(July 22, 2017)
We continued crawling – barely drifting – through the kelp ravine, the radio now eerily silent. Zephyr’s sail marked the head of our parade, which was becoming more like a funeral march every minute. Slowly, we continued picking our way through the dense kelp, chopping and grinding on our props, snagging our keels and rudders. Then Ruby Slippers broke the radio silence with an announcement to the fleet:
“Just after the red marker number 30, you can pass.”
I looked around. We were only at marker 26A. At this pace, marker 30 was another 30 minutes away.
“Jim, this is Glendora, do you want us to pass and get in front of you? Over.”
“Do you guys want to pass us and lead? We’ll see if we can help Zephyr and Breakaway.”
Hesitantly: “Okay, well, sure.”
“It’s getting wider in here, and it’s more well-marked.”
“Okay, we’ll continue.”
“Okay, pass us to our starboard.”
More silence, this time with each captain searching for marker 30 where the channel would open up, and we could all breathe again. I checked the AIS, and it showed that Jim on Ruby Slippers was already there. Zephyr and Breakaway were approaching slowly.
Jim’s voice popped up on the radio again: “Breakaway and Zephyr, we have a mile and a half to go to a really wide spot, or we can pull over right here.”
Breakaway was calm: “We’re pumping water, and no white smoke, so we’re okay for now. I’m just worried if we have to take Zephyr under tow, that it would overstress the engine.”
“Okay, how you doing Zephyr?”
“Yeah, I’m bailing. I have nothing in my sea strainer, and I have a lot of smoke coming out, although I’m not overheated yet, I’m at a bare idle.”
“Have you tried backing down real hard?”
Hesitantly: “Uh, okay, there’s a lot of boats behind us, I’m just warning everyone we’re going to try backing up.”
“Wait ‘til red number 30, they’ll be clear to pass you.” Then Jim continued: “Give it a short blast in reverse, you don’t have to back the boat.”
I listened to the hum – now more of a grind – of our motor, normally chugging along, now chopping along. Ellie popped her head up the companionway: “Whoa, those trees are so close up!”
“Yeah,” I agreed. Just feet away on either side. A little too close up.
Then Zephyr reported back: “Okay, we did several reverses, the steam seems to be less, but we still have it.”
“Nothing in the sea strainer?”
“Nothing in the sea strainer.”
Jokingly, Jim replied: “You’re gonna need your spinnaker.”
Then Foxy chimed in: “Jim, we’re gonna start drifting backward here.” In our place in line right behind Foxy, we’d noticed that our motion was now backward as well.
“You’ll have to try and get around Breakaway and keep your speed up.”
Zephyr offered: “We’ll head to starboard, and you all can pass us on our port.”
Ahead, the line began to move. But, it appeared the Island Packets ahead of us weren’t moving with it.
Foxy: “Island Packets?”
Then one of the Island Packets, Corvidae, was on: “Sea Otter, will you close the gap please.” It wasn’t a question.
Not seeing any change, and getting pushed farther back, Foxy came back on: “Sea Otter, Sea Otter, can you go around?”
Sea Otter had been having mic trouble most of the trip, and although the static on the radio indicated their were trying to respond, no response made it through. Were they having engine trouble also? We waited.
“This is Sea Otter, did you get that? We’re waiting to get past Marker 30, and then we’ll pass to the port.”
Jim wasted no time and did not mince words: “Sea Otter, this is Ruby. Close the gap.”
“Doing it now,” Sea Otter replied.
Throughout this mini-drama, Rich had been up on our bow, watching for rocks and seaweed. Climbing back into the cockpit, he explained that there simply was no way around the kelp – even in places where the surface of the water didn’t appear kelpy, the forest of it was thick and healthy just inches below the surface, waiting to snag unsuspecting keels, props, and rudders.
Just then, Lori Lee, at the back of the line, announced: “We’re dead in the water.”
Oh no, another one was down.
Jim replied: “Lori Lee, your engine has stopped?”
“No no no, we are stopped, there’s no way to make progress here.”
“This is Corvidae, Sea Otter’s taken off, so we’re moving now.”
We anxiously awaited our turn to make forward progress again.
