Landfall—Glacier Bay, Alaska - SailNet Community
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Landfall—Glacier Bay, Alaska

Glaciers meeting the sea produce scenic beauty, and mean keeping a sharp eye out for ice.
The Alaskan panhandle lies in a migratory low-pressure system that lacks a settled, sunny summer season and can be very wet. The glaciers, icebergs, and wildlife of Glacier Bay, situated at the northern end of the Inside Passage, 300 miles from the Alaska-Canada border are among the prime attractions for most cruisers who make the long voyage up the coast. The bay straddles 58° 40’ north and we knew from experience aboard our Beneteau First 38 Bagheera that where the water is cold, the wind can chill to the bone in a sailboat cockpit. Inside steering is a bonus when piloting in this area.

A boat making the journey from Vancouver to Glacier Bay should also be prepared for huge distances, since it is not uncommon to cover over 2,500 miles in a three-month trip. Because winds are generally light during the summer months, a good engine is essential as is a large dodger and a good bimini for the rain. We took cruising guides to complement our charts, relying on Charlie’s Charts, North to Alaska and Don Douglass’ Exploring Southeast Alaska—Dixon Entrance to Skagway.

The vast, translucent blue glaciers in this region are overwhelmingly beautiful. These monsters grind through stark rock, in places over 200 million years old, that is almost devoid of trees. It was a special thrill watching huge chunks of ice break off a glacier face, in what is known as calving. These chunks joined the many other icebergs in the metallic green ocean with enormous splashes, and left us mesmerized as they drifted past the boat. Each was unique, some extraordinarily shaped. As they drifted near we could hear them snap, pop, then hiss when they flipped over releasing centuries-old air bubbles. Many served as resting platforms for birds and sea lions that stared at us unperturbed while they floated by peacefully.

At the point where glaciers or ice shelves meet the sea, water pressure beneath the ice or glacier tongue interacts with the outward-moving glacier. Tides—ranging up to 25 feet in this area—combine with small sea level changes brought on by wind and swells to wear down the protruding end of the glacier or ice shelf, which results in the birth of  large monoliths of drifting ice.

Although the bulk of an iceberg is beneath the water, in many situations wind, rather than current, has a dominant influence on its movement. On the open ocean, radar can identify the largest icebergs, but smaller icebergs or growlers will only register when the sea surface is calm, and then only at ranges of about a mile. When winds are less than 32 knots, and the current greater than half a knot, the current predominates, but when steady 30-knot winds blow for more than 12 hours, the wind effect becomes important even in areas where the ocean current is one to two knots. Radar cannot solely be relied upon for detecting icebergs and pack ice. During slight wind conditions, particularly in heavy seas, the echoes from the waves, known as sea clutter, may completely mask the echoes of large, potentially hazardous chunks of ice.

As beautiful as icebergs can be, they obviously can also be of danger to yachts. With most of their mass under water even those that look small on the surface can do substantial harm to a boat on impact. Recently we got a phone call from some English cruisers who told of an encounter with an iceberg.

There's no shortage of dramatic scenery in these cruising grounds.
"We’re going to be in Vancouver for a while," they told us. "Our boat was badly damaged by an iceberg attack." Later we heard the details of their frightening situation. They had been anchored in a remote Alaskan bay for the night and were aroused by a ‘berg bumping into their bow. They discovered that it had ridden up over their anchor chain and jammed there. But it still carried momentum and to their amazement it then ‘climbed’ up the chain and toppled onto the deck, where it inflicted considerable damage to the hull and rig. At the time they had been horrified by the possibility that it might engulf the whole boat. "The dinghy was on deck and obviously swimming wasn’t an option," they recounted. They finally managed to break away and limped back to Vancouver for major repairs.

To the north, the fjord-like inlets become steeper, and the snow line creeps lower down the steep sides of the glaciated mountains. Piloting can be tense through the twisting, narrow passages off the main channels. The steep rock-sided anchorages are dramatic and frequently deep. With as much as a 25-foot tidal range, 300 feet of chain are often needed to anchor. Currents can be strong and route planning with tidetables is mandatory. As in the Pacific Northwest, there are many logs in the water and a careful watch is required. Those floating are not too difficult to spot, but ‘deadheads’ (saturated logs that hang vertically just beneath the surface) are another hazard. Fortunately several were tagged with flags as a warning.

Since John Muir discovered Glacier Bay in 1879 few visitors have been disappointed. Snow-capped peaks rise over 15,000 feet in the center of vast Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a park that covers 3.2 million acres—larger than Puget Sound. Dramatic inlets, fjords, and 16 tidewater glaciers make the bay truly magnificent. When Captain Vancouver sailed through Icy Strait in 1774 the bay barely existed. Less than a century later Muir found the end of the bay had retreated more than 20 miles. Now the glacier that bears his name is almost 60 miles from Icy Strait, due to the dynamic nature of these ice flows.

Although piloting is straightforward for the most part , visibility is often reduced by clouds and rain, and deserted anchorages are the norm. If one misses the cruising community, listening to the Great Northern Boaters’ HAM radio net (0745 PDT on 3870kHz, 0800 on 7280 kHz. Alaska is one hour earlier than BC) gives a good idea of who is out there, besides providing local knowledge. Although there are few cruisers, there are plenty of fishing boats. The major centers are usually excellent for stocking up, but because everything is brought in by barge, produce is much better just after the barge has arrived. When the fishing fleet is in goods can be less available.

The serenity of the bay is breathtaking since only 25 vessels are allowed in the park at one time. Even cruise ships are absorbed into the wilderness. To visit the park by boat a free permit must be obtained less than 60 days in advance from the National Park Service (Fax: 907-697-2230—or go to their website The rangers seem to be accommodating about changing dates if there is a plausible reason for the delay. On crossing the boundary to the bay you must announce your arrival on VHF Channel 12 then go to the Bartlett Cove ranger station for the informative, mandatory orientation.

Totem poles are testament to the people who have lived in this stunning region for thousands of years.

Entry to the park is limited to minimize disturbance to the endangered humpback whales that gather in summer to feed. Almost a quarter of the world’s 8,000 to 10,000 humpback whales feed in Alaskan waters every summer, but these are just one of many wildlife treasures. There are birds in abundance with several types of gulls, black-legged kittiwakes, and Arctic terns. In particular the tufted puffins with their bizarre beaks and orange feet are delightfully entertaining. We were thrilled to get a brief glimpse of sea otters and the harbor seals who leave no doubt that they love to play in the ice floes. Bears forage at the water’s edge and are especially abundant in North Sandy Cove, as are moose.

Overhead there were bald eagles in abundance. These birds, distinctive with their snow-white heads and wing span of six to eight feet, can spot live fish over a mile away, sail high in the sky, then drop suddenly for their prey. But they much prefer to pick up fish that are dead, hence their numbers here.

For our trip, the weather proved changeable. Winds were either with us or against, gusting up or down the channels and occasionally funneling ferociously through rocky ravines; but mostly there were long calms. Our friends had told us they had sails up for only 10 days in four months with a mere five good sails. On many occasions the rain came down relentlessly but at others the sun peeked through, enhancing the bright green foliage on the hills, glistening on the glaciers, creating spectacular rainbows overhead and changing the ocean from its habitual gray to a brilliant blue. Every day held spectacular wildlife, and reference books to identify each species proved essential. There is great fishing, excellent prawning, and endless spectacular vistas. Ashore, white middens formed from centuries of shellfishing and rock petroglyghs are reminders that others were here thousands of years before.


Liza Copeland is offline  
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