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Aleutian Islands

 

 

We departed from Kushiro and from Japan on the foggy morning of 1 June. Though the visibility remained poor for virtually the whole of the next 12 days, the first five days were blessed with light to moderate, favourable winds. This gave us a chance to make some easting in order to get to the east of the Kuril Trench and avoid most of the worst affects of the southwest-going Oya Shio current. After a further couple of days of contrary winds, during which we spent a period heading more towards Kamchatka than Attu in the Aleutians, the breeze came right and favourable once more. The wind virtually died away during the last day or two and we were forced to use some fuel in order to get to Casco Cove in Attu, before a predicted spell of worse weather. We had been determined to use as little fuel as possible during the passage, knowing that during our time in the Aleutian chain we would not only need a fair amount for motoring, but also for heating. We would be unable to refuel until we reached Adak, nearly 500 miles further along the chain.

 

 

 

 

 

With water temperatures around 4 degrees C, the air very damp and cold, the boat was filled with condensation and we were dressed like Michelin men with ten layers at times. We never did find a satisfactory solution to cold hands and thought they would never be warm again.

 

 

Having picked our weather pattern for the start of the passage, we were very pleased both with the speed of the 12 day trip, which other cruisers had reported it as being slow. The relatively gentle weather was a relief, given that depressions had been lining up all spring to give the course up to the Aleutians a pounding. The poor visibility, general damp and aching cold, made watch-keeping a daunting experience, but we continued to stand our watches on deck as we always have. Though there is an argument that standing radar watch below would have been as effective, or more so, especially on this great circle shipping route between North America and Asia, we were happier to use our ears. Twice we detected ships sounding fog signals, at distances of nearly eight miles, when they barely showed up on our small radar. Fortunately, as we approached the southeastern coast of Attu the visibility cleared enough so that we had no need of radar to make our entrance to Casco Cove. We dropped our hook at 0900 on 11 June, having gained a day when crossing the dateline. Coincidentally, this was the same day that we entered Kodiak in 2002, exactly nine years earlier.

 

 

 

Tom looking satisfied to have arrived at Casco Cove.

 

 

 

 

Depending where one anchors, Casco Cove is secure from almost any weather but very strong east to southeast conditions. After nearly two weeks at sea, it is always a delight to be in a calm and secure anchorage and to go to sleep in the almost certain knowledge that you needn’t wake before you feel like it. At 1800 the same evening ‘Bannister’ arrived. We had been in daily touch by radio throughout the passage. Hendrik and Hanna had left a day later from Kushiro, but had much the same weather pattern, if anything slightly better in that they had little or no windward work. We were foolishly pleased that comparatively ‘little’ ‘Sunstone’ had managed to arrive before ‘Bannister’ whose waterline is nearly 10’ longer and whose rig is very, very much taller. To be fair, Hendrik and Hanna do have a boat full of comforts, which ‘Sunstone’ is notably lacking!

 

 

 

 

 

 

During WWII, the Japanese occupied the western islands of Attu and Kiska, but following some fierce fighting were driven out by American forces. Attu is the western-most outpost of the USA and at one time there was a largish naval presence there. This was reduced to a Coast Guard and Loran station, which in turn was finally decommissioned in 2009. Though the station is no longer manned, it is effectively ‘mothballed’, so that it could be restored to use. The Loran tower has been removed since the system ceased service. All that remains in service is the airstrip and a survival hut, which is still well stocked with provisions, medical supplies and even a little generator and heater. Like many former military sites there is a great deal of rusting and rotting detritus which has never been cleared away, some of it dating from the 1940’s and some much more recent. Fortunately the man-made artefacts are both dwarfed by the colossal scenery and are being slowly reclaimed by nature. In the meantime, the Aleutians brief, bright, spring-time flowers bloom incongruously among bits of rusting rubbish. As so often when cruising in the wilds we watered from a convenient stream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the following three days we explored the area around the cove in a series of rambles, poking through the remains of long-abandoned crew quarters and colossal, rusting generators. We had hoped to move round to Chicagof Bay on the northeast coast of the island for further exploration, but unfortunately a forecast of strong northeasterlies encouraged us to stay put. It was just as well, as there were also inevitably repairs and maintenance to carry out after the passage and before continuing further along the island chain. The latter is not a light-hearted undertaking with prevailing easterly winds at the time and the knowledge that our time available for cruising in the Aleutians was limited. As a result, we took the best available window to head for Kiska, nearly 200 miles to the east. It was an unpleasant trip, with mostly contrary, strongish winds, very lumpy seas and biting cold. Despite some reservations about anchoring in the very large harbour at Kiska, which might be subject to swell, we were relieved to get there and to find a comfortable, secure anchorage close south of the ruined jetty. ‘Bannister’ followed us in and we were both happy to get our heaters on and to get a quiet night’s rest. Sadly, though the swell wasn’t enough to make the anchorage uncomfortable, it was enough to raise some breakers on the nearby beach. We contemplated the possibility of very wet feet, legs, and maybe bodies, in the cold and decided that going ashore was not on, despite the potential attraction of seeing a Japanese two-man submarine. As it was, the perils of the harbour were evident enough from the remains of a wreck further down the beach.

