The Secrets of Seward
By Ralph Naranjo
When Andrew Jackson served as President and William H. Seward was his feisty Secretary of State, the Russians were eager to unload what they considered to be an economic wasteland.
Even at 2 cents an acre, the U. S. Press Corp circa 1867 lambasted Seward, calling his purchase of Alaska a colossal folly. Fortunately, Seward knew a good deal when he saw one, but it took the Klondike gold rush some 20 years latter to begin the redemption of his good name. It also marked the point when sailors started thinking that the long haul to the land of the midnight sun just might be worthwhile after all.
Eventually, even the detractors developed a fondness for “Seward’s Icebox,” a feeling that was bolstered by the value of Alaska’s vast coastal fisheries, significant forested land and the controversial coastal oil reserves that adjoin this formidable state. The fact that the indigenous culture swapped sides with the superpowers of the future was hardly noted. Equally unrecognized in the transaction was the fact that Seward’s scheme would someday allow recreational sailors such as ourselves to access a cruising ground where even modest adventures unfold on a grand scale.
Today, the name Seward is best associated with a vibrant seafaring town on the south central coast of Alaska. It’s homeport to sailors and fishermen alike, and the friendly locals in this close-knit community have developed a savvy understanding of how to play the weather odds. Fair and foul weather dictate whether or not it’s time to sail or seek shelter. Even the steep glaciated mountain peaks that surround the bustling harbor town seem to cooperate by holding gray scudding clouds at bay.
Our arrival in scenic Seward was postponed by a day thanks to a vigorous cold front in the middle of the country that upended flight schedules and turned our Alaska-bound aircraft onto a detour to Dallas. My wife Lenore and I finally arrived in Anchorage and were happy to discover that our sea bags had beaten us there. It was the end of summer and the start of the rainy season, and good reason why fleece jackets, Gortex foul-weather gear, heavy socks, hats gloves, and sea boots are considered essential. The gear was coaxed into an economy-size rental car and after a couple of hours of squally but A+ quality scenic highway driving, we rolled into the parking lot of Sailing Inc.. Owners Deborah and Randy Altermott were at a boatshow in Seattle, but their helpful assistant, Misty Peters, checked us in, shared some local knowledge and pointed out where Denali Mist was moored and awaiting our arrival.
It was the end of summer and a few friendly locals hinted that it just might continue raining until Thanksgiving. I had noticed that many of the tourist shops were already closed and hoped that this would be a big plus for solitude but I also recognized that the onset of the rainy season might also have something to do with the shopkeepers’ migration to Key West.
“The sun was just out a couple of weeks ago,” said our dock neighbor as Lenore and I climbed aboard the well-maintained Catalina 30 MKIII that would be our home for the next week. We were prepared for wet weather and marveled at the clean air and craggy mountains that peeked through the clouds. The size and angle of the ramp on the floating dock convinced us that 20-foot tides certainly do exist in this part of the world and I made a mental note to offload the boat at high water when it finally came time to leave. In the meantime, there was no doubt at all that there was much to see and even more to do.
Denali Mist proved to be a lot of boat packed into only 30 feet of overall length. Her functional galley, compact shower/head and chart table were housed in a two-cabin layout with a quarter berth tucked snuggly in under the cockpit sole. She made sense as a bareboat and proved to be a squared away little sloop that would be well tested during the time we spent on board. Among her user-friendly attributes were a roller furling headsail, a Dutchman mainsail reefing system and a smooth running reliable diesel engine. All systems were functional when we steeped aboard but it was the Webasto diesel heater that would become our best friend. At first the unit’s blower fan seemed a bit of an annoyance, but as Pavlov would’ve appreciated, we soon associated its sound with a warm cabin, and since then no musical tone could ever have more appeal.
When Lenore and I provisioned at the well-stocked local market, we were reminded of Russell, New Zealand; Sydney, Australia; Capetown, South Africa, or any number of other stops we’ve made while cruising aboard our own sloop Wind Shadow. In many ways, a bareboat charter mimics cruising aboard your own boat. The anticipatory aspect that precedes getting underway is almost the same, and so is the elation associated with departure. The duration may be shorter, but the process remains the same. As usual, our expectations of adventure over shadowed concerns about bad weather, excessively deep anchorages and temperatures that were a far cry from what we left at home in Annapolis, Maryland. With provisions onboard and tanks full we were ready to go. Unfortunately the forecast was anything but cooperative.
Heavy weather is a relative term that differs from sailor to sailor, but in this part of the world the gales are turbo-charged and should never be treated lightly. Alaska’s low pressure systems can take on Herculean proportions, and when the robotic voice of the VHF weather channel droned on about 60-knot winds and 25- to 30-foot seas in the Gulf of Alaska, Lenore and I quickly took note. I had promised that this would be more vacation than ordeal, and even though the forecast for local Resurrection Bay was only 40 knots and seas of a demure 15 feet, we rethought our departure plan. If Paul Revere really coined the “one is by land and two is by sea” cliché, we most certainly were favoring his number one travel option, at least for the next 24 hours.
Seward, and the local area around it, provides some rewarding landlocked tourist options, and our hide from the gale itinerary began with a double check of dock lines and a drive to Exit Glacier. A short hike to the foot of the receding glacier provided an up close and personal look at the azure blue glow of old highly compressed ice exposed by the summer melt and global warming. These coastal glaciers are receding at an alarming rate and are another interesting data point that alludes to climate change. Despite the fact that these behemoth blocks of ice make turtles seem like sprinters, there’s a very real dynamic feeling imparted by their sheer magnitude.
