Kodiak to Straits of Juan de Fuca
Noon position: 55.53.94N by 146.04.96W
Miles since last noon: 136
Total miles of passage: 244
Avg. Miles per Day: 122
Speed: 5.5 – 7 knots
Wind: NW to WNW 10 – 15
I’m measuring days noon to noon; so, though it’s technically my third day at sea, noon today represented my second full day.
Surprisingly little has changed.
Except for the temperature, 52 degrees before the sun warms the cabin to the mid 60s, this has felt like a trade wind passage. The wind went soft as the sun dipped below the horizon last night and has returned today, building slowly and veering west. By now (4pm) we’re back to winds touching 20 knots and boat speeds over 7 knots are usual.
And we’re still before the wind with the two poled out headsails that I’ve barely touched since setting them. All I’ve done: as the wind has gone into the west, I’ve let forward the windward pole and pulled in on the leeward so that even though wind is now almost 60 degrees forward of dead astern, we’re still “wind and wing.” It’s odd looking, but surprisingly stable. A first for me.
I hadn’t wanted to buy a sloop. Too simple, boring; not enough sail combinations. But I hadn’t counted on the excitement, not to mention efficiency, of a double headsail sloop with twin poles. And somehow, I’ve ended up with just as many lines to pull on as I had with my little ketch.
Not all has been rosy, however. On day one I realized the AIS wasn’t working. While resolving this by sticking my head deep inside the electronics cabinet, a lurch sent my left hip hard up against the engine panel and I broke the ignition key off inside the switch. This required figuring out how to turn the engine off without a key and extract the offending part without the tweezers I have specific memory of buying…but clearly did not.
Those are the easy ones. Today I noticed that I’ve broken the rail car on the port genoa pole, which became apparent when it began spilling its bearings onto the deck. On closer inspection, I’ve found that the top and bottom bracket (made of plastic) which hold the bearings in have split. I’m guessing I did this when jamming the pole hard up against the foreword shroud–a mistake not easy to spot from the cockpit where the pole is worked. I now dash forward each time I set the pole to make sure it’s not on the shroud. But too late… This likely means that when a shift of wind requires me to dismount the poles, that one is not going back up till it’s fixed. A right bummer, as we say in British Pubs in California.
We’re passing south of the Alaska Seamount Province, specifically we’re about 25 miles below and between Quinn Seamount and Surveyor Seamount. For reasons unknown to me, this region is completely empty. After half a day of intense birdlife, now not a one. No ships, no jet contrails. Nothing but me, the boat, and the most expansive horizon you’ll ever see.
Noon Position: 56.52.48N by 149.28.15W
Miles since departure: 107
Speed: 6-7 knots
Departed Kodiak for the SE at 9:30am on Monday into a clear sky and the promise of a brisk westerly. All morning the windmills above the town had been spinning powerfully and pointing west, but in Chiniak Bay there was not a breath. It will fill in past the lee of the headland, I thought; then, past the lee of the island, I thought. But it did not fill in. By sunset at 11pm, Kodiak was a few blunt, black teeth upon an open-mouthed horizon and the ocean so much grease. The moon came up full. I prepared my sea berth, and still we motored.
This had been my experience of weather forecasting on Kodiak. In Shelikof Strait the predictions that called for SW winds at 25 had a chance of success. All others failed. One day I motored for hours in dead calm from an anchorage behind Dry Spruce Island in Kupreanof Strait out into Shelikof expecting (fingers crossed) the foretold SE winds at 20 and a reach to Geographic Harbor. What I got was no wind at all until I was back inside Kupreanof that evening, and then it in came strongly from Geographic.
Weather wasn’t the issue, however. My heart wasn’t in this kind of exploring. Not now. Too much engine and windlass and timing of day’s runs. All glorious adventures in the king of cruising grounds, Alaska, but what I wanted was space, an open horizon. I wanted to stretch my legs; to feel that long-winged flight again.
This morning there was an urgency on the water and after breakfast a wind touched down that began from the west and then veered a little north. I poled out the large genoa to port, set up the wind vane (non-electrical steering device), then poled out the smaller headsail to starboard. I left it pushed a little foreward so that we could take the coming breeze on the starboard quarter and keep my course for the Straits of Juan de Fuca.
All day the breeze has slowly built and the sea has stood up to meet it. Under a sky that disproves the existence of cloud. Under a dome of egg-shell blue and a sea as blue as the sky, we now race. The wind vane steers the boat, the sails embrace the wind and we fly with the grace of an Albatross. Speeds of seven knots are common and we’ve surfed some of the waves at well over eight. All I do is work to keep things in balance and hold on.
When I raised the second sail, the boat charged, and I laughed like a little boy.
How does one explain… I don’t know… It doesn’t matter.
The only sadness of the day is that as we passed from the Kodiak banks into very deep water (avg. depth now is 14,000 feet) we left the Blackfooted Albatross and the Northern Fulmar behind. I guess they prefer the fishing further north.
For now we are alone on the wide ocean.
My small cove within this bay (58.26.47N by 152.42.33W) is like a room within a room. Almost entirely surrounded by fir trees and rock, it has two windows. One is a low cut to the north that is mud and boulders at low water, but at the high it fills in and gives me a glimpse into Shelikof Strait. Since the morning of my arrival, Shelikof has looked itself, that is, dark water and whitecaps enough to remind one of San Francisco Bay on an August afternoon.
To the south of me is the cove’s entrance. This window is framed by fir trees on either side and looks out on the the lake-like calm water of the larger bay. An island entirely of firs can be seen in the foreground. But what really catches the eye is distant Red Peak, a pyramidal mountain of black, rusty rock with Appaloosa spots of old snow on its flanks. Two bald eagles dog fight above me. A gull calls. An otter scratches its head.
Protected as this cove is from the mess of Shelikof, it is not protected from the wind. All day and evening the boat swung as if she were the “partner round and round” at a square dance. At night I slept lightly as the wind increased, and I rose when one particular tug felt as though we had pirouetted a complete circle. We had drug anchor, though not much. I let out rode to 240 feet and sat up watching in the comfort of the pilot house until 2am.
Today’s forecast is for SW20 diminishing to SW10 in the afternoon. I will depart for the near term goal of Geographic Bay, 70 miles down strait on the mainland side. I won’t make it today as what’s ahead is a dead beat to windward. But which of the three interim options (two in Malina Bay and one in Raspberry Strait) we make is yet unknown.
Port Graham has been all southwest wind and rain since this morning, confirming the decision to stay. After breakfast I got the dinghy over the side for an extended row and a few short walks, and out of those activities came two lessons.
Lesson One: Bear Spray works, even on humans.
I’m carrying bear spray for trips ashore in remote parts of Alaska. For those who don’t know, let me say that 1) black and brown bears are the dominant species up here and one should expect to find them outside of areas of dense human population; i.e. almost *everywhere* in this thinly populated state; 2) an increasingly recommended form of protection against bears is bear spray, essentially pepper spray in a hair spray sized bottle.
I decided to test my bear spray while ashore today. I’ve not seen anything but otters since arrival, but better to be safe…
Once on the beach, I put my back to the wind, popped the safety, pressed the trigger, and WHAMO! Out came a 30 foot stream of what appeared to be rust-orange spray paint. If graffiti had been my mission, I’d have been golden.
Some tiny amount of this spray paint got caught in the backwind created by my turned body and bit me in the eyes and nose something fierce. Immediately I had a sneezing fit of vast proportions and watery eyes I was afraid to touch. It was as though I’d stuck my head into a vat of powdered wasabi.
Briefly I thought I might need to call for help. Then I remembered. Ain’t nobody here but me.
Lesson Two: A 25 foot rise of tide rises quickly.
On my row I beached several times for a hike, a walk of maybe 20 minutes. It was flood tide, and a biggie, so I pulled the dinghy many feet up the shoreline. The water was alway right up to the dinghy when I returned.
Big tides are the rule up here. I’ve been watching them these many months in Homer. But I’ve never had the experience up close. For example, it had never occurred to me that to rise 25 feet in a tide cycle (about 6 hours) means the average rise per hour is … 4+ FEET! More, actually, during the middle parts as the distribution of rise is weighted toward the middle third.
