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M/V Serendipity
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Big fish in Petersburg
05/25/2009, 56 48.640'N:132 57.831'W, Petersburg,AK


Big fish in Petersburg

We ran up Wrangel Narrows from our close-in anchorage in St John Harbor, and it was a piece of cake, navigationally at least. The weather was bright and we almost got the currents perfect.

Perfect means letting the flood carry you to Rock Point and then having the ebb pull you back out the top to Petersburg. Unfortunately, the powerful spring tide current carried us in too rapidly, despite my keeping the Deere as close to idle as I could without having it cool off too much, so we had to push through a half knot or so of adverse current on the second half of the narrows to get into Petersburg.

While we were nearly the end of the narrows, but still threading through a number of buoys to avoid the shallows on either side, the USGS decided to board us. Which was interesting, because they told us to keep going to avoid blocking the channel. They transferred their boarding crew onto our swim platform at about six knots. By the time Deb got downstairs, they were knocking on the back door.

My job was to keep driving the boat while the boarding crew went over us from top to bottom with Deb's help. We passed with flying colors (thanks to our earlier Vessel Safety Check in Sequim!) and the USCG congratulated us on having a safe boat. They liked the fact that the Inland Navigational Manual was next to the flares and that we had Seafire systems in ER and Lazarette.

But I found it challenging and bit unnerving to have a boarding crew climbing over my boat from PH to ER while I had to keep my eyes on the water to thread my way through Wrangel Narrows. But now I've got my boarding for the year, so I guess I can just flash my clean checklist at the next Coastie. I guess they had to do something to make Wrangel Narrows more interesting, because we met no large boats during the passage. They're what usually make the journey memorable as there isn't much room to pass.

As I'm learning isusual in Alaska, when we arrived in Petersburg, the harbormaster placed us on the dock with all the seiners which are similar in length to our boat. Those fish boats are fascinating to study, as they are all well-maintained and professionally set up, and each has a name that has a story behind it Interestingly, everyone had an anchor hanging off the front (invariably the same double-fluked anchor whose named escapes me) that looked ridiculously large. These guys are serious about riding out bad weather on the hook.

Of course, we are still having nearly perfect weather. Blue sky, mid-60's and no wind. It simply could not be more ideal.

The town of Petersburg is very much a fisherman's town, and nearly every job is tied to boats, fishing or the fish buyers and canneries. It's also still predominately Norwegian and the Sons of Norway building was one of the largest in town. As near as I can tell, every man in town wore the same style of beard and most of them were truly of Norwegian heritage. They were also a friendly bunch, with everyone you meet on the sidewalk greeting you as if they really do care that you are there and that you are having a good day. About 2800 people live there in the winter, and about 3800 in summer when the fish buyers and cannery are running.

We arrived during the Salmon Derby, and some places were closed with "Gone to the Derby" signs up. The excitement was visible everywhere. In fact, when I met a woman on the street and asked the way to the harbor master's office, she said excitedly, "You want to see the fish too? I heard someone got a king over 58 pounds. I'll show you." And she nearly ran down the street in her haste to get to the Derby weigh-in area where a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers were gathering to admire a gigantic king salmon. People get really excited about big fish in a fishing town.

Fortunately, the harbor master's office was next door so I could pay my bill.

The fish was pretty big too, but I'm no expert. Deb and I went over to admire it later. They had it displayed on ice under glass next to the weigh-in table.

I still haven't caught a salmon myself. But that will change once we get to Auke Bay and I have a guide or two teach me a thing or two so I can fish the rest of the summer off the back of Serendipity.

I also met an interesting gentleman on the dock, Tom from Wasila, who had just returned from a ten day adventure in a tiny skiff hunting bear. He'd taken his skiff down Wrangel Narrows alone and then spent ten days traveling out Sumner Channel, camping on shore each night, hunting bear. He finally got one, and was returning to Wasila the next morning (leaving the tiny skiff behind). He'd recently completed a quest to reach the highest point in every one of the 50 states, and had returned spent part of last winter on a Russian expedition boat going to Antarctica. Clearly, he's the adventurous and ambitious type. He was fascinated with Serendipity, but it was late at night when we met on the dock while I walked Lotus, and Deb was already asleep, so I didn't invite him in for a tour. I could tell he was disappointed.

