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Alaska Dreamer: A Conversation with Elsie Hulsizer

Sailing has always been a priority for Elsie Hulsizer, 66, of Seattle, Washington. Her love affair with Northwest sailing was launched when she was 12 and her father built an 18-foot Robert’s Knockabout.

Sailing has always been a priority for Elsie Hulsizer, 66, of Seattle, Washington. Her love affair with Northwest sailing was launched when she was 12 and her father built an 18-foot Robert’s Knockabout. Later, Elsie and her husband, Steve, trailer-sailed their Venture 21 in Maine before buying a Chesapeake 32, which they cruised from Boston to Seattle via the Caribbean, the Panama Canal and Hawaii in 1977 and 1978. The couple started cruising from Seattle to Vancouver Island’s windswept west coast in the early 1980s. They bought Osprey, their Luders-designed Navy 44 sloop, in 1982 and began tackling more complex trips. Eventually, in 2006, they quit their jobs and set sail for Alaska. Now, dozens of trips up Vancouver Island and five cruises to Alaska later, Hulsizer has written two books about the cultures, communities and ecosystems that she loves.

Tell me about your cruise from Boston to Seattle.

We were moving pretty quickly to do it in a year. It was three big ocean passages—from Charleston, South Carolina, to the Caribbean, then from Mexico to Hawaii, and from Hawaii to Washington. We missed hurricane season, but we hit a winter storm with 50-foot waves in the Gulf Stream leaving Charleston. It wasn’t a good way to start our first real ocean sailing.

What’s cruising in Alaska like?

It’s glaciers, bears and totems! You can go days without seeing a house. It’s total wilderness. You’ll see grizzly bears on the beach, mountain goats and tons of whales. The mountains are beautiful, so close and so steep. The sailing is mixed. There are lots of calms, but it can be windy in the channels. You need to have a good sense of adventure.

Are there amenities?

The marinas are built and managed for fishermen. They’re good marinas, but they don’t have fancy showers. 

Are bears a problem?

We always bring bear-spray ashore with us, even in some towns. But we’ve learned that bears don’t perceive danger coming from the water. They’ll ignore us in our dinghy, even when we get close to take photos.

Is ice a worry?

You’re navigating among the ice, not breaking it. Your goal is to stay away from the ice, but you’re in the ice. For example, in Glacier Bay, the glaciers were calving. Sometimes you need to stop, drift and wait for a lead to open up. We’ve never hit anything hard enough to do more than a scratch. But you have to use your eyes.

Are the charts accurate?

They’re accurate, but it’s a strange experience to look at an Alaskan chart—it’s a really big scale! Looking at charts pulls you into thinking that things are closer than they really are.

Any advice for aspiring Alaska cruisers?

Cruising the west coast of Vancouver Island is a great trip to prepare for Alaska. [Vancouver Island] has more challenging sailing with its fog, wind and the challenges of navigating amongst the rocks. It’s a great place to test your boat and your sailing skills before going to Alaska.

Also, you learn to accommodate your personal schedule to match the geography. For example, most of the rain falls in the morning. Lots of people [think] they have to get up and get going early, but the trick is to accommodate the environment.

Have you ever considered circumnavigating?

We’ve chosen “regional” cruising. You really get to know a place; it’s almost like going to a summer home. One year it’s sunny, the next year it’s cloudy and windy. And you get to make friends and see them each year.

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