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Roberta,Ken And The Pups Cruise The World On A Relatively Small Boat

GSSR#27 - Umnak Island, and the Swell From Hell

Total Distance: 5,276 nm
Run so far: 2,610 nm
Nautical Miles to go: 2,666 nm
Tomorrow's goal: 260 nm

Our departure yesterday was a bit more disorganized than usual. Historically, this group has been almost military in handling our departures. When we say “Anchors up at 6am,” we mean it. At 5:59am, three anchors will rise from the depths.

As we do prior to every departure, the captains of the three ships hold a Captain’s Meeting, where we discuss the upcoming trip. We review the latest weather report, any mechanical issues, and anything else that might be relevant to the upcoming passage.

Because the weather around Dutch Harbor had been bad for several days, there was a more serious air than usual to the discussions. We were looking out the window at nasty weather, but a two-day weather window was to open the next morning. Based on this, we made a decision to leave the docks at 6:30am.

However, as we were coming back from dinner, the wind was still over 15 knots at the docks. This led to some casual discussion of whether or not we would still leave if the wind hadn’t dropped by morning. Our worry was that if we were seeing 15+ knots sitting at the dock, it might be much rougher out at sea. We loosely said we’d make a go/no-go decision when we woke up. Then, later in the evening, Braun (Grey Pearl) stopped by and we started talking at the back of the boat. I mentioned that I had just pulled the weather report, and the latest outlook was that the winds would not drop until the afternoon. I also mentioned that Bill had spoken to some local fishermen who said they were going to wait for the afternoon to depart. We talked about possibly waiting until noon for departure, and once again said that we’d decide in the morning.

At 6am I was at Sans Souci’s helm ready to go, but saw no activity on Seabird or Grey Pearl. At 6:30 Braun wandered over to the boat – “Are we going?”. The wind was still above 15 knots, sustained. I was tired and would have been happy to go back to bed. I said, “Let’s talk to Bill.” To no great surprise, Bill had an opinion. “Look guys. The days of flat seas are over. This is about as good as it gets. Don’t ask my opinion, because I wouldn’t even think about whether or not to go in this.”

Braun and I said, “That’s it. Let’s go!” Braun said he’d be ready in 10 minutes.

Although we started our time at Dutch Harbor rafted to each other, extra space at the dock had become available, and the other two boats had moved to the inside of the dock. To leave the docks they needed to maneuver around the end of a very tight dock, in very shallow water. Both boats exited easily and in 10 minutes were underway. Only later did I hear that Seabird had understood from our prior night’s conversation that we would be leaving at noon. Oops. I was quite impressed that Seabird’s crew was able to go from sleep to leaving the dock in minutes!

The wind died as quickly as we left the dock. The weather gods seem to be fans of the GSSR. Throughout our 100 nm run to Umnak Island, we had calm seas and light winds. It was a very smooth run.

About midway through our trip we overheard a helicopter overhead. It was the coast guard just saying hi. Bill chatted with them on the radio as they passed overhead, and
posted this message on my comment board:

The Coast Guard helicopter gave us a nice fly-by this morning and I spoke to my friend Jason, a rescue swimmer. They were out searching for a crewman who fell overboard a fishing boat so were low on fuel and could not give us much chance to take photographs. It's a privilege to have acquaintances there and know they are on our side. I have a good many friends who are still alive due to a ride in their hoist basket, and I thank the CG for being there every time I see them.

As we approached Umnak Island, there was a bit of fog. This photo is of some waterfalls on shore.

Here’s a look inside the pilot house, and our first view of where we would be anchoring. We would be dropping anchor at 8:30pm, which would normally mean bedtime after a long day.

However, the weather report once again had us thinking. We were projected to have two days of good weather, followed by a storm. As I’ve said many times, we have been spoiled by calm seas, and hope to keep it that way. Storms roll through the Aleutians quickly, and unless we are willing to accept getting bounced around, we need to move whenever we have a weather window. I can tell that our extreme focus on seeking weather windows is a sensitive issue for Bill. He is on this trip because he is passionate about the Aleutians, and excited to share his passion with us. We were now anchored at a tremendous spot, in front of a volcano that he was looking forward to hiking, and enjoying. However, the group’s analysis of the weather was that we had only a couple days to reach Adak, our next major destination, before another storm would be on us.

Rather than miss the opportunity to see Umnak Island, we decided to drop the tenders and explore, even though it was 10 at night, and we would be departing early the next morning. Specifically, we wanted to find the hot springs. Umnak has a volcano that violently erupted last year. When Bill was here prior to that, the sand on the beach was too hot to be walked on barefoot. His crew dug pits in the sand, that filled by sea water, creating personal hot tubs.

Here is Roberta and Steven from Seabird -- Shelby looks unhappy because she was having trouble walking through this high foliage with her life jacket on. (A bit later, we removed her life jacket and she was much happier.)

I have been VERY curious to set foot on an Aleutian island. When viewed from the boat they have a smooth green appearance, like a well manicured lawn. We’ve been referring to it as green peach fuzz that covers the islands. Here you see a close-up, and as can be seen, it is a dense brush, with flowers, a couple feet deep. We hiked for a mile through this stuff, and it is fairly easy to hike through, with or without a path. Walking, we hit a few areas where the bottom was cluttered with old logs, requiring us to step from log to log or fall into pits of unknown depth. I don’t really understand where the logs came from. Other than a few trees, hand-planted by local island residents, we haven’t seen a tree for over a thousand miles. I asked Bill, and his guess was that they fell off logging boats.

