by Ryan Deininger
My last Friday in Ketchikan, Alaska. Tonight, Captain Devon and I decide to take his sailboat out night-sailing one last time.
We are attempting to outrace an impending gale and make it nine miles to a bar called Hole in the Wall. Hopefully alive. And hopefully before closing time.
The Lee Lynn, Devon’s 27ft sailboat, is in no condition to attempt such a feat — of course we don’t realize this quite yet — we think the motor is fixed and we think the batteries, radio, and navigation lights will work this time. The slight tear in the mainsail looks a little suspect, but hey… it’s been there all summer. Our ship isn’t exactly homecoming queen material. She’s more like the attractive divorcée with a caesarean scar.
We have no sailing experience in heavy wind and not enough brains to realize we are in over our heads. We have no backup plan and we have no hesitations.
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
Devon and I arrive at the marina an hour before sunset and provision the boat. Just the necessities. Chips, salsa, cheese, Tabasco, beer. Captain Devon opens up a hatch and crawls underneath the cockpit to fire up the single-cylinder Yanmar diesel engine by crossing the solenoid terminals with a screwdriver. We should probably fix that one of these days. The proper ignition switch hasn’t worked all summer.
Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop. The motor comes to life with a distinctive sound one expects to hear from a Harley Davidson rather than a sailboat. Adrenaline flows through my veins, warming every capillary — a healthy anxiousness washes over me and I am ready to test my nerves against the sea tonight. Devon yawns and says something about needing to rally.
Every single person in the tiny Alaskan marina lifts a surprised ear. The jackhammering of the motor echoes against the hulls of all the frightened boats that decided to stay tucked in tonight. Their surprise, however, isn’t because of the way our motor sounds.
“Are you guys really going out tonight?”
A man in the Marina walks down the docks and watches as I stow the mainsail cover below deck. We confirm his suspicions with a “heck yeah, man” as nonchalantly as possible.
“Have you guys seen the weather forecast tonight?"
He is using some sort of tightrope-inflection. He’s not trying to talk us out of anything, but he also clearly thinks we’re crazy — I like to think he is rooting for us. Devon gives the man a typical Devon response:
“We’re tired of sailing without any wind.”
You see — we are going sailing tonight. We have looked at the forecast. Tonight, the NOAA weather service is calling for heavy rain and sustained 40 mph winds with gusts of 50 mph. Officially gale force winds. It’s 7:00 p.m. currently. There is no rain and maybe even less wind. We have three hours (we estimate) before the weather gets too risky to sail. We should have plenty of time.
Devon mans the tiller and I untie the lines. The motor pop-pop-pops us out into the channel and we turn south, headlong into the approaching storm, using the last hour of daylight. Devon, the Lee Lynn, and I skate effortlessly on an eerily-placid ocean. Our trio is a devilishly handsome silhouette against the pacific sunset.
The first few cans of light beer are brought up from the cabin.
We make a toast to the boat, to us, to the summer, and to the approaching storm that has frightened the other boats into the marinas.
There is not another single boat on the water. Before I reiterate this — keep in mind — the sea channel we are in is one of the busiest shipping channels in the United States and home to more float planes than any other port in the world. But tonight, there is not another single boat on the water.
We motor on down the channel approximately two miles before the wind picks up enough to hoist the sails and cut the motor. It’s time to raise the mainsail and the jib. The first breath of wind causes the sails to crackle promisingly as they shape into their beautiful airfoils. Devon asks me if I want to take control of the tiller and sail her first. Of course I do — I’ve only sailed a handful of times and am eager to get as much experience as possible.
Because of my inexperience, I waste about 20 unnecessary minutes making poor tacks in the narrow channel. Captain Devon offers some friendly advice to me while I single-hand his sailboat, but mostly he’s drinking his beer and eating chips and salsa in the cabin. He laughs encouragingly at my poor tacks and gets excited along with me when I do it correctly. I’m learning and I’m getting a little better each time.
Finally, I tack the boat perfectly and send us on course to get out of the channel and into open water. The wind is slowly and steadily picking up. The last flicker of dusk fades away behind foggy rainclouds as we cruise into Nichol’s Passage. Once out of the channel, we really begin to feel the wind and are beyond ecstatic. We are really sailing now. It’s a beautiful moment when the boat heels over and the tiller shudders encouragingly in your palm.
About twenty minutes later, I notice the boat is heeling even farther in the ever-increasing wind and the edge of the deck is getting closer to the water than I am comfortable with.
“Hey, Devon, I think maybe you should come up and get on the tiller now.”
“Why?” He asks, continuing our unspoken game of who-can-worry-the-least-about-the-dangerous-approaching-storm.
