S/V Tango. Log entries 2008-9

Part 6: Queen Charlotte City to Juneau
June 3-25, 2009

Queen Charlotte Islands to Dixon Entrance

Wednesday, 6/3/09. We were at the fuel dock by 07:00 and took on 113 gallons. Our mileage is getting worse—it was 1.4 gallons per hour. A sailor with a 39-foot boat and a Yanmar engine said he uses only 0.8 gph. The fuel consumption and the stench of the blue smoke are just about enough reason to re-power.

We motored north along Graham Island’s east shore until the north wind rose. Once clear of the shoals, up went the sails and we headed out into Hecate Strait. For hours, we motorsailed in 10-knot winds. In the afternoon, it finally rose to 15 to 20 knots, we turned off the engine, and sailed at 7 to 8 knots for hours. Just as we reached the end of our long passage and entered the islands west of the mainland, the wind died, very convenient for dropping the sails. The day had been gloriously sunny and warm. The twilight lasted for hours.

"Crab Trap Cove"

We ducked into a little cove that was said to hold some mooring buoys, but they were absent. I found a little anchorage, “Crab Trap Cove,” in the Cessford Islands, where we were soon anchored snugly. Bob, hoping that the name of the cove was prophetic, put out a crab trap before going to bed.

Thursday, 6/4/09. Bob found a crab in his trap, and soon after we were underway had cooked and stripped it. I decided to take a more protected route today, given the forecast of continued northerly winds—we don’t need to buck a headwind in Hecate Strait. If we have to motor against the wind, I’d rather do it in a protected passage.

In the afternoon, the wind rose from the NW. Our intended destination at the south end of Dundas Island, Edith Harbor, was upwind, but the opportunity to sail close-hauled up the east side of the island to its northern harbor, Brundige Inlet, was too good to pass up, so we changed course. After a few hours of sailing, the wind suddenly dropped to zero. We motored to the inlet, where we found three yachts already at anchor. We’ve seen more boats on the water today than we have in the past two weeks combined. Our wilderness experience is over for a while.

Friday, 6/5/09. I had been worried about bugs at Brundige Inlet, but needlessly so. The last time I was here I was eaten alive by blackflies. The itching was so annoying and persistent that I personified the saying, once bitten, twice shy. This time, the blackflies were not in evidence.

Ketchikan is an industrial port.

Many float planes use the Ketchikan waters.

Dixon Entrance was an easy passage. By mid-morning, we had motorsailed into U.S. waters, and soon thereafter sighted our first orcas. At 17:15 we tied up to the dock at Bar Harbor, Ketchikan. In an hour or so, the customs agent, Mr. Bird, came aboard to interview us and look at our passports. After he cleared us, we went to the Bar Harbor Restaurant for a fine dinner. It’s conveniently located at the head of the dock.

Saturday, 6/6/09. A lay day at Ketchikan, restocking the beer locker, chasing down parts, and stretching the legs.

There's little level ground in Ketchikan.

Cruise ships dominate the waterfront.

The tourist-fleecing center.

Three totem poles in differing styles stand in front of the Native American center.

One pole is in a more traditional style.

The middle pole is more representational.

The third pole is modernistic and abstract.

The themes and motifs are recognizable from the tribal traditions, but the style is avant-garde.

Even a small yard can be a delightful garden.

The salmon derby brought lots of fish to the dock.

Ketchikan's entry in the tiny tug contest.

A live-aboard at Harris Harbor. The marine equivalent of trailer trash?

Not every boat is made to look good.

Sunday, 6/7/09. We pulled away from the dock with a bit of excitement this morning. Just as we backed out, the engine quit as if it had run out of fuel. The wind pushed us across the alley broadside to the bow of a moored power boat. A lot of scrambling ensued. Clara T was caught between Tango and the dock, letting out cracking and creaking noises as Tango pressed against her. While I held Tango off, Bob pulled her into an adjacent slip where we quickly tied her up.

