Good things multiply on the way to the Last Frontier

Our chartered Nordic Tug named Osprey shares a dock with a burley Canadian tug named La Fille at Ford’s Cove on Hornby Island, British Columbia.

ONE OF MY NEW FRIENDS told me about a good way to work through difficult times: Every day, write down three good things that happened that day.

I tried it, and it has turned into my journal for our voyage to Alaska. Here are my entries for the first few days, featuring me and my three crewmates: Barbara Marrett and Bill Watson, from Friday Harbor, and Carol Hasse, from Port Townsend.

Saturday, May 28

  1. We departed on our great adventure to Alaska.
  2. We saw orcas! Just off Flattop Island as we motored from Bellingham to Sidney. Spouting and surfacing again and again. We throttled down, veered away, and oohed and ahhed.
  3. At the Sidney, B.C. customs dock, we met an extremely friendly and helpful crew of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol boat. (On the side of the big, modern vessel was the silhouette logo of a Mountie on a horse.) They were the nicest federal agents you ever could meet. They gave us tips on where to find hot springs and great crabbing as we head up the British Columbia coast. O, Canada!

Early in the day, oil-pressure doubts delayed our Bellingham departure. The gauge was reading well below what the owner’s cheat sheet recommended (55 rather than 70-90), but after we took our worries to the charter office, Matt the mechanic came and gave his OK. We were misinterpreting the gauge reading as kilograms instead of PSI – pounds per square inch. Oh, well. Better cautious than stranded dead in the water.

We motored through nice, pancake-flat seas most of the way to Sidney. Caught a counter-current along the shore of Speiden Island, which sported a gorgeous, seasonally transitional mix of green and brown hillsides, sculpted like a shapely gelatin mold. Stately oaks punctuated hillsides grazed by Japanese deer, which previous owners of the island had imported long ago as part of a misguided exotic-game hunting scheme, briefly renaming the isle “Safari Island.”

Osprey skirts the shore of Speiden Island.

Carol donned her knitted maple-leaf tuque hat (complete with dorky chin straps and a beany on top) to raise the Canadian courtesy flag as we crossed the international border on Haro Strait. We sang the two bars of Canada’s anthem that we knew. I vow to learn the words before the voyage’s end.

Crew member Carol Hasse, aka Sea Goddess, raises the Canadian courtesy flag as Osprey crosses Haro Strait.

Sunday, May 29

Three good things today:

  1. How helpful and kind my three friends were when I, taking a turn at the helm, totally botched the dock departure from Port Sidney marina. (I looked at the side-thruster toggles and couldn’t for the life of me figure out which one to use as I backed out. For those familiar with the holiday film “A Christmas Story,” I pulled a Total Ralphie. “Football? What’s a football?”)
  2. On the way to Nanaimo, we navigated and transited our first major marine challenge, Dodd Narrows. We perfectly timed it, got there an hour before slack water and didn’t get stuck behind the waiting tug with a long raft of logs. We smiled and waved at a small crowd of spectators sitting on the rocky shore watching boats maneuver the often-swirling waters. Apparently it’s entertainment when you live in Nanaimo.
  3. We snagged a buoy tucked into pretty Mark Bay at Newcastle Island Provincial Park, with a smashing view across the harbor of downtown (with its three high-rise – 25-story? – buildings, which I don’t remember from when I was last there about 20 years ago). After a happy hour on Osprey’s sun-drenched rooftop, we went for a walk in Hasse’s “favorite park in the world” to see the big old-fashioned dance hall and lovely views of anchored freighters. Then all four of us scrunched into the dink to buzz across to neighboring Protection Island, a few hundred yards away, for dinner at the Dinghy Dock Restaurant, accessible only by boat. (A giant bowl of clam chowder for me.)
Nanaimo at sunset, as seen from our delightful moorage at Newcastle Island.

Monday, May 30

Three good things today:

  1. After lots of angst, angst, angst about the day’s planned destination of Comox, for which we didn’t have proper charts, the anchorage sounded dodgy, and the departure involved transiting a very iffy bar, we bailed on that idea. As we passed the gorgeous lighthouse on Chrome Island, we spied little Ford’s Cove Marina on neighboring Hornby Island. Hasse and I asked ourselves, “Why not here instead?” It would add just 12 miles to our planned 30-mile day tomorrow, I discovered with a quick flick of dividers on the nautical chart. So we headed in and tied up in one of the homiest, funkiest little non-tourist marinas this side of Mexico. We were the only visiting boat among an earthy, friendly community of locals and liveaboards who were out sanding rails and leaning against pilings. They reminded me of the Scottish townspeople in the movie “Local Hero.” A great little store, well-stocked, stood a few feet from a building housing terrible, stinky pit toilets. “Sorry, we’ve no running water,” explained the charmingly accented young harbormaster as we paid our $50 Canadian for a night.
  2. While Barbara and Carol went for a walk to a waterfall and other scenic wonders, I hung with Bill and prepared dinner: salmon steaks marinated in soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sesame oil and turmeric, with grilled fresh asparagus and quinoa with olive-oil toasted almonds. On our rooftop, we dined in the sun and listened to eagle calls and the echoing kettle-drum thumping of a woodpecker on a dead tree high on a wooded hillside above us. In the distance: snow-frosted mountains on Vancouver Island. Sublime!
  3. We ended the day with a lively round of Barbara and Bill’s favorite board game, “Ticket to Ride.” I almost won, laying down a rail route from Seattle to Montreal, but Barbara edged me out. Bill and I agreed to get up early the next day and shove off while the women slept in, so we could catch the tides right for our passage of dreaded Cape Mudge (you have to say it with a droning voice of fear, which Barbara has mastered) on the way to Campbell River, our stop for the night. I sat on the rooftop and wrote in my journal as the sun sank behind the mountains and a refreshing chill settled over the cove. The morning would bring rain, dramatic mists, and more adventures.
One of the full-of-character project boats at Ford’s Cove.

