GSSR#25 – The Calm Before The Storm

Total Distance: 5,276 nm
Run so far: 2,341 nm
Nautical Miles to go: 2,935 nm
Tomorrow’s goal: 175 nm

Last week, I shared a newspaper article about two mariners, Rod Whitehead, and Bill Osterback, who were rescued, after spending 52 hours drifting at sea in their tender. For those who may have forgotten the story, they had just tendered some scientists to a remote Aleutian island beach, and were returning to their ship, when the tender struck a rock, damaging the prop, and leaving it adrift.

The scientists were able to rig a makeshift raft, and paddle their way back to the boat, where they called for Coast Guard assistance, triggering a search that ultimately saved the guys lives. 

The harbormaster in Adak sent me this photo from the emotional homecoming. You can see, on the deck of the boat, the raft that that the scientists cobbled together.

She also shared this information about prices on Adak:

Marine Diesel – $2.89 – Hours 24/7
A gallon of Milk – $18.40

This reminds me of a shopping story from when we were in Kodiak. Roberta was at Safeway, and wanted to load up on some salmon and crab for the trip. Neither was available. There was hardly any seafood of any sort. Roberta asked the department manager, why, in the middle of a region known for seafood, she couldn’t buy a piece of fish. He said that he couldn’t compete with people catching their own fish, or buying direct from the fishermen. I asked Bill, who lives on Kodiak, and he said that he never buys meat of any sort. Why buy it when he can go catch or shoot it himself? With so much free food running around, why buy it at the store? Over the past few weeks I’ve heard more stories about carving up animals than I ever thought could possibly exist.

I have been reading the book “The Thousand Mile War” about WWII in the Aleutians. Six months after Pearl Harbor the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, twice. At Dutch Harbor, forty-three persons were killed and seventy-eight injured. This event was the start of a year-long battle in the Aleutians culminating in the bloody Battle at Attu, in which thousands died.

As we visit the Aleutians, we’re hoping the weather is good enough that we can hike the islands, and find artifacts from the war. Because the Aleutians are so rarely visited, planes, submarines, etc are still lying around.

I received an email last week from Yuri Suskin, a Russian ham operator, who visited the Aleutians last month, with this warning: “Precautions: when landing on any islands, please look carefully under feet, I almost step on the mine, we marked it and got coordinates/pictures.”

Dutch Harbor has become well known lately as the “home of the tv show The Deadliest Catch.” This isn’t crab season, so I never saw any of the boats from the show. But, we did see LOTS of crab pots. They were all piled on land. I assume the boats offloaded the pots, so they could free up space on the boats for other types of fishing. Roberta pointed out that if we hadn’t watched the TV show, we’d be looking at these saying ‘Huh. I wonder what those are?’

Several people wrote me over the past few weeks to say that a “must do” is to have the seafood buffet on Wednesday night at the Grand Aleutian Hotel. They were right. We had a feast unlike any I’ve seen before. Imagine a buffet with King Crab Legs!

I asked one of the servers if her family had fishing boats. She said that very few of the 4,000 residents of Dutch Harbor are commercial fisherman. The town exists to provide services to the fishing industry. Fishing boats arrive, drop their fish at the canneries and depart. The boats don’t generally “live” in Dutch Harbor.

Dutch Harbor is still somewhat confusing to me. I mentioned in my last update that it didn’t seem like any port, or marina, that I had ever visited. There isn’t one central port. Instead, there are a series of fish processing plants, where the boats arrive to drop their fish. These processing plants tend to have hundreds of workers, largely foreigners, who live in dorms at the plant. I asked one local whether it was a controversial issue that the plants didn’t seem to be hiring locals, and they said “Who wants to make minimum wage?”. The plants also had small hotels, I assume for visitors to the plant. Each processing plant is almost a self-contained city.

Actually, although everyone talks about Dutch Harbor, the term refers primarily to the harbor, and the airport. The city, where all the people live, is across a bridge, and is called Unalaska.

The Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1825

Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of information, or pictures, of Dutch Harbor, because, after a couple days in Dutch, Roberta and I returned to Seattle. We’ve been on the boat for over two months, and there was some business that needed attended to. The GSSR group have been exceptionally good sports, and the weather has mostly behaved in Dutch Harbor, making the group’s time there, wihout Roberta and I, somewhat fun. (I hope!)

