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GSSR#29 - Adak - Sometimes we win, Sometimes the weather wins

Total Distance: 5,276 nm
Run so far: 2,938 nm
Nautical Miles to go: 2,338 nm
Tomorrow's goal: 240 nm

Greetings from Adak!

There’s a poem, posted at the airport, that greets incoming visitors:
A soldier stood at the pearly gate,
his face was wan and old
He gently asked the man of fate
admission to the fold
“What have you done,” St. Peter asked,
“to gain admission here?”
“I’ve been in the Aleutians
for more than a year.”
Then, the gates swung open sharply
as St. Peter tolled the bell
“Come on” said he, “and take a harp.
You’ve had your share of hell.

The GSSR group has been waiting for good weather for a week. Throughout our time here, the weather has steadily worsened. Our hope is that yesterday was the worst, although today is off to a really bad start.

The weather yesterday was projected to be from the west at 35 knots. However, at the dock, what we saw was 40-50 knots, with gusts near 60.

Sans Souci is moored alongside an old fuel barge, and somewhat protected from the wind. Seabird is tied to Sans Souci on our Starboard side. Grey Pearl has been across from us, rafted to two tug boats.

Yesterday morning, Jeff and I had run into Adak town for breakfast and were returning when we encountered Braun, from Grey Pearl, standing in front of my boat. “We need to move the Pearl,” Braun said. I said what seemed obvious, “You can’t. The wind is too high.” Braun replied, “We have to move the Pearl, or we have to go to sea, but we cannot stay where we are.”

That’s when I realized he was serious, and took another look at the Pearl. The 30+ knot winds were slamming the Pearl into the tug boats she was pushed against. Her fenders were being pushed above the rails on the tug, and it didn’t just look like an uncomfortable ride. It looked like a very dangerous situation.

Braun’s idea was that Sans Souci slide back, and Braun tuck in ahead of us, tied to the fuel barge. At first, I didn’t like this idea. The idea of Braun untying his boat in this weather was frightening. The idea of me untying my boat, in the same weather, was even more so.

Sans Souci was sitting dead center in the middle on the 120’ fuel barge. My boat is 70’ long. By sliding to the end of the barge, we could free up 50’ of space. It wouldn’t be quite enough for Grey Pearl, but Braun wasn’t picky. We discussed having Seabird untie from Sans Souci, but ultimately decided that we could leave the boats together, and with the use of lots of lines, and Sans Souci’s engines, slide the boat backwards. The wind was pushing Sans Souci back, and off the fuel barge. Sans Souci’s engines were used to counter the wind, while a fleet of 5 line handlers collected from the other boats worked Sans Souci back, a few feet at a time. Steven stood by on Seabird, engines running, to be prepared to add his thrusters to my own if needed.

Our careful planning paid off, and 15 minutes later, Braun had a parking place. He only had to move about 100 yards, but I knew it was going to be rough. Braun’s a master at handling the Pearl, and made it look easy. He was able to position the boat within about 10 feet of the fuel barge. This was close enough to where lines could be thrown, and secured to the barge. He then worked the boat back and forth, and we pulled it into the barge, inch by inch. As the wind passed 50 knots, in the afternoon, we couldn’t help glancing over at the Pearl’s prior resting place from time to time, to see how it looked. There is no doubt in my mind, had we not moved the Pearl, there would have been serious damage as waves were now crashing against the side of the tug to which they had previously been rafted.

I mentioned at the start of our Aleutian run that I expected our definition of rough weather would be ‘recalibrated’ by this trip. I chose that word carefully, and it has come to pass.

Yesterday, as the three captains were looking at the weather forecast, and seeing nothing cheery in it, we had a discussion where we tried to quantify the worst conditions we’d be willing to leave the dock in. We all want calm seas, but are starting to believe that it may be weeks, months or years, if ever, before the seas we’d like come along. Our goal with the meeting yesterday was to give the weather routers exact guidance as to what the group is willing, or not willing, to run in.

