August 28, 2014

Advice for the Alaska Race

HERE ARE SOME HINTS AND TIPS for anyone considering entering next year’s boat race from Washington to Alaska via the Inside Passage. They’re contained in an article I wrote a couple of years back for Small Craft Advisor magazine, one of the sponsors of the 750-mile race, which has a first prize of $10,000. It’s open to any boat without an engine.*


Adventurous newly-marrieds sail and row the Inside Passage to Juneau

IT WASN'T the kind of honeymoon cruise most petite blonde brides dream of.

Four days after their wedding ceremony, Elizabeth MacDonald and her brand-new husband Mike Kleps set sail on a 900-mile cruise from Washington state to Alaska in an open, 15-foot racing dinghy equipped only with sails and wooden oars.

The  Bellingham-based couple's goal for this marathon sail-camping  trip  in the summer of 2011 was to experience nature at its wildest. And experience it they did. For seven weeks they had almost daily encounters with wolves, whales, bears, dolphins, sea lions, and eagles as they landed each night at primitive campsites. They watched whales making bubble traps to catch fish; a brown bear’s head wobbling from the salmon wriggling in its jaws; gleaming white and blue Icebergs floating from tidewater glaciers. "We wanted to feel the satisfaction that comes with bringing the hazy outlines of a dream into bold reality," Mike explained.

Ignoring all kinds of warnings, this adventurous, nature-loving couple doggedly rowed and sailed north in their 53-year-old boat, quietly dealing with the wilderness hazards of the Inside Passage route through the Strait of Georgia and  Seymour Narrows into Johnstone Strait and  north to Juneau. It was challenging sailing as they fought fierce winds, fog, extreme tides, fast-flowing currents, reefs,  and lots of cold rain from depressions spinning down from the Gulf of Alaska. In three areas they were exposed to the full force of ocean swells from the North Pacific.

Hiker and backpacker

Mike Kleps, a practicing  lawyer and former public defender with a background of hiking and backpacking, had traveled widely and walked the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails from border to border. During his travels he visited Thailand, from where he sailed to Turkey in a 60-foot sailboat as crew. For years he thought about a boat trip to Alaska. In 2005 he actually built a kayak for the trip; but he decided he wanted to sail, and he thought it would be too complicated  to add a rudder, leeboards, a mast, sails, and perhaps an outrigger. So he gave up on that idea.  Next, he and Elizabeth bought a rowboat.  But it wasn't big enough to carry their camping gear. Then a friend died and Mike inherited a 15-foot Albacore, an Uffa Fox-designed fiberglass planing dinghy called Hot Tuna.

Elizabeth, a licensed electrician who works mainly on big commercial projects, had little previous sailing experience. She was not particularly interested in the esoterics of sailing itself; nevertheless she came to like it "Because when you're sailing you're not rowing."  After some practice, she could row for an hour or so without rest, working two oars. Mike says she's the most adventurous person he knows. And, like any good sailor, she can sleep almost anywhere in any position—athwartships across the dinghy; on her back in a floppy  net hammock (bent in half like a jackknifed semi); even on the bare marina walkway at Campbell River.

They never even considered an outboard motor. It didn't enter their thinking.  They wanted to experience Nature in the raw and make as little impact as possible. So they fitted Hot Tuna  with two sets of 10-foot oars and two rowing positions, often rowing together with all four oars. They could row at 3 knots and keep it up for hours. In fact, they made surprisingly good progress with daily runs of more than 40 miles on occasion, sailing whenever possible and rowing when it was not. There were also times when Elizabeth would man the helm and sail the boat while Mike rowed—their equivalent of motor-sailing.

Inshore counter-eddies

This trip emphasized the importance of working the tides and they made good use of counter-eddies close inshore when the current was against them. In addition, Mike often threw sticks out into the water to gauge the current before setting off.

Their major daily concern was finding a place to land and camp every night, one that had reasonably protected water for the boat to float in. In their planning, they consulted two guides written by long-distance cruising kayakers. They carried one small tent and cooked on a small camp stove fueled with white gas. Although locals along the way told them the summer was running three weeks late that year, it wasn't particularly cold until they got far north. Even there, their sturdy rain gear kept them dry, and exercise keep them warm.