I make up some excuse about needing to put my raingear on and hand the tiller to Devon. He always grins like a kid on Christmas when he has wind in his sails. He peppers in a dash of Scottish accent to his words and the corners of his mustache curl a little more than usual. While I am putting my rain gear on in the cabin — over the roar of the now 20mph wind — I hear him shouting to me “This Is Awesome!” and mockingly shouting to no one: “Are you guys REALLLLLYYY going out tonight? Have you seeeennnnn the weather forecast?”
The wind speed is steadily increasing, continuing to ramp-up its assault on the Lee Lynn. The sun is long gone and it’s beginning to rain. The idea of 50mph gusts is becoming an impending reality.
Devon pilots the boat toward the inlet that will take us the final two miles of our trip to the bar and the safety of its marina. At this point I’m still excited and high on adrenaline. The people at the bar are going to crap bricks when they see us pull up to the dock. We’ll be hailed as heroes, adventurers, pirates!
The boat catches a strong gust and heels to port violently. We hear a loud crash from inside the cabin. Devon laughs and asks: “What was that?”
I pull the curtain to the cabin aside and peek in. The propane tank fell over and is now lying in the middle of the boat.
"It’s just the propane tank.”
Another, stronger gust hits the sails and heels the boat even farther this time. A much-louder cacophony of crashes happens inside. Without laughing this time: “What was THAT?”
I shine my flashlight and see all the items which had previously been on the starboard side of the boat are now in a great heap on the floor — as if a tornado stuck a yard sale. It’s an awful sight.
“Everything,” I reply.
“Even under ideal conditions, sailing into a marina slip without a motor is no easy task — in fact, Devon is the only person I’ve ever seen do it.”
The wind and current are preventing us from being able to tack into the mouth of the inlet, but we keep trying. We spend about an hour trying, but ultimately it’s proving to be unsuccessful. I suggest to Devon that we turn the engine on and get out of the weather before it becomes too rough. At the suggestion, Devon looks at me like I just slapped him in the face while insulting his mother and his sailing prowess simultaneously.
“Why?” he asks. Behind his Faustian eyes is the incredible hubris of Captain Ahab. I am beginning to think he really believes he can conquer both wind and wave — submitting the tempest by the power of his will.
Basically, Devon just won the battle of who can care less. But after some minor pleading and persuasion he reluctantly agrees — he’d honestly rather just keep sailing.
I go below deck and access the engine room with a long screwdriver to start her up. The metal screwdriver crosses the solenoid and it spins weakly — nothing. After a few more attempts, the solenoid isn’t even sparking anymore. We’ve got a big problem. I inform Devon and he sends me forward to see if we still have our navigation lights. We don’t. Just as we suspected, our battery is dead. There has been a total power failure. No motor, no lights, no radio for the coastguard. What do we do?
We discuss our options. We can keep trying for the bar, which at this point is much closer than the marina where we started from, or we can sail downwind in front of the storm and try to make it back home. There is no great option without a working motor. Even under ideal conditions, sailing into a marina slip without a motor is no easy task — in fact, Devon is the only person I’ve ever seen do it.
y sailing ability is rudimentary at best. Captain Devon is highly skilled but is fairly inexperienced. I also know that he is currently about eight beers deep…which I have learned is close
to his limit. On two previous occasions, Devon has fallen asleep while steering a boat I was on. One time it was on his sailboat (asleep standing up with the tiller between his legs) the other was a night trip in a two-man kayak (he had lullabied himself to sleep in the back seat singing Beatles tunes).
We decide to continue on to Hole in the Wall deeming it the quickest option to get out of the weather, but the geography and wind do not allow this to happen. Every time we get within a mile of the bar we sail behind a mountain and lose all trace of even a breeze. Meanwhile the storm out in the channel is getting stronger by the minute — we’re wasting valuable time.
Reality sinks in: The Hole in the Wall is not going to happen…even with us both jokingly blowing as hard as we can at the sails. We have no other choice. We have to sail back to where we came from.
“Hey, Ryan. Wanna grab me another beer, man?”
I do not.
At this point, I am admitting to myself it would be nice to get back to shore soon. It’s time to start taking things seriously — this is how kids from Ohio die when they move to Alaska. The storm rages around us. Through sheets of rain and 30mph wind I put my foot down.
“No more beer, Devon…. I’ll make you a deal. If you get us back to where we first raised the sails, I’ll let you have another one.”
“Och, we’re getting serioos noo, huh?” his faux Scottish still coming through. “Weel if ye cannae drife it, park it.”
We begin a beam reach — sailing perpendicular to the wind — that takes us too far away from land for my comfort. We are in near-total darkness. The streetlights from shore no longer illuminate the water and rocks around us. If one of us falls overboard here, it's over. We are in choppy four-foot waves. The water is 47 degrees Fahrenheit. There are no lights. And I am only wearing a child’s life vest.
