Shooting the Unalga Pass

September 24, 2019

Days at Sea: 290
Days Since Departure: 359

Noon Position: 53 38N. 164 54W
Course(t)/Speed(kts): ExS 5
Wind(t/tws): W 10
Sea(t/ft): S 3
Sky/10ths Cover: Clear 0
Bar(mb): 1024, rising
On-deck Temp(f): 55
Cabin Temp(f): 64
Water Temp(f): 49
Relative Humidity(%): 44
Magnetic Variation: 9.9

Sail: Spinnaker poled port; working jib poled starboard

Noon-to-Noon Miles Made Good (nm): 60 (since Dutch departure at midnight)
Miles since departure: 36,915

Note: One photo because my main satellite system is down for the moment.

Three gates in the vicinity of Dutch Harbor connect the Bering and the larger Pacific; they are Unimak Pass, Akutan Pass and Unalga Pass, with Unimak being the largest and most distant and Unalga, the closest and smallest. Only Unimak is lit.

During an ebb, the pent up forces of the entire Bering are pushing S against these gates, creating dangerous rapids and tide rips; flows to seven knots are typical. During the flood, Pacific exerts at least an equal pressure towards the N.

Thus, the Coast Pilot dedicates pages to a careful detailing of the hazards found at these passes. Here are some of the choicer comments:

“[At Unalga Pass], under exceptional circumstances, currents and tide rips of unusual magnitude may be encountered; and treacherous seas…caused by wind opposing the current, often sweep a vessel without warning.”

“On the larger tides [at Akutan Pass], the flood creates such heavy tide rips N of Unalaga Island, even in calm weather, that it is advisable to be prepared to take seas aboard. Tide rips of 15 feet high have been observed.”

“Instances have been reported of vessels, hove-to N of Unimak Pass and waiting for clear weather, being carried through the pass by the current and finding themselves on the opposite side when the fog lifted.”

I had missed my tide for a Monday daytime transit, and as I didn’t want to wait the 24 hours required for the next, I was left with the unhappy prospect of riding the ebb at night. By this time, the gale was well over and the sea had had a chance to relax. Given this, it seemed a safe bet that the passes would be an easy ride. But still, it was a bet, one that could not be retracted. Once inside, there would be no turning back, and the well advertised tide rips would be just more dark water against the dark backdrop of an invisible but assuredly rocky coast. 

Thus, my two hour nap prior to our midnight departure was neither deep nor restful, and I woke with apprehension before the alarm.

Even in the early morning, Dutch Harbor and the nearby coast were busy with fishing boats. Two exited to the N as Mo and I rounded into the fairway and three were headed in. But out of the harbor, we were alone, and beyond the lights of the port, night was starry but otherwise black.

I chose Unalga Pass at the suggestion of the Pilot, not because it was likely to be any less chaotic but simply because it was smaller—one would spend less time in the grip of fast water. 

We made our approach at 3am, and Mo’s speed rose to 7 knots; she topped 9 knots as we entered and 12 knots inside. A crescent moon now cast a pale outline over the hills, but the sea was an indiscernible void. Twice we ran into walls of water, and spray lept up into the moonlight. Rips turned Mo’s head several times, something I could sense only by the pull on the tiller and the rapid movement of stars. But within an hour we had escaped unscathed.

Today has been a spinnaker run with the high Aleutian mountains still visible to the N. Light westerlies are giving us a nice push E under clear skies and a warming sun. But such refreshing sailing cannot last. If the forecast is correct, we’re likely to be close hauled for the next week.

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