Voyaging to The Last Frontier in 2022

Osprey is a Nordic Tug 37 that began its life as a mobile clinic serving remote Alaskan villages.

I HAVE A HAPPY NEW OBSESSION, a good distraction, a great adventure for which to prepare over the next 11 months

A year from now, friends and I are taking a 37-foot Nordic Tug called “Osprey” on a 10-week voyage up the Inside Passage to Alaska.

For any serious Pacific Northwest boater, the Inside Passage is a temptation, if not a dream. When my dear wife passed away in April and I faced this uncharted future, one of my first “What Do I Do Now?” thoughts was to renovate our old Westsail 32 sailboat, Sogni d’Oro, and take her to Alaska. It wouldn’t be the boat’s first time; when we bought the boat in 1989 from a Bainbridge Island plumber, the home port on the stern read Ketchikan. In subsequent years the boat’s been a veteran of the Baja Bash and many San Juan Islands explorations.

But it’s also been an innocent victim of deferred maintenance in recent years when I’ve had other things on my mind, and projects have a way of piling up. Bringing Sogni d’Oro back to ocean-cruising readiness could drive a 100,000-ton freighter through my 401k. While the 1,000-mile saltwater route from Puget Sound to Glacier Bay threads inside islands wherever possible, enjoying significant protection from the open sea most of the way, the voyage is no doddle. You need a stout boat properly equipped. Like me, Sogni d’Oro is getting older, and while not ready for permanent drydock, she’s a little tired.

So when my Friday Harbor friends Barbara Marrett and Bill Watson told me of their ambitions for an Inside Passage voyage in the summer of 2022 and asked if I’d like to sign on as crew on their chartered vessel, I didn’t have to think hard.

I first got to know Barbara Marrett through a book she co-authored about sailing the South Pacific, “Mahina Tiare: Pacific Passages,” which to this day occupies a bookshelf on Sogni d’Oro. Later in my travel writing career, we got acquainted through her job as communications director for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. Her partner, Bill, retired from a tech career and recently completed a term as a San Juan County councilman.

Barbara holds a 100-ton captain’s license, meaning she’s officially qualified to pilot vessels up to that size. While she likes sea voyages, she and Bill don’t especially enjoy organizing trips. As a travel writer, that sort of thing is my forte. I happily took on the task of finding a boat. (Toss the kid the candy-store keys!)

Barbara’s desired parameters: a boat with two staterooms, plus a cozy cabin with big windows for enjoying the scenery full of breaching whales, beach-roving bears and calving glaciers. That ruled out most sailboats, which mostly feature small portholes or narrow windows.

It took only a few days on the internet before I stumbled on a charter boat that ticked almost every box I could think of: reliable big diesel powerplant with 1,000-mile cruising range, modern navigation equipment, forced-air heat, a queen-sized berth as well as twin-sized bunks, a new RIB dinghy with 20-horse outboard easily launched from davits, two kayaks for exploring remote bays, 300 feet of anchor chain…and much more. The boat was Osprey, listed with San Juan Yachting Charters in Bellingham.

Built in 2006, Osprey originally served two doctors who used her as a mobile clinic visiting remote oceanfront communities in Alaska. The current owners, Nick and Anna Davidson, bought Osprey and completely refitted her for charter in 2018. They’ve expressed delight at our plans to return the boat to Alaska waters; they plan the same trip aboard her in 2023.

In a couple weeks, Bill, Barbara and I will meet them aboard Osprey in Friday Harbor and talk about our plans. They’ve asked us for a wish list of improvements they could make to the boat before we set out next May. I like the boat and I like these owners.

I’m already immersing myself in planning and prep, including reading acclaimed British travel writer and novelist Jonathan Raban’s “Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings,” the story of his sailing trip from Seattle, his adopted home, up the Inside Passage in the 1990s. “Alaska liked to advertise itself as ‘The Last Frontier,’ a slogan tinged with self-canceling whimsy since it appeared on vehicle registration plates, courtesy of the state licensing department,” Raban wrote. “If the phrase could now be held to mean anything at all, it belonged to the sea, not the land; and the sea around Alaska was a real wilderness, as wild and lonely as any territory in the American past.”

Admittedly, his voyage pre-dated the multiplicative inundation by today’s monster cruise ships carrying as many as 5,000 passengers each. But much remains wild in water and on shore once the big ships have passed by.

Can’t wait.