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SSCA Article

From the Seven Seas Cruising Association Commodores' Bulletin

We wrote this article after having cruised for three months from Tacoma to Glacier Bay, Alaska and back via the Inside Passage. The SSCA monthly bulletin is a voluntary effort, written by its members, who pass along to other members useful information about cruising locales. Here's our contribution, which appeared in the March 2000 issue:

 "Inside Passage to Glacier Bay, Alaska"

We left home in Tacoma, Washington on May 14th and returned on September 10th, covered 2,800 miles of the Inside Passage, and reached Glacier Bay at the northernmost point (58° 47' N). Here are some practical details that may be helpful to others. All of the places we mention are in the main cruising guides, of which the best for us was Don Douglass' “Exploring the Inside Passage to Alaska.” His other two books on BC are also excellent. You should also take 'Charlie's Charts', although it's a bit dated, as it has a different perspective on many anchorages.

There's a lot of wilderness out there and if you get off the beaten path just a little, it's easy to spend a couple of days without seeing another cruising boat (fishboats, though, are ubiquitous). With so few boats, relatively, while making the passage there may be less of a sense of cruising community that you're used to. Still, there are lots of new cruising friends to made.

The challenges of the trip are different from offshore passages in the tropics. You meet different problems like deep-water anchorages (big anchor, lots of chain), being on constant lookout for lethal 'deadheads' (logs floating just at the surface), a 20-foot tidal range, rockhopping through twisty, narrow passes, and so on. And the Iceberg Watch probably isn't needed much on the Coconut Milk Run. We had one gale (30 to 40 knots), ridden out at anchor in an cove that was not as protected as it was billed.

Although Raven is a sailboat, this summer we were really a motorboat with a decorative stick coming out of the deck a nice place to fly the Canadian courtesy flag. We had the sails up just six times in four months, and only had five really good sailing days, including two with the spinnaker. There just isn't much wind in the Inside Passage, and what exists is invariably on the nose. Also, you have so much distance to cover in the daytime (too dangerous at night because of deadheads) that you're mostly forced to use the engine. We were on the move two days out of three, averaging 38 miles on each of 75 traveling days.

Glacier Bay -- The National Park Service only allows 25 boats into Glacier Bay at one time, including the cruise ships, so you need to obtain a permit (it's free) in advance. The rules are very strict. You can apply for a permit a maximum of 60 days in advance, giving your three choices for precise entry and exit dates (up to seven days apart), and it's best to apply by fax (907-697-2230). We found the NPS to be very helpful, within the rules; for example, they'll fax you right back if you ask for a quick response. You can find full details and the application form on the web at the Glacier Bay website. Phoning to speak with the park rangers is, we found, more difficult since phone service to that remote location isn't very good. Two other boats we met had mechanical problems, missing their permit-specified entry dates into the park, and they found the rangers accommodating on changing dates. Incidently, you'll receive some printed nonsense about "maintaining a steady speed of 10 to 20 knots"; the real issue is, when in certain humpback whale feeding areas, keeping in mid-channel and staying below 10 knots.

When you cross the boundary into the Bay, you announce your presence on VHF channel 12 and then anchor at the Bartlett Cove ranger station and go ashore for the mandatory orientation session. From there, we first took the big tourist catamaran for its nine-hour cruise of the main sights in the Bay. It was a terrific way to get oriented and see three major glaciers up close, especially since the closest glacier is over 45 miles from Bartlett Cove! The crew was good at spotting wildlife, too, and making sure everyone saw the bears, moose, puffins, marmots, otters, etc. (Thanks to the Japanese tour guide who translated for her group, we also were happy to learn that "moose" in Japanese is "moose-o.") After that, we took our own boat to some of the anchorages. The park is so vast -- the size of all of Puget Sound -- that you rarely see another boat and even the cruise ships seem lost in the wilderness.

We had hoped to visit the Queen Charlotte Islands, but a gale and a series of fronts at the wrong time kept us from making the crossing. But here's what we learned from our research and from other cruisers: The most-visited, southern part of the Queen Charlottes (a.k.a. Haida Gwaii) has become a national park jointly administered by the Canadian government and the Haida tribe which is native to the islands. They have begun issuing permits, too, many of which are taken up by the charter boats and tour companies. Phone (250) 559-8818 (fax 559-8388) to request a package of information. The website is <http://fas.sfu.ca/parkscan/gwaii>. Fees are C$10 per person per day up to five days, then a flat C$60 per person for up to 14 days, or C$80 each for the season. Six stand-by permits per day are also available on a first-come, first-served basis. Friends told us the mandatory orientation session at Queen Charlotte City, Sandspit, or Rose Harbour is quite informative and helpful. The park, called Gwaii Haans, also limits the number of people "on shore at one time within sight or sound of each other." In practice, this can slow down your visit to one or two of the main village sites such as the most famous one, Ninstints. 

