Passage to the Aleutians; a Voyage Along the Alaskan Coast

June 22, 2015

Avatar Ellen Leonard

First sight of the Aleutian Islands. (Note my T-shirt!)

Last year I wrote an Off Center Guide Post about my inspiration and goals to sail to the Arctic and, ice permitting, potentially the Northwest Passage (Why Attempt the Northwest Passage? One Woman’s Inspiration and Goals). An older cold-molded wooden boat may not be what comes to mind when speaking of high latitudes, but being a classic boat lover, this is the vessel I have and the one in which I’m hoping to head north to the ice!

Port Angeles, WA, to Dutch Harbor, AK—our 3,500-mile 2014 cruise

Last summer, my husband Seth and I made huge progress towards the Arctic, sailing 3,500 nautical miles from Port Angeles, WA, to Dutch Harbor in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The varied Alaskan coast and the passages between ports proved as full of challenges, hardships, delights, and inspiring experiences as we could have hoped for. We learned how CELESTE handled in everything from calms to Beaufort Force 10, and we now know her inside and out after many weeks of work during the spring of 2014 followed by two and a half more months of hard sailing. We made both multi-day passages and day sails, witnessed some incredible seascapes, nosed up to a glacier, had sea otters investigate us, and were charged by a huge brown bear.


After an extensive refit over the previous winter (2013/14) at Platypus Marine in Port Angeles (recommended by OCH co-founder Eric Blake), we launched on June 20, 2014. Sea trials and troubleshooting followed, including issues with our autopilot and cabin heater. Smaller refitting projects continued afloat, as well as provisioning and stowing. Finally ready, we departed for Neah Bay at the end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Our plan for the first leg was to get as far northwest as feasible given the highly volatile weather in the Gulf of Alaska.

Winds were reasonably favorable for CELESTE’s northern route when we set out a week after launching, but a number of factors combined to change our initial aim of reaching the Aleutian Islands in one shot and thence continuing to the Arctic. We were already two weeks late for the Arctic ice melt. Having unexpectedly to re-wire all of CELESTE’s circuitry had put us back too far on our time-frame for a rush to the Arctic to be prudent or even safe, or fun! We were both exhausted, which manifested itself in severe seasickness, exacerbated by an unusually large and confused swell from a hurricane north of Hawaii. Our self-steering device malfunctioned, and the tired old headsail that had come with CELESTE burst on day three. To rest, and to repair these items, we put into Winter Harbor on Vancouver Island’s west coast, and consequently decided to make the Aleutian Islands our goal for 2014. The Arctic would have to wait until 2015.

Black Bear

After repairs we were able to continue sailing, having found a permanent solution for our wind vane. Although the jib really needed replacement, we made it acceptable for the rest of the season. Winter Harbor itself opened our eyes to the rich wilderness coasts of British Columbia and Alaska, and we couldn’t believe that we had initially intended to bypass it all! We saw eagles, ospreys, sea otters, seals, kingfishers and, best of all, seven different black bears including a mother and cubs!

Haida Gwaii landfall

Our next passages went well. We had a short window to reach the Haida Gwaii islands before a big gale, and CELESTE reached shelter in time. However, we encountered strong katabatic winds (up to 60 knots) in our anchorage during the gale, which put our 45-pound Mantus anchor very much to the test—which it passed. Another good weather window allowed us to make the overnight passage to Ketchikan, and we were pleased to discover how fast CELESTE can sail: although we planned on 48 hours, we made the 200-mile passage in less than 36.

CELESTE sailing in front of Baird Glacier

Throughout southeastern Alaska’s inland waterways CELESTE continued to sail beautifully—beating up channels, flying her spinnaker downwind, gliding along in light airs, and fighting gales during low pressure systems. The two of us most enjoyed the wildlife: hundreds of humpback whales breaching, bubble net feeding, and showing their beautiful flukes as they dove. We saw navigation buoys covered in Steller sea lions, and we observed many different kinds of birds as well as salmon running up rivers to spawn. We sailed up to our first glacier, Baird Glacier, hiked several difficult but rewarding trails, visited a few fishing villages and native towns, and encountered our first brown bear in a deserted anchorage.


