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GSSR#28 - Atka - Visiting A Plane From The Past

Total Distance: 5,276 nm
Run so far: 2,938 nm
Nautical Miles to go: 2,338 nm
Tomorrow's goal: ZERO nm
 

At 6:30am all three crews were on the bow, pulling anchor for our departure from Umnak.

Our planning discussions for this leg had been difficult. Our goal was Atka, 260 nm to the west. However, a storm was coming, and would arrive in just 48 hours. This would give us plenty of time for reaching Atka, but probably not our next destination, Adak. In other words, if we stop in Atka, we will be trapped in Atka, by the weather.

The unanimous preference, if we were going to be stuck somewhere waiting on weather, was to be at the docks in Adak. This would allow us to weather out the storm, safely tied to docks, rather than spending nights worrying about an anchor dragging.

Put simply, we could have an easy run to Adak, 360nm away, or stop for the night, two thirds of the way, at Atka Island, and then either be stuck at Atka, or risk being caught in rough seas when we do our next leg to Adak.

The GSSR has a simple guiding philosophy: we move when the weather is good, and sit still when it isn’t.

The weather forecast called for 48 hours of southeast 15 knot winds, followed by a day of southeast 25 knot winds, then a day later becoming a west wind of 25 knots. We are moving west. So, for two days, we would have relatively light winds, behind us, followed by a day of fairly strong winds, once again behind us, followed by strong winds in front of us.

There are many factors to evaluate when looking at weather. Some of the important ones are: Wind Speed, Wind Direction, Fetch, Current, Swell Height, and Direction of the Swell. All of these need to be taken into account to really understand sea conditions. I’ve been in 50 knot winds that I hardly noticed, and 15 knot winds that had sea water over the bow hitting the pilot house.

Weather is a huge topic, and many books exist for those who really want to dig in, and it is a topic that can get boring fairly quickly. Thus I will give only a quick generalization. As a rule of thumb, if the wind is coming from behind you, you are in much better shape than if the wind is coming from in front of you. Personally, if the wind is behind me, and under 30 knots, I might worry about maneuvering in port, but the passage itself, and anchoring, are not concerns. On the other hand, if the wind is anywhere over 10 knots, and I’m going straight into it, I know that, at a minimum, it will be an uncomfortable ride.

For our run to Atka and Adak, the weather report was telling us that the winds would be behind us for the next three days. For the first two days we would have light winds behind us (15 knots) and on the last day they would strength to 25 knots, but stay behind us. It would make for a messy arrival, but otherwise it should be an acceptable run.

Here’s the summary from a weather report we received while underway:

“…Based on the more favorable wind/sea pattern … you may wish to consider continuing to track directly toward Adak Islands while the conditions are favorable. Stopping in Bechevin Bay (Atka) then continuing onward on Friday will tend to result in increasing SE-S winds that could be near/at Gale force by the time you arrive, not to mention rain/rain showers and fog which will tend to lower visibility. …”

The words 'Gale Force' are a real wake-up call.

All of this raises the question, “Why were we even discussing stopping at Atka, and how bad do we want to go there?”


Our goal was to find a B-24 Liberator that was wrecked there, in 1942. There are only three of the B-24 Liberators in existence today, one of which is in a museum, one of which is in tiny pieces, and the other is lying near a beach on Atka, rarely seen by human eyes.

Bill visited the plane a decade ago, and knew where to find it. He wanted to see how it had deteriorated over the years, and we also wanted to find it.

Ultimately, we decided “Let’s just go for it, and if the weather turns nasty we’ll just sit at anchor for a few days.” We didn’t want to miss out on seeing the plane. Plus, our experience has been that any forecast over about 24 hours, is subject to change. And, in the worst case, a few days sitting out a storm at anchor wouldn’t be the end of the world. All of us have good faith in our anchoring gear, and would be just fine.

Our run to Atka lasted overnight, but was as smooth as it gets.

Here’s a few pictures from the run...



Here's a look at Roberta driving the boat. On the right hand monitor is an engine room camera. Kirt was doing an engine room check, and we were spying on him.

