GSSR#16 – Tracy Arm to Glacier Bay

Total Distance: 5,276 nm
Run so far: 1,085 nm
Nautical Miles to go: 4,191 nm
Tomorrow’s goal: 20 nm

Greetings all!

This past week has been extremely busy. The three GSSR boats traveled as a group, from Tracy Arm to Juneau Alaska, without incident. We moored the boats at Auke Bay Marina, about 15 miles north of Juneau. All three of us rented cars, and for the most part, spent our time working on various boat projects and provisioning (the nautical way of saying “Grocery Shopping”.)

Juneau is Alaska’s capital. Similar to the other Alaskan cities along the inside passage, it is a major cruise-ship stop. In the picture above there are five cruise ships! When visiting the city museum, there was a sign-in sheet, with a column labeled “Cruise Ship”. I didn’t see anyone who didn’t list a cruise ship name, so I just wrote “Sans Souci.” For no rational reason, I didn’t like being thought of as ‘just one of the cruise ship tourists.’  

Juneau is an amazingly beautiful city, backed by the Mendenhall Glacier, and tall snow-capped mountains. My photos do not do the city justice. I tried to capture the scenery, but it is on too grand a scale, and I didn’t have the time.

We have been considering Juneau as our last chance to provision the boat. Some shopping will be possible in Kodiak and in Dutch Harbor, but Juneau was our last bite at the ‘big city shopping’ apple. Juneau has Costco, Fred Meyer, Safeway, and more, all of which we visited on multiple occasions.

Unfortunately, I planned poorly when mooring Sans Souci, and we were located impossibly far from the parking lot. This meant very long walks, pushing or dragging overloaded wheel-barrels packed with food to the boat, and returning with wheelbarrows of trash to the parking lot.

Finally, when we could find nowhere on the boat to stuff any more food, we took a day to ‘just be tourists’…

When in port, we like to eat out, and have had good luck finding restaurants in the towns we visit. The restaurants Twisted Fish and Hanger came highly recommended, but we found them a bit ‘touristy.’ I confess to being prejudiced against any restaurant located too near a cruise ship dock. I asked one waiter: “What’s the best restaurant in town? We’re looking for something a little upscale. Good wine list. Romantic. Something for a special night.” The response: “Nothing like that exists in this town.” Actually, we had dinner twice at the restaurant Zephyrs, a couple blocks off the water front, and a very nice lunch a the adjacent italian restaurant Tarantinos.

While on the cruise ship docks, we took Shelby to visit the statue of Patsy Ann, an English Bull Terrier who, during the  1930’s, roamed the shops along Juneau’s waterfront. Patsy Ann, although deaf, had an uncanny ability to sense incoming ships, and would rush to the dock to greet them. Shelby is getting to that age where her hearing isn’t what it was, and we thought she might like Patsy Ann.

Speaking of Shelby…

I remember being excited when we saw our first eagle, but, that was then, and this is now. The eagle above perched himself on the top of the mast of a nearby sailboat, and we feared that s/he might view Shelby as a potential source of nourishment. When walking the docks, we kept Shelby on a very short leash. Shelby has a ‘doggie door,’ and wanders in and out of the boat whenever she wants. We had several discussions about whether to lock-down the doggie door, and ultimately left it open, without incident.

No visit to Juneau is complete without a trip to the state capital. Alaska’s state capital building is the only one without a dome on top. About a block from the capital building is the Governor’s Mansion. We didn’t see Govenor Palin, although we did notice a trampoline and children’s’ toys in the yard. The non-stop parade of people and tour buses passing by the Governor’s Mansion were an indication that her notariety has not waned since the election.

Roberta’s parents left the boat in Ketchikan. My stepmother joined us in Juneau. Here you see us doing a very good job of impersonating standard tourists posing in front of a bronze bear. As you can tell, I fought posing and lost.

One of the best things about owning a Nordhavn is the instant camaraderie as you encounter other Nordhavn owners. Our GSSR group had the good fortune to be moored in Juneau next to three other Nordhavn boats; Crossroads (N50), Patience (N46) and Skookum (N40). This led to a party on Sans Souci. In order to practice for our arrival in Japan, Sushi was consumed. Crossroads and Grey Pearl decided that they also needed Karoke practice, as can be seen above (Tina from Grey Pearl).