 

 

 

 

 

We were lucky that the next day, though windy, brought weather which would give us a favourable slant to head further east. Though there were several possible options, among them Tanaga, Kanaga and Amchitka, the best anchorages on all these are exposed to the easterlies which were predicted for a few days later. In addition, Amchitka was the site for American underground nuclear bomb tests, which made it somewhat unattractive as a cruising destination! On the other hand, Adak, only slightly further east gave us numerous anchoring options with protection from any weather that might follow. We headed that way. The 200 mile passage with mostly favourable and moderate winds did something to make up for the previous sail to Kiska and for not being able get ashore there. In fine clear weather with favourable winds we passed a series of dramatically snow-capped volcanoes. We arrived in the snug shelter of Trappers’ Cove in the Bay of Islands on the northwestern side of Adak shortly after dawn on 19 June, this time following ‘Banister’ in, on a beautiful, sunny day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bay of Islands is a spot which would reward more exploration than we had time to give it, though we did investigate Fisherman Cove and had two great hikes in the hills behind Trappers’ Cove from where we could see the expanse of the Bay. On one hike, we came close to the eyrie of nesting bald eagles and could look down into the North Arm of Three Arm Bay on the west coast of the Island. It was a delight to get out for a proper hike. Unlike many wild areas, the Aleutians are ideal for hiking. Though hilly and traversed by small water courses, the terrain is mostly covered by tussocky grass and moss, making for pleasantly soft going. With no trees, there are views in all directions and, unlike the rest of Alaska, there are no concerns about bears, of which the islands have none. The only larger animals on Adak are caribou, which were introduced in the 1950’s to give some hunting sport for the military personnel based on the island. Now that the military have left, leaving only a very small population at the Sweepers Cove settlement, the caribou numbers have grown substantially. Though we saw none at Trappers, we did later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our next anchorage on the island was a short hop around to the South Arm of Three Arm Bay on the west coast. The anchorage is in a large, land-locked bay surrounded by hills. At the southwest end there are the ruins of a Fisheries and Wildlife hut, surrounded, when we arrived, by a collection of colourful tents. When we investigated the next day with Hanna and Hendrik, we found that the encampment was that of a group of archaeologists studying the prehistoric remains of an Aleut village on the nearby hill top. There were professors and students from the University of Alaska and from Vassar College in New York. We spent an interesting morning with them and then hiked over the hills for a great view of the Pacific, living up to its name for a change. We knew that it wouldn’t last, however, and the forecast agreed. When ‘Kauana’ arrived from Japan the next morning, via a brief stop at Amchitka, we had a quick catch-up with Remi and Helene and then headed on to Hidden Bay on the south coast of Adak. This was an excellent hidey hole, approached through a narrow channel, leading to a sheltered basin, apparently inhabited only by sea lions and eider ducks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following carefully calculated guesses about the direction of the tide in Kagalaska Strait, we set off early the next morning for Sweeper Cove on the north side of the island. Fortunately our guesses were more or less correct and we were swept rapidly through the Strait to a friendly welcome from the crew at the fuelling dock and from Harbormaster, Elaine Smiloff. As we had not yet cleared into the USA, Elaine sent off our details to the area office of the Department of Homeland Security.  We had expected to have to head for Finger Bay nearby to ride out a predicted very strong depression, but were delighted to learn that there had been recent work to dredge and refurbish the well-protected small boat basin in the southwest corner of the Cove. As ‘Jennifer’, a Swedish yacht which had also been in Japan, had arrived, she led the way in, followed by ‘Bannister’ and ‘Sunstone’ to tie up securely. The basin gave excellent protection from winds which gusted up to 55 knots during the succeeding two days

 

 

 

 

In the meantime, we had a great time with a number of new friends among the small population of the Adak settlement. This was, until the late 1990’s, a town of 8,000 US military personnel and their families. There are still streets and streets of houses, almost all empty now, big school buildings, a hospital and all the infrastructure of a small town, as well as the remains of a major military base with its need for power and administration. When the Navy left, the settlement was turned over to the Aleut Corporation. Now there are only about 100 inhabitants. There are plans in motion to open a new fish processing plant, which will hopefully double the population with new workers. However, the future of the community remains precarious, despite the commitment of the Aleut Corporation to its continuing existence. It’s a tough life living full-time in Adak, but for us it was a pleasant stop made enjoyable by the welcome we had.

 

 

 

 

 

Even the limited facilities for entertainment looked quite civilised after a time in the wilds. In addition, Elaine and others overwhelmed us with presents from the local abundance of salmon and caribou meat. We were also driven on a tour of those parts of the area accessible by road and had the chance to see a large number of sea otters idling among the kelp beds. Vicky and some of the younger members of ‘Jennifer’s’ crew also headed out for a day hike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Usually it is Vicky whose birthday is celebrated at sea, but on this occasion it was Tom as we headed through moderate, but gloomy weather for Dutch Harbor, with a laysan albatross for company.

