Race to Alaska: Johnstone Strait

I’m laying on my stomach in the quarter berth, which is about fifteen degrees off level, slurping Backpacker’s Pantry chili mac out of the bag in absolute darkness. Outside, I can hear the howling of wind and water streaming against the hull. I have no idea what time it is, but my body is saying late.

It’s been a wild ride down Johnstone Strait. It was smooth, sunny sailing until Helmcken Island off of Hardwicke. We took Current Pass, to the north side, right around slack current. As we skated over the glassy boils of water, our wind died, and our headway ceased. We spun in the water, caught a little wind, regained steering, tacked out, lost wind.

Swirls and spirals began to form in the water. In the sunshine, with the light breeze, it wasn’t scary. Everything was low-speed. We were just watching whirlpools form and dissipate, spinning, tacking, making no headway at all, for a couple of hours.

Suddenly, a stiff wind blew up, filling our sails and knocking us out of Current Passage. I clocked 17 knots with our hand anemometer, and holding steady. It was exciting at first to be finally past the island, but almost immediately, big swells rose almost out of nowhere.

I had been playing HAIM and Ed Sheeran over the bluetooth speaker, much too chill for the change in conditions. My hands were full managing the jib lines as Ert and I tacked into the wind, but Graham was standing in the gangway poking out his head.

“Graham, can you put on some more situation-appropriate classical?”

On a motorless sailboat, situations can develop with extreme rapidity. Conditions change, and we have either too much or too little power to steer. The wind blows in a hard gust and pushes us sideways, dipping the toe rail. We crash up and down on big swells. Current drags us backwards, or sideways. Spray blows over the deck and drenches us.

All this at once, with flotsam in the water hitting our hull and other boats passing by and leaving a wake, while we keep track of the location of any underwater rocks and look out for big logs hiding in the dark troughs of waves. Now, set to the strains of the 1812 Overture.

In a situation, you have to act competently, efficiently, with strong communication as a team. You have to take the situation exactly seriously enough: directed, but without panic.

“I keep forgetting about the music, and then I hear it again and laugh,” I chuckle from my braced position, arms wrapped around lifelines to keep from sliding across the cockpit. “It’s too on point. Stay port of that marker, there are rocks on the other side.”

“I think it lends gravitas.” Graham is standing attentive in the gangway in case we need help.

“I think there is enough gravitas already,” Ert strains out through clenched jaw, white knuckles on the tiller.

But even Ert agrees that the timing is perfectly on point a few minutes later, the music’s finale crescendoing to a close just as the waves begin to relax. He turns to me. “You were livestreaming that, right?”

I shoot a look across the still-angled, wet and bouncing cockpit. “No, I’m really enjoying still having a phone.”

The reprieve is temporary. Tossing over swellls looking for wind shelter, we make it abreast of Kelsey Bay. No shelter, we’re still heeling past the 45 degree limit of our tilt gauge. Graham comes out to help us put two reefs in the main sail, then comes on shift to replace Ert.

For two hours, we fight hard in rough waves and drenching spray to hold our zero knots of forward progress against the current. There’s no anchorage, just pounding wind. But we’re here, holding ground, watching the sun set over mountains. It is somehow both disappointment and victory.

Liam tags in at ten, just as the current begins to shift in our favor. I boil water, make a backpacker meal, strip down to pajamas, lay out my sleeping bag. But through the open gangway I can see Liam glancing my way, not wanting to ask me to come back on shift. But the wind is even higher; I can feel the struggle to steer in the unsteady steep angles of the cabin floor.

“Need help out there?”

I re-robe: sports bra, thermals, fleece, spray suit, rubber boots, waterproof gloves. When I emerge, Graham is working the tiller to keep us on the fine line between accidental tack and overpowered into a crazy heel, and Liam is on the foredeck, getting wave-drenched as he lays out the storm jib.

In the bouncing, deeply angled boat, we talk through the procedure several times- not quite shouting, but loud over the waves and wind.

Graham turns upwind. I lower the halyard. Liam switches the sails. I come forward to change over the sheets into a double-reef grommet, then come back to raise the halyard, carrying back the bundled other sail. Sail up, Liam ties the extra sailcloth up into the reef.

We are extremely methodical, checking with each other at each step: ready? Ready. Wait. Okay. The name of the game is safety, and we get it through control.

When at last we’re all back in the cockpit, we all breathe relief. The wind is no longer forcing our steering; our angle is not so steep.

Now that we’re steadier with the smaller sails, I can finally come back in. By the time I get back to pajamas, my backpacker meal is not even cold. Two servings disappear down my throat, and then I’m out cold.




An adventurer, woodland creature, and engineer. Currently working on data ownership models, environmental accountability, and intentional community.

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Kelsey Breseman

Kelsey Breseman

An adventurer, woodland creature, and engineer. Currently working on data ownership models, environmental accountability, and intentional community.

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