Thursday 7 October – Humboldt Harbor
Position: 55 19.97 N 160 29.94 W
Yesterday afternoon [Wednesday 6 August] I was contemplating what I would do. Should I put the dinghy in the water and row ashore to explore and get a little exercise or perhaps just stay on board. It was drizzling lightly so this rather put me off the first option but on the other hand I felt the need to do something a little more active than sitting around reading. The thought then occurred to me that the distance to my next intended stop, Humboldt Harbor, about sixty miles, would make for a good overnight passage. I had no idea what the weather was doing as I could not get any sort of forecast. The barometer had not changed much over the previous twenty four hours so nothing was in the offing as far as this instrument was concerned. I thought what the hell, it beats sitting around twiddling my thumbs.
At 16.15 the anchor up and we were motoring back out the narrow winding passage into the broader expanse of Belkofski Bay. Here the wind settled into a gentle southerly. It took three tacks to clear the Bay into open water. Now that we were clear of the mountains surrounding Captain Harbor and Belkofski Bay I tried scanning the VHF weather channels for a forecast. The nearest station was at Sandy Point, next door to Humboldt Harbor, but we were still too far away to pick up a reliable signal. I could make out the voice but was only able to make out a few words from the background static. Amongst the words I did hear however were “small craft advisory” and “gale warning.” These particular words certainly got my attention but at the time I needed to concentrate on the navigation, so the forecast would have to wait until I had time to piece together the full transmission.
The navigation I had to focus on was getting safely through Iliasik Passage, a quarter mile wide channel between the long narrow rock strewn islands of Inner and Outer Iliasik. The wind was continuing to freshen, a steady drizzle fell from the low clouds above, and visibility was down to a mile. Of course in these days of GPS it was no problem finding the channel. We made it on one tack and as we approached I was able to ease sheets, bear away and, by now with a reef in the main and the jib partially furled making good seven knots, we were quickly through to the other side.
Here, as I brought Sylph hard on to the breeze, I eyed the mountains of Outer Iliasik Island, wondering what they would do to the wind. Predictably they caused it to become very erratic. One moment the wind would be calm, the next blowing from the opposite direction, and then the next a strong gust would cause Sylph to lean hard over, water streaming over the lee cockpit coaming. This prompted me to reduce sail further, two reefs in the main and about sixty per cent of the jib. Fortunately Outer Iliasik is only three miles long so within an hour we were clear of the vortexes spinning off its peaks, and into clear air.
Our course now lay to the east, to pass south of Dolgoi Island, avoiding a number of unlit rocks that stuck up abruptly from the relatively shallow sea floor, then, once clear of these hazards, a fifty five mile sail lay ahead of us, to the south of Unga Island, then north up Popof strait, our destination lying on the western shore of Popof Island, well protected by the winding narrows between the two islands. With Sylph now clear of any immediate dangers and settled on her heading I focused on getting the weather forecast off the VHF radio. Now in open water and a little closer to its origin, the signal came in loud and clear. The machine voice buzzed jerkily out of the speaker:
“Area 155, south of the Alaska Peninsular, Castle Cape to Cape Sarichef: tonight, gale warning winds south west thirty five knots gusting forty five; Thursday morning, wind south west thirty knots, easing to twenty knots by Thursday afternoon . . . .”
Bother! Oh well, at least the direction was favourable. With two reefs in the mainsail and the jib reduced down to sixty per cent, Sylph was sailing fast at a steady seven and a half knots, riding mostly dry and comfortable, almost seeming to glide over the waves, the wind vane easily holding her on the desired heading. I considered reducing sail further but given that Sylph appeared to be well balanced and under little strain I thought that reducing speed might only disrupt the apparent harmony between Sylph and the environment that she was designed for. I decided to sit tight, decked out in full foul weather gear and safety harness, keeping watch in the companionway, ready to respond to Sylph's needs at short notice. I regularly cast an anxious eye around me, watching the seas and how Sylph was riding them, looking up at the rig, reassuring myself that all remained in good order. At the speed we were making we would be at Popof Strait in three hours, so I would not have to maintain this relatively high state of vigilance for long.
And thus it proved to be. We rounded Unga Cape, the south east corner of Unga Island, at 0325, bore away to the north east, the wind and sea now well aft and the relative wind strength remarkably reduced. I handed the mainsail as it was blanketing the jib and, on the new heading, tending to throw Sylph off balance. At 04.30 we gybed to enter Popof Strait, a very simple operation with just the jib up. I now reviewed my plan for approaching the harbour. I was concerned that with the wind blowing almost directly into the strait, our speedy passage having us off the harbour well before sunrise, and the area immediately surrounding the harbour, especially to its north, being encumbered by numerous rocks, that it might be hazardous to continue all the way up the strait. I decided that Baralof Bay on the western side of the strait might be a good place to seek shelter until daylight, but as we got closer the wind started to ease dramatically, and now that we were in the lee of Unga Island the seas abated commensurately.
In fact it took three hours to sail and drift the next four miles, such that a little after sunrise I found myself dozing in the morning's warmth, Sylph drifting to a barely perceptible breeze, Egg Island in the middle of Popof Strait, a mere half mile ahead of us. I roused myself, set full sail to cover the last four miles, but, by the time we rounded Sand Point, there was no wind at all, the sea glass smooth, and, while the sky was overcast, the day was sleepy warm. I started the BRM, thirty minutes of motoring sufficed to take us to the narrow entrance between two breakwaters and into the harbour. At 9.40 I secured Sylph alongside a marina pontoon, well satisfied with Sylph's overnight passage.
All is well.