Alaska Part 2 – Tracy Arm

We left Petersburg very early in the morning (due to the tide).  Despite planning to hit slack water the last couple of nm out of Wrangell Passage, we had a following current running at least 4 knots.

Oh well, rather a following current that a contrary current.  When we exited the Passage, the current just evaporated and we would begin our sail to Tracy Arm.

We’ve been told that Tracy Arm is more than fantastic, a couple of people have said that “indescribable” doesn’t do it justice.  Tracy Arm has a “Tidewater Glacier”, meaning the glacier calves directly out into the water, which also means you can sail right up to the face (if you’re brave enough).

All that about sailing right to the face needs to be taken with a grain of salt when you have a fiberglass boat – ice can easily cut a hole in fiberglass.  There was something about ship called Titanic (or something like that) that had a nasty experience with an iceberg.  But, this is a place where all our sailing makes sense – Tracy Arm is a place you can only get to by boat.

We chugged along all day, it drizzled (what else is new?) and was cold (what else is new?) and we looked forward to dropping the hook so we could go below and get warm.

Don’t start thinking from the above that this sail was boring – we were surrounded by mountains capped with snow, the whales were spouting alongside the boat, seals popped up and looked at us curiously and of course, we were surrounded by all the other wildlife that is up here.  We enjoyed it, but the cold managed to penetrate our woolen caps and our sweaters and foulies.  We were chilled to the bone.

We approached the entrance to Tracy Arm.  Our Pilot Book notes that there is a good anchorage just inside the entrance.  The entrance is narrow but marked by both a red and a green buoy (what luxury!).  The Pilot Book also noted that they were not to be trusted since the ice frequently moved them.  As the book noted; “Do not stray from the line marked on the charts.  The water is shallow and rocky outside the channel.” 

Ok. Got that.  What are we doing here?

The buoys looked like they were where they were supposed to be and we entered without issue.  Perhaps the warnings in the book were at bit exaggerated.

We would find out later that the warnings were NOT exaggerated, they were more like understated, but we’ll get to that later (yes, indeed we will – scary as all get out – this is what’s known as a “cliff-hanger”).

The anchorage was, as most anchorages up here, beautiful.  We found a spot, dropped the hook and could enjoy the view (impressive – just look at the pictures and videos), have a glass of wine and make dinner.  When you’ve been chilled to the bone and are tired, the bunk starts singing a serenade early in the evening.  Vinni and I crawled under the covers early.  Besides, we had to get up early to catch the tide going into Tracy Arm.

We were lucky with the weather the next morning – still cold, but the sun was shining from clear skies.

Now we could start our once-in-a-lifetime sail into Tracy Arm.  The narrow pass is twenty-two nautical miles long and we met the first iceberg as soon as we cleared the anchorage.  Hereafter we sailed like we were slalom skiing between ice floes and icebergs.  Each of them had an individual shape, each more beautiful than the last.  Some were white, some blue and some completely transparent.  We took way too many pictures.

Seal mama and her pup. Mama has a watchful eye on us
The icebergs have fantastic shapes and colors.
There are waterfalls everywhere.
Seals and their pups abound.
Indescribably beautiful.
It is easy to run out of adjectives when you sail here.
There is ice everywhere
This Bald Eagle was kind enough to land right next to us
And then ruffle his feathers for us

Seal mothers and their pups occupied many of the floes.  You have to be careful not to disturb them.  If the mother gets nervous or afraid, she may dive off the floe leaving the pup behind.  Then the pup and mother can’t find each other again and the pup will die.  We see many mothers and their newborn pups lying on floes.  Sea otters also abound here.  We see them everywhere, swimming along on their backs while they eat a fish or just sunning themselves.  Vinni is totally in love with them – they are cute.  Bald Eagles soar over us everywhere, sometimes they settle on an iceberg.  Bald Eagles may be an endangered species in the lower 48, but up here there are thousands of them – the best guess is somewhere over 30,000.

We sail a bit further in and when I’ve gone down to get a cup of coffee, I suddenly hear Vinni exclaim, “Carsten get up here in a hurry – you simply won’t believe your eyes!”  We’ve turned a sharp corner in the passage and suddenly the channel is narrow and the cliffs tower vertically above us.  We are sailing in a very narrow passage and the chart says the cliffs are over one kilometer high.  Looking up – I believe it.  At the top, we can see waterfalls that come over the edge and run down the face.  There are waterfalls everywhere.

It is, as the saying goes: Ungodly beautiful.

The word “indescribable” is not descriptive enough.

The channel opens up a bit, although not much and we are completely blown away by this fantastic landscape.  We have many nautical miles yet to sail and in this narrow passage, we have to keep our eyes peeled to avoid the ice, which is everywhere.

If it is this thick here – what will it be like as we close on the glacier?