So, practically speaking, if you stand at the tide line during a flood, the water will be over your boot tops in fifteen minutes. Tide comes in so fast, you can watch if flow in over the low beaches like a river. I got to where I’d pull the dinghy up and if I got back too early, I’d just wait (not too long) for the tide to float it.
Port Graham is a pretty place, but lonely on a gray, wet day. The otters, rafted together in the middle of the bay after their morning feed, quietly dispersed as I approached for a chat. The guillemots too. Wind is rising. Best to put the dinghy away and prepare for tomorrow.
We departed at low slack, 10 o’clock on the morning of June 5th, and just moments before a turn of tide that would have held us pressed to the dock another six hours. Wind, calm. Sky, partly cloudy.
In some ways it had been a near miss. The gods, in their wisdom, conspire to keep a boat in harbor, and today’s example of conspiracy was merely one of many. As my last task before letting go lines, I topped off with water. I put 44 gallons in the aft tank only to find quantities of it spilling into the bilge. The engine was already running. The sail covers were off. And I had a leak! Tightening the tank lid gasket took only fifteen minutes, but if it had taken half an hour, we’d have missed our tide.
Homer had been a stroke of luck. I could have bought a boat in a much remoter place; Grenada or Cambridge Bay, to name just two. But in Homer I made a friend, Adam, who lent me his truck while he jigged for cod in the Aleutians. Mike Stockburger offered sage solutions to many problems while he and his crew at Homer Boat Yard sandblasted Gjoa’s bottom with skill and for a reasonable rate. Eric Sloth at Sloth Boats gave me a corner of his shop so I could execute the spreader repair out of the rain. The food in town was good. And the bay, windy but flat and a perfect place to learn to sail.
But it had been time to go since the first cruise ship arrived, and now there had been three.
Out in the bay I found a southerly breeze coming down off the mountains, now only snowy at their peaks, and set a course southwest … for somewhere. Close hauled and with a bone in her teeth, the boat charged off as if somewhere could have been Hawaii or Patagonia or the moon.
Near Seldovia, the wind died and then filled in from the northwest, fresh and cold from the higher mountains of northern Cook Inlet. Again, we charged close hauled but on the other tack.
By 2pm we were rounding Pt Pogibshi when the wind died for the last time, and I motored into Port Graham, keeping well off the outlying rocks of Dangerous Cape, invisible under a calm sea. I dropped anchor at 5pm, having made 30 miles of westing, into 60 feet, mud. Scope, 200 feet.
We will be here two nights, tucked far up into the nether end of this wide bay. A strong southwesterly is predicted for tomorrow, and since our target, Kodiak Island, lies in that direction, we will await Tuesday’s easterly.
We are alone, save for the otters. Otters, bald eagles, high-walled mountains with waterfalls. It may not be the goal, this bay, but it is certainly somewhere.
Just back from another four-day test sail on Gjoa, all within the beautiful and beautifully protected Kachemak Bay.
On Thursday last we made the few, short tacks to Halibut Cove to escape what has become non-stop bustle in Homer Boat Harbor. The crack of welders, the bang of chipping hammers and rattle guns, big-boat generators in chorus; and what’s not being worked on is on the move–water taxis, day fishermen, gill netters, seiners, even the large crab vessels, like Time Bandit–in numbers to warrant a traffic light at the harbor entrance.
Next to this, Halibut Cove’s hardly used public dock is a library of quiet, and here I spent a day installing the boat’s solar panels.
How to power Gjoa has been a problem without easy solution. She has an engine, of course, and even a gas generator, but I’ve wanted something that could provide more continuous power while on passage.
My first choice was a tow generator, the kind made by Ampair (Aquair-100), Aquagen, or Hamilton Ferris.
- Simple: attach to rail and battery, through propeller over the side, and done. No regulator tech required.
- Productive: twenty-four hour power as long as your boat is at speed.
- Calibrated: unlike the Watt and Sea-type, these tow generators produce maximum amps at speeds most likely achievable for small yachts, 4 – 6 knots.
- Inexpensive: $700 (Hamilton Ferris) to $1400 (Aquair-100). Compare Watt and Sea at $3000 to $5000.
- The only one that matters–these units are simply not to be had! Apparently this “old” technology has become so unpopular that the supplier companies are recently out of business (Aquair) or have pulled the product (Hamilton Ferris).
Needing something now and something I understand, I’ve opted to add 300 watts of 12v solar. This addition comes in the form of two 100 watt Renology glass and aluminum frame panels hung off the rail either side of the cockpit, a 100 watt off-brand, flexible panel attached amidships to the dinghy, and a Morningstar ProStar 30-amp charge controller (exactly the rig, though with more power, that I had on Murre).
This is not a perfect solution for a voyaging yacht as solar is not at its best in a seaway, and it is not a solution at all for the Figure 8’s Southern Ocean, but compared to anything else it is inexpensive and will get me home.
(What to do for the Figure 8 is an open question. Most likely it will be a combination of technologies, one of which will be a wind generator to replace the satellite compass atop the aft arch, a job I wanted to avoid doing here as it necessitates rewiring the autopilot.)
The trip out had three other goals: raise the main without a hitch, literally; fly the genoa poles without losing them or self overboard, and commission/test the monitor wind vane.
I had thought that in moving from a ketch to a sloop I would be acquiring a less complicated rig. Not necessarily so, I learn. On a good day I can have more line tossing about on Gjoa than I know what to do with (see photo below).
And even the simplest, most usual tasks are challenging when the boat’s size and configuration are unfamiliar. The first time I raised the main I got it fouled in the lazy jacks; the second time, fouled in the running backstays; on the third try a double wrap around the halyard winch’s tailing claw meant double the effort and nearly gave me a heart attack before I sussed the problem.
Main sorted, it was time to attack the poles, devices that hold the twin headsails out wing and wing, and which Tony Gooch, highly experienced previous owner, states are a super solution for the Southern Ocean.
Rigging these three and four times took us to Bear Cove at the upper reaches of Kachemak Bay, a lovely anchorage, except that wherever I moved to found the wind barreling down from the snowy mountains within the hour and putting us on shore. This too was good practice.
Next day the Monitor came to life for the sail back to Homer.
Now the To Do list is less than a page long.
Can we bug out of here before the next cruise ship arrives?
How easily I forget that not talking, a favorite activity, fails to communicate what I am thinking. Example: I was surprised when, last week, my wife asked if she could be informed of my intention for the coming months of passage-making. How could she not know? Are we not married? Gently she reminded me that it is easier for her to hear what I am saying when I open my mouth.
So, having cleared that up, here’s the plan.
First off, the Figure 8 Voyage proper is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2017, not 2016. This year is about learning to sail this boat and to prepare her, and me, for the much more arduous, coming adventure.
As to this year’s itinerary, consider the following a sketch rather than a blueprint, as where the boat and I find ourselves between now and home will depend on issues that crop up along the way, especially in this first month of cruising.
But, assuming all goes well:
-June: Depart Homer, Alaska at the beginning of the month and head SW into the islands. I’d love to make it as far as Dutch Harbor, but Dutch is some 650 miles off as the Raven flies, and one could easily spend the entire, brief northern summer exploring the intervening coast. So, if I only achieve Kodiak Island in the few weeks allotted for westing, that too will be success.
-Late June: Depart for first long passage. Most likely this will take me to the Straits of Juan de Fuca entrance (1000 miles, give or take) and the Seattle area.
-July: Depart for Hawaii, specifically Hanalie Bay on the North Shore of Kauai. Routing for this passage stays well offshore but on a line mostly SSW in the prevailing north westerlies until I enter the zone of the north east trades somewhere around 25 or 30N, at which point I can shape a more westerly course for the islands.
Why the loop rather than a straight shot?
In the middle of the Pacific is a large high pressure system and in the middle of that is not enough wind to shake a stick at. Think of high pressure systems as massive mountains of still air. For sailing ships, they have as much attraction as a lee shore.
Thus to sail the distance, some 2600 miles, the boat and I must go around the high.
