Adventures in the North Pacific (with the inimitable Arnold!)

Travels after the 1991 Melbourne to Osaka Yacht Race


It was May 1991 and I was sitting in Osaka tasked with sailing Knots, a Swan 53 to San Francisco. I had an able crew member in Dorothée, who was to join in Hokkaido, and was looking for one more. Arnold Tickle had just completed the race onboard his own yacht Kidnapped and was keen for an adventure. As was occasionally the case with Arnold, there were just a couple of things to “sort-out” and if I helped it would be quicker. The main thing was that Arnold just needed to move his yacht to another marina, which he said was “just around the corner”. Oh, and I needed to come out to dinner with him and a couple of Japanese guys he had made friends with and we could move his yacht the next day. Dinner involved plenty of Asahi beer and, as is normal for Japan, some “interesting” dishes. I’m up for trying most things once but I drew the line at something they called “Basashi”. Arnold dived in but it was a strange looking raw meat. I kept querying what it was and eventually they made the klip klop sound you make with your tongue. “Horse?”, I said disbelievingly but they smiled and laughed and said “Hai Hai (yes, yes), bad racehorse, good for eating only”. To his credit, Arnold only paused briefly before having another piece while I politely declined, drawing the line at raw racehorse!


The inimitable Arnold on tour in Hokkaido

The next day I turned up on board Kidnapped ready to move the boat to the next marina. From memory, we had one other person to help us. Arnold had bought a carton of beer, which seemed a lot for a short delivery and off we went. This was before electronic charts, so I pulled out the paper charts and asked Arnold to point out where the marina was. He vaguely pointed on the chart and said it was called Shima Yacht Harbour. Eventually, I found it and did some calculations, came up on deck and said, “Arnold, the marina is 170 nm away!! Do you even have any food on board”? “Oh, is it that far, I think I have a couple of muesli bars and we have beer”.


This was my introduction to Arnold and planning. It was drizzling so at least I had left with some wet weather gear. I remember there was plenty of wind so, once we got out of Osaka Bay, we were reaching fast on this Sayer 40. It was then that the sail got a “bit” more interesting. First thing was that I noticed quite a bit of water below, and it looked like it was coming from the coach roof side windows. “Arnold, these windows seem to be leaking badly! Did you have any problems with them during the race?”. “No he said, they were fine during the race except for a very small leak but I thought I would re-caulk them anyway so I took them all off and was going to reseal them but I ran out of time so I just stuck them back for the move to the marina. They will be fine”.


Next thing was that the swell picked up as we got south and back into the North Pacific. Now, I can’t be certain whether it was the beers from the night before, or the beers since leaving Osaka, or the raw racehorse, BUT Arnold started to look a bit queasy and then was violently ill. At this point he retired below where the water continued to pour into the cabin through the leaking windows.


They say things always happen in threes. Well, the next thing was fog; thick fog! The fog results from warm moist air moving from the Kurishio Current over the colder water close to shore. This fog was pea-soup fog and it was cold and damp. The other small issue was that, in 1991, more than 400 ships traversed this route every 24 hours and there were large numbers of smaller fishing boats so we had a bit on! Meanwhile Arnold lay comatose in his bunk, blissfully unaware.


I am not sure how Arnold and his crew Tony Vick navigated in the Osaka race, but I guess it was a bit drier down below. I found a timber hatch cover and managed to find a semi-dry spot to draw some lines on the chart and plot a fix to confirm where we were, then went back on deck in the now freezing cold wind and rain. We only had a small jib and the main up and were ripping along. We stayed closer to shore to try to avoid the big ships, whose fog horns we could hear blaring through the mist and concentrated on dodging fishing boats as they emerged from the gloom. This went on till we turned north and got some relief from the traffic. We continued sailing through the night. I think we found a muesli bar and I guess I should be grateful there was some drinking water onboard.


Dawn came, the fog lifted, and we slowly warmed up on approach to Shima Yacht Harbor. The two of us on deck were shattered. Arnold’s head popped up from down below. In his normal laconic Airlie Beach drawl he said, “Morning boys, sorry, I’m not sure that basashi agreed with me”.


Kidnapped safely berthed in Shima Harbour after the passage from Osaka.


So, we arrived and Kidnapped was safely berthed for the time being. We made our way back to Osaka overland. We readied Knots for departure and a great young woman named Jill decided to join us for some of the trip. Jill spoke Japanese so this was a big help.

We had an uneventful trip north to Hokkaido (once you get used to the fog and mass of fishing boats!) and spent a delightful two weeks berthed in Kushiro touring around and being made welcome by the local yachties. We even made the local news!


Famous in Kushiro. (Arnold 3rd from left and Will beside him).

It was a great setup with only three active keel boats in Kushiro at the time but two yacht clubs! There was the Westport Yacht Club with Khoki Nakano as the Commodore and the Yacht Club of Kushiro run by Capt. Shigemi Seki. When I say yacht clubs it was clear these places were cool little bars. The social side of yachting was on full display for our two weeks and we were sad to leave on the 1st July bound for the Aleutian Islands. Dorothee had joined us on 28th June so we were back to three crew.