We're off to Tracy Arm glacier tomorrow.

Calm seas.

John and Deb

2009 Alaska Cruise
Long, bright stillness
05/23/2009, 56 27.007'N:132 57.776'W, St. John's Bay (Sumner Strait)


Long, bright stillness

We got up at 5:00am to make an early departure from Ketchikan. Stepping outside at that normally unholy hour was like walking into mid-morning brightness. The air was warming, was very dry, sky was clear, there wasn't a hint of a breeze, and fishermen were already at work all over the marina, using the good weather to get their boats ready for the season. The sky was so bright that I would have guessed it was 9:00am or later down in the Lower 48.

We were out of the marina by 5:30am. Our plan was to push all the way up Clarence Strait to Snow Pass and then to a small unpopulated harbor named St. Johns. Over 80 miles, plus we had a forecast of 20 knot winds and 4 foot waves from the NW in Clarence Strait - directly into our teeth. That's not enough to stop us, but closely-spaced 4 foot seas on the bow make for an uncomfortable ride. "Stirs the tanks" as I call it. So we were hustling to get most of the way up that long strait before the winds blew.

Bottom line. we never had any wind, and the upper half of Clarence was glassy smooth and lake like. The sky was robin's egg blue with just a few puffy cumulus clouds here and there. The terrain isn't steep around Clarence Strait, which is ten miles or so wide in places, although we were surrounded by distant snow caps in all directions and had completely pristine shores all the way. After getting out of Tongas Narrows (Ketchikan) and north of Meyer's Chuck, we didn't see any signs of habitation in more than 9 hours of cruising.

Snow Pass is written up as challenging in the Douglas Guide due to non-laminar flow (which means swirlies), so I slowed down to arrive after the peak ebb current of 3+ knots had dropped to 2+ (we are in the spring tides) but it turned out to be a "1" on the scale of "10" for swirlies. Salt water rapids are much more impressive down in BC than up here in Alaska, at least from what I've seen so far. So we took the 2+ knot push and said "thank you".

The prime anchoring spot in St John's was taken, so we had to anchor in a more exposed spot with a fairly rocky bottom. The set was good enough to handle 3 knots worth of power in reverse, but at 5 knots the anchor was jerking as it rolled the rocks over, the chain making a bunch of noise. Nothing for the Rocna to dig into. But we have an easy way out of here if a really big wind comes up, so with the anchor alarm set, we'll sleep well. Forecast is for light winds tonight from the east in any case, and we're sheltered from that direction.

On the other hand, we had to set the anchor to handle a 12 foot tidal rise from the time we set it, and then a 20 foot drop overnight. Makes setting the right scope and the right anchor watch circle on the NavNet interesting. Even more interesting, we're anchored on a little plateau that's 55 feet deep at zero tide, with 150 foot deep water about two boat lengths from the anchor in all directions. If we drag that thing off the edge of that tiny plateau, then the 220 feet of chain we have out will hardly reach the bottom. Anchoring is interesting up here. Fortunately, my anchor alarm will sound before the anchor drags over the edge.

Speaking of which, our stateroom is so well insulated down in the bottom of the boat that we can't hear anything that's going on in the pilot house, including the anchor alarm. I've fixed that by installing a wireless digital baby monitor that listens to the "baby" (the instruments in the pilot house) with the speaker down in the stateroom. Totally reliable and only 35 bucks. Beats running wires and adding speakers and installing instruments downstairs. I can even hear if the wind comes up and the antennas start rattling. Or if someone is blowing his horn -- whatever. Sometimes simple is better. I now have ears in the PH without being there.

We spent an interesting evening last night with Jim and Christie Caldwell over on their Nordic Tug 42, Noeta. They'd got one of the perfect boats for these waters. Simple, fast when you need it, economical when you don't need fast, and doesn't draw a lot of water. Plus its got Pacific Northwest built into its DNA, given its built in Washington, right near Anacortes. We like our Nordhavn a very great deal, but if I was only going to cruise the PNW, I'd look very close at one of those tugs.

