Our final run to Dutch Harbor was mostly calm, but not all. The middle third of the run, about eight hours worth, was on lumpy, confused seas.
I don’t know how to quantify the height of waves. My guess is that they were in the five to ten foot range, but very close together. There really wasn’t much wind. Most of the time we had anywhere between ten knots and fifteen knots, with a brief interval around twenty. This said, it was not a comfortable ride. Because our noses were directly into the seas, the boats pitched up and down. Walking around the boat was difficult.
I can only think of one short story to tell from the trip…
As we were getting beat up the worst, Steven (Seabird), Braun (Grey Pearl) and I were on the radio talking about strategies for avoiding the waves. We discussed whether we should run closer to shore, zig- zag through the water to avoid having our noses directly into the waves, continue past the Unimak Pass to another pass that might keep us in protected waters longer, etc.
About fifteen minutes into our chat, Bill came up the stairs, and asked for the microphone. He seemed a might miffed. With his fisherman-gruff voice, he reminded us that we were now in the Bering Sea, and that this was about as good as it gets, and that we should quit talking, relax, and just focus on getting to Dutch Harbor. I suspect he was holding back, and that what he really wanted to do was call us a bunch of wussies -- or worse.
I could see both sides. Bill’s perspective was that we should just recognize that we're going to have a rough ride from time to time, and that what we were seeing was not all that bad. From our perspective, we’re doing this for fun, and we're not in a particular hurry. If a detour makes for a smoother ride, I’ll take the detour. It’s not a race.
One way or the other, Bill’s argument prevailed, and we just kept punching into the seas, which eventually calmed down to a very manageable level.
One other note from the trip…
For most of our trip, we haven’t really had to think about other boats. It has just been “us against the sea.” By the word “us” I was just referring to the three GSSR boats, but on this particular journey, it has a much more inclusive definition.
As we began the last eighty mile run to Dutch Harbor, we started seeing other boats. And, I should explain a little, so that this makes sense, but they were almost all AIS targets. AIS is a technology that does two things: 1) It tells other boats where you are going, and 2) It allows you to see where other boats are going. This is an important safety tool. If two boats know where each other are, and where they are headed, the odds are that they will not bump into each other. All large boats are required to have AIS. Smaller boats may have AIS, but generally do not.
Personally, I had always assumed that all boats would want to have AIS, but then I noticed that most fishing boats do not have it. I asked Bill why, and his answer was that he really doesn’t want anyone else knowing where he is headed. Fishermen work for a lifetime to find the good fishing holes. Why would they want to go out of their way to alert others to their “special spots” for catching fish? It’s, in effect, the equity in their business. After a number of years, they know where to go to succeed, whereas rookies have to build their own list of fishing spots.
During our run, we did pass fishermen, but they appeared only on radar, and it was obvious they were focused on a particular location. They were at work, they weren’t trying to get someplace, as we were.
As we approached Dutch Harbor, we were suddenly surrounded by AIS targets. These were larger ships, for the most part freighters or tugs, either coming or going from Dutch Harbor.
One would think that dodging a freighter is easy, and they would be right. It is easy to stay out of the path of a freighter, if you pay attention. However, if you aren’t paying attention, and you aren’t studying your AIS and your radar, then you can have a serious problem. Freighters always seem to move faster than you think, and tugs, oft-times are pulling barges. More than one cruiser has been suckered into trying to pass between a tug, and the barge it is pulling, often with fatal results.
Throughout the final eighty miles of our run, at the same time as we were enjoying the nautical version of “rock and roll,” we were constantly monitoring, and interacting with, a variety of larger vessels.
I’m not talking a large number of vessels. Usually, we had no more than three to five non-GSSR vessels that we were tracking at any point in time. Some of these vessels were headed our direction, and some against us, but all had the potential to be a problem if proper respect was not paid. This meant analyzing each of the vessels and deciding if it was a collision threat or not. In many cases, it meant speaking with the helmsman of the other vessel to understand their longer-term goals, so that our motion through the seas could be coordinated.
With that overly long prefix, I can now relay the story of one particular vessel. I’ve unfortunately forgotten its name, so I’ll call it, ‘Blue Ray,’ which is close. At about 8pm last night, Blue Ray and the GSSR group were on a collision path, seven miles apart, but clearly headed towards each other. With us headed towards Blue Ray, at 8 knots, and him headed towards us at 8 knots, we would be closing the gap in about twenty minutes. Were it just a one on one situation, the protocol might be simple. We would just line up for a ‘port to port’ passing. Meaning, I would steer such that he went by on my left hand side.
However, this was not an ordinary situation. AIS not only says where a boat is going, but also gives some extra information about what the vessel is doing. In this case, I noticed that Blue Ray was listed as ‘Restricted in Maneuverability.’ This is a special designation for boats which cannot maneuver for some reason. Usually, it means that the boat is doing some special underwater exercise, such as laying cable. In other words, we had better prepare to move, at a moment’s notice, because it wasn’t going to get out of our way.
In situations where there is any ambiguity, the simple solution is to speak to the other boat. Thus, I called Blue Ray, and said, “Greetings Blue Ray. This is the vessel Sans Souci. We are traveling as a fleet with two other boats, and are directly in front of you. How should we arrange passing?” I expected a simple answer, but was somewhat surprised by what I heard. “Greetings Sans Souci. You have asked a difficult question. We are mapping the bottom, and must follow the bottom. By the time you get to us we may have turned around completely, or we might be on the same course. We have no idea. Let’s wait until we are closer, and we’ll do what we can to avoid each other.” This was an unusual request, but an understandable one.
And, all worked out fine. Our group slid to starboard, and he slid to our port. I was slightly ahead of Grey Pearl and Seabird. We were just kibitzing on the radio about the lights on top of Blue Ray, and how to interpret them, when he suddenly whipped a U-turn and headed the same direction as our group.
The Blue Ray incident isn’t too exciting, until you remember that we were doing this in real time, while also dealing with seas that were competing for our attention, other freighter traffic, some of which wanted to inhabit the same water we were floating on, and a minority of other boats, who didn’t have AIS, leaving to speculation their intentions.
Boating at eight or nine knots only seems boring to people standing on land.
Dutch Harbor is not a port like any I’ve ever been into. Instead of one big marina holding hundreds of boats, there are many small docks scattered around. This is a place boats come to drop, or pickup, fish. It is a working port. If you are here, you have a purpose for being here, and it is expected that you’ll do what you are here to do, and then get out of town. It is not a place that caters to recreational cruisers.
There aren’t really facilities or a marina as we think of them. The port found a place for us, but it is on a float, miles from town, with a bunch of other fishing boats.
And they were only able to accept us if we were willing to raft together. Here you see Sans Souci tied to the dock, while Grey Pearl and Seabird are tied to us.
After sleeping late, to recover from our overnight ride, we spent the afternoon trying to connect to shore power. Attachment meant buying a $400 shore power adapter, and paying $120 an hour for an electrician. The only power here is 60 amp service three-phase. The 50 amp power we see at home is unheard of here. After some serious negotiation, we were able to rent the shore power adapters, and work out the wiring ourselves.
Tomorrow, our plan is to do some sightseeing and visit the town.
On Friday, Roberta, Shelby and I will fly to Seattle for a week, and then return to Sans Souci, and Dutch Harbor, on July 5th. If all goes well, we'll continue our way west across the Aleutians on July 6th.
I don’t really have a sense of the town yet. I’ll try to take a bunch of pictures tomorrow, and post them when we get back to Seattle.