Journey to the wild north

Thousands of pleasure boaters voyage up the Inside Passage every year to enjoy the many splendors of British Columbia and Alaska. And while the scenery and the wildlifebald eagles, loons, harlequin ducks, buffleheads, salmon, halibut, otters, wolves, moose, and black and brown bearsexcite all who make the trip, the voyage to Alaska, which we were doing aboard Carricklee, our Hardin 45 ketch, promises something more: one of the best challenges anywhere for the navigator.

The key to making a cruise up the Inside Passage a rewarding adventure rather than a terrifying nightmare is for mariners to be prepared for the myriad challenges.

The preliminary navigational challenge, planning the course, is one most of us relish for the way it allows us to enjoy the cruise months ahead of our departure date. Given the dizzying array of islands scattered along the Inside Passage and the remote and remarkable coastlines of mainland British Columbia and southeast Alaska, deciding on a course, especially for first-time boaters to this region, becomes particularly challenging.

The captains of commercial vesselsferries, tugs and barges, coastal freighters, fishing boats, and cruise shipstypically choose the most direct of the protected routes possible. These vessels follow the Strait of Georgia along the eastern coastline of Vancouver Island, an unusually large and anomalous island that, scientists theorize, based on the composition of its rocks, the fossil records in those rocks, and plate tectonics, was originally located in the South Pacific. Over millions of years the island has shifted to its present location, where it forms an excellent barrier from the forces of the Pacific Ocean, effectively creating the first long and protective leg of the Inside Passage.

This most direct of protected routes continues north across Queen Charlotte Sound, around Cape Caution, and then along the eastern side of a string, and sometimes two strings, of islands that afford protection from the North Pacific Ocean.

Pleasure boatersespecially those with time constraints even more limiting than those imposed by the short cruising season in British Columbia and Alaska, May through Augustsometimes choose the route that will get them to Alaska most quickly.

Because we had no time constraints except those imposed by the season and the weather, we planned to spend two weeks in Desolation Sound before continuing up the Inside Passage. After Desolation, we would have about three and a half months, a long time on the face of it but far too short to fit in more than a small fraction of the destinations on the mainland coasts and the hundreds of islands.

We began the planning of our route from Desolation by identifying towns where we could obtain fuel and provisions. Next, we selected sites we wanted to see, based on reports of the wildlife, the scenery, or the historical relics there. Finally, we selected places to spend the night so that we could cross bodies of water exposed to the ocean, such as Queen Charlotte Sound, early in the morning, or transit dangerous narrows, such as Dodd, at slack water.

The fuel and provisioning stops were easy: we could go all the way to Prince Rupert without worry. After that, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, and Juneau all have fuel and marketsand all were places we wanted to see anyway. A far greater challenge was our deciding which other sites we were most eager to see. In fact, early on we had to begin repeating the line, "Let’s see that place on the return trip," in order to avoid spending the entire four months in getting to Prince Rupert.

While we studied the charts and read the guidebooks over and over during the weeks before the trip and had an itinerary we expected to follow, we knew then, based on our past cruises, we’d make many changes along the way. Desire and necessity would continue to rule just as they were in the planning stage. Indeed, we took several unplanned excursionsfor instance, up Kynoch Inlet, which cuts through one of the most awe-inspiring gorges.

The need for a replacement foot switch for the windlass took us to Campbell River, on Vancouver Island, and four days of rain and high winds pinned us down in Prince Rupert for a couple of days longer than we’d planned to be there. But, after all, one of the joys of cruising is precisely the opportunity for us to take off and see something not on the agenda or to spend a few extra days responding to a situation, not harried by a rigid schedule.

In planning an itinerary (which you, too, most likely will not expect to follow precisely), you may want to keep in mind two characteristics of the Inside Passage. One, many of these waterways have enough hazards to dissuade most pleasure boaters from making passages during the night. On the other hand, the days are so long in the late spring and early summeras much as 20 hours of daylightyou’ll have plenty of light to cover great distances daily if you need to.

To illustrate this plethora of light: we were in Sitka early in July and, on learning the Fourth of July fireworks were to be set off over the harbor at midnight on July 3, we said to each other, "How curious!" But as we waited in the cockpit on the night of the 3rdway past our bedtimewe realized the sky was not dark enough for fireworks until close to midnight.

Among islands and rocks

Geologists who’ve studied this remarkable area have found evidence that, for the most part, glaciation has carved the deep sounds, channels, reaches, inlets, bays, and arms of the Inside Passage. This glaciation has also created islands of many sizes and shapes and left islets, boulders, and rocks scattered throughout the waterways.

While glaciation has created, and continues to reshape, this rich and varied passage, with its multitudes of diverse destinations along the way, it has also fashioned what will sometimes appear to be a maze for navigation. Many of the smaller islands and islets have neither natural nor human markings for a boater to distinguish one clearly from another, and they are easily confused unless the first-time navigator of the Inside Passage constantly compares these islands with the charts. Here we found the electronic charts especially reassuring, for they identified for us precisely which island we were passing.

