The Journey North: Up the Inside Passage

I think it was the quiet that woke me. I cracked my eyes open, squinting against the bright sun that had been shining since we’d reached Alaskan waters three days before. It took me a moment to realize that the constant roar of the boat’s engine was gone. I could hear nothing but the ringing in my own ears and the slap of waves against the hull.

Our fishing boat–no longer racing across the tops of the waves–gave a sickening every-direction-at-once sort of lurch as it slid down the side of one roller and wobbled in the trough at the bottom.

I swung my legs over the side of my bunk and rubbed my eyes just in time to see my husband crawl out of a hatch in the floor with his hands covered in oil. He glanced up at me and grimaced.

“What’s wrong?” We wouldn’t be stopped with the engine off in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight and another two hundred miles to go and him rooting around in the engine room if something wasn’t wrong.

“Oh,” Nic said lightly, “Nothing much. Just that one of the fuel lines has sheared completely off and the engine room is full of diesel.”

I glanced down at his arms, covered to the elbow in what I now suspected was diesel. I could smell it, thicker than usual in the air: the hot stink of a bleeding engine.

My stomach clenched. It was the last day. Why did something have to go wrong when we were finally so close to home? “How far are we from Kodiak?” I asked.

“About a hundred and sixty miles. I’ll tell you if we’re going to call the Coast Guard.” Nic yanked one of the tool drawers out and starting to go through it with furious purpose.

I got up, pulled my boots on, and climbed out on deck where the air was at least clear of diesel even if it was now misting heavily and a layer of fog was starting to descend on us. Even beyond the fog, I knew there was no land in sight anywhere. We were in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska hundreds of miles and twenty hours drive from land in every direction. Literally, the worst place to have engine trouble.

The boat made another sickening lurch and my stomach lurched with it. I swallowed. Hard. Then sat down on the hatch cover where I could stare fixedly at the horizon and think about things other than the sea-sickness I could feel creeping up on me.

I glanced back the way we’d come. It all felt as though it had all taken a very a long time.

It was over a month earlier that we’d driven from Northern California to Seattle, WA and then to Everett to where our boat was up in the boatyard being worked on.

We’d planned to be in Everett only a week, but when we got there, the work that was supposed to be completed was so behind that the welders actually laughed when Nic suggested that he wanted to leave by Sunday.

Nic spent his days in Everett problem solving everything wrong with the boat and I spent my days either happily holed up in Narrative Coffee–instantly my favorite coffee shop from the name alone–or writing in our AirBnB and planning where our next meal and roof would come from.

-read about our trip to Kodiak in 2017-

Over the month we moved from AirBnB to AirBnB, even returning to the first one we’d been to when we ran out of new ones to stay in. They were all consistently cheaper, nicer, and more welcoming than either the boat in its state of disarray or the slightly seedy Best Western down near the harbor. Our temporary homes ranged from a beautiful fully furnished apartment to a nook that the owners had advertised as having ‘zen energy’ and featured several Buddhas and a small sand garden as well as a blond Jesus with red, white, and blue light shooting out of his heart.

One of my personal favorites was covered in not so subtle purple price tags that told us that the wall art, much of the furniture, and most of the dishes were all for sale and that we were living in an antique store. It gave a certain thrill to the stay. I spent the week deciding if I wanted to keep any of the nautical themed art in my life. I resisted, though it was a close call with the tiny painting of a sailboat hung just at eye level in the bathroom. I’d grown quite attached by the time we packed and left.

The last place was a bedroom in a gorgeously re-done historical house that came with daily fresh bread and two friendly but mildly incontinent dogs.

airbnb in Everett, Wa

After some scrambling for crew, we ended up flying Nic’s dad down from Alaska to help with the driving as we planned to go night and day so we could make it to Kodiak as quickly as possible. We’d already missed the beginning of the Salmon Season and I had a friend coming to stay on June 10th. For a journey of several thousand miles beginning on June 3rd, we were cutting it pretty close.