Kayak Island landfall

Wet sailing in Prince William Sound

Wet sailing in Prince William Sound

We were lucky to grab the last weather window of the year for the 400-mile crossing of the Gulf of Alaska to Prince William Sound. We had light wind and sun, although cold temperatures, just as our OCENS forecasts had predicted. We were able to see the whole immense St Elias Range before we lost sight of land. Black-footed albatrosses and northern fulmars were our companions until we raised land again at Kayak Island where Russian explorer Vitus Bering first landed in 1741. Unfortunately, a strong gale came up, blowing against the current, just as we entered Prince William Sound. This made the anchorages at the entrance untenable and we had to sail another 40 miles before we could rest. It also forced us to bend on our storm staysail at a moment’s notice.

CELESTE with a Columbia Glacier backdrop

The gales rarely let up the entire time we spent in Prince William Sound, but we were able to nose up to Columbia Glacier nonetheless. This tidewater glacier courses down 10,000 feet from the top of the Chugach Range and is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world. This creates both big and small icebergs, so we got as close as we could before the ice field became impenetrable. Despite keeping a constant lookout, we did bump a few small growlers while slowly motoring at 3 or 4 knots. But CELESTE didn’t show a scratch, which gives us confidence for the Arctic’s sea ice!

After leaving Columbia Glacier, we encountered high winds as we sailed west to Whittier where we planned to do chores and wait out a particularly strong gale. Eventually, however, it became clear that the gales were never going to moderate in our area, so we simply had to set out anyway. A tough overnight passage brought us to another anchorage where we waited a day until the weather was favorable enough for the jump to the Kenai Peninsula.

Jib track repair

Another rainy—though less windy—overnight passage brought us to the end of the Kenai Peninsula where we waited out another gale before heading across to the Alaska Peninsula, that great tongue of mountains that ends in the Aleutian Islands. Our first attempt at leaving was thwarted by strong contrary winds, although this was just as well because we discovered that our jib track was pulling away from the deck because of the strong winds we’d encountered in Prince William Sound. Fortunately, the contrary winds also brought sun, so we took advantage of the dry weather to repair the jib track as well as mend several tears in our sails. We allowed time for exploring in the dinghy as well, and were rewarded by spotting several sea otters, a coyote, and even a swimming brown bear!

Alaska Peninsula

Masthead spinnakers aren’t often seen along the Alaska Peninsula

The weather gods smiled on us with a 3-day window for crossing to the Alaska Peninsula where we much enjoyed our first two anchorages. Landfall on the Peninsula was one of our most spectacular in all of our 36,000 miles at sea. Huge glaciated peaks dusted in alpenglow rose out of a clearing fog. The passage itself was a little nerve-wracking through the fog, but well worth it for the incredible wilderness of the Peninsula. We first anchored off a vast expanse of untouched river delta, crisscrossed everywhere with bear and wolf prints.

Brown Bear

Our next cove, Geographic Harbor, was perhaps the highlight of the voyage. Every year dozens of brown bears come there in August to feed on the pink salmon that run up the river to spawn. We were able to get quite close to the bears, and as long as we stayed still and didn’t threaten their food source, they ignored us. We watched them fishing, play-fighting, digging for clams, and mothering their cubs. An experience of a lifetime!

Geographic Harbor is almost landlocked, surrounded by mountains with only a very narrow entrance. So we were completely sheltered from the weather. We tried to leave and continue west several times, only to discover much higher winds and seas outside than we expected. We finally grabbed a 35-knot southeasterly (Force 8), convinced it was the best chance we were going to get. Within 12 hours the wind had clocked onto CELESTE’s nose and increased to 40, 45, and then to 50 knots. This is getting close to hurricane force, and needless to say it’s hard on the boat. Worrying about breakages makes it just as hard on the crew. Nonetheless, CELESTE bashed into it without mishap and actually sailed surprisingly fast considering the head seas.