The Seward Sealife center is a museum and aquarium that’s also well worth a close look. It familiarized us with the local fauna and flora of the region and better prepared us for the experiences that lay ahead. Anyone with wildlife curiosity and a photographic interest will find the displays and tank held specimens that were compelling, but even more meaningful is the view from the observation deck that looks out on the real world of Resurrection Bay. It left us feeling like kids, waiting for Christmas knowing that the gift still wrapped in a box was tomorrow’s departure.
We concluded our in-port layover with a tour of the eclectic town of Seward and a bit of dockside sailor talk with the locals. After dinner in a local fish house, we ambled back to the marina.
We climbed into our berths with the wind rattling the rigging and awoke to calm seas and a clearing sky. Denali Mist’s diesel purred, we pointed her bow toward open water and as soon as we exited the marina a well-fed sea otter surfaced, rolled onto his back, and seemed to nod an approval to our getting underway. The great wall-like breakwater that contained the small boat harbor testified to battles waged between heavy granite and troubled seas. Fortunately for us the tempest had worn itself out over night and a frail lingering misty fog floated just above the water’s surface. There was no doubt in my mind that this was both the time and place to experience climate extremes and I could only imagine what the Gulf of Alaska would have been like a day or two earlier.
Lenore steered a course for deep water and I hoisted the main with hopes that the act would help coax some breeze out of the windless sky. Even if we had to wait a while to shut the engine off, the flat-sheeted mainsail would help dampen the roll caused by a swell left over from the previous night’s gale. I laid a GPS fix on the chart just to confirm our visual plot with the genius of the satellite system upon which we’d grown so reliant.
Resurrection Bay was the antithesis of Wind Shadow’s latest home waters -- the Chesapeake Bay. Its fjord like geology, that in many areas causes deep water to butt up against vertical cliff faces, presented a different set of navigational challenges. In this part of the world, running into a log or a growler (big chunk of ice) is much more likely than running aground. Changes in color often indicate changes in density and salinity. The dark blue deeper water shifts to a pastel hue as glacial melt water accumulates in the vicinity of tidewater glaciers. In these areas, glacial moraine form sandbar like shoals that are well noted on charts.
Thumb Cove grew closer as we tacked our way up Resurrection Bay. Puffins and Guillemots dived for baitfish and an occasional Bald Eagle passed by after growing tired of dining on Cojo Salmon. What had appeared as a dash of snow atop the coastal mountain range turned out to be a field of alpine glaciers that carved granite ravines and surrounded the anchorage with a massive display of natural sculpture. It was late afternoon according to my built-in mid-latitude sundial, which at this time of year in this part of the world transposes to about 7:00 p.m. local time. A few Seward-based cruisers already had the hook down and were broiling Salmon on stern-rail barbecues, enjoying the sunlight as it accentuated new crags on some mountain peaks and backlit others. The breeze let off and the afternoon chop soon settled to a millpond-like flat sea. Our usual post-anchoring obligatory drinks and hors d’oeuvres were once again bypassed in favor of a closer look at what surrounded us. As soon as the anchor was set we put the outboard on the dinghy, grabbed cameras and binoculars and explored another pristine anchorage.
On the flight to Alaska I reread the book Winding Along Alaska’s Great Glaciers by long-term cruisers Tom and Vicky Jackson, a compelling story of their sailing experiences in these very same waters the year before. Their voyage mandated a lengthy passage to and from Resurrection Bay and exposed them to the Gulf of Alaska’s fury, an experience that bareboat charterers can avoid. In fact, among the small fleet of sailboats we saw meandering among the anchorages of the Kenai Fjords were a dozen or so Hunters, Catalinas, and Beneteaus, the same boats that are seen and sailed from harbors all over the lower 48. Hardcore expeditionary craft may be de rigueur for those spending days and weeks in Alaska’s open waters, but for those ready and willing to implement a weather-forecast-dominated approach to local sailing, Alaska can be a very manageable bareboat charter experience, one that you’ll never forget.
In our case, waiting for weather in Seward proved to be a great experience in itself, and with the gale’s departure came a spell of fair weather and moderate sailing breezes that drove off the “rain until Thanksgiving” prediction. We meandered among just a few of the spectacular anchorages of Kenai Fjords realizing that a week was just enough time to wet our appetites. It convinced us that our first cruise in Alaska will hopefully not be our last.
What To Know Before You Go
It’s a long haul to the huge state of Alaska, but by combining a bareboat charter with some land travel you can make it a most unforgettable experience. Car as well as RV rentals in Anchorage are convenient and we found that even though we would be sailing for a week it made sense to hang onto the car and have it available just in case we ended up harbor bound by bad weather and wanted to do some local touring.
Even though it’s still officially summer when you charter, expect a changeable late-fall climate and come equipped with a layered approach to clothing. Bring good foul-weather gear and boots that work to get you in and out of the dinghy without shipping water. The charter boats from Sailing Inc are well equipped and set up with heaters, dodgers and all the nav-equipment and galley gear it takes to enjoy life afloat. There’s quite a bit of calm weather and it boils down to either slow but delightful sailing or a decision to speed things up by motor sailing. Fuel reserves always need to be considered, especially how they relate to a sprint to safe shelter when the next hungry low makes its Pacific presence known.
The old “bring it with you or do without it” rule was in full effect and the implications of the latter to those sailing in Alaska are far more serious than for cruisers headed to the Caribbean. We were going to do some landside traveling after the charter and had extra equipment for that end of the endeavor. The result was four good-sized checked bags, a carry-on pack and camera equipment that’s more likely to set off airport security than bag full of box cutters.
When getting ready for such a long-distance charter determine the optimum gear to pack and keep the climate change in mind. Ruthlessly review the clothing and equipment packed and try to streamline what’s going to be dragged from here to there and back again. If you’re serious about the pictures you take beware of multiple doses of airport x-ray scans and how you pack camera gear to meet carry-on stipulations. Mail film to and from destinations or go digital and back up the flash-card files before departure.