 

 

 

 

Though we considered heading to Atka for a stop, the westerly winds had by then settled in, making most of the anchorages on that island fairly exposed. As a result, we decided to head straight for Dutch Harbor on Unalaska island, where we could check in properly as well as doing some more hiking. The passage there was fairly uneventful, until the last few miles, when the engine water alarm came on and stayed on, despite Tom having cleaned the strainer. After a certain amount of fiddling and cursing the system seemed to be restored, without ever revealing the cause of the problem. We happily tied up at the Spithead docks in the outer harbour alongside ‘Bannister’ once again, at about 0100 on 1 July, having arrived in ‘Dutch’ in time for the 4th of July weekend.

 

 

 

 

Clearing in with a single Customs official was notably quick and painless after the bureaucratic excesses of Japan. ‘Jennifer’ arrived the following morning and when we all considered the long and dusty road into town, it was decided to hire a van to make things easier and cleaner.

 

Dutch Harbor itself is an extremely busy port, the biggest fishing port by catch size in the USA. There are several large fish processing plants and constant movement of both fishing vessels, large and small, and of ships carrying away container loads of the processed fish. The port is in a constant process of expansion. Despite the bustle and economic activity, with lots of young, hardy fishermen and women making lots of money, the town of Unalaska itself is a small and fairly sleepy place. Politically it is dominated by the Aleuts, but socially it is increasingly an Asian and Mexican community, as they are the predominant residential workers in the processing plants. 41% of the school children are Asian, mostly Filipino.

 

Though in many ways the town is a rough, frontier boom community, the 4th of July parade and celebrations, brought out all the elements of small town America, with everyone pitching in, lots of fun for children and patriotic displays everywhere. Dutch Harbor was also our first opportunity to do some proper restocking from a big supermarket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were blessed with very pleasant weather during our few days in Dutch Harbor and managed to fit in a hike up Pyramid Peak, one of the local high points. Despite the information on the tourist map, there was no obvious trail, but as with our hikes on Adak, orienteering in the treeless terrain was pretty easy, though the slopes were sufficiently steep to be challenging for sea-going legs.  We also visited the Museum of the Aleutians, providing an excellent historical display of the Aleut community, now and from past centuries.  Dutch Harbor was likely to be the last time our trio of yachts, Sunstone, Bannister and Kauana would be tied up together.  We had been following each other for months, from the Inland Sea in Japan to Unalaska.  We celebrated the final gathering with a Sunday Brunch at the Grand Aleutian Hotel, where the crab, smoked salmon and halibut were a real treat, as well as drinks on ‘Sunstone’.

 

 

 

There was a considerable contrast between our civilised brunch feast at the Grand Aleutian and Tom’s birthday dinner at sea a few days before!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our day-crossing to Akutan Island had all the elements of Alaskan cruising: pleasant motoring on calm seas, pleasantly brisk sailing, 40 - 50 knot williwaws, anchorages that proved completely unsuitable and finally a secure anchorage with good holding, but a lot of wind. Having rounded the northeast coast of Akutan and intending to anchor in Hot Springs Bay, we found that the wind was howling down from the volcano in very strong willwaws, whipping spray ‘devils’ off the water – a sure sign of 50+ knots. There was white water everywhere and we soon decided that we would need an anchorage further from the influence of the volcano and found one near the entrance to Akutan Bay on the south shore, with excellent holding and at least good protection from the seas, if not the wind. Of course, by morning it had all gone away - until it came in from the north, forcing another change of plan to a very deep anchorage at the western end of Akutan Bay, where we later gathered that a new harbour is being built.

 

 

 

 

We departed Akutan with some relief the following morning through the narrow, but short southern pass. Fortunately the tide was with us; it is described by the coast pilot ‘to run at a maximum of 12 knots’. We then had a delightful day. Sunshine illuminated the dramatic, snow-capped volcanoes of Unimak, while light following winds pushed us gently along the coast. However, the interlude was typically brief. By the following morning, Cape Pankof was shrouded in low cloud when we rounded it to head up to False Pass. Once again we were fortunate with the tide, which carried us up the narrow strait, where to our surprise we made the welcome discovery of a new small boat harbour, when we had been expecting either to tie up to a dilapidated dock, or to anchor in the tide-swept strait. The village of False Pass is tiny and has very few facilities, but the pass itself is very important for the Bering Sea fishery. Its winding, shallow channel cuts off a huge distance of travelling for boats heading north from the busy ports of Kodiak and Sand Point. For us, however, our overnight stop in False Pass marked an important mile-stone in our circuit of the north Pacific, as it was the end of the Aleutians and the beginning of the Alaska Peninsula and the mainland of North America.

 

 

 

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