We are now in Glacier Bay. I’ll save talking about Glacier Bay until my next blog. That said, I can share a bit about our first reaction arriving here…

Glacier Bay is a national park, and tightly controlled. There are tight quotas on the number of boats that can enter the park at any time, and I don’t know the exact quota, but believe it is only five to ten boats. The bay is roughly forty miles deep, and 10 miles wide, and as recently as 250 years ago contained one giant hundred-mile-long glacier that has now retreated to a dozen or so smaller glaciers. In order to enter, we applied for our entry permit many months ago.

I had been warned that the rangers at Glacier Bay are highly protective of the bay (as they should be), and can be intimidating, and “gruff.” We’re still a bit pre-season, so our experience may not be typical, but the rangers have been extremely nice to us. They have made us feel very welcome.

We anchored our first night at the entrance, in Bartlett Cove, just in front of the ranger station. At the suggestion of friends we called a taxi and went about 10 miles away to the town of Gustaves for dinner, at the Gustaves Inn.

I asked the cab driver the population, and he said “Exactly 438.” This got me curious about the town, so I quizzed him, as well as everyone else I met, about what it was like living in Gustaves. I also read several editions of the local paper. During our trip we have visited several towns in Alaska, but they’ve all been comparatively “big” tourist towns. This was our first exposure to rural Alaska and I was curious about the challenges one faces, living this far from civilization, and why anyone would want to do so.

One thing that was immediately obvious: The people that live in Gustaves are passionate about living in Gustaves, which is somewhat surprising, given that much of what many of us believe is important, simply doesn’t exist. No professional sports teams, no movie theaters, no fast food places, no professional theater, no cable tv, not much in the way of shopping. Etc. The weather in Alaska can get pretty nasty at times, and there isn’t the same level of infrastructure for clearing roads that many of us take for granted. Even the schools are in a whole different category. I noticed an article in the paper mentioning that the graduating class, of their ONE school, that handles kindergarten through 12th grade was only five students, making it the largest graduating class in many years. An editorial in the local paper suggested alternative solutions to coping with the burgeoning population that threatened to expand the phone book beyond a single page. The suggested solution was to list a single entry for families, rather than individually listing their names.

The #1 issue everyone mentioned was the difficulty of shopping for everyday things. Milk is over $10 a gallon. Most shopping is done via phone calls to Juneau, 75 miles away. The goods have to be flown in, adding tremendously to their cost. One person mentioned that to save money they ordered non-perishable items months in advance, so they could be barged in.

I never really received an answer on why people live in Gustaves. No one responded “I wanted to live in Gustaves.” Everyone I asked had a job related answer, like “I came here because my spouse came here for a job”. Perhaps it is that simple, although my theory is that there are people who like big cities, and people who like living in the middle of nowhere, and it’s different strokes for different folks, and that’s just how it is.

And, on a completely different topic…

I noticed a posting on a Yahoo message group (Southbound Group) which had some interesting information, and had me thinking:

“…a few years ago I tallied seasonal arrivals in Horta in the Azores (the principle but hardly the only destination to Europe from North America) and did some similar research for the Pacific, and then shared those #s with Donia at Noonsite for Jimmy Cornell’s review. His estimates were similar to mine, and they boiled down to the following:

— a bit less than 500 boats begin a westward voyage from the west coast of the Americas each year into the Pacific. All but a few do not return to the West Coast from the Pacific. The largest percentage of these are North Americans but of course there are a mix of Europeans (mostly Germans and Brits, tho’ a sizable portion of French) and also a passle of Antipodeans (isn’t that a quaint phrase? Kiwis and Aussies…) plus a small mix of other nationalities.

— about 1,000 +/- boats cross the Atlantic to Europe each year, roughly half of them Europeans completing their Atlantic Circle. Perhaps 800 go by way of the Azores with the balance going direct to N Europe (mostly Britain and Ireland) from N America.

For what it is worth, during our Nov-Dec return to the Caribbean, we heard via SSB of 4 boats lost over the span of that 3+ weeks (so hardly “the grapevine”), plus one fatality due to an onboard incident (unexpected gybe, throwing owner’s head into a winch). Totally a seat-of-the-pants thing, my guestimate would be that roughly 5% of each year’s fleet migration, leaving from one side of an ocean to the other, is at risk of either the loss of a vessel or serious injury.

You might find this an odd thing for me to say… but I actually think those are very good odds. My rationale is that, when you look at the experience base of all the crews and the condition of all the yachts which make up each of those fleets, and the percentage of solo sailors (who by definition have more finite resources with which to address issues), it would seem guaranteed that some crews & boats are going to have a very challenging time of it. Fold in some odds (like an unusual month of weather conditions) and it might be surprising that the fatalities and boat sinkings aren’t greater.