Complications: hurricanes. The North East Pacific hurricane season starts in May and continues until November. Hurricanes in Hawaii are very rare, but my route, especially that part of the route east of 140W lays me at a 90 degree angle to the hurricane track. Early-season hurricanes tend to recurve back into Mexico or die-out in the still cool waters of the north, so the risk in July is much lower than in hotter August and September. Support: the famous Transpac race from Los Angeles to Hawaii is a July race.
-August/September: Depart for San Francisco. Again, the looping course is required by the North Pacific High, which, with some luck, will have shrunk and moved south a bit by that late in the season. No guarantee, of course. On my first passage home from Hawaii, this in early August of 2005, the high was still a whopper, requiring we sail all the way to the latitude of Seattle before making the turn east.
Complications: hurricanes, again. August and September are typically the more active hurricane months. The advantage for us is that we will be heading north and within a week’s sailing will have moved well out of reach of all but the most aggressive late-season boomer. As fall approaches, one’s chances of encountering a North Pacific low increase, but if boat and skipper are not ready for a low by that point, we might as well stay home.
In truth, all this still seems very far off. Priorities of the moment include learning which lines to haul first when the boat comes about and where on earth (in Homer) to find canned butter and quantities of full-fat powered milk.
The plan (I had a plan) was to motor a bit past the breakwater, to give the engine a good run under load (she’s been idling on the hard this last month and can’t have been happy with the low rpms), and then head back in to my slip for dinner, assess findings, and move to sailing on the morrow.
But there was wind on the water. The open sky and full sun made the day feel almost warm. The vast range across the bay, crystal clear, enticing. And, did I mention, there was wind?
I’ll just pop the jib, I thought.
And with that we achieved lift off.
For those readers who are not sailors, let me remark that the sensational difference between motoring and sailing a boat is like the difference between taxiing and flying a plane. Motoring is going, sure enough, and going is part of the equation, but subtract the engine and add in wind and the sum isn’t going of a different kind so much as of a different order. It’s a dimensional shift. Same boat, same bit of water; but with sails full and the vessel healed and hunting, the motion becomes fluid, intentional, animated. Think galloping horse and add soaring flight. Now place before your bows an uninterrupted horizon and suddenly aiming for the setting sun with the idea of achieving Mars seems perfectly reasonable.
But I get ahead of myself.
Wind was SE at 10 – 15. I put the boat on a reach; she healed gently, and soon our speed was 6 knots. She slid through the water as if her hull had been greased.
A few tacks later found the main going up, and then she charged. Winds in a “slot” east of the harbor increased to 25, boat speed went well over 7 knots. Rail down. The resulting crash below reminded me I’d not released the stove to its gimbals. A pot of lentil soup did a Jackson Pollock.
I put in a reef, tacked back and forth across the bay, working the boat but not paying much attention to position, and by 8 0’clock in the evening, found we were off Halibut Cove.
I’ll just tuck in and have a look, I thought.
The tiny public dock was empty. That and still water below a big, black rock mountain covered in snow erased any reason to return to Homer that night.
Next day very light westerlies allowed me to put the boat before the wind, set the autopilot, and rig the Genoa poles. What an advantage, autopilot. Flip a switch and suddenly one has a (silent) crewman at the helm; flip the switch again and he goes away. Magic. Especially helpful when there are so many new lines to run, get wrong and run again.
By now I have raised the main four times, but still haven’t got it right. I forget to release the lazy jacks or the sheet jams or the crutch bars are up or the tack from yesterday’s reef is still in and suddenly the boom is pointing to heaven. The running backs get stuck tight and can’t be released or my neat stowing solution for the spinnaker halyard succeeds in getting it wrapped around the head of the jib foil. So many mistakes absorbed without consequence by a forgiving boat (for now) on a gentle bay.
By evening we were off Bear Cove at the head of Kachemak Bay. Here we anchored behind a point on the NE side in 50 feet, sand and mud. Next day, I rigged the dinghy for its innaugural row and launched immediately. While in the middle of the cove, a small whale breached but a few feet away. In the afternoon, rigged the vang and restowed the aft port locker.
Departed next morning for the climb, tack over tack, back to Halibut Cove. And next day, Homer, where the bustling harbor with barely enough boat-lengths for my big bird to turn around reminds me why I left. Just time for this note and some groceries…
Please forgive lines all ahoo and sails poorly set in the below photos. We’re just getting going…
… Finally arrived.
I’d been both desiring and dreading it, dreading because it seemed the opportunities for error were great while no single error would be of small consequence.
And because a friend of mine sent, the night before, a video demonstrating the results of one specific error.
I shared the video with the launch crew, Todd (in red) and Randy (in gray). Their expressions suggested it was bad luck to show disaster footage to guys who knew full well what disaster looked like and who we’re working hard to forestall what they couldn’t absolutely guarantee against.
As it turned out, they launched Gjoa with great care, and the operation went off flawlessly.
I’m seated at a bar in Anchorage. It’s nearly midnight.
A two week repat to California, just time enough to be remined of home’s attractions (wife, friends, garden, a heater that lights itself and access to a toilet across the hall rather than a ten minute’s hike) has passed quickly, and I find myself, again, at the Oakland airport bound for Homer.
My inexpensive flight to Anchorage, thusly priced due to its inconvenience, not efficiency (it routes through Los Angeles and then Phoenix), places me, each leg, near a Mormon Tabernacle Chior of babies, whose hosannas would make even the devil wish for a grave he could turn in. Napping isn’t on. Neither is reading even one page-long sentence from the only book I brought, Lord Jim.
Wheels down in Anchorage at 11PM, and I go in search of a burger and a beer to wash from my soul the songs of the righteous.
“Kitchen’s closed,” says the bartender at Moose’s Tooth as he lays the pint in front of me.
I’m chewing on my Bear Spit IPA, happy to be back in the rough-and-tumble North, when the kid walks in.
He takes the stool next to mine and quietly signals for a beer. Alaska must have a lower drinking age than the rest of the country, I think, for this person looks to be all of twelve. His is slight and pale. He sports no tattoos (this is how I know he is 12 and not 16). His short hair is artfully mussed and his five o’clock shadow appears to have taken a week to mature. He wears Converse high tops below fashionably tight jeans.
He pulls from his coat pocket a copy of Bukowski’s Pulp and begins to read, begins to read, mind you! And Bukowski, of all things. Grumpy old man Bukowski. Savage dog, pock-faced, raging metro-drunk Bukowski. Skid Row Bukowski. Being read in a bar in Alaska, land of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, by a mere puppy!
What is this world coming to that Alaska’s children are allowed to read Bukowski when they should be gnawing at the hind legs of a wolves and starting fires with gold shavings and salmon oil on the back side of yonder snow drift?
I grab a bag of peanuts from the motel vending machine and called it a night.
Next day, shopping. An all-day provisioning run to Costco. When I could no longer shut the gate of the pickup bed, I stopped.
Today I am returning to Homer after a two week repat to the San Francisco Bay Area, and unfortunately I am not, as has become my habit, flying on Alaska Airlines.
On my first trip to Homer as Gjoa’s new master, this back in March, I had filled two large suitcases (50lb limit each), one carry-on (30lbs), and a small backpack with equipment for the summer’s voyaging. Fleeces, foulies, gloves, thick socks, hats, and three kinds of boots; first aid kit and emergency meds, for starters. Then sextant and site reduction tables; pilot charts, fids, an extra sailor’s palm, twine and wax; flashlights, headlamps, rechargeable batteries, an AM/FM radio, spare GPS; several types of knives; favorite pens and pencils, blank journals and log books, and a label maker.
Anything that could fly and had a use went in.
I’d taken that quantity and weight of bags because they travel free on Alaska Airlines for those flying within Alaska.
Initially I planned to board only with carry-on for today’s trip. But during my two weeks at home, more “absolutely necessary” items shot their way into the return pile as if magnetized to it. The cold-water wet suit and weights, plotting paper for sextant work, a box of electrical connectors, fuses, cable clamps, heat shrink, spools of red and black wire; miscellaneous shackles and Monel seizing; black, blue and silver tapes; spare prescription glasses and a handful of readers, Spectra line in various sizes not available up North, a collection of pocket-sized books, like Captain McClintock’s Voyage of the Fox, Elisha Kent Kane’s Arctic Explorations, and the poems of Robinson Jeffers.
