Illywhacker - Russia to Alaska


A strange name?
Take a Tour
Meet the Crew
How we started
Our first yacht
Our view of the cruising life

Google Maps

Passages we've made
Overland Adventures
Around the world in Dulcinea
Australia to Japan
Japan to Kamchatka
Russia to Alaska
Alaska to Canada
Canada to Australia

Laurence in Alaska
Prince William Sound

Simply the BEST
Huis Ten Bosch
West Coast

Barrier Reef Cruise 2005
Townsville 2006

Port Davey
Antarctica by Ship NEW!

Cruising Quickstep
A Spooky story
Sore-Head Skipper
Gone Fishin'

About boats
About cruising
Passage data

Topics, delivery


The Cruising Yacht SiteRing

Previous |  List |  Random |  Join |  Next


Author Peter Aston
Date Sept 200
Map Ref Aleutians, Attu, Adak, Four mtns, Kiska, Dutch Hbr, Kodiak, Alaskan peninsula

Here is a CCC article written as an update of Illywhacker's travels in June - August 2000


The waters of the Aleutians belong to the fishermen, here the fleet waits for a salmon "opening" beside the mountains at Chignik

We left Petropavlosk in Kamchatka on 20th June 2000 bound for Alaska. From there the sail across to Attu, the first of the Aleutian islands was 550nm and we had favourable winds, although at times, rough seas. We could see a big Low behind us so after 4 days we took shelter in Chicagof Bay on the north side of Attu.

It took 4 attempts to get the CQR anchor to hold as the bottom was broken volcanic shale covered in Bull Kelp, a kind of huge seaweed with a stem about 10m long and 80mm dia with wide leaves. If the anchor dragged even a little, there would soon be a 2m ball of kelp at the end of the chain which just rolled along the seabed. There was no wildlife and not a single tree on the island, just low grass and very small shrubs, some with minute flowers that could withstand the wind howling across the low hills. Through the fog and rain we could see many relics from WWII on land and in the sea so it was a pretty gloomy anchorage. However, we were glad to be able to rest for a few days.


illywhacker approaches Attu Island, the most western of the Aleutian islands. All are treeless but the covered surfaces are muskeg with tiny flowers. These are the islands of the Pacific "Rim of Fire", they are bleak but spectacular.

Clearing bull kelp from the anchor

On the 3rd day the weather fax looked as though things might improve and although the wind was still NE, "on the nose" for our course, we decided to head for Dutch Harbour and hope for a change in strength and direction. That was a WRONG decision as the sea was a mix of SW swell and NE wind waves and we made very slow progress with all of us feeling "lethargic". To learn to read the weather in different parts of the world you need help from local experts and ours was Hiroshi Takada, a friend whose job is to provide weather information to JAL pilots and we were very fortunate to have him e-mail us a daily forecast. The information we received from him in Attu was right but HF propagation was poor and it was some time before we established new times and frequencies for our radio e-mail.

The nearest relief looked to be at the island of Shemya and after 12 hours we dropped anchor (which held after 3 attempts .... so we were getting better). There was very little protection from the NE and none of our cruising notes from previous yachts who had made this passage had mentioned the anchorage except to say that it looked bad. We would be breaking US Customs law too if we went ashore since it is US territory, actually the most western outpost and an important military base. The first point at which we were able to complete formal entry procedures was at Dutch Harbour some 800nm away to the east.

From our roly anchorage we could just make out through the fog, several concrete buildings, a solid concrete wharf 12m or so high and 2 wrecked ships The place looked deserted so we were surprised to hear a voice challenging us on the VHF. It was the Station manager who was asking if we needed assistance but politely forbidding us to come ashore. However, we got the feeling that he and a number of the others we spoke to on the radio over the next few days would have loved us to come ashore just to make a change in their social calendar. Rolling in a 1.5m swell at anchor we were sorely tempted to break the rules especially when a voice in an armoured vehicle called us over to the wharf for a few drinks one night. Getting ashore in a dinghy then would have been extremely difficult, let alone getting back aboard, but coming alongside in illywhacker against the more exposed wharf with no bollards was suicidal so we declined with thanks.

