Alaska, Then The World

Newly retired cruisers embark on the adventure of a lifetime by starting with what's familiar.

In the summer of 1989 Clarice and I and our two children took a boating trip to Washington’s San Juan Islands. We slept aboard a boat for the first time, and it began a love affair with cruising that in many ways was consummated in the very same anchorage 28 years later, on Aug. 4, 2017. That was the first night of our dream adventure to see the world aboard our Nordhavn 46, Salish Aire. Much as our adventure started in the same anchorage where we fell in love with boating, it also followed much of the same path we had followed in our MacGregor 26X sailboat when we sailed it up the Inside Passage from the Salish Sea to Skagway, Alaska, and found ourselves in awe of the passing scenery every day. We never quit talking about that journey, and now we were getting to repeat it, but with the freedom only retirement and a very seaworthy and comfortable boat can bring.

In preparation for our journey, we moved aboard Salish Aire in June 2014 while we were still employed. Doing so afforded us the opportunity to adapt to a much smaller living space and to maintain, upgrade and most importantly learn about the boat’s many mechanical systems before we left our familiar surroundings. We initially expected to live aboard for five years before we could retire, but our retirement counselor suggested our moderately frugal lifestyle would let us walk away from our jobs as registered nurses a year earlier than we expected. Without hesitation, we moved up our timetable and it all became a reality. Now seven months into our journey, we write this from our winter home in Sitka, Alaska.

Salish Aire left Everett, Wash., low in the water. We had a full load of fuel, full holds — coffee beans, repackaged dog food, our favorite brand of diesel additive, canned meats — and lots of spare parts, but no fresh vegetables. We weren’t sure what fresh produce customs officials would and would not allow across the border, since the prohibited list seems to change frequently.

From the dock in Sidney, we checked in by phone with a customs agent in Nova Scotia, and after a hassle-free check-in — the polite customs agent confirmed that the usual two persons were on Salish Aire with the same passport numbers and the same dog — we moved Salish Aire to a reciprocal berth at one of Sidney’s yacht clubs. Once the boat was tied to the dock, we took a city bus into downtown and shopped for perishable vegetables. Somehow, being in Canada and having those final provisions on board made it feel more real, that we were truly on our way.

We continued north and used our reciprocal moorage privileges with other yacht clubs whenever possible and anchored out, as part of our frugality plan. Another part of the strategy involved staying at the many government and native village docks where the fees are much lower (or non-existent), and where we were much more likely to get to know the locals better, spending time on the same docks rather than jumping from resort to resort. This was something we learned during our previous trips into British Columbia and up the Inside Passage: this part of North America has a deep maritime heritage.

Many homes and most towns along the Inside Passage can only be reached by boat or plane, so boats and the people who own and operate them are respected. Many years ago we rowed our folding dinghy up to a bakery in a log cabin (it’s no longer there) on the tide flats of Squirrel Cove to buy some of their famous cinnamon rolls, and a very young local girl who sat on the log that served as a dock still stands out in our memory.

“That’s a nice boat,” she said.
“Thank you,” Norman said, “but I’ve always thought it was rather ugly.”
“But I notice that it rows very well,” she said.

The moral, as we understood it, is that the farther north we go, the less concerned people are with how showy a boat is and the more concerned they are with how a boat (and its operator) functions. Since we are both very interested in getting to know people and how they live and enjoy life, local docks often serve as a place to start conversations about a love of being on the water in boats.

Boaters use two common routes to the Inside Passage, the most direct being through Seymour Narrows and Johnstone Strait. We have always opted for the longer “back” route, which requires more passages through tidal rapids but is reputed to be much kinder to small boats. The back route doesn’t include Seymour Narrows, which must be timed carefully by slower boats such as ours, so they can be “flushed” through when the currents are safe and favorable for adding speed over ground, because the route has to be traversed before the next tide change. If the tide you need to ride happens to oppose the wind that day, then Johnstone has a reputation for being very unpleasant.

Boating in the Pacific Northwest requires navigators to get very comfortable with reading current and tide tables, especially if they pilot boats with displacement hulls that have a cruising speed of 7 or 8 knots and a top speed of 9 or 10 knots. PNW tides are typically diurnal — two highs and two lows each day — and a single change of 13 feet is not at all unusual. The myriad islands and inlets that make the PNW a cruising boater’s paradise also create some fairly constricted channels through which billions of gallons of water move at considerable velocity.

Heading north we encountered our first tidal stream, at Deception Pass in Washington, where the current’s velocity can reach up to 8 knots and there are numerous whirlpools, upwellings and overflows. Next was Dodd Narrows south of Nanaimo, B.C., where early in our boating career we once found ourselves going forward at 6 knots against a 6 knot current when we misread the current chart.

As we headed north of the Desolation Sound cruising waters and entered the back route to bypass Johnstone Strait, we passed through Beazley Passage and Surge Narrows on our way to rendezvous with friends in Octopus Islands Provincial Marine Park. We then timed our trek through Hole in the Wall passage so we could get a northbound push toward Gillard Passage in time to make it to the Dent Island area before the current was too strong for us to push through. We made it at full power with only 3 knots to spare!