By the morning of departure, I was full-up and actually pairing down.
Dragging my three suitcases and a backpack, I lumbered like a two-legged elephant up to the non-Alaska ticket counter in the Oakland Airport, and here I received a lesson in why I like flying Alaska.
Months ago when checking in here for an Alaska flight, I left my wallet at the counter. Just as I was entering the security line, I heard my name being called, and turning, I saw the Alaska agent running after me. She’d abandoned her station to return my wallet. “Sorry sir, but I believe you’ll need this…,” she said, smiling. (Note the courtesy of an apology for something not her fault and the smile.)
This morning, another bonehead move on my part. After heffalumping my bags to this non-Alaska ticket counter and making my payment, I succeeded in leaving my boarding pass in the ticket machine. When I returned some minutes later, saying to the un-Alaska agent that I was missing my boarding pass, she said, “I know. I threw it away,” with an air suggesting she had done me, and the environment at large, a favor.
Having retrieved the necessary document, I returned to security, passing the Alaska desk in the process. The agent heading up their line stepped out towards me and beaming, he said, “Hope you have a great trip, sir.” About gave me a heart attack! Apparently one does not have to be a customer of Alaska Airlines to receive their kindness.
On Alaska, attendants welcome you aboard and offer to freshen your coffee with what feels like real hospitality. Even on the 6am run to Seattle, “Enjoy your flight, Mr. Reeves” has the ring of a personal and heartfelt invitation rather than what I’ve come to expect from my experience of other airlines, something more akin to a recital of scripture with downcast eyes.
In an industry optimized for the sleekly appointed business traveler, this rumpled, lonely (forgetful) adventurer, who needs more than a laptop and noise cancelling headphones for his survival, finds Alaska Airlines a welcome relief.
Homer is the hailing port of the Kilchers, the family whose adventures in homesteading are featured on the long-running TV show, Alaska: The Last Frontier. You’d never know it from the show, of course, where story lines and careful editing leave one with the impression that the Kilchers live moose-miles from the nearest telephone pole, but that sense of remoteness is manufactured.
Things have changed in Homer since the clan patriarch, Yule Kilcher, arrived on the peninsula from Switzerland in the 1940s. Back then the unincorporated area, referenced in a 1920s census simply as “Homer Spit and Vicinity,” was a mere 300 hardy souls scattered over 100 square miles of mountain and bog. Services included a couple general stores, a dock, a dirt airstrip for bush planes and generous helpings of nothing else.
Roll forward 75 years and the town is a small city known widely as “The Halibut Capitol of the World.” The year-round population of some 6,000 is connected to Anchorage, Alaska’s supply hub, by a wide, well-maintained highway and an airport that lands four or five commercial flights a day. Homer has grid electricity, city water, a small fleet of snow plows; a modern public library with computer stations and WIFI; regular UPS deliveries and even access to Amazon Prime.
Ten minutes from the Kilcher Ranch is a Safeway and a McDonalds.
In effect, then, what homesteading the current generation of Kilchers do is largely voluntary. “Getting in your meat,” a phrase used to describe the fall big game hunt intended to stock the winter larder, once key to surviving the long, dark, frozen months, is now sport, and if you forgot the steak sauce, you can dash into town.
This is not a deprecation of the Kilchers or their hybrid way of life. For all its conveniences, Homer is still 250 miles into the back of beyond. And the work involved in voluntary, fame-generating, reality TV homesteading is, nonetheless, hard work. I’ve dug through the Gear Shed bolt bins along side Eivin, whose hair is as rumpled and hands as dirty off camera as on, and shared a stool at the Honda Parts counter with Otto Senior. The ranch still takes running, and to all appearances, the Kilchers run it.
But it does beg the question, is honest-to-god, make-or-break homesteading still alive on the Kenai peninsula?
In a word, yes.
Meet my neighbor, John.
John lives in a blue school bus across from where Gjoa currently sits on stands at the Homer Boat Yard.
He’s from Juneau, and has been at various times a salmon fisherman, a jewelry maker, and totem pole carver. For a month he’s been camped in the yard busily outfitting his bus for a journey that will commence at the next exceptionally high tide. It’s the rarity of these “King” tides that are keeping John captive. His carefully timed, early April arrival in Homer was a day too late. He missed that month’s great surge, and the next opportunity won’t come till May 5th.
On that day, John will drive his bus onto a barge in the harbor and be transported north overnight to a piece of coast on western Cook Inlet only briefly accessible at maximum high water. Here John will drive off the barge and pick up a dirt road that extends for sixteen miles into the interior before dead-ending at Lake Illiamna. John will then splash the dinghy that lives on the roof of the bus, fill it with supplies, and row the ten miles across to a beach on the lake’s north shore. And when he gets to that beach, he will have arrived at his property. He and his relatives own several hundred acres here, but none have ever laid eyes on it. None have been willing to make the trek before John.
John will homestead the old fashioned way because he has no choice. He will built his shelter, hunt and grow his food, and be his own entertainment in a location that is, without doubt, moose-miles from anywhere.
And John is doing this alone.
Some evenings we meet for coffee in his bus, stacked to the ceiling with containers of rice and beans, boxes of tools, five sleeping bags, three rifles, two generators, and a chainsaw. If the day has been cold enough, he will run the engine for its heat while we talk, though he can hardly spare the fuel. And on these evenings, his undertaking often weighs on him.
A typical theme is how he’ll build the log cabin, his first major project: how he’ll select smaller trees that he can move himself, how he’ll cement the cracks between the logs against the wind, where he’ll cut for the window, how he’ll make a wood stove from a 50 gallon drum. He savors over the wood stove. But here the conversation falters; he’s not solved how to loft the cabin roof on his own. He lights a cigarette. “This is some serious shit,” he’ll say. “Gotta have a cabin for winter. Guess I could always retreat to the bus. But man, this is some serious shit.”
I find admirable Alaskan willingness to tackle the unknown. One could argue that this “last frontier” requires it of them or that the requirement draws those so inclined, but whatever the reason, Alaska is a land of generalists, generalists with heavy equipment and a will to get stuff done. Need a new barn on your property, or driveway or septic system? Build it yourself. Don’t know how? Well, give it a think and then give it a try.
How many afternoons have I watched Mike Stockburger of Homer Boat Yard move large, ungainly boats with nothing but a flatbed trailer and some ingenuity. Sailboats are especially difficult. Tall of keel and with vertical topsides, they appear to fight the process by design. But what Mike does so well is work the problem, and by means of blocks and straps, infinitesimal adjustments to trailer height and uncommon persistence, Mike usually wins.
“Not sure we’ve stepped a mast that big,” said Mike as I sorted out the lines and wires and double checked attachments. “How tall did you say it was?”
“62 feet before antennas. How tall’s the crane?”
“80 feet, boom and jib. That’s assuming the jib will extend. Sometimes it likes to stick half way.”
“Think you can get the mast over Gjoa’s rail?”
“Well,” he said, thinking, “we’ll give it a try.”
The crane arrived at 9 o’clock on Tuesday morning, and the operation proceeded as follows…
At this point photographing stopped and real, sometimes urgent, work began. Guiding the mast through the deck and onto her step while keeping the head of the mast and its delicate parts (the windex and wind speed indicator) off the crane boom took four men on deck and one in the hole. Randy and Todd pulled at the guy wires from the stern; Josh held the foils at the bow while giving direction to Kennedy, who could see very little of importance from his position in the crane; Mike guided the mast into the deck and I was below easing her foot into place.
For an hour we juggled increments and inches. Three inches up and one inch over; two inches down; now two inches right. No, right! OK, one inch down. Easy. EASY!
Finally the shoe fit and the pin slid home.
Surely there was more imminence in the second coming of Christ than in the acquisition of new Selden spreaders from the lower forty-eight. So, on Thursday morning I began shopping around town for a mend-and-make-do solution, opinions on which, I found, were as easy to come by as a cup of coffee in Seattle.
