowing him to eliminate the mainmast’s running backstays. Another result was significant added weight aft, which, to bring the yacht into trim, required very heavy ground tackle forward. With the food, supplies, gear and extra fuel we carried for the NWP attempt (including three fuel bladders on deck), she sailed somewhat heavily and had a tendency to ship green water on the wind. But Terra Nova is staunch, well equipped, generally confidence-instilling, and seemed well capable of attempting the NWP.
For the first part of the voyage we were four. Skipper and owner Matt Thomas is a decorated Coast Guard rescue pilot, National Transportation Safety Board investigator, and now pilot for a major carrier; he’s an extremely capable individual. Hank, a retired teacher, has a passion for urban farming and particularly urban beekeeping, and has put in his time ‘round the buoys racing in Detroit. Sean, thirty-two years old, lives aboard his Rhodes Bounty II in Oregon. He’s an excellent sailor and shipmate. I am an admiralty attorney in Portland, Maine, who’s been sailing long enough to know, now and then, what he’s doing.
From Poulsbo we motored to Port Townsend, at the entrance to Puget Sound. In the days of sail Port Townsend, located where the oceanic winds die away, contended for Washington state capital. But the Northern Pacific Railroad would not extend its line to Port Townsend and the city withered. It retains beautiful 1890’s architecture, including public buildings built to signal preeminence.
Today the city is a mecca for yacht building and repair. Terra Nova’s extensive refit was accomplished at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op. The Co-Op is a shipyard owned and managed by its member shipwrights, electricians, sailmakers and other marine tradesfolk, just thirty in number and each a master in his or her specialty. The members vote to approve any prospective member, a weighty matter, and the result is a high standard of marine excellence.
This seems a superb model for shipyard organization, and I wish we had such a yard on the east coast. Thirty years as a New England admiralty lawyer and yacht owner has convinced me that even the brand name yards are capable, and on any given day, of supplying shockingly bad work.
We were under way for Sitka the next morning, motoring slowly into a fresh westerly. The snowy Olympics were to port, Vancouver Island to starboard, Rainier, Baker and their volcanic kin astern, the North Pacific on the bow and blue sky and bright sun overhead.
A day later we had come right for Sitka, eight hundred miles, reaching at six knots, the Hydrovane steering. Whales and porpoises abounded, as did pelagic birds, many new to me. With evening the wind veered and freshened, and we set the trysail, permanently mounted on its own track. All the older authorities endorse this arrangement but I had no idea how it eases blue water sailing to able to set a trysail with no fuss at all. The result is that one uses the trysail as often as appropriate, rather than relying too often on wishful thinking and a closely reefed and perhaps overstrained main.
The forecasted front passed without dramatics, and now we had a reaching breeze, making eight knots on course, the mountains of Vancouver Island rising over the sea forty miles to starboard. There were gusts to 40 and we touched ten knots, the big boat charging like a freight train. I made a note not to fall overboard.
A week later we approached the Alaskan coast, three-thousand-foot mountains to windward, still snowy but well into the spring melt. Mt. Edgecumbe, the volcano looming over Sitka, was plainly visible forty miles to our north. Mt. Edgecumbe is extinct, but on April 1, 1974, a local prankster ignited a pile of seventy tires he’d flown to the summit. The pillar of black smoke convinced Sitka residents that their local volcano had come to life, until an overflight revealed “April Fool” spray painted in huge letters on the rim.
May 29 we anchored in Hot Springs Bay, a few miles south of Sitka. Most of the crew went ashore to soak in the famous springs. I was content to stay on board, get some alone time, call my wife, and shower.
The next day we were alongside in Sitka. Sitka, on the outer coast of Baranof Island, was Russian Alaska’s capital, and the Russian influence is revealed in the architecture and the local surnames. The population is nearly 9,000, and it is a vibrant little city in a jaw-dropping location.
The basin where we moored was packed with dozens of crabbers, longliners, seiners and trollers. Most of the seiners were preparing to depart for the world famous Bristol Bay salmon fishery, where a boat might clear a year’s pay in six weeks. These chunky 32 foot “limit seiners” are often family operations, four in crew cooking living in the wheelhouse right forward, and the boats are clean and well run. A sense of optimism and energy prevailed, and all hands cheered each boat as she dropped her lines and steamed out of the basin for Bristol Bay.
Sitka also has grocery stores, and we loaded up, again. It seemed impossible that Terra Nova could absorb yet more provisions, but we managed.
Hank left in Sitka, headed for Detroit and his urban farm project – and his bees. We missed him. Terra Nova departed soon afterwards, bound for Homer on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, 650 miles across the Gulf of Alaska.
