Crossing Gale Alley

Celtic shuddered as another blast shook her, straining the anchor rode and causing her rigging to scream in protest. For four days we had lain with our hook buried in the belly of English Bay, Alaska, waiting out a storm that was now in its eighth day.

On board were my wife Pamela and my son Zach. It was Zach’s second ocean crossing; he had helped me bring Celtic across the Gulf of Alaska and down the Alaska Peninsula to the Aleutian Island of Unalaska last spring, a voyage that had included gales, a storm, and a knockdown. I considered him qualified. He had the “immortality” of youth, and nothing seemed to scare him. Pamela, on the other hand, was green, new to sailing with only a few day-trips around Dutch Harbor under her belt. She is a fighter, tough and intelligent, but this was not a voyage to be taken lightly. We thoroughly discussed every facet of ocean sailing and what she was getting into, including that it could be dangerous, that she could be seasick, and that there would be no turning back. She still really wanted to go, and I became convinced she had the maturity and steel to make that decision. Our route? Three thousand miles on the rhumb line across the Pacific Ocean from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to Majuro in the Marshall Islands.

Celtic is a 45-foot ketch built by Fuji Shipyards in 1975. She has a strong rig, modest in height but well balanced, with stainless steel shrouds, running backstays, a roller-furled forestay, and a jibstay. She has a center cockpit, a full keel with a cutaway forefoot, and an elegant stem that curves up to a substantial bow pulpit with twin anchor rollers. She is strong and dry and well seasoned. She would be put to the test in the weeks to come.

Another williwaw screamed down from the head of the bay and Celtic heeled over. As an anchorage, English Bay comes highly recommended from contemporary and historical sources. Both the great explorer Capt. James Cook and our good friend Bob Adams recommend it as the only reliable anchorage in the Beaver Inlet area on the northeast end of Unalaska Island. Steep and mountainous, it has few bays shallow enough in which to anchor, and few of those have good holding bottoms. Cook, aboard HMS Resolution, first approached these islands in a dense fog. Upon hearing the sound of breakers he dropped anchor. When the fog lifted, the crew was horrified to find themselves lying just a few hundred yards off the rugged cliffs and treacherous shore of Sedanka Island, a mountainous extension of Unalaska Island. After the crew recovered their wits, Resolution proceeded into Beaver Inlet and eventually found the “excellent” anchorage at what Cook dubbed English Bay.

Pounded by williwaws

What both Cook and Bob failed to mention is that English Bay is also a blowhole. The williwaws (katabatic winds that funnel down moun-tainsides) howled down the bay, leaving Celtic bobbing and weaving back and forth like a punch-drunk boxer. We eventually hoisted the mizzen to keep our bow into the wind and avoid getting blasted broadside by the 60- to 70-knot gusts. The mizzen did the trick, and Celtic settled down and took the blows head on. So there we hung and there we swung, right in the jaws of English Bay; rocks on one side, shoals on the other. The anchor did hold nicely. We waited for the williwaws to subside and give us our chance to slip out through the rocky shores and passages of this harsh and beautiful place and finally let our compass settle on 180° south.

As far as we know, only two other contemporary sailing vessels have taken the route we planned, which follows the compass due south to skirt the western edge of the North Pacific High, then pick up the trade winds somewhere between 30° and 40° north, and then bend to the west. We hoped to avoid severe weather en route, and all hands were looking forward to the warm sunshine and gentle winds of the fabled trades.

On the morning of June 26, the williwaws finally abated and we got the break we had been waiting for. The storm that had been making life miserable for everyone in western Alaska finally broke. Normally, weather systems in the Aleutians move fairly steadily from west to east and pass through the area in two or three days, but this one had spun its way up the chain and become stationary just northeast of us; it remained there until it finally wore itself out. At 0900 we hauled anchor and made our way through treacherous Unalga Pass and headed off across Beaver Inlet toward the big Pacific. We would make a final stop at Kayak Cape on the south side of the island, where we would walk the desolate beach, pick oyster grass, and smell the heady aroma of the bog orchids one last time. We had enjoyed our forays ashore where countless wild flowers, unknown waterfalls, and feral cows (refugees from some long-abandoned ranch) had made our enforced stay at English Bay interesting. There was no doubt in our minds that we would miss our friends and the good people of Dutch Harbor, the comforts of living dockside, the convenience of the supermarkets and parts stores, and the security of protection from storms. Now all of that lay astern as we headed for the open sea. There was no time left for second thoughts, no room for regrets.

