05 Jun 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.