Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Outer Aleutian Islands

Theo and I taking in the view from the bows
The state of Alaska covers the majority of a large wide peninsula jutting out of the north west corner of North America, to the west of the northern parts of Canada. It is one of the many US states that has a "panhandle", that is, a narrow strip projecting from the main territory: Alaska's panhandle is the strip of coast that creeps down to the South East, sandwiched between the Pacific coast and Northern British Columbia. Something that seems rarely acknowledged is the fact that Alaska in effect has two panhandles. Mirroring the coastal sandwich panhandle and stretching out to the southwest, the Alaska peninsula and the Aleutian islands form another panhandle, the majority of which is often cut off official maps of Alaska, despite (or because of) stretching out over more than twice the distance covered by the South Eastern panhandle. There are numerous similarities between these panhandles: they are both made up largely of islands and dotted with small communities, most of which can only be reached by boat or plane.

I had the rare and fortunate privelege of approaching Alaska via one panhandle and leaving via the other, and visiting many of the small communities along the way.

Navigating the narrow channel between Adak and Kagalaska islands
The furthest west inhabited island in the Aleutian chain is Adak. On the approach, we passed through a narrow channel between islands, which felt rather like flying through mountaintops - the landscapes we passed were very reminiscent of Snowdonia.

At the end of the channel, we rounded a few headlands and approached the harbour not knowing quite what to expect. In the distance we could see a substantial settlement - a town of windswept buildings sweeping up to the surrounding hills.

After a night sheltering in a fjord and gaining radio contact with the coast guard and harbourmaster (who happens to be the same person), we got permission to go into the small boat harbour to shelter for a few days from a developing storm. Despite having the appearance of a small town, Adak turned out to be an abandoned naval base which is home to barely more than a hundred people. The base had housed over 6000 troops, but now the majority of the buildings we saw were empty. When it closed in the early 2000s, the naval base was handed over to the Aleut Corporation, the governing body of the indigenous people of the Aleutian islands.

 Life in Adak seems to consist mostly of waiting, which includes hunting caribou, gathering seagulls eggs, maintaining the buildings, and operating the airport which has two of the largest runways west of Anchorage.
In the absence of cinemas, a typical evening's entertainment in Adak consists of going down to the rubbish tip and shooting rats, although we didn't have the chance to participate in such activities.

 Adak is known in the Aleut language as "Birthplace of the Winds," so it was no surprise that the storm we sheltered from was a huge one. There were reports of winds blowing 90 knots out in the waters we would otherwise have been sailing in, and even in the shelter of the harbour, we had to tie the boat up with extra ropes to protect against 30-40 knots. Niels and I hiked up a hill and found winds we could lean on!

Storms seem to bring companionship: sheltering with us were two other sailing boats which had made the same crossing from Japan a little way ahead of us: A Dutch couple in their yacht Bannister, of a similar size to Jennifer, and Sunstone, a smaller wooden British boat, owned, crewed and lived in by Tom and Vicky, a couple who have lived in the boat for many years, and have been sailing and racing around the world since retiring a few years ago. It was good to meet other people, and get to know a bit about sailing and cruising from different points of view.

Left to right: Jennifer, Bannister, Sunstone (photo by Niels)
Four days after arriving in Adak, the weather cleared enough for us to leave, and we sailed out amongst the islands, beginning the four day sail to Dutch Harbour. Bannister and Sunstone went out first, and quickly disappeared over the horizon, leaving the six of us in Jennifer to navigate our way through the tricky currents that flow amongst the Aleutian Islands.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Aboard Yacht Jennifer: Crossing the Pacific

How can I possibly put this into words?

42 days of living in a wobbly wardrobe with a Viking giant could not have been more enjoyable or unique an experience. I first met my 2 metre-tall room mate P-O when he ducked down the companionway as he arrived at the boat in Kushiro, our last port in Japan. Suddenly, Jennifer, the 50-foot yacht, felt rather small.

