The Aleutians and Alaskan Peninsula are an elusive goal for most cruisers for a variety of reasons, which will be clear from the points below. However, for cruisers who enjoy visiting the distinctive wilderness areas of the world, the area has a strong attraction. When visibility is good the stark, mostly volcanic scenery is very beautiful. For those with any interest in birds there are plenty of seabirds to observe as well as bald eagles, golden eagles and sea eagles. In addition there is a wide variety of other marine wildlife, including whales, sea lions and sea otters. Though it does detract somewhat from the islands’ beauty, there is also some historical interest in the detritus left by both the American and Japanese armed forces during and after World War lI. Because the Aleutians are treeless, unlike many wilderness areas, there are many opportunities for hiking. Unlike the rest of Alaska, the islands have no bears, though there are foxes and on Adak introduced caribou.
None of the western islands are inhabited. There are only two settlements on the eastern islands, at Adak and Dutch Harbor, which offer any opportunity to fuel or get supplies, while only Dutch Harbor, right to the east has repair facilities. There are anumber of small fishing ports on the Peninsula with some supplies and services. Thus, the islands are unusually isolated and demand a high degree of self-sufficiency. Many of the islands have no reasonable anchorage and many others have anchorages with protection from only limited quarters. As with much of the Pacific rim, the islands are in an area of regular seismic activity and there are quite a number of volcanoes which are potentially active if not actually smoking.
The cruising season for any but the very hardiest is very short, basically June, July and early August. Even in those months, it can be extremely cold and there are often severe depressions which pass through the islands before dying out over the Bering Sea or the Alaskan mainland.
There are three possible approach routes from the south and one from the east. The former, from Hawaii, the Marshall Islands or Japan, involve longish passages which are likely to eat into the potential time for cruising. In addition, if one wishes to spend time cruising in the rest of Alaska it means rushing through the Aleutians, or over-wintering in that state or returning the next season. Approaching the islands from Alaska itself, really means spending the previous winter in a pretty inhospitable climate in that area.
Probably the majority of the small number of cruisers who visit the Aleutians and Alaska Peninsula do so following a passage from Japan. Ideally one leaves Japan in very late May to mid-June, depending on the pattern of weather. Some cruisers prefer to leave from southern Japan, taking advantage of the north and eastward set of the warm Kuro Shio current in the early part of the passage. However, this route is significantly longer than the alternative departure from the east coast of Hokkaido. However, on the latter route it is important to make good easting initially to escape the clutches of the cold, southeast setting Oya Shio which runs down the Kuril Trench along the edge of the continental shelf. This route also follows the main, great-circle ship route from North America to East Asia. With the prevalence of fog, this requires a very good and continuous look-out; radar and perhaps AIS are virtually essential.
Though our own cruise was blessed with a good deal of fairly clear weather, by Aleutian standards, other cruisers report almost continuous fog and poor visibility. In summer, there are many fairly windless days, punctuated by strong or even gale force winds when depressions roll through. Quite apart from GRIB files, there is an excellent metfax service from Kodiak and a very comprehensive text forecast for the whole of southwest Alaska also available through the NOAA service.
The island chain and the peninsula pose considerable navigational and pilotage challenges. Not only can the weather be volatile, but there is a very high frequency of fog and limited visibility during the summer months. Fortunately, charting is excellent; both CMap and NOAA charts appear to be to WGS84 datum and we found them very accurate. There are no cruising guides for the area and cruisers must rely on the notes of others for any guidance. There are virtually no navigational aids in the islands and few along the peninsula. In these days of GPS caution is still required in dealing with the very strong and unpredictable currents which run around and between the islands of the chain. There is tidal information available for the area, but it must be used with caution as the resulting currents can be strongly affected by weather conditions, swell from distant depressions and other variables. In general, the tide floods north into the Bering Sea and ebbs south. Most cruisers tend to move along the chain on the Bering Sea side, which is somewhat less prone to swell.
As a comment on our own cruise, we did not stop at a number of islands we had originally hoped to visit mostly because the potential anchorages were not appropriate to the wind direction at the time. Without a long cruising season, disappointments of this kind are pretty much inevitable.
We found very useful the account by the Australian yacht ‘Fine Tolerance’ of their Aleutian cruise in 2003. This is documented on their website (URL=http://www.finelineboatplans.com/cpa/Aluetians/aleutians.htm ). The Smeetons account in the RCC Journal for the 1965 season, of their cruise in ‘Tzu Hang’ is also interesting and remarkable,. More recent accounts of the cruises of ‘Kokiri’ (OCC’s Flying Fish 2005/2) and ‘Shingebiss’ (OCC’s Flying Fish 2007/1) are also useful.
