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Alaska 2009
  • Territory: Washington State, British Columbia, Alaska
  • Time: April - August, 5000 miles traveled
  • Vessel: "Teacup", Nordic Tug 37
  • Primary Activity: Deal with equipment breakdowns.

Copyright © 2009, P. Lutus. All rights reserved.   Message Page

Introduction | Massive Rationalization | Self-Rescue

(double-click any word to see its definition)

This article set is part of a larger work:
Alaska 2002 | Alaska 2003 | Alaska 2004 | Alaska 2005
Alaska 2006 | Alaska 2007 | Alaska 2008


Figure 1: On the beach at Icy Bay

Figure 2: Low tide

In the course of my around-the-world solo sail, during some hair-raising adventures in foreign lands, I learned what sorts of things can go wrong while anchoring, and I've become rather careful about it. I carry an extra-heavy anchor (a 45-pound CQR) plus 300 feet of anchor chain, and I made my boat's manufacturer install a larger anchor winch than they thought was really necessary.

Until this season I've never beached a boat, and I rarely allow my boat to drag while at anchor. I normally set my anchor in a strict way, motoring in reverse against the anchor to make sure it can hold the boat, and raising and resetting the anchor if I don't like the result. I am particularly careful about anchoring when I visit the wilder bear areas along the Alaska Peninsula, where people who go ashore tend to be eaten.

But I managed to beach my boat this season, in Icy Bay northwest of Yakutat, a remote location where the only kind of rescue is self-rescue. In the interest of saving other people from the same experience, I'll tell this story in some detail.

Massive Rationalization

I won't pretend this is anything more than a rationalization. It's a description of what led up to my sitting on a beach, but it's inevitably a self-serving description. Fair warning.

The day before the beaching, I was anchored on the west side of Wingham Island, in a little cove that offers a surprising amount of shelter from the open water to the west. This was part of my annual passage from Prince William Sound in Central Alaska to Cape Spencer in Southeast Alaska, a total distance of about 450 miles. That day I faced a passage from Wingham Island to Icy Bay, a distance of 115 nautical miles or 13½ hours at 8½ knots. It would be a long day, and I hoped the weather would agree with the forecast.

The Weather Service has predicted an initial wind of 20 knots and wave height of 8 feet, but an easing of wind and waves as the day progressed. As I passed Cape Elias, at the southern tip of Kayak Island, two hours later I though the conditions were a lot rougher than forecast, but capes tend by nature to have higher seas than the open ocean. I decided to press on.

Well, during that day the weather got much worse, the seas got to a height of about 12 feet and rather short and steep, such that I was obliged to wedge myself between two solid surfaces in order not to go flying across the cabin. More than anything else it was exhausting — in rough conditions it takes a surprising amount of energy just to stay in one place.

My boat has a rather blunt bow (see Figure 1), a design compromise meant to maximize interior space, so it doesn't behave very well in high seas — a sufficiently high wave tends to collide with the bow and bring it to a stop. At one point during the passage, an especially large wave crashed into the bow and brought the boat almost to a stop. Everything in the cabin went flying — every cabinet door and every drawer flew open and released its contents. Every object not tied down flew forward through the cabin. Within about five seconds all stowed gear had become a disorganized pile on the cabin deck, along with several plastic organizers, which simply disintegrated as they released their contents.

Because I was still underway I decided not to try to re-stow my gear, realizing it would all go flying again in a few more minutes. It was a real mess, and the only reason I don't have a picture is because I couldn't hold a camera steady enough.

Because of the rough conditions, I wasn't making anything like 8½ knots, and the passage took much longer than I had estimated based on the weather forecast — a total of 17 hours. I finally arrived at Icy Bay about 23:00 hours (that's 11 PM for you civilians), anxious to clean up my cabin, have dinner and go to sleep. I went to the bow, released all the anchor chain, backed the boat up and tested the holding in a lazy, half-hearted way, without benefit of landmarks after dark. Mistake number one.