Although Mike and Elizabeth were cooped up cheek-by-jowl together in a 15-foot dinghy for several weeks, they mostly managed to avoid conflict because their lives were filled with so much physical and mental activity connected with sailing the boat, navigation,  finding campsites, and cooking.  However, they admit to three occasions when tempers flared.

There were times, also, when the weight of many warnings bore down heavily on Mike.

Before the trip, a sailor at the Bellingham Yacht Club said, “No, you do not want to do that.” He had just heard about their honeymoon plans. "His response was like others," said Mike. "The trip was reckless, too hard; they pictured us soaked by days of rain, rowing fruitlessly against winds and currents; they weighed our degree of naiveté and saw us capsizing in strong winds on a long crossing, far from help.

Even during the trip, fellow sailors on yachts tried to persuade them that they were biting off more than they could chew.

Intimidating report

Mike's confidence was dealt a further blow when he met three kayakers who had just rounded Cape Caution, the next hazard on Hot Tuna's route. "Their report was intimidating," said Mike.

"They had rain and fog every day. They rounded Cape Caution in the fog, hearing waves crashing on shore and on rocks offshore. An inlet that ebbed well past low tide, surprised them with strong current and big chop . . .  They had very detailed charts and navigated in the fog by counting the minutes from one point to the next. They noted that 25-foot tidal swings and big tidal flats made landings challenging."

Naturally enough, Mike felt worried about the days ahead. He had some rough moments of doubt due to the unfavorable accounts by the kayakers and the general lack of confidence, from almost everyone, in Hot Tuna's ability to make it past Cape Caution and on to Alaska. Perhaps things were just going to get too difficult from here, he thought. He even tentatively suggested going home.

"But neither one of us was ready to go home," he said.  He had the full support of Elizabeth . . . "and we managed to have faith in the value of taking the trip one day at a time."  Mike also applied his experience as an estate planner in managing risk  and weighing it against reward. He finally decided the risk was both manageable and worth it. 

Needless to say, they got around Cape Caution just fine, and never looked back all the way to Juneau, their destination.

Elizabeth and Mike are modest about their achievement and shy of dictating advice to others but one thing they mention as very important is the need to find a workable method of anchoring the dinghy offshore every night.

They used a 4-pound Bruce anchor on 8 feet of chain and 100 feet of line, ending in a block, through which was threaded an endless 300-foot circuit of three-strand line leading back to the beach. The boat itself was attached to this line so that they could haul her in or out to the anchor line.  In theory this enabled them to let the boat lie at anchor 150 feet from the beach. It wasn't a perfect arrangement because the three-strand circuit line sometimes twisted on itself.  "Perhaps a different kind of line would have helped," said Mike.  Nevertheless, it mostly did what they wanted, and kept the boat floating through various stages of tide.

Narrow and cluttered

They had considered sleeping on the boat at night, but the Albacore is a fairly narrow and cluttered with gear. Furthermore, the bilges were usually wet because there was a small leak where an old hole in the bottom had been patched. Pulling the boat up on the beach every night was not on the cards, not only because of the often-difficult terrain, but also because even with rollers the boat (nominally 240 pounds) and its 200 pounds of gear was simply too heavy for the two of them to manhandle at the end of an exhausting day. They would also have had to be continually moving the boat up the beach as the huge tides rose and fell.  Low tides would, of course, leave the boat stranded at the top of beach. 

In the navigation department, they had an Evergreen chart atlas, from which they tore out pages as they went; but they also relied heavily on a rudimentary Garmin GPS chart plotter to find their campsites. Mike complained that it didn't give them enough detailed information—but, he admitted, it wasn't a marine GPS. "I'd like to see GPS improved for small boat sailors and kayakers wanting to land on beaches," Mike said. "The software is out there."

Their strategy under sail was one of caution. They had capsized in Bellingham Bay once during a practice run and didn't want a repeat performance. They therefore reefed the mainsail early. The sail had one deep set of reef points, and the area could be reduced further by rolling it around the boom. When the wind was fair they used a  distinctive spinnaker—one that Mike made from a military surplus parachute. "It worked very well," he said.

Why the hard way?