Mike Stockburger in the Homer Boat Yard office tapped the defective tubes with an index finger and thought awhile.
“Your boat been in high latitudes much?” he asked.
I explained she’d rarely been elsewhere.
“See that slight bulge around the cracking? I think water has got trapped in the spreader ends and froze.” Mike continued to ponder. “I think they’ll be OK though. It’s all compression load they get. No evidence of corrosion. I might not sail them into the Southern Ocean, but…” He could see I found this unsatisfying. “Or you might weld a patch over the top. Ask the guys at Bay Weld.”
Bay Weld has a vast workshop and up to six, aluminum fishing boats in build at any given time, but the foreman had no praise for the patch-weld solution. The welds would be strong, he said, but could weaken the surrounding extrusion. He recommended simply welding the crack closed, which would keep the metal failure from spreading but wouldn’t add back much in strength.
“I disagree,” said Walt, a welder building a 20 ton trailer behind Homer Boat Yard, a stone’s throw from Gjoa’s current berth. “Welding over the crack will pull the tube back together as the weld cools and contracts. That’s what I’d do.”
“Randall, we don’t usually weld anodized, extruded aluminum,” warned my friend Gerd, a metal boat builder and surveyor back home. “And your idea of wire wrap or hose clamps would be strong, but then you’ve got dissimilar metal issues. Ugly too. Only OK for a jury rig.”
Each successive bit of advice sounded as good and reasonable as the bit most previous, except that it was contradictory. And thus, Thursday ended without a clear way forward.
But overnight I had an idea and on Friday morning I stopped into Sloth Boats, a fiberglass boat building shop. “Yes,” said Eric Sloth, “Epoxy resins adhere very well to aluminum, and doing a full length wrap, a kind of splint, with heavy tape would add tremendous strength. Don’t quote me if your mast comes down mid Pacific, but I like the solution.”
Back at Homer Boat Yard, I floated this by Mike. “Probably unnecessary repair,” he said. “But sometimes a repair is meant to make us feel better. Do the fiberglassing by all means.”
Homerians are a mend-and-make-do people. If you need it, you build it; if it breaks, you fix it. If you can’t do either, you move back to Anchorage.
But key to success is assessing how much improvement is in a given fix. In Alaska, getting good at this requires surviving some rather grand failures.
Mike Stockburger told this exemplary tale.
One spring, we flew the Piper Cub out to my cabin to do some hunting, just my buddy and me. Cabin’s in a valley on the other side of that range there (Mike waves towards the mountains across Kachemak Bay) and about 70 miles back.
I’d talked to the NOAA guys in town and thought I’d understood there’d only be a few inches of snow. The plane had those big, fat tires made for rough surface landings. I knew they could take some snow. But when I was making my approach, I realized, too late, that snow levels were more like two feet. I tried to drift the Cub in nice and easy, but it didn’t matter. The wheels dug in and tipped the plane over on her nose. Bent the ends of all three propeller blades to right angles.
Valley’s pretty deep, no radio signal, and no cell phone; didn’t have one anyway. We hiked the propeller up to the cabin and spent the next three days super-heating the wood stove, inserting the blades one at a time, and slowly pounding them back to shape with the blunt end of a hatchet. I got them pretty fair too. Tested them on the plane up to 2000 rpms, my foot jammed hard on the brake. Not too much vibration. Pretty proud of my work. I got my buddy in and taxied to the end of the valley.
Just then I heard a buzzing and saw a plane overhead. First plane I’d ever seen back there. Radioed up with my situation and the pilot said, ‘Under no circumstances should you take off with that prop. The heating can weaken the aluminum. If the straightened-tips fly apart at speed, which is likely, the imbalance will pull the engine right out of the plane. Happened to my nephew once. Once, god rest him. We only found a few pieces of his plane.’
I had the pilot call back to Homer; they flew out my spare prop next day.
Generosity is another effect of Homer’s mend-and-make-do culture, and without giving it a second thought, Eric Sloth lent a corner of his shop to a total stranger for the weekend. By Monday I’d repaired the spreaders, and bolstered my confidence, for the price of materials.
Even tasks that take twice their anticipated time do eventually complete, and so Gjoa emerged from Homer Boat Yard’s Bay Five thirteen days after Mike Stockburger and team initiated their “four or five day job.” The delay had been inevitable; the quality of workmanship, high. I was pleased.
Already I had decided to leave Gjoa at Homer Boat Yard rather than truck her back to Northern Enterprises. Both are reputable businesses, but Northern is geared for the commercial fishing trade and provides fewer services to a clientele who need none but lift and splash.
The crew eased Gjoa into her space behind a shock of pines and then grabbed her mast from Northern for the two mile return trip. Finally the boat and appendages were all in one place, and I could set to the reconstruction. The rush was on. The goal, to launch in five days.
Problems arose immediately.
While installing the spreaders, I noted cracks in the aluminum extrusions near the bases. Two cracks, one on the lower leading edge and one on the lower trailing edge of the lower spreaders. The cracks were small, two and three inches, respectively, and in line with the extrusion.
The thought of sailing into the North Pacific with a flawed rig seemed out of the question. Thus, in an instant I had been gifted a new project.
This was Sunday.
The mast and rig are made by Selden, a large, highly regarded European company famous for its cutting-edge technology, attention to detail and record keeping. For example, each part of a Selden mast is stamped with a six digit number, and the mast itself is inscribed with its own unique identifier next to an inscription of the boat’s name, all of which gives one the impression that there is, somewhere, a vast warehouse with replacement parts awaiting just such a requirement as mine.
On Monday, I called the Selden dealer closest to Homer, a famous rigger in Port Townsend, Washington. A short conversation confirmed Selden’s reputation for detail.
“They are Swedish,” said the rigger. “Very Swedish, and they have a way of reminding you that you are not. But that’s not entirely bad when dealing in precision parts.”
I sent the requested information, part numbers, photographs, measurements of the spreaders, mast height, boat width, distance from mast base to lower spreaders, year installed, boat name, year built, contact information.
On Wednesday, I called. “Let’s see. Oh, yes. I haven’t been able to open your files,” said the rigger. “The photos say ‘will not download from server.’ Isn’t technology wonderful? Resend your spreaders and I’ll have a look.”
I resent the photos.
On Friday, I called. A woman answered the phone. “He’s traveling today,” she said. “Will be presenting at a boat show in California.”
“Did he leave any progress notes for me?” I asked.
“Is your name Bill?”
“No, it’s Randall.”
“No, no notes for Randall. Jerry?”
“Randall. Is he available?”
“Such a week. He’s been so very busy. I’m not sure when he sleeps. Are you asking me to call him?”
Something in her tone suggested I should pity the difficulties that attend upon those of genius. Would I seriously request she interrupt Mozart while he conducted The Marriage of Figaro simply to ask when he could get around to fixing my piano stool?
“I know my issue is a small one,” I said, “but I’m stuck. I’m beginning to get a little frustrated at…”
“Lit-tle fru-strated,” she said, scratching out a note.
“No, don’t tell him that!” I said, “He’ll never call if…”
“Ne-ver call,” she wrote.
“I mean, it’s just that it’s been all week and I don’t have any information. I’m trying to get this boat ready for…”
“Be-en we-ek al-ready.”
“Stop! I mean, I’m in a hurry too, right? It’s kind of upsetting not to have anything…”
“Ki-nd up-setting…OK…I’ll make sure he knows you’re upset. You have a lovely weekend.”
Monday. Nothing happened.
On Tuesday, I reached out to a famous Florida rigger. By afternoon I knew that replacement spreaders, in whole or in parts, were not sitting in stock in Sweden nor anywhere else. They’d have to be made to order. It might take two weeks. The Florida rigger would have a price quote by Thursday.
On Thursday, nothing happened.
On Friday, I called the Florida rigger. Selden needed until Monday to produce the quote, he reported. They’d be sending the spreader tube dies out to an extruder in Europe; all very complicated. Could run into some money. He’d call me back.
On Monday, nothing happened.