Here’s a look at Grey Pearl running alongside. The Internet on Sans Souci is still working perfectly (Mini Vsat). Every once in a while a call will come on the radio, “Sans Souci, this is Grey Pearl. We’re going to sneak alongside to do our email.” They need to come in fairly close to pick up our wifi signal.



This is the Kasatochi volcano. I’ve got a wild story about it erupting last year that I’ll include in my next blog. The volcano may not look too impressive in this photo, but keep in mind: This is post-eruption.

There is a 46’ trawler, a Diesel Duck named 'DavidEllis,' which has been working its way from Hong Kong to Seattle. We’ve been tracking its position, as have they ours. We were to pass near each other overnight, and frequently called them on the radio, as well as zooming the radar out to 24 mile range. And, in fact, I know now that we did pass near each other, but we never saw them on the radar or had radio contact. Darn! They were recently in Japan, and we were looking forward to speaking with them.

As we were approaching our anchorage at Atka, Bill and I had a funny discussion...

I switched on the Sonar. Bill was running the boat at the time, and said “I don’t need that. I’ve got everything I need to drive.” This led to a debate over the merits of Sonar. My favorite line from the debate was when Bill said “This isn’t a boat. It’s a [bleep]-ing video game!” Bill was referring to Sans Souci’s extensive collection of electronics, which can be intimidating, until you get used to everything.

It was a good natured discussion, the result of which was that I learned some new tricks.

Sonar allows you to look around, under the water. Physically, it is like a periscope that pokes out beneath the boat. I use it when entering unknown bays, to look for rocks. I also use it underway, to look for uncharted shoals, and while at anchor to look for any rocks, or shallow spots, that might be within my swing circle.

I said this to Bill, and asked him how he could possibly know that there aren’t rocks ahead of us in the bay without Sonar. His answer, “I’ve been here before.” I said that wasn’t a valid response, because there are plenty of times we enter bays that we haven’t been to before, and that the charts can’t be relied on this far off the beaten path. His reply, “I use my depth finder.” This made no sense, and I said so. “A depth finder only looks beneath the boat. What good does it do to discover a rock, if you’re already on top of it.”


SONAR


DEPTH FINDER

This led to Bill conducting a class in 'Advanced Depth Finder' usage. I had always thought I understood depth finders, but Bill explained some pro-tips. I don’t know that I quite understood all that Bill taught, so I’ll just give the quick overview and those of you with boats, and good quality color depth finders (aka fish finders) can experiment at home. Bill had me manually set the range to much deeper than the water I was in, and then crank up the gain. The image for the bottom was replicated. This told Bill it was a hard bottom. A soft sand bottom, such as in the image above, would not have produced the second echo. He then showed how the color could be used to warn of an upcoming rock or shoal. A blue tint meant the depth was about to change. As you are moving forward, if you look beneath the thick line that indicates depth, you’ll see some blue start to creep in. With enough experience, you learn that it is an indication of a shallow spot coming.

Overall, he didn’t convince me, and I didn’t convince him, but I definitely will be working to hone my depth sounder skills. There’s more to it than I realized.

Anyway … enough tech talk… now, on to the fun stuff…


Here you see the three boats, at anchor, and us tendering to shore.

Steven and Carol Argosy (Seabird)

Here is a short video interview, with Bill Harrington, where he gives a brief background on the plane, and how it crash landed:



Note: If you don't see a video above, then click the link below to see the video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYjlOTV0ckU



Here’s our first view of the plane, as we came over a tall bank. The plane is completely hidden from view from the water.


You can still see where the plane first struck the ground, and parts are scattered over about a 200 yard area. It says something about how isolated we are, that the parts are still where they were first scattered, sixty years after the incident. We did touch things, but were careful to put them back exactly where we retrieved them from.



Here’s the strut and wheel. It appears that the plane separated from the wheel and came to rest about a hundred yards farther, where the tail broke off.




This is the tail section of the plane, upside down.





Here’s a few shots of the graffiti inside the plane. Bill remembers much of it from when he was here many years ago, and believes most of it was written by the original crew.


My guess is that this hole in the side of the plane was cut by someone wanting to take some of the graffiti home to put on display.



There is one panel from the plane where visitors have been marking their initials, and when they visited. There haven’t been many visitors. We thought about carving initials, and putting the date, but it seemed wrong. Bill knew some of the people who have their initials here.