Nevertheless, we are in good spirits and despite the self-implemented alcohol prohibition we begin to yell at the wind and quote Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. “You call this a STORM?!?”
Devon turns to me, puts on a straight face, and asks me “Have you SEEN the weather forecast?” I laugh, but only on the outside. To my relief, we turn downwind and begin our race back to town. We are flying wing-on-wing in torrential rain and now-35 mph wind. Without any way of knowing for sure, it is my guess that we must be approaching the theoretical hull speed of his boat. We are flying.
*** Allow me to pause the narrative here for a minute and explain the concept of wing-on-wing. Sailing wing-on-wing is a very specific maneuver in sailing in which the boat sails directly downwind with the mainsail out to one side and the foresail out to the opposite side. It’s a tactic to take full advantage of every possible inch of sail canvass and maximize speed. If Devon is a kid on Christmas when he has wind in his sails — he’s a fat kid in a candy store…on Christmas, when he is sailing wing-on-wing. He is loving it. ***
We cross back through Nichol’s Passage in a blur with only one gybe to make (changing direction while sailing downwind) before entering the channel. Gybing in heavy wind is regarded as the most dangerous maneuver in sailing.
Our gybe does not go well.
The mainsail boom gets caught between the two backstays. We fight with the sheet and the boom to free it. As soon as we free the boom, another gust rocks the boat. The main boom swings across the stern with lightning speed as the wind throws the sail across the boat, narrowly missing our heads. Our mainsail rips entirely. It's shredded.
“Seems about right,” one of us says. It doesn’t matter who. We’re both thinking it. I take down the tattered remnants and do my best to tie whatever is left down to the boom.
No motor. No lights. No radio. And now, no mainsail. What else can go wrong?
Our jib is our salvation. The trusty foresail strains against the mast as the gale fills her violently. She’s all we’ve got left. Even without our mainsail we are cruising at light speed when we enter the channel for the homestretch.
“Hey, Ryan. Can you grab me that beer now?” He means it.
A deal is a deal. I bring two up from the cabin. Why not. We click cans as we kiss the Coast Guard base’s dock, sailing within 20 feet of it. I can’t say whether or not any Coasties spot our lightless sailboat (very illegal). If they do see us, they decide the storm is more punishment than any citation. I’d almost be willing to pay the price of a Coast Guard ticket for a tow back to shore.
The entrance to Thomas Basin Marina where we began our trip is fast-approaching. For the first time, we wonder aloud if the maneuver is even possible at the speed we’re traveling. Maybe. Probably. But we have no clue if any dock spaces are open. Devon’s marina slip is considered “open moorage” which means the dock space is first come — first serve. And on a night when all the other boats have tucked their tails between their legs and stayed home, it’s possible there is no room for the Lee Lynn. All this considered, we agree to shoot for the next marina.
About five minutes later, we sail past the City Float Marina, our next option. There’s no way to sail in. It’s impossible. We are going too fast…. Imagine yourself in Toyota Corolla trying to find a parking space at the mall while driving 35mph — and if you do slow down below 35mph, then your steering wheel falls off.
The winds are at a steady 40mph and increasing by the minute. We discuss all possible options, trying to recall any soft docks we are aware of. Ketchikan’s largest marina, Bar Harbor, is about a half-mile away. This marina has two entrances and we decide it is our next best option. We have already passed up our first two choices.
I am soaking wet, freezing, and am ready to get off this boat. Devon is still having one hell of a good time mocking the storm. “You guys are REALLY going out tonight?” I am in survival mode. I am pulling jib sheets and cranking winches as fast as humanly possible while treating myself to slices of sharp cheddar with Tabasco down in the cabin whenever I have a chance.
Entrances to marinas look wide and luxurious in the daytime with reasonable weather. The first entrance to Bar Harbor looks like the eye of a needle tonight. Reluctantly and slightly defeated we pass it up. We vow to make the back entrance and try for it no-matter-what. It will be our goal-line stance. The hill we are willing to die on.
"This is how guys from Ohio die when they move to Alaska."
The wind reaches its peak.
It’s blowing a steady 50mph. This is nuts. In just a few hundred yards, we will attempt to sail into Bar Harbor — do or die. Suddenly, a unseen fist of wind punches our sail. It’s a knockout. I watch helplessly as the jib flogs uncontrollably in the wind. An essential metal clip has failed and our jib is no longer attached to the sheets (the ropes that control the jib).
No motor. No lights. No radio. No mainsail. No jib.
This wind will shred our last sail if someone doesn’t pull it down to the deck of the boat quickly. Reflexively, I scramble forward to fix the jib, trying not to fall overboard while running over the rain-slicked cabin.