But why a windward passage, you might ask?  Why do it the hard way?  Most long summer passages on the Inside Passage are made from north to south because, in theory, the prevailing wind is northwest and only disturbed by occasional southeasters bringing rain. But their research revealed that  reliable facts were hard to come by, and notions about the direction of the prevailing wind were often contradictory. Besides, the racing dinghy was efficient to windward, and easily rowed.  Whatever the case, their choice was obviously justified by the fact that they regularly made comparatively long daily runs.   

"As it turned out," said Elizabeth, "when wind was fair (from the south) it was mostly raining.  When it was sunny there was either no wind or it was blowing too hard from the north to make progress."

Before they left Bellingham, Elizabeth made up boxes of provisions to be picked up at small towns along the way. Their camping-style menu was necessarily limited, but one unexpected favorite was old-fashioned pemmican. Elizabeth had bought tallow and mixed it with shreds of beef dried in the oven, plus currants  and maple syrup.  "On its own it was pretty unappetizing," she admitted, "but when we heated it with dry beans it was great." It became, at least temporarily, their favorite dish and they raved over it. 

As for future plans, there is a niggling background notion that it might be nice to sail around the world. Before that, there might be a small boat they can actually sleep on.

Meanwhile, when friends ask them how their marriage is going, they say with a wink: “It’s gotten a lot easier after the honeymoon.”    

Sidebar 1

Sailing vs. rowing

Here are Mike and Elizabeth's rough estimates of how  the trip went:

Ø Mostly sailing—33 percent of the days.

Ø Some rowing, some sailing—50 percent of the days.

Ø Mostly rowing—16 percent of the days.

"Sometimes we would sail 25 miles by noon and call it a day. A few times we rowed in the morning and then caught a breeze in the afternoon and would make 45 miles."

Sidebar 2

Weather experienced

Mike and Elizabeth  offer the following estimates of weather conditions during the trip:

n Very rainy—20 percent of the time.

n Cloudy with some rain—25 percent of the time.

n Some sun—55 percent of the time.

"The word from the locals and boaters along the way was that the summer was wet and cold, and everything was three weeks behind schedule, including  salmon, orcas, and bears. We had two weeks of mostly sun before we had our first cold, rainy day. For many of those rainy days, we managed to be in towns (Port Hardy, Namu, Prince Rupert, Petersburg, or Ketchikan) for the worst of it."

Three sections of the trip were exposed to ocean swells: (1) Cape Caution; (2) Milbanke Sound; and (3) Dixon Entrance. "We carried a VHF radio and barometer, which we used to check the weather before making long crossings."

Sidebar 3

The winners

Mike and Elizabeth won Bellingham Yacht Club's "Boating Family of the Year" award for 2011. They left Hot Tuna in storage in Juneau and put her up for sale.

Sidebar 4

Albacore specs:

Hull type: Centerboard dinghy

LOA: 15.00 feet

LWL: 14.83 feet

Beam: 5.33 feet

Max. draft: 4.75 feet

Sail area: 125 square feet

SA/Disp: 51.83

Weight: 240 pounds

Rig: Fractional sloop

Designer: Uffa Fox

Material: Wood or fiberglass

First built: 1954

Number built: 8,000 +

U.S. Albacore Association:

Today’s Thought
Life ought to be a struggle of desire toward adventures whose nobility will fertilize the soul.
— Rebecca West

For all of you vegetarians who have been lusting after a nice juicy piece of organic verse, here’s something to chew on:

The vegetable broccoli,
While not exoccoli,
Is within an inch
Of being spinch.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Sixbears said...

I'm one of those folks who paid money to read it in SCA. You are welcome. The article sold the magazine to me.

If I had better judgement, this race would be against it. Not being burdened by an over abundance of wisdom, the race interests me -but not this year.

As it is I'm hoping to do the Everglades Challenge, if not this next one, the one after. Depends on the budget.

This spring my wife and I took our Oday 19 and leisurely checked out about 90% of the course. I'd be using a different boat for the challenge.

If only there was some awesome small boat race with minimal rules in New England I'd be happy.

BK said...

Excellent article! What a grand adventure. I've been drawn to the inside passage - the sheer wildness and miles of uninhabited coastline.