Umnak is a big island, third largest in the Aleutians, covering 700 square miles. That said, like most Aleutian islands, it is sparsely populated, being home to just 39 persons.

Although light on population, Umnak played an important role in American history….

[Note: I am not a historian, however, my blogs over the next few weeks will necessarily need to recount some events from WWII. I do not have the time, or inclination, to fact check everything I say, and will apologize in advance for any errors. I’m confident that those of you reading my blog will flood my email box if I botch the facts, and I will publish retractions as they are needed.]

For those who may have forgotten, Dutch Harbor was bombed on June 3rd and 4th, by the Japanese, nearly six months to the day after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. The war in the Aleutians is considered by some as the forgotten war, so don’t be surprised if you aren’t familiar with it. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be visiting the islands where the Aleutian war took place. The bombing of Dutch Harbor was the opening salvo in the Aleutian war.

Although neither America, or the Japanese, had any real interest in the Aleutians prior to WWII, or since WWII for that matter, they were considered of critical strategic importance by both sides during the war. Each side felt that the Aleutians could be key to launching an air offense against the other. Simply put, planes with bombs have fairly short range, and must be launched from close to their targets. Both the Japanese and the Americans felt the Aleutians were critical for both offensive and defensive reasons. It was important to each country that ‘the other side’ not use the islands as air bases, and that air bases be established from which to launch attacks against the other party’s mainland.

The Americans were not completely taken by surprise by the Dutch Harbor bombings. They knew an attack in the Aleutians was coming, and had been working to establish airbases in the Aleutians. One of these was on Umnak Island, only 100 miles from Dutch Harbor.

The bombing of Dutch Harbor on June 3rd was not a proud moment for either country. The weather was horrible, and half the Japanese force turned back unable to find Dutch Harbor. The other half was able only to bomb relatively insignificant targets. America did not respond at all, due to communications foul-ups between Dutch Harbor and the air base at nearby Umnak. Given the lack of American response, the Japanese decided to try their luck again on June 4th. The weather once again helped shield Dutch Harbor from the brunt of the bombing. Between the two bombings, approximately 60 Americans were killed, mostly military personnel, and a like number were wounded. The Americans this time did react, fiercely. Planes were launched from Umnak, to the complete surprise of the Japanese, who had no idea that an airbase existed on Umnak. Six Japanese planes were quickly shot down, and the Japanese ships they were launched from were on the run.

For a bit more about Umnak during WWII: http://www.hlswilliwaw.com/aleutians/Umnak/html/Umnak-wwii-scrapbooks.htm

Here’s a video showing our unsuccessful hike around Umnak seeking hot springs. If you do not see the video below, click this link to see the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkNvWFZffTA

Hiking on the beach, we found only a couple of things; a dead baby orca whale, and a strange pouch with Japanese writing. Our guess was that the pouch was a ration off a Japanese liferaft. 

Unfortunately, we were running out of light, and needed to return to the boats.

I was surprised when I saw the back of Sans Souci, and realized that it was going to be difficult to approach the stern with the tender. Sans Souci was rolling, at anchor, fairly strongly. This caused me to glance over at Grey Pearl and Seabird. They were being tossed around violently by the swell.

We were in a six foot swell, coming in to the bay. The wind was positioning the boats so that we were beam-to the swell. When the swell is coming from the bow, it isn’t that bad; however when the swell is from the side, it can be miserable inside the boat. We had run for 12 hours to reach the anchorage, dropped the tenders, hiked for a couple of hours, and put the tenders back on deck. We needed to pull anchor the next morning at 6:30am and were exhausted. Roberta and I went immediately to bed, but quickly discovered that it was impossible to sleep being rolled violently from side to side. 

Sans Souci has “flopper stoppers” which can be used at anchor to dampen the rolling motion caused by swell. These are large metal plates, which dangle into the water from giant poles that protrude from Sans Souci’s side. They are quite effective and would have given us a better night's sleep. However, they take half an hour to set up, and half an hour to take back down. We were too tired to put out the flopper stoppers, but certainly would have had we known what the night would be like.

As Roberta and I laid down for the night, I said to her, “Do you think we should just call the other boats and ask if they would like to pull anchor and go?” Our next leg would be 260 nautical miles, requiring a day and a half. I didn’t need to check the weather report to know we would be more comfortable at sea than continuing to lie at anchor rolling like this. Roberta asked if I was serious, and I said I was. After a brief discussion, we decided that everyone was probably sleeping on the other boats, and we shouldn’t bother them.

The next morning, as we were pulling anchor, Steven (Seabird) and I were chatting on the radio. Steven mentioned that he hadn’t slept, due to getting beat up by the swell. I said that I almost called him to say “Let’s go.” He said, “You should have. I almost called you to say the same thing.” Later when we spoke with Braun, he mentioned that he almost called the two of us to ask if we’d be willing to pull anchor and go. A miserable night could have been avoided had we spoken to each other. Ouch.

And, lastly… 

Here’s a photo of the fishing boat I mentioned yesterday, built in 1913, that sank a submarine during WWII.

Also, I mentioned that our boat had been ‘sooted.’ Here’s a close-up showing some of the soot that was dumped on our boat.

That’s it for today. Next stop: Bechevin Bay on Atka Island, where we’ll hike to a B-24 Liberator that crash-landed during WWII.

Thank you,

Ken Williams
N6805, Sans Souci

PS The Nordhavn 57, Flat Earth, just completed a successful passage from Hawaii to the west coast. For more information, click the links below.


And, http://lists.samurai.com/pipermail/passagemaking-under-power/2009-July/005305.html

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