The NOAA Coastal Pilot for Alaska also has much useful information, though like all such works, it is orientated to larger vessels and tends to paint the bleakest possible picture of all potential hazards. Like all NOAA publications, including charts, it is legally copiable and may even be available through the NOAA website.
Cruising the islands from west to east is a technical bureaucratic problem in that the only port of entry, Dutch Harbor, is at the eastern end of the chain. Though we have heard of a few cruisers who have had problems with the authorities, these have mostly been because they failed to get formal visas in advance. Some cruisers have been fined for this failure. Though there is no guarantee, it would appear that the American authorities accept that yachts will enter at Dutch Harbor having stopped periodically along the chain for reasons of adverse weather or to conserve fuel. Now that there are no admitted military installations on the islands, there is less sensitivity about stopping at them. Those yachts which stop at the Sweepers Cove settlement at Adak, will have their crew details forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security (this includes Customs and Immigration) for a kind of advanced clearance, by the Harbour Master. Once at Dutch Harbor, normal formalities follow, all undertaken by the Customs Officer. Foreign yachts will have to purchase and be issued a one year Cruising Licence, the conditions of which vary from time to time, but usually involve continued reporting of movements by phone or occasionally in person at larger harbours.
As noted above, fuel and stores are only available at the Adak settlement and Dutch Harbor. Fuelling at Sweepers Cove (Dutch Harbor) is no problem, from the pier in the west of the Cove, except in strong easterlies. Fuel is somewhat more expensive than elsewhere. There is also a store which has a reasonable range of supplies and even a few bits of hardware. At Dutch Harbor there is a much more extensive range of supplies and services available. Water can be taken on at Sweepers Cove when fuelling, but good water is also easily available from streams in most of the islands.
There are several potential anchorages on the east and northeast coasts of the island, though two seem to have been used by most cruisers. Chicagoff Bay on the northeast corner is reputed to be excellent except in the northeast to east conditions which prevailed for much of our visit. We anchored in two places in Casco Cove, which gives the best all round protection available. There are numerous rocks and shoals in the approaches, but all are well charted. The anchorage would be uncomfortable in a strong easterly, but only become untenable if a largish swell develops from that direction. It gives good protection from all other directions depending where in the cove one anchors. Holding is very good in sand. There is some kelp, but not enough to cause problems. Casco Cove also allows good access to the various, now defunct, military installations. The former Loran station and associated airstrip are still in good condition and effectively moth-balled. The Loran tower has been removed. There is a survival hut next to the airstrip near the station. It has food, medical supplies, a small petrol generator, heater and VHF radio. Longer hikes are also possible in the open terrain. A stream which is convenient for watering comes down to the western shore of the cove.
Kiska Harbor is a large bay with good protection except from ENE to ESE. Because it is large it can be subject to swell from the north through east. Approaching the bay from the north, there may be rough conditions off the northeastern point even in moderate winds. The chart indicates that much of the potential area for anchoring in the bay has a rocky bottom. The best protection for most conditions appears to be just south of the remains of the large jetty in the northwest corner of the harbor. The holding here is good in sand, though winds do appear to be somewhat accelerated and the anchorage might be subject to williwaws in strong conditions. We were unable to get ashore because of surge on the beach, however, there are reported to be numerous interesting military remains from World War II, including a Japanese two-man submarine.
Trapper’s Cove is in the Bay of Islands on the northwest corner of Adak Island. The Bay has numerous possibilities for anchoring, but Trapper’s Cove is probably the best protected except from the northwest. Though the approach through The Race sounds daunting, in fact we did not find that the tides ran excessively strongly. The entrance to the cove is shallower than the pool inside, but there is plenty of water in the centre despite considerable kelp. There are some isolated rocks on the west side of the cove, but plenty of swinging room even if one anchors somewhat to the west of the position given in order to close the entrance to the cove and get some protection from the northwest. There is heavy weed on the bottom and the anchor requires careful setting; the holding appeared to be good, though we had no strong winds to test this.
There is excellent hiking in the hills around the cove. There are also numerous opportunities to observe wildlife in the area. There are sea otters in Fisherman Cove and in the passages between the islands to the north. There are numerous bald and golden eagles as well as eider ducks and scooters.
Three Arm Bay is on the west coast of Adak Island, south of Argonne Point. The entrance to the Bay is wide and deep, however, South Arm is then approached through a narrow, but deep, channel to the west of an islet. This is well charted. The anchorage position above is appropriate for north through east to south conditions. For westerly conditions anchorage in the southwestern corner of the Arm might be more appropriate. In strong conditions there are heavy williwaws in the northern section of the anchorage. Though there is heavy weed on the bottom in the indicated anchorage, holding appeared to be good in mud. The anchor must be carefully set.
There are excellent opportunities for hiking and caribou may be spotted on the surrounding hills. During our stay there was also a group of archaeologists investigating prehistoric Aleut habitation sites near the southwest corner of the Arm. The Wildlife and Fisheries hut indicated on the chart and in the pilot has collapsed.
