July 25, 2012
Tuesday morning (July 24th) in Still Harbor did not look much different from Monday evening with low clouds continuing to obscure the mountains. Although it was not raining, the forecast predicted 20 knot winds in the afternoon with 6 ft (2 m) seas so by 6:30 am we were underway. As we passed the kelp and rocks at the Harbor entrance we again saw a few seals and about 10 sea otters.
The first two hours (about 10 nm) of our passage to Sitka were in the open sea but the waves were little worse than the previous day. After diligent searching we finally saw some puffins fly past. They flew so fast that it was difficult to get a good view of them but the large, bills were unmistakable. Although we did not see the diagnostic yellow tufts like super-long eyebrows that stream behind their heads, the absence of white on the underside indicated that we had seen tufted puffins rather than the horned puffins (which look much more like the Atlantic puffin). This was particularly satisfying given the disappointment when passing Puffin Cove.
We saw several humpback whales including one that was breaching almost fully clear of the water. One trio that crossed our path (with us stopping to stay well clear of them) made an unusual roaring noise and we then heard their whale-song. I am not sure I had ever heard whale-song so clearly from above the water. It reminded me of all the songs we heard snorkeling with Tom and Rosie in Las Perlas, Panama.
Eventually we turned east to resume an “inside passage” with a series of islands between us and the ocean. Although this route was clearly marked on our route-planning map, we had to study the electronic charts for a while to be sure that we could get through all three “passes” as some of them were shallow as well as narrow. However, the first section, Walker Channel, was wide and calm and we saw more sea otters and seals including some seal pups. We also spotted a couple of Sitka black-tailed deer (native, of course) at the head of one small bay.
Apparently approaching from the reverse direction compared to the local cartographer, we came to Second Narrows before First Narrows. These passes were indeed narrow with kelp-beds and barely submerged rocks making the channel even narrower than the gap from shore to shore. With right angle turns either just before or after the passes, it was necessary to go very slowly and listen for boats coming the other way. We were grateful that our electronic charts seemed to be very accurate in this area.
The third pass, Dorothy Narrows, is not only the narrowest (only about 60 ft is navigable or 18 m) and shallowest but also the longest so it was a bit of a white-knuckle ride for Randall at the helm. Provided that the various rocks were avoided at the edges, at least the clearly visible bottom within Dorothy Narrows is mostly sand, shells, and kelp. We arrived not long after low tide so if we had run aground at least we would not have had to wait long to float off. In retrospect we perhaps should have waited for the tide to come in a bit more because at one point we recorded a water depth of only 6.8 ft (2.1 m) and our draft is 6 ft (1.8 m)…phew! To add to the excitement, we met a pair of kayakers coming the other way as we entered the narrows but by then it was impossible for us to turn around so it was just as well that they were experienced enough to keep out of our way.
Still, the calm inside waters and the attractive scenery made it worthwhile to have to concentrate really hard in the passes. Towards the end of the inside route we passed Goddard Hot Springs which is very popular with the crews of local fishing boats. Apparently there are some wooden tubs in a bathhouse provided by the US Forest Service with hot or very hot water piped in from the natural springs. Although the idea of a hot bath was tempting, by that time we were looking forward to getting into Sitka Harbor so we did not stop.
We unfurled the jib briefly while we were in Sitka Sound but our exposure to the wind did not last for long. By mid-afternoon we were securely docked in Eliason Harbor having finished our splendid circumnavigation of Baranof Island. Looking a bit like the shape of a partly eaten cone of ice-cream (this suggests what I missed over the two weeks), the island is about 90 nm long and 20 nm wide. The coastline of the main island is probably at least 360 nm with all the long bays and fjords but if all the small associated islands were included the total shoreline would be many times longer.
The next day, our top priority boat project (other than laundry) was to get the propane stove functioning again. Having found that we could not effectively clean the long, narrow hose that runs from the propane locker (in the cockpit) through the engine room to the stove, we were very thankful to learn about a contractor in town who would be able to make us a replacement hose with the correct fittings.
As we wandered around the harbor sorting out how to get the new hose, I noticed a familiar aluminum boat, Holy Grail. Howard and Stephanie had arrived from Hawai‘i just three days earlier and due to an engine-overheating problem (a broken exhaust pipe) they had spent several extra days at sea waiting for wind. We had also heard on the Pacific Seafarers’ SSB Network that they had had to delay their departure from Hawaii (due to an auto-pilot problem that caused them to have to wait two weeks for a new part) so we were glad to see that they had finally managed to set-off on their Alaskan adventure. Although I had only once briefly talked to Howard at Honokohau Harbor where they ran a day-sail charter business (having just sold their coffee plantation), he vaguely remembered who we were (especially once we mentioned our common friends, Steve and Cheryl on Gershon II). It was good to compare tales of our crossings from Hawai‘i and they were eager to hear what we had already learned about Sitka.
The non-functional windlass down-switch was another problem that needed to be fixed and I had to install more ice-blanket to insulate the forward cabin so we would not be idle while we were in town. Our hope was that after a week in Sitka we could go exploring for another 10 days or so before returning in mid-August to meet Roger.