GSSR#27 – Umnak Island, and the Swell From Hell

Total Distance: 5,276 nm
Run so far: 2,610 nm
Nautical Miles to go: 2,666 nm
Tomorrow’s goal: 260 nm

Our departure yesterday was a bit more disorganized than usual. Historically, this group has been almost military in handling our departures. When we say “Anchors up at 6am,” we mean it. At 5:59am, three anchors will rise from the depths.

As we do prior to every departure, the captains of the three ships hold a Captain’s Meeting, where we discuss the upcoming trip. We review the latest weather report, any mechanical issues, and anything else that might be relevant to the upcoming passage.

Because the weather around Dutch Harbor had been bad for several days, there was a more serious air than usual to the discussions. We were looking out the window at nasty weather, but a two-day weather window was to open the next morning. Based on this, we made a decision to leave the docks at 6:30am.

However, as we were coming back from dinner, the wind was still over 15 knots at the docks. This led to some casual discussion of whether or not we would still leave if the wind hadn’t dropped by morning. Our worry was that if we were seeing 15+ knots sitting at the dock, it might be much rougher out at sea. We loosely said we’d make a go/no-go decision when we woke up. Then, later in the evening, Braun (Grey Pearl) stopped by and we started talking at the back of the boat. I mentioned that I had just pulled the weather report, and the latest outlook was that the winds would not drop until the afternoon. I also mentioned that Bill had spoken to some local fishermen who said they were going to wait for the afternoon to depart. We talked about possibly waiting until noon for departure, and once again said that we’d decide in the morning.

At 6am I was at Sans Souci’s helm ready to go, but saw no activity on Seabird or Grey Pearl. At 6:30 Braun wandered over to the boat – “Are we going?”. The wind was still above 15 knots, sustained. I was tired and would have been happy to go back to bed. I said, “Let’s talk to Bill.” To no great surprise, Bill had an opinion. “Look guys. The days of flat seas are over. This is about as good as it gets. Don’t ask my opinion, because I wouldn’t even think about whether or not to go in this.”

Braun and I said, “That’s it. Let’s go!” Braun said he’d be ready in 10 minutes.

Although we started our time at Dutch Harbor rafted to each other, extra space at the dock had become available, and the other two boats had moved to the inside of the dock. To leave the docks they needed to maneuver around the end of a very tight dock, in very shallow water. Both boats exited easily and in 10 minutes were underway. Only later did I hear that Seabird had understood from our prior night’s conversation that we would be leaving at noon. Oops. I was quite impressed that Seabird’s crew was able to go from sleep to leaving the dock in minutes!

The wind died as quickly as we left the dock. The weather gods seem to be fans of the GSSR. Throughout our 100 nm run to Umnak Island, we had calm seas and light winds. It was a very smooth run.

About midway through our trip we overheard a helicopter overhead. It was the coast guard just saying hi. Bill chatted with them on the radio as they passed overhead, and
posted this message on my comment board:

The Coast Guard helicopter gave us a nice fly-by this morning and I spoke to my friend Jason, a rescue swimmer. They were out searching for a crewman who fell overboard a fishing boat so were low on fuel and could not give us much chance to take photographs. It’s a privilege to have acquaintances there and know they are on our side. I have a good many friends who are still alive due to a ride in their hoist basket, and I thank the CG for being there every time I see them.

As we approached Umnak Island, there was a bit of fog. This photo is of some waterfalls on shore.

Here’s a look inside the pilot house, and our first view of where we would be anchoring. We would be dropping anchor at 8:30pm, which would normally mean bedtime after a long day.

However, the weather report once again had us thinking. We were projected to have two days of good weather, followed by a storm. As I’ve said many times, we have been spoiled by calm seas, and hope to keep it that way. Storms roll through the Aleutians quickly, and unless we are willing to accept getting bounced around, we need to move whenever we have a weather window. I can tell that our extreme focus on seeking weather windows is a sensitive issue for Bill. He is on this trip because he is passionate about the Aleutians, and excited to share his passion with us. We were now anchored at a tremendous spot, in front of a volcano that he was looking forward to hiking, and enjoying. However, the group’s analysis of the weather was that we had only a couple days to reach Adak, our next major destination, before another storm would be on us.