Of course, this relates to ocean crossings. Don’t have a feel for the coastal cruising stats.

Jack …”

His estimate of 1,000 boats crossing to Europe seems high, but I can believe it. When we were in Horta there was a good stream of boats coming and going. I was amazed at how many boats pass through there. The 500 boats proceeding West across the Pacific also feels reasonable. It’s higher than I would have guessed, but in the realm of reason. If he is right that it is a one-way trip for most, I can’t explain it. Why wouldn’t the boats return? Strange. Lastly, his guesstimate that 5% of the boats starting a trans-oceanic passage don’t make it is grossly out of whack, or at least I hope so. If his number is right, of the 1,500 boats crossing the Atlantic or Pacific, 75 will sink, or have major injury. No way. Or, perhaps as he suggests, there are some boaters who become unfortunate statistics, that never should have been out there in the first place. Amongst Nordhavns, I haven’t the vaguest idea how many have made cross-oceanic passages, but I’d hazard a guess, which is probably low, at 200. Were this stat applicable to Nordhavns, there would have been 10 boats which had bad days, and I’m not aware of any.

Anyway, enough of that…

My last blog spoke about our close encounters with icebergs, and triggered this email from a Nordhavn 50 owner, now in Hawaii:


Flat Earth is in Hawaii preparing for a Pacific crossing back to the mainland in another week. We are headed back up to the PNW for two more years before heading South through the Panama Canal.

Tracy Arm was one of our high lights of our cruise the Inside Passage. I guess that N50 owners are just more adventurous than others. We too, took Flat Earth to the end of the Arm up to the Sawyer glaciers. Then we used the dinghy to get close to the South Sawyer Glacier, picking our way through the ice field. The North Sawyer Glacier was relatively ice free so we used the opportunity to take pictures of Flat Earth right up against the ice. I was sitting in the dinghy and the painter was still tied to the stern when there was an explosive sound like a dynamite explosion. We looked up and a huge block of ice calved off the glacier. I yelled for a crew member to untie me and my brother ran for the pilot house to get Flat Earth out away from the rocks. I started the dinghy engine and the crew member untied me and threw the painted into the boat. Unfortunately, he missed and the painter got sucked up into the prop, killing the engine. My brother gunned Flat Earth and left me with a dead engine facing an eight foot wave coming right at me. I was lucky and the dinghy simply rode up one side of the wave and down the other. Flat Earth got clear with no problems.

Another time, we edged up close to a water fall for pictures. I got too close and the turbulence began sucking me into the falls. I put the boat in reverse, forgetting that we, too, were towing a dinghy. The line wrapped around the prop, but loosely because I was fast in getting it out of gear. We were also lucky that the little bit of reverse I got was enough to pull us clear of the water fall. But, I had to go into that 39 degree water to untangle the prop. I had a wet suit but no hood. I had my crew tie a line around me in case I became incapacitated and I used a “spare air” emergency tank which contains about 3 minutes of air. The line was easy to untangle. I was in the water for only about 60 seconds; but when I came out, I had the biggest “ice cream headache” that I have ever had in my life.

Keep having fun up there and be safe. I hope that you guys have reservations for Glacier National Park. Our favorite anchorage in there was Sandy Cove which is a well protected small bay with an island in the mouth of the bay and a channel around either side of the island. The hump back whales were feeding by the hundreds on the other side of the island outside the bay. We also had a mother and a baby who liked to play around our anchorage inside the cove, as well as a grizzly mother with two cubs on shore.

What hull number is Crossroads?

Phil Eslinger
Flat Earth N5025
Ko Olina, Hi. (But not for long)

As I mentioned earlier in my update: the best part of owning a Nordhavn is the other Nordhavn owners. Did you notice how Phil so casually mentions that he will be crossing, alone, from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest in the next couple of weeks? Very cool.

And, lastly…

My apologies, but no video with this blog. I haven’t had internet for several days, and had trouble even posting this entry. My next report will be on cruising in Glacier Bay, and hopefully I’ll be able to include video.

Thank you!

Ken Williams
Nordhavn 68, Sans Souci

PS: Note to other Alaskan cruisers: Roberta and I swapped our television over to the Canadian ExpressVu. We have had perfect reception ever since. I’m sure the television will croak at some point, but really don’t know when….

