Sixteen years ago, Hamish suggested, “Why don’t we sail to Alaska this summer?” At the time, he was the skipper of an Antarctic charter boat, and I was a journalist along for the ride. Eighty-some thousand miles and two children later, we crept up on Alaska from the west, sailing from Hokkaido, Japan, down the Aleutian chain in May aboard Seal, our 56-foot aluminum cutter.
We had snow, a full gale on the nose and a magical four days when a Brambling finch found us after the gale, exhausted but totally unafraid. He lived on board, flying in and out of the raised saloon, sitting on our heads, drinking out of a glass and pecking irritably at the very handsome bird he saw reflected in our shiny stainless steel cabin heater. In general, we had a fast sail across the Gulf of Alaska from Kodiak to Prince William Sound and paused only briefly to watch a pod of 20 humpback whales feeding.
We cleared into the United States in Dutch Harbor. It was Seal’s first return to the States since we had left Maine for Greenland in 2005. A bald eagle promptly landed on our masthead and knocked over the Windex, which landed in pieces on the deck. Welcome home. While in Dutch Harbor, there were usually at least a dozen eagles in sight at any moment. Often there would be two perched on our spreaders.
Just offshore we sailed with Laysan and black-footed albatrosses sweeping around the boat. Tiny thin-billed murres and crested auklets popped underwater at the sight of us, and a pod of orcas ignored us. Weather in Alaska seems to consist of violent gales punctuated by calms, so our movements were dictated by the forecast. In fine weather we pushed on. When it was foul, we tried to be in a snug anchorage.
As our latitude increased, we felt more at home. Cooler temperatures were a relief after a season coming through the tropics from New Zealand to Japan, and as much as we loved visiting Japan, we were happy to be out of the concrete sea-walled harbors and back into the wild.
I offered a prize for the first bear sighted as we sailed along the Alaskan peninsula and Kodiak Island. (There are no bears on the outer Aleutian Islands.) Hamish won on the Katmai peninsula when he spied a brown bear ambling along the beach. We carried on into Geographic Harbor, where the shallow river delta dries out in places, and a local seaplane pilot told us the best time to view bears was at low tide. Heeding his advice, we left Seal at anchor and motored toward shore in the dinghy, towing our rowboat behind us across half a mile of two-foot-deep water. We then anchored the inflatable in a foot or so of water and rowed the remaining quarter mile to the beach. This is a great way to view the bears: we row (or pole) in the shallows, holding station against the river current, and are able to watch the bears closely without entering their space.
A young bear lost interest in fishing and was repeatedly chasing after another young bear, trying to start a scuffle. The other bear cuffed back a few times, then turned away to hunt salmon. By this late part of the season, the bears were so well fed that they would catch a salmon, take a bite, drop it back into the water and then have another wrestle in the shallows.
These coastal brown bears are the same species as the grizzly (Ursus arctos), with the same great hump at the shoulders, but they are a bit bigger than their grass-eating inland cousins. The biggest of all are the Kodiak bears, brown bears that have been isolated for 12,000 years and can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds, much of it salmon-fed muscle. When the bears stage their mock fights, they look as playful as puppies, but it was sobering to imagine how much power was behind each of those paw cuffs. With the salmon running, however, they paid us no attention.
We moved to another anchorage for the next day’s storm-force winds and rode out the williwaws coming first from one direction, then from the exact opposite direction all afternoon. In these parts, the wind funnels through slots in the mountain peaks, building speed due to the Venturi effect. It rushes down the face of the mountains, sending miniature water spouts whistling off the sea. We spent the afternoon watching these—the wind zipping off the peaks, catching and lifting the water, swirling it into the air and slamming against us.
Our raised saloon windows were thick with salt by the time the wind settled down. The evening light called us out to wash them down, and I launched the rowboat and ventured through a channel into the harbor where we’d seen the bears the day before. It was too late in the day to row all the way across to see the bears again, but I ghosted along the coast. Two harbor seals followed, while sea otters kept their distance.