Given the rules regarding anticipation of project timelines, discussed above, I knew I needed an alternative solution if I wanted to depart Homer before Christmas…
I once read that the best way to budget for a boat project is to a) plan meticulously, and then, when all items are accounted for and you have your grand total, b) double it.
This technique applies equally to budgets of time and expense.
With that in mind, I dropped my jaw when Alida discussed her strategy. Alida is the proprietress of the house in which I rent a small, downstairs room while Gjoa is in the shed. A plummer by trade, she has worked on deep arctic oil rigs and major construction projects here on her native Kenai peninsula. She can as easily rebuild her car as her washing machine, when she’s not busy restoring her house and raising a family. Which is to say, she’s Alaskan.
While a contractor, she said, her approach was to add a ten percent buffer to a working budget.
Ten percent? I pushed back.
“Well, OK, on the building of this house things got out of control,” she confessed. “At one point I was three months behind on a three month plan and didn’t have the windows in when it started to snow. So, now I double the budget number and then add ten percent.”
This double-the-budget approach is so pervasive as to have achieved a state not unlike the law of gravity. Any more, it’s just assumed.
When I informed Erin at Northern Enterprises Boat Yard that Mike over at Homer Boat Yard said Gjoa’s sandblasting and painting job would take about five days, he responded with, “So we’ll expect you back here in two weeks.”
When on day nine I told Carol, the office manager, that the work was looking to take at least twice as long as planned, her only remark was, “It’s a boat.”
When, after booking my rented room for three more days and then two more days and then through the end of next week, Alida took the long view by informing me I absolutely had to move out by the end of May. She was very firm about that.
And when Mike at Homer Boat Yard said the job would require about five days, what he meant and what I should have understood was something more like two weeks.
Now we are on day twelve of our five day sandblasting and painting project and, right on schedule, the last coat of anti-fouling paint is going on…
“Sure thing,” says Carol, “we don’t have tides this week anyway.”
Carol is the office manager at Northern Enterprises Boatyard, my home on the hard. I have just inquired if her crew would be available in the next few days to assist with pulling Gjoa’s mast.
Her response is jargon and translates as follows:
Tides in Homer’s shallow Kachemak Bay run to 20 feet, and when out, reveal a vast, gently sloping mud flat punctuated by the occasional boulder. No tide this week will entirely cover “the flats” or be anywhere near high enough to float any boats from the yard’s beach-side dock. For the purposes of lifting and launching here, where a typical low tide makes the crane and rampway look like a poorly conceived public works project, Northern is essentially shut down until the water comes back.
When tides are running high, the yard is constant activity, and there may be a line of boats awaiting a lift. If your boat is deep of draft, you may have only one or two such opportunities a month, and if your tide happens to be at 3 o’clock in the morning, Northern will be there to make it happen.
The purse seining fleet constitute the biggest boats around, and next to their double-high bridges and reaching net booms Gjoa looks small and ordinary. But these boats are designed to work in shallow waters; even though many are twice Gjoa’s size, they usually draw less than the six or more feet she requires.
For reference, Gjoa needs a 19 foot tide to float. The next tide with that range arrives on April 10th.
That’s my launch target.
Sandblasting has been underway since Monday and is slow work, reports Randy, the man in the white jumpsuit.
Each of my twice-daily visits to the shed finds him in just such get-up, swinging the blast nozzle as if watering a lawn. By now I’ve shaken Randy’s gloved hand and found his eyes behind the clear plastic shield, but I have no idea what he looks like beyond his height and general build.
Communication is challenging, too. Randy wears ear plugs as defense against a machine whose sound is that of 10,000 hissing snakes, and when he talks, his voice comes from deep within a protective mask and respirator surrounded by a protective hood.
Necessarily, conversations are short.
But the nub is this: Gjoa’s exterior hull appears to have been perfectly preserved by, if nothing else, an inordinate amount of high quality paint frequently applied. I think the muffled description was something like, “I’ve never seen so much effing paint.” The layers are upwards of 1/4 inch thick near the water line. And the epoxy is hard as a rock. All good news from my perspective, if not Randy’s.
The blaster being used is purposefully small. “More power would be nice,” says Randy, “but can get us into trouble. Paint’s the only thing I want coming off.” Even so, the job has been progressing at such a pace that he’s upgraded to a courser, more aggressive sand, which is green and whose consistency is that of the granulated stone used on asphalt roofs.
It’s noticeably heavier and has more bite, this new sand, when ricocheting off the face of an over-eager owner standing too close when the hopper fires up.
“Where you gonna put the rig?” asks Erin.
“The what?” I ask.
I’ve returned to Homer to ready Gjoa for a sandblasting and bottom painting job whose list of preparatory tasks unfamiliar to me, all of which must be completed in two days, extends to the floor. What started as a simple idea (Hey, let’s sandblast the hull while we’re in Homer) has become a cascade of complications.
Here’s the progression: the epoxy paint used on the hull will only cure in temperatures not usually found at this latitude until June. Thus, to complete the project in March means Gjoa must be trucked to a heated shed at the Homer Boatyard, a facility two miles from her current berth at Northern Enterprises. To fit into the shed, not to mention under the electric wires that cross the road in nine places, the boat must be below sixteen feet of height once aboard the flatbed trailer. To get her below sixteen feet of height requires removing Gjoa’s 62 foot tall mast and lowering the highly decorated electronics arch that sits on her stern rail.
That there is a crane large enough to pull the mast, a truck and flatbed long enough, and a qualified blaster with a heated shed whose prices are reasonable and schedule open, and all gathered up and ready at this end of town, is cause for amazement and nearly reason enough to make a start. The real reason for the work, however, is that both bottom and primer paints on Gjoa are tired, and the primer has worn away to bare metal at the foot of the keel.
But I digress. Back to the complications.
Pulling the mast requires removing the main sail and boom, disassembling the genoa furlers, dropping the genoa poles to the deck, removing the HAM radio tuner connection, pulling stuck cotter pins and loosening twelve turnbuckles of such heft that the wrench required for leverage can’t be held in place with one hand.
No task is difficult, but each comes with a twist for Gjoa’s new master, like having to learn the inner workings of a brand of furler unknown to me, or singlehandedly removing a mainsail from her mast cars, a job meant for two people, one of whom has the delicate touch of a brain surgeon, or risk spilling a near infinity of bearings onto the deck, over the side, and gone forever.
Lowering the electronics arch proves a special challenge, for though it is designed for just such an eventuality, the wires leading to its eight antennas are not always long enough to allow the descent without being disconnected, or worse, cut.
I am finished a scant two hours before Erin arrives with the crane, pleased at the thought that I can now sit back and let the yard crew hustle out the stick.
I fail to note as they approach that Erin and his rather diminutive crane are not accompanied by anything resembling crew.
“Where you gonna put the rig?” asks Erin.
“The what?” I ask.
“The rig, the line from the mast to that hook on the crane.”
It’s a brisk day. I’m in jacket, hat and gloves and am on the verge of shivering. Erin, a bear of a man, wears black overalls and a t-shirt.
“I thought I’d let you do that.” I say to his jest.
“Not me. I only supply the crane and the hook. Didn’t Mike explain? Yard policy says the owner supplies the rig, puts it on the mast, and attaches the rig to the hook.”
I say that Mike did not mention anything of the kind; that I’ve never rigged a mast to be pulled before—in the lower 48 I’m not allowed anywhere near that job–wouldn’t even know what line to use.
“Simple,” says Erin. “Most any line will do. Just put in a couple clove hitches on each end. You know how to tie a clove hitch, right? Heck, these masts don’t weigh anything. Two of us could pick it if it weren’t so tall. How you gonna get up there?”
I’m thinking hard now. No vision of this project has included my having to rig the mast, much less supervise the operation.
“You could lift me with the crane. I’ve got a boatswain’s chair,” I say, grasping at the first thing that comes to mind. This, at least, I have done before.
“No can do,” says Erin. “Yard policy says cranes don’t lift people. What about those little mast steps?”
“For emergencies,” I say. “I’m afraid of heights.”