There is no way to describe how we felt flying home. Even though we’ve been on the move quite a bit, it doesn’t really feel like we’ve traveled that far. Our flight home was split to two segments; the flight to Anchorage, and then the flight to Seattle. Each flight took 3.5 hours! And, even though we were flying “only” 2,500 miles, the cultural distance was much greater. The first thing we noticed was that there were trees again! We hadn’t seen trees in weeks. Anchorage is a big city, holding half of Alaska’s population. We were only there for an hour, but it was long enough to see that we were back in a big city. While working our way north, and west, the transition from big city life, to the small fishing communities, and uninhabited islands we now see, was gradual. It felt natural. When traveling by plane, the feeling of culture shock is more radical, especially when the change has taken place so gradually. Once in Seattle, we felt like strangers in a strange land. There are a lot of people, and a lot of cars!

We don’t have much time to get accustomed to city-life though. On Sunday we’ll fly back to the boat, and unless the weather gods throw us a curve ball, we’ll be departing Dutch Harbor on Monday morning.

The next three weeks are the part of our trip that I am most concerned about. We’ll be running one thousand miles along the Aleutian Islands, followed by a five hundred mile passage into Siberia. Bill, who has made the run several times, tells me we’ll be fine, and I am certainly confident in our boats, and our crews. But, if anyone tells you that they ran the Bering Sea and it was a piece of cake, I’d say that they were very lucky in their timing. The Bering Sea can be seriously mean, any month of the year. We are likely to be in thick fog much of the time, and violent winds can strike with little warning.

In the research I’ve done, about WWII in the Aleutians, virtually every article or book refers to the war as having three players; the Americans, the Japanese and the Weather, with the weather perhaps being the deadliest of the three. We’ll be there in July, which is the best month, but that just affects the odds, not the potential. I am confident of two things: 1) We’ll be just fine. And, 2) Our perception of what we, and our boats, are capable of, is about to undergo a serious recalibration. All of us have run many thousands of miles, but the truth be known, with a little common sense, 99.9% of cruising can be on fairly calm seas. Every cruiser has a story or two about encountering rough seas, but these are the exception. We crossed the Atlantic in 2004, and I don’t remember ever being seriously slammed, except perhaps during the final eight hours of the trip. My suspicion is that one of the reasons Bill considers the Bering Sea, in July, a non-event, is that he has spent years running continuously in seas that most cruisers never see. He’s a commercial fisherman, and whereas we can pick our seas, he regularly has to go out when most people I know would stay in port. Plus, my perception is that it is part of the Alaskan, or at least Alaskan fisherman personality, that a little water over the bow is just part of the experience. It’s all in what you are used to, and as I said, it is time for some serious recalibration of our perspective on what defines rough seas. As the old saying goes, “That that doesn’t kill us, makes us better people.”

That’s it for this blog… Or, at least my blog. I’ve been following the action in Dutch Harbor by reading the Argosy’s blog, on Seabird. If you’d like to do the same, click here:

Grey Pearl also has a blog, and has recently written about Dutch Harbor. To see their blog, click here:

While I’m thinking about Grey Pearl, I happened to ask Braun recently if there was anyone who he wanted to publicly thank for helping work on his boat. Braun took the project seriously, and gave a great response, including examples of what what people have done:

An offshore voyage like the GSSR tests the operation of systems and durability of equipment on the boats. There is wear and tear on all the components and frequently things breakdown. We are able to repair most breakdowns, for example: an engine room smoldering fire, hot water heater failure, stop solenoids failure (generator and main engines), sea chest cover breakup, auto pilot failure, Nobeltec shut down on primary and backup PCs, , and various other electronic malfunctions, to name but a few.

Occasionally we exhaust our abilities to repair breakdowns and we contact the real pros by satellite phone or email. Here are some examples of what can go wrong and the expert assistance we have called on.

Leak from a Whale brand plastic fitting.
We were having difficulties trying to remove a hose from an elbow to get at the leak. These are just slip on fittings and it is simple to disconnect them by just pushing in the retaining clip and pulling out the hose. We have done this many times. This time we could not get the hose to budge, and were “stuck in the trees and could not see the forest.”
So we phoned James Knight owner of Yacht Tech Inc. a thriving business in South Florida commissioning, repairing and refitting Nordhavns. After listening to our struggle, he asked if we had depressurized the water system? We sheepishly replied that we hadn’t and within minutes had the fittings apart.