I cleaned up the mess caused by the rough passage, got everything stowed properly, made a quick dinner, and got ready to sleep. At this point the wind had decreased considerably, and I was confident that the boat would hold its position, so I didn't set up the anchor alarm (a GPS monitoring trick that sounds an alarm if the boat moves beyond a specified distance over time). Mistake number two.

Exhausted from the long passage, I quickly fell into a deep sleep. Toward morning I heard some funny noises, but I was too tired to process them in an efficient way. For example, a dish fell off the galley counter. I heard it fall but I didn't ask myself how a dish could fall off a level counter. Maybe I dreamed it anyway — I was in a composite state of consciousness where dream content freely mixed with the waking kind. Even though I was pretty sure that a dish had fallen in reality, I fell back to sleep. I would count this as another mistake, but I now realize the situation had already moved past remedy by quick action.

The next thing I knew, the cabin table fell over on me and shocked me awake. I knew it wasn't possible for the cabin table to fall over while sitting at anchor, and I quickly realized the boat wasn't floating any more. I leaped up, started the engine, and tried to scoot across the sand to escape. I was in a state of panic and certainly didn't think this action through — all I knew was that I might have grounded near the time of high tide and I might really be permanently trapped if I didn't take advantage of any opportunity to escape. But instead of moving the boat off the beach, my starting the engine only served to ruin the raw water pump impeller, a story told more fully here. Mistake number three.


I shut down the engine and, from that point onward, began to think more efficiently about what constructive actions to take. There was no getting around the fact that this was a very serious situation. I was in a wild place, far from any town, and I didn't know when the boat had gone aground — how close to high tide had the boat touched down on the beach? How much water height should I expect at the next high tide? Would the boat tilt and flood through the engine room vents? How strong would the wind be that day? Could I pull away from the beach using my anchor? I needed answers to all these questions.

As it happens, I am in a particularly good position to answer the tidal questions, because I wrote a tide prediction program called JTides (it's free), and my program has the ability to make minute-to-minute predictions about tidal height — This means I could use my program to determine a tidal height for any particular time of day.

So my first constructive actions were to get off the boat and watch for the moment when the water was just touching the boat's keel (about 15 minutes before the picture in Figure 1 was taken). I knew if I marked the time when the water just touched the keel on the falling tide, I could predict the time when the rising tide would refloat my boat (if I was fortunate enough for that to happen).

So I watched the tide descend across the keel, and marked the time — it was 6:15 local time. Then I started my computer, ran JTides and got a tidal height for Yakutat (the nearest tidal reporting station), July 21st 2009, 6:15. It was -1.3 feet, actually a very low tide, and lucky for me. Then I calculated the moment when my boat would float off the beach. I needed to find the next time with a tidal height of -1.3 feet, plus four feet (my boat draws four feet), or 2.7 feet. I got a predicted time of 10:15. I don't want to sound self-serving, but do you know how many tidal programs give you minute-to-minute tidal forecasts? Well, actually, I don't know any apart from my own.

So I knew I would almost certainly get off that beach, and when, but only if I could keep the boat from being blown higher on the beach as the wind picked up. This meant I had to establish that the anchor would hold the boat. A few minutes spent tugging on the anchor chain told me that I couldn't depend on the anchor's grip. Put another way, the anchor hadn't found anything to grip while dragging during the night, and I needed to find an alternative. But I couldn't trust that the wind would be mild or change direction — there was too much at stake.

Digging through my storage lockers, I found a ridiculously small Danforth anchor, maybe eight pounds, that I had intended to use with my dinghy, and I had a long, heavy line available, so I attached the Danforth to the line, launched my dinghy, put the anchor and line into the dinghy, and rowed in the direction of the wind until all the line had paid out — a couple hundred feet. I tossed the Danforth over the side and rowed back. I tensioned the anchor line and found it was actually holding very well, ironically better than the main, 45 pound CQR.