Rather than miss the opportunity to see Umnak Island, we decided to drop the tenders and explore, even though it was 10 at night, and we would be departing early the next morning. Specifically, we wanted to find the hot springs. Umnak has a volcano that violently erupted last year. When Bill was here prior to that, the sand on the beach was too hot to be walked on barefoot. His crew dug pits in the sand, that filled by sea water, creating personal hot tubs.

Here is Roberta and Steven from Seabird — Shelby looks unhappy because she was having trouble walking through this high foliage with her life jacket on. (A bit later, we removed her life jacket and she was much happier.)

I have been VERY curious to set foot on an Aleutian island. When viewed from the boat they have a smooth green appearance, like a well manicured lawn. We’ve been referring to it as green peach fuzz that covers the islands. Here you see a close-up, and as can be seen, it is a dense brush, with flowers, a couple feet deep. We hiked for a mile through this stuff, and it is fairly easy to hike through, with or without a path. Walking, we hit a few areas where the bottom was cluttered with old logs, requiring us to step from log to log or fall into pits of unknown depth. I don’t really understand where the logs came from. Other than a few trees, hand-planted by local island residents, we haven’t seen a tree for over a thousand miles. I asked Bill, and his guess was that they fell off logging boats.

Umnak is a big island, third largest in the Aleutians, covering 700 square miles. That said, like most Aleutian islands, it is sparsely populated, being home to just 39 persons.

Although light on population, Umnak played an important role in American history….

[Note: I am not a historian, however, my blogs over the next few weeks will necessarily need to recount some events from WWII. I do not have the time, or inclination, to fact check everything I say, and will apologize in advance for any errors. I’m confident that those of you reading my blog will flood my email box if I botch the facts, and I will publish retractions as they are needed.]

For those who may have forgotten, Dutch Harbor was bombed on June 3rd and 4th, by the Japanese, nearly six months to the day after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. The war in the Aleutians is considered by some as the forgotten war, so don’t be surprised if you aren’t familiar with it. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be visiting the islands where the Aleutian war took place. The bombing of Dutch Harbor was the opening salvo in the Aleutian war.

Although neither America, or the Japanese, had any real interest in the Aleutians prior to WWII, or since WWII for that matter, they were considered of critical strategic importance by both sides during the war. Each side felt that the Aleutians could be key to launching an air offense against the other. Simply put, planes with bombs have fairly short range, and must be launched from close to their targets. Both the Japanese and the Americans felt the Aleutians were critical for both offensive and defensive reasons. It was important to each country that ‘the other side’ not use the islands as air bases, and that air bases be established from which to launch attacks against the other party’s mainland.

The Americans were not completely taken by surprise by the Dutch Harbor bombings. They knew an attack in the Aleutians was coming, and had been working to establish airbases in the Aleutians. One of these was on Umnak Island, only 100 miles from Dutch Harbor.

The bombing of Dutch Harbor on June 3rd was not a proud moment for either country. The weather was horrible, and half the Japanese force turned back unable to find Dutch Harbor. The other half was able only to bomb relatively insignificant targets. America did not respond at all, due to communications foul-ups between Dutch Harbor and the air base at nearby Umnak. Given the lack of American response, the Japanese decided to try their luck again on June 4th. The weather once again helped shield Dutch Harbor from the brunt of the bombing. Between the two bombings, approximately 60 Americans were killed, mostly military personnel, and a like number were wounded. The Americans this time did react, fiercely. Planes were launched from Umnak, to the complete surprise of the Japanese, who had no idea that an airbase existed on Umnak. Six Japanese planes were quickly shot down, and the Japanese ships they were launched from were on the run.