The lack of trees, the concrete blocks and the apparent lack of human habitation was made more sinister by the continual fog, but one night the "voices" told us they were having a "landing" and the length of the island behind the low hills from us lit up with orange sodium lights. Shemya Base is an airstrip operated and maintained under US Govt. contract and used by the USAF and occasionally by international air carriers in an emergency. The island is on the route from Europe via Anchorage to Asia over the North Pole as well as on the Great Circle route from the USA to Asia. We learnt later that it was also the base from which the US kept a watching eye on the USSR during the Cold War and the place from which a 707 spy plane took off to shadow a Korean Airlines 707 and which resulted in the tragic shooting down of the passenger aircraft.

We realised at Shemya that we had passed the International Dateline as well as moving on to Alaskan Standard Time even though we were well west of the real longitude time. It was light at midnight and took some adjustment. So we used the 2 days here to acclimatise and wait for the worst of the seas to subside. Departure this time was no mistake and we had light winds with some sailing and motoring the 130nm to Kiska Island. By now we had decided that island-hopping was the best way to make best use of the ever-changing weather patterns. Takada San was still kindly sending us daily e-mails and we were receiving faxes from the Japan Weather Service in Tokyo, both sources being dependent on radio propagation but after a while we learned to read whatever information we could get to make the passage as comfortable as possible.

Gertrude Cove at Kiska was an overnight stop were we anchored in calm water beside the wreckage of a wartime tanker. Again the island was low and windblown and sea and animal life minimal. From there, a motorsail of 167nm brought us to Kanaga Bay on Kanaga Island.

Protected from the strong winds now blowing we anchored after 2 attempts and set the depth alarms before going to bed. An early riser but a heavy sleeper, our crew John gave us a call at 0500 with the comment "I see you guys re-anchored in the night, why didn’t you wake me?" Of course, I’d set the alarm incorrectly and we’d all had an uninterrupted sleep while the anchor rolled it’s ever-growing ball of kelp some 300m to the lee side of the bay. Luckily it was heavy enough to prevent an uphill roll into shallow water. Cutting it away at the bow in 60C though was the penalty for our neglect.

We were again able to motorsail in light conditions to the magnificent protection of South Arm Bay on the west side of Adak Island. Here we saw otters, sea lions and our first Bald Eagle and enjoyed a walk through the icy lakes scattered across the low treeless hills. Adak is a US Naval Base but not a Custom’s port so we were unable to legally go ashore. However, we needed fuel after an unexpected amount of motoring (which we didn’t mind if it meant smooth going!) so we entered Sweeper Cove some 45nm around the island to plead our case over the VHF. Although the Navy were preparing for a withdrawal from the Base in September this year they were strict in their interpretation of the rules and allowed us to take on fuel only. The Aleut people inheriting the remains of 60 years of military occupation and busy in the reclamation of their island were more helpful and kindly did a shopping run for us.

This is all we saw of Adak - the fuel dock


WWII wreck at Gertrude Cove in Kiska

A welcome tieup in Finger Bay, Adak

The wind was picking up with a forecast of 45 kt for the next 3 days so we scuttled around the point from Sweeper Cove to narrow Thumb Bay where we spent an anxious night riding the gusts. By the morning the wind had shifted and was howling straight down the bay. With difficulty we lifted anchor without running aground backwards and with the motor running hard, moved around into the conveniently nearby Finger Bay, wondering how we would ever convince the anchor to hold. Our luck was in for right in the middle of the bay was a Navy buoy suited to 100,000 ton vessels…thank you US Navy, that will do nicely!

