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Old 25-07-2010, 11:51   #1
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Newbie Wanting to Sail to Alaska

Hello Everyone,

I'm relatively new to the sailing scene and I would like to work towards sailing up the Inside Passage up to Alaska in the Summer of 2011. I have a San Juan 24" and have about 3 years of experience sailing Desolation Sound (so I am very aware of the dangers of strong currents) and along the Gulf Islands on the East Coast of Vancouver Island. I would like to get some advice on people who have done this trip before.

I would like to get some opinions as to whether or not its reasonable to attempt this trip on a San Juan 24. I know this boat is a great little racer/cruiser and is really hard to sink and handles well in a wide variety of conditions. I'm reasonably sure it can handle anything the Inside Passage can throw at it as long as I wait for slack tides to go through areas with strong currents and I just wait out bad weather when it occurs (I'm thinking of taking 2 months to do the trip so I should have plenty of time). The part I'm not sure about is the open water of Queen Charlotte Sound (from Port Hardy to the Inside Passage on the BC Coast). I know the seas can be relatively calm there but can also be somewhat unpredictable. My approach would be to wait in Port Hardy until we have a good window for weather and make a run for it. Is it reasonable to attempt this crossing on a 24' boat and how long would it take?

I don't have any experience on the open seas (my trips have all been in the relatively protected waters of Desolation Sound and Georgia Straight) but I plan on trying to get some ocean experience prior to the trip and going out with some very experienced sailors to learn more and how to handle big seas.

I also plan on having enough basic equipment to do the trip (VHF and Sideband radio, GPS unit (maybe 2 in case of a breakdown), 2 outboard motors (again in case of a breakdown). I wanted to ask if having charts is necessary if I have 2 GPS units with built-in charts (one is a handheld unit). I wasn't planning on installing a radar unit.

I would have many other questions but for now I would like to get some feedback on the issues I mentioned above. Thanks to everyone in advance for your advice.

Windancer Skip

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Old 25-07-2010, 12:26   #2
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We did this trip a few years ago aboard our 36 foot steel cutter. Then continued across the Gulf of Alaska to Prince William Sound and are now in Homer, Alaska. That being said, there is a lot of motoring in the inside passage and having a heater was key. It rains a lot and you could be stuck someplace for days.

We found having paper charts for planning and backup to our plotter key.

We used our radar a handful of times and each time I was VERY glad we had it.

Crossing Queen Charlotte Sound is only 28 miles with good anchorages on both sides. I would head out of Port Hardy to Clam Cove and wait there.

Crossing Dixon Entrance is longer, but you can hide in Dundas Harbor on the Canadian side, it's 78 miles to Ketchikan, and took us 2 days.

If you go, take the Don Douglas and Renee Hemingway Douglas guides, we used them every day.

One thought would be to trailer our boat to Port Hardy and leave from there. Thus skipping the nastiness that can be the Strait of Georgia.

Email me if you have any specific questions.

s/v Bluewater
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Old 25-07-2010, 14:39   #3
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Thanks for your feedback

Hi Bluewater,

Thanks for responding to my thread. I hope you are having a great time up there. I had a couple of questions for you.

How much fog did you run into?

What were the biggest seas you ran into?

How often can I expect to fuel up once I reach the Inside Passage?

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Old 26-07-2010, 14:24   #4
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Fog, Fuel and Seas


Not to much fog, but it never really weighed heavily on us since we have and trust our radar. We did have LOTS of fog coming across Dixon entrance.

Biggest seas in the Inside passage. 7-10 feet. But only a few times. We had the luxury of time so we never really traveled in crappy weather. It was bumpy when we started across QCS but turned into a lovely day and we ended up sailing 2/3rds of the way. It was also bumpy across Dixon Entrance and in to Ketchikan. Watch your tides/currents and wind direction.

Another spot that can usually get nasty is the 80 miles of Johnstone Strait, but we just waited for a cool day (no sea breeze) and nice big ebb tide -- pay attention to the eddies.

As for fuel, you would have to be strategic, as there are long stretches - especially in Northern BC where there is no fuel available.

There is a pretty good overview map you could get, to help you understand the lay of the land there.

Route Planning Maps

Good luck with your trip. It is amazing and will take as much time as you have.

s/v Bluewater
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Old 04-09-2010, 00:10   #5
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Hi Pierre,

We did this trip in 2006, and Bluewater's advice in spot on, in my opinion. We hurried through it and wish we had taken more time, but we hadn't yet learned the evils of sailing to a schedule. Here's a link to a write-up I did on our trip. The same thing is available to SSCA members on the web site under Additional Publications, but that version has waypoints.

As I recall, our worst seas were in Johnstone Strait on our return when we could have slowed down and waited, but we were tired of having so many people on our boat. We did have fog, though, and I wouldn't do the trip without radar. When we did it, Canadian paper charts were required, and we used paper charts in Alaska too. We were glad we had them when our chartplotter went on the blink. It's definitely a good idea to have a back-up GPS. Although we didn't need it on that trip, we have lost our primary GPS (in a gale, no less) and had to rely on our hand held until we could get it fixed.