Will and Arnold enjoying food and beer in Kushiro.


There are three things I remember clearly about the passage up to the Aleutians. I remember sailing through the middle of a fleet of 50-60 Russian Purse Seiners, each at least 80 feet long. It took a few hours to sail through the fleet and at times we were close enough to see crew clustered around open fires in 44 gallon drums on the back decks.


Passing close by a Russian purse seiner en route to the Aleutians.

I also remember heaving-to in a nasty storm for only the second time in my life. It enabled us to have a rest and a sleep and to get warm while the storm passed. The third thing I remember is a conversation Dorothée and I had with Arnold, which at the time seemed ridiculous. We were talking about visiting the USA and Arnold said in his normal laid-back style, “I know a bloke in the US, I will probably run into him”. We went over the size of the US population and the chance of it happening, but Arnold was insistent, “He is in Alaska somewhere and we are going there”. Now remember, this is before mobile phones and email was in common use only in universities. Compuserve and AOL only showed up in 1995 and by the end of 1996 less than 10% of the US were on the internet and this was 1991. So, it was not like Arnold was going to email his mate or call him from the middle of the North Pacific. For now, the conversation disappeared into the mist.


Sailing through the ever present fog.


We sighted the Aleutians on 11th July after the 1600 nm passage from Kushiro. It’s a slightly complicated place to visit from Japan because in 1991 the port of Entry was Dutch Harbour, at the eastern end of the Aleutian Chain, about 750 nm east of the western end of the Aleutian chain.


Approaching the Aleutians for the first time: wow!

However, most of the islands were completely uninhabited and we needed to shelter from the weather so figured we would be OK, anchoring up for brief periods. [More recent experiences with US Customs would cause me to reconsider this.]


Cold and rough sailing in the Bering Sea, north of the Aleutians. At least it was downwind!


The Aleutian visit was a highlight in all of my sailing travels and I would like to visit again. The natural beauty is extraordinary in all of Alaska, but it is the isolation in the Aleutians and the sense that only a few people are lucky enough to visit which makes it extra special.


Knots at anchor in an isolated bay in the treeless Aleutians.

We cleared into the USA in Dutch Harbour, made famous by the TV series “Dangerous Catch”. Yachts back then, and perhaps even now, were an unusual sight and we were surprised to see a Russian yacht in the harbour.


The Russians on Tarpon waving goodbye as they depart Dutch Harbour.

The Customs Officer arrived huffing and puffing and going on about fees. Turns out he was down from Anchorage and had only ever dealt with one yacht and that was the day before (the Russians)! After the guy left three "locals" came over and welcomed us enthusiastically. They apologized profusely for the customs and explained that he was not a "local", only there for a short stint and not happy to be there.


We spent 5 days in Dutch Harbour and had a wonderful time and made many new friends. We watched baseball, went Halibut fishing, ate our fill of salmon and king crab, and enjoyed swapping stories with the fishermen. Dutch Harbour is first and foremost a fishing port and is one of the largest grossing tonnage ports in the US. There is a large Surimi processing plant and a King Crab fishery. There is also the best equipped chandlery and workshop that I have ever seen. We were able to get all the engine spares we needed and undertake some relatively difficult repairs. I was able to get items off the shelf that I could not get anywhere in Australia.

Another consequence of the fishing industry was that there were some interesting nightspots. We visited a bar called the Elbow Room that had been called the second most dangerous bar on the planet! (Who knows what the first one was). Our first indication that this might have some truth to it was the chicken wire protecting the band from the crowd, just like the Blues Brothers movie. It was also the only bar I have ever been in where women were dancing in Gumboots. We had entered with some new found friends and were treated well. We left before things hotted up too much. Dutch Harbour really was like the last frontier, with everyone driving large "pick up trucks" on the unsealed muddy roads, while hunting and fishin' were the most popular pastimes.


Will and Doro passing through the Russian fleet, just visible in the distance.

From Dutch Harbour we sailed towards Sand Point on Popof Island, part of the Shumagin Island Group. This was another fishing town off the beaten track. Apparently there had been another yacht visit some years earlier; that sort of isolated! Anyway, we pulled up at the fuel wharf to find our bearings and Arnold wandered off towards town. It was now early evening, and I had found a place to berth in amongst the fishing fleet. Arnold appeared to help us move. As we eased around into the marina and motored past a seiner “Sadie Lady” while preparing to berth some guy came running out of the wheelhouse yelling, “Hey Arthur!”. I figured it was a new “friend” from Arnold’s short visit to town. Arnold looked up and said, “Arnold, I’ve told you my name is Arnold” and then he kept getting the dock line ready. “Is that a new mate from the pub, Arnold”, I asked. I kid you not, Arnold came back in his nonchalant drawl, “No, that’s my friend in the US I said I would probably run into”. “Are you kidding me?”, I spluttered. “No”, said Arnold, “but the bugger keeps forgetting my name”.


