S/V Tango. Log entries 2008-9

Part 10: Sitka to Wrangell
August 16-September 20, 2009

8/16/09. Sitka may be my favorite town in SE Alaska. It's pretty, cosmopolitan, and well-kept. It hasn't been badly contaminated by the cruise ship industry, but tourism is important.

Native dancers gave a spirited performance at Sitka.

The littlest dancer, under two years old, stole the show.

8/17/09.After a few days in Sitka, we’re ready to go again. More than 2.5 inches of rain fell in the past 24 hours, so we’re motivated to head for drier climates. We’ve been nursing the engine along. The rings must be gummed up, because there’s so much blowby that smoke pours out of the dipstick tube, oil filler cap, and every other orifice. We’ve been changing the oil and filter almost every day. We added solvent to the oil to hasten the clean-up.

In mid-afternoon, we filled the fuel tanks and headed toward Peril Strait. For four hours we groped our way through heavy traffic, poor visibility, and narrow channels in Olga Strait and Neva Strait, then anchored in Fish Bay.

8/18/09. We decided to run the engine harder so it would run hotter and clean the carbon out of the combustion chambers. At 1800 RPM, the engine temperature wouldn’t get over 150 degrees, which is too cold for a diesel, so we cranked it up to 2000 to 2200 RPM and got the coolant temperature up to 180 degrees. As we motored along, the engine would periodically rattle and clatter as another piece of carbon broke loose and worked its way out of the combustion chamber. In mid-afternoon, the oil pressure dropped below 20 PSI and we stopped in mid-channel to add oil. It’s been using a quart of oil every three or four hours. The engine room is a sooty, oily mess, the bilge an oil sump. Ugh.

We passed through Sergius Narrows, the tightest part of Peril Strait, in mid-morning, 21 minutes late for slack (we were slackers getting underway this morning). Tango had to buck a two-knot current and surprising swirls. We’re grateful that the engine keeps on keeping on. It would be no place to lose propulsion.

We anchored at a familiar site, Hanus Bay, near the eastern end of Peril Strait. The strait was named not for its navigation hazards (of which there are plenty) but for the deaths of some visiting Aleut sea otter hunters who ate blue mussels in the wrong season. Paralytic shellfish poison is common in Southeast Alaska. It was originally named “Pernicious Strait,” which became “Peril Strait” on later charts.

Dwarf dogwood offers berries amid ferns

8/19/09. I began the day by swabbing oil out of the bilge. What a nasty mess! We had to wait to leave until noon to avoid contrary currents in Chatham Strait. We headed south to Warm Springs Bay over glassy-calm water and found space at the public dock in the bay. The roaring of the waterfall at the head of the bay lulled us to sleep.

Baranof, Alaska

Warm Springs Bay

8/20/09. We soaked in the tubs at the public baths off the boardwalk. The bath house, on pilings over the intertidal zone, had three rooms. Two had large galvanized livestock water troughs for tubs; the third had a lovely carved wooden tub. The wall overlooking the bay and the waterfall was open for view and ventilation. The water was running continuously, and it was just right. It was hot but not scalding. The mild sulfur odor reminded the bather that he was soaking in geothermal water.

In early afternoon, we headed for Kake, a Tlingit village that had been recommended by other boaters as worth a visit. The weather turned wetter and gloomier as the afternoon waned, and by the time we got to Kake, it was almost dark. As we rounded the last daymarker, three hundred yards from the city dock, we ran aground.

Tango slid to a stop from 3.5 knots to zero in a few feet, but fortunately there were no hard bumps. As I looked around, I could see kelp floating all around us. A close look at the chart showed that the daymarker was not at the end of the reef but in the middle; almost three hundred feet of reef extended into the marked channel. Peter tried to back Tango off the reef, but the engine couldn’t do it. We were at low tide, so we decided to wait until the rising tide lifted us off the rock.

While the engine was idling, it suddenly quit. We tried to start it again but the starter only clicked. It wouldn’t turn the engine over. I called on the VHF radio for assistance. An hour after we struck the reef, Tango was floating but held in place by the kelp. Kip Howard came out in the Kake Search and Rescue boat and pulled us to the dock, a shoal and exposed moorage.

Kake city center from the City Dock.

Tango at the Kake City Dock. The offending reef lurks to the left of the daymarker.

8/22/09. I pulled the cylinder head yesterday and found that a metal insert (a pre-combustion chamber?) had fallen out of the head and into a cylinder, destroying the head, piston, and other parts. The engine is not worth fixing. It’s old, inefficient, and hard to get parts for. At the recommendation of several locals, we called Rick Rogers, who runs a boat yard at his family’s homestead at Security Bay, some miles from Kake. He sounded as if he had the skills, experience, and equipment needed to haul Tango out of the water and do the necessary work.