The 400nm leg to Dutch Harbour was a mix of motoring and sailing in light winds and the sea and birdlife improved considerably. There we saw Humpback and Orca whales, Dalls’ porpoises, thousands of seabirds of a great variety, otters and seals, just what we came for! It was comfortable going for a change, edged with anxiety knowing how quickly conditions can change in these waters. The island chain of the Aleutians offer a slowly-growing skyline to those lucky enough to sail past in good visibility.


From west to east, the islands grow from low, treeless and bleak to high volcanic peaks but it is not until the Alaskan mainland do trees appear. On this leg we witnessed some of these changes and were fortunate to get a good view of the mile-high volcanoes on "The Islands of Four Mountains".

Stunning to see steam issuing from such perfect snow-cones surrounded by sloping lava flows levelling out to the tops of the vertical cliffs dropping to the sea . After these islands, Umnak at 7000ft seemed to signal bigger things to come.

  Active volcano in "Islands of Four Mountains" group

What a great feeling it was to enter Dutch Harbour after 19 days on board with thoughts of fresh food and walking ashore and meeting people whose language we could understand…almost anyway!

The Russian Orthodox Church at Unalaska welcomes us in the early morning

The twin towns of Dutch Harbour and Unalaska are on the island of Unalaska and Dutch Harbour, the industrial side is the most westward commercial port in Alaska. It is certainly a town with a "frontier" feeling with a look that comes from doses of very severe weather. It is populated by Aleut Indians, Filipinos, Mexicans and adventurous Americans. To experience a Friday night at the "Sportsman’s Bar" is to be transported back to the days of the Klondike goldfields!

Fishing boats leave here to fish the Bering Sea and Bristol Bay where the going is really tough. The boats have names like Arctic Angel, Northern Venture, and Northern Spirit often making the run from as far as Seattle to ports in Alaska for the Summer season. There are some locally owned but mostly, these expensive well-equipped boats are skippered by out-of-towners who live elsewhere.


Amidst the fishing boats at Dutch Harbour Customs dock

A floatplane leaves the small boat harbour past the famous cold weather sailing yacht "Cloud Nine"

Weighing a small Aleutian halibut next 
door to illywhacker at the harbour marina - well-heeled tourists were flying into Dutch harbour from all over the world to fish halibut in these waters. On arrival back at the dock there'd be lots of photos standing alongside the fish then back off to the hotel. It was Manuel's task to fillet and pack the for freighting the trophies home. 
Manuel (that's his arm on the leftl) was a nice guy and there was so much fish that well .... we had many wonderful meals thanks to his generosity!

It’s not only the fishermen who are tough out here, the yachties we met are quiet achievers too. At a get together on a 60’ Kiwi yacht "Evohe", the New Zealanders were discussing with the American yacht "Cloud Nine" the possibility of a Northwest Passage transit as this year it was likely to be open. (We heard later the following year that they'd made it through!). "Evohe" was under charter to Discovery Channel for a wildlife series on the Aleutians. I was taken with their rubber dinghy which had been converted to an amphibious ultra-lite aircraft! "Cloud Nine" had already made an attempt on the NW Passage, been to the Antarctic and had made 3 circumnavigations. In addition, "Nomad" was heading north to the Pribiloff Group in the Bering Sea known for it’s spectacular wildlife. While illywhacker sat amongst these veterans of Arctic sailing, a 33’ Jenneau arrived after a non-stop passage from Sendai on the Japan east coast. Kenichi Yamashita, his wife and 2 small children had sailed through a serious typhoon in freezing temperatures, in a very light boat with a bendy rig and a 15’ open cockpit, a real racer. Yamashita San is a famous mountain climber and the yacht was rigged with equipment from this sport. The family were in great shape and looking forward to more adventures; we were most impressed and quietly went to bed with our arthritis pills as the party raged on. 

