"Cruise of Baidarka"
A Dream Becomes A Reality
By Don Douglass & Reanne Hemingway - Douglass
VOYAGING (Power & Motoryacht Special Issue)
A dream and a test. These were the motivations last year for our 4,000-mile shakedown cruise aboard Baidarka, our new Nordhavn 40. We'd travel from Southern California to Lituya Bay, Alaska, and then return to our homeport in Anacortes, Washington. We dreamed about exploring Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula and even venturing to distant Kodiak Island, possibly America's next cruising frontier. The test part was simple. Could the two of us, occasionally accompanied by friends, complete the 2,500-mile run into the teeth of the prevailing winds in six weeks?
Departing Dana Point, we made our first stop at Catalina Island for breakfast before heading to our night's anchorage in the solitary lee of Santa Barbara Island. High pressure over the North Pacific and low pressure over the desert had created strong northwesterlies the length of the coast, and by the time we'd passed north of the Channel Islands, we were bucking 25-knot head winds and anticipating a gale. The chop had already picked up, so we deployed our paravanes, passive stabilizers that reduce rolling by 75 percent. As it turned out, over the next weeks we'd rarely run with them stowed.
To reduce our exposure to winds and seas, we routinely departed before dawn and pushed north until the "bash" became exhausting, then ducked into a sheltered gunkhole for the evening in time to sightsee or visit a pub. The tactic succeeded. The boat handled well in heavy seas and was dry and comfortable inside. Snagging crab pot floats on our stabilizers now and then kept our adrenaline pumping.
Soon gunkholes, bays, and ports filled our logbook: Coho Anchorage, in the lee of Point Conception; Morro Bay, home port to our beloved sailboat LeDauphin Amical, Where we sat out two days of gales; Pebble Beach, where we anchored amidst megayachts and watched television crews prepare for a golf tournament; Halfmoon Bay (Pillar Point), where small fishing boats nestled among pleasurecraft were a refreshing contrast to the manicured marinas of southern California.
About two weeks later a bumpy ride across the Potato Patch (the perennially confused seas just outside San Francisco's harbor) led US under the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco Bay, where fog and a cool 55°F collided with a wall of blue skies and temperatures above 100°F. A lack of time and the soon unpleasant heat dampened our enthusiasm for a city stop.
When we departed San Francisco, the wind and seas remained the same but the harbor entrances changed. Most ports of refuge north of San Francisco lie at the mouths of rivers, which necessitates crossing a bar to enter them. When seas run six to eight feet, entering places like Fort Bragg, Eureka, Brookings, Coos Bay, Newport, Tillamook, and the Columbia River can be dangerous, particularly on an ebb current. A small Coast Guard station at each harbor monitors bar conditions and restricts entrance when seas are breaking. As we [leaded north, we often relied on information from these stations.
Eureka, California, was typical. We departed it before dawn n on a 3-knot ebb, and .s soon as we cleared the breakwater, Baidarka was slammed by dark combers. We considered fuming around and waiting for better conditions but in the end decided to go for it. We pitched violently through steep, 10-foot seas, taking heavy spray, and 12 harrowing minutes later we emerged into calmer seas with the vessel intact but bruised egos. Shortly after, the Coast Guard closed the harbor.
It was the same at other harbors. At Tillamook Bay, Oregon, we accepted the Coast Guard's offer to escort us across the dangerous bar, and as we followed its 47-foot rescue boat, we watched her frequently disappear from sight in the deep troughs. But we got lucky when we crossed the infamous Columbia River bar. We had calm weather and seas as we entered tiny Ilwaco, Washington, where, as in many other Northwest towns, well-maintained floats stood empty due to the decline in the commercial fishing industry. Pleasurecraft are now welcomed here, and facilities are being upgraded to include picnic and crab-cooking areas; some ports even furnish free bicycles.