Fireweed is now setting its seed aloft.

It was evident that Tango wasn’t going anywhere soon, so Margy and Jill caught the twice-weekly ferry to Petersburg, planning to fly home the next day.

An eagle sits atop t he world's tallest totem pole (132 feet).

8/23/09. Rick Rogers called this morning to warn us of a coming storm. He said waves toss boats around at the city dock and that we’d be more comfortable at the Portage Bay small boat basin, a couple of miles from the town center. We hired Dave Harman, a sport fishing guide, to tow Tango to the boat basin. The docks were decrepit, no electricity or water was available where we moored Tango, but we were very happy to be there when the storm raged through.

The docks at Portage Bay have seen better days.

8/25/09. It’s still rainy and cold, but hope is on the way. We ordered a new Yanmar 4JH4AE engine (4 cylinders, 54 horsepower; a close match to the performance of the old Westerbeke) through New Life Motors in Juneau. It is to be shipped on a barge from Seattle and should arrive in Kake in a week.

A float home at Portage Bay.

8/26/09. On a beautiful, sunny day, we ordered parts to replace the exhaust muffler, pipe, and associated parts from Fisheries Supply in Seattle and asked that they be shipped on the same barge. I began the noxious and arduous task of cleaning the black, stinky oil out of the engine room and bilge. Peter moved the panel of light switches in the cockpit coaming to make room for the new instrument panel.

Portage Bay small boat basin.

We hitched rides to and from the gas station so we could keep the little Honda 1000-watt generator going. On a tank of gas (less than a gallon), it’ll run five hours and charge the batteries enough to get us through to the next day. Even some commercial fish boats use little Honda generators for everyday use—their 55-KW generators typically consume up to four gallons of fuel an hour, and if they’re not refrigerating the fish hold they’ll use the Honda instead.

We had another gorgeous sunset. The sun travels so low to the horizon that it takes a long time to set, so sunsets can be glorious for half an hour or more.

8/27/09. Another cold, wet, windy storm has moved in. We spent hours tracing and removing mystery wires in the recesses of the engine compartment and cockpit coaming. To keep morale up, I baked bread and apple cake.

A barge arrived with materials to rebuild the docks at Portage Bay.

8/27/09. We got disappointing news today. Rick Rogers said he’s bound by commitments (he’s skipper of a salmon tender) for “at least” two weeks and won’t be able to help us. He had made calls to the shipyards in Petersburg and found they were backed up for at least a month. It looks as if we’ll have to do the work ourselves if we want to get Tango back to Washington waters this fall.

Old boats retired to the beach near Kake.

Kake is definitely not the place to be doing work like this. There aren’t enough resources, craftsmen, or supplies. Petersburg would be our first choice, because the city is known for the skill (and expense) of its boatwrights. We figured that there must be good machinists, chandleries, and hardware stores as well. But when I called the harbormaster at Petersburg, he couldn’t think of anywhere that we could pull Tango out of the water and work on her. There’s no work space available at the Travelift dock, and the boat yards don’t allow boat owners to work on their own boats there. I remembered working on the transmission at Wrangell and realized that it would be our best site.

It’s ironic that we’re returning to Wrangell. When I was working on the transmission, I lamented the lack of services and skilled craftsmen and thought Tango could have been disabled near a better port. But the city boat yard has plenty of space, they let owners work on their own boats (and overlook boaters staying aboard while the boat is on jack stands), and it’s close to well-supplied hardware stores. As an added bonus, we could rent tools and count on the occasional help of Don Sorric, who works every daylight hour of every day, fixing, sandblasting, and painting boats in a tarp-and-storage-container tent structure at the yard. He has a crane truck and isn’t afraid to get dirty. He might be just the guy to help us pull the old diesel out.

8/29/09. Peter called Alaska Marine Lines and caught our shipment before it was headed to Kake. He asked that it be sent to Wrangell instead. We hired the Kake taxi to run us into town so we could post fliers saying we needed a tow to Wrangell and were willing to pay for it. We spent hours tracing and removing more mystery wires and cleaning the engine room.

8/30/09. A young man came to the dock and said his uncle would tow us to Petersburg for $1200. Because we had received an estimate of $3500 from a tugboat company for the same tow, it didn’t seem excessively high. Our insurance company covers towing charges up to $2500 and had authorized us to seek local assistance because they had no resources in Alaska.

