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Anke and I live aboard WAYWARD, and wrote about it's design and construction at

Access to the net comes and goes, so I'll be writing in fits and spurts.Please feel free to browse the archives, leave comments where you will and write... I'll respond as I can.

Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It was a Dark and Stormy Night

This winter, the wind blew a well maintained, centegenarian cannery building off its piling in neighboring Sitkoh Bay!

There's something about Alaskans; 
If they survive, they think they've had a good time!

-- A Visiting Friend

If you can't dodge wrenches, you can't dodge logs!

-- Anke paraphrasing quote from the movie, DodgeBall...
Rip Torn, training his team by hurling wrenches, says,
"If you can't dodge wrenches, you can't dodge balls!"

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 and beautiful at the best of times, grey and gorgeous under the lowering skies of winter. I'll skip the details (which takes a couple, long bottle nights for our stories yours!) and only say that, by the time we reached Penninsular Point, we'd waited out and sailed through three gales, two blizzards and a winter storm.

Penninsular Point 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 were 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 glance saw us pinned against a field of drift logs topping the steep gravel beach. The dory was getting squooshed between LUNA and logs.

I yelled to Anke to furl the mizzen (released but flogging), but HANG ON! Then leapt to the logs (no derring-do... they're stuck fast in sand and close as a dock). I pulled 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, loop-de-looping around the mizzen, overboard and back! She'd been jolted loose by the boat, surging and jerking erratically in surf and sand. 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... four-inch-thick branches like jousting lances defended the beach from invaders. A boat length that-a-way and we'd have been skewered.

We ran damage assessment (dory punch was the only casualty) and formed a plan. One that involved gathering blocking materials, skids and levers. Beaches like this one, luckily, are full of that kind of stuff... flotsam, like ourselves, cast ashore. It took us several breath-taking tries to row a brace of anchors through the surf and get them to set offshore. 

Turns out, our anchor pulled home with a ball of weed... we'd misjudged the distance and anchored in the foul zone.

The problems were threefold:
  1. We were tight and broadsides to a row of giant logs (couldn't spin the boat on her belly).
  2. Twice a day, high tide slapped at us, trying to erase whatever progress we'd made.
  3. The tides were getting lower... running lower and leaving us behind.
Worse, while it was only up and down between 30 and 45kts, 70kts and higher could appear any time... and we're looking down water unbroken till Antarctica. Kinda lights a fire. We had a smidgeon of protection from Morris Reef - shoal to the south of us - which might knock the legs out from under the very worst waves, but that was small protection.

Meanwhile, the bight was collecting more and more drift logs. 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 in froth as they surged from the dark. 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 anxious hours that Anke, her grin agleam in lunar twilight, shouted her dodgin' wrenches remark over the cacophony of wave and wind. Later, 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 tried 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!!!!

Well, almost.

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 Tenakee 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!


  1. Oh good gravy. And THREE DAYS of major effort to sort it out. That's a substantial aspect of the story, when it comes to managing exhaustion and continuing supreme effort. It sure puts a reinforcing note on the issue of (not) trying to keep schedules.

    What are your conclusions about winter sailing in Southeast, as a result of that event? Seems like it puts an extra challenge on the motorless approach -- though maybe it's really just schedules? As in, one could make short hops with plans to stay put as weather dictates. Without the schedule, would you have chosen to just stay a while on that beach, since you were set up for being neaped anyway?

    Sure glad the two of you are still having fun!

    -- Shemaya

  2. Hi Shemaya,

    The debrief included an update to SOP... never set a mere 'lunch hook' in winter, no matter how well attended!

    We note, too, that if we had hoven to, or anchored along the side, further out, we would have been fine. More time to react, and more ways to do so.

    But that's it. We love winter sailing. It does encourage shorter, daylight hops in weather windows between secure anchorages. But it's mostly a nuance.

    Neaped or afloat is really pretty standard stuff, year round. It's that caught on a lee shore that's scary to any sailor, and all the moreso when the weather odds are against you.

    All our SOPs are designed to keep us OFF that beach. When that happens anyway (only that once), the fail-safes one has in place, by design or as gear, are what afford some 'safety in depth'.

    We always try to keep in mind and remain at peace with the knowledge that safety in depth is not bottomless. There may come situations which sweep us off the end of our rope.

    This is as true of nuclear power as flying as sailing. The benefit, one must believe, outweighs the risk. For these examples, I'm NO! Ummm. YES!!

    Even without a schedule, we would have chosen to stay neaped.

    It was still an extreme lee shore, with a high probability of extreme weather (probability of AN occurrence proportional to time exposed... the longer we stay the more likely we are to encounter a big blow, not to mention increasing log count). Storm surge and waves could easily eat up our elevation at the bottom of neaps, and worse from there.

    Without a schedule, we would have oriented the boat on launch skids (reaching to the water and free of sand) and watched for the first opportunity to bolt.

    In a strong sense, being grounded on a lee shore imposes a schedule, even where none existed previously!


    1. Correction: Should read

      "Even without a schedule, we would NOT have chosen to stay neaped."

      Amazing what one word can do to meaning!


  3. Enjoyed reading this epic post. I remember reading about this on your old site, but you have much more detail about the circumstances in this one, scary how quick the wind can switch heh.. Very impressive getting her off on your own. I don't think I would have stood a chance on my deep keeled boat, though the steel hull might have survived, getting her back afloat would have been very hard.

    On another subject entirely, have you seen David Raisons new mini transit boat "Magnum"?

    It's almost a squareboat! cleaned up all the pointy boats pretty convincingly, proving Bolger was right about the benefits of his squareboats, though I think the mini's evolution is one revolution ahead, being very light and designed to semi-plane much of the time, even to windward.

    Now back to reading all the rest of your posts.



    1. Hi Ben,

      And to think I left out so many, chilling details! I do tend to go on, anyway, but 3 days gave me a LOT of material!

      One other problem for most boats going on the beach is the prop. There's a WOODEN WHEEL COVE up here where a guy whanged his prop bad in a winter storm. In another epic story, he managed to squeak into a protected cove. But this was the early days and he'd have been stuck till the next boat happened upon him... likely sometime in summer. So he CARVED A PROP, replaced the damaged one, and put-putted off to civilization.

      One reason he could manage that is that the old fishermen left notches at the bottoms of their long, spruce trolling polls (vs captured hinge pins). If they need to work on the hull (there were few grids in those days), they'd find a quiet dryout, lift their poles off the notches, and drop the ends overboard. Lashed securely, they served as sheer-legs.

      RE MAGNUM - Bob Wise pointed that one out to me. Very interesting!

      Racing boat designers have been slowly wising up to the fact that, if you want to stand up to clouds of sail without adding weight, it's GOING to be through form stability. If you want to reduce friction, it's GOING to be through a shallow hullform.

      Big, wide PRESTO-like sharpies are the rage... MANGNUM-like scows are the future. They carry form stability out toward the bow, maximising stability on a given footprint.

      Until they change the rules, again, that is.

  4. So... is the southerly-facing somehow safer than the northerly-facing? I thought most big winds and storms come in from the SE, and only sometimes from the N.