2017 Cruise to Prince William Sound - Part Two
July 8 2017
Louisa in Elfin Cove Halibut in Elfin Cove Fish boats in Elfin Cove Float plane in Elfin Cove Lighthouse Cape Spencer Kittiwakes Lituya Bay Venture Lituya Bay Lituya Bay Mt. Crillon Lituya Bay Venture Yakutat Morning Eickelberg Bay Columbia Glacier Columbia Glacier Columbia Glacier Columbia Glacier Otters. Columbia glacier Beacon marking Bligh Reef Chris, Christine, Louisa Chris gets haircut. Cordova
I am writing this blog from Cordova in Prince William Sound on July 7th. Since my last blog, written in Juneau on June 24th, we have covered an additional 704 nm.
Before leaving Juneau we visit the fuel dock and take on 1065 USG (4,031 liters). We wend our way westwards past tree-covered islands and anchor in Swanson Harbour on Couverden Island in the afternoon. There is one other sailboat flying a French flag.
The following morning, when we come to raise the anchor, we find we have hooked onto a massive steel underwater cable discarded by some irresponsible outfit. It takes 30 minutes of struggle to disengage it from the anchor using a combination of multiple lines and the capstan on top of the windlass - without which it would have been a much more difficult task. This illustrates the importance having more than just a basic windlass when cruising in remote areas. Current Flemings come equipped with two vertical windlasses each with a capstan. We finally get underway at 0840 under grey, rainy skies and head for the small village of Elfin Cove where we arrive in the early afternoon.
Elfin Cove is not on any ferry route and has no roads. We walk through the nice little town along a network of boardwalks which tie it all together. Not including the numerous charter fishermen who arrive by float plane, the population swells from less than 30 in the winter months to around ten times that number during the summer. We have a chance meeting with a guy who takes the pilots to and from any vessel larger than 65 feet - including cruise ships and freighters. He is about to collect the pilot off the Island Princess - the very ship that Louisa and I had taken to Panama from LA this past December. He confirms that they often have to contend with huge seas and gale force winds when embarking and disembarking pilots to and from ships just beyond Cape Spencer. After supper at the cozy Coho Grill we are surprised by the number of small charter boats returning to the previously unoccupied dock and the amount of fish being processed at the cleaning tables -including some large halibut. We are pleasantly surprised to have cellular phone coverage for most of today.
The following morning dawns cold and wet. We are surprised that most of the charter fish boats are still at the dock at 8AM. It turns out that an ultra-low, minus tide has prevented boats leaving from the inner harbour. We had planned to leave at 0900 but Chris is still concerned about the weather out in the gulf. On the AIS, he spots the pilot boat returning after meeting a Holland America ship so he goes to meet the pilot boat at the dock for a personal, real-world update on the weather in the precise area through which we will be passing. He learns that the wind, which has been blowing from the west at 40 kts all night in opposition to the strong ebb tide, is creating steep waves so it's best to wait until slack at 1000. We take his advice and while we are waiting, four float planes arrive at the end of the dock. Most are taking charter clients but one is carrying mail and I spot an Amazon box among the packages.
We finally depart at 0956 and pass Cape Spencer lighthouse which marks the point where Icy Strait meets the Gulf of Alaska. The seas are rough but tolerable. We arrive at the entrance to Lituya Bay at 3.45. The tide is at the end of the flood when we enter but the current still quite turbulent. Chris lines up the range markers which delineate the correct course through the narrow channel. To starboard, cormorants are clustered on Cormorant Rock while a group of seals struggle to maintain their balance on a nearby outcrop. The maximum flow through this entrance is 3.5 knots and, although not strong compared to some other areas, it can be very dangerous when the gulf is rough. More than 100 lives have been lost here since records were kept. Once inside, we pass the southern end of Cenotaph Island and pause to watch black-legged Kittiwakes wheeling around the cliff crowded with nests. We drop anchor at 1620 in same spot northeast of Cenotaph we had occupied when we were here in 2013. Unlike that occasion, today it is raining and the mountains at the head of the bay lie hidden behind a curtain of fog .
The following morning, the mountains remain hidden but temporarily emerge, allowing us a partial glimpse of their rugged heights, before disappearing once more. After a breakfast of bacon and eggs, we launch the big tender and tour the upper end of bay. The surface and face of all three glaciers are black and do not resemble ice. We circumnavigate Cenotaph Island and re-visit the kittiwakes. In the evening, the mist and cloud slowly dissipate, providing tantalizing glimpses of the soaring mountains until, for a brief period of time they are fully revealed in all their glory. Mt. Crillon is the tallest at 12,700 ft. Then, as the sun sinks behind the tree clad hills at 1030, hopes of color reflecting on the tall peaks fade as clouds return. It is absolutely flat calm. Lituya Bay is famous for being the site of the highest recorded tsunami of 1,720 ft on July 9th 1958. A wave 200 ft high then swept along the length of the bay stripping the shoreline bare. To this day, 60 years later, the tree line still shows this line of demarcation as can be seen in the accompanying photo. Lituya Bay has a sinister reputation for tragedy which I will not go into here. For those interested, details can be found by visiting Flemingyachts.com/venture.html, clicking the You Tube link and then selecting "Venture to Lituya Bay".