I don't see any reason you couldn't do the trip in your boat. More power to you.
Shirlee Smith
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Old 04-09-2010, 09:21   #6
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Hi Pierre,

We’ve been doing the Inside Passage beyond Desolation Sound since 1994, in small power boats (22 C-Dory and 26 foot diesel cruiser). The whole summer nine times so far.

Two months is barely enough time if you’re going up to northern SE AK and back. Three months or more would be much better. Most often we do either the BC coast (launching in Bellingham) or SE Alaska (launching in Prince Rupert) for 2.5-3 months. Have done the whole coast only once, in 3.5 months. Our preferred traveling speed is generally 6.5 knots, though we can go 14-18 knots if we choose. We typically cover only 30-40 nm per traveling day.

Longest stretch without fuel may be about 135 nm (Hartley Bay to Bella Bella in northern BC). It’s about 125 nm from Petersburg to Juneau, but add 50-60 nm if you wish to do the fabulously beautiful Tracy Arm along the way. It’s about 130 nm from the Glacier Bay entrance station up to the Margerie Glacier and back.

How fast can you travel under power? Sometimes even main channels have 1.5-2.5 knots current in spring tides.

Pay close attention to VHF weather radio, and be careful of wind vs tide. Have anchorage and bailout anchorages planned. I highly recommend the Douglass cruising guides. BTW, plan for as much as 23 feet tidal range in anchorages.

Crossing the Queen and the Dixon are not too tough, if you wait for decent conditions. Wind vs tide is a crucial factor. Check forecast and actual conditions at key points. You should plan for 40-50 nm of significantly exposed waters (depending on wind direction) in either case.

Radar is highly desirable, though we did SE Alaska in our C-Dory once without it.

Here are links to some photos:

Presently sitting in Ketchikan, waiting for decent weather to head south across the Dixon. Happy to discuss further,
Richard Cook
Dream Catcher (Nordic Tug 37)
"Cruising in a Big Way"
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Old 04-09-2010, 10:15   #7
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Queen Charlotte Sound is doable I think in a San Juan. One just has to be aware of the weather and make allowances for skirting around storms or running into port to wait things out.

Radar would be extremely helpful, as there are a lot of big boys out there along the inside passage: tour charters, yachts, fishing trawlers, ferries, merchant traffic, and cruise ships. One can have fog as well, though it usually lifts by noon; still recently I was in fog for two days before it finally lifted. There can also be considerable rain which like fog can reduce visibility to a mile or less.

You may need to do some motoring, until reaching QCS, so be mindful of your fuel supply. Perhaps you biggest problem going North will be wind direction. Out in QSC and into Hecate Strait, the wind can be fairly light at times, 5 kts or less, but generally coming from the NW. Just recently, in the southern part of Hecate Strait I found myself virtually becalmed in waters as still as a mill pond for a day or so, only to get caught up in a developing gale a day later. If you are following the coast, this will be at odds with sailing and you may not make a lot of headway. The wind can also be quite variable in direction locally, but it would be a good idea to sail west to about 129*W and make your run up the Sound on a N or NE heading. That way you can at least utilize sail instead of motors as you work your way close hauled to the wind.
'Tis evening on the moorland free,The starlit wave is still: Home is the sailor from the sea, The hunter from the hill.
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Old 16-10-2010, 09:19   #8
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I have lived on and commercially fished Southeast Ak for 27 years. Get current tables! I personally would not be without my paper charts. I use them in combination with my various nav programs. Don't travel at night without radar! During high tides, the waters can be full of woody debris and the occasional deadhead. Patience is the best attitude for the small boat owner. NOAA Juneau graphical forecasts are great and amazingly accurate for localized predictions of wind and wave. Come explore up here! It is wild and spectacular.
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Old 16-10-2010, 10:01   #9
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I would encourage you to read Jonathan Raban's "Passage to Juneau" available at Amazon here.

This is what one of the readers' reviews of the book says"
"Unlike several fine reviewers here at, I have not previously been exposed to the work of J Raban. As is often my style, I bought the book blind, being interested in the geographical setting of the story. I had half expected to immerse myself in a lengthy, technical and somewhat drowsy account of a sailing voyage conducted in the throes of a midlife crisis. I was very pleasantly surprised to find my preconceptions unraveled within the first three chapters. Raban writes with a depth and sincerity which belies his rather simple (and refreshing) use of narrative.

The story of one man's journey on a surprisingly deep and sometimes threatening sea (right here in North America no less) becomes vital when wedded to the parallel journey Raban shares with us of his own changes and demons.

The references to George Vancouver skillfully drew atmosphere over the skeleton of what, in a lesser author's pen, would have become a brittle tale of --on this day, I sailed to here-- gruel. Raban does a wonderful job of weaving a cohesive story from divergent threads including events relating to his actual sailing, his father, Northwest Native history and bloody ol' Captain Van. For 450 pages I had trouble putting this book down, and one morning woke up in Ketchikan... until my alarm clock rudely reminded me I was still in Orange County. Yes, it is a personal story, to the point of causing me to feel a little voyeuristic in places. I heartily recommend it."
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Old 06-01-2012, 22:52   #10
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Re: Newbie Wanting to Sail to Alaska

Summer 2011 is now over...Windancer Skip, did you do the IP? Do share!

s/v Bluewater
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