Day 19 | 2023 Flotilla to Alaska | Ketchikan to Thoms Place/Quiet Harbor

We awoke to a beautiful morning in Ketchikan. Much nicer than the rain and wind we’ve seen the last couple of days. It was time to untie the lines and get the party moving northward.

Fate and boats had some interesting plans in store for us today, though.

Early morning at Bar Harbor
Morning in Tongass Narrows

In Clarence Strait near Caamano Point we spotted a very large orca that at first we thought might be with a baby, but it turns out that the orca was chasing around  a couple of Dall’s porpoises. For a minute we thought we might get a show we may or may not want to see!

Orcas have a diverse diet and they do prey on Dall’s porpoises as well as other marine mammals and fish. But Dall’s are fast and maneuverable and usually escape. As far as we know, these escaped. Sorry, Orca. Not today.

We made the hard decision to skip Meyers Chuck, and go all the way to Thoms place today. Meyers Chuck is one of our favorite places, but the weather for leaving the next morning looked questionable. We decided to go all the way to Thoms Place to be protected against the weather and to make the hop in to Wrangell easier. Free Solo left at first light a few hours earlier to split from the group for a couple days to head for Petersburg earlier to pick up guests.

A few minutes after we rounded the corner from Meyers Chuck, however, we got a distress call. Free Solo had smoke in the engine room, had shut down, and was drifting. The group had turned into Ernest Sound, but Free Solo had continued north in Clarence. She was about two hours away at our normal cruise speed.

We diagnosed that the problem was the alternator. The bearings had seized, which meant the serpentine belt that drives critical engine components such as cooling pumps could not turn. Luckily, (okay, not really luck, we plan for these things) there was a spare alternator and belt.

Airship turned around and began steaming as fast as possible to help Free Solo. The rest of the group continued on to Thoms Place.

Free Solo was in the middle of Clarence Strait, drifting at about one knot toward some rocks that were three nautical miles away. That gave us about three hours to get her up and running again before having to take some other action to keep her safe from the rocks.

Airship arrived at the scene about an hour and a half later. The rocks were still 1-2 miles away. The wind had built, though, gusting to 20 knots with three-four foot seas. Free Solo had drifted beam-to (as expected) and was running her generator with the Seakeeper gyro for stabilization. The Seakeeper turned out to be a huge asset, as changing the alternator with the boat rocking in those beam seas would have been … difficult.

Launching the dinghy from Airship was a tricky task in these conditions. The stern davit is easier than a top-deck crane, but still the dinghy banged around hard against the davit in the waves and getting it free without smashing an arm or finger was a bit frightening. We finally got the dinghy free and Kevin headed for Free Solo while Laura kept Airship circling and monitoring our drift toward the rocks.

Teaching Moment: In the rush and stress of launching Airship’ dinghy, Kevin forgot to put the plug back in. He zipped over to Free Solo, focused on getting safely from the dinghy onto the other vessel – without noticing. A few minutes later, we saw that the dinghy had a couple inches of water in the bottom. Kevin climbed back aboard, put in the plug, and pumped the water out. The lesson here is to be extra safe and vigilant on procedures and safety practices when a stressful situation arises. Rushing too much or allowing yourself to become distracted can lead to errors that can make a situation worse and more dangerous. Tragedies are almost always the result of a series of problems and mistakes, rather than a single failure. The key is preventing a single problem from evolving into a chain, and then into a disaster.

The alternator swap went smoothly, and within about half an hour we had Free Solo running under her own power again. We decided to tow Airship’s dinghy behind Free Solo to a place with better conditions for putting it back on Airship’ davit.

Airship’s dinghy aside Free Solo in Clarence Strait
Free Solo towing Airship’s dinghy to smoother waters

Airship and Free Solo continued north, and were joined by an enthusiastic group of Dall’s Porpoises. They played and surfed in our bow wakes for over an hour.

Airship and Free Solo are now anchored in Quiet Harbor and as the name implies, it’s nice and quiet. It’s gray and rainy but it’s calm and we’re the only ones in here. The rest of the flotilla is anchored in Thoms Place. Tomorrow we will all head to Wrangell to get the band back together!

Quiet Harbor
Black bear on shore in Quiet Harbor

Several things to consider from today. First, carrying tools and spares and knowing how to do the most common repairs – swapping alternators, for example – is prudent and can allow us to solve mechanical problems before they become emergencies. Second, the Seakeeper’s at-rest stabilization was a giant help in keeping the boat steady while we worked on her. Third, the stern davit is much easier and safer to launch (although still very tricky) than using a crane in heavier seas. Finally, having Starlink this year on most of the boats has dramatically improved our ability to get weather and communicate with each other and with the outside world. Being able to text message, check weather, look up maintenance manuals and procedures online, and so forth is a big safety and convenience upgrade.