More demanding of the navigator’s concentration on the charts are the rocks and boulders lying offshore of the islands and the mainland. These are all charted, as far as we know, but many of them have no navigational markers. Some of them are visible several feet above low water but are barely covered at high; others are submerged enough to pass safely over at high water but not at low.

One of these we remember vividly. We were having another peaceful lunch after we’d left Refuge Cove, in British Columbia, our course set south for Nanoose Harbour, north of Nanaimo. Nearing Kinghorn Island, we heard and felt a bump on the port quarter of the boat and thought we might have hit a small log. But Carricklee may also have just kissed one of the Kinghorn Rocks that foul the water north of the island. Neither our electronic nor our paper charts indicated we were that close to the rocks. Even so, we still wonder, was it a log or a rock?

Avoiding floating hazards

Boaters making the trip to Alaska through the Inside Passage will find floating hazards aplenty, many of them unique to the Pacific Northwest.

Floating logs are probably the most constant danger. Whether we were hand steering or using the autopilot as we transited the Inside Passage, one of us was continuously on the alert for loose logs. After being cut, large sometimes gargantuanlogs slip into the water as they’re brought down a steep skid road; others fall off log barges or break free from log rafts. Some of these floating monsters are 30 to 50 feet long and more than 20 inches in diameter. Hitting one of this size could spell disaster for most boats. While the majority of the logs we saw floating in the waterways weren’t that large, we didn’t want to hit one to find out if it would punch a hole in our hull. Still, even with our constant vigilance, we occasionally felt a slight bump against the hull and surmised we’d hit a small log concealed in a line of thick flotsam or hidden in the trough of a swell.

A particularly lethal form of the floating log is the dead head, a log with one waterlogged end hanging diagonally or vertically into the water, perhaps even resting on the bottom, with the other end barely rising above the surface. Hitting a dead head, even a somewhat small one, is usually more serious than hitting one floating horizontally because the log may remain fixed to the bottom rather than be pushed aside by the boat’s hull. Dead heads are often particularly difficult to see. Fortunately, gulls like to rest on anything floating in the water and will often perch on the exposed end of dead heads, giving boaters at least a chance of seeing the logs in time to avoid hitting them.

Large numbers of ships, freighters, and ferries transit the Passage every day during the late spring and early summer. The only unusual threat we felt from these, in addition to the always real possibility of hitting one in low-visibility conditions, was encountering one of these large vessels in one of the narrow passages. But, since their captains usually broadcast, over channels 13 and 16, their intentions when entering such passages, we found these vessels no more of a problem here than anywhere else we’ve cruised.

We encountered a surprising number of tugs towing barges or log rafts. These tugs often tow two or three long barges, making them even more dangerous when visibility is limited. As intimidating as these might be, the log rafts were more dangerous. On more than one occasion, we could not see these low-in-the-water log rafts being towed until we were shockingly close. These sudden revelations usually came to us in the dim light of early morning or in fog.

But the one encounter that was the most unnerving occurred in the middle of a sunny afternoon. We had just "survived" the passage south through Seymour Narrows and were nearing the bustling port of Campbell River. Fishing boats, ferries, freighters, tugs, and a few pleasure craft were going up and down Discovery Passage and back and forth across it. Thinking we’d allowed ourselves ample room to pass behind what we took to be a tug without a tow crossing our bow diagonally, we had quite a start when we got closer and saw the two rafts of logs it was towing, each raft about 500 feet long.

When gill-net fishing opens in one specific area for a few days, dozens of boats crowd the waters. These boats present a problem unique among the fishing boats. Each boat sets a net several hundred feet long near the surface of the water; these nets are identified with small floats that are often difficult to see. The problem for the navigator is how to get around all the nets and boats without entangling the prop, getting rammed by the moving fishing boat, or getting too close to shore and running aground. The single worst morning of our trip was just such an encounter in Sumner Strait. Fortunately, one of the fishermen recognized our confusion, called us on the VHF, and talked us through the maze of boats and nets.

Adapting to extreme tides

For those of us accustomed to the inconsequential tide ranges found along much of the western coast of North America, the tide ranges along the Inside Passageoften as much as 20 feetleave us incredulous.

These extreme tidal ranges create swift currents, or rapids, when large volumes of water funnel through narrow passages into bays or between islands. Currents in these rapids frequently reach a velocity exceeding the hull speed of most sailboats and trawlers; in such cases, transiting the passage against the current becomes impossible. And, although going through rapids with the current produces a quick trip, in fact going through with the current is often more dangerous than trying to go against the current.

Early on in our acquaintance with the currents and narrows of the Inside Passage, we arrived at the southern entrance to Dodd Narrows, south of Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, much earlier than we’d planned. After alternately drifting and motoring around for an hour or so, we still had 30 minutes before slack water. We reckoned that the current had dropped to less than four knots by then and that, since we were going with the current, we should be safe enough. And indeed we did pass safely through Dodd Narrows, but the current and whirlpools bounced our 35,000-pound boat around as though it were a little plastic boat in a Jacuzzi. Though the experience was thrilling, you can bet we never knowingly defied the currents again.

