Leda to Alaska

Preparations for the trip to Alaska having mostly been done, we were finally ready to head north some time in August.  Time was a factor and we were eager to get away before the season got late.  In Puget Sound the autumn lasts well into September, or October.  In Alaska, not so much, particularly in in “those” days.  It’s true, our weather has changed.  We used to joke (tears of a clown style) that autumn started on July 5th and winter started on the day after Labor Day (first week of September).  Then there is the old saying, “We get four seasons in Alaska.  Early winter.  Mid-winter.  Late winter.  Next winter.”  So why would anyone take a boat such as Leda to a place like that?

Well, mostly because it is where I lived and because I never thought of it as permanent.  I know now that Alaska is where I live, as in “it’s home”.  But back then I was still viewing life as being somewhere else over the horizon.  It took a lot of hard work, some travel and some experience to find out I already had everything I was seeking!  I don’t know who said it first but “Life is a funny teacher.  It gives the test first and the lessons later.”  I suppose no truer words have ever been spoken.  It’s also been said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  This is pure bullshit.  If it doesn’t kill you, then you were strong to begin with.

I don’t really remember what all was done to make the boat ready.  I think all new hoses and belts on the engine.  Certainly there was wiring to figure out.  Leda was kind of a mess in that regard.  I remember an extension cord had been cut and used to wire the starter.  Things like that.  I distinctly remember going up the mast, having found that the sail track was pulling off.  I removed each screw, broke off a match stick in the hole and replaced the screw.  We sailed for a year like that.  I know that we bought about five cases of Rainier beer.  They where stacked between the table and the bench on the starboard side of the the salon and it turned out they made a perfect spot for taking a nap and keeping an eye on the cockpit. 

Leda being hauled at Seaview East, August 1990

We hauled for a scrub and then headed out through the Hiram M. Chittenden locks into Elliot Bay and Leda was back in salt water.  If other aspects of our journey have faded, I remember that sail very well.  We were sailing across the sound to Port Madison on Bainbridge Island to spend the night.  We had a light breeze out of the north, which put us on a starboard reach all the way across.  By the time we got our stride we were reaching along at nine knots and Leda wasn’t even straining.  There were a number of sailboats that were well across when we started, and while I admit they had hit a calm, we handily caught up to them and just sailed by.  We had our momentum up and Leda moves quite well in slight breezes.  After getting tied up in the marina, a fellow from one of the other vessels came by for a look.  His comment being that he wanted a closer look at the freight train that had passed him.  If pride is a sin, I doomed myself that day.

Leda in Port Townsend’s Hudson Harbor making final preparations for Alaska

Our first leg of the journey was up to Port Hardy on the north end of  Vancouver Island.  There was an incident with the motor failing and a freighter that we thought might run us down, all of which resulted in two of the crew being put ashore at Cape Lazo to fend for themselves so that they might get back to work.  I’ll write about the Cape Lazo incident in a separate post as it deserves some time spent on it.  But other than that it was a fairly uneventful trip.  We ran into heavy fog near the end of Vancouver Island and I got a chance to test my navigational skills.  You might remember that there was once a world without GPS, so we used dead reckoning, compass and knot log to plot positions.  To the amazement of everyone on board (by now all two of us) it worked.

I made arrangements to leave Leda tied to a log boom in the inner harbor and found a local fisherman who was recuperating from open heart surgery who would keep an eye on the boat while I went home to make some money before continuing the journey north.  It took a couple of weeks before I got back to Port Hardy.  I had planned on making this part of the trip alone as work schedules did not allow anyone else to participate.  I got back to Port Hardy and tracked down my caretaker, Jim Smith.  He was sitting in a cafe overlooking the harbor, testing out his newly renovated heart with a big plate of Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes smothered in gravy.  He informed me he had never been to America and wondered if he might join me.

I had to laugh as our next intended destination was Ketchikan.  Not exactly a typical American town, but I liked Jim immediately when we met and I thought it would be wonderful to have his company on the trip.  So after loading up Leda’s refer with a week’s supply of frozen Salisbury steak dinners, we headed out.  Almost immediately out of port Jim dropped his dentures over the side of the boat.  So I ended up eating the steak and he the mashed potatoes.