I had switched valves the night before to use a different fuel tank, so I suspected that air got into the fuel lines. I bled the lines, started the engine, and let it run for a few minutes before starting off again.

The infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" would have replaced this ferry, which runs between Ketchikan and the island where the airport is located.

Big, fast ferries call on Ketchikan as well.

Soon we were sailing in 15 knot beam winds, swells one or two meters high. By noon, Tango was running downwind in 20- to 25-knot winds in Ernest Sound, making more than hull speed. We should have reefed to the second reef; with the first reef, the mainsail would give so much weather helm if we deviated from a dead run that it was sometimes a struggle to get back to the heading. I heard a rattle from the stern that sounded like something loose in the drive train. I hope it’s not a loose propeller.

Within a couple of hours the wind dropped, and so did the sails. We motored into Santa Anna Inlet and found three motor yachts already at anchor.

Green Island lighthouse.

Monday, 6/8/09. We passed through Zimovia Narrows without incident. As we were motoring along, the noise in the prop shaft became worse. It wasn’t just the light rattle that I’d heard the day before—there was a heavier noise as well. Bob pointed out that the bolts holding the saddle bearing in the middle of the prop shaft to the frame of the boat were loose. I tightened them and much of the noise went away.

We went into St. John Harbor, about 20 miles west of Wrangell, to anchor for the night. Tomorrow we would pass through Wrangell Narrows, and we needed to enter the passage when the tide was right. After I picked out the spot to drop the hook, I put the shifter in reverse. A horrible grinding noise came from the engine room. I quickly put it into neutral. The grinding stopped. Gingerly, I put the shifter in forward. Tango started moving forward. Maybe it’s just a shifter adjustment problem, I hoped, and asked Bob to drop all the anchor rode—we wouldn’t be able to set it properly without reverse.

When we investigated, we found that the propeller shaft had broken loose from the transmission. The four ears bolted to the shaft coupler had broken off the transmission output shaft. The transmission would have to be taken apart and repaired.

An eagle fishing at St. John Harbor.

Bob rowed a quarter mile to a landing where big machines were loading logs onto a barge. When he came back, he reported that one of the men had said he’d tow us to Wrangell that night. About 19:00, George Rice tied our bow line to the stern of his 26-foot power boat and off we went. It took five hours to get to the harbor, and I was grateful for his night vision, because he had to dodge a lot of flotsam.

Tango was towed from St. John Harbor, at the upper left, to Wrangell, at the upper right.

When we got close to the harbor, George tied his boat tightly to Tango’s stern quarter and gently brought us to the dock against the current of the rising tide. After sharing a beer and re-heated beef stew, he went to bed after 01:00, his boat still tied to ours. He planned to get up three hours later so he could get back to St. John Harbor in time to start work for the day.

Wednesday, 6/10/09. I investigated the transmission further and found that it will have to be disassembled completely so the output shaft can be replaced. I was led to Harbor Marine Transmission in Everett, Washington, where Mike Vogt proved to be a wizard. He knew what I needed and was able to put together a parts set of a used shaft and new seals, clutch discs, and shims. He’ll send it by air freight. I’m expecting a call from a local mechanic and hope this can be fixed soon. From the looks of it, at least one of the ears had been cracked for a while—there was corrosion evident in the fractured surface. When I tightened the saddle bearing, it probably caused a misalignment that stressed the coupler until the ears broke completely off.

Several Wrangell buildings have murals.

Several historic buildings are still in use.

This 170-foot Feadship, with a crew of 13 and accommodations for 12 owners and guests, docked next to us.