16 Responses

  1. Tracy Arm is by far the most scenic trip there is. On my trip I saw unbelievable calving glaciers, bears, humpback whales, killer whales, beautiful waterfalls and much more. I definitely recommend going to Tracy Arm. In fact, there is a movie on Tracy Arm called “Alaska, The Tracy Arm Experience”. The film captures the beauty of this incredible place. You can buy the film here from Film Baby: (

    I highly recommend Tracy Arm. If you get a chance, experience it yourself. And don’t forget to buy the film too!

  2. John:

    Regarding TV in Alaska…

    Prior to this trip I had DirecTv on the boat. I asked the electronics guy working on my boat (Ed Harvey, Harbor Tech Systems) to study our route and tell me which satellite system was most likely to work. His recommendation was that we swap to Dish Network. We did the swap, and Dish Network failed around Ketchikan. Seabird has DirecTv, and they also lost television around Ketchikan.

    To be accurate with respect to Dish Network – they have two satellites: 110 and 119. We lost satellite 119, but 110 was still coming in fine. Unfortunately, 119 carries the news programming. Thus, we needed to make a chance.

    We thought about Starchoice, but the KVH satellite positioning unit I have wouldn’t work with it. So, we bought ExpressVu, and it has been rock solid. We are in an impossible location currently, surrounded by vertical walls on all sides, and the ExpressVu is still working. It will stop sooner or later, but we don’t know when. Later is better.

    Dish Network just announced a new satellite, 129, which may be the best solution. Our KVH unit isn’t programmed for it yet, but it should be possible. If you think about swapping to Dish Network, ask them about 129.

    Obtaining ExpressVu isn’t easy. It is only available to Canadians. You’ll need a Canadian address.

    -Ken W

  3. Ken,
    We are just outfitting a Nordhavn 60 in Sidney, B.C. Will cruise to Alaska this summer. Did you have Direct TV on your boat? did it work in SE Alaska ? I saw where you got Bell Express, just wondered if Direct TV worked similar to that service.
    John Schwamm
    Sea Level
    Anchorage, Alaska

  4. Chet:

    We’re enroute to Pelican Alaska, just a small town that is supposed to be fun to hang out in.

    We almost had a mutiny on the GSSR! The water here is dead-calm, and we poked our nose into the Gulf of Alaska where it was 5 knots and gentle rolling seas. Roberta and I seriously considered “just going for it”, but many friends are converging on Hoonah on June 6 to say goodbye to us, and it would have been rude to them. That said, Murphy’s Law says that by waiting we are going to get slammed. The weather gods might be upset that they gave us a break and we didn’t take it. We did speak with Seabird who agreed that as tempting as it is, we need to relax for another six days before heading out into the Gulf.

    Ken W

  5. Ken, How can I contact Phil Eslinger Flat Earth N5025, in Ko Olina? Very interested in learning more about his plans to ‘Solo Cross’ to Alaska. Appreciate your help and thank you for your continued updates. David Palmer – Family

  6. Greatly helpful and insightful comments. It does make sense that boat function and boat form and boat people would align along poles of interest. Fred, I haven’t perceived snobbery but was simply posing the academic question. My general social theory is that community, whether it is boating or quilting, is what brings richness to our lives and stability to our social systems.

  7. I’m a little surprised at Alan’s comments. I haven’t noticed any snobbery in this blog or with boaters in general. Of course there are some, but I would guess less than in the general population. I’m a Mainship owner and there are Mainship clubs and a very good site on Yahoo Groups where Mainship owners exchange solutions to problems with their boats and exchange ideas. Each boat and each boat manufacturer will have specific issues with their boats and owners of those boats can learn from each other. So a Mainship owner may have a little more in common with another Mainship owner etc.

  8. Alan: With respect to North Korea… Roberta and I both follow politics and world events closely. Commenting on politics is a sure-fire way to alienate half the readers of the blog, so I tend to stay as far away from anything controversial as I can.

    That said, I do think we are in a percarious time. The world economy is such that for many nations, domestic issues are outweighing global issues. To be less obscure in my comment, I’ll say that the #1 priority for many Americans is not whether or not Korea (or any other aggressive country) makes a land grab, it is whether or not they have a job, and can afford to feed their families. This is a time when we have our own problems, and rallying support to invest heavily defending other countries has to take a back seat. Were I an evil dictator, I’d be thinking that this could be the right time to make a move. Whether this is right or wrong is the meat of politics, and opinions vary. But the facts are that there are some nasty people out there, and the weak world economy, particularly the weak US economy, gives these people, arguably, an opportunity to maneuver that they might not have had a few years ago.