At that point I discovered something really embarrassing. It made no sense that the CQR was holding so poorly, unless it had gotten tangled up in itself (which sometimes happens) or it wasn't very far from the boat. But I had released all the anchor chain the previous night — or had I? I then discovered that the anchor chain had gotten all tangled up in its locker during the prior day's rough crossing, and only a small percentage of it had actually come out of the locker the previous night. I had not been paying enough attention and assumed that the full 300 feet was in the water. Mistake number four.

As the tide rose, I decided to kedge off the beach using the Danforth anchor and rode, which in spite of its size had shown itself to be holding very well. I chose this approach instead of trying to motor directly off the beach, because spinning the propeller in shallow water can dislodge rocks and ding the prop. There is also the risk that the boat will start moving under motor power while the keel is still touching the beach, but then as the boat begins to move, the prop might collide with a rock. This could be very serious. (Don't ask me why I didn't think of this earlier that morning when I tried to power off the beach when the boat was already keeled over and immovable.)

At the time predicted by JTides, the boat lifted off the sand and I began to reel in the little Danforth anchor. The boat obligingly moved against a light wind into deep water and I was able to start the engine and move the boat under its own power. I gathered up my anchors, moved out into the middle of the bay, and began departure preparations for the passage to Yakutat. But about five minutes later the engine high-temperature alarm went off, and I faced another crisis. I threw the big anchor overboard (this time it held) and stopped the engine. I eventually figured out that when I started the engine that morning, the boat was already sitting on sand, so the engine's raw water cooling pump couldn't draw any water, and that ruined the pump's impeller (impeller pumps can't be allowed to run dry). The pump repair is a separate, more technical story told more fully here.

  1. Darkness or no, I should have realized the anchor chain was tangled in its locker and wasn't deploying properly. Professional boaters in Alaska (fishermen and others) prefer a deck-mounted reel for their anchor rode, because it's more reliable, won't get tangled up, and the skipper can see how much of the rode has gone overboard. I'll just have to be more diligent about this, especially after a long, rough crossing.
  2. I should have activated the anchor alarm. That would have prevented the entire episode. I was complacent about Icy Bay because I have visited there so often and I know what the holding conditions are (pretty good, but if the anchor rode isn't long enough, all bets are off).
  3. I should have realized there was no point in starting the engine while on the beach. Because the boat wasn't sitting level, there was virtually no chance to move such a large boat by engine power. It could only have done damage, either to the engine or the propeller. I was lucky the only damage was to the pump impeller, and I had a spare on board.
  4. Always carry a spare anchor and rode. That stupid little Danforth was essential to this rescue story, and if you saw how small it is, you would laugh. The only reason it held was because I deployed it about 200 feet from the boat, at the end of my longest available line, in holding conditions that are known to favor Danforths (e.g. thick mud). When I first deployed it, I thought how silly it was and how it might not be up to the job of saving my boat. But later on, even though I was directly above it, I almost couldn't pull it out of the mud.
  5. I have to say that my boat (a Nordic Tug 37) isn't really meant for crossing the Gulf of Alaska. It has a nearly flat bottom, which is efficient in calm conditions but causes a lot of crashing and banging in rough seas. It has a blunt bow, which allows more inside space but is really unseaworthy and inefficient when things get rough. All these issues mean I have to watch the weather very carefully and avoid the worst conditions, but if I do that, I can safely operate in the Gulf. I should add that I have had mostly good experiences in Gulf crossings, and this episode resulted primarily from a completely wrong weather forecast.
  6. Based on my calculations and the tidal information from JTides (for Yakutat, July 21st 2009), my boat went aground at about 04:30 (a tidal height of 2.7 feet). By examining the JTides tidal curve for that day, I see that if the wind had blown a bit harder, if my anchor's holding had been a bit less, I might have gone aground at 02:30 instead (a tidal height of 9 feet) and I might never have gotten off the beach. That's a window of just two hours, and I slept through it.

Most of these points are pragmatic, representing issues where I could act differently and get different results. But point (6) is existential — it just is. It speaks to the role of chance in our lives.


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