The 60' New Zealand yacht "Evohe" left from here to transit the NW Passage The Yamashita family arrive after a non-stop crossing from Japan

We cleared into the USA at Dutch Harbour, and after we had enjoyed the restaurants, the supermarkets and toured the sites we departed during a weather break and anchored at Unalga Island. When the wind suddenly turned NE again and the anchorage became untenable we decided we needed more partying so illywhacker returned to Dutch and waited out the Low for another 4 days. It was a very productive time as we were introduced to a number of Alaska Marine Pilots. Through them we obtained electronic charts for the area and now are absolutely sold on them. With a GPS accuracy of 15m and NOAA charts we can sail between rocks navigating from below decks…. well, we peer out into the fog sometimes!

Heading for Kodiak Island we planned our course via the Alaskan mainland in the hope of a bear sighting. So we sailed past the magnificent volcanoes of Unimak and enjoyed the now more prevalent sightings of whales, sealions, otters and birds. The scenery was changing and we spoke with several enthusiastic fishermen who not only loved fishing but also the natural wonders of the area and they planned our route for us to ensure the greatest diversity. We spent a night at King Cove where we were taken on a tour looking for bears: didn’t see any, but did see 20 or so otters "rafted up", all floating head to toe munching on clams or with their babies on their stomachs. Next stop was Sand Point, another fishing harbour were we took in the underwater petrified forest nearby. Another daysail of 80nm (easy when there are 18 hours of daylight) to the calm anchorage of Kupreanof Harbour at Paul island then on to visit our fishermen friends who were taking their catch to the cannery at Chignik Harbour. Anchorages were now becoming really secure with narrow entrances and high mountains for protection inside..AND they were tree-covered. Typical of these was Port Wrangell, a very protected spot AND we saw our first 2 bears. After that it was a zoo. At Geographic Harbour for example we crept in as close as we dared to the beach where a family of 3 brown bears were looking for clams, what a wonderful sight! . Kodiak Island nearby is the home of the largest brown bears in the world. They grow to 1000Kg and one towered several feet over me baring it’s teeth. Luckily I was in a museum and it was stuffed, not me!

Bear family at Geographic Harbour The Baranov Museum in Kodiak

After a safe crossing of the infamous Shelikof Straits to Kodiak Island we spent another night at anchor, this time in Onion Bay where we met an Economics Lecturer and part-time fisherman who invited us to his comfortable cabin. These Alaskans are a breed apart, their love of country and outdoor life give a sense of reality and keep the dream alive for the millions who slave in the cities of the "lower 48". We find our lifestyle strikes a chord with many Alaskans and together we enjoy learning of and admiring the natural wonders of Planet Earth . The major difference between us was the American enthusiasm for "huntin", but if you live long enough in the area and see the abundant wildlife as a renewable resource or maybe get chased by a hungry bear you might develop another view from ours.

We stayed at Kodiak long enough to stock up and do the tourist walks but these days the Oz peso is so low the daily costs of the Small Boat Harbours are frightening so we kept them to a minimum. From this point in our journey we had the option of following the usual course of sailing direct to the North American coast and making landfall at Sitka or Juneau, or taking a gamble on the good weather continuing and heading north to what is actually the best part of Alaska, Prince William Sound. As a backup precaution we enquired from as many fishermen and the few local yachties as we could find as to where the best places would be to "hole up" for winter in the Sound should the weather close in and prevent us making the crossing of the Gulf of Alaska. The answers varied greatly from Homer or Seldovia, to Seward, Valdez or Cordova but their responses gave rise to 2 conflicting considerations. The first was that since we have travelled so far to get to the best part of the world DON’T MISS IT! The second was more frightening for us as we had no experience of cold climates and the severe weather that this area cops in winter. As explained graphically to us, the freeze/thaw cycle that ocurrs for up to 5 months a year with continuous rain and snow can easily demolish a boat. Water that seeps into even small surface cracks or under fittings expands and widens the crack, allowing more water in and so on. If that wasn’t bad enough, in some areas up to 2m of snow falls in one day and when followed by warmer rain, the snow changes to ice and boats roll over and sink! Maybe that’s why we hadn’t seen so many yachts! But we still had a few weeks left before the autumn equinox when all fishermen and sailors should be off the Gulf so we sailed from Kodiak north to Afognak Island on 28th July.

