July 03, 2012
After three days of seemingly continuous rain in Sitka, we were rewarded on July 2nd and 3rd by two dry days…mostly cloudy but dry. We have been told (but have not verified) that this May was the wettest and coldest on record (although we are not sure if this is for Alaska in general or just the Sitka area) and there was a suspicion that June might set a coldness record too. Having been told this, we have set our weather expectations so low that we greet any sunshine or blue sky with great excitement. It is strongly reminiscent of our stay in Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) during their wettest August on record. Perhaps we should christen our cruising life the “Voyage of Superlatives”.
Our expectations were also lowered after Randall studied a local website that suggested that Sitka has 43 clear days a year and 222 days with rain. At least, most of the rain so far has been fairly light drizzle so it has not really stopped us from doing anything. By contrast, during the 21 days of our passage, before we got within 50 nm of Sitka, we only saw about 3 hours of rain and 5 days with fog. The daytime temperatures here have been in the high 50°F (around 14°C) but we have managed to keep the boat warm enough between the lovely new diesel heater and (since we are in a slip with electricity) using our small electric fan-heater. We mostly use the latter in the aft bathroom, which sounds questionably safe, where we hang wet things to dry and it also helps to warm our aft sleeping-cabin.
Given how much we use the electric heater, we now understand why the slip rates here are fairly cheap (35 cent per foot per day) but electricity at $5 per day is much more than it was in Ala Wai (87 cents per day). The usual slips for transient-boats are on the outside face-docks and do not have access to electricity but we were able to “hot-berth” which means using a regular slip that is normally leased to a boat that is currently away. Using a hot-berth has the advantages of a power supply and a more sheltered position but means that you may have to move slips at short notice when the leaser returns.
The water temperature in the harbor is 55°F (13°C), somewhat warmer than the low of 48°F (9°C) that we saw at sea but still cold enough that humid air in the cabins condenses on the inside of our un-insulated hull. As we first discovered in Nova Scotia, this is the problem of having a boat built for the tropics in cold water. The worst problems are that the walls of our closets become covered with water which wets one arm of each of our hanging garments and the three sides of our bed, where it touches the hull wall, remain perpetually wet. The latter is particularly unpleasant for me as I sleep next to the stern wall so while we are here we will have to do something to rectify this situation.
To summarize the rest of the weather that we recorded on our passage: the highest and lowest pressures were 1037.5 and 1008 Millibars (the latter being on our arrival in Sitka); the highest and lowest wind speeds were 33 and 2 knots; the highest and lowest wave/swell heights were 14 and 3 ft (4.3 and 0.9 m) the latter swell even when the sea surface was glassy-calm; and we had 100% cloud-cover for almost all of the last 10 days of the passage. Of course, the day length gradually increased throughout the passage and we have become used to not seeing dark as the sun currently sets around 10 pm and rises at 4 am. Presumably the short nights explain why high and low temperatures do not differ much at this time of year.
Our maximum noted speed was 8 knots (full sails and overpowered on the first day) and we sailed for 371 hours (including almost all of the first 10 days) and motor-sailed for 141 hours. After feeling so pleased with my fuel-consumption calculations during the passage, we arrived in Sitka apparently running on fumes. When I measured the diesel level on arrival it was quite a bit lower than I expected so my calculations at the higher rpms had rather underestimated actual fuel-consumption. We still had 15 gallons (57 L) in jerry jugs but it would have been a bit awkward trying to top-up the tank had we run-out of fuel as we tried to get into the harbor.
Until we reached Sitka we only saw the contrail of one plane although we saw various satellites (and/or the international space-station) pass overhead. We came close enough to see nine ships but only made contact with the Belle Rose. On the other hand, I chatted quite happily but rather one-sidedly with the animals whose paths we crossed which included: sea otters, turtles, Dall’s porpoises, pantropical spotted dolphins, orcas, Minke whales, humpback whales, tropic birds, Bulwer’s petrels Leaches petrels, fork-tailed storm petrels, wedge-tailed shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, Laysan albatross (1), black-footed albatross (17), pelagic cormorant, ancient murrelet, common murre, and bald eagles.
