Cruising Southeast Alaska - 2009

By Linda Lewis

 

15. Whales in Frederick Sound and Lost Steerage in Wrangell Narrows

 

Much of our cruising this year has been in rain and fog, even though many people tell us this is the nicest summer Southeast Alaska has had in a long time. Somehow we seemed to be missing much of the talked-about sun. We left Endicott Arm to find lowering skies in Stephen's Passage - where it was difficult to tell where the water stopped and the sky started.

On the other hand, we often see gorgeous, dramatic scenes like this.

A hazy day in Frederick Sound didn't stop us from trying to take pictures of whales. David was DETERMINED to get a good photo of humpbacks cavorting, but they were so fast. He just missed this one.

Now this is a teaser. Just too far away.

Oh. This looks promising. He's (she's?) waving a pectoral fin around. Hi back at ya. But do something special, would you please?

And here it is! Isn't this amazing? Kudos to David for getting such a spectacular shot of a humpback whale breaching. This is definitely his prize whale picture of all time.

Photo by David Parker

Even the aftermath is pretty dramatic.

Makes this sealion-jam on a buoy look positively mundane.

We got to Petersburg - in the rain. Where it was Linda's turn to do line-handling - in the rain.

Petersburg is truly a fishing town; this is a very active fish-processing facility in the North Harbor. We like to watch all the comings and goings of the fishing vessels. I am constantly reminded of the labor-intensive history that lies behind the fish on my plate.

Everyone fishes here; at all hours of the day and night.

And now comes the tale of losing our ability to steer while in Wrangell Narrows.

We left Petersburg to make our way southward through the long (21 miles), but very well-marked Wrangell Narrows (about 60 navigation aids). There are lots of cover-uncover areas on both sides of the channel, so you make your way snake-like from marker to marker. While we use the autopilot a lot, I like to make passages like this steering by hand so I can finesse the turns and make any quick changes.

It was my turn at the helm (Linda) when quite suddenly the boat no longer responded to my turns of the wheel. We were about 2/3 of the way through the passage - at marker G "17". Wrangell Narrows is not a place you want to lose your ability to steer. As I let Dave know I no longer had steerage, my mind immediately clicked in to steering with the gears and throttles and I kept us on course that way. Royal Sounder is a twin-engine boat, so using the gears and throttles technique is old hat from all of our close-quarters handling and docking maneuvering. We also brought the (towed) skiff up short so if I had to back up we would not run over the tow line and foul our props.

David went into diagnosis mode and began digging in the lazarette to check out the hydraulic ram. Unfortunately, one more experimental turn of the wheel offset the rudders and I was no longer able to steer with the gears - because the rudder was in a 'permanent' starboard turn mode. I had already switched on the anchor windlass thinking towards anchoring as a fallback. When I really! lost steerage I went forward and deployed the anchor to the "ready-to-lower" position.

A little more diagnosing and quick fiddling by David returned some tentative steerage, so we carefully made our way to a spot that was shallow but safe and lowered the anchor. What David found was that the hydraulic ram had become disconnected from the rod (the drag-link that is connected to the rudders) which controls the position of the rudders. He knew what to do and made a fairly straight-forward fix. We haven't had a problem since. Old boats! Stuff happens.

Afterwards I thought about a boating educator I really respect (Finn Knudsen - at Elliott Yacht Lease in Seattle). He talks about avoiding the word "emergency" and thinking instead of "being prepared for unexpected circumstances". When the steering went out, I didn't think: emergency! My problem-solving side immediately kicked in: steer with the gears, shorten the tow line, get ready to drop the anchor. Thank goodness David is a master fixer. Otherwise we might still be sitting at anchor somewhere near marker G "17" in Wrangell Narrows.

You do realize that I was a little too busy to be taking pictures through all of this. I enjoy taking you on this virtual cruise with us, but I do have my priorities.

I can't resist one last photo to remind you how beautiful it is out here. We continue to hunt for the blue-sky holes in the clouds.

Until the next installment... We hope it includes sun.

 

 


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