I looked back to see what I told them at the start of the trip, and this quote, which now looks pretty naïve, is taken directly from the form I sent in:
“…  Sans Souci is extremely seaworthy, but we greatly prefer a smooth ride. Happy to
sit for days if it means better weather. …”

Contrast this comment to the email that represents the group consensus after yesterday’s discussion:

As a guideline for this run (and our entire trip) we are using these criteria for departure:

Bow sea or 30 degrees off bow, wind 15-20 waves 6-9 feet
Beam sea wind 20-30 waves 9-12 Following sea wind 20-30 waves 9-12

Admittedly these are ideal criteria and we occasionally expect to experience poorer conditions. Our boats can handle much worse than these criteria and if we get "caught" we will be ok, but we don't want to knowingly embark into conditions worse than the criteria.

Here is the forecast I just grabbed:

400 AM AKDT FRI JUL 17 2009


Comparing to our criteria above, you see that we should be able to leave tomorrow morning. But, you can also see that we’ll be at the outer limits of what we are willing to run in. We’re moving west, and going directly into a 20 knot head wind; it will be very uncomfortable.

It may also trigger a bit of a controversy. We shall see. Our next major stop is the island of Kiska. It was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, and there are many artifacts to see. Bill has been there and discovered artifacts that probably no one has seen before. I’ve just finished a book about the war in the Aleutians, and want to see the battle grounds. The other boats are less motivated to want to stop. I don’t blame them. Stopping when we have a weather window opens the possibility that we could be trapped somewhere for a week or two. None of us wants to risk being at an anchorage in the kinds of winds we are seeing now, myself included. ‘Wasting’ a weather window to stop for site-seeing, will not be popular. I don’t know how this one plays out. My best guess is that we’ll drop the hook at Kiska, jump off the boat, take a picture of a Japanese submarine, dash back to the boat, and continue to Attu. It’s certainly not the best of ideas, but as good as I’ve got at the present time.

And, with that preamble, I should tell you a bit about Adak….

Adak is one of the largest Aleutian islands; about 20 miles wide. The weather on Adak is best described as harsh. I googled the weather on Adak, and happened into a website for pilots that describes it this way: “The weather report almost never varies: Winds 25-40 gusting to 60, mostly cloudy with layers at 800 feet, 1200 feet, 2000 feet. Visibility 7 miles, rain. Temp 40 degrees F (plus or minus 5 degrees for most of the year).” That’s consistent with what we’ve seen.

During WWII Adak played an important role in the Aleutian war, holding as many as 90,000 soldiers.

After WWII, Adak was taken over by the Navy. From the 1950s to the late 1990s, Adak was a major Navy air base. At its peak, Adak was home to over 6,000 Navy and Coast Guard personnel.

There was essentially no civilian population. The Navy base on Adak had no nearby city that the troops could visit for a little relaxation. The base was essentially in the middle of nowhere, disconnected from the rest of the world. It is perhaps for this reason that the Navy seems to have gone ‘over the top’ to create a livable community here on Adak. Families seem to not only have been tolerated, but welcomed, and encouraged.

In the 1990s, Adak had all the comforts of a ‘real city;’ a college, movie theater,  two high schools, elementary schools, roller skating rink, Olympic sized swimming pools, ski lodge, bowling alley, skeet range, auto shop, photo lab, racquet ball courts, day care center, an $18 million hospital, designated bird watching areas, organized fishing trips, hikes and more. The Navy even had a group, called MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) whose only job it was to keep the troops happy.

Even a McDonalds and a Safeway grocery store!

I’m not complaining. If someone is willing to put their life on the line, on my behalf, I don’t think you can treat them too well. If anything, I hope that Adak is representative of how we treat our soldiers around the world, although, sadly, I suspect it isn’t.