“Me too. I’ll get the Snorkelift while you find a line.”
Suddenly this job is going sideways. Pull Gjoa’s great mast with a piece of spare line? I rummage up three such lines of varying size while Erin brings the lift around to Gjoa’s port side bow.
“That one’ll do,” says Erin, pointing to the smallest of the three I produce. “Last week I towed a car with a piece like that, and it only parted when I tried to pull a dozer. Dozer was stuck in the mud though.”
Up we go in the Snorkelift with me pointing hesitantly at a spot half way between Gjoa’s two sets of spreaders. Arriving there I straddle the basket, hooking a foot before leaning out, and commence to tie a rolling hitch, my improvement to Erin’s suggested clove. Over once, over twice, under and through. Not right. Try again. Over once, over twice, under and through. Not right. On the third try, I get it, but the rolls of the hitch are binding in the wrong direction. Start again. Nope. Again.
Bowline, half hitch, clove hitch, rolling hitch, reef knot. With these five a man can secure the world to its poles. I’ve tied each so often the tying is like spreading butter on toast. But this morning I am fifty feet off the ground, hanging none too securely from a Snorkelift basket, and engaging my boat’s mast in a hug that is still illegal in 27 states. A rolling hitch simply will not materialize from my efforts.
“Like this,” says Erin. I look over to see he’s tied a rolling hitch to the basket’s rail by way of instruction.
I resume, each attempt failing. Apparently, I don’t know how to tie the knot. Frankly, I realize, I don’t want to tie the knot because I don’t know what will happen next.
I climb back in the basket to take a breather.
“You pulled any masts before?” I ask by way of distracting Erin from my incompetence.
“Lots,” he says. “Once the owner had put the rig too low and when I lifted the mast it went end for end. The head dug a three foot hole in the ground as it swung and then the thing broke in half. This one’s lots bigger though.”
I sigh. Within minutes the line defending my idea of manageable risk from that of stupidity has dissolved. A mast in pieces is not a fair exchange for new hull paint. I’m not doing this.
“We have another option,” Erin finally interjects. Across the street is a rigging shop. I can have one of their guys rig the mast if you like.
“You’re just mentioning that now?”
“Well, they work mostly on fiberglass boats.” says Erin.
Next morning a man from Sloth Boatworks arrives carrying a proper mast strap (seat belt type material three inches wide and an inch thick). Within an hour Gjoa’s mast is laid gently on the ground. The flatbed arrives, and the boat heads to her temporary home in a heated shed and me to a rented room east of town.
The sandblast job has begun.
Homer weather changes every two hours and usually for the worse. So, if the sky clears, drop everything and do the outdoor tasks.
How often has a sunny morning encouraged me to begin work in the anchor locker that afternoon only to find that after lunch I am rained or sleeted or snowed into the cabin?
In a word, often.
By this time I’ve practiced all the archaeology upon the boat’s main cabin that I can. Every cupboard and locker has been emptied; every tool, spare part, emergency aid, length of rubber hose and clamp, engine belt, shackle, pin, toggle, and fastener has been sorted, photographed and cataloged. None of the boat’s interior spaces remains unexplored, save the vast anchor locker and stern lockers, which are only accessible from on deck.
Yesterday a deep, 964 mb low passed over (from the north and east!) blowing a gale in the yard. Gjoa rocked in her cradle, a contraption made of blocked up 2x4s that reminds disconcertingly of egg crates. Water sloshed in the sink; the boat vibrated as though she were housed inside a bass drum. Heavy snow fell.
Just after my 12 o’clock ham sandwich, the wind died and the sky cleared. I dashed forward and slammed open the anchor locker. But by the time I’d got the beast unloaded of its two large headsails in wet bags, four water jugs, a bucket of spare chain, a moving dolly, six fenders, three sets of oars, a near infinity of thick mooring line and an anchor remaindered from the Queen Mary, I could see a gray wall coming up the valley.
Within moments it was raining hard. This was followed in short order by sleet, then snowflakes the size of silver dollars. They felt like cool, wet kisses landing on my cheek. Slush began to build up in the locker. I had to retreat.
Next morning, rain and then sleet, but it cleared to blue sky by two in the afternoon, so I dashed again to the anchor locker and within an hour I’d emptied it and rolled 400 feet of anchor chain over the bow and down onto a tarp awaiting on the ground.
The whole point of this exercise, by the way, is simply to inspect those parts of the hull interior that can only be accessed from this locker.
No boat locker has yet been designed that allows the easy access of a human adult, and big as they are, Gjoa’s are no exception. Wide of mouth, the anchor locker quickly narrows as you descend such that entry is reminiscent of squeezing into a child-sized pair of lederhosen while performing a hand stand with a flashlight in one fist and a camera in the other and exhaling—only exhaling.
The hull interior below waterline and under where the chain sits looked in good shape. Full of water, as one would expect, but the interior paint down low was holding.
I attempted to remove the water with a pump I assumed for that purpose because it was in handy reach of my pretzelline, head-over-heals position. I eased it gently from its hook and, with some difficulty, maneuvered it into position with the hand that wasn’t holding on, one knee and a free elbow. I pushed the lever and got bubbles instead of suction, and in this way discovered the storage location of the pump I’ll, in some future month, use to inflate the rubber raft.
Extracting myself with care, I went below to warm up. But by the time I’d made coffee, it started to sleet, so I quickly reeled in the chain and threw down the locker lid. Then it started to snow. Then it rained.
When it cleared for the second time that day (what luck!) I dove into the port aft locker. Here is stored more mooring line, a gas generator, 100 feet of shore power cable, another bucket of chain, a Johnson Series Drogue that, in its bag, is the size and weight and rigor of a recently deceased linebacker; below this, a BBQ, a collection of rubber hoses, tins of epoxy in various colors, mounds of spare halyards and sheets and a large coil of standing rigging.
Once at the hull interior, I found some lifting paint, not surprising in a boat of Gjoa’s age, and enough of a concern to become a line item on the to do list when the boat is in a warmer climate.
Ran engine today for four hours. Batteries were down to 87% of charge, and though I should be able to take the charge down to 50% without harm, I just couldn’t stop myself. But as I looked up from checking the oil, I saw a man peering in at me through the cabin window.
Northern Enterprises Boatyard, my current home, contains some 300 vessels lined up like soldiers, only three of which, including Gjoa, are sailboats. I am not only the only person living aboard, I’m usually the only person here, except for the night watchman who ascends his tower at dusk and is gone by the time I wake. Thus, to see a face in my cabin window was unexpected.
For both of us, apparently.
“Who are you?” said the face.
“It’s my boat,” I said.
“But where’s that couple from Canada?” said the face.
“In Canada.” I said.
The face looked confused.
“I’ve bought the boat,” I said.
“When was that?” asked the face.
“Just now,” I said.
“Nice boat,” the face said, smiling, “You’re a sailor! I have a Joshua. Name’s Adam. Snow today.”
Invited below and over two cups of coffee I learned that Adam is another native Homerian, a fisherman by trade, a sailor at heart. He’s explored the east coast of Greenland in an old Colin Archer and wishes, above all, to freeze in for the winter far north of here. A self-avowed loaner but gregarious as all get-out, Adam knows every adventurer I’ve ever heard of, all of whom, it appears, have passed through Homer at one time or another. And generous to a fault. Soon I’d been offered the kinds of assistance I couldn’t have imagined the hour earlier—access to his shed and tools, introductions to every local welder and blaster. And that’s how I met Mike, who will take Gjoa into his shed next month and sandblast the bottom.
Insurance survey in the morning. Uneventful. Father and son team, both native Homerians. “Oh,” says the father when I ask, pausing as if struggling to remember, “Born and raised in Homer. Guess I’ve lived here all my life.”
Both men are soft spoken and polite but clearly excited to survey something other than a fishing boat.
They scrape the paint here and there; make special point to find the engine serial number, stamped to the underside of the block and closer to the bilge than bilge water, and note the charge in the fire extinguishers.
“You happy with the boat?” asks the father. “Very,” I say. “Good. That’s important.”
“Where you going?” asks the son.