Before we left the archipelago we stopped at a likely deep reef, and in a few minutes boated a sixty-pound halibut! Dinner was rice cooked in a big pot with soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and spring onions, and thick pieces of the world’s best halibut laid on the rice, where it steamed to fragrant perfection.
June 1st found us steering NNW before a 30-knot breeze, wing and wing with the main and staysail. We wanted to be well north of the center of an approaching low, and there was discussion of coming right twenty or so degrees to broad reach on the starboard tack, rather than run dead before a gusty and increasing breeze and a building sea. We continued to run, and a bit later we yawed wildly before a forty-knot gust and the staysail backed, broke its preventer and jibed over, then jibed again as the boat yawed back. With all hands on deck, it seemed prudent to jibe the staysail yet again, put the boat squarely on port tack, and rig a new preventer before going right before the wind again. This time, however, the block attachment bail on the staysail boom ripped out of the boom, putting the staysail out of commission for a time.
The preventer had chafed at the bow chock. We later improved on both preventers by milking a twenty-foot Spectra cover over each, long enough to be properly positioned at any trim. The greater lesson, one which I should not have had to re-learn, was to check regularly for such chafe, no matter how unappealing a trip to the bow may be in lumpy weather.
June 3 found us passing a few miles off Cape Elizabeth, at the end of the Kenai Peninsula. The landscape looked raw and igneous, dark rock and slides, similar to Iceland. We could see towering live volcanoes across Cooke Inlet. The chart informed us that its bathymetry might be off up to 36 feet, on account of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.
On June 6 we moored in Homer, a fishing port which, like Sitka, was packed with seiners bound for Bristol Bay. As planned, Sean departed the ship here and joined a seiner crew. He would rejoin much later, in the Arctic. He was an able hand and a good shipmate.
Taking Sean’s place was Oakley Cochrane, Matt’s wife. Oakley had an advanced degree in geophysics, worked on the ice in Greenland, the Arctic and the Antarctic, reported from some seventy villages for a rural Alaska news service, and for fun engaged in multi-day competitive winter traverses, crossing unpeopled mountain ranges and silent rivers on foot, unsupported, no checkpoints. But she yearned for adventure, and, in her mid-30’s, Oakley enlisted in the United States Army. The Army taught her Arabic, and sent her to dusty distant places about which she would speak in only the vaguest of terms. She and Matt got to know each other on a self-guided ascent of Denali.
So now we were three. The next day we left Homer bound for Kodiak and Unimak Pass. Our transit of Cooke Inlet was marked by a lurid sunset merging into an equally lurid dawn, showing the live volcanoes that punctuate Cooke Inlet’s north shore. Our route took us past Ushagat Island in the Barren Islands group, bleak, rugged and clouded with fulmars and kittiwakes. Again I was reminded of Iceland – where would pelagic seabirds be without volcanic islands?
We arrived in Kodiak on June 8, a bright day, and were escorted into the harbor by a resident sea otter. We passed by a Liberty Ship, the Albert M. Boe, lifted out of the water and repurposed as a crab processor when the 1964 tsunami, thirty feet high, wiped out the waterfront. The tsunami will come again, and Kodiak street signs advise when one may have reached a safe elevation.
In Kodiak we repaired the staysail boom tackle, for the purpose borrowing a pneumatic rivet gun from the airport, and replaced badly worn staysail hanks.
Kodiak public radio each morning gives the salmon catch by river and species, passes along personal messages, and features a lost and found.
We departed Kodiak June 12, enroute Dutch Harbor. Good weather persisted, and we took the opportunity to motor by Lighthouse Rocks (55 deg, 46’ N, 157 deg. 27’ W), a famous Stellar Sea Lion rookery and a nesting ground for vast numbers of murres and kittiwakes.
My field guide informs me that female sea lions give birth in early summer, mate two weeks after pupping (females weigh about 500 pounds, males up to 2,400), nurse their young for a year, and wean the young when the next pup is about to be born. That’s living the dream, Matt says.
We pushed on for the Shumagin Island group, which we hoped to reach the next afternoon, before approaching bad weather.
Matt took a shower and warmly recommended the same to me. Although I did not think I smelled, I took the risk-averse position that his suggestion was a hint, and bathed.