8/31/09. Paul Rostad, in his 58-foot seiner Christina Dawn, towed us through the fog to Petersburg. When we got to the boat harbor, he tied Tango tightly to his boat’s beam and eased us in to the dock. It’s amazing how well commercial fishermen can handle their boats. The fog cleared before we got to the town, and it turned out to be a beautiful day.

The sidewalks at Petersburg commemorate local activities and events.

Petersburg celebrates its nordic heritage.

9/1/09. Encouraged by the success of our improvised fliers at Kake, we posted fliers at every available bulletin board at every dock in Petersburg. Before the day was out, we got a call from a hunting guide who could tow us to Wrangell with his big steel boat. When Scott Newman came to Tango to discuss the tow, I realized that I’d seen his boat, Chester B, before. It had been on stands near Tango when she was out of the water at Wrangell in June. It had been built as a mobile machine shop, designed so it could run up on a beach at high tide and sit on its bottom until the next high tide. Rather rectangular and boxy in shape, it wasn’t a yacht at all, but was nicely outfitted with wood paneling and furniture. The machine shop had been converted into a bunk room. The word that came to my mind was “skookum,” a Chinook word meaning powerful, strong.

A fishing boat off-loads its catch at Petersburg.

Low tide in Petersburg's back waters.

Sunset over Petersburg.

A glacier towers over the Sons of Norway Hall.

9/2/09. “Damn the tides, power on” seems to be the motto of many boaters here. Despite adverse currents as great as three knots, Scott towed us through Wrangell Narrows at low tide.

Chester B tows Tango through Wrangell Narrows.

Whenever I’ve navigated these narrows, I’ve entered the 20-mile straits on a rising tide, timing the passage so that I hit the mid-point at high tide. The rising tide flows into the channel to the mid-point; the falling tide gives a boost out the other end. I’d never before seen the channel at low tide. It was quite an eye-opener to see how narrow it was at low water. The traffic was light and the passage was easy. I paid him $1200 for the tow.

Kelp decorages a daymarker in Wrangell Narrows.

9/4/09. When I talked with LaDonna, the harbormaster, a couple of days ago, she said the Travelift might not be able to get to us until next week, after Labor Day. But today the boat yard manager found time to pull Tango out of the water and place her on jack stands near Don Sorric’s work area. He took quite a bit of time to make sure she was plumb when I explained that we needed to install a new engine and would have to modify the engine beds. It would be helpful if we could use a level, usually a useless tool aboard a boat.

Solo, the gentle wolf who lives at the boat yard.

9/5/09. We loosened the steering cables, removed the wheel, compass, binnacle, and cockpit floor, then yarded out most of the extraneous engine parts. We removed the alternator, injection pump, fuel filter, raw water pump, and almost all the hoses.

9/6/09. The weather was beautiful, so we disassembled the dodger and bimini, stowed the canvas and windows below, moved the frame aside, tied the boom out over the beam, and readied for engine removal. Don lifted it out with his old truck crane and hauled it away.

The old engine, ready for retirement.

I washed the dodger top and bimini with mild soap and peroxide bleach, trying to get the thin film of black mildew off the inside. I laid them out on a clean plastic tarp, then scrubbed and scrubbed with a brush and blasted them with a hose before I was satisfied.

There are several giant forklifts in Wrangell. This one is carrying a fishing boat to the dock so it can be shipped on a barge.

9/7/09. While Peter stayed in bed, taking Echinacea and resting to fight off an illness, I continued cleaning the engine room. I spent much of the day disassembling wire bundles, washing black, oily grime and soot off the wires, re-routing wires to reduce tangles, and re-bundling them. By the time my back said it was time to quit for the day, there was little change evident except a bit more orderliness and a few cleaner wires. It’s going to take days to clean the engine room.

9/8/09. The engine and the associated parts arrived today, delivered to our door, so to speak. We were eager to see the engine, and it turned out to be an object of great interest to others working in the boat yard. Several men stopped by to see it after we had removed the crate.

Just like Christmas!

Clean, shiny, and compact.

I called Steve Keller, who’d been recommended by Scott Newman as one who does good work in fiberglass. He said he’d be glad to help repair the keel and modify the engine beds.

9/11/09. Steve got right on the job—the morning after I called him, he showed up and started working on the keel. He ground away damaged parts, added some new fiberglass cloth, and faired it. He cut away parts of the engine beds (originally fiberglass over Douglas-fir beams) to lower them, added clear vertical-grain Douglas-fir stringers to narrow the distance between the beds, and applied fiberglass cloth over the whole thing. He did nice work and did it quickly. I had been afraid that we’d have to do the work ourselves, so it’s great that he was on the job. He turned out to be a nice guy who enjoys his life—an added bonus for us.