We were supposed to travel up with a tender captained by a man who’d made the trip many times, but it quickly became clear that our boat was faster than the big tender and we left them behind on the second day preferring to strike out on our own than make the whole trip barely above idle.

I was asleep when we passed into Canadian waters. When I woke, we were in a narrow channel with tree-covered hills rising around us. There was only the chart, the picturesque lighthouses, and the “abooots” on the radio to tell us we were not already somewhere in the islands and channels around Kodiak.

I was asleep when we passed into Alaskan waters. I went to bed knowing that when I woke up we’d have left Canada, so as soon as my eyes were open I called up to Nic to ask if we were in Alaska and whooped with joy when he said that we were. Being in Alaska was practically like being home.

After that were no more lighthouses and the soft Canadian voices on the radio calling out their position to marine traffic control faded as we drove farther and farther north. The narrow green channels stretched on forever.

We made it to Hoonah, AK around ten thirty at night, just as dusk was falling. Though it had not been a difficult trip, never have the lights of a strange town looked so warm or inviting to me. We dropped anchor in the calm bay in front of their harbor and Nic turned the engine off. We slept in blissful silence that seemed somehow louder than the constant roar of the engine.

In the morning, once we were tied up to the fuel dock and were almost done filling the nearly bottomless fuel tanks, Nic stuck his head into the cabin where I was hiding from the rain and making a phone call to my mother to assure her that we were still alive and said, “Babe, they have a bathroom here. A land bathroom.”

I all but hung up on my mom to leap over the rails in my eagerness to find the complimentary land bathrooms that came with our fuel purchase.

The bathrooms were wonderful, thank you for asking.

From Hoonah, we headed out into the Gulf of Alaska. We’d had sun and calm seas and porpoises playing about our bow until I’d woken to the smell of diesel and the lurch of the boat with the engine off.

I looked back at the horizon in front of me and pulled my hood up, burrowing my cold hands into the pockets of my coat. There was nothing to do but wait for it to be over.

Maybe I should have been afraid–we were adrift on the open ocean, after all–but I really wasn’t yet. Between Nic and his dad, I’ve never seen them not fix the thing they were working on. Besides, by then I was too busy being seasick to be worried about anything other than taking deep breaths and which way the wind was actually blowing in case I had to throw up.

After much discussion and a satellite phone call to the boat’s owner as well as one to a mechanic in Kodiak, Nic bent the broken fuel line into a five-gallon bucket so it could leak somewhere contained and started the boat again. The engine gurgled and growled unhappily, but we were once again on our way.

I didn’t move. The hour of drifting and rolling had gotten to me and I spent the rest of the day either huddled on the hatch cover in the rain or throwing up over the rail.

Eventually, I was able to sleep for a few hours on the bed in the top house. I woke up around three AM to the lights of Kodiak in the distance though they looked strange to me. I was too groggy and disoriented to recognize them as anything other than land in the distance.

We crept into the town harbor an hour later, tied the boat up, and fell asleep.

It took us six and a half days from Everett, Washington to Kodiak, Alaska and by some miracle, we still arrived eighteen hours before my friend who was coming to stay with us.

Overall, it was a successful trip. We made it to Kodiak in time and in one piece and for all I spent the last day being sick, I found I’d rather be sick in private on our own deck than in a public restroom on the ferry like last year.

Maybe someday we’ll have a chance to sail the Inside Passage again when we have the time to stop for the night and rest in the green coves with those crazy round-the-world sailboat people. We’ll put down our anchor and visit the tiny Canadian lighthouses and wander through Ketchikan and Sitka. Because for all we just sailed the Inside Passage, I don’t think we saw much of it.

The thing I remember most clearly is that first calm day on the Gulf of Alaska. The water sliding past–glass-smooth–beneath our bow. Nic sleeping on the bunk behind me while I took a wheel watch. The porpoises racing the boat and then peeling off. Whales breaching in the distance.

The Alaskan sunshine falling like molten gold through the top house windows.

And nothing at all on the horizon.

One Reply to “The Journey North: Up the Inside Passage”

  1. I’m glad you didn’t have to stay sickeningly quiet out there a minute longer!!

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