Moving north from Port Hardy, one soon enters Queen Charlotte sound.  The sound is open to the west and gets the full force of the North Pacific directed at it so it should be crossed with some trepidation.  We left Port Hardy, again in fog, on completely flat water.  The forecast was for south winds 15-20 developing.  My plan as I excitedly shared it with Jim was to get far enough into Queen Charlotte sound to catch this south wind on a broad reach which would carry us all the way to Ketchikan about 300 nautical miles north.  I boasted that we will be in Ketchikan by tomorrow night!  Most boats leaving from Vancouver Island heading north will venture into Queen Charlotte sound just far enough to clear Cape Caution and then will proceed to the famous inside passage to make their way north in protected water.  However with the forecast we had I had decided we would go straight up the middle of Hecate Strait, across Dixon Entrance and bowl our way into Ketchikan.

We motored well into Queen Charlotte sound still waiting for the wind that was predicted before the motor broke down.  This was no simple failure.  It made some noises that motors are not supposed to make and stopped.  Obviously intent upon staying that way.  Not to worry!  With the mighty sailing vessel we had at our command and this fortuitous weather forecast, we’ll be in Ketchikan by tomorrow night or the next morning at the latest!  Ha!  The wind never came.  We sailed at half a knot for days.  I would go take a nap and come up a couple of hours later and not be able to tell if we had moved.  I think often we barely made advances against the tide.  

This gave Jim and I a lot of time to get to know one another.  Luckily he was a good conversationalist.  The weather was warm and comfortable and the boat was secure.  I remember one evening sitting on the bow of the boat together with our legs hanging over the side watching porpoises play at the bow.  I have no idea why they were playing there, it isn’t like we were making much time.  Maybe they were calling Leda to come play.   I don’t know but it was good entertainment.  We sat there until after it got dark enough to see the bio luminescence shining on their skin.  These green, glowing ghost forms in the water.

We finally did get to Ketchikan.  One of the things that has been misplaced over the years is my log of that trip.  No clue where it went.  So I don’t really know now how long it took us.  Days.  And days.  We finally got some wind near the north end of Hecate Strait and covered 40 miles or so briskly before it died again and left us becalmed in fog in the middle of Dixon Entrance.  I learned a lot about being a skipper and a lot about my boat from that experience and I’ll write more about West Devil Rock and Barren Island Light in another post.  Suffice to say it was a big event when we got to Ketchikan.  We cleared customs and went to the pizza parlor and ordered up a huge pizza.  The next day, I arranged for Jim to fly via float plane to Prince Rupert so that he could get the ferry home to Port Hardy.  He’d already had enough of America and was missing his favorite stool at the local cafe.  I never heard from him again and have always wondered if he ever got new teeth.

I wasn’t sure how to get Leda from Ketchikan to Juneau without a motor.  Of course she had sails, but suffice it to say this was going to be a difficult journey without a motor.  We still had about 250 miles to go.  So I started tearing down the motor.  I discovered fairly soon that the main timing gear which is driven by the crankshaft had sheared its key and nothing was turning.  For those who don’t know anything about motors, the valves must be timed with the movement of the pistons.  This function had failed.  Typically when this happens the valves hit the pistons, which is not a good thing.  In our case it had bent he pushrods into “S” shapes. Often it bends valves and wrecks pistons, I got lucky.   The slot or keyway in the crankshaft was a smeared mess.  By some stoke of luck I was able to grind it out to a wider slot, duplicate this on the gear and put in a new key to lock it in place.  I put my bent pushrods back in and adjusted the valves, and the motor started.  And ran well!  This is one of the main reasons I say I love this engine.  It has been rebuilt since, but being able to do this kind of repair with simple tools in the middle of nowhere (yes I said that about Ketchikan) is really great.

Ginny joined me in Ketchikan and we spent the next four days getting Leda home to Auke Bay.  Leda was in Alaska after three years of trying to buy her and get her there.  No, we had no idea what to do next.  The slate was clean.

Sidebar:  The Cape Lazo Incident

Sidebar:  West Devil Rock and Barren Island Light

Next:  Blood, Sweat and Beers – Leda’s Restoration

For those who are have already read the restoration details or would like to skip it, your next stop is:  Visiting New Zealand

Previous:  A Second Chance