October 25, 2012

Leg 7: 8/9 - 23/9 2012: Point Barrow - False Pass, Alaskan Peninsula

Is this IT?

Point Barrow is such a low featureless cape that it is hard to believe that so many sailors took a very deep breath once they rounded the cape and could head south. Late in the ice free summer the whaling was at its best but if a northerly wind came up and pressed the pack-ice against the cape they had to find a safe anchorage for the winter. Or else the ever moving pack-ice would seal their fate. That year the whalers would not come home. And nobody knew if they would next year or that their boat was already crushed to bits by the ice. Nowadays this is different, oil companies just had to abort drilling in the Chukchi Sea for the ice was threatening their rigs.


We sail along the coast, enjoying a very friendly and stable northerly breeze. Great conditions for Penny to get used to Jonathan.  After 4 hours of undisturbed sleep she wakes me asking for another hour. To watch the Northern lights flowing in yellow and green bands along a cloudless sky. Staring at the dancing, colourful and fickering light, the half full moon and the stars, time seems to disappear. Jonathan looks after himself.

Our luck with the weather.

The days flow by seamlessly. The wind blowing gently from the north, day after day. We laugh a bit on the comments of other sailors who wrote horrendous stories on sailing the Chukchi Sea. Ok it is fresh at times and we need to gybe every now and then to keep the sun on our face but apart from that this seems to be a very friendly sea. Penny bakes bread, pizzas, cakes and other laborious stuff as if the boat is not rolling. The Grip-files keep on telling us there will be northerlies. The Pilot is not too positive on the narrow part of the Bering Strait. A windy funnel between Russian and Alaska with a north going current of 3 knot and a short steep sea. But also; after prolonged northerlies the current is often reduced to a knot or less. Luck is sailing with us on this one.

Gold-diggers and Iditarod

A days work of gold panning
Closing in on Nome we meet the first seabottomvacumers. Well I would not know of a better word for it, it floats and by way of a bizarre construction sand gets sucked up containing tiny gold particles. The suction mouth is operated by a diver whose wetsuit is warmed up by the cooling water of the generator. This way he can stay down for 4 hours straight. We meet dozens of these floating work platforms build with a lot of fantasy and very few dollars. Luckily the beach is not far away.
Nome is also Iditarod, now a dog sledge race over 1100 miles. It began as a serum transport for the kids of Nome dying off diphtheria in the winter of 1925. The sea was frozen over and the planes of that time could not handle the winter cold of Alaska. Mushers drove their dogs and themselves to the limits crossing the icy desert. Days and days knowing that their hardship would save many young lives.

Gold panners shacks on the beach
Footsteps on deck. A bright high visibility jacket shows up in the cockpit. Rolland introduces himself in a few lines, "we sailed the North West Passage in 2009, now training for the Iditarod, kids going to school here". Full of energy he already arranged to haul out 2 NW Passage boats, "yes it is pretty late for the Bering Sea but with a boat like this, no problem" He comes up with False Pass as a possible landfall in the Alaskan Peninsula. Did not look very tempting when I saw it on the chart earlier but it might have been the name that put me off.

The last miles . . .

Another deep depression moves over the Bering Sea. The hard northerly wind blows all the water out of the harbour. Parts dry out and Jonathan gets so low that we end up under the tyres. The harbour patrol looks down on us and notices our struggle with now too small fenders. “Wait  I got something better for you” . 5 Minutes later he is back and lowers some huge ball-fenders. “Autumn came early this year” he shouts against the wind before he leaves. Yea and with 600 nm of infamous water ahead of us, shallow, counter current and kelp fields the size of a hockey ground. On board Belzebub we grumble about what is ahead of us. The Grip files are ok for the first 2 days, so let’s go, comes what may. Halfway we have to decide on our landfall. By now we are surfing down 4 meter waves so “False Pass” does not sound very tempting. Going down wind we still have 40 knots over deck.  The Grip-files give a short weather window in 1 ½ day. I am dreaming off a harbour with huge breakwaters and strong bollards. After 7000 nm since Spitsbergen I would not mind some long long nights. Hove too we wait for the wind and sea to die down. High tide is at 11.30, we should be in by then for the current will be flowing out at 3 knots soon after.