“Ruby, this is Zephyr. Are you saying after 30 we can pull over and anchor?”
“Yeah, we have enough room over here, enough for folks to pass, we’re in 36 feet of water right now.”
“Do you want us to come up to you?”
“Yeah, we’re finding an open spot here…”
Lori Lee interrupted: “Charlie, can you close that gap, so we can spread out and keep moving?”
Then Foxy: “Charlie, can you speed it up?”
No response. Then Breakaway: “Breakaway is hugging the starboard shore for anyone to pass on port.”
Then a very relieved-sounding Zephyr: “This is Zephyr, we’ve passed Marker 30, people can pass us on port. Over.”
Meanwhile, the line’s progress hadn’t made it back to our place in line. We waited, what seemed like hours but couldn’t have been more than a minute, for the line ahead to move. Then, finally, I was able to kick it into high gear and resume kelp-chopping.
“Zephyr, this is Ruby, I’m gonna spin around here and anchor, you guys can come alongside, that might make it easier. Or if you wanna anchor, and I’ll bring the dinghy over.”
“Probably easier for us to anchor, so we’ll get to anchor.”
Mobert continued along through the passage, Ruby Slippers and Zephyr still ahead, out of sight.
“Okay, I’ll put our dinghy in the water.”
Forward progress continued. Although tense and tight, it was better than the alternative we’d experienced a few minutes earlier.
Zephyr: “Hey Jim, I am no longer seeing any smoke, and I do see water coming out, so I think you’re on the right track, something was definitely wrapped around that sail drive.”
“Yeah, most likely, that’s what happened. This kind of kelp, it’ll really do that. Feather up on the RPM a little bit, and see if you get water.”
What followed may have been the most joyous “roger” I’ve ever heard.
“Breakaway, how you doing?”
“We’re still making way, intermittent loss of water based on RPMs.”
Jim instructed Breakaway: “A big blast in reverse, see if you can shake it off of there.”
“Sea Otter here, are we following Glendora up ahead?”
Ruby: “Yeah, go ahead.”
With each minute of continued forward progress, I breathed a little easier. However, my relief with the progress was offset by the continued grinding of kelp, sometimes so thick it was tough to tell whether it was in fact kelp, or if we’d discovered a sandbar.
Then, finally, good news on the radio: “Breakaway, this is Corvidae. That looks good now, I see no steam.”
The good news continued: “Ruby, this is Zephyr, I think we’re okay now. Let’s carry on, through here, anyway.”
“Okay. Breakaway, you feel the same?”
“Negative. We definitely see kelp in the sea strainer. We need to anchor and clear the sea strainer.”
“Okay, there’s a little spot right here, just to our starboard side. Swing around that little island, and hook up there.”
Up ahead, we could see Zephyr’s sail, and Ruby at her temporary anchorage.
“Ruby, this is Zephyr, are there other anchorages forward if we continue on, and this happens again? Over.”
“Yeah, we’re pretty much out of the narrow stuff now.”
“Okay, we’ll carry on at this time.”
“Alright, go ahead and pass us, and follow Glendora.”
The bay where we were widened, but the channel was still windy and narrow. But, the end of the treacherous pass – Marker 30 – was just up ahead. All the boats had made it through, suffering what ultimately turned out to be only minor problems, but could have been a disaster.
Finally free, most of the sailboats stretched their sails, despite the lack of wind. For our part, we had finally stopped chopping seaweed, and our motor was happily chugging along again. Our sea strainer was clear, and although our steerage remained rough due to kelp stuck on the keel and rudder, we were simply happy to no longer be picking up new weeds.
The remainder of the passage to Rocky Pass Bay was sunny and uneventful. I looked at the chart, and considered it; two months ago, I would have considered the pass we were then in – wide but with rocks and shoals – quite treacherous. Now, having spent the past two months escaping Devil’s Elbow, kissing the sand in tricky anchorages, and dodging unmarked and mis-charted rocks and shoals, the passage exiting Swift Pass into Rocky Pass was as simple as could be.
The fleet had been tested, and we’d passed. We were now ready to proceed toward the climax of our Alaskan adventure – Tracy Arm and Sawyer Glacier, just a week away.