Provisioning was excellent and easy in the Alaskan towns: Juneau, Petersburg, Craig (fresh stuff was poor), Sitka, Ketchikan. Everything we needed or wanted, including very nice fresh fruits and vegetables, was available, frequently delivered right to the boat. Remember, though, that all those towns are completely dependent on barge shipments, none of them having road access, and so you do better just after the barge has arrived. Prices will be a good bit more than you're used to in the 'Lower 48' because of shipping costs. Be careful, too, when the fishboat fleet is in town between openings in the fishing; they tend to clean the stores out of things like bread, eggs, and milk as they provision for the next opening. The Inside Passage towns north of Nanaimo in British Columbia, with the notable exceptions of Nanaimo, Port McNeill and Prince Rupert, were not well supplied at all.

Favorite spots in BC's Inside Passage: Lowe Inlet (be sure to anchor directly in front of the big waterfall); East Inlet in Klewnuggit Inlet (dead quiet and full of Dungeness crabs); Bishop Bay (can't miss the hot spring); Cordero Lodge (wonderful dinners by the German owners). Welcome Harbour on Porcher Island is a wonderful landlocked bay with a hundred islets and reefs to explore by kayak or dinghy; Weinberg inlet is similar. Blunden Harbour is well protected, is the site of an ancient Kwakiutl village, and also has terrific Dungeness crabbing. We took our small kayaks along and had a great time in many of these places. Newcombe Harbour is where we rode out the 35+ knot gale -- it's NOT as protected as the Douglass book says. Alert Bay is a Kwakiutl village that has a wonderful museum of tribal regalia, plus a big new longhouse (we were lucky enough to be there for the dedication potlatch).

Favorite spots in Alaska: In Tracy Arm, it's much easier to take your the boat up near a glacier face than even in Glacier Bay. North Sandy Cove in Glacier Bay had bears galore, and a moose. Meyers Chuck is a quaint but dying old-time Alaskan village. Foggy Bay is a neat landlocked refuge after crossing Dixon Entrance. Floatplane sightseeing out of Ketchikan over Misty Fjords National Monument was a thrill. Tenakee Springs, a thriving little village with a famous hot spring, is not to be missed. Ell Cove is a tiny spot on the east coast of Baranof Island with several resident sea otters which, if you're quiet, will entertain you with their antics. Red Bluff Bay is a dramatic fjord with snowfields, avalanche zones and a river. Baranof Warm Springs has a great rock "hot tub" overlooking a big waterfall. El Capitan Passage on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island is remote and wild and involves lots of rockhopping-style navigation; great prawning in the deep channels, too. Sitka has an interesting history going back to the Russian settlement, and is on a beautiful bay.

Since differential GPS signals are available for almost the entire region, and the charts are highly accurate. our first experience this cruise with laptop navigation (Nobeltec's Visual Navigation Suite) was excellent.  The software and CDROMs were a great help in navigating through some narrow and hairy channels with confidence. The only exceptions were some of the older Canadian charts of remote areas -- the ones still in fathoms instead of meters -- which are based on NAD27 datum rather than the new standard, WGS84.

The Great Northern Boaters' Net is the main ham radio net for the Inside Passage; perhaps 50 boats check in at various times. Net control is Dave, AL7DJ, based in Elfin Cove near Glacier Bay. He and his relays cover the entire Passage from Seattle to as far north as you want to go. The net starts at about 0745 PDT on 3870 kHz, then moves up to 7280 kHz at 0800. (The times in Alaska are one hour earlier.) Great source of knowledge; someone on the net always knows the information you need, or can suggest good anchorages, etc.

