Aleutian ad-Venture

Tony Fleming | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 4
An American bald eagle surveys Dutch Harbor, on Amaknak Island in the Aleutians.
Tony Fleming made a career of building hardy, ocean going motoryachts with US marque Fleming Yachts – he also practises what he preaches, cruising to remote locations aboard his Fleming 65 Venture.

My Fleming 65 Venture has carried us in safety and comfort for more than 50,000nm since her construction in 2004. Venture is hull No 1 of the 65 series and has served as an ongoing test bed for new equipment and ideas.

The question running through my mind after completing a circumnavigation of Vancouver Island in 2014 was: where to next? We had previously been through the Panama Canal to the US east coast, with a side trip to the Galapagos Islands, and made several trips to Alaska from our base near Seattle. In 2013, we had braved the notorious Gulf of Alaska to spend a month in wonderful Prince William Sound.

I am drawn to wild and remote places and prefer to cruise to destinations hard to reach by any other means of travel. A study of the map of areas beyond Prince William Sound revealed a host of choice destinations which fit the bill. There were the fjords on the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island, Katmai on the Alaska Peninsula, plus the peninsula itself. Beyond are the Shumigan Islands, followed by the Aleutian Islands and Dutch Harbor, which would be our ultimate destination, even though the Aleutian chain continued west for another 1000 miles.

Weather is a major factor in areas such as this and it is always necessary to keep a few days in hand. ‘Weather permitting’ must be part of any plan to avoid making the mistake of putting to sea under marginal conditions simply to meet a schedule.

We would be exposed to the open waters of the gulf, but I knew we had a boat which had many times proved to be a capable open-sea boat and up to the task. Captain Chris Conklin, myself and Christine had covered many miles together, so we were well prepared to take on the journey which would, ultimately, cover 5000nm over four months. This journey ticked all the boxes.

NORTHWARD-BOUND

And so, with our destination decided, we departed Vancouver Island on April 9, 2015. Our route took us up the Inside Passage to Juneau in Southeast Alaska, where we arrived ahead of the cruise ships. It was strange to see the docks empty of the leviathans that normally occupy them.

The weather was good and the Gulf of Alaska gave us no trouble as we followed the rugged coast north to Prince William Sound. We revisited the delightful town of Cordova and stayed a couple of weeks while awaiting the arrival of millions of birds on their annual migration to the Copper River Delta on their way north. There was noticeably less snow than during our previous visit, even though, this time, it was much earlier in the season.

From here, we crossed Prince William Sound before making our way down the Kenai Peninsula, famous for its rugged and scenic fjords. The highlight was a visit to Northwest Glacier, where we flew our drone to take pictures from a unique perspective.

We ventured back into the gulf to make the open-sea crossing to the town of Kodiak on the island of the same name. In this vast and rugged area, you can count the names of significant towns on the fingers of one hand. Every one of them depends almost entirely on fishing – especially salmon – for their existence. When we arrived, the season had not yet started, but the harbour was abuzz with activity as commercial fishermen prepared their boats for the frenetic activity that lay ahead.

The state of Alaska has taken a unique approach to the management of its fisheries. Fish farms are banned and no large foreign vessels are permitted. Instead, fishing is in the hands of local fishermen and strictly controlled by quotas based on physical counts of the returning salmon. They also operate hatcheries and release the young salmon into the wild.

NATURAL HAZARDS

Like Cordova, Kodiak is an interesting town, full of interesting people. In 1912, it survived being buried in ash from the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century. In 1964, a tsunami triggered by a 9.2-magnitude earthquake wiped out downtown and the harbour while, in 1989, its fishing industry was devastated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

From Kodiak, we crossed the Shelikof Strait to the Alaskan peninsula on the mainland, where we visited Geographic Bay. In most of Alaska, bears are hunted and, very sensibly, flee at the sight of a human – but they’re protected in Geographic Bay and we were able to observe them in their natural habitat. We anchored deep within the recesses of the beautiful, multi-lobed bay and toured the shoreline in the tender. In a single day we observed 16 bears, which paid us little attention as they went about their daily business.

As we continued down the long Alaskan peninsula, we observed that this is a fierce land, raw and untamed. The waters may be visited by people in search of its bounty, but the land itself appears untouched and unvisited. Much of it has, undoubtedly, never encountered a human footstep. On almost every island, it is as if some cataclysmic force has sheared off the land where the coast meets the sea, creating fissured and shattered cliffs over a kilometre high, dropping sheer to the sea. In the Atlantic, these cliffs would be home to millions of shrieking birds, but here there is hardly one.

