Tuesday 15 July: Stepanof Cove

Position: 53 17.45 N 168 20.62 W
At anchor Stepanof Cove, Unmak Island
Wind: South east, F3 gentle breeze
Sea: calm Swell: nil
Weather: mostly cloudy, cold
Days run: 84 nm

Our detour into the Four Mountain Island group, while interesting, was not
without its frustrations. The currents moving through the islands are
strong and kick up a sea even when there is no wind. The pilot says that “a
strong ebb against a small swell is reported to cause 10-foot rips in a dead
calm.” Fortunately we did not experience any ten foot rips but we did
experience some rather short steep seas which, with the light winds later in
the day, had Sylph bouncing all over the place, sails slatting, going
nowhere. The tide was at least pushing us north and in order to clear the
rips I resorted to the motor as it was not an area I wanted to drift around
in for too long.

By 1900 we were sufficiently clear of the choppy conditions and a light
breeze was filling in so I shut down the engine and tried to sail for a
while. But there was just enough wind and I ended up handing sail and
drifting for another couple of hours. When I lowered the mainsail I noticed
that the halyard had suffered some chafe where it exits the sheave at the
masthead, so I took the opportunity to cut the chafed piece out. I had sewn
a leather chafe guard over this section only a few days previously but it
clearly was not doing much good when the mainsail is slatting back and forth
in light airs and turbulent seas. As I was sitting on deck seizing a new
eye to the halyard shackle a large triangular dorsal fin approached, the
distinctive feature of an Orca. The whale swam close by, swam away and then
returned several times eyeing Sylph over very carefully. It made me a
little nervous as I think it may have thought Sylph was a sick or dead
whale, and that he might give Sylph a nudge just to make sure. I made a few
whistling noises and shouts to give our curious predator the idea that we
were in fact alive and well, and after a few more swim bys it decided
perhaps Sylph looked a little too tough to digest and moved on.

Meanwhile, the halyard fixed, a light breeze had returned so I was able to
set sail again, get Sylph moving through the water, and, if it was still
about, persuade Orca that we were by no means dead or dying just yet. The
light breeze did not last however, and despite my best efforts to keep Sylph
moving, including resorting to the drifter during the middle of the night,
there were a couple of periods where we had to drift under bare poles so as
to prevent excessive wear and tear to the sails and rig due to slatting
sails. By 0800 however, the wind had started to steady up from the north
east.
I had been hoping for a change that would allow a fair wind to take us to
Dutch Harbor, but as the day wore on it became apparent that this was not
likely. Without access to a weather forecast I was having to guess what was
likely to happen next by noting any shifts in the wind direction and changes
in the barometric pressure. With the wind in the north east the low
pressure roughly had to be to the south east. The pressure had been
steadily rising during the day and the sky clearing, but with no significant
shift in the wind direction it was had to tell what was likely to happen
next. I expect the barometer to top out at about 1020 Hpa, which it did, the
winds to lighten, which they had already done, and then perhaps on the other
side of the high for winds to shift most likely into the south east, which,
however, they obstinately refused to do. Instead, by late this afternoon,
they had continued to freshen from the north east requiring reduced sail as
we punched into the slight but building seas.

Dutch Harbor still lay over a hundred miles away, and around mid- afternoon
with the headwind increasing and the seas building, Sylph's bow was pointing
towards Inanudak Bay on Umnak Island. “Hmm,” I thought, “if, as it seems,
the wind is going to remain against us then why not take a break and anchor
for the night.” I studied the chart and read the pilot and decided that
Stepanof Cove inside Inanudak Bay looked a good place to anchor for the
night, provided the wind did not shift dramatically into the west or north
west, which, based on my limited solo weather forecasting experience, seemed
unlikely. Indeed the description of the bay and the cove within made it
sound highly attractive. Decision made I eased sheets and bore away to the
south east towards the entrance of the bay.

No sooner had I done so then the wind started to lighten and, as we got
closer to the entrance to the bay, to veer into the south east. Now I found
myself wondering whether the wind was indeed starting to shift or whether it
was simply the effect of the bay's topography. I was tempted to turn around
back out to sea and attempt to continue towards Dutch Harbor, but it was
just as likely that if I did then once clear of the effects of Umnak Island
I would find the wind was in fact still from the north east, and further
that there would be insufficient daylight remaining for me to change my mind
again and make for anchor. I decided to stick with my decision to continue
to anchor. (Such thought processes are pretty typical of me when I am
trying to work out what the weather is going to do.)

In fact the sail to anchor turned out well. The sun mostly shone, as it set
in the west, its light throwing the magnificent scenery into sharp relief,
cliffs and pinnacles throwing shadows upon the mountains behind them. One
cove we passed, Izhiga Cove, looked like a land from the earth's early
creation, a land that time had forgotten. Dark mountains framed a rich
green valley, the sun's setting rays somehow working in behind the dark
rocky mountainous headlands and making the broad flat valley shine brightly
from within. I was tempted to anchor in its magical looking cove, but it
was a little too close to the bays entrance, and Stepanof Cove offered
better shelter. We tacked deeper into the bay.

And now, having sailed to anchor, letting go in six meters of water just as
the sun was touching the horizon behind us, Sylph lies still and peaceful,
the heater is warming the saloon, I have washed and eaten, the cat has had a
treat and now sits on my lap as I write up the day's proceedings.

All is well.