I had already been aboard for a few days, along with Lars the skipper, and two other crew members: Theo - an American who had got fed up with living in Bali and decided that crossing the North Pacific would help him find his place in the world, and Niels - a young Dutchman who decided that a life installing air conditioning was not for him and set out two years ago to travel around the world. A couple of days exploring Hakodate and obtaining provisions for the trip were followed by a day-and-two-nights motoring around the coast of Hokkaido to Kushiro.

There was a little bit of wind as we set out around Mt. Hakodate, but this soon dropped to almost nothing. En route, we experienced a lot of fog, a bit of seasickness, and some crazy birds who danced around the mast in the misty night air, sounding rather like airborne dolphins, and bewildering us to their species or provenance. The seasickness (experienced fully by Niels, and partially by Theo and I) was due to a sudden realization that a boat, when on the open sea and no longer moored in a harbour, will keep moving, and moving, and moving, in a very wobbly way.

After rounding Cape Erimo in a thick fog, the sea became much calmer, and we disturbed many large flocks of birds from their slumbers as we motored up Hokkaido's South East coast. The second evening, towards Kushiro, Niels had to steer carefully round some oil barrels and other post-tsunami flotsam, while I put together my first meal-for-4-in-a-wobbly-kitchen.
We approached Kushiro in a thick morning fog, making good use of the radar, and had a couple of days to gather final essentials, meet the new Swedes and take a final bath before the voyage.

The other Swede who joined us in Kushiro was Anki, a lady who has done some intrepid abseil-accessed kayaking in Norway and Sweden. It soon became clear, on leaving Kushiro, that apart from Lars, who has spent most of the last 25 years sailing around various parts of the world, we 5 crew had very little ocean sailing experience between us. The most experienced was P-O, who has sailed from Sweden to Scotland, the Shetlands and the Faeroes. The rest of us amounted not more than a few hours of coastal dinghy sailing, so steep learning curves were had by all.

Once out on the ocean, someone has to be awake at every moment, as you just have to keep going. A watch shift rota was established (watches in pairs: 3 hours on; six hours off) which we all got used to, but we learned very quickly to take sleep whenever we could get it.

The weather was fairly rough for the first few days out of Kushiro (Anki, poor thing, was seasick for 5 days), but as the low pressure system moved on ahead of us, the seas became calm, and we had a few days right in the middle of the Pacific with not a breath of wind, the sea grey and gently undulating. A diary snippet from the middle of the Pacific:

Monotony. I think it's Sunday (?19th?) but we could have passed the International Date Line, in which case it is actually Saturday again. It gets light by 2:30 am. The ocean today looks similar to the ocean yesterday, and the ocean a week ago. Are we even moving? How do we know that?

As soon as the wind picked up again, though, so did the waves. I noted in my diary that I now know what it is like being a beetle in a matchbox being shaken by a child, or transported in a pocket. Like an extended, non-stop fairground ride. The final night before our first landfall had us aiming for the southern end of Amchitka island, but the wind gradually picked up 20, then 25 knots before it sort of stabilized around 30, probably gusting 35 now and then.

Steering through the 6-12 foot waves was difficult enough, but we had to be as close into the wind as possible to try to be on course, but we were helplessly driven North as the wind struck us from the South-East.

It was most exciting to see land again, albeit a pile of rocks. This was Aleut Point, the Northernmost point of Amchitka Island in the Western Aleutians. As we passed it in the rough seas, Lars said "it's like rounding Cape Horn!" At the time, I thought "there speaks a seaman who knows what he's talking about" but I later realized that he has never actually rounded Cape Horn, having always transited via Panama.... Perhaps rounding Cape Horn is a generic state-of-mind that can be achieved by rounding any peninsula in the right sort of seas.

Given the crew's collective lack of experience, Lars was generally patient with us; the only time I heard him swear was when Niels let go of the Main Halyard (the rope which attaches to the top of the mainsail) which flew up into the air and wound itself round the mainstay. This was while we were still in the strong swells north of Aleut Point, and Theo volunteered to climb the mast. With some successful teamwork, we were able to free the halyard, Niels could breathe again, and Lars stopped swearing.
It was my turn to swear a couple of days later, when in considerably less rough seas, I climbed the mast, primarily as an academic excercise and an attempt to see over the thick fog. The water was calm but undulating, and I got up to the second spreader bars - about 2/3 of the way up the 20 metre mast, before losing confidence in my life jacket/harness and slowly working my way back down. This was the scariest thing I have ever done (the second scariest thing being steering the boat through the high winds two nights previously).

