To the Aleutians, Attu, and Adak

To the Aleutians, Attu, and Adak

The passage from Kushiro to Attu, the westernmost point in the USA, is about 1350nm, which takes about six and a half days. Our previous passages were in the trade winds, where the weather is generally quite stable. This passage is most definitely not in the trades and has potential for challenging, variable weather. We watched the forecast for weeks. Once or twice each week, a low pressure system with seriously bad weather–winds in the 50 knot range with 15-20 foot seas–moved along our route. No thank you!

Geopolitics comes into play on this passage, too. The Kuril Islands and Kamchatka Peninsula–Russia!–lie to port almost the entire way. Before leaving we spoke to the US Coast Guard to try and understand how far offshore we should travel. They advised us that we “should” be safe 12nm offshore, but no guarantees–Russia hasn’t exactly been complying with international law recently. We decided 100nm sounded better, and it would give us more time to deal with any problems should they arise.

After a few false hopes, our weather window appeared to be materializing just a day or two after we arrived in Kushiro. We’d follow a big low pressure system (a tropical depression) out of Japan and hopefully arrive before the next system caught up with us. Here’s what the weather routing info on Predict Wind looked like:

At the last moment, we delayed our departure for 12 hours. The system we were following was a little slower moving than expected; it was still churning out what would have been significant headwinds for our first day at sea.

Our patience was rewarded with excellent weather at the start–calm winds, gentle swell, sunny skies. This is the last Japanese fishing boat we’ll see for awhile:

Within a few hours of leaving, we had our first problem: Starlink died. We have two Starlink antennas and they both stopped working. We’ve become so accustomed to fast, always-on internet that the thought of going back to Iridium Go was distressing. Thankfully, Starlink came back to life about 18 hours later. We’re not sure what happened–whether it was some kind of Starlink outage, geofencing around Russia, Russia blocking the signal, or something else entirely. Whatever it was, it was a relief when our phones buzzed back to life.

Over the first few days, the swell that the tropical depression had created gradually died off. We enjoyed a very peaceful ride on Starr.

There was a lot more traffic than we saw on the Hawaii to Japan passage. Most ships transiting from Asia to the west coast of North America take the great circle route, which runs north of the Aleutians. Given the cold water, potentially bad weather, and unfriendly shoreline to port, we took comfort in their presence.

Planes take the great circle route, too. We had fun looking at Flightaware and seeing where the planes were coming from and going to. Many of the jets overhead were on 6000 or 7000nm trips between East Coast USA and Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.

As we proceeded northeast, the sun disappeared, replaced by fog. Occasionally the fog lifted a bit and revealed clouds. Air temperature dropped to just above freezing. The ocean was 37 degrees. Thanks to the diesel furnace, we were warm and dry inside Starr.

Just as predicted when we left Japan, we arrived at Attu a few hours before a gale. As we motored into the Bering Sea and along the north coast of Attu, the fog that had been with us for days began lifting. The scenery was magnificent:

We tried reporting our arrival into the USA with the CBP ROAM app, but it said we needed to get closer to the USA. So we called US Customs in Anchorage, gave them the name of the boat and our passport numbers, and were instructed to check in further when we get to Dutch Harbor. No questions about produce, meat, or anything else. I guess they’re not worried about us destroying the citrus crop in Attu.

We haven’t seen a whale in months, but this Orca swam over to welcome us home:

Attu is known for bird watching. We aren’t big birders, but know what a tufted puffin looks like:

We anchored in Chichagof Harbor, on the northeast side of Attu. It appeared to be the most protected anchorage on the island and seemed like a good place to wait out a couple days of 40 knot winds. Plus, the scenery is beautiful…a great reward after a perfect passage.

Despite pouring rain and gusty winds, we put the dinghy in the water and headed for shore the day after arriving. Attu is devoid of trees, covered in tundra. While it looks like a smooth carpet of foliage, in reality it’s spongy, uneven, and difficult to walk through.

The foliage is surprisingly varied up close. These plants were tiny and held beads of water:

Bird nest in the tundra:

During World War II, Attu Island (and nearby Kiska Island) was invaded by Japanese forces. The Japanese forced the native Aleut residents to relocate to Japan. The U.S. military, fearful that the Japanese would use Attu as a launch point for aerial attacks on mainland Alaska and the lower 48, embarked on a campaign to retake Attu Island in May 1943. The Battle of Attu lasted for 19 days and resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 Japanese and American soldiers before the US won. There is still much debris from the war on Attu. The Thousand-Mile War is an excellent book that chronicles World War II in Alaska, an oft-forgotten front.

Barbed wire ran along these fence posts, perhaps to slow down the opposing force.

Alaska is a big state, but few things bring that point home just as clearly as arriving in Attu. Juneau, Alaska’s capital and the northernmost point for most small boat cruisers who visit Alaska, is more than twice as far from Attu as it is from Seattle. Attu is south of Ketchikan and west of Hawaii.

A day and a half after arriving, we were underway again, bound for Bay of Islands, which indents Adak Island. It was partly sunny as we departed Attu, a beautiful farewell:

The first day of the two-day, 375nm passage to Adak was easy, with gentle seas and light winds. The second day was not. The forecast called for 30-40 knot westerly wind and 10 foot seas. The wind and seas were behind us. Thankfully Starr does well in following seas and it wasn’t that uncomfortable, but it would not be a good time to have a problem with steering or propulsion.