That 3-day passage ended at Sand Point, a small settlement in the Shumagin Islands, from where we made a 75-mile daysail to King Cove, at the very end of the Peninsula. A day of beautifully calm, sunny skies in King Cove gave us the opportunity to hike up a nearby mountain and gain views of the North Pacific on one side, the Bering Sea on the other, and the chain of mountains that were the first of the Aleutians receding into the west. We were again gifted with a perfect weather forecast for our final passage to Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, so we set off at 4:00 the next morning. By sunset we were passing the remarkable Shishaldin Volcano, rising 9,000 feet from sea level, flanked by glaciers, and still smoking.

Shishaldin Volcano

The fine conditions didn’t last and by the time we were entering Akutan Pass, one of the treacherous seaways between the Aleutians into the Bering Sea, we were facing 20-knot winds blowing directly against a 3-knot current—a recipe for standing waves. CELESTE even felt airborne at one point, but she managed to get through and dock safely in the Unalaska small boat basin. Over the next week, we winterized the boat, wiped down all the surfaces with diluted bleach to prevent mold, installed a smart battery charger to keep our AGM Rolls batteries well charged during our absence, and removed almost everything from the cabin and lockers. We also removed anything likely to be damaged by wind or the resident bald eagles, such as our sails, halyards, and masthead navigation lights. Two good friends we had made while circumnavigating are actually Dutch Harbor residents, and they very nicely kept an eye on the boat for us as she braved the Bering Sea winter.

Now we’re excited to be back and getting ready to head farther north!


© Ellen Massey Leonard, 2015, All rights reserved.


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16 Responses So Far to “Passage to the Aleutians; a Voyage Along the Alaskan Coast”:

  1. Avatar Phil Faris says:

    I know this is an old thread, but I wonder about “preparing” for the perpetual 30+ kn winds. Did you already have experience in such extremely heavy weather beforehand? What temperatures were you immersed in? I’m speculating about a “cruising competition” from San Diego to Japan in which the timeframe is “fixed” but points are earned both for performance underway and for the number and lengths of anchorages and the number of new people met along the route. This suggests a CA to Alaska to Japan route. From what you wrote, only expert, experienced heavy weather passage-makers need apply… right?

    • Avatar Ellen Massey Leonard says:

      Hi Phil,
      Apologies for not responding to your comment until now – a whole year later! I don’t get notifications of comments on my Guide Posts, but I probably should check back more regularly!

      I’m not familiar with the competition you mention, but the route would surely be arduous, to say the least, as it is against the prevailing winds. Most voyagers wishing to visit Japan go the other way, making a huge loop from CA to the South Pacific and back to CA via Japan, Alaska and BC/WA. It’s obviously a lot more miles and involves a couple of ocean crossings, but the winds blow the right direction, especially important for the Japan-to-Aleutians crossing and to a lesser extent for the WA south to CA passage.

      We were not going to Japan, and we were starting in WA already, so we could take the entire summer season to pick weather windows for when the wind blew from astern. Even still, the season was too short to wait for that every time, so we sometimes sailed in headwinds. Additionally, when the wind was from a favorable direction it was often quite strong. This is because the wind only blows that way in low pressure systems, often manifesting in gales. In good weather, the wind was against us. I would not say the winds were perpetually 30+ knots – we definitely encountered that kind of weather, but that wasn’t every day by any means! We also had some beautiful days flying the spinnaker, the occasional calm, and quite a few “goldilocks” days with a perfect sailing wind.

      The weather is quite volatile up there, though, and we covered over 3,000 miles in under 3 months, a definite challenge. A good challenge – we saw a lot of wild places and met some fascinating people – but still a challenge. Trying to go all the way from CA to Japan in one season would be very difficult, I should think. I would much prefer the longer route the other way.

