Alaska Inside Passage

Sailing to Southeast Alaska | Ten Things to Know Before You Go

Tuesday, January 26, 2016S.V. CAMBRIA


Now that our cruising season in Southeast Alaska is behind us, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the time we spent in her waters. To do that, I’ve written a total of three blogs: The first one lays out several factors that impacted our experience and impression of the area – the weather, commercialism and sailing to a schedule. The second lists some of the things we enjoyed about cruising in Alaska. And the third (this one), covers the things we didn’t like about cruising in Alaska.

The Weather

Weather-wise, we picked a really bad year to sail to Southeast Alaska and that took a toll on our psyches and made a negative impact on our overall experience. To give you a little insight on how we felt during the worst of it, here’s and excerpt from Cambria’s log written by David:

“What do I think of Alaska?” After yet another five endless days of sitting out in incessant rain and low overcast clouds and fog I can truthfully answer the question. I consider myself reasonably long on patience and even longer on perseverence, yet I’m done with this. It feels like October in July – hiding out from weather for days at a time. I sense no change in the weather patterns over the next days and weeks . . . . Irrespective of what the barometer predicts, the conditions seemingly do not change. So yes, I’m done. Ready to get out of here and find some sunshine – any sunshine at all – wherever that may be.

Granted, SE Alaska is a rainforest and you should expect to see (on average) three to four inches of rain during the summer months. But we saw close to 11 inches in July. That’s a big difference and can be very difficult to deal with on a small boat, especially when you know everyone south of 55° N is enjoying record levels of sunshine – some days it was hard not to feel like we’d made a huge mistake by coming. With that said, it won’t always rain 11 inches in July (it was a record-breaker, after all), but it’s a good idea to be prepared for the possibility.

Distances Between Anchorages

With over 26,000 miles of coastline, Southeast Alaska is huge. And because we’d planned to make the trip only once, we attempted to cover as much ground as we could. It was a big ask. Too big. I did my best to choose anchorages that were within reasonable distances to each other; but even then, we were moving at least 25 miles on a good day and 40 to 50 miles most others. All. Under. Motor. It was great whenever we were going up a fjord and had the scenery to keep us entertained but, for the most part, it was pretty boring. Had we been able to sail, it would have been a different story, which brings me to my next point . . . .

Lack of Sailing

The complaint about the lack of opportunities to sail along the Inside Passage is nothing new, but we thought Southeast Alaska was going to be an improvement based on blogs we'd read and stories from friends who'd been able to sail from one anchorage to another. Considering some of our routes were going to put us beam on to the prevailing wind; it seemed not only possible, but probable. It wasn’t. Not for us anyway (though I have an exceptional talent for choosing destinations that put us straight into the wind). We managed to get our mainsail up once, but that was with 25+ knots from behind (it would have been a great sail if the sea state had been kinder). And we threw out the jib on a few occasions to help push us along but, for the most part, the sails just sat there collecting cobwebs.

It’s a shame, too, because both David and I agree that we’d do the trip again in a heartbeat – all 3,100 miles – if we could sail most of the way there and back. Not only would sailing change the economics of such a season, but it would make it a lot more fun.

Rarely on Our Own

Before reading any further, it’s important understand one thing: we spent several years cruising northern British Columbia where you can go days without seeing another living soul – either up close or at a distance. There’s something very special about being anchored in a remote location where there’s no sign of man, past or present. It can be addictive and it’s absolutely our drug of choice. We’re not unsociable creatures, but when we’re out in the wilds we prefer to experience it the way nature intended – alone. But Alaska wasn’t the great remote, wilderness experience we’d hoped it would be. Even when we had an anchorage all to ourselves, there was always somebody else coming or going – fishing boats, crab boats, float planes and other cruisers.

Lack of Good Cruising Guides

Comprehensive cruising guides for Southeast Alaska are few and far between. There are really only two options: “Charlie’s Charts North to Alaska by Charles and Margo Wood (2004) and “Exploring Southeast Alaska: Dixon Entrance to Skagway by Don Douglass and RĂ©anne Hemmingway-Douglass (2007) – neither of which is current. We used the Douglass series for every other section of the Inside Passage, so we chose it for Alaska as well and, I have to say, we were a little disappointed.

SE Alaska boasts over 26,000 miles of coastline and Douglass tries to address it in one single book. By comparison, he published three to cover 10,000 fewer miles in British Columbia. Because of this, some of the information given seems rushed and incomplete while other information is overlooked entirely. There were several times we chose an anchorage based on his recommendation and were disappointed with the protection and holding. Other times, we made our own decisions based on what we saw on the charts and discovered some great locations – places he had written off. Even still, we’re confident in saying that it’s the best guide on the market with the caveat that it doesn’t have all the answers – look to locals for that.

NOAA

Another area where we found information lacking was NOAA’s VHF weather report. We generally had reception, but the radio forecast only spans 48 hours which, oftentimes, wasn’t enough. The written text covers five days and that, along with the synoptic charts, would’ve enabled us to make better decisions. We do have a SSB and a Pactor modem aboard but the graphic card on our main computer went out in April and our backup isn’t set up to receive WeatherFax. Had we known that we’d see a cellular signal as much as we did, we would have purchased an unlocked hot spot and bought a SIM card from AT&T before leaving the Seattle area (AT&T and GCI, an Alaskan company, are the only two carriers in SE Alaska). With those two things, we could have downloaded the information from the internet on a fairly regular basis (every five to 10 days).