I’ve always said that Alaska weather is manic-depressive; it either blows like hell or it’s flat calm. Now it was showing its character as days of storm conditions gave way to sunshine and glassy seas. We spent our first few days pursuing zephyrs and catspaws as we poked along, praying for a breeze. Due to the long trip ahead and a limited supply of fuel, we were reluctant to use the engine, but still we found ourselves motoring between breezes. I was uneasy about lingering any longer than necessary in the northern latitudes. We wanted to get south, out of storm country.

Weather voices reassuring

Each day we listened to the weather forecasts and ship reports on the SSB radio. Peggy Dyson, a living Alaskan legend, broadcasts the National Weather Service forecast twice daily. The Cold Bay weather station also came in clearly. These are friendly, familiar, comforting voices to mariners at sea. We were also equipped with a weatherfax, and each evening it cranked out its graphic display of the weather situation. We had been watching a low pressure area form and develop south of Adak Island, and as it deepened it began to move in our direction. We had fully expected gales and had made preparations for them. Up on the bow, ready to deploy, was a Para-Tech sea anchor complete with trip line buoys, -inch rode, and chain catenary. In the lazarette we had stowed a Seabrake Drogue with its own dedicated rode/catenary and bridle. We had Mustang exposure suits for foul weather on deck, harnesses and snap lines for each of us, immersion suits for abandon ship, flares, handheld VHF and GPS, survival supplies, and a 406 EPIRB. We also had Celtic, a proven storm survivor.

Nevertheless, as the low continued to deepen and it became apparent that we would have to deal with it, an old familiar dread began to live in my guts. How bad would it get? Would the sea anchor and drogue work? Although we had practiced deploying them, it had been in relatively calm conditions. We were 500 miles from the nearest land and out of the shipping lanes on a big and lonely ocean. There would be no help coming. Whatever happened, we would have to deal with it ourselves.

At night we listened on the SSB to other vessels, some in distress. A 49-foot ketch 400 miles south of Adak lost her rudder and was pummeled by 25-foot seas. Kamishak Queen, a vessel we were familiar with, sank in Nuka Bay. A tripped EPIRB had been detected in Bristol Bay. The weather forecast called for 45-knot winds and 25-foot seas. If the low stayed on track we would be in the worst possible place; south of the center and on the backside, the zone of highest wind and seas.

Throughout the day the winds and seas increased. As the wind shifted around from northwest to west to southwest and then south, our progress slowed until we found ourselves beating into 30-knot winds and eight-foot seas. The time had come to make a major strategy decision: Should we bear off to the west or east and try to make a few miles of southing in the worsening conditions? Or would it be better to deploy the sea anchor and sit out the gale?

After due consideration, we decided to use the sea anchor. The Paratech was connected to 400 feet of -inch nylon rode with a stainless steel swivel. All rode ends had spliced eyes with steel thimbles, and in the middle of the rode we had spliced in 20 feet of -inch galvanized chain to act as a catenary. After a practice deployment before the trip, we had decided to connect the bitter end of the rode to the chain anchor rode and deploy 150 feet of that. Additionally, we lashed the anchor chain to the bow roller to prevent it from jumping out as Celtic rode the waves into the trough.

Lashed to the bow

We had packed the sea anchor, trip line, and rode into a large canvas bag and lashed it to the bow rail with the bitter end hanging out a hole cut in the bottom. All we had to do was unlash the bag, shackle the bitter end to the anchor chain (the anchor had been disconnected and stored below for the open ocean), attach the buoys to the trip line, and let her go. Everything went smoothly, and soon we were securely moored to the Para-Tech. We hoisted a reefed mizzen, secured everything on deck, and went below. As night fell we began to feel the full fury of the storm. The rising wind was blowing a steady 40 knots, gusting to more than 50, while the seas built.

I was really pleased with the performance of the sea anchor and the way Celtic rode. During the five days of gale winds at 40 to 50 knots and seas of 18 to 25 feet, I never felt we were in any immediate danger. As the storm worsened and seas began to break over Celtic, I began to wish I had some way to attach all that chain and rode to the bobstay eye on Celtic’s stem so her bow would ride higher, but there was no changing anything once it was set. As each monster wave approached, Celtic would back up, much like a retreating Muhammed Ali against a charging Joe Frazier, and let the impact roll under her. Huge waves would break on us, darkening the cabin as green water rolled over the ports.

We were alone. We thought about all the stories we’d heard about vessels slowly breaking up under similar onslaughts: seams opening, through-hulls loosening, cockpit drains plugging. We had made all the preparations we could; all we could do was remain alert and deal with whatever happened.