Shipping, mail, etc. Don't believe anything FedEx and UPS tell you, especially their “guarantees” of overnight delivery. Alaska may be in the good old U.S. of A., but it still takes a long time to get something anything shipped in. An “overnight” package shipped by UPS to Petersburg took six days, which the locals said was average. Sometimes, Alaska Airlines, the monopoly airline, just bumps freight off its flights for days at a time. Juneau was the best, as 'overnight' turned out to take only two business days. Shipping to BC was worse. Forget it for anyplace but Prince Rupert and maybe Victoria. We waited in vain for a package in Ganges (Gulf Islands), but it finally caught up with us days later, after hours on the phone with the shipping company. Our most successful strategy was to speak with a knowledgeable local person, such as at Mailboxes Etc. (there was a very helpful one in Juneau) and get accurate information that way. Shopkeepers often know the true skinny because they deal with the same problems all the time.

Our AT&T digital cell phone worked in almost every major town along the way (Prince Rupert, Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, etc.), although the service was usually analog so the batteries died faster. The cruise ship towns in Alaska were a special challenge because, when several thousand ship passengers hit town in the morning, phone service was blotted out for a couple of hours! The local papers were full of complaints from residents. We just waited until the frenzy died down each day.

Petersburg Our favorite Alaskan port, because it's devoted to fishing and receives no cruise ships. Tourists are a bit unusual, and people are friendly and helpful. We got to know several locals while waiting for mail packages to arrive. Don't miss Eagles Roost north of town. Go there on a flood tide to watch a dozen eagles fishing the tide lines.

Juneau A nice town, although we spent entirely too much time there because of a mechanical breakdown. Auke Bay is a good marina, if a bit chaotic. Don't expect to have power without a couple days' wait for one of the small number of outlets. Auke Bay is far from downtown, but there are regular buses, and you can also rent a car at the airport, which is right nearby. We found the car useful for chasing parts all over town, trips to the cyber cafe on Franklin Street downtown, and food shopping expeditions. We learned -- too late -- that the City of Juneau has an unpublicized card they will issue you on request (try the visitors information bureau downtown) that saves you the 5% sales tax on all your purchases. This was a major resupply port for us, so we could have saved a bundle if we'd known beforehand.

We also found a couple of good service people in Juneau, meeting both of them while docked at Auke Bay. Kevin Dau (Chatham Strait Diving; phone 907-789-9962) is a friendly young guy with his own company who cheerfully cleans boat hulls, something not many divers in S.E. Alaska will do, we found. Kevin charged us $150 for a three-hour bottom cleaning, plus one shaft zinc replacement; that's a good rate for Alaska. We find that these rich nothern waters produce grass and slime like we've never seen elsewhere, and the speed reduction was a sharp lesson to us.

Also recommended is Jim Betts (907-780-8637; cellphone 907-723-2626), who is not only a good, careful mechanic but he's also personable and willing to explain. He came to our boat on short notice and stayed until 8 pm when the engine job was done (replacing an Aquadrive CV joint in the propshaft), and then another hour to help diagnose some ills with our Webasto heater. Jim charged $70 an hour (everything costs more in Alaska) and he's productive enough to be worth it.

We bit the bullet and bought an Iridium satellite phone and pager for the cruise. Both worked extremely well and proved their worth many times. We paid US$1.78 per minute for calls to the US and Canada, which we thought was good value considering that we could use the phone practically anywhere. We had few dropped calls, except in coves that were surrounded by mountains, which makes sense. As long as we had a good view of the sky, and stayed in the cockpit or pilothouse, the phone worked well. It was a tremendous comfort, when our Aquadrive CV joint blew a seal in a remote cove in Glacier Bay, to make six phone calls in 15 minutes, diagnose the problem, get instructions on a temporary fix (a 'Polish Weld', a.k.a. duct tape), and have the new part shipped immediately. The Iridium pager was almost more useful than the phone because we left it on at all times, while we turned the phone off after making each call. It works like one-way email, since it can receive full alphanumeric messages up to about 120 characters. That was especially good when our credit card number was stolen and we got a page from home to call the card company immediately. Now that Iridium phone and airtime prices are plunging, the value should be even better. [Note: Iridium has since gone defunct and been resurrected. We may well start up our account again, just before we cross the Pacific.] Combined with the terrific ham radio email system which handled over 600 emails for us (many, many thanks to Steve K4CJX for being our gateway station), we had the fun and comfort of being in touch with family and friends.

Four months “on the road” to Glacier Bay and back was a terrific shakedown cruise for us. Not just the boat . . . the crew, too! We'll be back up there. After we do the Pacific, though.

Associates Jan (K7JT) and Signe (W3IIJ) Twardowski

This page was last updated on 04/13/04.


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