Failure of black water tank (sewer) pump to discharge.
After a day of no success doing the usual – inspecting thruhulls, tightening hose clamps, snaking the lines, pressurizing the lines, etc. we contacted Trevor Smith of PAE. Trevor is an expert on the Nordhavn 62 being the project manager for years and commissioning many N62s. He helped us identify an aftermarket check valve that was in the wrong place and then told us our problem was likely an air leak and to inspect for it. We pressurized the lines again and found a small air leak which we fixed and the pump worked! We were never so glad to see…well you know what going over the side, that indicated the pump was working.

Mike McConville, owner of Ocean Tech Systems, Wilmington, N.C. Mike is an expert in marine electrical and mechanical systems and he provided valuable assistance in diagnosing and remedying the black tank pump problem.

Crankcase vapor breather filter parts.
A hose was splitting on the crankcase breather assembly on the port side of the main engine, a Lugger 6125. The Lugger parts manual is usually adequate in showing an explosion of a part assembly, part numbers, etc. We couldn’t find the breather parts anywhere in the manuals, so we phoned “Lugger Bob Senter” of Northern Lights/Lugger. Bob asked for a picture which we sent him via email and he identified the assembly as an aftermarket device that was not Lugger standard. So we stopped searching for Lugger parts, went to a fisheries supply and made up our own part to fix the problem.

I have a list of my own, of people who have gone beyond the call of duty to help us. I haven’t forgotten them, and will give them a mention in some future blog.

And, on a completely different topic…

Some of you may recall that Roberta and I had our boat in the south of France for a few years, and rented a house there this past summer. The Med is prone to sudden, violent winds, and anchoring properly is a major issue. We witnessed boats dragging anchor on multiple occasions, and learned to take anchoring very seriously. I’ve noticed on this trip that we sometimes annoy other boats, because we’ll put out far more chain than others might think is necessary. Today, I was sent a link to some pictures of a 160’ megayacht (“Pari”) that dragged anchor in front of our old marina, just this week. I’ve anchored in this same location on nights when the wind was too high to enter the marina, and one of my roughest ever nights at anchor was at this very location. Roberta and I spent an entire night staring at our anchor as the wind pushed us around. As we move across the Aleutians, I suspect that anchoring may be our #1 challenge.

Thank you,
Ken Williams
N6805, Sans Souci

10 Responses

  1. Frode:

    I’m not sure from your question if you are asking about the other crew on my boat, or on the other boats. Seabird and Grey Pearl each have their own sites ( ( , and ( ) I do talk about the couples (Braun and Tina Jones, and Steven and Carol Argosy) from time to time, but not too much their crews. The best insight to Braun and Tina is the video they did. If you look back at my blog entries, I think around Ketchikan, there is a terrific video done by Braun and Tina. There’s also a cute video done by Steven and Carol.

    On my boat, Jeff is extremely well known to the regular readers of my blog. He and Kirt Alquist are from Pacific Yacht Management. They’re a firm in Seattle (Bainbridge), that oversees boats like mine, managing the maintenance, and doing deliveries. I think Kirt and Jeff walk on water, and can’t say enough good things about them. Bill I’ve talked a lot about lately, so I’m not sure what else I can say.

    As to Roberta’s and my sense of adventure, you have to keep in mind that everything you read is filtered through my eyes. This is both good and bad. I am quite possibly the worst person ever to write about boats or travel. I am a computer geek, who is happiest sitting quietly at my computer. Were it not for Roberta I might never leave the house. Roberta on the other hand has always described herself as an “Indiana Jones Wannabee”. She likes pioneering. I was whining about the seas the other day, and she asked “If you could have the boat anywhere, where would it be?” I said, as honestly as I could, “At anchor off St Barths, and it would never move for the next five years.” Give me a good glass of wine, a white sand beach, great restaurants to swim into on the beach, and I’m a happy guy. When the group was talking about where to go in South Korea, I was breaking out in a sweat, while Roberta was smiling ear to ear. I suspect that part of what makes my blog interesting is the “fish out of water” aspect. I don’t claim to be great at history, travel, or even boating. I’m a regular guy doing fairly bizarre things. It makes for fun reading at times, or so I hope. Actually, my suspicion is that now that I’ve gotten a captain’s license, and am actually starting to get a lot smarter at boating, my blog might be less fun to read. I don’t know.