However, we did unwittingly provide ourselves with another thrilling passage through a narrows. Unaccustomed to the unusual relationship between currents and tides in the Inside Passage, we misjudged the time of slack water at Sergius Narrows, near Sitka. We assumed slack water would occur at nearly the same time as high and low water, a relationship we had come to expect from sailing in the San Francisco Bay area and in Hawaii. As a result, we entered Sergius at exactly low water and found our boat struggling against a six-knot current. We had a tense 30-minute passage, inching our way through the one-mile pass, hoping the current wouldn’t increase and force us to turn around in this narrow waterway constricted by a vertical granite wall to the north and rocky islets and pinnacles to the south.

When we finally escaped from the clutches of the rapids, we reexamined our current and tide books. Low water that afternoon was at 1636, the time we had entered the narrows, but slack water was at 1417, more than two hours earlier, and 2020, almost four hours later. Before this incident, we had relied heavily on our tide guide; afterwards, we checked the current guide firsttwo separate books for many regions.

So slender is the thread of water in Sergius, as in many of the other narrows, that all the vessels waiting for slack water at one end transit before the vessels coming from the other direction enter. In other words, Sergius and most other narrows are one-way streets. Ferry and cruise ship captains regularly call on VHF radio to advise the captains of other nearby boats when their vessels will be entering one or the other end of a narrow passage.

Anchoring challenges

Imagine coming into a perfectly sheltered bay at low water and dropping anchor in 10 feet of water. You let out 40 feet of chain, giving a four-to-one scope. Sounds safe enough. But when a 20-foot tide comes in, that four-to-one scope becomes something less than a one-to-one scope. A dragging anchor is almost guaranteed.

Anchoring at high tide in these waters presents another problem. Dropping in 20 feet of water is safe enough along much of the Pacific Coast, but most boats anchored in 20 feet in the Inside Passage will be aground when a 15-foot tide goes out. A 20-foot tide will leave a boat high and dry, potentially damaging enough on a mud or sand bottom but threatening the integrity of the hull when that rising bottom comes furnished with sharp rocks and reefs.

Another danger comes when boats are anchored too close to shoals at the heads of bays. You may drop in 40 feet, let out sufficient scope, and settle down for the night. In the light winds common here during the summer, the current rather than the wind direction often determines which way your boat swings. That is, your boat will point one way on the ebb and the opposite on the flood. When the boat swings around, you don’t want to hear that most unwelcome grating sound against the hull.

Because of the likelihood that boats anchored along the Inside Passage will swing almost continuously, plow-type anchors, which have the capability of resetting themselves almost without fail, are popular among cruisers in British Columbia and Alaska.

In many anchorages the bottom drops off so precipitously from the shore that boaters anchoring in 75 feet of water will nevertheless be too close to shore for adequate swinging room. In this case, the solution is to drop a bow hook and then carry a stern line ashore, loop it around a tree, and bring it back to the boat. For this eventuality, many boats carry 300- to 600-foot polypropylene lines that won’t sink. Frequently, these lines are on reels mounted on deck.

Adjusting to the weather

During our four-month voyage up the Inside Passage this past spring and summer, we experienced winds more than 20 knots only three times, each time lasting no more than three days. In fact, because of the light winds, more commonly five knots than 20, we were rarely able to shut down the engine.

Fog and low clouds were also infrequent this past spring and summer in the Inside Passage, but, when either did occur, we stayed put until the lid lifted, or, if caught in mid-passage, kept busy watching the radar screen and squeegeeing off the dodger windows. Though the days of fog and low clouds were few, the days we traveled in the rain were many. And a heavy rain can restrict visibility almost as much as can fog and low clouds. After one memorably tense passage on a rainy day through Peril Strait (the name of this strait alone is enough to make one tense), we decided we’d install some kind of windshield wipers before our next cruise in British Columbia and Alaska. We wanted to have those ships in view for more than a few hundred feet.

The Inside Passage is one of the few remaining waterways on the Pacific coast of North America along which you can closely approximate the experiences of the early English and Spanish explorers and of the Tlingits, Haidas, Tsimshians, Kwakiutls, Bella Coolas, Nootkas, Coast Salish, and others before them. In many places the grandeur of the mountains and the magnificence of the wildlife remain undisturbed by people, shaped only by nature. Some of the challenges of navigation, too, remain similar to times long gone: currents and tides, water depths, and weather conditions. We imagined how exhilarated all those early sailors must have been to have come upon what we today call Baker Inlet or Hole-in-the-Wall for the first time.

Today, current and tide books, paper and electronic charts, guidebooks, depthsounder, knotmeter, GPS, and radar give us contemporary sailors tremendous assistance. Navigational markers identifying narrow passages, points of land, and dangerous rocks and shoals aid us immeasurably. Still, enough of the navigational challenges of the Inside Passage remain to enhance our appreciation of this frequently traveled but nevertheless wild and beautiful superhighway to Alaska.

Carolyn and Bob Mehaffy are the authors of Cruising Guide to the Hawaiian Islands, published by Paradise Cay.

By Ocean Navigator