We started seeing fronds of kelp when we were three days away from Sitka and smaller pieces of shoreline algae as we came within 50 nm. Of the human-generated debris, we saw little in the second half of the passage and luckily for us, nothing that was alarming from the perspective of a collision. I sent my survey data to the researchers in Hawai‘i who responded very enthusiastically. They told us that a cruising-boat (Murre) that left Kaua‘i after us saw a derelict boat and large pieces of floating concrete dock so we were very lucky not to run into such large debris. They also sent photos of two large, black floats that where known to be from Fukushima. These were exactly like the one large float that we saw, so I sent my photos back to the research team. So it looks as though we saw at least one confirmed item from the tsunami.
Concern about running into large tsunami debris or stormy weather certainly preoccupied us both but I would say that overall I felt less acutely anxious during this passage than I did on our crossing to Hawai‘i (at least, after the bilge-filling problem had been resolved on Day 2). During that previous passage, I think that the damage to Wendy and the aft rail and our inability to use the engine, with the associated uncertainty about how we would get into the harbor, probably weighed more heavily on my mind than it did for Randall. Also, although this passage had its share of breakdowns, we could either put up with the inconvenience or experience made me more confident that we could temporarily fix them well enough for the rest of the passage.
Once in Sitka, we ordered a new solenoid for the stove but in the meantime Randall by-passed the old one so that we could resume using the stove provided that we manually turned the propane tanks on and off each time we used it. After the first wave doused the cockpit and dribbled into the engine room, the fridge stayed on continuously, freezing bottles of Gatorade, etc., which were not inside the freezer. When I tried to turn the thermostat down after a day or so, the fridge went off and stayed off. Luckily, the cold lockers stayed cold for the rest of the trip and I got a block of ice as soon as we arrived in Sitka. Initially, Randall feared that the same computer controller that we had replaced when Mike was with us in March had failed again. After further testing, however, it appeared to be a problem with a wire to the thermostat which was easily replaced (thanks to a refrigerator-technician’s helpful website on how to avoid expensive repairs) and we were very happy to have a functioning fridge/freezer again.
We may try to deal with the tear in the jib and gap in the jib’s furler-foil while we are in Alaska but it does not appear to be too urgent yet. The cobweb of clear duct tape on the broken Bimini window seems to be holding together so we hope to be able to leave that until the winter when we are in Washington when we will replace the whole set of cockpit windows. Similarly, we will deal with replacing Susie’s oar then. Ironically, until the oar sheared off, we were generally pretty pleased with how the wind-powered self-steering system was working based on the improvements Randall made since our last long passage. Other improvements on this crossing included our revised watches, our ability to reef the mainsail in sloppy conditions, and the acquisition of two new cockpit seats one of which was a folding armchair, fondly referred to as “The Throne”, that was far more comfortable and stable than anything else we have used. It takes up a bit more space than the other simple, flat, folding seat but we love it.
Of course, since we have been in Sitka our most favored upgrade has been the diesel heater which has been functioning beautifully. Not only does it produce ample heat for current conditions but the flickering flames in the 4 × 4 inch window (10 × 10 cm) provide the cabin with a cozy glow, although roasting chestnuts on it may be a bit tricky. Not being quite sure what we would need, we did not get a lid for the chimney suitable for use in wind and rain. We have now made that order but in the meantime (since there has been plenty of rain but thankfully little wind) we have fashioned a temporary cover from a bent coat-hanger and foil. This has worked fairly well except that one morning Randall heard a commotion on deck and looked out to see a raven trying to snatch the foil away. It ended up tearing half the foil off and dropping most of it on the dock, presumably hoping that it contained some food. It was not difficult to make a new cover but this was an interesting introduction to the common ravens which are common in the harbor.