They are bush pilots, I learn, and are eager to get to the airport on this clear day. Thus, within the hour they find Gjoa to be a stout workhorse of a boat with a cracked stanchion and an out-of-date life raft as the only noteworthy faults.
Once alone, I get to my first project, a domestic chore, putting heat shrink insulative film on the inside of the windows. Given the cold outside and warmth inside, all Gjoa’s windows have been dripping with condensation every time I’ve been aboard. This interior wetness makes below-decks seem clammy, and on my first evening, I couldn’t get the temperature above 64 degrees at the heater’s highest setting. Gjoa is warmed by a magic silver cylinder in the main salon, a giant Releks diesel heater that would do well on a much larger vessel. And while 64 degrees is quite warm enough, especially when outdoors is snowing and in the mid 20s, getting there shouldn’t take nearly so much fuel.
During the sunny part of the day I apply the double-sided tape around the window frames and then the film and shrink the whole affair with a blow drier I find in a head cupboard. That evening the cabin comes quickly to 65 degrees with the heater at but half throttle. Still too much fuel usage, but better.
Next task is to charge the batteries using the engine.
Though the four-battery house bank is at 91% of charge, I’m not sure when they’ve been charged last, and in any case I want to run the engine. Running the engine on the hard is possible because Gjoa has two large coolant tanks that are integral to the hull and are themselves cooled by the ambient seawater, or, in this case, air temperature (most modern boat engines pull raw seawater into the boat for this purpose, an odd strategy when you consider that a boat hull is designed to keep seawater out). The engine comes alive quickly, even though overnight temperatures have been as low as 26 degrees. That’s the good news. The bad news: it takes five hours of run-time to get very cold batteries back to 100% of charge.
The only disappointment of this exercise is that the exhaust put out more white smoke than I like, even when engine temperatures come up to normal ranges, 160 – 170 degrees. Likely all this means is that oil is escaping the rings and getting into the combustion chamber. The diesel is a 48 horsepower Bukh, built in Denmark for the lifeboat trade; she’s vintage 1988 and has 7,000 hours, which is to say she’s got plenty of life left, but is not a spring chicken.
Already I have formed my life-on-the-hard routine. Wake before sunrise. Make coffee. Descend the slippery ladder and walk the road in the crunch of ice and snow the ten minutes to the toilet; there I fill my two jugs of water from the tap (Gjoa’s water tanks are empty and will stay that way until it warms or we go back in the water). Back at the boat, make egg on toast, the blue flame of the stove and yellow yoke enough to cheer the soul of any winter morning, and sit for a time by the heater wondering how best to get to know this new creature, my boat, from her strange position on the beach.
Boats of a certain age have history, but not always a history as interesting as Gjoa’s. I’ve written previously about the two-year Northwest Passage just completed by Gjoa’s most recent owners, Ann and Glenn Bainbridge. It was on this passage and a waylay in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, that I first met them both.
The Bainbridges remained the winter in the Arctic. They put Gjoa on the hard in Cambridge Bay in the fall of 2014 and moved aboard a tug, Tandberg Polar, which they maintained until spring when the Norwegian crew returned, and then they, in Gjoa, continued on to Nome and eventually Homer.
For most boats that would be history enough. But not this boat.
Gjoa was built in Germany in 1989 for journalist, photographer, adventurer, Clark Stede, who, with Delius Klasing sailed then-named Asma around the Americas (west through the Northwest Passage, east about the Horn) between 1990 and 1993. Their book, Rund Amerika, is aboard, and is simply full of boat construction details, outfitting details, route details, weather details … all in German. I can’t read a word.
Gjoa’s next owners were at least as adventurous, maybe more so. Tony and Coryn Gooch bought Asma in 1994, renamed her Taonui and took off. They had been cruising for a number of years in smaller, fiberglass boats, but were keen to explore the high latitudes, for whose demanding conditions a stronger vessel was needed. For 16 years they crisscrossed the globe every which way, sailing summers and putting Taonui on the hard in winter, such that a map of their travels looks like a game of cat’s cradle approaching its maturity.
In 2002, Tony set out from Victoria, BC to solo the globe via the southern ocean because, “I wanted to get down there one last time while I was still fit and healthy enough to handle hard sailing and enjoy it all.” He was in his sixties. Tony made the loop in 177 days. Distance: 24,000 miles. Average speed: 137 miles a day.
This brief history of Gjoa / Taonui / Asma may go some way to explaining my initial and continued attraction.
Mako vertical windlass
1. 30kg S140 Spade anchor (primary)/120m G70 Certified 8mm hot dip galvanized chain with pear shaped end links
2. 33kg Bruce (secondary)/70m 16mm Liros Anchorplait/10m DIN766 chain,
3. Fortress FX-23 kedge
Whisper large-case, dual belt, 130 amp alternator on engine
Whisper house batteries, 4 x 145amphour Gel
separate start battery
Whisper Isolation transformer
Whisper 12v60amp battery charger
Whisper Sine wave inverter 12v/2000 watt
Whisper shore power
Loncin portable generator
Standard Horizon Matrix GX2150 VHF with built-in AIS receiver (and handheld backups)
Standard Horizon CP590 GPS Chartplotter, 12″ display
Echopilot Bronze forward looking sonar (and handheld depth backup)
Kenwood SSB/pactor modem
Iridium satellite phone
Simrad/Robertson HLD2000 electric/hydraulic autopilot that connects directly to the rudderstock.
em-trak B100 AIS transceiver
em-trak S100 AIS/VHF splitter
- Wheel steering
- Hot water
- Pressure water
- Solar or wind generation
- A painted hull
- Powered winches or sails
- Deadlights in the hull
- Any instrumentation in the cockpit
- A warm, dry doghouse to keep watch in
- Three watertight bulkheads
- Water tanks integral to hull create a double wall for puncture protection
- An aperture-protected prop
- Standpipes instead of through-hulls
Homer for the first time to see her sitting there on the hard like a bird awaiting spring. That was November. The snow fell wet and heavy and quickly turned to mud. Then back to San Francisco for a month of brooding. Then Homer again to buy her. And just like that The Figure 8 project has sprouted wings.
None too soon.
The process of procuring the Figure 8 vessel had drug its heels so long that its boots fell off and then it wore holes in its socks; its toes got frost bite and threatened to turn gangrenous, and still it drug on.
It was without humor that my wife said, “Watching you buy a boat is like water torture.”
Two years ago came the idea, and early on I was all excitement.
I found many boats with potential and more with the help of my sailor friends who forwarded listings.
Florida, Seattle, San Diego, Victoria, Grenada, Florida again; Cambridge Bay, and Port Townsend were just some of the places visited.
But none of the boats quite worked out. One was too small; another too big; another too old.
No need to be hasty, I told myself. The Figure 8 was a demanding course, and I was learning the requirements.
Obligingly, over time the requirements ballooned, and I found myself seeking a flush deck, pilot house, split rig, lifting keel, fat tanked, amply powered, speed demon with iron scantlings and insulation Eskimo approved … that I could afford.
I’d become Goldilocks, for whom no boat could be just right.
Two years of searching and so many boats nearly bought, commitments made and then retracted. I couldn’t tie the knot much less finish off with a round turn.
Finally I wondered if the boats I rejected were, in fact, deficient, or had I lost my courage?
Then Homer called.
Actually, Ann and Glenn Bainbridge called. They had completed their two-year Northwest Passage and were moving on to other projects. Their aluminum sloop, Gjoa, was available if I was interested.
I remember first seeing her anchored against the hills of Arctic Bay, Nunavut. This was early in the Northwest Passage I crewed aboard Arctic Tern. It was the summer of 2014. Now that was the boat, I thought. Except that she was taken. Except that she was happily plying to her purpose with a couple happy to be seeing her at it. I made an offer anyway. The Bainbridges smiled and declined.
I had no intention of waiting for this boat. But that is how it has worked out. Today, sitting snugged next to her diesel heater and typing this as a light, dry snow falls, I know that when the sky clears, I’ll go on deck and admire the white and craggy Kenai Range to the east and search again for wind on the waters of the bay. Because the Figure 8 project has wings.