 

Alaska Can Be Distant

David and I have spent several seasons cruising in northern British Columbia where the waterways are narrow, sometimes less than a mile wide, and take you right into the Coast Mountains. And despite the fact that it’s a really bad idea to form expectations, we thought Alaska would be more of the same. I personally had visions of rugged mountains with snow right down to the water lining the channels. But that’s not what we found. With a few exceptions (Misty Fiords, Glacier Bay, Tracy and Endicott Arms), Alaska keeps its distance: It doesn’t embrace you like northern BC and has an overall lack of intimacy. That’s not to say it isn’t beautiful. It is. But more often than not, that beauty was out of reach.


Commercialization

We found Alaska to be highly commercial. Not just the cruise ships, we were prepared for that. What we hadn’t taken into account were the hundreds of fishing boats – seiners, gill netters, perseiners, crabbers. And the impact from local tourism – float planes, “un-cruise” ships, charters, whale-watching boats and bear-watching vessels . . . even Forest Service cabins. Just about everywhere we went there was one kind of commercial endeavour or another nearby, but that’s the downside of cruising to one of the world’s most beautiful and desirable locations . . . everybody wants to see it. And eco-tourism and fishing are vital to the state’s economy. I’m not sure most people would care but, for us, it felt a little touristy and contrived at times. It just wasn’t the remote wilderness experience we were hoping for or had come to expect from years of cruising in northern British Columbia.



Crabpots and Fishing Season

We were surprised at how many anchorages where overtaken by crabpots – filling the best and most protected spots. Everyone has to make a living and the season is short, so you shrug your shoulders and carry on, but we did have an unfortunate incident when a couple of crabbers surrounded Cambria with pots while we were anchored and told us to “deal with it” when we questioned their judgment (we had to up anchor without our engine on to get clear of all the lines). For the most part though, the fishermen were very friendly and quick to answer their radios whenever we hailed them to ask where their nets were. What made it a “negative” for us, again, is that the number of fishing boats coming and going meant we were rarely on our own.

Lack of Opportunities to Go to Shore

With brown bears roaming the shoreline, getting off the boat to take walks was a rare occurrence. We knew that before going but, even with the knowledge, I don’t think we were prepared for the amount of time we’d spend on the boat . . . or the amount of weight we would gain because of it. Other factors came into play: The heavy rain, for a start. But we were on the move so much, oftentimes for eight or nine hours, and that limited our opportunities even more.

So, would we cruise to Alaska again knowing what we know now? Honestly, we wouldn’t want to relive the month of July again. It did a lot of damage, both mentally and physically. At the end of it all, we felt so beaten and drained that we were done: Done with the season. Done with Alaska. Done with cruising. All we wanted to do was get out of there and find some sunshine. Any sunshine at all.  But at the same time, we’re grateful for the experiences we did have – they truly were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There are places we saw while we were there that were beyond our wildest dreams and we would love to experience again – the next time with first-hand knowledge and hindsight as a guide. But unless we find a kind sailing wind to carry us across the border, I don’t think it will happen – and that make me a little sad . . . David, not so much.


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5 comments

  1. Bummer about the lack of sailing. I can't imagine putting the main up only once in 3 months! That to me would be far worse than the weather.

    Agree distance between anchorages can be a factor in that, as we found on our partial west coast of Van Isle cruise. Being able to pick shorter days (15-20 miles) is key in sailing while coastal cruising, unless you have a big crew (greater than the typical 2) or really good autopilot.

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    1. Yeah, I know. The lack of sailing was pretty surprising but we really do have a talent for going the wrong direction. In all fairness, we really didn't see many other boats sailing either. We had a similar experience on the West Coast of Van Isle -- very little wind or blowing a gale from the south (we came down the coast from Cape Scott). I think I'm a jinx!

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  2. Thanks for this post! It's really nice to read an honest assessment of a trip. So many blogs seem bent on selling the idea of how idyllic cruising is - and glossing over the challenges and disappointments. Honest essays like this remind us that we're not alone when in the midst of a bad trip. It's also helping us set realistic expectations for some of our long distance cruisi plans.

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    1. Thank you! It definitely wasn't a "fun in the sun" kind of destination but as long as someone is prepared for the amount of time, effort and patience it may take then cruising to Southeast Alaska can be an amazing experience.

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  3. I've always been on the fence about sailing to Alaska because of many of the points you make. I remember our first trip to Barkley Sound in 2010, on our Cal34. Overall it was a good trip, but there was so much rain I remember crying in sheer frustration. To wait an entire year for that vacation, sail all that way in a small boat, only to be greeted by rain on many days was almost too much. I can't imagine going that much further. I'd like to explore Alaska, but the short season means we'd have to stay up here for an additional year before heading south to the sun. I'm just going to choose having sunshine sooner rather than later. Alaska will, unfortunately, have to wait.

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