Vacation on a sailboat is rich in memories

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2004

Sunny skies from overhead and light winds from behind created perfect sailing conditions. The main and genoa sails caught the wind in their smooth curve and pulled the 22-foot Flower forward. Gail Findley and I lazed in the gentle conditions, let nature do most of the work, and reveled in the encompassing silence. We felt free as the wind.

Gail, her cat and I felt that freedom many times during our 12-day, 300-mile sailboat vacation. The mid-July trip in Stephens Passage also included visits to different bays and fjords: Taku, Holkum, Gambier, Pybus, Hobart, Windham, Fords Terror and Endicott.

Flower, at 22-feet-long and 7-feet-wide, is of modest size for a cruising sailboat in Alaska. A fact pointed out by several boaters during our trip. One complimented the small boat's "nice lines."

"Six horse?" another said with surprise after looking at the outboard. "I've got a four horse on my rubber dinghy!"

Modest or not, Flower took us where we wanted to go in reasonable, if somewhat cramped, comfort. Where we most wanted to go was to two large bays near the southern end of Admiralty Island - Gambier and Pybus.

I had kayaked by the mouths of each bay two decades ago and thought they would be fun to explore. I wasn't disappointed.

We spent four happy days motoring and sailing along the shorelines and around islands. We fished, used the dinghy to row to shore for beach hikes, took photos, swam in surprisingly warm waters, toured a wilderness fishing lodge, anchored each night in secluded coves and exchanged stories with other boaters.

It's easy to make friends when boating. For example, on the first night we tied up at the state float in Taku Harbor. We walked the dock and made small talk with others.

Later, while making supper, a woman who had been cleaning freshly caught king crab with her husband called from the dock, "Do you want some crab?" Her generosity provided the most exotic supper of the trip.

The owners of another boat, a 45-foot catamaran from Washington state, invited us on board for a tour.

Two days later we saw them halibut fishing in Gambier Bay and motored over to say, "Hi." One person was holding a fishing pole, bent into a "C," with both hands. We watched the net dip into the water ... and the fish escape.

"The net was too small," the captain said with a straight face as we approached. "We couldn't get the fish in."

While cruising in Stephens Passage we watched breeching humpback whales, saw sea lions resting on rocks, motored around The Brothers islands and stopped at Five Finger Lighthouse, the last manned lighthouse in Alaska until it was automated in 1984.

We saw the only bears of our trip while spending the night anchored in a small cove inside Hobart Bay. I'm used to seeing more wildlife while on the water, but then I'm usually in a kayak paddling near shore.

The sailboat, however, did provide some compensating advantages. We could carry more gear, didn't have to look for smooth tent sites on rough ground to sleep each night and could cover greater distances with less effort. In addition, we could take Gail's cat, although there was some debate whether this was an advantage or not.

This was Allie Cat's second boat trip but she felt comfortable enough to walk the deck and seemed endlessly fascinated by reflections in the water. At times she leaned so far over the side for a closer look that it appeared gravity would attract her and we'd learn whether cats could swim.

We met more friendly folks at the head of Windham Bay, a ten-mile fjord. "Come on over," a man yelled from the small dock. Dan Fernandez, who runs Windham Bay Adventures, gave us our second lodge tour of the trip.

We also visited Fords Terror in Endicott Arm. In addition to steep walls and waterfalls we found another attraction in this narrow fjord - wind. We ran up the mainsail, turned off the noisy motor and listened to geology.

The last two days of the trip were highlighted by two additional passengers. We had arranged to pick up Gail's son and his girlfriend from a tour boat in Holkum Bay.

We had hoped to sail back, but a lack of wind forced us to use the outboard. Then, five miles from Juneau, a light breeze picked up and we ended the trip sailing right to the bridge.

This final sail reminded us of all the previous days we had found favorable winds. Each time it seemed like one of those come-on ads, the ones offering free vacation travel, that you see but never believe.

In mid-July the unbelievable came true in Stephens Passage.

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