In the next sharp corner, a cruise ship suddenly appears coming from the opposite direction.  Space in the “S” curve is limited and we agree via our radios how we will pass each other.  Yes, dear friends, life as a cruising sailor is not always easy.  Big ship captains are generally pretty easy-going when you talk to them on the radio.  We agree to move as far over to starboard as is safe for us and he has enough room to squeeze by.  I wonder what the cruise ship guests must think – some of them probably recognize the Danish flag proudly flying from our stern.  “Denmark?  Is that boat from Denmark?  Wow – long sail”.

After four hours of sailing through a fantasy world, we near the glacier.  If our chartplotter hadn’t told us, then the density of the floes and bergs did.  There are many and they are getting bigger.  The glacier must be calving like mad at the moment.  The big ones are easy to spot and avoid, but there are countless “small” floes.  Small here means that we can see a floes perhaps a meter by a meter lying on the surface.  Doesn’t look like much.  But 80% is under water so that meter by a meter is probably 3 or 4 meters thick and may stretch a couple of meters in either direction under the water.  Hitting one means major damage to Capri.  Even the tiny ones can damage our hull, rudder or rip off our propeller if one gets under the boat.

We turned another corner and now we can see the end of the channel and the “snout” of the glacier, sticking out into the water.  As we near, it gets larger and larger and we finally are able to comprehend its full size.  It is huge.  At least several hundred meters across.  We’d love to sail truly close, but the ice is thick and we simply don’t dare.  The probability of damaging Capri is great.  If she were a steel or aluminum boat with a protected propeller – ok – but she is not built for challenging ice floes and bergs.  The name Titanic keeps coming to mind.

We stopped the engines and lay in front of the glacier, entranced by the spectacle.  I have difficulty describing my feelings as we lie here in front of the ice.  This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  It is akin to the seeing your first south sea island appear on the horizon.  This is something you never forget.  Even many years later you will remember exactly how it felt.

We daren’t get any closer.

We have at least a five hour run back to the anchorage and want to have a following current the whole way, so we reluctantly turn Capri and head back out.  If we miss the tide, we’ll be sailing for many, many hours against a heavy current.

The trip back is no less entrancing than the trip in.  Perhaps even better since now we have time to enjoy all the details – when we sailed in we were so blown away that we missed many of the small things.  It seems as if there are more icebergs in the water on our way out than in – how can that be?

Back at the anchorage, we meet David and Kathleen, an American couple we have run into several times on this voyage.  They are also sailing Alaska for the summer.  They are trying the life of cruisers to find out if they want to do this full time.  He is more than ready – she is not convinced yet.  They are both terribly impressed with our six years at sea.

They have their dinghy in the water and David rows by and knocks.  He has been out chipping ice off an iceberg for their before dinner drinks and do we want a big bag of glacier ice?  Of course we do.  G&T’s can’t get more high class than when they are made with ice that is over 10,000 years old.

We can be the ultimate snobs.

G&T’s taste absurdly good when the ice is over 10,000 years old.

The G&T tastes marvelous after such an impression -filled day.  Vinni and I crawl into our bunk, once again early, since we have to weigh anchor very early in the morning to catch the current going north.

When you sail up here, you always, always, always look at the tidal currents.  You can’t just sail away without taking them into account. 

Despite our long experience, we didn’t do our homework well enough.  Yes, we would have an outgoing tidal current – wonderful.  Unfortunately, we didn’t calculate just how strong it would be.

There weren’t any problems when we sailed in – we came through the pass like a greased eel.

We first began to realize that something might be wrong when we neared the narrow passage out of Tracy Arm (narrow here is about 40 meters and curving).  There are, if you remember, two buoys, one red and one green marking the edge of the channel.  We looked and we looked – no buoys.


No matter how hard we looked, we couldn’t spot them.  We looked one more time – still no buoys.  Damn (sorry for the language, I actually said something much worse).  I mean they can’t just have disappeared?  We continued on into the channel, still looking for the buoys.  We weren’t completely lost – we have our chartplotter and the channel is marked on the chart.  But we really would like to see those buoys.  The channel curves through the reef so you have to hit it precisely in the middle.  If you miss – you are on the rocks.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a red flash.  I looked and there was the flash again.  Mama Mia! It is the red buoy.  The current is running so hard that it is underwater, only the top just barely popping up and becoming visible for a split-second before disappearing again.  The green one is completely submerged. 

Holy cannelloni – how much current is running here?

We’re going to find out in just a few minutes.

I tried to steer Capri onto the correct course for hitting the middle of the channel, but she just continued straight ahead, borne by the current.  OK, I gave her a lot more gas.  Now she began to move, but nowhere near enough.  We sailing sideways faster than we are sailing forwards.  Pedal to the metal, I moved the throttle to full.  The engine is screaming and now she is moving in the right direction (although still flying sideways).  While we are going forwards – it is achingly slow.  There are no more revs in the engine and the big question is; will we make it into the channel before we hit the reef?

