Leaving Nunivak for the Aleoutians

It’s 9:35 AM September 12th. My old faithful Perkins rumbles again to life. The wind dropped in the morning and our Nunivak anchorage is pretty quiet.
Each captain is confronted with his own schedule and specific navigational details. “Inook” left earlier.  « Altego » just sails close by to say goodbye:

“See you in « False Pass »”!

May be… or may be not as always with pelagic sailors. 

Next port of call: the Aleutian Islands.

Together, we sailed the North West Passage and forged life long memories.  And yes, we won’t forget also that « Altego » was the first Polish sailboat to achieve this famous passage.  A remarkable accomplishment for her captain and her crew.

Before sailing south to another mythical sailor destination, the Aleoutian islands, we first need to round Nunivak.  The Aleutian chain lays south, about 400 hundred miles away, three sailing days under fair conditions. The first day, we mostly motor-sail with no more than 5 to 10 knots of south-east wind.   As soon as we left Nunivak, a boat appears far away on the horizon. Could it be “Inook”?

Now starts a constant struggle to keep pace with the wind shifts.  East during the night, NW in the morning at around 10 to 15 knots. Time to unrolled 100% of the jib.   To maintain a good ground speed, we motor-sail. Next day, the wind swings West, then SW and finally South. This dance around the compass keeps my crew busy adjusting the sails. Managing my back pain, I stay quietly in my bunk avoiding much of this action.  Eric captains “Breskell” in his quiet and efficient manner. I am fortunate to have him by my side.  Glad also not to single-hand my powerful “horse/dragoon” in the beginning in her long slide to Port Townsend.

800 nautical miles south to the Aleutian Islands as we needed to round first Nunivak Island.

To False Pass, Aleutian islands.

September the 14th in the morning.  The Aleutian mountains  stand out in front of “Breskell”.

Out of the fog, another magic sailing moment.

Snow capped summits, black slopes, they look both beautiful and enigmatic. 

The volcanic origin of the Aleutians is evident.

The volcanic origin of the Aleutians is evident.  A spectacular landscape!  Like this one, its 57 volcanoes form the northernmost part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.  Born from two of nature most powerful manifestations, earthquakes and volcanoes, tectonic plates collide here. 

No need to add words to Bob smile when he discovers the spectacular landscape of the Aleutians

They produce this magnificent chain of islands.  Hope the ring stays quiet during our short visit.

Tectonic plates collided here to produce this magnificent chain of islands. Sailing on the back of such sleeping giants, we all feel humble…

Sailing on the back of such sleeping giants, we all feel humble… The islands look close but we know we won’t reach « False Pass » before the evening after a long sailing day.

The Aleutians separate the Bering sea to the north with another ocean to the south: the mighty Pacific.

This Aleutian chain separates the Bering sea to the north from another ocean to the south: the mighty Pacific. 

The entrance to FALSE PASS

Strange to enter this new oceanic world by a “False Pass”! With a lot of real current…

Weird to enter this new oceanic world via a “False Pass”!  Awesome landscapes around matched here with poetic island’s names.

False Pass.
Awesome landscapes matched with poetic island’s names. The biggest islands: Unimak, Unalaska or Adak.

The biggest islands:  Unimak, Unalaska or Adak.  With many of the other evocative and local names for the islands, Josh can compose a nice lyric:  Adugak,Aiktak, Akun, Akutan, Amak, Amaknak, Amukta, Ananiuliak, Avatanak and so on.  This area, which mostly belongs now to Alaska, keeps also, with their local name, the name of its first inhabitants, the Aleuts.  A sign of respect for the first occupants. In any case, we sailors are spared all the sons, grand-daughters or uncles of England crown heads who never set a foot aboard a pitching sailboat.

The entrance to “False Pass” is tricky.  Hidden by the swell, floating on its back, a relaxed sea-otter watches the cautious approach of “Breskell”. 

Hidden by the swell, floating on its back, a relaxed sea-otter, watches the cautious approach of “Breskell”.

The softness, thickness and unequaled beauty of its fur combined with the legendary human greed bring the sea otters on the brink of extinction in the 19 century.  In the Aleutians today, if they have recovered, they still belong to the list of endangered species.

The main channel is well buoyed, still sand bars shift constantly around it.

In places, not much more than 5 feet of water. Eric, our captain, keeps a sharp look-out.

Fishing boats ground-up regularly in the pass.  “Breskell” is built around her center-board.  A life saving appendice and a great safety device in the Arctic to engage in shallow harbors, uncharted bays or in tricky channels like this one. We follow the entrance markers very closely.  Even with their help, when Eric signals 5 feet of water and quickly adds less than 5 feet,  I feel a bit uneasy.  Next, we should hit the bottom… 

Our navigator, Josh, follows carefully on our electronic maps the slow progression of “Breskell” on the ground.