Transit in and out of Lituya Bay is controlled by the tide. We rise at 0430 and are underway at 0500 to be at the entrance when the flow of the incoming tide is down to 0.5 kts. We feel the first hints of ocean swells well before reaching the entrance and we can see ocean waves breaking on the rocks. Once through, we turn north. Today, ghostly through the mist, the coastal mountains are visible. They run the whole length of the coast and form an implacable rampart againsts ocean swells which have traveled unimpeded from Asia. The pale disc of a watery sun tries but fails to break through the overcast. Everything is shades of grey. The heaving ocean seems undecided as to direction. On AIS we see the Holland America Amsterdam heading towards Hubbard Glacier at 15 kts and, just before we turn towards Yakutat, Island Princess comes up behind us. We moor on a single float in "downtown" Yakutat.
June 30th - July 1st
We had originally planned to wait one day for the weather in Yakutat before setting out on the 24 hour overnight transit to Prince William Sound but the forecast is for 10ft beam seas in the Gulf on the day we had planned to leave. Chris calls Commanders Weather who forecast increasingly calm conditions the following day. We decide to postpone our departure an additional day and take the time to visit the Hubbard Glacier today, returning to our slip for tonight and leaving for Prince William Sound tomorrow morning.
We make our way up Yakutat Bay to its head where it becomes Disenchantment Bay. This time, the ice allows us to go beyond Latouche Point and Haenke Island. The broad face of the glacier reaches the junction with Russell Fjord. We would have been able to go right up to the glacier face but the ice groans and bangs with noises that resemble field artillery so prudence keeps us well back. We see some calving but none that results in any video. We depart the glacier at 1325 which turns out to be barely in time because the moment the tide turns from ebb to flood the brash ice starts closing in on us. The weather is overcast and spitting rain but still good enough to provide wonderful views of this impressive glacier and surrounding mountains. As we leave, the cruise ship Celebrity Millenium approaches and calls us on the radio to establish starboard to starboard passing. We return to the same public dock in Yakutat and tie up at 1650 having racked up a surprising 61 nm for this excursion.
We finally set off for our direct crossing of the eastern part of the gulf. Having spent the extra day in Yakutat we decide to make up time by heading directly for the Columbia Glacier, within Prince William Sound. We prefer to follow only the loosest of schedules but accommodation needs to be made for the travel plans of people leaving and joining. It is imperative to maintain sufficient flexibility within any schedule so as not to leave harbor when it would be more prudent to stay in port. It is always better to be in port wishing you were underway than being underway wishing you were in port!
It is raining when we depart at 0800. The ocean is not too bumpy but calms down appreciably during my 12 - 2pm watch, with the surface becoming undulating and even glassy. We alter course to avoid the cruise ship Coral Princess coming towards us. My evening watch 8 to 10 pm is finishing just as we reach Kayak Island. I stay in pilothouse until nearly 11 awaiting a sunset which holds great promise as we approach dramatic Cape St Elias at the end of the island - but, sadly, it fails to live up to expectations. It is on Kodiak Island where Vitus Bering first made landfall the coast of North America in 1741 and the same for Captain James Cook in 1778. 239 years later we are surprised to have 4G phone coverage at this spot which lasts all the way into Prince William Sound. Chris speaks on the radio with Tanglewood a Nordhavn 60 en route south from Prince William Sound to San Diego.
We reach Hinchinbrook Entrance at the end of my 0400 to 0600 watch. We are now in Prince William Sound and continue across it to Columbia Bay leading to Columbia Glacier. We are surrounded by ice floes and it is very cold with the wind blowing off the glacier. We could have gone much farther but stop miles short of the face itself. We reverse course and take a look at Heather Bay where we anchored in 2013. We decide to try somewhere new and move to Eickelberg Bay off Glacier Passage where we anchor at 1347 after 29 hrs 35 minutes underway during which we covered 291 nautical miles.
We awake to an absolutely still, sunny morning with the water reflecting the surrounding mountains. We set out looking for floating ice lit by the unexpected sunlight. Somehow we find ourselves lured back towards the glacier and virtually repeat the same route we took yesterday but today it looks so different in the rare sunshine. We keep going towards Columbia Glacier and stop when it is 2 miles away - although it appears much closer. We see more than 33 otters on one ice floe with a similar number on a second floe beyond the first. In the evening we anchor in St Mathews Bay, Port Gravina, at 1600 and enjoy a July 4 dinner with BBQ'd sausages, cole slaw, roast potatoes and broccoli followed by apple crumble a la mode. We have wee dram of Jura single malt Scotch to follow.
En route to the town of Cordova, we deliberately pass over Bligh Reef which was the scene of the tragic Exxon Valdez oil spill in March 1989. Unlike the doomed tanker, we have 70 ft of clearance beneath our keel. This is our third visit to Cordova where the habour is crammed with fishing boats. We will be here for at least five days as one crew member is leaving and another two are joining us. Before leaving us, Stephanie gives us all haircuts on the dock.
My next blog will cover our time in Prince William Sound where we plan to be for at least three weeks before starting our return journey south.