Above is the Sans Souci crew (L to R – Jeff Sanson and Kirt Ahlquist of Pacific Yacht Management, Roberta Williams, Ken Williams, Shelby (Dog), Bill Harrington)




I looked under the plane, and the spare tire is still hanging there, looking brand new, sixty-five years after the crash. Bizarre.


Reindeer.


This is a strange looking fox. I’ve never seen one that looked like this before. It's also one of my favorite pictures ever. The fox was watching us from just outside his lair.


A fishing boat that dipped its nose into our anchorage, just at sunrise.



At 6:30am the next morning we started our 70 nm run to Adak. As usual, everyone was on the bow with their windlasses running by 6:29am, but at 6:30am when Sans Souci and Seabird were floating free, Grey Pearl hadn't moved, and their crew was still standing on the bow. A few minutes later, we heard on the VHF, “GSSR fleet, this is Grey Pearl. We have blown a hydraulic line and are trying to bring the anchor up by hand.” Braun went on to explain that the hydraulic break was in a hard-to-reach place, and not easily fixed. He had made the decision to continue to Adak without making the repair. On his N62, there is a closed hydraulic system, used only for the thrusters and the windlass. If he could get the anchor off the bottom, his only other problem would be on arrival in Adak. Without thrusters, if we arrive in strong winds, docking will be ‘interesting.’

I couldn’t imagine how Grey Pearl was going to get their anchor off the bottom by hand. I wanted to ask, but knew Grey Pearl had plenty on their plate, and it would be wrong to interrupt them. I’ve thought often about how Sans Souci would get our anchor off the bottom, if we were to lose a windless (the motor that pulls the chain up, and lifts the anchor from the bottom). Our anchor weighs 250 pounds, PLUS the weight of the chain, which is many times that. I do have a backup windlass, but both are powered by the same hydraulic system. In other words, if I lose my hydraulics, I’ll have lost both windlasses, and in my case, I’ll also lose my stabilizers, as well as all thrusters. There are valves I can close (I think) which would allow me to isolate parts of the system, and get some functionality back, but I’ve never done any of this. The hydraulic system has been very reliable, on this, and on my Nordhavn 62. Hopefully my luck will continue.

While Braun was lifting his anchor by hand, I was trying to do circles in the bay. The wind had come up, and we were keeping busy just trying to make turns. Sans Souci has a fair amount of windage. We were seeing 25 knots and more of wind, inside the bay. Turning the boat, and doing circles was easy, kind of. It wasn’t a huge bay, and we also had Seabird circling, plus Grey Pearl at anchor, and very limited visibility (due to the sea spray and rain.) Miraculously, we only circled for about 30 minutes before Grey Pearl was on the radio saying “GSSR Fleet, Grey Pearl is ready to go.”

Our run from Atka Island, to Adak, was in the roughest seas we’ve seen so far, but because the wind was behind us, the boats hardly felt it. We were consistently over 20 knot winds, with long stretches over 25 knots, some 35 knots, and even some gusts touching 50. But, it was as smooth a trip as you could imagine. The bows weren’t even pitching. If you watched the Atka video, you saw an example of our ride, and heard my comment on current. We were in strong current, that sometimes shot us forward, and other times held us back, but overall we made great time, and had a good ride. Approaching Adak we were a happy group of cruisers.

Once underway I was able to ask Braun about lifting his anchor. He explained that he had a custom made winch-handle, manufactured by the Argosy company. My windlass has a place in the top where you can insert an aluminum bar, for cranking up the windlass, but there is no leverage. Actually lifting the anchor would be impossible. Apparently, Braun thought ahead, and him and Steven (Argosy) custom fabricated a much longer handle, that would provide the leverage needed to crank up the anchor. A great idea! I wish I had one… All I have is the standard-issue popsicle stick that Nordhavn provides.


We had been warned, by Bill, that the docks in Adak are ‘rustic.’ Adak really has two places to tie up; a small boat harbor, which is well protected, and very nice, but with only enough space for about ten boats, and in bad need of dredging. Depths at the entrance are only about five feet at low tide. There was no way we could enter, and there was no space for us even if we could. The larger docks also had their issues. The pilings were badly in need of repair, and the ladders that you climb to reach the dock were falling apart. On a nice day, we could perhaps have found a decent place at the dock, but in a 25 knot wind, approaching the docks was dangerous and not happening.