We set up a radio schedule with the Kodiak Coast Guard Communication Base, better known as CommSta Kodiak, and every four hours we gave them our position, weather conditions, and vessel status. It was a comfort to speak with someone, and the sound of the radio operator’s voice and the obvious concern of everyone at the station about our safety was really comforting. Looking at the log brings a smile and a tear now.

By the time the storm abated, we’d had our fill of granola bars, crackers, and pop. We’d also had our fill of gales. For the last week it had been hard to sleep, except for Zach, who was unflappable and able to sleep while weightless and bouncing off the ceiling. We were exhausted.

Making a break

Unfortunately, the weatherfax showed another developing low headed in our direction, and we decided to make a run for it. The wind had switched around to the west but had dropped to near calm. I proposed that we fire up the engine and run south for 48 hours. That would get us about 300 miles farther and hopefully get us out of what we had come to refer to as “gale alley.” Pamela and Zach both agreed, and in short order we were underway.

Forty-eight hours later, on July 8, 13 days after leaving Unalaska, we shut down the engine for the last time. We estimated that we had about 10 gallons of fuel left, and we had consumed much of our perishable food supplies. Counting the four days in English Bay and the five days hove-to during the gale, we had spent a total of nine days going nowhere. We still had a long way to sail, so, after considering everything, we decided to head for Hawaii where we could re-supply and recuperate before going on to the Marshall Islands. With the wind out of the west and Hawaii just 1,200 miles due south of us, we suddenly felt eager and optimistic.

After what we had already experienced, the following two weeks would seem like an anti-climax. Not that those 14 days were boringfar from it. We learned firsthand that we weren’t the only ones crossing the wide Pacific. Ocean-going commercial vessels such as log carriers, tankers, and car carriers move with surprising speed. Whoever was on watch had to remain alert and scan the horizon frequently. At night, especially during fog or reduced visibility, we made it a standard practice to make a radar sweep every half hour as well as to announce our presence on VHF channel 16, a practice we had instigated while we were hove to. This might have become boring if it weren’t for the frequent contacts. It was a rare day that we didn’t see or talk to one or more cargo vessels. Some of the radio operators were quite interested in us, and we had great fun trading information back and forth. The scary vessels were the huge, fast-moving ships that never returned our hails; we can only assume they were unaware of our presence. That one of them could have run us over and never felt a thing was obvious and sobering.

We finally hit the trade winds at about 35° north. We had been looking forward to their consistent, gentle breezes since long before setting sail. Let me dispel any fantasies you may have about the trade winds. The sailors who dubbed them “gentle” were probably standing on the decks of three- and four-masted barquentines that measured 250 to 350 feet in length. What was gentle to them can be a little more severe to a 45-foot fiberglass boat. It blew 30 knots for 10 days. We had 10 to 15-foot seas every day, all day and all night. In fact, at times the nights were rougher, with frequent squalls that had us reefing and hoisting. However, we finally hit on a sail plan that really worked well and that one person could handle. We dropped the main and jib and left the mizzen and the roller-furled genoa up. Without leaving the cockpit, the helmsman could furl or unfurl the genoa to match the conditions while only making an occasional adjustment to the mizzen. In the strong winds, we averaged six knots for the reach from 35° north to Hawaii. With the autopilot (a CPT AP11-64K) at the helm day and night, the most difficult task was finding a comfortable position in which to sit.

Strange sighting

The weather gradually improved and the temperature slowly rose. The perpetual cloud cover grudgingly gave way, and soon I was startled by a huge fiery ball that rose into the sky and threatened to blind us. Pamela explained to me that it was called the sun and that it was a common sight in most parts of the world. I guess I’d been living in Dutch Harbor so long I’d forgotten.

Twenty-seven days after casting off from Dutch Harbor, Celtic entered Nawiliwili Bay on the southeast corner of the island of Kauai. It was a dark, moonless night, about 0200 local time, when we made our approach to the harbor. I was reluctant to enter a strange harbor at night and decided to call the harbor master on the VHF to discuss the idea. I really didn’t expect to raise anyone that late but was feeling lucky, so I wasn’t too surprised when a few minutes later the speaker came to life: “Hello Celtic, this is Waif.” Waif turned out to be a Hans Christian pilot house 38 owned and skippered by the gentleman of Nawiliwili harbor, Don Perrin. This helpful man explained the entrance to the harbor in detail and was waiting to catch our lines as this leg of Celtic’s voyage came to an end.

Steven McAbee is currently voyaging in the South Pacific with his wife Pamela.

By Ocean Navigator