2018 Waggoner Guide Flotilla

The 2018 Waggoner Guide Flotilla to Alaska, which left in May and arrived in Ketchikan on May 31, was a big success. Eight boats made it safely to Ketchikan and we learned a lot along the way and are all better mariners as a result. They are now off exploring in Southeast Alaska and some are already back to their home ports. The trip was great fun and there were some challenges along the way with weather and boat issues as you shall see in Part 2 of the 2018 Waggoner Guide flotilla report.

Next years Alaska Flotilla will be leaving Anacortes on Monday, May 20th and arrive in Ketchikan around June 7-8. So far the group is about half booked with people eager to join us for this trip. To learn more and sign up click here.

Port McNeill to Ketchikan

Monday, May 21

Port McNeill is a good break point on the way to Southeast Alaska. The town is set for provisioning and North Island Marina is a convenient spot to refuel and be ready to go for the 65-mile leg crossing Cape Caution and on to Fury Cove. We started watching the weather about a week before by consulting the NOAA Ocean Prediction Center’s 24, 48, 72 and 96 hour Surface Analysis Forecast. The forecast is based upon computer models that determine the progress of High and Low weather systems moving easterly across the Pacific Ocean. We had been watching several Lows and an approaching High. It appeared the High-pressure area would arrive around the time of our planned crossing. We had a day or two tucked into the schedule in case we needed to delay our departure.

The rule of thumb is usually to watch the West Sea Otter Weather Buoy to make a go for crossing decision when the conditions for the seas are less than 1 meter high and 8-10 seconds.

Weather Delay

We set a departure time for 4 a.m. which also coincided when the morning weather forecast would be released. The alarm was set for 3:45 a.m. and I started checking all of my weather sources. The West Sea Otter Buoy was reporting seas of 1.4 meters and 6-8 seconds. Environment Canada Marine was reporting stronger winds during the day. It was iffy, and I scrubbed the 4 a.m. departure based on the forecasts, which are based on computer models. Most of the computer models were winds up to 20-25 knots. Not promising for a smooth crossing and we needed to wait for more promising reports. Around 7 a.m. some boats wanted to depart in order to maintain the schedule. The forecasts had improved slightly but not much.

After daylight, I checked the lighthouse reports and met with the captains of the boats. The lighthouse reports contradicted the forecasts where the Pine Island Lighthouse was reporting “Seas Rippled” with a low swell for the beginning of the trip and the Egg Island Lighthouse observation was for 1-foot seas with the low westerly swell. I made the decision that it would be safe and set a 10 a.m. departure that would have us cruising most of the day with an arrival at Fury Cove around 6 p.m.

The trip turned out to be relatively smooth. The computer forecasts were wrong and the human observers in the lighthouses were right! An important lesson on why it is good to gather information from multiple sources.

We spent the evening at anchor in Fury Cove with an appetizer potluck party on the 70’ Pacific Mariner yacht.

Tuesday, May 22

We had a short run to Pruth Bay ahead of us on Fitz Hugh Sound. True to our briefing, we needed to keep our eyes open for whales. Cruising in light rain, a half-hour after we started a whale spouted up ahead.

We anchored in protected Pruth Bay around 11:30 a.m. and organized a hike through the grounds of the Hakai Institute and out the trail to the West Beach area. Despite a light rain, the view from the beach was beautiful. A few hearty souls followed First Mate Margaret for a hike up to North Beach. We canceled the potluck on the docks due to the rain, and we dined on our boats or visited others.

Wednesday, May 23

We delayed for an hour due to heavy fog and left using radar for the first four miles. This was an almost 50-mile day up Fitz Hugh Sound and off to Cousins Inlet for the passage to the ghost town of Ocean Falls. This used to be a mill town of about 3,000 with a swimming pool, schools, stores, homes and even high rise buildings. When the mill closed down in the 1970s, most everyone just picked and left. Homes were abandoned. The church was left with the piano and hymnals still there. The government stepped in and bulldozed a lot of the homes before some of the few remaining residents protested, and the homes were left. Some are just starting to be re-occupied. There are no roads to Ocean Falls, and everything comes in by boat, ferry or floatplane. There are two inns and a saloon that is sometimes open. Walking down the streets is spooky as some homes are in the beginning stages of restoration and the rest are being reclaimed by mother nature.

Dinner that night was with the entire group packed into a floating house on the dock called “The Shack.” Everyone brought something to share, along with their favorite beverage. We had a good time. The mayor of Ocean Falls and marina owner, Herb Carpenter, even stopped by to say hello to our group.

Thursday, May 24

This was our day to travel to the local town of Shearwater and Bella Bella, a 22-mile passage through the narrow passage of Gunboat Pass. We were greeted by a large banner welcoming the Waggoner Guide Flotilla to Shearwater. Once in Shearwater, many re-fueled, added to their provisions or beverage stock and some took the sea bus to nearby Bella Bella. The new band grocery store in Bella Bella is very impressive. Margaret led a tour of the town and the senior center. That evening we dined together in the pub with a special multi-course meal prepared just for our group by the chef at Shearwater. It was excellent!

Friday, May 25

With full fuel and water in our tanks, we were off to Reid Passage, Percival Narrows and then our overnight anchorage at Rescue Bay. Some dined on their boats, and a few in the group joined other boats for dinner. A nice quiet evening in a beautiful anchorage.

Saturday, May 26

We departed in a misty rain which covered the top of the nearby mountains. We cruised up to the majestic Kynoch Falls where all of the boats and crews passed in front of the falls for their trip picture. This area is called Fjordland due to the deep and steep fjords. Mother nature showed off her rainy best with waterfalls all along the way. Impressive. The evening was spent in light rain in Windy Bay, which was very calm despite its name.