Hidden Bay is on the south coast of Adak Island. Though narrow, the approach to the Bay is clear and deep, with only a single, well charted rocky reef close to the east of the channel. The anchorage in the pool at the head of the Bay is quite deep, but holding appears to be good and the sides of the pool are mostly steep-to. Protection should be excellent, though there might be williwaws in strong conditions. It is also possible that the outer end of the entrance channel would become dangerous in conditions of heavy southerly swell, though it seems unlikely that much surge would penetrate into the anchorage itself. The anchorage is attractive and there is a stream at the western end from which it would be possible to water.
Since it was abandoned by the US Navy, the settlement at Sweeper Cove has had varying fortunes. There are numerous buildings, enough for a town of 8,000, but most are now derelict. The current population is about 100, though this is likely to double when a fish processing plant opens in late 2011. The settlement has most basic amenities and there is a store with a reasonable range of supplies. The locals are very welcoming and helpful. The current Harbor Master, Elaine Smiloff, is very professional, but also friendly and very helpful. It is not possible to clear in at Sweeper Cove, but the harbormaster is required to forward crew and vessel details, of yachts which stop here, to the Department of Homeland Security. The fuel dock is at the western end of the harbor. It is in fairly good condition and yachts should be able to lie alongside to fuel except in moderate to strong easterly conditions.
In the past, most yachts which stopped at the Cove did not generally lie alongside the large piers, which are in reasonable repair, but pretty rough. In any case, the cost of lying at the piers is $100/night. Some anchored off, though the Cove is quite deep. Others moved to nearby anchorages in Finger Bay. Recently there has been dredging to reopen the small boat basin in the southwest corner of the Cove. There is now about 3.5 m in the entrance to the basin, with somewhat more inside and room to manoeuvre for yachts up to about 50’. There is excellent protection here and even in strong easterlies there is little surge. The cost, if collected, is less than $10/night.
The locals and fishermen are extremely friendly seeing so few new faces. We were given a 'guided car tour', visiting many old military sites, had showers in a private house and had supper with another local.
Dutch Harbor is a port of entry, though it appears on no official list of ports of entry. It is an extremely busy place, as the USA’s largest fishing port by catch size. In addition, there is constant traffic of container ships taking away that catch once it has been processed by one of seven fish processing plants in the area. Virtually all supplies and marine services are available – at a price. There are air services to Anchorage as well as a ferry service. Though it may be possible to get a berth in the inner harbour if staying for more than a day or two, it is more likely that a berth will be assigned at the Spithead Dock in the outer harbour. The latter berth is a long way from town along a very dusty or muddy road. Taxis are expensive. It is possible to rent a car or van at the airport for a price not much different from that on the mainland. It is possible to get LPG bottles refilled, though there may be some reluctance to fill bottles with no relief valve screw.
In the town of Unalaska there is free Internet at the library, though there is also Wifi in the outer harbour through KDH Guest facilities. The Aleut Museum is well planned and interesting and also has a wide range of books about the Aleutians and the Aleut people. There are a variety of hikes available on trails in the area, some of which are marked and others only indicated on maps. There are a large number of cafes and bars. The Sunday, 'all-you-can-eat brunch' at The Grand Aleutian Hotel is well worth the price.
In settled weather there are several anchorages in the area between Akutan and its neighbour Akun. However, in strong westerlies and southerlies these anchorages are subject to terrific williwaws coming down from the slopes of the central volcano. We found one anchorage giving adequate shelter from a strong south to south-westerly gale at 54:07.228N/165:42.740W in 7m, sand, excellent holding. Most of Akutan Bay is very deep for anchoring. When the wind went northerly and lighter, we moved to 54:07.944N/165:49.147W, 20m, in mud; however, though the anchor was in 20 m the boat was swinging over a depth of 30m. There is a new harbour being constructed at the west end of Akutan Bay. We do not know when it will be complete. It might be possible to get a berth alongside the docks at the fish processing plant on the south shore of the Bay, where there is a small settlement. We did not get ashore. When leaving Akutan by the southern route it is important to do so near slack water. The tide runs very strongly (the Coast Pilot says up to 12 knots) through the narrow pass. However, the pass is very short.
The small community of False Pass is at the eastern end of Unimak Island, the most easterly of the Aleutians. Until recently the only mooring options were alongside fairly rough docks or anchoring as much out of the strong tidal flow as possible. However, a new small boat harbour has recently been completed, which gives good shelter. Whether arriving from the north or the south, it is best to arrive with a fair tide, which runs very strongly in the strait. The approach from the south is straight-forward through a clear if narrow strait. The northern approach is shallow and winding, but well marked with regularly up-dated buoyage. Fuel is available, and there is a small store and Post Office.