Kitoi Harbour on Afognak is dominated by a salmon hatchery and on our entry into the bay we had to line up with several million other ocean travellers waiting their turn to enter the river on their extraordinary journey up into the lake. I find a touch of sadness in the story of the contemporary salmon, perhaps I identify with the futility of a life that never allows fulfilment, even after overcoming such incredible obstacles. After circling the Pacific for 5 years or so, these beautiful fish arrive at the fresh water stream in the peak of condition, their bodies charged with enough oil to sustain the swim of up to 1000miles - upstream and uphill to the SAME place they were hatched. Under natural conditions only 1 or 2 percent of salmon eggs result in fish that reach the spawning grounds, natural selection really working there! The hatchery intercept the salmon at the stream entrance to obtain eggs from healthy natural fish. Hatcheries have up to an 80% egg to fingerling release rate thereby creating many more fish than the stream can accommodate. Salmon receive their home GPS position from the first taste of salt/fresh water mix at the entrance of the stream to the ocean. This phenomenom enables hatcheries to release fingerlings wherever they may be caught as adults most conveniently on their return years later. Together with the practise of monitoring upstream numbers on all salmon streams, this allows the Fisheries Dept to manage the catch. Over the summer season, fishermen are advised; "the Chignik east arm will be open for 5 hours" and a small fleet of Seiners from a Cannery area are able to harvest 100’s of tons in a days work.

For me though, to see these salmon prevented from heading upstream and throwing themselves on top of each other in their desperation, or swimming endlessly around in bay with NO entering stream seems a sad ending to a noble life. The bears think it’s great though. At Kitoi they were in great numbers, taking a bite from one then swiping up the next. Those fish that did find a chute found themselves swimming up to a gutting table where the eggs and sperm were removed and mixed in a bucket to commence the next generation. The carcasses were thrown back into the bay or into a huge net to be towed out to sea and dumped. Still, the industry was in good shape and the fish are "natural" and not farmed. Probably no difference to a free-range egg??

Anxious to get past the treacherous Barren Islands, we left Afognak in what we thought was sufficient time to make the 150nm crossing to Seward before a forecast Low pressure system swept through. We made good time for the first 50nm but so did the Low apparently and soon the wind swung on the nose and the seas built up to the usual washing machine …. opposing swell from the SW and windwaves from the NE. Rain and a heavy fog set in as well to make the whole journey thoroughly forgettable. There was one moment’s relief from the maelstrom in the form of a protected passage shown to us by our fisherman friends. Several islands en route formed "Pete’s Pass" through which was a VERY narrow, rock-studded and tortuous stretch of water. Always one to seek comfort in a storm we tested our computer electronic charts with me steering with the autopilot from below while Lyndall gave encouraging shrieks from on deck. The normally placid crew John was even heard to mutter "I can’t believe this". We emerged unscathed though and had the joy of bearing away 300 into Resurrection Bay at the head of which, 30nm away was the town of Seward, our first in Prince William Sound and the "Gateway to the Kenai Peninsular".

Seward is a spectacular place, set in Kenai National Park which is an abundant marine and forest wildlife area. The town surrounds the harbour in a narrow fiord of high snow-capped mountains with several glaciers nearby. At last we had arrived at a true Alaskan frontier town, a few hardy souls struggling to fight back the elements of the wild north?

As we approached by the light of the late summer night the fog slowly lifted for us to see a wisp of smoke coming from the campfires….but wait, what’s that next to the fireplace? On the water’s edge was a centipede of Winnebagos parked side by side. Not one or two, not ten or twenty BUT hundreds and hundreds in a row that stretched for miles. And in front of each was a fisherman casting for silvers with a large wife and a small dog in the van watching tele. Welcome to roughing it USA, grey nomad style? Seward is at the end of the Alcan Highway, the road from the "Lower 48", and this is a far as you can go into "huntin’ n fishin" territory. The road goes through Fairbanks and Anchorage to Seward and Homer which become tourist towns during the short summer months. The Small Boat Harbour is alive with sightseeing tour boats and has a continuous stream of huge liners with up to 1000 people disgorged for day or two before the next liner docks.