The Naval base at Adak was closed in 1997, effectively shutting down the island. The Navy, with no use for the island, sold virtually everything to the Aleut Corporation, a corporation formed by a tribe of native Americans who had lived on the island prior to the 1800s.

Once the Aleut corporation had the city, they made an offer to their shareholders (Aleuts) to move to Adak, in return for a free home. Thirty brave families thought it sounded like a good deal, and moved to the island in 2004.

I have heard different estimates as to the current number of residents on Adak, ranging from 50 to as high as 150. I’m not sure anyone really knows.

Because of the types of missions being performed at Adak, the infrastructure requirements were huge. Two of the longest runways in North America are here. Giant satellite communications towers are in town and on the hillsides. As we have explored the island, we’re constantly running into more satellite dishes. The power generation facilities were built to power weapons labs, atom bombs, submarine bases, underwater surveillance labs, and more. This wasn’t ‘just’ a city of 6,000. It was a military base, with all of the conveniences of home, located in one of the harshest environments in the world.

Adak has a spectacular airport, with twice weekly flights, by full-sized jets, to and from Anchorage. The runways are large enough that they are designated as an alternate landing site for the space shuttle.

When I saw the airport, I started thinking to myself, “How many people does it take to run an airport?” An airport of this size, with two 7,000 foot runways, in most cities, might have more employees than live in the entire town of Adak.

One of the first comments someone made to me, when I first arrived in town, was, “You’ll notice that parts of the town are run down. There is a lot of work to be done here, and only a few people to do it.” That’s a major understatement. The airport was just one example. How many people does it take to run the power plant, the fuel dock, the harbor, the school, the hospital, run the schools, cut hair, provide medical services, pick up the trash, provide water, cable tv, telephone, pump gas, fix air conditioners, patch roofs, patch the roads and more? Whatever the number is, I’m sure it’s larger than the approximately one hundred people who live here.

Sans Souci has passed through some small towns on this trip, including some with only a few dozen residents, but those towns had infrastructure that matched their headcount. People live in old cabins, oft-times with acres of land, and are self-sufficient. And, most have been within driving distance, or a short flight, to a major city. Planes from Adak go only one place: Anchorage, and it takes four hours, a bunch of money, and you have to wait until Thursday or Sunday to travel.

Adak is different. When you first view Adak, the first impression is very positive. It appears to be a modern town. For example, our first exposure to Adak was a party, held in our honor, at the local high school. Standing in front of the school, my first impression was “Wow!” It’s a beautiful high school, across the street from the elementary school which is also huge. Were this the mainland, I’d guess at the high school as being sized for 500 or more students.

However, the current population on the island is such that kindergarten through 12th grade represents only 15 school age kids, total, all grades included.

The residents are not alone on Adak. The population of Adak is doubled by ‘contractors,’ essentially all of whom are here to do clean up.

The Navy occupied Adak for over forty years, and left quite a mess. Here’s a paragraph from a report done on the environmental impact on Adak by the Navy base:
“…Over a 40-year period, hazardous substances were disposed of in areas on the island, including landfills, storage areas, drum disposal areas, spill sites, and pits for waste oil and fire-fighting training. Petroleum, chlorinated solvents, batteries, and transformer oils containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are some of the hazardous materials present at the site. Primary releases include: PCBs (over 2,000 gallons), unexploded ordnance (70,000 items located, not including ranges and offshore disposal), petroleum (1,000,000 gallons), solvents, and pesticides….”

My first reaction is “So, who cares?” There aren’t a lot of people standing in line to move to Adak, and the current population can’t fill the current city. A ‘Do Not Enter’ sign or two, would be adequate to keep people out of the polluted areas. Obviously this isn’t a perfect solution, and I certainly would like to see everything in the world be pristine, but when times are tough sometimes tough decisions need to be made. The people of Adak are lucky I’m not in charge, because all the contractors represent one of the city’s few sources of revenue.