More interesting than their boat were Jim and Christie's exploits. The night we took a lot of wind from that storm in Codville Lagoon, but sat securely at anchor on our Rocna, they were a few miles north in Bottleneck Inlet and could not get their Bruce to hold in 25 to 30 knots. They'd set it per normal when they arrived, but only were able to put out 3 or 3.5 to 1 scope due to the size of the inlet and other boats -- the classic problem we have up here. When the storm really got going near midnight, they had to get up in the "silver whiteout" (spotlight simply creates a silver aurora around the boat and you can't see anything) of blowing rain and utter darkness to reset their anchor several times. Given the tiny inlet, the other boats that were anchored there, and the near gale force winds that kept hitting them from different directions, they had one heck of a night. They also showed some real seamanship (of the PNW type) in moving around the narrow inlet (not forgetting t he rocky ledges that stick out like teeth along the shore) to reset, wind blowing the boat sideways and every way, standing outside in that horrific cold wind and rain trying to find the right spot to drop and reset - and then get up and do it two more times in the next few hours! They kept themselves and their boat safe, which is what seamanship is all about. Yet by morning they were exhausted and shaking with the jitters you get from running on adrenaline and too little food or drink for far too long.

All of which reinforces my belief that the right ground tackle, stuff you know can handle a big blow on short scope, is the secret to cruising these waters and still getting some decent sleep.

They are off back down to CA for a couple of weeks on a silver bird, but we hope to catch up to them over in Sitka. Seems likes that the place to be come mid-summer.

We're going to spend Saturday night (23rd) in Petersburg, a Scandinavian town in the middle of SE Alaska, but we have to run Wrangel Narrows first.

Much of Wrangel Narrows is a narrow (duh!) dredged channel with more navigational markers per mile than any other channel in the US. It's also full of barges and cruise ships and ferries that hog almost all that channel, and the depth only a few feet outside the channel is too shallow for us. Plus we are starting on a minus 2.5 foot tide, and ending on an 18 foot tide, a tidal range shift of over 20 feet while we are in the channel. At minus 2.5 , we might be looking at a ditch through mudflats.

Interestingly, it's possible to time Wrangel Narrows t to have the flood tide push you in the mid-point and then have it suck you out the top. That's because it floods in both ends (or ebbs both ends) at the same time, meeting in the middle. Do it right, and you get a 20 mile push at more than 6 knots (we're in the spring tides). Do it wrong, and you've got that current against you all the way. So I'm working to get my timing right so that I can get flushed all the way through the Narrows and only carry enough power to maintain steerageway and keep the engine warm. St John's harbor, where we are anchored, is only 5 miles from the start of the Narrows, so it's an easy jump off point. Anyway, should be an interesting pilotage and currents challenge tomorrow.

We heard the USCG working a potential rescue issue today where a boat sighted flares being shot off near Hog Rocks south of Ketchikan. Interesting, they were asking the people to do the "fist test". That's a method to estimate the distance of an object of known height (like the top of a flare's rise). You basically make a fist, extend your arm, and orient the base of your fist with the horizon and then you note how many knuckles up your hand the object is. The data is useful in estimating slant ranges. A new one for me.

For tonight, we are enjoying the bright stillness of a very long and nearly cloudless evening along the edge of Sumner Strait. The sun just lasts and lasts this time of year up here. Many people think of Alaska as cold and snow, but in the summer, it's endless, beautiful sunlight and a sense of profound stillness.

Of course, this high pressure and these blue skies won't last forever. Per the forecast, nature will restore the balance of things with a few days of rain starting on Sunday or Monday.

Hopefully by the time the rain and wind stop, we'll be in Auke Bay, Juneau.

Calm seas.

John and Deb

2009 Alaska Cruise
05/24/2009 | Jim Evans

Again, just want to pass on how much I enjoy reading your blog and following your adventures. I am curious though, I have lived in the Fairbanks Alaska area for about 15 years now and read something on your blog that I have never heard of. Do they really have devices on shopping carts that keep them from leaving the parking lot, or did I just miss the joke? Also you are starting to sound like us when we refer to the "lower 48" Again great blog and hope to meet you someday as my future includes a N55.

