‘Round Admiralty Island
By Kimball Livingston
There was a moment, racing ’round Admiralty Island, when a mere whisper was driving the boat. Not a breath of wind showed on the water. The Alaskan sky burned with sunset colors and the stillness was as deep as the sky. We could hear this whale close by, that whale farther off, and another and another out of sight a mile or more away swimming in their predictable, rhythmic, cycle of threes: rise and blow, rise and blow, rise and then—flukes up—blow and sound.
It was a long, sweet “moment” that continued all through the night, as nights go in these parts. The hours went by. The glow of the sun just barely below the horizon crept across the sky from west to east, never leaving us, and like magic became the sunrise of a new day.
Thus we raced 200 light-air miles in four days (including a stopover), but it’s not the watch changes or the sail changes or the slow miles that I remember most from the Around Admiralty Race. It’s the wild, vast beauty of Alaska itself. I had been hooked by a promise on Juneau Yacht Club’s web site that the race would be “an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.” McKie Campbell, my skipper aboard the Cal 3-30, Surprise, told me that he does this, “Because I like to sail where the land and the water look the way they did when Captain Cook first laid eyes on them.” And so they do.
Mind you, this is not the land of the midnight sun. You have to go all the way to the Arctic Circle for that. But the race starts each year on the last Saturday before the solstice, when Juneau, at latitude 58 north, never goes dark.
This is old stuff to Campbell—he won the race in 2000 and 2001, and he lives with a view of the Mendenhall Glacier—but it’s a big deal to a hacker from the Lower 48. Knowing the region’s reputation for challenging weather year-round, I hauled a full load of expedition gear to “the land of the white-legged people.” I had been warned, “It doesn’t always rain in Juneau; sometimes it snows,” I was familiar with the quip, “We have to teach school kids here that gray is not the color of the sky.” I was prepared. Silly me.
My trip to the “frozen north” coincided with a record-setting heat wave. Alaska was baking. Sunblock was flying off pharmacy shelves. White legs were turning brown. Fireweed was blooming in hot-pink profusion in June when it’s supposed to wait for August. Glaciers were slipping and flash-flood warnings went out for the plains downstream. That’s how I found myself sitting to leeward in t-shirt and shorts at the starting line off Auke Harbor for Around Admiralty 2004, while Surprise made an early bet on a windseeker and the rest of our six-boat fleet bet, correctly, on number one gennies. Over the next few hours, as we variously passed and un-passed Brian Lieb’s Yamaha 33, Haiku, I began to get the picture that Haiku could be the competition.
You know about light-air sailing: First we were close hauled at 252 degrees on starboard tack, and then we turned Point Retreat at the upper end of Admiralty Island, and we were close hauled at 195 degrees and still on starboard tack and still going nowhere fast. (Captain Cook named Point Retreat when he dropped by in 1778; the local Aukes were treating trespassing as a capital offence.)
You could say that fortunes varied amongst the racers. Watching Eric Twelker’s J/30 Nirelle, the defending champion, leg out beyond the horizon into Chatham Strait was as shocking as the first time my own mother informed me, “Son, life isn’t fair.”
Fault-formed Chatham Strait plunges to depths of thousands of feet, matching the peaks that rise thousands of feet above it. Everything is big in Alaska. Most of the mountains are un-named (yes, it’s that big). All the visual cues hint at altitude, so it was no great surprise to learn that the locals have a running joke about tourists who walk off cruise ships and ask “How high up are we?” when the answer is, “About six feet above sea level, ma’am, unless you take a few steps back.”
The race is sailed within the Inside Passage, but there’s plenty of fetch. My shipmates Gary Smith and Jay Ginter (past winners along with McKie), were full of tales of square-sided, bone-chilling, six-foot seas and flying spray. Thus considered, the vicissitudes of light air sailing held a certain charm. And Gary and Jay were not just having me on; in this race, JYC requires a survival suit for each person aboard. (Typical conditions are “mixed.”)
Our breeze faired, and under spinnaker in that first afternoon there were times when we were showing 3.5 knots on the gauge while making 5.2 knots over the ground. That was a good thing. We needed to cross the mouth of Icy Strait—connecting to Glacier Bay, Cross Sound, and the Gulf of Alaska—before the tide turned against us. Nirelle made it. We did not. Mom was right. I hate it when that happens.
But if we had been screaming along in a gale I’d have had a hard time getting to know my crewmates. We had one other race-rookie aboard, Pete Vogel, a crack outdoorsman from Wisconsin sailing at the invitation of his old friend Gary, who designs ferries. Fast ferries. Jay Ginter has been in fisheries management since 1985, he said, “But it’s really more about managing people; the fish do fine.”