The weather is beautiful, belying missionary William Ridley’s 1898 pronouncement, “There the climate is extremely wet and generally disagreeable, so that Wrangell…is one of the most miserable places of residence I have seen.” Until recently, the town was considered somewhat disreputable and inhospitable, but that seems to be changing. They cleaned up their harbor and made huge improvements at the boat yard, including a new 150-ton Travelift. It’s not a bad place for a visiting boater—within a few blocks is the town center, including a couple of banks, two grocery stores, the auto/marine parts store, five liquor stores, bars, two hardware stores, an excellent coin laundry (with showers), three restaurants and coffee places, the museum, the barber, and the post office.

Crab season begins soon. Each pot, line, and buoy can cost a thousand dollars.

Crab pots being loaded onto F/V Infinity.

Cruise ships stop at Wrangell but few passengers disembark, and no fur or diamond stores appeal to them. We watched river otters jump onto and off of this floating building as it was being towed away. They probably had become used to using it when it was moored in the harbor.

Friday, 6/12/09. The parts arrived yesterday. Bob rode his rented bike to the airport to pick them up. The boat yard sent a small work boat over to move Tango to the Travelift. It was low tide, and the wharf towered twenty feet or more over Tango’s deck. Workers atop the wharf used long boat hooks in the rigging to help hold her in position. Standing on the deck, I held a boathook against a piling to counter the tide, which was pushing her to the side. The Travelift operator did a good job of placing the slings and soon Tango was aloft.

It didn’t take long to back the prop shaft and pull the transmission. The mystery rattle was not a loose prop; the zinc at the end of the shaft was loose. Now that the transmission is out, it’s easier to work in the engine compartment. I’ll take care of some long-delayed tasks during the layover.

The transmission. The broken coupler is at the left.

The prop shaft, dripless seal, and saddle bearing.

The propeller and new sacrificial zinc.

I enjoyed walking around Wrangell, a town with a sense of history.

Wrangell has several totem poles on display.

Sunday, 6/14/09. Clay Hammer, who works at the Wrangell power plant as a mechanic, agreed to help me fix the transmission. In the afternoon, I went to the power plant and we took the case apart. Unfortunately, further damage resulted when Clay was trying to press a bearing race off the shaft—the seal cover broke. I’ll have to order another and arrange to meet the town’s machinist to finish the disassembly.

The broken output shaft.

It’s relatively quiet in the usually noisy boatyard today, even though there’s lots of work going on. There’s no loud rock and roll. The noises of the compressors, fans, grinders, welders, sandblasters, sanders, and other machines are relatively peaceful and soothing compared to the incessant music that usually blares from speakers mounted on the side of a shipping container turned into a sandblaster’s office and storage unit.

The sandblaster builds a tent over a sail-rigged fishing vessel.

As luck would have it, the Travelift operator put Tango down at the noisiest possible spot. A boatwright has set up a semi-permanent shop in this part of the yard. He builds stick-and-tarp tents over metal boats then sandblasts the rust and paint off them. There’s welding, grinding, and painting involved as well. He listens to a satellite radio channel that plays a very narrow slice of the rock and roll genre. It sounds boringly repetitive after a while. Every song has the same tempo, every singer is a shouter, not a crooner, the guitar licks all sound the same, and the same three chords appear over and over again. Fortunately, the lyrics are not angry. He turns it on, loud enough to hear over the machines he’s using, when he gets to work before 08:00 and doesn’t turn it off until he leaves, some time after 21:00.

At the Wrangell library, I found the information that I needed to reassemble the transmission.

Monday, 6/15/09. It’s raining in Wrangell, and Tango is still on the hard. I just got off the phone with Harbor Marine Transmissions. Fortunately, the seal cover is available, used, and one will soon be on its way via express mail. There’s not much more to do on the boat, so I’ll do a lot of reading today.

Chief Shakes lived on this island in the middle of the harbor. Totem poles and a long house were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

This pole is a replica of a "ridicule pole" meant to shame an adversary belonging to the frog clan.

The planks of the long house show adze-marks where they were planed by hand.