There are also northwestern crows in the area but the huge ravens (24 inches or 60 cm long) are particularly obvious. Not only because they flap, hop, and sit around on boats, docks, trees, cars, etc., and appear to be the main garbage scavengers but also because they have an extensive repertoire of vocalizations. These include haunting hoots and comical honks as well as deep, grumpy-sounding croaks. Their main rivals for sound are the numerous bald eagles, which prefer high perches on the tops of masts, dock-posts, and trees, and whose screeches can either sound quite urgent or can be very similar to the high-pitched almost whistling kyew call of the osprey which also occur in the area but we have not yet seen. Second-year bald eagles can look quite similar to ospreys in coloration but are much larger (31-37 inches compared to 22-25 inches – 79-94 cm versus 56-64 cm). We have seen seven eagles at once on one group of trees by the harbor.
There is at least one huge Steller’s sea lion that swims around in the harbor. It does not hang around at the surface for long so I have not yet managed to take its picture but its loud exhalation when it surfaces is hard to ignore. Unlike the sea lions that we swam with in the Galapagos Islands, there is nothing cute about this 9 ft (2.7 m) giant which is probably a male. This is the largest species of sea lion in the world and weighing more than a ton it is just as well that they have not yet started hauling themselves out on the floating docks here, as the California sea lions do to nuisance levels in San Francisco. Populations of this endangered species declined markedly in the late 20th century for unknown reasons so we feel lucky to have seen one so easily.
Other than humans, the most frequently seen mammals around Sitka are dogs. It is undoubtedly a dog-loving town, which is OK with us as we have been able to pet several Roxy-like golden retrievers. The harbor is so well populated by dogs that we felt positively naked without one when we first arrived and so far they all seem to have been pretty well behaved and friendly.
And that description also seems appropriate for most of the people we have met both in the town and in the harbor. Sitka is the largest harbor in Alaska with more than 1,300 slips. There are five marinas around the town and we are in the biggest one, Eliason Harbor, which is run by the City and Borough of Sitka. It is very well organized and clean with large, wooden floating docks that move up and down on massive, mussel/barnacle-covered posts with the 14 ft (4 m) changes in tides. There are emergency ladders that can be tipped into the water in case someone accidentally falls in (other than in full dry-suit to no one would voluntarily want to swim here) and there is a cabinet with loaner life-jackets for kids, a requirement for any child under the age of 13 going on a boat.
Considering how many are working boats, the harbor is surprisingly quiet, especially at night, although when we arrived just before the start of the brief commercial King Salmon fishing season, it was alive with people hauling supplies and bait to their boats. As expected, motor vessels greatly outnumber sailing boats but a surprising number of fishing boats have a short mast and boom. One of the beauties of the harbor is that everyone is friendly with apparently little snobbishness or resentment between boating-types whether from hard-core commercial fishing or crabbing vessels, charter cruising or fishing boats, luxury private yachts, or any stage of fixer-upper live-aboards. We have met other people who have moved here from Florida but so far we have only seen other cruising boats from the Pacific Northwest, The Netherlands, and Sweden, so our homeport of Gainesville, FL, frequently precipitates the question of “How did we get here?”
Another beauty of the harbor is its surrounding scenery. We have not been able to see it quite as much as we would have liked but when the clouds are high Sitka’s location on the west coast of Baranof Island is spectacular. There is the low, forested Japonski Island to seaward (west) of us that houses the airport, a large US Coast Guard base, a high-school, and a University of Alaska laboratory. To the south and east are walls of snow-capped mountains. The distant peaks to the south rise beyond the majestic bay and small islands of the Eastern Anchorage while those to the east rise steeply behind the town and are covered with an unbroken blanket of dark green forest. To the north is the harbor’s protective breakwater beyond which is the Western Channel into Sitka Sound. This is surrounded by chain of rounded peaks on the north end of Baranof Island and on Kruzof Island. The chain ends at the entrance to Sitka Sound with the extinct but magnificent, snow-streaked, volcanic cone of Mount Edgecumbe. It makes an impressive backdrop to Eliason Harbor and is presumably an unmistakable landmark for offshore cruisers arriving in Sikta, in the unlikely event that they are lucky enough to arrive on a clear day.