    We leave Dutch Harbor tomorrow morning!

    -Ken Williams

  2. Ken….I am reading this one single line from your blog comment : Flying in, I was looking at the water, and thinking “What in the heck was I thinking????” , and I think back to reading your blog from NAR 2004 and earlier. Only 5 years ago (pre-NAR), you and Roberta seemed to have had very limited experience in nighttime and open ocean voyaging. The fact that you now are undertaking this incredible journey through “uncharted” seas makes me wonder if you truly enjoy pioneering into new territories, or if you simply are nuts 🙂 . Knowing about your past lives as founders of Sierra On-line , at a time when computers where still relatively new to people, I firmly beleive that you enjoy taking the road less traveled. I think it is great! Why fly to your destination, when you can drive, or cruise, and enjoy everything on the way, good and bad. You know, if Osaka, Japan where your ultimate and final destination, common sense says a plane would be the way to go. But for you, and all Nordhavn owners, the destination is not the goal. The adventure and experience of getting there is the goal. Am I right?
    In your blog comment, you talk a little about the more experienced crew onboard, on Sans Souci, as well as Seabird and Grey Pearl. Could you please name your crew, and what kind of particular experience/skill they have. All we hear about is Ken, Bill and Roberta…and occasionally Shelby. It would be nice to know who else is “making history” along with you. —Frode—

  3. Greetings all! A lot of interesting issues raised here. I spent the day traveling to Dutch Harbor, and just stepped onto the boat. I might do a blog tomorrow, so I don’t want to be redundant, but suffice it to say that the weather is ugly here in Dutch Harbor. Flying in, I was looking at the water, and thinking “What in the heck was I thinking????”

    Someone asked what I worry about… When I’m at the helm, and the boat is pounding, and the seas are high, I mostly hope everything holds together. If the sun is shining, and the seas are calm, and something breaks, I’d be depressed. But, here, if something major goes wrong, and we wind up dead in the water, it could be a major problem. When we were running Unimak pass last week, in lumpy seas, I was remembering the discussions about moving personel between boats, and thinking “I was sure naive.” When the seas are rough, there is no way to do much of anything but move and hope nothing breaks. As to which specific systems I worry about… rationally speaking, the boat is redundant in many different ways. Worrying is counter-productive, and not a worthwhile endeavor. That said, I’ll answer this question in terms of things I give extra attention during the engine room checks. The steering system gets a little extra attention. I like to see that there the rudder arms look as they should. I look at the fuel filters. I’m always nervous someone will kick a valve during an engine room check, so I triple check those, and eyeball the fuel. With a diesel engine, if it ever quits, 95% of the time, fuel will be the culprit, so I always pay very close attention to fuel. I look under the engines. I pay attention to heat coming from the transmissions and the shaft seals. All the usual, standard stuff, but perhaps taken a little more seriously.

    As to personel issues, I always worry when I’m asleep and the boat is on the move. Everyone on this boat is qualified to run the helm, so it is once again an irrational fear, but I’ve read too many stories where something didn’t seem right, and no one wanted to wake the captain, and then things went way wrong. The #1 thing I tell everyone is: Please wake me immediateley, no matter how insignificant something seems. I usually sleep best when I’m in the pilot house. This is a super-star crew, and I still worry. It’s my nature.

    As to inter-crew relations, and relations with the other boats, all of those issues melt away once we leave the dock. Perhaps for someone like Bill, who has fished the Bering Sea for a decade, this is business as usual, but for the rest of us, this is a really big deal. We all have one common goal, to deliver this boat, and its’ crew, safely to Japan. Everyone is happy for every bit of input we can get, and anyone with any concern about anything, is listened to intently.