I spent a couple of days taking care of some tasks in the engine room and ran out of projects. While I was looking at the arcane and intricate plumbing system that controls the flow of fuel to and from the three tanks, two filters, and various valves, hoses, and pipes, I discovered a line that I had not previously examined. It was a bypass around the expensive and elaborate dual Racor filters. Its valves were open—the fuel was being drawn from the tanks right to the engine without passing through the filters. I shut the valve in the bypass line and ran the priming pump to make sure that fuel was passing through one of the filters. Then I replaced the secondary fuel filter at the engine and bled the air out of the system.

S/V Counting Coup, A junk-rigged schooner, designed by Tom Colvin, built of aluminum, and disabled with a damaged Saab variable-pitch propeller.

Bob invited the skipper of Counting Coup to dinner. His boat was towed by a fisherman into Wrangell a few hours after Tango arrived under tow. Like us, he had drive train problems and old machinery. His rudder linkage had come loose, allowing the rudder to turn hard over. The propeller hit a bolt on the rudder, jamming the prop forward. If it had been an ordinary prop, it wouldn’t have been disabling, but it was no ordinary prop. The whole drive line, from engine to propeller, is a propriety Saab design. It includes a clutch but no gearbox. The propeller is a variable-pitch unit. Reverse happens when the pitch of the blades is flipped so the prop pulls backwards, even though the direction of rotation is always the same. When it hit the rudder, the blades jammed forward, damaging the hub. He hoped to have a part sent from Florida but was concerned that it might be a special order from Europe.

Wrangell from the "Fish & Game" dock.

Tuesday, 6/16/09. I met the machinist at his shop at 08:00. In just a few minutes, he was able to press the recalcitrant bearing races off the transmission shaft. Now all I can do is wait until the seal cover arrives. Bob left on the ferry, happy to be away from the boat yard but a bit disappointed he wasn’t able to go all the way to Juneau.

The Wrangell ship yard.

Wednesday, 6/17/09. More frustrating waiting! The post office called at 10:15 to tell me that the package arrived, but I couldn’t pick it up. I had to get it from the harbormaster. I called LaDonna, the harbormaster (one of several tough female wharfingers and harbormasters I’ve met on this voyage), who told me that she had to wait until City Hall picked up the mail at the post office. That didn’t usually happen until early afternoon. Then someone from the harbor office would pick up their mail at the city offices. Then she’d call me.

I walked to the far end of town. I did laundry. I read narratives of 19th century explorers of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Finally, at 16:00, I walked to the harbor office. When I walked in, LaDonna said, “Oh! Here you are,” as she passed the parcel to me. She said she’d walked to the boat, but it was so high in the air that she didn’t want to climb the ladder, and then forgot to call when she got back to the office. It was too late to do anything more on the transmission because the machinist had already gone home.

When I looked at the calendar, I realized that I had to put the transmission back together the next day or else Tango couldn’t be launched until Monday at the earliest—they don’t run the Travelift on the weekend. Borrowing a hand cart, I walked to the power plant and got the transmission pieces from Clay, who wouldn’t take any money for the work he had done on it. It's ironic that here, where everyone must of necessity be self-reliant, there is such generous sharing of time and resources. Where people are more reliant on others for their everyday needs, they are more stingy with their own time.

F/V Baltic, built in 1917, is lovingly maintained.

Thursday, 6/18/09. I got up at 06:00 and set out the transmission output shaft and all the gears, clutch discs, bearings, couplers, and thrust washers on the dinette table (well protected by cloths and newspapers). Piece by piece, I went through the parts diagram and the instructions I’d photocopied out of a how-to-repair-inboard-diesels manual at the library and put the new and used parts in the sequence they’d have to be installed on the new shaft. I took the whole mess to the machinist, who pressed the parts onto the shaft. By mid-afternoon I had finished reassembling the transmission, grateful for my experience fixing air-cooled VWs many years ago.