We traversed Washington State without major incident, finally reaching tiny La Push, at the northwest comer of the state and the most dramatic harbor we saw along this coast. Here a dozen angular "haystacks" -rugged rocks topped with tufts of trees-guard a tiny, shallow entrance at the outlet of Quillayute River and conceal a protected marina. Tall grass and silvery driftwood along a gently sloping beach hid native dugout whaling canoes.
The Inside Passage was finally within reach. Entering the Straits of Juan de Fuca and then turning north into Canadian waters, we finally left the ocean swells behind. Having had her fill of white-knuckle cruising, Reanne went to the bow bellowed, "I'm so happy to be back!" We even stowed the paravanes.
North of Vancouver Island we said farewell to civilization and began spending quiet nights at anchor in secluded coves overhung by evergreen limbs. Baidarka was humming along just fine, except for installation problems with the autopilot that require us to steer manually for several weeks before the problem was diagnosed and repaired. In Ketchikan we took on 738 gallons of fuel. This was our only refueling stop on the entire 4,000-mile cruise until we returned to Anacortes. Overall fuel consumption for the 628 engine hours to this point was an economical 1.86 gallons per hour.
On July 21 we pulled alongside Gustavus pier, at the entrance to Glacier Bay, and picked up our Massachusetts friends, Herb and Wendy Nickles. They were to join us for the attempt at Lituya Bay, our goal for the summer and the first of several possible stepping-stones to help us cross the Gulf of Alaska on future voyages. We then took a shortcut inside Cape Spencer lighthouse and headed into the Gulf of Alaska to "base camp" in Graves Harbor. At dawn the following day, we checked conditions off Graves Harbor. Winds from the southeast, choppy seas, and deteriorating visibility caused us to retreat to the safety of Mosquito Cove, deep inside Graves Harbor. We went back to bed fell asleep to the muffled sound of pelting rain.
In favorable predawn conditions on July 23, Baidarka headed north, rounding Icy Point, passing massive La Perouse Glacier that tumbles directly onto the high-tide line for over a mile along the coast, and entering Lituya Bay. The Frenchman La Perouse, who first explored the bay in 1786, lost two boats and 21 men to the 12-knott ebb tides at the notorious "chopper" - the treacherous entrance. A large shoal extends a half-mile west of the chopper, and as we approached we kept a nervous eye astern, watching for any sign of heaping seas. The last of the flood was running at 3 knots. By reading the saltwater "river" and remaining in the fastest-moving stream, we passed through the treacherously narrow channel in five fathoms, uncomfortably close to the tiger-tooth rocks that lie along the south shore. Our timing was perfect, and soon we and Baidarka were safely inside. The latest weather report had announced an approaching southeast front. We surveyed anchor, and installed two anchor-rode snubbers in preparation for a blow.
We were completely alone. The dark, scudding clouds that concealed the glaciers at the head of the bay dissipated into thin ribbons, revealing ridge of snowy mountains that rise three miles, with glaciers tumbling to the salt water. Stunning changes in light and scenery unfolded before our eyes with every passing hour. We were mesmerized. Our dream had become reality.
Since reading news accounts of the 1958 earthquake, which created the highest measured tsunami (1,720 feet); we had been beckoned to this fascinating landscape by stories and myths. We spent an afternoon exploring the havoc created by the tidal wave, quickly retreating to the sight of fresh grizzly tracks in the gray quicksand. Tiny plants and small wind-blown trees have taken hold in earth and rock that was scraped clean by the phenomenal wave. Sun and exquisite blue sky greeted us the second day. We peeled off our heavy-weather clothing and donned shorts and tee shirts. At midnight the high-latitude twilight cast a rosy, iridescent afterglow on the peaks of the Fairweather Range, enticing us to far-northern climes. The Gulf of Alaska is aglow with promise, yes perhaps as America's next cruising wilderness - but a wilderness where vigilance will forever remain imperative. We left Lituya reluctantly the next morning, each of us under its spell, and vowing to return.