    Some one asked how it felt for me to have all of the responsibility of all the boats on my shoulders, then someone else pointed out that Bill should be the one feeling the pressure. I would respond by saying tht I am not the leader of the expedition. We act like this is a rally, but it really isn’t. Each of the captains is responsible for their own vessel. We’re traveling together because it is safer to do so, and as I said, this is a big event for us. If anyone is calling the shots, it is probably the person, who at the time they say something, seems to have the best information. Sometimes this will be me, because I have internet, and have the latest weather info. Sometimes, it is whoever took the time to layout the course. Sometimes it is Bill because he can say “I was there just last year, and here’s how it is.” The group wants all the information it can get, and is very happy to take information from wherever we can get it. No one leads the group. There are three independent captains, each of whom is very happy to have the other two boats along on the trip. And, on the boats, there are no rookies. Everyone is here because they have a special skill set that makes them important to the groups success. We do have fun from time to time, but once we left Hoonah, all rookies left the boats, and we settled in for some serious cruising. There is nothing but mutual respect between the boats, and amongst the crews.

    I don’t know if that answers the question…

    -Ken W

  4. Ron,
    Thanks for the quick response. You’re entirely correct. I apologize for a very poorly worded question, made in haste. I quess what I was wondering about was the differences in being Captain of a fishing boat with paid crew versus a “consulting” or “advisory” role in an expedition such as this. I’m intersted in the various thoughts and feelings of everyone as the trip goes into more difficult territory.

  5. Brad,
    I don’t know how you conclude that Bill has the ultimate responsibility for these three boats and their crews. The very point of a recent exchange of emails here was that a collegial atmosphere with an exchange of ideas results in a decision being made by each of the owner/captain teams. Each owner/captain team bears ultimate responsibility for their vessel.

    Bill makes his living by taking a crew out in weather we would not dream of going out in to fish commercially. He bears a heavy responsibility every day of his life. When he fixes or replaces a bilge pump, the weight of that decision is far greater than we face when reading a weather report and deciding whether to go out for the weekend. He is aboard for his accumulated, unique knowledge of the Aleutians and his desire to further that knowledge.

    Ken and Roberta will listen to Bill and the other two captains aboard Sans Souci and they will make their decision for Sans Souci. In theory, although impractical, the other two couples could listen and choose a different course of action based upon the same information. I say impractical because one key safety component is that they are not sailing alone – friends and help are close-aboard.

    Ultimately, effective organizations have but one ultimate leader and good leaders listen to advice – but don’t necessarily have to follow it. Most commercial organizations are built-upon the navy model of management later broadened to include “younger” military organizations. All have one ultimate authority in-charge.
    Ron Rogers

  6. Ken- I can’t imagine how busy you all must be with the next leg coming up. Two questions – which boat systems are you most concerned about? Any concerns about the human systems/factors?

    Capt Bill – I pose the same questions for you plus… What are your feelings on having ultimate resposibility for three boats and crews?

    Godspeed and God bless to all

  7. You can try their land based e-mail “——-“. Dorothy Nagle is in the US and may be monitoring the e-mail

    [Note by Ken … I censored the email address, after writing to Dorothy. Hopefully we’ll connect with Mr. Nagle – thank you!]

  8. Unknown: I would very much like to meet David Ellis. Do you know him, or have any kind of sat phone, or email address for him? I’ll arrive on the 5th, and be leaving Dutch Harbor on the 6th. I suspect he has a lot of great information for us. I’ll start reading through his blog.

    -Ken W

  9. Thanks for the blog Ken! Lot’s of great info. I found it interesting that you mentioned not seeing any of the boats from the Deadliest Catch in Dutch Harbor. Just a few weeks ago I saw several of them in the ship canal between Lake Union and the locks. Pretty cool to see them up close, and seeing the boats up close (they are big!) and seeing how they get pushed around by the seas really puts into perspective how rough it can get. Stay safe up there!

    One other comment… This afternoon I was out on my boat in Lake Washington with some friends. Nordhavn 76 Inside Passage III is moored near Luther Burbank Park. Some of my friends were admiring a neighboring boat which was slightly larger but much less seaworthy. I told them about your trip (as well as several other Nordhavn adventures) and they thought it was pretty cool. You picked a great time to be back in Seattle, the weather is perfect right now. Good luck on the rest of the trip!


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Credits     |     Video produced by: Rock Steady Media     |     Teletype photo: Arnold Reinhold     |     PDP-11 photo: Trammell Hudson