(I recognize this post is a bit overdue. Now that we are navigating through ice, the Bering Sea feels like another lifetime. But internet is sporadic, and so I’m a bit behind in posting.)
If you would have asked me ten years ago – or five years ago, or even two years ago – whether I would ever sail through the Bering Sea, I probably would have laughed. I might even wager $100 that it would never happen. I don’t like being cold, I’d explain, and that’s a big mean scary stormy stretch of icy water and arctic winds. No, thank you.
Well, today, I’d owe you $100. I just sailed through the Bering Sea.
When we were invited to sail the Northwest Passage on DogBark!, it took me a few minutes of studying the charts to realize that included in this ambitious 6,000-mile journey was a 1,600 nautical mile leg across the Gulf of Alaska, passed the Aleutian Islands and through the Bering Sea. It is hard to grasp just how huge Alaska really is until you try to sail around it.
This is the stretch I have been most nervous about. Made famous by dramatic scenes of icy deluges of water breaking high above the bows of 100+ foot crabbing boats on Deadliest Catch, the Bering Sea holds an intimidating reputation. In the winter months, low-pressure systems roll up the Aleutian Islands every few days, stacked one after the other like a row of furious swirling creatures, intent on destroying anything in their path. In other parts of the world, these low-pressure systems are called “hurricanes” and garner hours of news coverage. In Alaska, they are called “Tuesday” and people get on with their lives. Even in the summer, strong cold winds often sweep across the Siberian arctic to kick up daunting swell and threaten small boats.
These storm conditions are magnified in the eastern half of the Sea (the section we’d be sailing), where unusually shallow depths pile waves high into a giant washing machine. From Dutch Harbor to Nome, the water is rarely deeper than 200 feet, and for much of the route, there is less than 100 feet of water under the keel. Without thousands of feet of water to dampen the effects of surface waves, they can stack up quickly and dangerously.
I had extra time to research the stormy conditions of the Bering Sea, which did not help my nerves, as we lingered in Dutch Harbor awaiting our weather window. DogBark! was spiderwebbed to the dock in anticipation of a three-day low-pressure system sweeping across the Sea, bringing 30-50 knots of wind and 17-foot swell. We hunkered down, happy to be safely in harbor, and watched the wind meter as it gusted 30, 35 and 40 knots in our protected little basin. As the storm raged, we meandered through “town,” leaning hard into strong gusts of pelting rain on our way to The Rat Saloon, the only place in town with internet, or Safeway for a stale cup of coffee. We busied ourselves around the boat with small projects here and there and studied the latest forecasts every few hours.
We were not the only boat waiting out the storm; there were five other sailboats with us in Dutch Harbor, which is more than we’d seen since leaving the protection of the inside passage. The routes and stories of these boats, suddenly cobbled together and tugging at their dock lines, demonstrated the grit and heartiness required to sail to such a remote corner of the globe. There are no easy cruising routes to Dutch Harbor. Some of the boats had just arrived from Japan, a mostly upwind bash of 10-15 days. One of them had recently been in Antarctica – yes, that is the continent on the other side of the planet – and had sailed to Alaska via Chile, the Marquesas and Hawaii.
When we all got together for drinks one evening (in Panama, we’d call them “sundowners”, but that term is ill fitting in a place where the sun doesn’t set until well past midnight), the sailors in that room had hundreds of thousands of collective miles under their keels. The conversation swirled around remote cruising destination in southeast Asia, which sail arrangement works best when it’s blowing hard, the challenges of finding replacement parts, and easy recipes for meals underway. It was an inspiring batch of sailors, and the stories sprinkled throughout the evening – of unexpected storms, ripped sails, big seas and scary moments – reminded me that all cruisers encounter adversity along the way. It is how we become better sailors, build confidence and, of course, stockpile compelling “sundowner” stories.
We awoke on Tuesday anticipating an afternoon departure to give the seas a chance to settle down after the last of the storm blew itself out. But the forecast had shifted while we slept, and the next low-pressure system originally slated to slide across the Sea on Friday had sped up and now announced a Wednesday evening arrival. The wind was still blowing but had eased significantly as the current storm exhausted itself. The leftover wind would be behind us, and if we could use that extra breeze to sail fast enough, we could get ahead of the next storm.
I had only been vertical for 30 minutes when we made the decision, untangled DogBark!’s dock lines and got underway. We turned out of the inlet that had shielded us from the worst of the storm and were met by big steep swell rolling in from the Northwest, setting the precedent for our first days in the Bering Sea. While the swell rolled at us from the Northwest, the wind still piped from the Southwest. DogBark!, with a reefed mainsail and a small jib up, accelerated across the top of the swell, propelled by the following wind, until her bow dropped off the back of a wave with a stomach-dropping shudder. But she wasted no time wallowing in the trough and would promptly hurtle up the next wave, fast and determined.
It was a bit uncomfortable for her passengers, but DogBark! was having a blast. Even with the swell striving to slow her down, she plowed forward, confident and unwavering.
By the following morning, the seas relaxed and the wind died until we were inclined to employ our diesel supply to augment our speed. We had sailed over 200 nautical miles in our first 24 hours (that’s fast, in cruising land), but we still had our eye on the next low-pressure system moving in behind us. Our goal was to be above Nunivak Island, 380 nautical miles north of Dutch Harbor, by Thursday morning. This would push us out of the path of the incoming storm and bring in a strong but pleasant southeast wind for the remaining 275 miles.
With DogBark!’s impressively fast pace, we had no trouble meeting our Nunivak goal, and soon the wind had shifted to the southeast as predicted. With the new breeze, DogBark! took off once again, ticking off the miles under the watchful eye of the autopilot while we cooked elaborate meals, read books, replaced broken door latches and took naps. On watch, we dodged squalls and vigilantly watched the depth sounder as it hovered around 60 feet. The hours melted by, and occasionally the sun even came out.
In the end, it was an easy and uneventful passage. We averaged 8.4 knots of boat speed over the 655 miles, which we sailed in nearly a straight line. I frequently reminded myself along the way that this was the Bering Sea we were sailing across. This big scary body of water, it turns out, can also be agreeable and some might even say enjoyable.