|This winter, the wind blew a well maintained, centegenarian cannery building off its piling in neighboring Sitkoh Bay!|
For all the danger I keep harping about, sailing is pretty durn safe. The story I'm about to tell is pretty much our one hairy tale in 23 years of sailing along a rough coast. Well... lets say 15 years of bona fide, actual, out there sailing (as opposed to building, being tied to shore and a job, family visits or crises, etc). Still...
Winters in SouthEast Alaska aren't the igloo and dogsled kind. Usually, things hover within several degrees of freezing, with occasional ventures up or down. The warm Japanese Current confers moderation. It's a wet and piercing cold, to be sure, but seldom truly frigid. Winds can and often do blow up to hurricane force. But then it can flatten for days at a time to mirror calm.
That year was different.
Storm after gale blew off the Gulf. Our 'relief' was a switch, now and then, to colder, interior air rolling down from Yukon Territory, bringing its own, fierce winds and the deadly threat of freezing spray.
It was a Dark and Stormy Winter
We were snug as bugs in Sitka Sound, but had promised to watch animals for friends in Tenakee. We tried to wriggle out, but TKE is a small town, and all the locals were booked for the season. So off we went in LUNA.
The forecast looked good... S-SE F6-7 should have whisked us north and east in a day or two. We gave it a month. And good thing we did... no sooner had we cleared Sitka breakwater than the wind dropped to nothing... ...then picked up again, on the nose! LUNA, we always said, loves to beat! She can't let a fair wind be.
So we beat, close-hauled north past and through stretches wild an beautiful at the best of times, grey and gorgeous under the lowering skies of winter. I'll skip the detail (that kind of story takes a couple, long bottle nights; one for me and one for your story!) and only say that, by the time we reached Penninsular Point (PP), we'd waited out and sailed through two blizzards and a winter storm (according to NOAA).
PP is just north of where Peril Strait meets Chatham Strait at cross purposes. It sticks out from Chatham's west wall like a hammerhead, with a sandy bottom bight to the north and south. It makes a great place to wait for fair wind, sheltered in one lee or the other.
This time, "It was comin' down outta the north with its loooong boots on" (as a friend liked to say... I do too, in a dark and gravelly voice).
We spiderwebbed into the S bight and waited. And waited. And waited. Two weeks non-stop huffin' and puffin' and snow. We'd wake to find our cockpit overflowing with the powdery stuff, and the decks swept clear.
It's a fine time, waiting snug for weather. Elaborate and creative meals. Poking around in the snow, ashore. Reading and music and love.
Finally, the forecast called for a change in weather. Southeast gales in the afternoon. Music to our ears. Straight shot into TKE, several days ahead of ourselves!
Right on schedule, the wind in the bight fell to nothing. We bundled up, pulled our anchors and poked our nose around the corner. Hmph. Still blowing bearded combers. We bucked against it, for a while, making progress but not much. Why don't we pull back in, have lunch and try again in a bit?
So back in, drop a lunch hook and have us a sammich. [Queue the ominous music!] Didn't even unsuit so we'd be ready to go at the first sign of wind.
We were just having some tea when we heard the shwssshh of swell in the bight. Alright!! That means wind S of us! I set down my tea, and heard something else. Looking up, I saw the trees at the top of the cliff swaying back and forth like they wuz born again (hallelujah)! Uh Oh. I reached down to pull my zipper up as the first gust hit.
By the time it's up, we are on the beach!
Those gentle swells were now going nuts with (I estimate) around 45kts of wind driving 'em, broadsides into our hull. Top of a spring tide... not the best time to be driven ashore.
A quick look around determines that we're pinned up against a field of drift logs at the top of the steep gravel beach. The dory's getting squooshed between LUNA and logs.
I yell to Anke to furl the mizzen (released but flogging), but HANG ON! Then leap to the logs (no derring-do... they're stuck fast in sand and close as a dock). I pull the dory out from between, and ashore, noting only a single puncture, near the sheer (lucky). Looking up, I see Anke, in mid-air and almost horizontal, doing a loop-de-loop around the mizzen, overboard and back (jolted by the boat, surging erratically in the surf)! But she took it in stride (as I calmed my beating heart) and furled the mizzen taut and tight.
Eventually, the tide receded, taking the chaos with it. It's a fail-safe beach, for the most part - one of the reasons we like it. But, since last we'd been there, a giant snag had grounded high and off to the east of our position, which foiled safety along that stretch... its four inch thick branches were like jousting lances defending the beach from the sea. A boat length that-a-way and we'd have been skewered.
We ran damage assessment (dory punch was the only casualty) and form a plan. One that involved gathering blocking materials, skids and levers. Beaches like this one, luckily, are full of that kind of stuff... fellow flotsam. It took us several breath-taking tries to row a brace of anchors through the surf and get them to set offshore. BTW, the lunchhook pulled home coated with weed... we'd misjudged the distance and anchored inside the foul zone.
The problems were threefold:
- We were tight and broadsides to a giant log (couldn't spin the boat on her belly).
- Twice a day, high tide slapped at us, trying to erase whatever progress we'd made.
- The tides were getting lower... running away from us, rather than toward.
Meanwhile, the bight was collecting more and more drift logs. And drift logs, it turns out, love to surf! Cowabunga!
Higher high water rose up in the wee hours, so we'd pause for a few to fend logs. We could just make out the long, inky blots of log as they surged from the dark, bones in teeth and nose. And the generous moon broke through the scudding clouds for just enough time, each night to light our staves, warm our hearts and lend us courage.
It was in one of these busy hours that Anke, her grin agleam in lunar twilight, shouted her dodgin' wrenches remark over the cacauphony of wave and wind. At another point, she fell asleep on her feet, spilling her tea. That's my Baby!
We worked round the clock for three days. Raising up on the house jack and forcing a controlled topple. Setting and resetting skids and blocking as tide allowed. When the water came, cranking in and heaving on the lines. Lifting and shifting - waves trying to slap us back against the logs - we struggled to hold our ground.
We were finally able to move the boat out enough to spin it enough to pull on the anchor lines enough to inch forward on the crests enough to slide free! Free, HA HA HA HA... FREEEEEE!!!!
Our dory, left on the beach logs in launch position (attached by a long line), did indeed launch, but swamped in the surf. No problem. Routine stuff. Our formerly offshore anchors, now slack and inshore of us, entangled with the gauntlet of drift logs on our way out to weather anchors in deeper water. We fought to untangle them in the surge; finally having to cut and splice one that was hopeless.
By now, the tide had receded, and our offshore anchors were smack-dab under the ebbing surf line. Should've picked 'em up on our way out, if we'd been thinking clearly. Had to wait for high, again, to pick 'em up; close but clear of turbulence.
Now that we were free, the forecast switched, of course. We had the rest of the night-ish to get north to TKE Inlet before it turned against us, again. Tired as we were, we sailed off into the dark and stormy night...
But I'll leave that tale for another time.
PS. There's a moral... never sail under a deadline!
We had a lot of advantages in a situation that could have wrecked another boat. Shoal draft kept us upright, and able to step ashore. The copper bottom eliminated chafe concerns. We had a sea-going dory for backup, capable of taking us over winter waters. We had, and put ashore, spare rations and gear enough to set up a camp should the worst come. We had the heavy movers to force the boat downhill, against the weight of surf. We had cold weather active gear, and solid lighting to let us work long hours. We knew the bight well and had chosen it, in part for its fail-safe beach.
There's that element of luck that can toss agley the best laid plans. But Fortune favors the well-prepared; it never hurts to hedge one's bets, especially when gallivanting about in winter.
All in all, we think we had a good time!