King Cove is a somewhat larger community, dominated by the Peter Pan fish processing plant, where it is possible to obtain fuel. There is also a store with reasonable supplies. It might be possible to purchase marine specific hardware from the stores department at Peter Pan. The main harbour, called the Old Harbor, gives good shelter and has good facilities. There are showers and a Wifi connection at the harbor office. There is a travel lift for haul outs. The harbor is reputed to be very windy in strong conditions.
This is an excellent, completely land-locked, all-weather anchorage, with excellent holding in mud. The approach is winding, but quite clear. There is varied, attractive scenery around the anchorage and the possibility of viewing bears and deer. The wild flowers were profuse in July. It is reportedly possible to hike to Bear Bay or Volcano Bay to the east, if one is brave enough and/or suitably equipped to face the bears with which one may share the trail.
This is a large bay, open to the southeast. However, there is a hooked indentation in the northwest corner where quite good shelter can be had from moderate winds from most directions. The wind does tend to swirl around the heights to the west and north and would probably be very gusty in strong conditions. In clear weather there is very striking scenery all round the Bay with snow-capped volcanoes. Brown bears may come down to the beach at the head of the bay near the outlet of the stream.
Sand Point is a busy fishing port and quite a large community by rural Alaskan standards (pop. approx. 1,000) Local fishing boats occupy virtually all the individual berths in the harbour, but there is generally plenty of space along the long wharfs for visitors. There is pay Wifi in the harbour or ‘free’ at the café, if you have something to eat or drink. There is fuel at the Trident fish processing plant and a store for marine items. There is also a store in the village for food and other supplies. There are several bars and one or two cafes. There is a travel lift for haul outs. If you visit the Trident Office, it may be possible to arrange a tour of the processing plant, which we did. It is interesting and informative about the essential economic powerhouse of the region. The plant can process up to 350,000 pounds of salmon a day during the summer season! It also processes other fish varieties during the rest of the year.
This is a completely land-locked bay approached through a narrow but deep channel. In strong conditions it would probably be gusty because of the heights around the bay. Holding is very good in mud.
This is a well-sheltered anchorage in the southern arm in a dramatic setting. In strong conditions it would probably be gusty because of the heights around the bay. Holding is good in mud. We did not see bears here, but others have, near the river at the head of the bay.
Barling Bay is just south of Old Harbor along Sitkilidak Strait. The Bay is quite large. There is a considerable area of silty shallows at the head. There is good protection north to east and south to west. The Bay is somewhat exposed to fetch from the southeast and is reputed to be subject to violent williwaws in strong north-westerlies. Holding is good in mud. The bay is in a very attractive setting, with a wide, low valley at the head around two small rivers and mountains further to the west. In July it was all very green. There are bears and deer to be seen, especially if one takes a dinghy up the river around high water.
This relatively narrow, winding passage north of Sitkilidak Island allows transit northwards along the east coast of Kodiak Island without going seawards of Sitkilidak Island. The depths given on the chart seem to be somewhat shallower than those we saw. The large scale chart seems accurate, as does CMap. The Coast Pilot indicates than the current is rarely strong and this seemed the case during our transit.
Shearwater Bay is a large Bay, somewhat exposed to the southwest, but otherwise giving adequate protection. In fact, the anchorage position above is for a small, virtually land-locked cove in the southeast corner of the bay. The entrance to the cove is narrow, but deep, with a least depth of about 6m. The pool inside has 11m. This anchorage gives almost all-round protection, though there might be a little wave action in a strong northerly. Holding appears good in mud. There may be hiking opportunities ashore in the immediate vicinity, if you are willing to brave possible bear encounters.
Kodiak is a large town by rural Alaskan standards with all facilities, supplies and services, including regular air services to Anchorage and other towns. Approaches to the harbour from both north and south are encumbered by rocks and shoals, but channels are clearly marked. Visitors are normally berthed in St Paul Harbor, the northern of the two harbours, which is closest to the town. The other harbour, on Near Island, is some distance from the town by road. However, space is at a premium during the fishing season. Charges are reasonable, with a step up in rates at 40’. There are two fuel docks as well as a nearby petrol station. A supermarket is close to the harbour, as is a hardware store. There are other stores further out of town. There is free Wifi at McDonalds and at the Public Library, both close to the harbour. There are a number of hikes in the area, with information at the Visitors’ Centre or very well appointed Wildlife Refuge. The small Alutiiq Museum is interesting. Quite apart from the cruising to be had on Kodiak Island itself, Kodiak town is an excellent jumping off point for cruising the Alaska Peninsula, Kenai and Prince William Sound. Several cruisers each year arrive from Hawaii, for this reason, as we did in 2002. We know of several cruisers who have also wintered in Kodiak.