For a bit more about Umnak during WWII:

Here’s a video showing our unsuccessful hike around Umnak seeking hot springs. If you do not see the video below, click this link to see the video:

Hiking on the beach, we found only a couple of things; a dead baby orca whale, and a strange pouch with Japanese writing. Our guess was that the pouch was a ration off a Japanese liferaft. 

Unfortunately, we were running out of light, and needed to return to the boats.

I was surprised when I saw the back of Sans Souci, and realized that it was going to be difficult to approach the stern with the tender. Sans Souci was rolling, at anchor, fairly strongly. This caused me to glance over at Grey Pearl and Seabird. They were being tossed around violently by the swell.

We were in a six foot swell, coming in to the bay. The wind was positioning the boats so that we were beam-to the swell. When the swell is coming from the bow, it isn’t that bad; however when the swell is from the side, it can be miserable inside the boat. We had run for 12 hours to reach the anchorage, dropped the tenders, hiked for a couple of hours, and put the tenders back on deck. We needed to pull anchor the next morning at 6:30am and were exhausted. Roberta and I went immediately to bed, but quickly discovered that it was impossible to sleep being rolled violently from side to side. 

Sans Souci has “flopper stoppers” which can be used at anchor to dampen the rolling motion caused by swell. These are large metal plates, which dangle into the water from giant poles that protrude from Sans Souci’s side. They are quite effective and would have given us a better night’s sleep. However, they take half an hour to set up, and half an hour to take back down. We were too tired to put out the flopper stoppers, but certainly would have had we known what the night would be like.

As Roberta and I laid down for the night, I said to her, “Do you think we should just call the other boats and ask if they would like to pull anchor and go?” Our next leg would be 260 nautical miles, requiring a day and a half. I didn’t need to check the weather report to know we would be more comfortable at sea than continuing to lie at anchor rolling like this. Roberta asked if I was serious, and I said I was. After a brief discussion, we decided that everyone was probably sleeping on the other boats, and we shouldn’t bother them.

The next morning, as we were pulling anchor, Steven (Seabird) and I were chatting on the radio. Steven mentioned that he hadn’t slept, due to getting beat up by the swell. I said that I almost called him to say “Let’s go.” He said, “You should have. I almost called you to say the same thing.” Later when we spoke with Braun, he mentioned that he almost called the two of us to ask if we’d be willing to pull anchor and go. A miserable night could have been avoided had we spoken to each other. Ouch.

And, lastly… 

Here’s a photo of the fishing boat I mentioned yesterday, built in 1913, that sank a submarine during WWII.

Also, I mentioned that our boat had been ‘sooted.’ Here’s a close-up showing some of the soot that was dumped on our boat.

That’s it for today. Next stop: Bechevin Bay on Atka Island, where we’ll hike to a B-24 Liberator that crash-landed during WWII.

Thank you,

Ken Williams
N6805, Sans Souci

PS The Nordhavn 57, Flat Earth, just completed a successful passage from Hawaii to the west coast. For more information, click the links below.


19 Responses

  1. Ken: Would you say things are more difficult, less difficult or about as expected thus far based on the extensive planning you guys did for this trip?

  2. Sounds like typical Aleutian weather. Lived at Dutch for a few years providing medical care. When you get to Adak you will enjoy Cynthia and Joe Galaktionoff, and hopefully they will show you where the cariboo are. Enjoying your pictures, you tube and blogs.

  3. John (M/V Thunder):

    The group has not focused on what happens after Japan.

    I think we’re all waiting for someone to suggest something that sounds fun. This has been a challenging trip, and getting more challenging by the day. We’re having fun, but it isn’t easy cruising. Japan will also have its challenges. We’ll be arriving at the height of typhoon season, in a strange country, with a language we don’t speak and navigational standards we don’t know. I think we’re waiting for someone to jump on the radio and say, “Let’s go to []. They have calm seas, white sand beaches, restaurants and pubs on the beach, good wifi everywhere, and your cell phone works.” Unfortunately, I’m not sure this perfect destination exists on this side of the world, or perhaps it does?