For ten years, crews have been coming to Adak to clean up the island. I spoke with one of the engineers this morning who felt the cleanup was going to take at least another 10 years. Although no actual war was ever fought on Adak, the troops did artillery practice for decades, and fired hundreds of thousands of rounds, a percentage of which are still lying around unexploded. Nuclear weapons were stored on the island. When the base was closed, some items were simply buried rather than being shipped away. One resident I spoke with claims that brand new vehicles, including a couple of new ambulances and a new fire truck were buried. I’m not sure anyone knows for certain what lies under Adak, and where.

Some of the local residents have found it profitable to rent homes to visitors to the islands. Most of the homes on Adak are four-plexes, and can be bought for anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 depending on their condition. Where else can you buy a fairly nice four-plex, in the United States, for under $25,000. I don’t think it exists.

The homes even come with furniture! When the Navy departed they moved all the furniture from the homes into the garages.

There aren’t enough people here to use all the homes. Adak is divided into many different neighborhoods. The residents couldn’t possibly provide power and water to all neighborhoods. Decisions had to be made. Services have been cut to many neighborhoods. Entire neighborhoods are sitting and decaying. They are spooky to drive through. Waterfront homes, with their entire neighborhood just shut down, waiting for the wind to destroy them. One resident described it this way, “The homes survive until the first hole is opened into a residence. A window breaks, or siding is ripped off by a windstorm. As soon as the wind finds an opening, it is all over. The next storm rips the home apart.”

The lack of residents, coupled by the excess of infrastructure creates some unusual problems. For instance, Adak had two giant building-sized generators to power the town. The generators were sized to provide power to a power-hungry military base. The costs to run them, and maintain them, were well beyond the capabilities of the local residents. New, smaller generators needed to be installed, and even now, there are signs that all is not perfect. Power outages seem to be common.

This all raises the question, “Why would someone want to live here?”

I asked a few people and the answer had some good news, and some bad news. One gentleman said, “I moved here because of the tremendous upside potential of Adak. I saw it as the next Dutch Harbor. We have the airport, which can accept full-sized jets. We have the fuel dock. We had a cannery. It’s a much better location to be the hub of the Aleutians than Dutch. However, now that the cannery has shut down, I don’t know what happens.” I heard this same sentiment from several people. There is a fish processing plant here that gave fishermen a reason to come to Adak. Due to a financial dispute between the city and the fish processing plant, the plant is shut down. The fishermen are having to run to Dutch Harbor, to sell their fish. This loss of income to the town hurts, and will hopefully work itself out, before they start losing residents.

One terrific reason to be in Adak is the Aleutian Sports Bar and Grill, affectionately nicknamed for its initials, 'The ASBAG.' Be careful with the pronunciation...! It's the only game in town for dinner or pubbing in Adak, and the GSSR did our part to boost their revenue.

I’ve received a fair amount of email from people who have lived in Adak in the past, asking for pictures. If you click here (/aspx/m/550425) you’ll see a full photo gallery I created with scenes from Adak. It’s worth checking out!

Lastly, I mentioned in a prior blog that the two guys who made national headlines by spending days floating off shore in a 15’ tender were based here in Adak. We were able to track them down, and talk them into sitting for an interview with me. Imagine two guys, in a little raft, in 12 foot seas, 40 degree water, high winds, and waves often breaking into the tender. Frozen, floating alone offshore in the middle of the Aleutians. When I asked Rod what he thought his odds were, he said, ‘Thin. We were under a thick cloud layer, and I didn’t think we’d be found.’ His story of being lost, and his rescue, is riveting. Unfortunately, it is also long. I have a half hour interview, and can’t imagine editing out a second of it. I’m not sure how I’ll publish it, but will figure it out sooner or later.

Thank you,
Ken Williams
Nordhavn 68, Sans Souci

PS A very special GSSR thank you to Cynthia and Joe Galaktionoff. Cynthia organized our welcoming party, was our tour guide, helped us get spare parts and groceries, and much more.

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