Clarence Strait: the Longest Day

Ketchikan to Coffman Cove: 65 nMiles
June 3, 2015

I spent hundreds of hours poring over charts and guidebooks and Google Earth over the winter months. I memorized names of islands and passages and plotted routes and distances, trying to fix in my head a model of the route. It is an enjoyable pastime in the cold rain of a Seattle winter, and undoubtedly valuable, but of course inadequate in conveying the character of the experience one is likely to have.

If I were to describe Clarence Strait in a single word, it would be menacing. I spoke to others along the route that felt similarly. Clarence is 110 nMiles from its mouth on the Dixon Entrance to where it opens into Sumner Strait, and its orientation is roughly aligned with the prevailing winds. Thats a lot of fetch (unimpeded distance for wind to build wave height). Armchair chart reconnaissance doesn't convey the visceral experience, and Clarence is nothing if not visceral. Each of my five experiences on the strait were anxious ones.

We began the longest day of the voyage at 0500 and passed Guard Island (the entry point of Clarence Strait coming north from Ketchikan) at 0700. A fresh south wind was sweeping up the strait from the Gulf of Alaska, and we set the stays'l to capture some of that push and to stabilize the motion of the boat in 2'-3' following seas. The chop was on short centers, and some of the waves were washing over the stern quarters, lapping at the cockpit. I didn't much care for it, and decided I had a new criterion for unwelcome sea conditions. Our desired course was NNW, but coming up a bit to a more westerly heading solved the problem.  It was still a sleigh ride, but the stays'l gave us drive and some stability and we steered a course towards the bottom of Grindall Island.

At this point I wasn't sure whether the sea conditions would let us continue northward on Clarence or not, but there was an appealing alternative of sheltered water in Kasaan Bay if we decided to bail out. As we neared the eastern shore of the Kasaan Peninsula the seas moderated a bit and we adjusted our course to continue on up the eastern shore of Prince of Wales Island.  Thorne Bay was another bail-out point in our plan, but this day was the exception to rule of winds and seas increasing as the day went on.  We were doing fine, and we decided to continue on.

Having arrived in Ketchikan with two weeks remaining in Mathias's cruise, we wanted to cover as much ground as possible, and we sketched out an ambitious route that included Rocky Passage between Kuiu and Kupreanof Island, rounding the top of Kupreanof Island, down Frederick sound to Petersburg, through the Wrangell narrows, down the eastern passages to Meyer's Chuck, south in Clarence Strait, circumnavigating Revillagigedo Island on the Behm Canal to visit Misty Fjords, and back to Ketchikan.  It would mean 450 nMiles in 12 days... a pace we knew we could sustain if... IF... Odin smiled upon us. We had some fall back positions as well in the case of delays.

An ambitious 450 nMiles plan for two weeks in Alaska
Getting most of the way up Clarence on a challenging day increased our confidence and we turned into Coffman Cove for the night feeling that our plan was workable. In light of the long day we'd had (65 nMiles), we availed ourselves of the municipal dock and a local bar (replete with Seahawks regalia). We wandered in for a beer and a burger and some local color before turning in for the night. Tomorrow looked to be a shorter day and we decided on a departure of 0700 the next morning, heading for Point Baker on the northwest corner of Prince of Wales Island.  Clarence had other ideas.


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