      To answer your other questions, yes, we had quite a lot of experience beforehand. We had completed a double-handed global circumnavigation – 4 years, 32,000 miles – aboard an even more primitive, older, smaller boat. On that voyage, we dealt with heavy weather, cold temperatures, and many gear failures. We started the voyage in Maine in winter – we had our first gale off Rhode Island in November. We saw gales off New Zealand; never saw less than 25 knots for our entire 2,000 mile Indian Ocean crossing; and had our worst weather – a storm with 60-knot winds and 30-foot seas – while rounding South Africa’s southern cape. Of course, no amount of experience means you’ll be lucky every time – it’s imperative to remain humble and respectful of all the ocean can throw at you. We’re always learning – no one ever has it all figured out.

      You also asked about the temperatures up in Alaska. They vary quite a bit. It’s pretty mild in summer – between 50 F and 70 F, with most days hitting low 60s. It’s colder out in the foggy Aleutians – the average is around 50. (Once you get into the Bering Sea and further north into the Arctic, obviously the temperatures drop quickly. Highs were in the mid-30s when we were on the North Slope in August.)

      Finally, yes, Alaska can be challenging, but I wouldn’t say it’s restricted to only “expert” sailors (as a side note, a sailor who believes he’s an expert is getting dangerously complaisant…). There’s all sorts of different ways to cruise Alaska, some of which are pretty beginner-friendly. The Inside Passage from Puget Sound to Glacier Bay is protected all the way, with countless anchorages and many little towns for resupplying. One can do the whole thing as day sails, anchoring every night, and consequently, one never has to be out in bad weather. Even crossing the Gulf of Alaska doesn’t have to be bad if you can wait around for a good weather window. Basically, the less ground you try to cover, the easier it becomes, because you can spend more time waiting for weather and thus not be caught out in bad weather. I say “less ground” because your time is necessarily restricted by the summer season, at least beyond the Inside Passage.

      Hope this is helpful! Apologies again that this response is coming so late!
      All the best,

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  3. Avatar Michael Costello says:

    Great adventure. Beautiful boat can you tell me who designed and or build her. Also interested in what camera and most useful lenses were used. Great pictures.

    • Avatar Ellen Massey Leonard says:

      Thanks for your interest! CELESTE was custom-built for a man in Victoria, BC in 1985. Francis Kinney (who I think had retired from Sparkman & Stephens at that point) designed her and Bent Jespersen (founder of Jespersen Boat Builders in BC) built her. She’s cold-molded, of Western red cedar and Honduras mahogany. Her original owner wanted a classic, and we think he (and then we) got one!

      As for photography equipment, our workhorse is a Canon 6D, which we use with the Canon 24-105mm f/4 and the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6. We also have a range of other cameras we use for different reasons/situations. They are: the old Canon Rebel T3 with an 18-200mm zoom (versatile) or an 18-55mm (lighter-weight); a Panasonic Lumix “point-and-shoot” with or without its underwater housing and dome-port; a GoPro Hero 4 Silver; and our phones (the best camera is the one you have with you at the time!). Plus we just got an underwater bundle of the Canon SL1 with Ikelite housing and dome-port, so we’re excited to try out the new toy!

    • Avatar Ellen Massey Leonard says:

      P.S. You can read a lot more about CELESTE here:

  4. Avatar William Seyler says:

    Wow… I’ve never sailed the Bearing Sea but while in the Air Force I was stationed on the Aleutian island of Shemya for a year. The weather there was terrible. I can’t even imagine the conditions that you must have endured out on the water, but I can imagine the spectacular things that you saw! Great adventure. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Avatar Ellen Massey Leonard says:

      Thanks very much for reading! It’s certainly not a hospitable part of the world, but it has a definite fascination, despite (or maybe partly because of) the horrific weather. That said, I wouldn’t want to sail there in winter! September was bad enough!

  5. Avatar bob mcCorkle says:

    What a great travelog of your voyage. Good luck with the remainder and the NW Passage. Stay well.

  6. Avatar Donald Holmes says:

    A truly enjoyable account. Keep them coming.

  7. Avatar Bob Schartow says:

    Stunning photography! Keep us tuned!

  8. Avatar Richard Sink says:

    Great photo of Shishaldin.
    Hope all goes well for you.
    Live Long-Sail Far

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