So it went until the wee hours of a new day, when the boats ahead of us hit a wall of very light air, the fleet collapsed like an accordion, and quick as you could say, Surprise, we were back in the hunt. Nirelle was parked on the shore to the right. The pack was broad-reaching left, toward Admiralty. We made a contrarian move and, halleluiah, they let us go. Local knowledge has it that you can live on land breezes when the pattern goes light in Chatham Strait, but our mid-channel gybe put the mark on the nose with the wind on the beam—enough to keep us moving at 1.4 knots toward the next band of solid breeze, followed by the next band of very light stuff, and the next band of solid, all night long.
We made the leg one finish line at Baranof Warm Springs in the morning, 12 minutes ahead of the next boat, Haiku, and with the delicious awareness that every boat in the fleet owed us time. We had, officially, 86 nautical miles behind us and 104 to go. Average speed: 3.8 knots.
Baranof Warm Springs has been a stopover tradition since the Around Admiralty was inaugurated in 1984, to celebrate Alaska’s 25th anniversary of statehood. It’s a wilderness resort with a few cabins and a long, wooden walkway climbing uphill past a roaring waterfall to springs that, if you ask me, are scalding. Beyond is a broad lake where Pete and Gary wet hooks for a day, getting their paraphernalia fix from all that wonderful gear that fishermen just have to pack along.
At Baranof we were joined by the four boats of the Cruising Class, who made additional stopovers, carried crab pots, built fires on beaches, and just may have been doing it right. There was no evidence to the contrary as our Pete and cruiser High Noon’s Mike Rental laid into a long guitar riff during the evening party. I had a whiff of nostalgia, having been aboard High Noon years ago in California, when the Peterson 41 was cutting-edge IOR. And that deck? Nary a crab pot had it known.
Juneau races under PH numbers copied from Puget Sound, McKie said: “It saves us at lot of arguing.” The state capital doesn’t have the fanciest fleet in Alaska. For that you go to Seward, the sailing port for Anchorage, which has the oil money. Juneau, at a population of 29,000, lives on fishing, cruise ships, and government. You can get to Juneau by boat, by jet, or by floatplane, but not by car; there’s no road in.
The queen of our fleet was Rich Currier’s Catalina 400, Majeck. Otherwise, the fleet was one Cal 3-30, two J/30s (past winners, both), one Yamaha 33, and Steven Dahl’s Pearson 36, NaNa, which he tried to sail as a singlehander (prudently dropping out on the slow second leg). We stayed two nights at Baranof, being social, picking berries, and watching the occasional cruiser come and go. Each boat had taken its own leg-one finish time. For the leg-two start, a passing cruiser and his dinghy were recruited as race officials. Surprise got a good start and quickly got out front. This was our view of the fleet just a few minutes into Leg Two—
Add a few hours and you find us turning the southern end of Admiralty and sweltering, hiking to leeward, struggling for every inch. Any inch. This would lead, eventually, into our long, lovely night of the whales and a briefly chilly morning off Tracy Arm—my 15 minutes in the real Alaska—working against current in oddments of breeze in a tacking duel with an iceberg. Sometimes we were winning, and sometimes the ice was winning.
I remember the leg up Stephens Passage as a free-for-all. We had the race won, sort of, but the holes were so big and hungry they could have eaten us alive. We had to win it over and over. Our goal was to finish first, boat-for-boat, but every crewed boat out there was in front at some point. Nirelle went from being well ahead of us for a while to becalmed and so far behind that they eventually motored home. All it took was one bad bet. I cracked jokes about a misguided missile, but it could have been us. I’m amazed that Murphy (he who lays down the law) let me get away with that.
Start to finish, we kept Admiralty Island to the left. Its 1,000 square miles make it bigger than Rhode Island but smaller than the Juneau Ice Field, which feeds not one but 38 glaciers. There are tours to Admiralty, to view the greatest concentration of brown bears in the world. It’s no place to step ashore casually, however. One guide suggests that to stop a charging bear, you need a rifle that will penetrate 42 inches of wet phone books, or a very well-timed bolt of lightning. There were no charging bears on Stephens Passage. There were, instead, occasions like the one in which the half-ounce collapsed, and we doused it and hoisted the jenny and then needed the spinnaker again before my charging little fingers had it ready.
There was the time when we were stalled, mid-channel, and here came Haiku breezing up the mainland shore exactly where we had sat without wind hours before, and we kept watching and waiting for them to run out of wind until it became 2X4-in-the-forehead clear that: 1) Things had changed. 2) It would hurt, but we had to get over there. A friend of mine sagely counsels, “If you have to eat (substance found in a barnyard) take big bites.”
On our last night out we crossed the Taku Inlet—the final barrier—against current, with moments of zero steerage and hours of fairytale beauty. Eric Kueffner’s J/30, Shoreless, slipped past us, then broke left, hit heavy countercurrent, and faded. There’s no one answer to what got Surprise across the line first the following day, with Haiku and Shoreless in view behind, for a 1:58:38 handicap win. I know we worked hard. I won’t discount luck lest Murphy squash me like a bug the next time I set sail. Haiku placed second for the race; Shoreless third. I’m sure they tried as hard as we did.
We were 49 hours on leg two. VMG: 2.13 knots.
The next day, it was windy.