There are several other boats in the yard being repaired after running into rocks. It seems to be an epidemic. We’re parked next to a big fiberglass seiner that’s having repair work done on the bow. On the other side of that boat is a wooden seiner whose skipper fell asleep and hit the boulders of a breakwater at cruising speed—a number of planks and ribs had to be replaced.

Tango's neighbors at the Wrangell boat yard.

Siren gets new ribs and planks after hitting a breakwater.

A couple of days ago the Travelift pulled another fiberglass seiner out of the water after it had hit a rock. Word on the grapevine was that a diver inspected the bow after a relatively light bump and pronounced it cracked but serviceable. There was a watertight bulkhead behind the bow, so the skipper wasn’t worried about sinking. As he powered up to return to Wrangell to have the boat hauled out of the water, the water pressure split the bow open, fracturing big areas of fiberglass. It turned out that the bow had split open before and had been patched poorly. Five bolts had been put in to hold the split closed, then it had a light fiberglass patch applied. The impact broke the bolts and the patch but didn’t cause much damage until the boat got underway.

Traci-C hit a rock.

Our grounding doesn't seem so bad by comparison.

9/12/09. We got bad news yesterday. There is no prop shaft coupler available that will fit our application. Couplers for Yanmar engines are available for prop shafts up to 1.25” in diameter, but we have a 1.5” shaft. We’ll have to have one machined to fit. Additional bad news is that West Marine sent us critically needed parts by FedEx, despite my explicit and repeated instructions that only U.S. Postal Service could be used. The parts won’t reach us and will have to be re-ordered Monday. Additional pressure is that moose hunting season opens in three days. A number of people have told us that the town shuts down when moose season starts.

9/14/09. I called Mike Vogt at Harbor Marine, the wizard who supplied the parts needed to rebuild Tango’s transmission in June, hoping for help with the prop coupler. He was already on it—the engine wholesaler had called him after Peter’s inquiries last week. He figured he could have a coupler for a Borg-Warner transmission machined to fit. I asked him to proceed with all possible haste, emphasizing that we’d pay a premium for fast service and fast freight.

9/15/09. Mike called in the morning to say that the coupler was on its way via air freight and should be in Wrangell this afternoon. The total charge was over $500 (a third of that for freight), but well worth it. I rode a rented bike to the airport to pick it up.

The custom prop shaft coupler.

9/17/09. I spent hours in the past few days hunched over in the engine room, re-wiring and re-installing the bilge pumps, cleaning oily grime off the walls, wires, and hoses, and painting the engine beds.

We hit a snag today. We thought we were ready to install the engine, but the stainless-steel drip pan that hangs under the engine wouldn’t fit back into its space after the engine bed modifications. Fortunately, one of the men who works at the boatyard here said he’d take it to a friend who could trim it down to size.

Forward bulkhead of engine room.

The port side includes the hydronic heater, water heater, and inverter/charger.

9/19/09. We got the engine pan back yesterday, and the workmanship was admirable. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite complete. We had asked for four long tabs to be welded on so we could suspend the pan below the engine, but they weren’t there. Don, the boss at the boatyard, said he’d cut and drill some flat bar stock for us, but it took all day before he was able to get to it. By the time he got it back to us, it was too late in the day to install the engine.

The engine beds have been modified, fiberglassed, and painted. The mounts are ready to receive the engine.

The aft wall of the engine room.

9/20/09. At 10:45, Don said he'd be over with his boom truck in "20 minutes" to install the engine. It wasn't raining, so the timing seemed just right. Peter and I stripped side curtains and the canvas tops from the dodger and bimini frames and took the Lexan windshields down, then began to wait. The wind blew. It rained into the engine room and dripped through leaks in the cockpit. Around 17:15, we had waited enough. It was too late so we put everything back together and headed for the laundromat/shower facility near the boat yard.

As we were doing our laundry, Don came in for his nightly shower. He promised that he'd have the truck at our boat by 08:45 the next day, explaining that he needed it all day today to anchor the tarp he had erected over the boat he's working on.

9/21/09. The day began without rain, so we removed the side curtains and windshield but not the top canvas--we didn't trust Don to be on time, and we expected rain. Only a couple of hours late, he brought his truck to the side of the boat.

Don Sorric runs the pole truck crane to lift the new engine.

We soon had the new engine safely in its home. Now, we need to fit the muffler (which may take some parts that have to be special-ordered from Seattle), put the cockpit floor, binnacle, and steering mechanism back together, install wires, hoses, and control cables, and we should be good to go. But given the propensity of critical inanimate objects to be unavailable or inappropriately sized, we're crossing our fingers.

--Dennis Todd

Photos by Dennis Todd and Peter Ffolliott.

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