North to Alaska

Oct 19, 2010

For many power voyagers, the challenges and rewards of high latitude cruising are a dream that is hard to resist. Fortunately, ocean trawlers such as those by boatbuilders like Nordhavn have made the dream of venturing into some of these remote uncharted waters a reality. But it takes more than just a solid boat with formidable range to make the trip a success. Passage making to many of these remote places without proper planning and equipment is not without serious risk. For any safe and successful voyage, meticulous attention to detail is essential — even more so if one plans to head north. Careful consideration must be given not only to route planning and weather, but also to some of the unique equipment requirements that cruising to remote high latitudes necessitates.

Josh Tofield and his wife, Natasha, cruise extensively in Alaska aboard their 40-foot Nordhavn Mark II, Samba. A former sailor, Tofield now spends about half the year cruising southwest Alaska and is wintering over this year on Kodiak Island. When asked what advice he had for those planning to explore the Alaska Peninsula he quickly pointed out that the farther west you dare to venture, the more self-reliant you need to be. While the seaworthiness of the vessel is an obvious prerequisite for venturing far afield there are plenty of additional considerations.

Topping his concerns is the ability to access weather broadcasts. “In southwest Alaska VHF weather is either unavailable or unreliable, so we depend on single-sideband broadcasts,” Tofield said. “When that fails, I use the Iridium satellite phone connected to our laptop computer or call weather directly. In the Gulf of Alaska and especially in the Shelikof Strait, weather is a real challenge. We have been faced with delays of as much as a week. It is very different than the southeast [where most of the yachts cruise in the summer].” “The farther west you go, the more remote is. You also need to rely on local knowledge and most fishermen are happy to share.”

In terms of electronics, Tofield believes in redundancy. Samba is equipped with two radars in addition to an AIS unit and a GPS-equipped laptop with Nobeltec software as a backup to the main chartplotter. He also stresses the importance of having a complete set of paper charts aboard as a fallback.

For safety gear Samba carries an inflatable life raft, abandon-ship kit and a survival suit for each crewmember. As a physician, Tofield has equipped the boat with an extensive formulary and with first aid-supplies including oxygen.

Remote anchorages also present unique challenges. In addition to his shore mooring lines, Tofield carries 400 feet of 3/8-inch anchor chain and an oversized 110-pound Bruce anchor. “I like big anchors. On the peninsula there are lots of anchorages where the swells are low but the wind tends to accelerate, 30 to 35 knots or more is not unusual,” he said. For heavy weather passages he also carries a parachute anchor and drogue.

Putting aside the challenging weather, Tofield also cautions voyagers on the risk they face from floating logs in southeast Alaska. Large floating kelp mats that are often entwined with fish netting are more of a risk as you move west. “We have Spurs Cutters on the prop, but that might not be enough [to clear a fouled net].” Tofield also carries a dry suit and scuba gear as a precaution.

Good quality diesel fuel is readily available at fishing outposts and canneries and Samba carries close to 1,000 gallons of fuel, so he doesn’t worry about the need to refuel. “We burn two to three gallons per hour at 7 knots, so additional fuel is not a concern,” Tofield said.

As for potable water, Tofield says that his cruising area presents a challenge for water makers. His Alaskan cruising grounds are rich in plankton, which, while good for the state’s fisheries, tends to clog watermakers. He uses a prefiltration system to keep his primary five micron filters clean and regularly taste tests his water before introducing it to Samba’s tanks. Tofield says that high concentrations of plankton will tend to give desalinated water a sulfur taste.

Tofield says that having simple systems is key when venturing out to remote regions without haul out facilities. He feels that his paravane stabilizer system is the best choice for Samba. The paravanes are simple and easy to deal with when compared to hull-mounted stabilizer systems that require haul out for repair in the event of damage or a malfunction. Also, at a speed penalty of between .5 to .75 of a knot, they are a fair trade-off for a smooth ride.

Another unique concern when traveling to remote locales are the risks associated when going ashore. “When you leave the boat and the dinghy, and land on some uninhabited beach you have to be ready for anything. We never leave the boat without a complete survival kit and everything we need to stay warm and dry. As with seamanship, you have to be prepared for anything,” he said. Tofield also stressed the danger posed by bears when visiting remote Alaskan beaches. He says that bears are dangerous and demand respect. “Bears will attack and can run 20 to 30 miles an hour. You have to be prepared and know how you plan to handle an attack — and be ready for it.” Tofield says that he always carries a shotgun when going ashore and emphasizes the need to know how to use it. He also warns cruisers about the damage that bears can do to inflatables. Bears have been known to puncture dinghies so be prepared with a pump and repair kit.

Next summer Tofield plans to venture farther west to Dutch Harbor and north to the Bering Sea. With a capable vessel, proper planning and the right equipment high latitude power voyaging, especially along the Alaska Peninsula, can be a rewarding experience. But like any other voyage it requires meticulous preparation, patience and judgment, especially when it comes to weather, to be a success. “We have learned to be patient,” Tofield said. “After all, our motto is ‘we do this for fun.’” Tofield is a USCG-licensed, 100-ton captain. He can be contacted by e-mail at captjtofield@gmail.com.

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