As we approached Adak, conditions settled dramatically. We saw more orcas, this time a group of seven or eight:

When the fog lifts, the scenery is ruggedly beautiful:

Adak Island is best known for the town of Adak–the westernmost municipality in the USA, the southernmost municipality in Alaska. During the Cold War, Adak was home to a bustling military base, with more than 6000 residents, a supermarket, movie theater, schools, and even a McDonalds. The base was closed in 1997. Today, fewer than 200 residents remain. Don is not a big fan of decaying towns and didn’t want to visit, so we looked for a nearby anchorage to wait out another gale.

The Royal Cruising Club has one of the few Aleutian Islands cruising guides (free, download here). It described Bay of Islands as “a true gem” and Trapper’s Cove looked like a very secure place to wait out a blow. The drone picture below shows some of the bay. Can you find Starr at anchor?

We were fortunate to have an afternoon of partly sunny weather, so we explored by dinghy and a little bit on foot. The scenery throughout the bay is gorgeous.

We stumbled upon this small cabin:

It looks like caribou hunters have been using it for many years:

Closer to the boat, we found the remnants of some kind of structure:

We have no idea what took place here, but the lack of vegetation suggests that it might be rather toxic. We didn’t linger!

We’ll stay in the Bay of Islands for another day or two until the wind calms down. As I write this, there are whitecaps in the anchorage and gusts to 40 knots.

  • Bob and Ann Widness
    Posted at 06:01h, 05 June Reply

    Hey Don and Sherry,
    So good to hear of your adventures and your detailed notes! Your life adventures are to be admired by all. I hope we will meet again soon! Sumdum will be headed west from Ketchikan in two weeks time eventually getting to Wittier on the 4th of July and then on charter until the 26th ending in Homer. Cousin Joyce and my brother Scott will be aboard for another month while returning to Ketchikan. May our paths cross! . email when you can.
    Bob and Ann

  • mike rossman
    Posted at 06:33h, 05 June Reply

    Thanks For The Tufted One D&S

    Aloha Nui Loa
    M/V Puffin

  • Doug Cole
    Posted at 06:45h, 05 June Reply

    Loved reading this post. In my 747 days I flew over Adak several hundred times. Was able to actually see it only once due to the constant heavy overcast.

  • Luuk Oleson
    Posted at 10:24h, 05 June Reply

    Gorgeous photos!!! And what a relief that you made the crossing without getting the Russians too close.
    Welcome back to. US waters – and soil.

  • Geoff and Candace Daigle
    Posted at 11:10h, 05 June Reply

    The drone shots have really made the journal entries fun to enjoy. Gives us armchair travelers a cool perspective on where Starr is and what the local geography offers. Thanks Sam!

  • Sarah Layman
    Posted at 11:55h, 05 June Reply

    Although not back to the lower mainland quite yet, thank you for allowing us to live vicariously thru your travels on Starr. to Japan and home again! The writings and pictures have been beautiful, and with each one I’ve gained a greater admiration of your adventurous spirit and for Japan. May the seas rise to meet you and may the wind be always at your back for the final legs of your journey..

  • Kimberley
    Posted at 12:40h, 05 June Reply

    Welcome home!!! Glad your trip was safe!

  • Andy Howard
    Posted at 12:59h, 05 June Reply

    Great pictures and information Sam, many thanks.

  • Doug Adkins
    Posted at 13:53h, 05 June Reply

    Welcome back and thank you for the wonderful posts. The layout and photos are superb. It will sure look crowded by the time you make it to Juneau!

  • Peter Kenneth Le Lievre
    Posted at 14:24h, 05 June Reply

    This post is really great. The photos are amazing and the wilderness is beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing and also thanks to Starlink for carrying the data!

  • Julie
    Posted at 15:48h, 05 June Reply

    Wow – what an amazing adventure!!

  • Gary D Coard
    Posted at 19:44h, 05 June Reply

    Great travel log and wonderful pictures. Keep going, Love learning about all the wonderful places You visit: With 100 degrees plus temps here in Tucson AZ, some cold weather would be nice. Take Care,

  • Alice Murray
    Posted at 02:08h, 06 June Reply

    Amazing adventures. Thank you for sharing

  • Cathlyn MacQuarrie
    Posted at 17:41h, 06 June Reply

    Loving the blog and photos. This part of your trip is bringing back so many memories of stories my dad told as a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay and the Aleutians. Tough way to make a living. Fortunately he was able to supplement as a carpenter during the rest of the year.

    • Don
      Posted at 20:52h, 07 June Reply

      Very desolate here. We are approaching Dutch harbor and we haven’t see another boat for the last 700nm.
      We will be seeing lots of fishing boats from tonight on. This will be more interesting mixing it up with the commercial fishing fleet.

  • Hector Cyre
    Posted at 17:43h, 07 June Reply

    Thank you all for taking us along on this adventure. It has been a heartwarming experience. We’re hoping our wakes may cross as you reach the southern portion of coastal B.C. later this summer. Our love o all the crew of the good ship Starr.
    Hec and Jan

    • Don
      Posted at 20:55h, 07 June Reply

      We will watch for you a the way down. If you see us near you please shout out!
      You can see our position on the location tab in our blog. It’s constantly being updated as we proceed.

  • Tom and Jan White
    Posted at 19:07h, 07 June Reply

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful journey. We are so amazed at how adventurous you both are. Stay safe and enjoy every moment. Maybe our paths will pass again. Sunchaser V.

Post A Comment