On another day, our daughters, Helen and Anna, were playing on a grassy and (we hoped) bear-free island. A seal popped its head out of the water to look at them and then immediately disappeared. The girls were sorry they’d frightened it, and figured it was the last they’d see of the seals, until another 18 heads suddenly popped up to study them some more.
The harbor seals and sea otters are fairly shy, although some are accustomed to humans and swim alongside boats in the fishing harbors. We found the best way to watch them was from inside the raised saloon, pressed up to the windows, for even the otters don’t mind a boat on its own and will swim right up to it. One morning we were awoken at 0300 by the sound of bubbles along the hull—an otter or a seal was running up and down the length of the boat, its exhaled breath pinging against the hull.
The sea otters pup throughout the year, so it’s not uncommon to see a raft with big teenagers still trying to lie on their mother’s chests, alongside tiny fur balls lying cross-wise on their mothers as if on a pool lounger. When the mothers dive for food, they leave the pups floating unattended. Some pups cry piteously for the few minutes they’re on their own.
According to our marine mammal book, sea otters almost never come out on land, and unlike seals they even give birth in the water. Yet we saw an odd motion on one of the nearby rocks—an otter and her pup climbing out of the water. Most of the time, however, they float high in the water, their webbed feet sticking out into the air, the only bit of them not covered with the thickest fur of any animal on the planet. At the first sign of trouble, they roll and dive, looking very seal-like, but if they only want to reposition themselves, they continue to float on their backs, paws in the air, and propel themselves through the water with their tails.
Alaska has the most marine mammals we’ve seen since leaving South Georgia with its beaches packed full of fur seals and elephant seals. It also has fantastic weather—we had plenty of still days with bright sunshine, real T-shirts and jeans weather. We were also overwhelmed by the kindness of the people we met along the way. Coastal Alaskans are all people of the sea. Even if they don’t work directly on it, they are all connected to it in some way.
Seal sits at anchor now, in an uninhabited cove, and Helen and Anna are out enjoying this fine afternoon, sailing the 12-foot dinghy. I can hear them laughing across the water, past the sea that hosts the otters and the seals, beside the coastline that’s home to the bears and the birds, beneath the imposing mountains that burst upward from the seafloor and touch the bright blue sky. It took us 16 years to get here, but it was well worth the wait.
To visit Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island and the Alaskan peninsula, you can charter or sail your own boat. Most sailors visit between the beginning of May and the end of August. Many locals told us, in no uncertain terms, to get out of the Gulf of Alaska by the first of September.
Williwaws, the storm-force wind gusts that blow around the mountains even on a fair day, are the most important feature to be aware of when sailing here. If people from the Lower 48 don’t make comments about how big your anchor is, it probably isn’t big enough. Expect williwaws to come first in one direction, and then another.
In narrow harbors it is convenient to have floating shore lines to tie to trees or rocks to help counter the shifting winds. Trees, if they are firmly rooted, generally work better than rocks. In the past, we have cheese-wired a rock strop straight under a rock and wound up on the beach.
In addition, the gradient winds often funnel and increase through bays and passes, so even when the forecast is for moderate wind, you can find yourself motoring into very strong headwinds. An oversized motor can be useful.
Helen and Anna’s principle objection to sailing Alaska can be summed up simply: the bears. Of the nine years they’ve spent aboard Seal, seven of those were in South Georgia, Antarctica, Chile, New Zealand or the South Pacific Islands, where we could dump them on some wild bit of shore and allow them to roam unsupervised for hours on end. In Alaska, not so much. We studied up on bears and sought advice from the locals. Some carry rifles in the back country; others simply sing loudly; many rely on pepper spray, which is reportedly very effective, at least if the bear is downwind. We’ve concluded that the most comfortable way to watch bears is from the dinghy.
Photos by Hamish Laird
Kate and Hamish Laird charter their Chuck Paine-designed expedition cruiser, Seal, on scientific and adventure voyages in the Antarctic and the Arctic. Visit them at expeditionsail.com