Jim Evans
Fairbanks, Alaska
05/28/2009 | John Marshall
Jim, It's no joke when the infernal brakes on those shopping carts kicks in. Seems to be a different design than the one I saw in Nainamo, but works the same. Some kind of wire buried in the pavement sends a signal. Like those wireless dog leashes, I guess.
Ketchikan's new horizons
05/21/2009, 55 21.023'N:131 40.972'W, Ketchikan, AK


Ketchikan's new horizons

We made to Alaska's First City at noon today after a very easy crossing of Dixon Entrance with 3 to 4 foot swells on the beam, mostly from the SW, and no wind. Stabilizers took all the roll out. The swells followed us up the channel most of the way, but it was still an easy ride into the last turn to Ketchikan and Alaska's First City, a town of 8000 residents.

Finally... Alaska!

I'm writing this now at 9:00PM Alaska time (10PM Pacific) while watching a nice sunset in the distance. It's still mostly clear, but the town is quiet as a mouse as the sun goes down.

When we arrived at noon, the first thing we noted were four huge cruise ships tied up which had disgorged approximately 8000 passengers. Apparently everyone in Ketchikan gets their own cruise ship person to take care of when they arrive.

But, as I quickly discovered after talking with the locals, not everyone thinks that's a good thing. The obvious exception being the trinket sellers down by the cruise docks.

Once we got in and berthed (a great, wide slip in Bar Harbor that is otherwise mostly filled with fishing boats), I immediately met a local captain who ran an 89 foot boat named Amelie. He goes out to meet the purse seiners and offload their cargo and carry it back to market. He thanked us for sucking some good weather up north with us (the sun arrived when we did) so that he can do some painting on his boat. Of course, he then forbade us to leave town until his painting was done, or the weather turned bad, whichever came first.

He described how he made 70 trips in across Dixon Entrance to meet and offload the seiners last season, and only 5 of those trips were in good weather. The bad days had up to 80 knots and 20 foot waves. The seiners duck out of the weather in various coves, and then call for him to come and offload their catch while it's fresh and to make room for more fishing when the weather improves. So he has to go out in the worst possible weather and then raft up to them to offload their fish, often in the 30 to 40 knot winds that work their way into the coves. A damn tough job, but a very Alaskan one.

Interestingly, he spent 10 years working over in the Aleutians where he said it blows 50 knots most of the time, and he said he greatly preferred that weather to these inside channels with their 18 foot tides and currents and gap winds and steep swell as it hits the shallower waters of Dixon Entrance. The wide open ocean suits him, where the water and wave are predictable, unlike the Inside. Interesting perspective, born as it is from decades of being out there, doing it.

He said the weather was truly ugly up here last year - but its suddenly looking up this year. And given we're getting "blamed" for that fortuitous weather change (as I foolishly admitted we'd had good weather all the way up -- except for that one day), we might have trouble leaving town if the rain doesn't start soon!

My Furuno NavNet chartplotters both conked out about 5 miles south of Ketchikan. Dummy me, I hadn't bought a CMAP memory card with maps for Alaska and my Canadian charts died right there. Coastal Explorer on the PC, with its free downloaded NOAA maps, still worked great, as did Nobeltec, but I'd lost my redundancy and my "second eyes". This is why I like having multiple completely independent Nav systems - as much to keep me from screwing up as anything else.

I asked around and found a place about a mile walk downtown (in the middle of cruise ship mayhem) called Murray's, which proudly proclaims that Fish Fear Us, who sold CMAP MAX NT SD cards. So after trading my credit card for a chip, my Furuno's now speak Alaskan. I also got my nonresident fishing license there - a hefty $240 dollars including my King Salmon stamp.

On the way back, given I hadn't fished yet, I figured I'd chum the waters (or maybe just our dinner table) and stopped into a rough and ready place across from the fish docks to buy some fresh King and halibut. After a brief discussion about the fact that "I was only buying fish to keep my wife happy until I could get out and catch something myself", I was offered the "local price" for the fish, which was a lot less than the listed price Cruise Ship Suckers price. Maybe it was the salt and pepper beard I've been growing since I left Anacortes or the Big Smith sweat shirt and Dickies jacket, but the guy at the shop said I didn't look like a cruise ship person. Best news of my day.

