A couple of months ago, our GSSR group decided that we wanted to speak with someone who had been to the Aleutian Islands before. The islands are rarely visited, and other than the USCG coast pilot, and some old WWII books, not much information exists. One of our GSSR captains knew a guy who delivers huge (130’) tug boats across the Pacific, sometimes via the Aleutians and the Bering Sea, and asked him to speak to our group.
I’ve already spoken about this in my blog, so I won’t repeat the story other than to say that it was a very demotivating meeting. I explained to him what we wanted to do, and he explained to us why we should consult with a psychiatrist. I can’t imagine anything worse he could have said about the Aleutians, or any effort greater , that he could have put into convincing us to change our cruising plans. At the end of the meeting, I fully expected that our GSSR group would shrink dramatically, or disband entirely. But, I under-estimated our group. We have shrunk from four boats to three, but I’d be very surprised to see the group get smaller.
Yesterday, I spoke with the harbor master at Kodiak Island.
I wanted his advice on the Gulf of Alaska, and whether we could cut straight across, saving 100+ miles, or needed to run the shore, in order to keep within an easy run to a safe anchorage should we hit some bad weather. I had only met the guy briefly, at the Seattle Boat Show, but he seemed a smart and friendly guy. I also wanted to know about fuel availability on Kodiak Island, and try to get any “local knowledge” he might want to share.
Sometimes, these sort of “cold calls” result in me being dumped off the line as quick as they can dispatch me, but almost always, the harbor masters turn out to have great information, and are happy to help. Kodiak’s harbormaster exceeded my expectations. He said:
– Plenty of fuel
– Yes. We should be able to find moorage
– He knows of fishing boats that cut straight across the gulf often, and besides, there aren’t a lot of great hiding places if we go around the edge of the gulf
– He gave me a couple of different routes to consider for our passage to Dutch Harbor after leaving Kodiak, according to weather
– I asked about a side trip to a spot on the mainland I had heard had great bear watching, and he did a strong sales pitch for Kodiak Island itself. (check out this brochure – warning it’s a big download). He said that all the “tourist” stuff we were seeking could easily be found on Kodiak, no side trip needed. He was a great ambassador for the island.
And, the phone call yielded another very important benefit! He mentioned that he had a friend, a commercial fisherman who fished the Aleutians regularly, who he thought would be happy to speak with me about the islands. I’ve been studying the Aleutians, trying to understand where we can anchor if we need to hide from a storm, and trying to understand the issues associated with running them from the south (the Pacific side) or the north (in the Bering Sea). I also wanted to understand which passes between the islands were easy to run, and which are a challenge. Most of the information can be found in the Coast Pilot, but there’s nothing like talking to someone who has been there before, and can give me an insider’s view.
I phoned his friend, Bill H, within minutes after speaking to the Harbormaster. Bill was rushing to get out the door for a fishing trip, but took more time than he originally intended to speak with me about Aleutians.
I had finally found someone who seemed passionate about the Aleutians! He runs a 56’ wooden fishing boat back and forth to the western end of the Aleutians, as often as six round trips a year. He answered all my questions, and many more. I could read between the lines of our conversation that he was happy to hear we were going, and wanted to do what he could to ensure we had a safe and fun passage. I sensed he genuinely liked the Aleutians, and thought it was pretty cool that we would be going there. He mentioned that we’d be seeing places that probably under 10 non-commercial fishing boats in history had seen.
The Aleutians still have artifacts that are left over from WWII, and he sent some pictures of some of his crew and family visiting WWII equipment that has been sitting, essentially unseen, for over 60 years.
It was an great phone call, and the best is that I am feeling much more confident about our ability to successfully run, and even enjoy, the Aleutians. Perhaps this is tacky to say, but it seems to me that if an old 56’ wooden fishing boat, loaded up with a heavy cargo of fish, with no stabilizers, can run the Aleutians a dozen times in a year, three Nordhavns should be able to safely run it once.
Actually, the call might have had another benefit of incredible value. Late yesterday I received this email from Bill:
Your trip sounds pretty dreamlike.
I’ve always wanted to have the time to explore instead of just pulling in to these places and hiding from weather. Over the years we have probably stopped in virtually all the bays and harbors throughout the Aleutians. I was telling my son down at the boat about your call and he said why not hire on as guide?
Said he’d run my boat for the Aleutian quota. He’s a dreamer too.
I will be home tonight till midnight or will be back in 3-4 days. Have to get some fishing in to keep the world turning. So here’s a couple more photos. One is of my boat delivering halibut in Homer AK, and the other is of my son and crew at a Japanese anti-aircraft emplacement on Kiska. Best regards. Bill
I need to think about what the next step is, but I think I should jump on this opportunity!
And on a completely different topic:
On Nov 11th, on my blog, I posted an email from a couple who were attacked on their boat in Ecuador. This triggered a discussion on safety and security, on a number of message boards, which is still quite active. After months of silence, Eric Sherell from Sarana posted a message yesterday adding his thoughts.
As much as I don’t want to respond to this thread, I’m doing it anyway. Lord help me.
My experience has been if someone wants to get on your boat, they can. I had about 3-4 seconds from the time I heard them approach my boat (in the dark, no motor used until the getaway) to when I came up the companionway ladder and had a shot gun shoved in my chest and about ½ second later a second guy with a pistol to my head and two more guys coming and one watching from the boat. At that time I didn’t know how the other men were armed and the guy in the panga was perfectly positioned to fire a weapon if he chose. So those 3 seconds only felt like freedom, he might have been ready with a pistol at any moment. Unless you stand armed guard 24 hours a day, you can make all the plans you want but sometimes life makes its own for you.
As with the 9/11 terrorist attack: you can either be terrified or live your life. I have relived our attack 1,000,000 times over and I don’t think there is anything that could have stopped them from at least stealing some stuff. Once you have a gun pointed at you your choices rapidly shrink. It becomes your money or battle for your life. And with an aggressive attack the guns get pointed pretty quickly.
Fortunately these types of experiences are on the EXTREME of normal. In fact the problem with cruising is it is so safe you become complacent and things often “walk away” when you least expect it. In my mind there are two levels of threats: attacks and theft. I would say there is little you can do about an attack unless you are prepared to risk your life and your crews’ by engaging in a fight, not to mention the integrity of your boat’s hull. You might get lucky and scare them off if you can buy some time to make noise, but they aren’t COMPLETELY stupid. They will see you inside on the radio, honking horns, turning on outdoor lights, spraying pepper spray or reaching for a weapon (which is their first assumption, especially with American boats) and it is very easy for them to point a gun though bars, windows or hatches. And if they are really aggressive/freaked-
The reality is the barrier between most petty crimes and you is the water. Your average crook isn’t too interested in swimming or finding a boat to try to rob your boat and most marinas are secure in some form or another. It pays to spend some time thinking about locking your stuff up or having an alarm even in low crime areas. In risky areas you should think about your personal safety in how to delay an attacker to buy time and have some sacrificial cash/equipment handy. Traveling with other boats can also be a deterrent or they could help chase them off, like in our case. If you are prepared or trained to fight it out, then that’s your choice and I can’t really provide any advice there because you’re usually out gunned by people with less to lose than you.
I don’t think the problem is really worth a lot of discussion. Just like protecting your home there are many options people choose without all this public discourse which for sailors seems to often turn into a debate about something or other. I know this won’t be the final word, but it is about all I have to say on the subject
Thanks for reading this far, if you made it.