After 12 days at sea, we were now amongst the Aleutian islands, but had plenty more sea to cover before getting to Alaska proper.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Cooking on board Jennifer

This short film documents the creation of a tasty meal of fried eggs on knäckebröd (Swedish Ryvita) and a hot drink, prepared and consumed approximately half way across the North Pacific, aboard S/V Jennifer in June, 2011. When at sea, the direction of up and down keep changing. Watch the washing-up liquid, the coats on hooks in the background, and the gimbled cooker. And please enjoy the chattering of the plates.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Leaving 北海道

Well Well Well,

I am back in Hakodate! It just so happens that I am about to leave from the same port I arrived into...

My lack of blogging reflects my busy-ness in various activities, so I will provide you for the moment with some snippets. (Sorry, no photos for the moment - I have far too many to choose from!)

Hokkaido is quite an extraordinary place, and far too big to explore thoroughly in a mere 8 months.

On the same island I have met (in no particular order):
⊙ an American convinced that Biodynamic farming will hold off the effects of the coming nuclear apocalypse (he told me this months before the Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent catastrophes);

⊙ an Aussie determined to rise to the top of the local and national ski accommodation travel market by creating a lavish website which will rise above the others;

⊙ an organic potato farmer who is determined to revert the soil of Hokkaido to its preindustrial purity;

⊙ his father who is fascinated by the numerous varieties of potato and had a dream of going to South America to find and obtain some examples of the prototype potato developed by the Inca;

⊙ A couple who moved North to live the good life and have been so busy farming and obsessing about horses that they havern't had time to go paragliding;

⊙ A family of Japanese catholics who run a "rider house" and a ramen shop and hold the pope so dear that they went all the way to Vatican City just to see him from a distance;

⊙ A man who lives in Noboribetsu and drives to Tomakomai every morning to buy bread from a cheap outlet store;

⊙ A man who sleeps under the table in a cheap hostel he runs in an old house in a suburb of Hakodate during the summer and spends the winter drinking sake way down south in the islands of Okinawa;

⊙ A peach farmer from Fukushima who is terrified of the potential effects of radiation on his children, and first evacuated South to Nagasaki but then missed the North and came to Hokkaido to scout out fields to purchase to replace his Fukushima farm (where his parents are still living);

⊙ A young man who used to play pachinko a lot but has been studying hard since he decided instead to pursue a dream of going to a university in Tokyo and getting a job with the UN;

⊙ A man who has cycled around most of Japan in different stages over the last few years and frequently goes to Uganda to work for a non-profit organization;

⊙ A guy from Yamaguchi who does hotel work in the busy winter and mountain hiking in the summer, and one morning found me playing his piano and pushed a Bach CD and sheet music into my hands insisting that I listen and practice and accompany his flute by harpsichord (which i made a brief attempt at, but Bach's manuscripts just move too fast...);

⊙ A man who runs the tiny bath house in Makubetsu, who has probably been sitting there for 50 or more years, who was visibly astounded when a foreigner came to have a bath in his tiny establishment;

In Hokkaido I have been:
a traveller
a hitchhiker
a potato harvesting assistant
a trainee
a concierge
a snowboarder
a tourist
a web page designer

... and so busy with all of these things that taking photos and writing blogs have gone out of reach.

I have fulfilled a long-held personal dream of living in Hokkaido. I may be back one day, but right now, it is time to become a traveller again and set sail for the next continent.

A 50-foot sailing yacht named Jennifer has arrived in Hakodate, and I am due to find her tomorrow and meet the captain, a Swede who makes a living from sailing around the world. We are due to set sail on Sunday, heading for Alaska.

For a while, I thought I might have to fly across the Pacific in order to continue my trip around the Northern Hemisphere, but this opportunity has come along with perfect timing!

I won't have internet access for a while, but watch this space, just in case something slips out into cyberspace.