At dawn we can see some of the volcanos that make up the Aleutian chain. Their peaks covered in fresh snow glow up in the early morning light. On the top of the swell we can see the opening in the breakers before we find the marker buoys. Next to us the swell are breaking violently on the shallows but the ones that roll under Jonathan have lost their venom. Sea-Otters float lazily in the calm water, Sea-Eagles dash close along the mountain sides. All in full fresh autumn colours topped by white volcanos, some virgin like others with blown of tops or flanks. The anchor goes down in stiff mud with 90 meters of chain to follow. De wind comes back with 45 knots from the south but we just want to sleep tonight!

October 24, 2012

Leg 6: 5-7 September 2012: Approach Point Barrow

Where am I?

Hove to we slowly drift towards the sandbanks that block the entrance to Elson Lagoon. Just 15 knots of wind left but the swells take longer to subside. How much patience can one have? We are all strained, can we get in? Waiting only builds up the pressure, let’s go than, impatience forces us on? Give it more time, it can only get better. The pilot describes the winter ice as a huge bulldozer that easily moves the sand banks. Late in the afternoon with 4 hours of daylight left, I cannot stop myself anymore and we turn the bow towards the shallows. We need to pass between several sandbanks straight towards the low sand spit. Then when we get close, the depth should increase, 90 degrees to port and find the small entrance between more shallows and the spit. There is no visibility, no buoyage; big swells are still running in from the Beaufort Sea. Radar and C-map give different positions. Where am I? In a grey world we can only see the brown breakers forcefully running on the shallows. Also right ahead where it should be 6 m deep.  Full reverse when the forward looking sounder goes down to 2,5 m. The swells break against the stern. Water is forced up through the cockpit drains. Brr so not here then, do we go on to Nome 500 nm further south? Half a mile to the north-west we try again. According to C-map we should now hit the bottom but there is the spit, the depth increases so full to port now. Radar and chart-plotter are still arguing, so much for electronic navigation….   We have to go through there?  In between the violent breakers where swells run into less than 2 meters and the spit? 9 m, 11, 14, pfff,  we are in the small gully. We turn into the lagoon and there on the high water line lays the marker that the radar could not find. Seems like the winter ice did. In the flat water of the lagoon we breathe easy again, broad smiles on relieved faces.

Welcome in the USA

Crossing the lagoon to the anchorage we pass Point Barrow, on the wrong side for now. Time to celebrate though. We get the whisky out and I light up a fat cigar that Auden gave me for the occasion. From Cambridge Bay this was the last part of the North West Passage, but only when we have sailed the Bering Sea in September can we realy celebrate. This is our first port in the US but we cannot clear customs here, well I guess there are not many yachts coming in here!!!. By e mail the crew gets permission to fly to Anchorage. Coming down the stairway an immigration officer is awaiting them. If they can pay 580$ each they are welcome in the US. Their ESTA approval is not enough when you arrive on a foreign yacht. Ai!

The vicar's faith

The anchorage is far from town so I call the cab that took Kees, Marco and Patrick to the airport yesterday. No he is not coming, the swells are still coming onto the road and parts have eroded into the sea. So I walk, the minister drives with his wife, dog and hunting gun over the spit. They seem to have less worries, not sure if it is because of their faith or their enormous Dodge 4 wheel drive in which they take me to the airport. With Penny we find a cab for the way back. The driver from Thailand just arrived here some weeks ago. He has no idea where the lagoon or anchorage is. On my instructions he finds the way back. The driver is pretty pale when we get there and Penny has a broad smile when she sees Jonathan at anchor in the grey lagoon.