After I bolted the transmission in place, I checked the alignment of the propeller shaft. I was shocked to see how badly misaligned the transmission output shaft and the prop shaft were. The shafts bolt firmly together with no opportunity to flex and accommodate misalignment. Here was the cause of the transmission failure. The pushing-and-pulling on the flange that occurred with each rotation eventually caused metal fatigue. Further investigation revealed that nuts on the motor mounts that hold the engine up had come loose, allowing the front of the engine to drop a couple of inches. I gave myself a mental dope-slap. I had noticed the motor mount nuts weren’t tight, but they looked so corroded that I assumed they had been that way for years. I hadn’t thought it through and realized the effect on shaft alignment. I was able to turn the nuts and raise the engine back into alignment with the prop shaft. Before bolting the shaft onto the transmission, I checked the clearances carefully with a feeler gauge.

As I was installing the transmission, I realized that an alternator mounting bolt had gone missing. The alternator is very difficult to work on—it’s on the wrong side of the engine, and the only way to work on it is to drape oneself over the top of the engine and work by Braille. After the transmission was in and the shafts aligned and bolted together, I tackled the alternator. First I had to find the missing bolt and nut. Fortunately, unlike a car that can scatter its parts along the road, a boat engine drops its parts in the bilge. With a magnet, I was able to fish around and retrieve them. But I couldn’t figure out how the bolt, spacer, alternator, and mount went together, so I quit for the night.

A totem in a city park.

Friday, 6/19/09. I got up early again and tackled the work before the yard workers showed up with the Travelift. The launch went smoothly until the operator asked whether I’d paid the bill. The new yard policy, after too many cases of splash and dash, is that the bill must be paid before the boat is put back in the water. I pointed out that I wouldn’t get far. Because the alternator still wasn’t installed, I had asked them to use their skiff to push Tango to the dock. Nevertheless, procedures must be followed. Off we drove in the yard truck to the office to pay the bill.

After Tango was back in the water, I bought a fan belt and tackled the alternator, again with little success and lots of frustration. I’ve learned that it’s best to put a problem aside, take a break, and focus on something else while the subconscious works on it, so I put my tools away and washed Tango’s canvas and decks, which were powdered with dust from the sandblaster.

Saturday, 6/20/09. After pondering the alternator mounting system and visualizing how it must go together, I tackled it with a new approach and soon had it bolted together. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the new fan belt on. After trying several different ways to get it over the pulleys, I gave up and walked to the auto parts store, where I bought a belt one inch longer. It went on without a problem

With some trepidation, I started the engine. I ran to the engine room and listened to the whirring in the transmission, watched the fan belt spin, and was satisfied that nothing was in imminent danger of failure. I shifted it into forward gear, let the boat go forward a foot or two, then into reverse, and was pleased to see the Tango back. I quickly took it out of gear and shut off the engine. The harbor is crowded and boats are close by fore and aft. I wish we had more dock space because I’d like to run her in forward and reverse a bit more vigorously before casting off the mooring lines.

This old boat, built in 1918 to collect salmon from traps and fish wheels, is deteriorating faster than the live-aboard owners can keep up with.

Sunday, 6/21/09. About mid-morning, the yachts fore and aft of Tango left, so I had enough dock space to do more extensive trials of the transmission and engine. After making sure that the dock lines were tied tightly, I ran it in forward gear for a few minutes, then reverse. Everything seemed to be working well, so I shut it off.

In the afternoon, I walked the mile to the airport to meet Peter. He brought two heavy bags; I was glad that I had brought a cart to help lug the luggage to the boat.

Monday, 6/22/09. We filled our fuel tanks and left Wrangell about 08:25—at long last! It’s been two weeks since Tango was towed into the bay. The drive line is much quieter now that it’s aligned—the low rumble that used to come from the prop shaft has gone away.

When we entered Wrangell Narrows, a power boat came alongside. It was my rescuer, George Rice, who happened to see us as we passed. We chatted for a few minutes and again I thanked him for his extraordinary generosity. He waved it off, claiming it was his pleasure.

