Snowy Landfalls and Abundant Wildlife

Fri 23 Jul 2004 01:34
19th July 2004. A peaceful evening near Murder Point, Massacre Bay, Attu

Dear All,

We left Ofunato, with the typical Japanese ado, at midday on Saturday 3rd
July. We'd been ready of leave on the Friday but superstition prevents this.
The Sato family, who had found us on our arrival in Ofunato and treated us
wonderfully during our stop there, arrived for our imminent departure at ten
o'clock but then had to wait as Katharine and I fussed about for two hours
getting ready to go. Late as ever!

The passage was wearisome. The winds were generally light and from ahead,
interspersed with long periods of calm and a gale which was also from dead
on the nose. The currents were also against us. We were stubborn about
motoring as the diesel stocks are too limited for endless motoring on such a
long passage, particularly when we expected fog, strong currents and many
hazards as we got closer to the Aleutians. There were failures and breakages
like we have not had in any of our previous passages; the wind direction
indicator gave up working, the burgee halyard broke, the stop-valve on the
fuel tank started to leak, Katharine had a migraine and suffered very badly
from sea sickness, the windows leaked in the gale, and it was getting cold!
However, there were great compensations. We saw increasing amounts of
spectacular wildlife including a sperm whale, two large pods of killer
whales, albatrosses, storm petrels, numerous varieties of petrel (all hard
to identify) and most excitingly tufted and horned puffins. The tufted
puffin is the ultimate punk amongst birds and definitely our favourite. We
also had far less fog than expected and also clawed back a day that we had
lost on our way to New Zealand in April last year by crossing the Date Line.
Unfortunately this time it wasn't on Brother Al's birthday and so I still
don't owe him a present!

But finally after fifteen days at sea we were treated with a truly dramatic
landfall. Attu is the westernmost of the Aleutians Islands and must be one o
f the remotest parts of the USA. We noticed that the Lonely Planet Guides
provide a dense book on Antarctica these days, while the Alaska guide has
only two pages on the Aleutians and mentions Attu only once whilst talking
about WWII. We'd seen the red aircraft-warning lights on the Loran station
transmitter in the dark of the short night and had slowed down so as not to
arrive before daylight, but Katharine's excited cry of 'Wow, there's snow'
awoke me to a spectacular sight. The island is dark and without a single
tree, snow streaking the gullies and the tops of the mountains buried deep
in the low cloud. We had no idea what to expect and it was like the Faeroes,
Iceland and all other cold beautiful parts of the world rolled into one, and
really looked magnificent appearing amongst the swirling mist and cloud.

For almost the first time since leaving New Zealand we are without the best
available paper charts, and so we tentatively made our approach into
Massacre Bay using the widely-available hacked C-Map charts and laptop
computer linked to the GPS. This brought us perfectly into Casco Cove and we
anchored in the superb shelter and glassy calm at about 0630 and even some
sunshine. Puffins, guillemots and cormorants bobbed about in the water as
we ate a fried breakfast in the cockpit, dried out the damp boat and basked
in the glory of the place. The high pressure which had caused us so much
motoring was now giving an unprecedented view of this beautiful, dramatic
island which is apparently usually shrouded in a blanket of fog. We are so

Despite having had very little sleep the night before we could not wait to
get ashore and explore. We could have wasted this glorious weather. If we
had thought about it we would have know what to expect, but we were amazed
to discover just how many wild flowers there were covering the island.
Great carpets of purple and yellow as far as the eye could see, and because
the season is so short here they were all absolutely huge. (I'm sorry Mum
that I did not pay more attention when I was little, as we have no book on
board to identify them with!!) There were also lots of WWII remains, old
guns and radio towers and bits of twisted metal all riddled with numerous
bullet holes, so the island really has something for everyone.

Whilst ashore we met the commander of the US Coast Guard's base here, which
operates the Loran transmitter and whose twenty personnel are the only
inhabitants of the island. He informed us in passing that a cruise ship
would be calling later in the day and that if we needed diesel they'd
probably be able to help us. The USCG's base could have given us diesel at a
stretch but since they only get re-supplied once per year it seemed rather
unfair to take it. However, a brief VHF call to the Clipper Odyssey as she
arrived suggested that not only would we get diesel and water, but US
Immigration and Customs clearance too. We had always known that we'd be
running the gauntlet of the US Department of Homeland Security by stopping
in the Aleutian Islands before clearing in to the Port of Entry at Dutch
Harbour (probably not regarded as wise), but couldn't contemplate passing by
these wonderful islands without stopping.

We'd been told that the only legal way to clear into the States in Attu
would be to have the customs officers flown out to Attu at our expense,
which we hadn't even considered asking a price for. The Clipper Odyssey
however, which cruises yearly around the Pacific taking eco-tourists to the
less frequented parts of the globe, was cruising from the Sea of Okhotsk to
Alaska and had paid $20,000 to have the immigration and customs officers
flown out here by light aircraft to clear their guests and crew into the US.
They were stopping at Attu for about 8 hours and only two cruise ships a
year do this trip, so we could not believe our luck. As we moved up to
anchor alongside the cruise ship in Pyramid Cove the passengers came to take
photos of us and wave, and we felt rather like wilderness heroes! We went
aboard and had our passports stamped and also met the captain, chief
engineer and doctor of this fine ship, all of whom were exceptionally
helpful. It was a dreamy experience to arrive in such a far flung place and
be able to fill our diesel and water tanks. The ship's pilot, from Kodiak
but who'd been flown out to Petropavlovsk to be able to pilot the ship when
she arrived in US waters, came on board bearing a great halibut for our
supper and also gave us a great deal of information about where to stop in
the islands east of here. We went back to the ship later to give the captain
a bottle of our Philippine rum, which was an immensely one-sided gift since
he did not charge us for the fuel.

After a spectacularly long sleep we went ashore again to toured the Loran
station, where three atomic clocks and four technicians keep this Loran
slave signal on time, and spent a while wandering among the deserted ruins
of the US army base. At its peak, after the battle to reclaim the island
from the Japanese towards the end of the war, 25,000 troops were stationed
here and the rusting and rotting debris that remains is considerable but all
happily being over taken by nature as wild flowers cover the rusting fuel
containers, old barracks etc.

Having moved around to the very protected Navy Cove in the evening we
planned to hike up to the snow line the next day, before setting off of
Kiska Island 150 miles east. The walk was again spectacular; easy tundra
walking and deep gullies with gushing melt-water streams and abundant
wildlife. We ate our lunch below the melting snow and marvelled at the fog
rolling in from the sea. All in all, a stark, fascinating and widely
exciting place.

We are now anchored in Kiska, where the Japanese also occupied during the
war. The passage was annoying at first as the high pressure moved off and
the oncoming low pressure gave us headwinds coupled with a foul current, but
as the wind freed us we made good time. Our land fall at Kiska was in the
early evening and we sailed close around the north of the island and Kiska
Volcano. The cold blasts from the snowy mountain had a distinctly
sulphurous smell, and the water and sky was filled with auklets of various
varieties which apparently breed in huge numbers on the warm rocks under the

We will now be here a day or so and try and catch a good wind to continue
west from here.

With love to you all,

Peter and Katharine