Sunday, May 27

Our payoff for this 56-mile day was Bishop Bay Hot Springs. Almost everyone in the group took their dinghy in and enjoyed soaking in the covered hot springs in the light rain. Our planned potluck on the dock turned into a progressive dinner on three of the larger boats.

The real excitement started in the middle of the night. The wind picked up, and some of the boats started to drag in the deep anchorage. Three shrimp fishing boats rafted together near the dock started to drag. Two of the Ranger Tugs rafted to the dock started to rock pretty aggressively. The shrimp boats moved over and tied to the dock after almost swinging into one of our large boats on a stern-tie off the beach. Not everyone got a good nights sleep.

Monday, May 28

In the morning the Nordic Tug could not raise its anchor. The anchor chain had become wrapped around one of the mooring buoys. But which way was it wrapped? More importantly, which way did the Tug need to go to unwrap the chain. First mate Margaret stayed behind to see what assistance she could provide. Carl and Margaret were just about to give up and cut the chain, leaving close to a $1000 in anchor and chain on the bottom. They worked the problem and started a process of circling the buoy to see when the chain tightened (wrong way) and when it got longer (correct way). After many circles, they figured out the right way to unwind and were able to release the chain and anchor. They rejoined the group about an hour later and then caught up with the group for our arrival in Lowe Inlet, a 50-mile passage. Everyone worked out their anchoring strategy.

For Searaven, I anchored in the outflow of the waterfall where the current kept the deep-set anchor firmly in place. We did have one problem to troubleshoot when an anchor line on one of the Ranger Tugs got sucked into the bow thruster, breaking the thruster blade and shearpin. Not a major problem but the Tug would have to continue on without the use of the thruster and with the line hanging down from the deck until parts and repairs could be worked out in Ketchikan. The night was pleasant at anchor with the waterfall at the head of Lowe Inlet lulling us to sleep.

Tuesday, May 29

We timed our departure from Lowe Inlet to coincide with the current on Grenville Channel. It was against us to start and then just a few miles up it switched to favor our direction.

The current information is not in Ports and Passes or the Canadian Hydrographic Tides and Currents books. When we looked at the Navionics Tide and Current information for Grenville Channel we noticed through deduction that it is based on data from Wrangell, Alaska! We will be investigating this issue further.

Grenville Channel is a critical waterway with significant currents. Timing is critical not so much for safety but for efficiency and speed.

We continued through the day on our 60-mile passage to Prince Rupert. We had one interesting sighting. There was a plume of water behind something headed north and running close to the islands in Arthur Passage. It was four jet skis headed to Prince Rupert from Seattle. What a way to go! 40mph and pounding up and down. We ended up getting more of the story in Prince Rupert when we saw the four jet skis sitting in a slip in the Cow Bay Marina. They looked like floating fuel bombs with multiple red five-gallon fuel jugs lashed onto the back portion of the jet ski. We are told they do a four-six hour day and then need a break. Let’s see; that is 160-240 miles per day for four-five days. What a vacation.

We arrived at the Cow Bay Marina around 3:30 p.m. Some crews stopped at the fuel dock to take on fuel for crossing Dixon Entrance to Ketchikan the next day. Our group dinner was at the Cowbay Café, just above the marina. The food was fantastic and our group was pretty excited. We were almost to Alaska.

I watched the weather for our crossing of Dixon Entrance. The NOAA Surface Analysis and Forecast looked very promising and we planned for departure at daybreak – 4:30 a.m.

Wednesday, May 30

Our early departure was before the town of Prince Rupert woke up. Conditions at the East Dixon Entrance weather buoy were reported to be just under four feet and nine seconds. Looking good but we hoped for better.

It was better! In fact, I would call the sea conditions rippled with a small swell in some areas near Cape Fox, basically a very smooth crossing. We pinched ourselves as we transited up Tongass Narrows after an 85-mile passage. We skipped stopping at Foggy Bay. (When you have good weather for a crossing, you take advantage of it.) We arrived in Ketchikan and refueled at the Petro Marine fuel dock. We had sent all of our information to U.S. Customs beforehand and they were standing by at the fuel dock to clear us into the United States. Because they had the information, all they needed to do was verify our passports and then welcome us to Alaska.

Our group then split up and went to our respective anchorages in Thomas Basin, Casey Moran, and Bar Harbor marinas. Several of us, including the Offshore 58 Carisima were able to find coveted spots at Casey Moran since we were planning on leaving our boats unattended in Ketchikan for a few days while we flew out for other business. For some, Ketchikan was a stop for provisioning and repairs before taking off for different locations in Southeast Alaska.

Thursday, May 31

This was the official last day of our trip and it was time for a celebration. It was only fitting that we met at the Alaska Fish House above Thomas Basin. It turns out this is also the finish line for the “Race to Alaska – R2AK” in another week. We started with a chart talk where questions and trip planning details were exchanged for those who wanted more information on their different destinations and the eventual trip home.

The 2018 Waggoner Guide Flotilla was outstanding. The crossings were safe and comfortable. We had relatively good weather along the way. When the weather was marginal, we were in protected waters. We had plenty of boat problems, but most were minor and solved along the way. Xtra-Tuff, the Seahorse 52 who had to drop out in Port McNeill, got their problems resolved along the way and made it as far as Prince Rupert about a week after the rest of the group. Quite an accomplishment.

Most of all the group made friends for life. Whether it be at marinas or the boat shows, they will be saying hello and comparing stories for years to come. This group formed a special bond, and they made it! For the rest of summer, there were group email sharing locations visited and reports of experiences. Some had to get back sooner rather than later and expedited trips south. I ran into flotilla participants still excited about the experiences from the trip as I traveled south doing work updating the Waggoner Cruising Guide.