A section of Wrangell Narrows.

We had an uneventful passage of Wrangell Narrows, a 20-mile-long channel that winds and twists its way through shoals and rocks. It’s well marked, with some 60 or 70 navigation aids, which can be confusing because they are so numerous. Sometimes a dozen daymarkers, buoys, and other navigation aids might be visible. Before the passage, I printed a list of waypoints and navaids in the order we’d encounter them. As we passed each one, I checked it off the list.

Mariners who make this passage are justly concerned about meeting an Alaska ferry along the way. The ferries are notorious for going fast through the narrowest passages, and smaller boats must yield to them. As we were about two-thirds of the way up the channel, I heard on the VHF an announcement from one of the ferries that it was entering the south end of the narrows. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to see it throwing up a wake as it charged toward our stern, but it didn’t show until we got to the last narrow part, just south of Petersburg. I debated whether to pull off to the side of the channel, but it was moving slow enough that we could get through the narrows before it entered. I guess it must have been slowing to keep from making a wake that would crash into the Petersburg docks, for it didn’t speed up until it had left the channel entrance north of town.

Shipping containers are carried by tugs and barges throughout the Inside Passage.

Petersburg is proud of its Nordic heritage.

The designer of this Petersburg house figured out how to avoid yard work.

As the day went on, the weather deteriorated. It had been partly sunny in Wrangell, warm enough for a light shirt, but by the time we got into Frederick Sound it was cool and drizzly. We had a quiet night in Thomas Bay, where we anchored on the east side of Ruth Island amid a thicket of crab pots. I was glad there was no wind or current, because we might have swung into a pot line.


Tuesday, 6/23/09. It rained so much last night that Clara T had several inches of standing water in her bilge. It took ten minutes to bail her out before we could get underway.

As we motored north in Stephens Passage, a pod of eight or ten Dall’s porpoises entertained us for more than twenty minutes. They danced around our bow, splashing and diving, with amazing speed and agility. (I’ve felt Lacuna, a 23-foot boat, reverberate as they slapped the bow with their dorsal fins.)

Dall's porpoises are playful and exuberant.

Holkham Bay anchorage.

We anchored just south of Harbor Island, at the mouth of Holkham Bay. The bay splits into two arms, Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm, each guarded by a bar across the entrance, the remains of the terminal moraines of the glaciers that carved these fjords. At the head of Tracy Arm, there’s a tidewater glacier that calves a lot of icebergs.

I’ve stayed at a nice anchorage just inside the bar at Tracy Arm, but there are too many icebergs afloat nearby for comfort. The entrance bars trap most of them inside the bay, but some escape and cause trouble in the nearby channels. And while I was somewhat blasé about the hazards when I was piloting Lacuna to the glacier, I’m not so sanguine about avoiding ice with Tango’s propeller.

M/V Time for Us threads her way through the ice at the entrance of Holkham Bay.

Wednesday, 6/24/09. We had a quiet night except for the occasional deep blasts from cruise ship horns as they entered or left Tracy Arm. As we motored away, we saw M/V Time for Us, the 170-foot Feadship that berthed next to Tango at Wrangell. It was cruising into Tracy Arm amid the icebergs and bergy bits that littered the entrance.

Holkham Bay to Juneau.

Our passage took longer than expected. Three different sources of information on currents and tides predicted a 2-knot favorable current in Stephens Passage for the middle of the day. Instead, we got a 1.5-knot header. Instead of averaging 7 knots over ground, as I was expecting, we maybe will average 5. On a 60-mile passage, the difference is significant.

Mendenhall Glacier behind Auke Bay.

We arrived at Auke Bay, west of Juneau, about 20:00. We were lucky to find a berth at the end of the breakwater--the harbor is crowded and I saw no other empty spaces.

Auke Bay boat harbor.

A dog scouting the way.


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

--Dennis Todd

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