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Leave, Return, Repeat

07 November 2011 | Alaska
Picture is of the sea buoy off Yakutat at dawn.

Leaving Yakutat seemed like such an easy trip--about 140 miles southeast to get into Cross Sound (an entrance to the Inside Passage where there are many places to anchor or dock).

Our first attempt to leave Yakutat was aborted when a 49knot squall that was not forecast (and caught the fishing fleet by surprise as well) came up as we were about to clear Yakutat Bay.

Our second attempt was aborted when we found an unexpectedly strong 1.5knot current running against us. We had only two days before a SE storm was to arrive and the timing of getting into an unfamiliar port in time to secure for a storm was too tight for comfort, so we returned to the safety and comfort of Yakutat again.

Low pressure systems kept coming into the Gulf of Alaska, and bringing mostly strong to storm-force SE winds to the coast where we were. There wasn't much of a gap between the storms, and they seemed to be forming faster and faster as October ended and November began.

The pilot chart (which shows average winds and currents for the oceans) showed pretty much no prevailing winds (but that is for a larger area). The Coast Pilot mentioned a current running along the coast that was variable in direction and speed, and mentioned that winds tended to run along the coast (in either direction) instead of crossing it.

On our third attempt, we left before dawn with a forecast for east winds, 30 knots, with 50 knots out of bays and passes, and almost two days before the next southeast storm. It didn't sound great, but it did sound possible.

We couldn't quite sail the southeast course without tacking, so motored close to shore, in relatively shallow water where we expected the least current. This time, the current was running two knots against us. The first bit of the coast was fine, then the wind steadily increased and our speed dropped. Motoring as fast as possible, we spent several hours making 1 to 1.5 knots.

I considered setting sails to go faster, but that would have taken us farther from the shelter of the shore, so the waves would have increased and waves from storm-force (50 knot) winds are never good.

We hand steered to maintain course. Because we were close to shore, the waves were small--less than a metre, but many were crossing the deck and most were getting the tops blow off by the wind, so it was very wet on deck.

The temperature was a few degrees above freezing and forecast to go well below freezing that night.

A friend on a fishing boat ahead of us radioed to say that the wind eased ten miles further. Only ten miles! The sun was soon to set, and at 1 to 1.5 knots, we would need to hand steer outside for several hours after dark until we got to where the wind was less. It would be quite tough on us standing outside steering with the constant spray in the below-freezing temperatures at night.

The critical thing to keep in mind about travelling in high latitudes is how easy it is to get into a survival situation. The Gulf of Alaska (and anywhere that far north) is a really unforgiving place in November. We weren't in any danger, but, if we wore ourselves out by getting cold hand-steering outside for hours in freezing spray, the danger was that if anything went wrong (like an engine problem, or taking on water), we would be exhausted, and not necessarily capable of quick, rational thinking and action.

We had tried for several weeks to leave Yakutat, and knew this break in the weather might be the last one until spring.

It is really hard to turn back, when you know you are likely to make it if you just persevere and tough it out. But while the risk of something going wrong was small, it was still there, and I decided it was better to return to Yakutat.

We turned around. Before easing off the throttle and setting sails (as the wind was now with us), we were making 8.7 knots. We had spent all day coming less than 30 miles, and we were soon back at the dock in Yakutat,

Was Issuma going to spend the winter in Yakutat?

Vessel Name: Issuma
Vessel Make/Model: Damien II, 15m/50' steel staysail schooner with lifting keel
Extra: Designed for Antarctica. Built in France by META in 1981. Draft 1.3m/4.5' with keel up, 3.2m/10.5' with keel down. More details at
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Survey pictures taken of Shekin V
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Created 29 April 2008