We were surprised by the number of yachts in Seward, some 40 or 50 belonging mainly to Anchorage people who drove the 3 hours each way to sail during the summer season. We felt much relieved, if these people could leave their new 40’ Beneteau’s etc here over winter so could we AND it must be fantastic sailing in the Sound to make it all worthwhile. The sailors here were very helpful in advising us on "winterizing" techniques to minimise the chance of damage. Although the harbour does freeze at times it is the fresh water on top that does so and usually thaws quickly so the hull of the yacht doesn’t freeze and water inside below the waterline is safe. Nevertheless, antifreeze is used throughout the fresh and saltwater systems, in the bilge, behind sea-cocks and in all lines. Fuel is topped up to minimise water due to condensation and a small heater is deployed to keep the interior above freezing whilst minimising condensation. The main concern after all that is done is the snow load on the yacht’s deck and horizontal surfaces as well as on the pontoon walkways. Snow shovelling is a winter necessity and people are employed to do this by the Harbourmaster and by individual owners.

We were fortunate to meet Kerry and Nick, locals at Seward who loaned us their car for a 2-day drive to Homer. Kerry is a Kiwi running a silk painting shop and Nick is a surveyor who spends a good deal of time in Barrow and Nome near the Artic circle. His stories of "bear encounters" may have eclipsed Lyndall’s terror of sharks, only time will tell but our walks in the forest here are interesting events I can tell you!

We enjoyed Seward and from there took the trip to Anchorage by car, returning a few days later by the truly magnificent train journey. We stayed in Anchorage with friends of John who showed us the local sites and drove us to the surrounding hinterland. Our visit to Homer confirmed the locally aired view that wintering there would be more difficult than Seward or Cordova so after 2 weeks of heavy socialising we said goodbye to John and his wife Marg who had flown to meet us in Anchorage and headed off into the best cruising of all.

Prince William Sound is protected cruising with a great many snug, keyhole anchorages, great fishing and superb scenery. There are a number of places where you can sail close by a glacier, at 9 o’clock at night the sun is low and the snow and ice fairly twinkle in a warm glow, a photographers delight. In one small bay we had chunks of ice floating about, called bergy bits, growlers or brash ice depending on their size. At Beartrap Bay, the best anchorage at the head is reached by motoring over a mile up the narrow fiord, there the salmon are spawning, the Bald Eagles soar and the bears roam. Alone, we stayed a few days and watched fascinated as the fog and rain rolled back and forth, sunshine bathed the bay from different angles and the wildlife kept us on deck entranced. Yes this place has it all.

Just 25nm away is the little town of Cordova where illywhacker is tied up for winter. It is a small fishing town at the eastern end of Prince William Sound at 60N, 146W. There are 3000 people living here yet the harbour has 830 berths, all boats are fishing trawlers except for 7 yachts whose owners are living on board and keep warm with electric and diesel heating. We also have a telephone and internet on the boat so we can catch up on writing to our friends and write a few stories of our trip.

Fortunately, the weather has been mostly fine and the skies crystal clear, providing many opportunities to go fishing and walking in the beautiful country surrounding Cordova. Alaska is empty compared to our last temporary home, Japan and this country is vast. We are surrounded by huge snow-covered mountains, there are 7 glaciers nearby feeding the largest wetlands in North America so the animal life is plentiful, particularly during the migratory bird season. These last few days hundreds of Canada geese have been flying south in the traditional V formation, honking goodbye as they go. The snows must be coming. So for a while we will experience life in the frozen north. Next year we hope for an easier time with much of our cruising in the enclosed waters of the Alaskan Inside Passage.


Top of page


email: peter
Stories and Images may be copied with permission of the authors
Google Maps