It has been over two months since we crossed the border from British Columbia into the great state of Alaska. From Ketchikan to Sitka, Glacier Bay to Skagway, Juneau to Ford’s Terror, and everything in between, we’ve been in constant awe of this immense cruising ground.
It’s easy to see why cruisers come here year after year to explore the many nooks and crannies that the wilds of Alaska have to offer. For many newcomers, though, questions abound about logistics, routing, itineraries, provisions and more. While we’re certainly not veterans of the area, and we know that many people have different ways of making the voyage work for them, their boat and crew, here are a few things we suggest bringing when planning a cruise to Southeast Alaska (and one thing not to bring).
A Reliable Engine:
The bottom line is that you’re not getting far in Southeast Alaska without a reliable engine. Of course, we always hope to sail as much as possible, and did so to get here, but the fact of cruising Alaska in the late spring and summer is that there are quite a few days of no wind, light wind or wind directly on the nose.
Apart from the wind, current is king. If you don’t play it right, you’re not getting very far very fast, or you could find yourself in some exceptionally dangerous situations. Yahtzee can be painfully slow under power, and sails much faster, but whether we’re sailing or motoring, we always pay close attention to the current and use it to our advantage whenever possible.
Another thing to note is that mechanics, parts and services for your engine can be few and far between. It’s a good idea, then, to be comfortable with most of the general maintenance that your engine may need. Be self sufficient, carry spare filters and parts, and know how to change many of them in the event of a failure.
A Plan for Provisions:
Self sufficiency is also the name of the game when it comes to provisioning for the amount of crew you have aboard. You’ll find grocery stores in large towns such as Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka, Haines, Gustavus and, of course, Juneau. The latter is the best place to do a full stock up. When moored in Juneau’s Auke Bay, we actually rented a car to go to Costco and Safeway. This was a must, as a taxi would have been more expensive and the bus system, in this instance, wouldn’t have cut it for our crew and needs.
Beside these larger towns, you can supplement your ship’s stores with stops in smaller communities including Kake, Angoon, Hoonah, Craig, Skagway, Elphin Cove, Pelican, Port Protection and some others. The real trouble is that you may have a hard time finding fresh fruit and vegetables. And there’s not much you can do about availability or price, because stores will either have it or they won’t, and the earlier you arrive in the season, the less likely it will be that they are fully stocked. Because of this, we’ve made sure to have an adequate amount of canned fruits and veggies, and haven’t felt burdened by a lack of fresh produce.
Water is another important consideration. Yahtzee holds 70 gallons of water in two tanks and one jerry jug, and we can make that last about 10 days. Fortunately, getting clean water hasn’t been an issue and we’ve only needed to run our watermaker a handful of times. If you plan right, you can obtain fresh water about every seven days — often less.
A Plan for Garbage:
Now that you’ve procured all that food, you’re going to have to think about the garbage that comes with it. Like places to get provisions, finding places to leave your trash in SE AK can be few and far between. In general, most marinas you’ll come to will have dumpsters for you to get rid of your waste, but some don’t, which means you have to carry it on to the next stop. Also, recycling options vary from port to port. Some will only have recycling for paper, glass and aluminum, and others you’ll be able to recycle plastic. It just depends.
The longest we’ve gone without being able to get rid of our trash has been two weeks. In the mean time, it helped to separate all the burnables and use them to start our beach fires. Also, we separate compostables and recyclables into separate containers, which, on our boat, makes it easier to store.
Besides burning your paper, another tip is to try and get rid of bulky and unnecessary packaging after you provision and before leaving a marina. Also, if your crew enjoys beer, we found that forgoing bottles for crushable cans saves a lot of space.
Fishing & Crabbing Gear:
Over the past year, we’ve started to fish from Yahtzee and have had success catching salmon, rockfish and lingcod in spurts — no halibut yet. With the summer fishing season beginning to ripen, we’ve recently started catching more fish and are using the heads for crab bait. The crabs, too, are becoming plentiful and along with fish, this influx of fresh seafood has provided a nice supplement to our provisions.
If you’ve even got the slightest inclination to try fishing, crabbing or prawning — and you’ve got room aboard for the gear — we say go for it. There’s nothing like living off the bounty of the sea!
Quality Foul Weather Gear and a Positive Attitude:
It rains. A lot. And due to the rain, it’s important to have a good set or two of foul weather gear and boots. Without it, you’ll find yourself boat-bound, which is no fun. Rain or shine, we love to get off the boat and explore here. We don’t hide below. Whether it’s going ashore for some beach-combing or hiking, or just to get out kayaking, this is an incredible place to discover beyond the boat. But if you don’t have the gear, you’ll be wet and miserable.
Along with proper clothing, pack a positive attitude. The weather in Southeast Alaska isn’t for Goldilocks cruisers — those who needlessly complain about the conditions unless it’s absolutely perfect … if there is such a thing. At the end of the day, only you can make you happy. And remember, this is a rainforest. Enjoy it!
What not to bring — a Schedule!:
“The most dangerous thing people like you [cruisers] bring to Alaska is a schedule — glad to hear you’re not on one.”
That was the reply from a salty 70-something-year-old commercial fisherman when I told him I wasn’t sure where we were headed next and when.
Our whole plan was to play the weather getting up to Alaska, and then figure it out from there. Happily, that method has served us quite well. While I know that many people have strict itineraries they try to adhere to when coming to SE Alaska, cruising on a sailboat often doesn’t work like that. Especially if you’re trying to sail. In general, the fisherman’s overall point was a good one: due to often changeable weather, you need to be extremely flexible with your days, and a rigid schedule can be counter to that.
Yes, there will be instances when you need to get somewhere at a certain time, like when picking up crew who are flying in or when needing to get to Glacier Bay for your cruising permit. But our advice is to plan far in advance, build in extra days for weather and then enjoy yourself. Alaska’s amazing, and there’s no sense in rushing around.