We had received advance notification, from the harbormaster, that one of us could tie up to a fuel barge that was tied to the docks. It would float up and down with the tide. This sounded great to me, and I tied to it. Grey Pearl entered next, and quickly ascertained that tying to the dock would be impossible.



I asked them to stand by while I sought permission for them to raft to two nearby tugs. Permission was granted and Braun worked some magic approaching the tug. In a few minutes he was tied up. Steven then rafted alongside Sans Souci, and we were happily tied up at Adak.



Although our boats were now docked, we still needed to figure how to get ourselves to shore. Between Sans Souci, and the dock is a big fuel barge. Transiting from Sans Souci to the fuel barge means stepping across a three foot gap, twenty feet above the water. Then crossing from the fuel barge, to a platform beneath the dock means stepping across a gap, also 20 feet above the water, which is sometimes only a foot across, and at other times six feet across. Here we see Steven yanking on a line, trying to bring the six hundred or so tons of Sans Souci, Seabird, and the fuel barge, closer to the dock, so he could step across. With high winds, this can be quite a struggle. Once across, you climb 10 feet up a ladder. This isn’t too bad, until you remember that we usually are carrying Shelby, and a bag of trash. Cynthia from the Harbormaster’s office brought us a bucket, making life much easier. Shelby likes her daily bucket rides…



We were assisted in tying up by several Adak residents who had come out just to welcome us to town. I asked one how often they see boats, other than commercial fishing boats, or military boats, come into Adak. He said that it used not to be very common, but was starting to be much more frequent. “Usually,” he said, “we see sail boats, headed east.” I asked him to quantify how many yachts a year Adak sees. “Two,” he guessed. Wow! We had achieved 150% of Adak’s annual quota, just with our little group.

Cynthia, from the Harbormaster’s office, invited us to a party in our honor, being held at the local high school. We couldn’t believe the food they put together for us! It was wonderful, and creative. The local kids played drums for us, and we had a Q&A session. Very cool. We keep running into posters around town, including a brochure on the bulletin board at the local pub with bios for each of our boats.

I am deliberately saying nothing about Adak itself. This blog is already too long, and I want to give Adak plenty of attention.

Just to give you a teaser, Adak is the most unusual town I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been a lot of places. It’s like a town plucked from somewhere deep in the twilight zone. By this I do not mean anything derogatory. I always say that the people ARE the town, and the people of Adak are incredible. I also say that it’s not the cards, but how you play them. The people of Adak have been dealt some tough cards; some of the worst weather in the world, and a town that is eerie, that comes with a lot of unique challenges. Don’t miss my next blog.

And lastly…



I spent this afternoon playing with a new toy that is pretty cool! I used an underwater camera to check out the props on my boat, and on Seabirds. I have heard about these things in the past, but always thought they were a waste of money. A fisherman in Juneau convinced me I should give one a try, and I found one cheap on ebay. Depending on quality they cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000 new. The one I bought cost around $400 on ebay, and probably double that new (the Atlantic AUW-5600.) It’s a camera for seeing underwater. The camera hangs at the bottom of a cable, 200’ long, that you can dangle under the water. Once under water, you can turn on lights on the camera, and have remote control over aiming the camera. After looking at our props, which were clean, we decided to experiment with dropping the camera all the way to the bottom, about 40 feet below. Wow! We had a crystal clear view, and watched fish swimming, found an old aluminum gang plank, and even a rotting old wooden boat. We were hoping to see some King Crabs wander by, or a Halibut, but, no luck. A very handy device!

Thank you,
Ken Williams
Nordhavn 68, Sans Souci
www.kensblog.com

PS Some of you may have sneaked a peek at the weather, and realize that we’re “stuck” waiting on weather. This is our first real weather delay since the trip began, and it is a big one. Our next major stop is the island of Kiska, 220nm west. To get there we would be fighting a 20 to 35 knot headwind all the way. I suspect we’ll be here at least another four or five days, or longer. Oh well… this isn’t a bad place to be stuck!

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