We tied up with the help of plenty of fishermen and invited them onboard for a drink and a tour. This turned into a BIG party and it seemed like half the town turned up. These guys could not believe we came from Australia in such a tiny yacht. And here we were in the lap of luxury on a 53’ Swan! I sat down with Arnold's mate and his skipper and got the story. It became even better. They did not even fish out of Sand Point but had arrived the night before from Chignik (over 100 nm away) where they normally fished. Chignik was a dry town so they had come to Sand Point for a beer! Arnold did not seem surprised at all but was more just “I told you I would run into him”. The beers flowed as did the stories. One guy said he had had some “trouble down south” and so up here in Alaska seemed better for him for “a while”. The “trouble” apparently involved the untimely death of someone!


Eventually, despite people bringing alcohol, it all ran out. The pub was suggested but all these rough tough fishermen said that a visit to the pub was unwise as it was too dangerous. Fresh from our Dutch Harbour bar we were full of confidence (and beer!) so off we staggered up the hill. Several of the fishermen came to “look after us”. In we walked through the door and up to the bar where the blousy barmaid shouted aggressively “Bars closed. They are fighting again!”. Eventually the bar re-opened and we got a beer. Then another fight broke out and we watched a guy get his head pushed through the juke box then thrown out the door! It was an “interesting” night and we felt quite safe with our new protective mates.

The next morning was understandably a little quiet. Turns out though we had made a “plan” deep in the night. Arnold was heading off to go fishing on the Sadie Lady and Doro and I were apparently sailing to Chignik which was, sort of, on the way to Kodiak, our original next stop. We set off early afternoon in strong winds and an unusually clear day, in contrast to the normal overcast foggy days.


A rare clear day on the Alaskan Peninsula.

It was a fantastic day sailing in close to the Alaskan Peninsula with spectacular views of glaciers and snow-covered mountains all day. That evening, Sadie Lady called on the radio and suggested we overnight in Kupreanof Harbour, nestled in between Paul and Jacob Islands. This was a superb anchorage and we rafted up alongside the Sadie Lady. That night they all worked on persuading Doro and me to come with them for a short trip the next day. The forecast was good with another day of perfect weather, and we had the massive Sadie Lady ground tackle on the bottom so, at 0600 the next morning, we left Knots for a few hours and went for a tour watching nesting Puffins, viewing a Sea lion Rookery then observing the seiners pursing for Salmon.


Just off the Alaskan Peninsula watching the American Purse Seiners from the Sadie Lady.

We returned to Knots, and while Arnold stayed on Sadie Lady, the skipper Danny, his two kids and the nanny Jane joined us for the sail to Chignik.


The next day Sadie Lady headed off fishing and Arnold decided to leave and go fishing. We remained and went for a long walk up in the mountains with Jane. We carried a 30-30 rifle as “apparently” this would protect us from the bears. Lots of Salmon berries but no bears. We had a great night in the mess hall of the town watching Hunt for Red October on video. Quite a change from today. That was the only movie we had seen for many months: no Netflix on iPads or cell phones!


The following day we sailed for Kodiak Island with three on board. We took a local Tom Fulkers, who was interested in sailing and keen to sail with us, on the 220 nm passage to Kodiak. I remember that the autopilot stopped working and Tom, a marine engineer, diagnosed the issue as hydraulic and fixed it: extremely helpful as it was a cold and wet passage tacking upwind with plenty of fog. The final part of the passage into the main town of Kodiak was the Kupreanof Strait and Whale Passage between Kodiak and Afognak Islands. Currents run at up to 5 knots so it was an interesting place to navigate. We entered on slack water. It was great to see trees again after the barren Aleutians!


Everywhere we travelled in Japan and Alaska we were welcomed with open arms by really friendly people and Kodiak was no exception. Vicki, the local vet, and Vance the dog catcher showed us around. What a team! Meeting locals made a big difference to our experience in each place.


After Kodiak we headed towards the famed Lituya Bay where we hoped the weather would be suitable to enter a difficult pass, only entered safely on slack water or the last of the flood. The imposing peaks of Mount Fairweather (15,300’ high) greeted us on arrival. It was interesting to note that Captain James Cook had named the peak in 1778; he sure got around! The bay is famous because in July 1958 avalanches, started by an earthquake, resulted in a giant wave that, in conjunction with the avalanches, tore the trees from the slopes surrounding the bay to a height of 1720 feet! Two vessels, in the bay at the time were destroyed. Reportedly one trawler was swept over the land at the entrance to the bays and into the ocean outside. There is evidence of at least five giant waves in the bay including 1853, 1874 and 1936. So, it was with excitement but a little bit of trepidation, that we entered the bay.


Entering Lituya Bay.

The bay is a bolt-hole for fisherman waiting out the weather but off the beaten path for most. We were keen to visit the glaciers at the head of the bay. The next day we were not disappointed.


Doro at the foot of the N. Crillon Glacier in Lituya Bay.

We spent a day in Lituya Bay then continued our journey south, on a fairly tight time schedule to arrive in San Francisco in time for a Swan regatta. I had an unpleasant run in with US customs officials in San Fran. But my tangles with officialdom is a story for another day!






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©2020 by Will Oxley.

Photo credits Amory Ross and John Grainger.