Our navigator, Josh, follows carefully on our electronic map the slow progression of “Breskell” on the ground. Our thoughts and unlimited admiration again to our seafarer ancestors:  they sailed around this foggy islands without engine, accurate maps, radar or even a depth-sounder!  We are more fortunate today. We keep pushing forward without grounding.  Our captain keeps a sharp look-out and supervises our advance.  Early American sailing masters choose the name “False Pass” for an obvious reason. Shifting shallows and unpredictable currents, combined with poor nautical maps, made this pass impracticable for their deep draft sea vessels.  They have to find somewhere another crossing to and from the Bering seas.

“False Pass”?  May be! But today 4 knots of real current.  The wind and current from the south, both combine to slow us. As if two to four knots of current was not bad enough, the wind picks up and blows now at a good 25 knots right on our nose.

Damien, our new wheelsman is closely watched by two seasoned North West Passage-makers.

Our ground progression is sluggish at best and, on top of that, it’s raining hard!  A frequent occurrence in the area.  The closer we get to “False Pass” village, the stronger the gusts of wind.  The hight mountains around squeeze the wind flow between them.  They create the strong venturi effect we encounter. Differences in temperatures between the spectacular snow caped mountain tops and the more temperate ocean water below produce other challenging navigational conditions.

The closer to False Pass village, the stronger the wind. A local venturi effect between high mountains caped with snow.

A gorgeous nature compensates for all this hardship. Unique, impressive and mysterious, no one on board remains indifferent in front of the breathtaking landscapes offered by these islands.

“False Pass” village.

We would like to stop here for more than a day or two.  We learned on the sailing grapevine that some docks are available around.

False Pass village. 50 Aleuts lives there. I took the wheel not sure where to dock.

We don’t know about their condition or location. They are in the vicinity and I take the wheel.  As “Breskell” patch-master, I request also the privilege to be the only one authorized to  deliver a good punch to my beloved boat!

I notice the dock but …

“Oh my God…  no way to squeeze “Breskell” in there!  With the current playing with that kind of wind, we’re gonna crash into the dock for sure!”

Looking around, I spot something that appears to be like a marina. I get closer.   Its entrance looks so restricted that I decide again to abort “Breskell” landing.

On the spot, I decided for the south pass entrance. Too much wind, not enough planification. Let’s resume our docking: not a smooth operation!

I catch sight of fishing boats. How did they enter this place?  It’s not your small sunday outboard fishing boats. They are huge sea going vessels.  Did I mention before that the Aleutians are a fisherman paradise?   Dutch Harbor, “deadliest catch”, king crabs, giant halibuts, king salmons, lot of cods… You know already, thanks to some popular TV shows, the reputation of this place! 

A fisherman’s shame! “Breskell” catch for the season!

Well, in the case of “Breskell catch”, it looks more like a fisherman’s shame! Displayed on this board, our seasonal snatch around the Bering Strait…  No comments allowed!

”FALSE PASS” landing.

I keep motoring inside.  A welcome surprise.  On the south side of the harbor, much wider and safer, another entrance entices us.  I decide to take a chance.  It’s blowing really hard, storm force wind I guess. To avoid another “patch”, we will have to be really careful in this challenging docking conditions.  Every hand is called on deck to help.  My crew prepares for battle with lines, boat hooks and fenders.  Pushed by the wind, I engage “Breskell”.  Hard to slow down the boat in this squally condition.  Swiftly, I decide to dock.  Inside,  I turn around and approach the wharf.  An ultimate turn with no way to abort this landing.  I bring the bow close to the dock and quickly parallel my boat with the berth.  Well, let’s say that this flawless scenario is what I imagine and try to achieve!  The booming noise on the bow followed by “Breskell” shivering, all that tells of a different story.  Luckily, a wise crew member had a big fat fender ready at hand. My hazardous landing looks much smoother against the dockside cushioned by this providential air balloon.

Are those two hilarious sailors commenting, behind my back, my emergency dock landing?

Tight and steady, we are safe and happy inside an almost brand new marina. Speaking of rough landing and crushing impact… 

Not a single drop of water inside my patched « horse/dragoon ».

I am happy to report that my second surgery in Nome was a complete success!  This time, not a single drop of water found its way inside my well patched « horse/dragoon ».

Soon “Inook” joins us inside, followed by “Altego” later on. 

Hours later, another boat shows up. Probably a friend… Not many sail during the autumn storms in the Aleutians.

Again, we, the three musketeers of the North West Passage, are togethers for another night.   This one is probably our last meeting. We need again to celebrate our good seamanship and luck.

« Altego » mades sailing history in his own country. First Czechoslovak sailboat to do the est-west crossing.

If the weather outside is miserable, we appreciate to be reunited again. 

Our friend Georges, on this raining day in Unimak island deserves his thumb up!

A last party!  Conditions are not going to improve much during the following months.  A permanent low establishes over the Aleutians during the winter months.  It maintains the chain of islands under the cloudy, windy and rainy conditions of our landing.  If the forecast improves just a little tomorrow, we may leave.  With “home” still a thousand miles away, tomorrow will be another day to enjoy.