Further along the peninsula, we turned into Castle Bay – obviously so named because of the shape of the rocks on Castle Cape. It is 6nm to its head and we anchored in 65ft-deep water in the northern arm of Castle Bay. Here, the mountains rise an almost sheer kilometre from the water in a series of jagged spires, draped with mist. The vegetation at their base is verdant green. We spotted a mother bear and two cubs in the undergrowth, but they were far off and never came down to the beach.

The mist swirled around the peaks, sometimes concealing them and other times partially drawing back the gauzy curtain to highlight them with shafts of sunlight. This is perhaps the most dramatic anchorage we have ever encountered.

We continued down the Alaska Peninsula to the town of Sand Point in the Shumagin Islands, named after Nikuta Shumagin, a member of Bering’s expedition, who died of scurvy and was buried there in 1741. We waited a few days to rendezvous with George, our first guest.

ALEUTIAN ISLANDS

After leaving Sand Point, we anchored in Volcano Bay, close to the end of the volcano-strewn Alaska Peninsula and where the Aleutian chain of islands begins. We had expected to find shelter from the winds streaming south from the Bering Sea, but instead found ourselves battered by 40-knot, katabatic winds blowing unabated throughout the night. In the morning, the chartplotter showed that Venture had covered significant distance as she reacted to the erratic gusts – but the anchor did not drag. At the break of dawn, ominous and menacing clouds loomed over our heads.

We reached Dora Harbor on the Ikatan Peninsula mid-afternoon and, although two fish tenders (which receive the catch from smaller boats) were already at anchor in the outer section, we initially had the shallower inner section to ourselves. Soon, smaller stern pickers began to enter the inner bay – the first came over to welcome us and gave us a salmon, even though they said the season had got off to a slow start. Gradually, more boats appeared and we were presented with two more salmon. This kept George busy filleting the fish. Eventually, 20 boats rode peacefully at anchor, making a pretty sight against the pale-blue sky and green hillsides.

From Dora, we proceeded west along the south coast of Unimak, which is the first island in the Aleutian chain. The clouds lifted to reveal three of the four volcanoes on the island: Roundtop, Isanotski (also known as Ragged Jack due to its jagged summit) and Shishaldin – the latter is the most active and tallest at 9372ft (2856m). Although this is a large island, it lacks any good anchorages. At its western end, we turned north through Unimak Pass into the Bering Sea, where a 350m Cosco container ship, en route to Vladivostok, overtook us.

A strong southerly wind whipped up rough seas, especially in the gaps between Akun, Akutan and Unalga Islands. We sought refuge from the wild conditions in English Harbor – named for Captain Cook by the Russians. Cook first called here in June of 1778 and for three weeks in October of the same year, when his ships were in need of major repair after his return from Barrow in the far north. Here, we found ourselves in peaceful, almost pastoral, surrounds, in perfect calm. The surrounding hills appeared to be clothed with green velvet in the evening light and in the far distance we could see snow-capped Progromni Volcano on Unimak Island.

The following morning, we made our way over the remaining 20nm to Dutch Harbor, passing Priest Rock – a pinnacle which does, indeed, resemble a priest conducting prayers. On arrival in Dutch Harbor, we were directed to the new and well-equipped Carl E Moses marina. The power on the dock is three phase, which is only suitable for much larger vessels, for whom this marina was obviously built.

Correctly speaking, Dutch Harbor is but one of several harbours within the town of Unalaska. It is a pleasant place and very different from the impression conveyed by the TV program The Deadliest Catch. It was early in the season and huge stacks of brand-new, refrigerated containers were yet to be filled with salmon. Equally large stacks of crab pots were stored, awaiting the start of the king crab season in the dark and stormy days of January.

We had reached our farthest point west. From here, we returned east along a slightly different route, visiting Kodiak again from where we struck out across the middle of the Gulf of Alaska direct to Sitka in Southeast Alaska – a distance of 560nm, which took around 56 hours. We reached Sitka without incident and spent a few days in the area awaiting our next guest before heading home. We still had another 600nm to go before reaching our home base of Vancouver Island, where we arrived on August 10, having covered 5000nm in four months.

It was certainly a journey to remember.


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