I was walking by the Safeway on the next leg of my return to the boat when I decided to scope out the best way to get a cart from the Safeway down to the boat. Douglas describes that it's easy in his guide. I was standing across the street from Safeway when I saw a likely looking pair of cruisers leaving the parking lot with their cart, obviously heading for the marina. So I figured I'd follow them, only to see their cart abruptly stop at the very edge of the parking lot, nearly tossing them head over heels.

Clever detective that I am, I immediately suspected the worst - the dreaded BAD system had come to Ketchikan. Or as I call it, the Boaters Anti-resupply Device. I first saw this nefarious bit of technology in Nanaimo, BC and decided it was the most evil invention of mankind, given it usually kicks in when you have a mountain of plastic bags in the cart - all of the type that cut off circulation in your fingers when you unexpectedly have to carry them for a half mile. Not to mention lengthening your arms.

Basically, what BAD does is lock the wheels of the grocery cart via a radio control system when you try to leave the parking lot with your cart. So much for the Douglas guide's info that "Safeway allows you to take your grocery cart to your boat. and leave it at any dock cart location where they will pick it up."

I knew from the start that Douglas' description sounded suspiciously accommodating, so, being that I live in the Lower 48, I was naturally wary of such a friendly gesture. But I figured, "Hey, it's Alaska. It's not like the Lower 48." Well, clearly, whatever Safeway did in the past, they've lost that loving feeling. Lower 48 attitudes, along with the cruise ships, have come to Ketchikan. At least in a few places.

I was so glad that I'd decided to scope out the path from Safeway to the boat before buying our groceries, that I had to talk to these unfortunate victims of BAD, who initially thought I was standing there laughing at them, instead of waiting to thank them for saving me a lot of grief. So it was that we met a couple from Port Ludlow (right around the corner from Sequim) who had arrived yesterday on their tiny Nordic Tug 32 - this is their 8th trip and they are going over to Sitka. They used to live in Ketchikan back in the 60's, before the Cruise Ship Era, and now love Sitka because it's everything that Ketchikan used to be. Only problem is that I was a dummy and didn't get a boat card from them, so I forgot their names by the time it came to write this. Bummer. But we're determined to meet them again, hopefully in Sitka.

We're going to stay in Ketchikan tomorrow and try to meet more people. Besides, we made it up here in 9 days from Anacortes, including getting pinned down for one of those days in a storm, so we need to stretch our legs. There was nothing to fix on the boat other than to buy that chart chip, but I'll give it a good checking over. The "Honda" is still humming and I'd like to keep it that way.

Stats are 641.9 miles in 8 travel days for 80.2 miles per day, averaging 8 knots when underway. Overall, it was an easy trip and always interesting. The Nordhavn 55 is a great boat for these waters. Ten hours a day on the water seems like nothing, especially given that Fred the autopilot does all the driving.

Speaking of which, I switched from Fred, our AP#1, who is fairly quiet and well-behaved, to Growling George, our AP#2 today. Growling George makes rude noises when he swings the rudder and he jerks the boat around a bit. He's a bit of mouthy jerk, you could say. His params are set the same as Fred, so I guess the pumps are different. We'll run with George until I get tired of him, given I want to make sure he isn't really catching something that's making his voice so harsh. Plus, running part of the time on the backup system is a good practice. I had the pumps checked by Accusteer in Bellingham, WA (where they are made) last year, and all was well, but I just don't like the sound of George.

I added a new photo album with some shots of the journey from Codville Lagoon to Dixon Entrance.

Calm seas.

John and Deb

2009 Alaska Cruise
05/22/2009 | Bob
Congrats! Must feel good, it's a long way up there!

We'll see you there.

btw, i'm enjoying reading your blog while I can ;-)

Enterprise 5503
05/22/2009 | LES AND FERN

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Who: John & Debbie Marshall
Port: Sequim Bay, WA
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