Once through Hole in the Wall, we were in a curiosity of geography where we had to enter a triangular bay through the rapids of Beazley Passage or Arran Rapids or Dent Rapids. Unless you have a very fast boat or manage to get in and out on a single slack tide, you are caught in the middle until time and tide allow you to move. The good news was we were looking forward to returning to an older resort just west of posh Dent Resort. There, we had a fond memory of watching our grandsons catch their first fish off the dock. The owners were delightful company and offered a free night of moorage since we were happy to tie up at their dock, which was in need of repair. In the morning we thanked them for their hospitality, headed out Dent Rapids on the early slack and continued north.

When we first started boating, Clarice was in charge of dropping the hook off of the bow, and I tried to get it to set while we yelled back and forth in an attempt to coordinate our efforts. The end result was that anchoring out became associated with a lot of anxiety, so we avoided it. We eventually learned to understand which sea bottoms would hold an anchor and which wouldn’t, and the best ways to get the anchor to set. That, in combination with radio-assisted communication between crewmembers, gave us enough comfort in our anchor-setting skill to let us enjoy the solitude that private anchorages offer.

Some of our favorite anchoring memories have been created along the Inside Passage in nameless coves that we can picture in our mind but may or may not be able to point to on a chart. There is the anchorage where we looked out of our cockpit at a “backyard” that stretched across shallow marshes to a forest in the distance whose backdrop consisted of glacier-covered mountains. Another anchorage required that we enter it through a narrow S-shaped channel that brought us into a lagoon that felt like a mountain lake while hundreds of salmon jumped around us. There was the moonless night in Glacier Bay National Park when we could easily see the surrounding mountains illuminated by countless stars.

We circumnavigated Revillagigedo Island, which took us through Misty Fiords National Monument, a place nearly impossible to describe. Imagine if Yosemite Park had been made even grander and then moved to a place it was extremely difficult to get to. Instead of having to share the scenery with thousands of other visitors, we had entire valleys to ourselves when we settled in for the night. When we anchored in Calvert Bay and used the trails of the Hakai Institute to walk to the beaches on the opposite side of the island, we felt like we were on one of the beaches of northern Oregon, except it was only us and our dog, Jarvis, running free.

We no longer anchor just to save money but more often because anchoring allows us to enjoy places we would never see and appreciate otherwise.

British Columbia is big. Alaska is big. There is no good way to express it that captures the true “bigness” one experiences moving through the Inside Passage. Alaska’s physical size may best be illustrated on a printed sweatshirt we saw. It showed Alaska next to Texas, to scale, where Alaska was three times the size of Texas. But this is not the bigness I am trying to describe.

My recognition of the bigness always begins as we pass north of Desolation Sound and look at the open vistas that stretch for tens of miles. The feeling grows as we start to realize there are fewer and fewer other ships plying the waters and that settlements — or settlements that have been given back to nature — are becoming fewer and farther between. Another sense of the size hits when we start charting our course northwest out of Wright Sound and realize that we will go in a virtual straight line for 42 nautical miles, about six or seven hours for us.

To give ourselves a better sense of scale, we have motored within a few yards of shore and looked up nearly a thousand feet at a sheer wall, at the same time noting that our chart indicated water more than a thousand feet deep below us. We have gotten used to our depthsounder reading “- -,” which means “greater than 500 feet.” Clarice once opted not to motor over and tie to a buoy because it was “on the shore.” We later realized that the buoy was a safe distance off the beach but her brain’s sense of scale had not yet adapted to estimating distances when everything around us was bigger than we had ever experienced.

In Alaska when there is a “big” run of fish, we can’t see the bottom of the river. In Alaska bears are bigger, trees are bigger, moss is deeper, rivers run wilder, glaciers are, well, glacial in size. We have had to explain, repeatedly, to friends and family that when we were in Sitka for almost eight months we were only 40 miles closer to Anchorage than to Seattle.

It is the bigness that is the attraction for us. We can go from one cove to the next and feel like we have gone many miles, because the scenery has changed so drastically, or we can go from one town to the next and take a full day to get there. We can decide a cove is “too crowded” when there are more than two boats, because there is always another nearby cove we can have to ourselves. We expect to be in Alaskan waters for about a year and have no expectation that we will do anything beyond seeing the barest minimum of the shoreline — and none of the interior — and still leave with memories bigger than we can yet imagine.

One of our fondest memories of our trip up the Inside Passage in 2000 was of our visit to the First Nations villages of Klemtu and Hartley Bay. Clarice was fascinated by the seaweed that was being dried on the boardwalk that connects all of the buildings in town and on the steps of the Klemtu church. I walked up to see what was in a large building at the top of a hill in Hartley Bay and was invited to attend a graduation. Two high school students were graduating that year and the entire village expressed its support for their achievement. People delivered speeches and gave ceremonial blankets as gifts to the graduates, and finally there was a feast.
Fringe Benefits
One of our motivations for starting this journey earlier in life rather than later were the daily reminders that our bodies are not getting younger; joints hurt more often, muscles complain and are not as strong, hearing is getting worse and eyesight is not improving. We were especially reminded that living on a boat has its inherent physical risks when Clarice broke two tiny bones in her foot moving from one level of the boat to another while we were tied to the dock. A further age-related reminder was delivered when it took months for her foot to heal properly. What we didn’t expect was an overall improvement in mental and physical health, owed to a number of factors: loss of employment- related stress, increased walking and bike riding, and the stretching we do when we need to work in confined spaces. We have both lost weight, we sleep better, friends comment about how much more relaxed we are, and Norman’s flexibility has improved for the first time in years. We are finding that while cruising has its own physical and mental challenges and risks, it’s a healthy lifestyle with its own rewards.