    Realistically, I’m guessing we’ll go to Taiwan, because our boats were made there, and it would be fun to see the factory. There’s an indonesia rally that might be worth considering. There’s also some interest in heading into the south pacific.

    Australia and New Zealand would probably be at the top of the list, but there are dog-entry problems, and we have Shelby.

    Once we have the boats safely to Japan we’ll start thinking these thoughts. For now, it feels like bad luck.

    -Ken W

  4. KEN & crew i have been checking your site off and on for the past few weeks sounds like an adventure in travel to me , there’s one thing about alaska if you don’t like the weather wait a few minutes and it will change , i have been up in the area your talking about a few times and am comoing back up again next year , where are you going after japan , well keep posting john M/V Thunder smooth sailing

  5. Hope you all enjoy your visit to Adak.
    Cynthia is a great tour guide and Joe keeps a close eye on the Caribou.
    I hope the weather will be good.
    Safe seas to all.

  6. Hi
    Just checking your Blog. Outstanding! Would you please tell our dear friends and your outstanding crew, Wayne and Pat Davis that we are thinking of them and to be safe and Enjoy. Alls well in Australia.
    Chris & Jim
    SV Twelfth Night

  7. Since James is into his Alaska history: Few people know that the last action of the Civil War was in the Bering Sea. The Confederate commerce raider Shenandoah was engaged in disrupting whaling by Yankee companies throughout the world. The Shenandoah made it’s way from Australia up through the islands to Japan, Kuriles, Sea of Oskost, Siberia and the Bering Sea. They intercepted Yankee whaling vessels, took the crews prisoner and burned the ships. When they were full of prisoners they filled one of the whaleships and ransomed it off to carry the prisoners to San Francisco. The last of these actions was months after General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox.
    On another subject, I’d like to say hi to my nephew James who is apparently reading this blog. In answer to your question if they are enjoying your uncle Bill. Maybe. You know how outrageous I am. Some things never change.

  8. Ken,

    I am certainly no historian either and were it not for my youngest doing a report recently, wouldn’t have remembered all of this, nor be chiming in here…but thought it fitting sense the GSSR crew are there in the thick of it…and are our…‘Honorary Aleutian Diplomats’!

    An interesting bit of history that you don’t hear too much about now is the involvement of the USS Indianapolis in the Aleutians for about a year starting in the summer of ’42, which was several years prior to her carrying “Little Boy” to Tinian. She was heavily engaged in the battles to retake Attu and Kiska, and supported the occupation of Adak and Amchitka Islands. In fact in one battle on Kiska after lighting off her 8” guns in heavy fog the Japanese thought they were being bombed and returned fire into the air. After launching scout planes later from the Cruisers they found a number of ships sinking in the harbor and fires burning at shore installations. Pretty good shootin’ while rolling around in the Bering Sea, which by the way, was named after Vitus Bering a Danish born Russian navigator and explorer who crossed it in 1726, presumably without flopper-stoppers!


  9. Scott:

    Sans Souci has two tenders; a small 10′ one that weighs only about 200 pounds, and a large AB that weighs closer to 1,200 pounds. Luckily we took the tiny tender to shore.

    Bringing it on board was not easy. What made it possible is that the swells were coming in sets. Every seven or so swells there would be a 15-30 second break. It seemed fairly predictable. We watched for a break in the action, and popped the tender up quickly. Then two guys held the tender against the side of the boat, suspended in air, for a few minutes until the next calm spot between swells. This allowed us to avoid the stress on the line that would be caused by the tender bouncing. As soon as we had another break in the swells, the tender was raised the rest of the way onto the boat, and dropped into its cradle in seconds.

    If we had dropped the large tender, I don’t know what we would have done.

