Two weeks ago we set out from Sitka on what was intended to be our focused effort to head south. Our first day we got a late start after topping off our fuel and provisions, and motored only a couple hours north of town to a cove in Krestof Sound. After six weeks of life in “town”, trying to find the source of some troubling vibration and rattling sounds from our drive train, and the last few days of getting ready, the weather opened up and we decided to take a down day, hang out and prepare ourselves for a multi-week push south. It was a beautiful anchorage and the weather held, we saw only a couple small boats in an area that before had been heavily trafficked with sport boats and small ferries running up into Peril Strait.
Over the next week we picked up the pace and with the exception of a day that kept us traveling only a few miles due to heavy winds and seas, we made pretty good progress. For much of the following week we had calm seas and very light winds. We put the sails up when we could and motored for the rest. Making a couple of long runs that took us from Peril Strait across Chatham Strait into Herring Bay in one day, from there we went through Frederick Sound into Petersburg in another long day, on through Wrangell Narrows with the tide, and then another solid day running down Clarence Strait to a snug cove on the east coast of Prince of Wales Island.
Each day we had so many “only in Alaska” moments, the sublime beauty of waking in a fog bank at Herring Bay and motoring out into Frederick Sound in still air, the water undulating like something thick, viscous. Whales around us and off into the distance, surfacing, spouting, diving. Grizzly sightings on shore, birds skimming through the fog and calling out to each other, the mountains of Baranof Island in the distance, raw, chiseled, bearing glaciers on their shoulders. We had hit a groove and were feeling good about our object, getting around Cape Caution and to the relative protection of Vancouver island.
On the 15th we set out early from Ratz Harbor. The night before we had been welcomed to the anchorage by a small group of Dall’s Porpoises and a large pod of Orcas, they had jumped and twisted, surfacing and diving, two adults raced past with a small baby nestled between them, moving quickly to catch up to the other 9 or so members of the pod heading north. In the morning we passed a small group of Dall’s porpoises but no sight of the Orcas. Weather was clear and we had steady winds from the south. We hoisted our sails and spent much of the rest of the day sailing down Clarence Strait making way toward Ketchikan or an anchorage nearby. By mid-afternoon the wind had been on our bow the entire day and we were making slow progress, long tacks across the strait, although fun sailing and beautiful, we needed to make a switch to motor to make a safe anchorage for the night.
The winds were kicking up a pretty healthy chop in the strait by late afternoon, large swell rolling up from Dixon Entrance hitting the ebbing current left us slogging through messy seas. Off the southern coast of Cleveland Peninsula we wrapped something in our propeller. The seas were large at that point, driving kelp, line, nets, scraps of wood under the surface. When we have hit kelp before there is usually a moment of thrashing around from the propeller and then a cloud of green chunks floats up around the stern. This time there was only a prolonged rumble and sound of something rhythmically hitting the hull every few moments. We dropped our revs down, idled, looked around for line, couldn’t see anything in the water. Over the next few minutes we went through our routine of running in reverse, then into forward, hoping to cut through or dislodge whatever had fouled our prop. After a bit we continued on but soon it was clear that whatever balance we had found after our six weeks of work on the drive train in Sitka had been lost. After a week of the engine and drive train running quietly and strong, we were back to heavy vibrations and unpleasant sounds from the drive train. We could motor at only a couple of knots before the sounds became horrible so we went back to sailing and sailed across the mouth of Behm Canal toward Tongass Narrows, the channel of water that would bring us to Ketchikan.
Once we had rounded Caamano Point and made our way into Behm Canal the chop from Clarence Strait diminished greatly and we had a shift in the wind to make a clean run to the narrows. We reached Tongass Narrows as the sun set, it was beautiful, the winds dropped a bit and in the protection of the Gravina Island we sailed along gently. As the light faded we switched again to motor to navigate the narrows, the sound of drive train was rough and it was clear something was out of alignment. We could only motor at 2 knots before the vibrations and grating sounds were too much, but we could hold a steady speed and make progress. We alerted the Coast Guard of our situation, and they called around for a towing service for us (the local tow operator had just left for the season), a passing commercial fishing boat offered us a tow. Although moving slowly we were able to navigate, and if we needed to could go to higher speeds it was just noisy. It was dark on the water of the narrows but it is well marked with aids to navigation and well charted, there is a lot of commercial traffic there. It was an exciting few hours for sure, commercial vessels are well lit and communicated with us as they passed for the most part, others we picked up on radar as they approached. At times a vessel would hide among the lights on shore and then pop up near us. But we kept a good look out with binoculars, radar and AIS.
We entered Tongass narrows around 7pm and pulled up to the marina at 11:30pm. The harbormaster gave us an open,easy to pull into slip. Pulling up to the marina breakwater we realized that both the paper and electronic charts, both supposedly up to date, had the orientation of the breakwater flipped, with the opening on the wrong side. It is not clearly marked and I think in poor weather or if someone at the helm isn’t paying attention, it could be a rough landing. We saw the problem and swung around to the correct side. As we pulled up to the slip we had a last surprise, the current in the narrows runs strongly and as we rounded the breakwater it caught ahold of us and gave us a rude push against the dock. Tied up, engine off, we were in that moment of post- adrenaline rush, happy to have made it to the dock, glad to be off the water, when some of the crew of the fishing vessel that had offered us a tow came down the dock, they wanted to be sure we had arrived safely and check in on us. Midnight, strangers passed for only a few moments, and yet they had come out to see how we were. There is a lot to love about Alaska.
Since then we’ve had a diver inspect the propeller and take some video for us. There are signs of missing paint and scratch lines on our shaft, consistent with wrapping something. We are pretty sure that the engine is out of alignment and our focus over the next few days will be to realign the engine and then begin heading south again.