The whirlpools and maelstroms are all around us and get successively bigger.  We been told that there are whirlpools up here that are so powerful that if Capri gets into one – she won’t come out.  The engine is simply not powerful enough to overcome the swirling current.  I believe that now.  Just to starboard, there is a monster maelstrom.  It is swirling so fast that it has a vortex, meaning it resembles a funnel.  I fought like mad to keep us from getting caught.  One thing was to avoid the maelstrom – but we also had to stay in the channel to avoid the reefs.  The current was baring us along and the engine could barely move us enough to give me steerage.

We blew out the end of the channel, Capri making over 12 knots, most of them sideways.  This is called “white knuckle sailing”.  My hands ached from gripping the helm. 

So, dear friends, as you must have guessed by now, we did make through that sailing nightmare, but it wasn’t fun.

Are we having fun yet?

Damn right we’re having fun!

However, as the saying goes, once burnt, twice shy.  Apparently, Vinni and I needed a reminder that tidal currents MUST be studied closely.  We’ll not repeat that mistake.

Phew.  The adrenalin is still pumping around in our bodies as we turn our bows northward.  We want to reach Juneau this evening, but we have a “bailout” in place if something should happen.

Guess what?  Something happened.  As we sail further north, the wind picks up (and up, and up, and up), the tidal current switches direction (there’s that damned current again) so now we have the current running against us, not with us.  There is an island in the middle of this channel, right where it narrows.  The island chokes the narrows down even further, forcing the winds to accelerate to get through.  The same for the tide and suddenly we pushing against a 25+ wind and a 4+ knot current.  This isn’t fun and we turn into our bailout – Taku Bay.

Neither our Pilot book nor our charts have much to say about Taku Bay.  There, supposedly, is an old fisherman’s pier which we are sure is broken down.  But the Pilot book notes that the bay is a protected anchorage with good holding so we’re sure we will be happy.  As we reach the bottom of the bay, we see four boats tied up at a brand new dock.  They inform us that the dock is a Juneau city dock and is free to use.  What a happy surprise.

Capri lies at the free(!) dock in Taku Bay

It is a wonderful bay.  In here, we can’t feel the wind or the tides.  A couple of families live here and there is a small speedboat tied to the dock that belongs to them.  Still, it is a long boat ride, over twenty nm in to Juneau so they don’t do it often.  Late that afternoon, a helicopter suddenly flies into the bay and lands on a tiny patch of grass next to the water.  The patch is so tiny that the rotors are in danger of hitting the trees.  As soon as it has landed, four people come out of the one house, get in, and off it goes.  I guess that is the easy way to go to town.

Next we set sail before the winds pick up and get through the narrows (we also had a following current) without issue.  We bypassed Juneau and sailed further north to Auke Bay where we bunkered diesel (we were running low) and got a berth for the night.  It will be a long run to Hoonah, a First Nations village across the straits from Glacier Bay.  We will have to wait there while we apply for permission to enter the park.  Permission can be difficult to get- they only allow 25 boats in per day, half the slots are reserved for tourist boats and the other half are for private boaters.  Most slots have been reserved for months, so all we can do is call and ask when there is a slot available.  Some people waits a couple of weeks.

Out serpentine belt has started squealing again, (what else is new?).  I’ve tried everything I can possible think of, plus a few things that I’ve dreamed up along the way.  The wise people and experts I’ve consulted along the way have all given their two cents worth and when their idea didn’t work, said “I’ve never seen anything like that.”  They then give up leaving us with the problem.

Talk about depressing.

The weather should be in our corner the next day, so once again, Vinni and I are crawling out of the bunk in the middle of the night to catch the current.  Everything goes according to plan the first fifteen nm, but then we turn a corner and start southward.  The forecast said no wind and the current is supposed to be a following current.

What we got was twenty knots right on the nose and a couple of knots contrary current and to express myself in words everyone could understand – this is just shit.  We fought the good fight for an hour or two and finally decided to turn back to Auke Bay and wait for a better forecast.  A couple of minutes after we turned back, we turned around once again.  The wind had miraculously died and the current changed direction 180 degree so it now was following.  We never did figure this out.

The sun came out and it was now a beautiful sailing day.  We could get to Hoonah and apply for permission to visit Glacier Bay.  The weather forecast is prophesizing sunshine and clear weather the 8-10 days and this is the first time since we have been in Alaska that we’ve seen one that good.

Late afternoon, Vinni turned into Hoonah Bay.  A cruise ship is tied up to the dock outside town.  Hoonah and its inhabitants apparently earn a lot of money from tourists.  Vinni will write more about it, but I can say that the town boasts the world’s longest zipline – almost two kilometers long and you reach speeds of over 90 kilometers per hour.

Here’s a final look at some Tracy Arm scenes:

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