Upon examination, the metal clip doesn’t seem to be broken…it just failed under extreme pressure. I have no idea if the clip will fail again but I reattach it to the sheets and pray for the best. I pull the sail down and lay it on the deck for now. We are sailing with bare poles - no sails at all - and still flying. It’s unbelievable. Without any sails, the force of the wind on the hull is still driving our boat approximately 5mph. We watch helplessly as we float past the back entrance to Bar Harbor. Without the jib, we are unable to maneuver off-wind. If we want to dock this boat, we are going to have to get creative.
*** If you’ve read this far and are wondering whether we have any oars or paddles or other emergency/safety equipment aboard the Lee Lynn...you clearly haven’t been paying attention.***
Devon shouts at me over the wind. The storm itself is so loud I can barely hear him at 25ft away.
“Hey man, do you still have that flashlight?” The only flashlight on board is buried in one of my pockets underneath a raincoat and a life vest.
“Yeah, I think so. Why?”
“SHINE IT AT THAT BOAT!”
He's not laughing anymore. I look up and see the lights and silhouette of an 80ft industrial Alaskan fishing boat bearing down on us about a football field away. He doesn’t see us. He’s steaming directly at us. Without navigation lights, we are invisible. While we still had sails, the reflection of the town lights on our white sails made us, at least, semi-visible. That is no longer the case. We are a ghost ship. We are basically driftwood. And in case you were wondering, Fiberglass 27ft sailboats lose every time they step into the ring against an 80ft steel ship.
We can’t steer clear.
Frantically, I search all my pockets and find the two-inch, two-dollar, LED toy flashlight. I wave the flashlight side-to-side finally getting the attention of the other boat’s captain and, at the last second, he veers off course to miss us. Barely.
Without any sails, the propulsion of the wind against our hull is enough to allow Devon to steer the boat only about 15 degrees off-wind each way. We are both surprised how fast we are still traveling despite our predicament.
Where can we possibly dock this boat? Devon tells me he knows of a fuel dock across from the airport. He’s not exactly sure where it is, but he knows it’s there somewhere. Ladies and gentleman, this is now our best option. A dock that is ‘over there somewhere’.
A massive four-story concrete dry dock built on the shore across from the airport gives us our best hope for some respite from the weather. We manage to steer the Lee Lynn directly behind the building and out of the wind. Miraculously, everything is calm. It’s a surreal moment. The brief, sheltered minute allows us to scope out the surrounding area. We spot the mythical fuel dock tucked behind a line of a dozen half-million dollar airplanes.
The channel current pulls the Lee Lynn slowly back into the path of the storm. Soon the full force of the gale surrounds the ill-fated sailboat once more.Without sails, we do not know if it is even possible to reach the dock. If we try, it’s going to be close. Real close…. But that dock sure does look pretty. She’s lit up nicely from security lights and has a few dozen fenders lining the side of dock to make for a very soft cushion.
Every option after this dock looks less and less attractive — we are beginning to head out of town and are less familiar with the waters. And even-more ominous is the lack of any shore lights beyond. Being so close to shore, we are surrounded by lights from houses, commercial buildings and street lamps — it illuminates the water around us allowing us to see any potential rocks or other dangers in the water. If we go any farther north than we are now we will run out of light. Pitch blackness. I look north into the abyss and know immediately we must do anything to do dock this boat, now. Right now.
We go for it. In an instant, we realize that without any sails we cannot possibly make the angle. It looks like we’ve made a very costly mistake….“Should I raise the jib?” I call out to Devon. Even though, theoretically, the jib should be fixed now, I have little faith in its ability to withstand another gust…but the dock is impossible to reach without it.
Immediately, Devon shouts “Let’s do it”. I break some sort of jib-hoisting world record. The fragile sail is up in an instant. Now, if we miss this dock, the boat will assuredly be dashed on a breakwater. We either hit this dock or the boat sinks and we swim. At this point, there is no third option.
The next fifteen seconds are a blur. I hold on to the bow line and hang over the port side of the boat ready to jump off and secure the boat to the dock as soon as possible. I’m prepared to swim if I have to.
Devon lets go of the jib sheet, allowing it to flog freely in the wind, and cuts the rudder at the exact right moment. I jump off and tie the bow line to the dock. He follows me to the dock with the stern line and, all of the sudden, we’re standing on the dock with the sailboat tied up. To this day — somehow — that is the softest landing I have ever seen any boat accomplish in any weather. It was lucky. It was miraculous. It was perfect.
It’s 2:30 in the morning and we call a cab to pick us up and take us home.
any times during that summer, I said to myself: “This is how people from Ohio die when they move to Alaska.” I caught hypothermia at the top of Deer Mountain, stumbled into a
bear's den on Gravina Island, got lost in the muskeg as the sun was setting, and played football on gravel with Alaskan boys who grew up playing football on gravel. But… setting sail that night with Devon in a tired boat against NOAA’s weather warnings was easily the dumbest thing I did in Alaska.