At 1430 on June 15 we anchored in Flying Eagle Harbor, on Big Koniuji Island in the Shumagin group, 59 deg. 08’ N, 159 deg. 31’W. It was cold, breezy, the ceiling was low and it appeared for all the world that we had dropped the hook in Chimney Pond, Tuckerman’s Ravine or another glacial cirque. No sign of mankind; the place cannot have altered in a thousand years or more. Our anchorage looked like williwaw terrain and we took great care setting. We were there two nights, winds gusted over thirty, but we stayed put.
We had rain, too, and each squall immediately revealed dozens of waterfalls in the surrounding cliffs, as though a tap had been turned. The rain also revealed a leak over my bunk, soon remedied.
On June 17 we left the Shumagins for King Cove, in Cold Bay, having decided to skip Dutch Harbor. We had an easy calm 100-mile crossing and saw pelagic birds new to me, including spectacled guillemots. We also saw a shark playing with a log – it looked like a Great White, which would not surprise me given the abundant prey.
King Cove, near the end of the Alaska Peninsula, is a somewhat desolate fishing village, essentially a company town for Peter Pan Seafood. The company has several big bunkhouses, braced by steel cables against winter storms said to reach 100 knots. King Cove is surrounded by wild country, with the closest roadhead 500 miles to the east. School children are warned to watch out for hungry bears. The town was quiet when we stopped, but when the salmon are in, seiners clog the bay waiting to offload, and frozen and canned salmon leave by the freighter load. For now, the whole town was waiting, both for the fish and for the barge from Seattle on which everything comes.
I spoke to the captain of a big seiner, who told me on a ten-day trip last season he caught 1.4 million pounds of salmon, for which he got twenty cents (pinks) and $1.40 (sockeye) per pound.
On June 21 we left King Cove, bound for Unimak Pass, by which we would pass through the Aleutians and enter the Bering Sea. We timed our departure to ride a north-setting tide through the Pass. Dawn gave us a superb sunrise over the volcanoes of Unimak Island, including the perfect snowy cone of Shinhaldin, 9,000 feet. We were early for the tide, but a nice reaching breeze came up and we moved over the bottom.
Our track passed just off the location of Scotch Cap Light, which once marked the southwest corner of Unimak Island. On April 1, 1946, at 2:30 in the morning, a massive earthquake just offshore created a tsunami which wiped the reinforced concrete structure off the thirty-five foot cliff on which it stood. Five Coast Guardsmen died. It is thought the wave was over 100 feet high. We could discern the building’s foundation.
The area of the pass is rich with sea life. A few miles north of the pass we found ourselves among more large whales than I could count, clouds of seabirds, and huge shoals of small fish.
Unimak Pass is one of the great commercial waterways of the world, for it lies on the great circle route between the ports of east Asia and the west coast of the United States. As many as 5,000 container ships, tankers, car carriers, and bulk cargo ships transit this remote strait each year. We saw five large ships ourselves. Yet there is no oil spill response capability remotely nearby, nor even tug response. The potential for disaster will increase as the Northwest Passage develops into a trade route.
Our destination was St. Paul Island in the Pribilof group, about one hundred miles. During this leg we worked on our application to enter Canadian waters. In response to the pandemic, Ottawa had decreed that no foreign vessel could enter the Northwest Passage except one engaged in innocent passage, the right of a ship to traverse a country’s territorial sea, not stopping or anchoring except in response to force majeure. That wouldn’t work for us – we needed to fuel, and it would certainly be nice to anchor and go ashore.
The Canadians were entitled to their position. The 1918 influenza had devastated many native communities, and those communities, with their long memories, believed the federal government had not done nearly enough in 1918, perhaps though misgovernment and perhaps intentionally. I suggested to Matt that he arrange for Terra Nova to undergo work in a Halifax yard, and that we inform Canada that the purpose of the transit was to reach Halifax. We made the arrangements, drafted the application accordingly, and sent it off.
Terra Nova took other steps to increase the likelihood of Canada allowing us entry. We carefully monitored our own health, logging daily checks of temperature, pulse and blood oxygen. We underwent COVID-19 testing in every port. We also carried a fair amount of personal protective equipment, for donation to the appropriate village or clinic.
We had 25 knots on the port bow and a sloppy sea. The bow buried often and I wondered how the ship would fare in the fall storms we could expect in the Davis Strait.
At the last of the light we entered the basin of St. Paul and anchored. The town is Village Cove, population 350. St. Paul is famous for nesting seabirds, and in a typical year serious “bird tourists” visit for a few days, an important addition to the local economy, as are scientific researchers. Carefully regulated fur sealing was long the economic mainstay, and there is still an annual hunt. Since it was a Russian possession no domestic dog has been allowed on the island (a very strange thing in Alaska), to protect the seals from disease. There are arctic foxes, who reach the island over the winter pack ice that from time to time extends 250 miles to the mainland. We watched a fox family with its den in the large rocks of the breakwater, and listened to the howls and barks of the pups.