    Sans Souci does have plans to go to Korea, but were today the day to make the decision, it would be a “no-go”. I do hope, and believe, that things will calm down, but I wouldn’t go there today.

    -Ken W

  9. Sam is right … most of the major boat models have owners groups. When we had our Glacier Bay power cat, we participated in their owners group. In the first video I made, there’s a scene at Roche Harbor of the Selene Owners Group, which is very active. Even though I was a Nordhavn owner, the Selene owners were quite gracious and let me hang out with them.

    If you think about it, the primary reason that owners groups tend to be so active is that the purchasers of a given boat tend to have common interests, challenges, cruising plans, etc. There are some common themes that generally link Nordhavn owners. I’m not sure exactly what they are, but I suspect Nordhavn knows exactly who the target market for their boats is. That said, there are certainly variations by model. The buyer for an N46 is probably quite different than the buyer for the N120. But not completely. There may be differences in net worth, but that’s only one of hundreds of personality attributes. I believe that a more relevant theme amongst Nordhavn owners is that they want to go places. If all one wants to do is coastal cruising, you might be able to get something cheaper that could meet your needs. Nordhavn owners tend to go places with their boats. Some might be waiting for retirement, but generally, these boats are owned by people who have visions of seeing the world. It would be interesting to see the average number of miles traveled, ranked by boat brand. My guess is that the Nordhavn owners would clearly show as well outside the norm. There is a distinction between people who have an idyllic fantasy of seeing the world, and those who really go out and do it. Nordhavn owners tend to be aggressive, make it happen, figure it out, fix it when it breaks, and go somewhere, people.

    As to snobby… as with any community, there are always some snobs. That said, I’ve met a lot of Nordhavn owners, and I haven’t yet met one. It is not uncommon for me to randomly introduce myself to other Nordhavn owners while walking the docks, and I have yet to be told to “go away.” Of course, as I said at the start of this overly-long response to your question, I also received a warm welcome from the Selene owners, so it’s not just a Nordhavn-thing.

    One very important aspect to all of this is that Nordhavn owners are very good about helping out their peers. I came to boating as a software developer. The skillset to program computers, and run/maintain a boat, are quite different. Over the years I’ve had to rely heavily on the owner’s group, and on other owners, to help me figure things out. It is not uncommon for me to call David Sidbury, owner of the second N68, and ask his help solving a problem.

    Hopefully this answers the question…

    -Ken W

  10. Alan, I can’t speak for Nordhavn owners but many different brands of boats have their own “club”. One of the boats we own is a C-Dory 22. C-Dory’s have a very loyal following and have been cruised extensively throughout the United States and Canada. I know a number of people who have taken 22 footers from Seattle to SE Alaska, out to the west coast of Vancouver Island, done the Great Loop, etc… While these boats are much smaller and less luxurious than any Nordhavn, the owners are adventurous and have a great time with each other. It’s quite common to be cruising along and get hailed by a fellow owner or, if in the same marina or anchorage, get invited over for drinks/hors d’ oeuvres/dinner/conversation… Owners gatherings routinely attract 40+ boats.

    My point is its not just a Nordhavn thing. I think it’s more of a unique boat thing. Unique boats tend to attract people with similar ideas of how they want to use their boats. Nordhavn buyers buy their boats to cruise extensively. They don’t just sit at the dock. I think it is this desire to explore that drives people to buy Nordhavn’s (and certain other boats) and the owners naturally get along because of it.

    This is my observation and belief, but it will be interesting to see what Ken says.


  11. Thank you so much for your time and efforts in posting such an interesting and entertaining journal. You mentioned on the 29th that you enjoyed the interactions with other Nordhavn owners. I’m wondering about the dynamics of this–I know that manufacturers of other brands push clubs and associations as a marketing ploy (buy our boat and become one of the cool kids). Is there subtle snobbery here (Nordhavns are expensive)? Are you getting some type of Nordhavn honorarium? I am slugging it out in the working world now in hopes of taking such a journey as yours, but I am afraid that if I don’t buy a Nordhavn I will be a loser and no one will invite me to have drinks in Alaska. What about the length of the Nordhavn? Do owners have size issues? Also, I think you should extend your trip slightly and go to North Korea and sort that situation out.

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