    -Ken W

  10. Ken,

    Thanks for the stream of updates. I am really interested in knowing how hard it was to lift the tender in a 6′ swell…I can imagine the cable snaping taught and being quite dangerous and stressful to the people and the mechanics…looking forward to you next post

  11. Peter:

    When Roberta and I are running from anchorage to anchorage, we always leave the poles to our flopper stoppers out. We just set the plates in the cockpit and toss them in the water once we drop anchor. We were being lazy because we knew we would be tying to the docks in Adak, and you can’t be at the dock with the flopper stoppers out. Also, we are worried that if we run with the flopper stopper poles out, in rough seas, that we might “dip a pole” and then I’m not sure what would happen. I assume the pole would come loose, and the lines could wrap around the stabilizer or prop. Not a pretty thought.

    When we were in Mexico last year, I spoke with Jeff Leishman (designer of the boat) about my habit of running with the poles out. I bet I have run 1,000 miles over the years with the poles extended. Jeff said he saw no problem, and thought I would never have a problem.

    I’m working my way your direction as quickly as possible. Perhaps I need bigger oars!

    -Ken W

  12. Neil and Eva:

    We have eight or more survival suits on board, and only eight persons. Roberta and I wanted custom suits because she’s petite and I’m “over-sized.” Unfortunately, Shelby has no suit. If the boat were to sink, we would hope to get her onto one of the other two GSSR boats as quickly as possible. We did discuss how to manage Shelby during an emergency, and believe she will be fine in most situations. Ultimately though, should we all wind up floating in our survival suits, priority #1 will be the humans.

    All of the other boats also have survival suits, and we keep ours piled right be the door in the pilot house.

    Thanks for the feedback on the video. I have some very cool video from Atka, where we were earlier today. Hopefully I’ll get it edited tomorrow.

    Ken W

  13. Ken, I’m glad you seem to be enjoying my uncle Bill as much as I always do.

    Thanks for keeping me updated on the goings on. I can picture every single quote he says in my mind.

  14. Ken,
    We are almost half way around on our 7200 nm circumnavigation of Australia (Hobart to Hobart) on N55#38, and currently situated on the fairly inhospitable west coast in the Indian Ocean.
    Flopper stoppers are essential for comfort to us when anchored, so we have ours ready to go which only takes seconds to deploy and redeploy. We leave our pole (we only have one on the portside, but a spare plate ready to be hooked off the davit, which is stb mounted) deployed all the time, and need to just lower the plate 16′ to the water, and we are away – that simple. Probably the easiest chore on the boat. If the wind and swell effects the plate causing it to hit the topsides, we carry it down to the cockpit or duckboard, and drop it over there after reattaching the drop and retrieval lines.
    I like my sleep too much whilst at anchor.
    Good luck with the rest of the trip

  15. Gris:

    We’re tied at the “dock” now. A rough weather trip here, and cold/windy tie-up. I don’t want to write the blog, before I write the blog, but the arrival at the dock was one I suspect we’ll all remember for a while.

    In an hour we’re going to a meeting at the community center for “orientation”. We’re all looking forward to seeing Adak and can’t wait to get off the boat. I’ll look for the forest.

    I’ve always been a fan of the Coast Guard. Thank you!

    Ken W

  16. Hi Ken, When you get to Adak, check out the Adak National Forest. I’m sure you’ll be able to hike this one. ; ) While in the Coast Guard, Adak was one of our R&R stops and it was nice to see a couple trees after being on Bering Patrol for a few weeks.

  17. Hi Ken,
    Early on in this series of your blogs you had indicated that both you and Roberta have survival suits. I am curious to know if Kirk also has one as well as the other GSSR boat crews. Also,what provisions have you made for Shelby if ditching becomes necessary.
    I compliment you and Roberta on your improved use of the video camera. It is evident by the fact that you are now panning and zooming much slower.
    Again, thanks for taking Eva and I along on this fantastic adventure.

  18. Hal:

    We saw MANY reindeers on Atka, and I have some great photos of them.

    We’re arriving in adak within the hour. A wild trip here. Confused seas all the way, and high winds (25-35 knots). Grey Pearl was right behind me when their autopilot quit, and they made a surprise 90 degree turn. A few minutes ago Seabird suddenly did a 360 degree turn. I still don’t know why, but I’m sure the story will be interesting. They seem to be going again now.

    -Ken W

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