The basin and its massive breakwater create a harbor of refuge for the crabber fleet. I asked the harbormaster if winter storm waves ever topped the breakwater, and he said that was common – his office was shoved off its foundation in one storm. In the winter Bering Sea, 90 knot winds and 40-foot seas are common.
Although we were permitted alongside, we were not allowed off the boat, again on account of the pandemic. The fortuitous March bankruptcy of the island’s sole air carrier had sealed off St. Paul, for thirty days. St. Paul had exactly no Covid cases, and wanted to keep it that way.
Lots of folks stopped by. Many did a drive by, with or without a shy wave, and others wanted to know all about our trip. I’ve seen again and again that islands attract islanders, and we met folks from various islands across the Pacific. One Manxman had come to service the wind turbines, and extended his stay for a year. The Pribs are cold, damp, little peopled and barren, but they have their charms, especially in a plague year.
One man offered to shop, and we sent him to the store for produce, fresh baked goods, and any other targets of opportunity he might encounter. He returned with fantastically expensive potatoes and onions, some cheese, and a box of doughnuts featuring a 2017 sell-by date.
With nothing to keep us we left the same day. An hour out of port the main engine stalled, was restarted, emitted copious blue smoke and raw fuel, was shut down, and would not restart. We drained and changed filters several times, and bled and re-bled the fuel system, but no joy. It seemed likely that water had unaccountably gotten past the Racor and other filters and damaged the high pressure fuel pump, the injectors, or both.
In addition to unloading old food on us, the friendly islanders had sold us bad fuel. In retrospect, pumping fuel into the boat from a storage tank in which the fuel had probably overwintered, without first eyeballing a sample in a clear glass jar, was a big mistake. The generator continued to run.
So we had 500 miles to sail to Nome. This was a remarkably pleasant part of the trip. We had fair winds much of the way, often moderate but sometimes topping 30. When the wind dropped we simply did what we could, and in a near calm two knots could seem satisfactory. What was absent, and what made the sailing a pleasure, was the constant mental calculus the owner of a sail auxiliary undergoes in light weather. “We’re going less than 3, we’d better motor. But the breeze is just aft, I wonder if we can motorsail?”, and so on. We just sailed, working to get the best of the schooner, with good result.
We approached Nome in the wee hours and lay off. When the workday began the harbormaster sent out the Oosik, a powerful yard tug which took us in tow ahead. (Why a town would name its tug the Inuit for walrus penis, I do not know.) Once in the basin a big skiff, again competently handled, put us on the hip and brought us to the pier.
Nome marked the end of the trip for me, but not before I spent a few interesting days there. I knew Nome had been a center of gold mining, but I didn’t expect to find that gold mining remains central to the economy. All or nearly all the mining is by dredge, and there are hundreds of dredges. Some are tiny one-man operations processing beach sand. Others are big well-capitalized rigs searching the shallow offshore waters. Still others mine the sands of the inland areas. Abandoned equipment is everywhere, some more picturesque than others.
In October 1918 the steamship Victoria called at Nome. Precautions were taken against the ship bringing in the Spanish Flu, including screening of those embarking in Seattle, a quarantine of disembarked persons in Nome, and other precautions all too familiar, but the disease escaped into the community. In eight days 162 Sitnasuanmiut were dead, and more followed as the disease spread to the villages. Many whites died as well, but the disease was particularly lethal to the indigenous population, with as many as 50% dying. Whole villages were wiped out, save a few children. In the bush, families froze or starved because the adults were dead, or too sick to provide. Toddlers were found with their arms wrapped around a cold woodstove, frozen, or huddled between a dead mom and dad. A majority of elders perished, and it is thought that the resulting loss of leadership and tradition damaged Sitnasuanmiut culture in a manner still felt deeply today.
On a hillside outside of town I visited a mass grave for 172 native victims of the disease, one of many mass graves in the region. The arctic has a long memory, and, particularly with Corona virus raging, 1918 seemed not so long ago.
At this point I left the ship and flew home. I had obligations, I knew to a near certainty that Canada would refuse us entry, as well it ought, the engine was down, and my help was not wanted. Matt did get her running again, with the help of parts and technicians flown in from Port Townsend, and Sean and others joined the ship in Nome or further along. The ship got as far as Barter Island, near the Canadian border, before learning that Canada was not open for them. They made their way back, and had a good cruise.