When we set sail for Alaska in late March, on an 18-day quarantined transit of British Columbia, we knew we’d find adventure in Alaska. But we didn’t know we’d fall in love with it. After 5 months of cruising Southeast Alaska, the mountains, wildlife and fishing have impressed us enough that we’re not sure we’ll want to leave. (And we’ll be living on our boat in Juneau for the winter, so that we’re already positioned for a full season here next spring/summer).
Since this was our first time sailing Alaska, and we spent 5 out of the last 6 seasons in British Columbia (which we formerly considered our primary cruising region), naturally many thoughts turn to comparisons of Alaska vs southern waters (BC and WA). I haven’t blogged much about our time here (focusing on Instagram) but figured a summary of our learning experience might help other cruisers looking to come here.
Cannery Cove, Pybus Bay
Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park
Alaska is a tough place to cruise, and the highs and lows are more extreme, but the rewards can also be greater. Some differences (the good and the not-so-good) standout with Alaska:
Glacier Bay National Park, at the northern edge of southeast Alaska, is a capstone destination for many cruisers. We spent 9 days there in late May / early June and had pretty much the worst weather luck you could possibly have. Near constant rain every day, cold, fog, dense clouds obscuring the views, low visibility and little wind (so the sailing was usually poor). And yet, it was still awe inspiring. That kind of tells you how special of a place Glacier Bay is.
It’s the most alive place we’ve ever been. Much like the rest of Alaska, but more. Wildlife that would be a rare sighting in other places is an everyday occurrence here. We saw sea otters and humpbacks pretty much every day, and orcas on several days. Everyday was different, and seeing first-hand the uniqueness of this area made it clear why it’s protected.
We can only imagine what it would be like in sunny weather. Weather impacts perception of a cruising destination immensely. We learned that early in our cruising learning curve when we went to Princess Louisa Inlet and were thoroughly underwhelmed by a lot of motoring and poor views – the mountains were obscured by low cloud cover and rain the entire time. It’s possible to be passing towering mountains and have it look about the same as Tacoma Narrows on a foggy day – with low cloud cover you’d never know there are 2000 foot cliffs and 8000 foot peaks around you.
Glacier Bay was different though. Despite terrible weather, it was still worth it. In fact, the adversity of the weather made us appreciate it all the more in the brief moments when the mountains came out.
Sailing, actually sailing (not motoring around everywhere in a sailboat), is unquestionably difficult in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Winds aren’t consistent, narrow straits and channels mean a lot of tacking or gybing, strong currents cause the water to kick up into rough, sharp waves, and land effects plus weather systems cause the wind to vary greatly from one area to the next.
But in the past 3 years (primarily in BC) we figured out how to sail in these waters, doing about 70% of our miles under sail. We do this because it’s what we enjoy – sailing a sailboat just feels right, uses less fuel, it’s quieter, and makes us feel more connected with nature and wildlife. I talked more about the reasons and tactics in my 2018 article “Cruising the Pacific Northwest by Wind Power.“
But now that we’re in Alaska we’ve had to relearn how to sail here. Alaska has a reputation for being a place where most sailboats generally do no sailing at all – many people say they never even took the cover off their mainsail! That’s very sad since you might as well have a motorboat then – with more comfortable accommodations and less vestigial weight and cost (from the unused rigging and sails).
The good news is it’s definitely possible to sail a lot in southeast Alaska! It takes effort, just like the Inside Passage does, but a few things make it a bit more challenging:
We made it to Alaska! 18 days. 650 nautical miles. 195 of that motoring and 455 sailing (70%). We stepped off the boat only once, for fuel in Port McNeill. It was the most challenging trip we’ve ever done, made more challenging due to thru-transiting restrictions and the early season. We had sun, rain, snow, graupel storms, high winds, and at times rough seas. The early season meant we usually had plenty of wind, enabling us to sail fast and minimize motoring. Though we had some very tough days, our past years of experience along three-quarters of the route helped a lot.
We were allowed into Canada as a marine thru-transit because we were moving our home to Alaska for residency, and were not allowed to get off the boat or sightsee. We anchored each night to rest (and because it’s unsafe to travel the Inside Passage at night with the hundreds of logs/trees we had to dodge). And we were allowed to stop for fuel, water, or groceries which we did once for only fuel and water. We also were told to get through as quickly as possible – the Canadian customs main priority seemed to be ensuring that no tourism happens.
Needless to say there was no tourism, as we were already motivated to go as quickly as possible. We were dead tired each night and spent our days in transit or fixing issues on the boat.
It’s about 600-700 nautical miles to Alaska from Friday Harbor (where we started in the San Juans) but this distance is deceptive – it feels much longer than that because there are dozens of different weather systems, tidal gates, and sailing challenges to go through. Every day is different, and the wind comes from all directions. One day you might have a southeast gale followed by a northwest gale the next day (as happened around Campbell River).
Going to Alaska this quickly is not what we’d call fun. It was one challenging passage after another, with no break in between and none of the typical rewards of cruising (visiting ports, hiking on shore, water activities like paddleboarding, crabbing / fishing, etc).
A small graupel shower while sailing up Petrel Channel
2020 was our 3rd year of full-time cruising, but certainly not a normal one. The border closure and pandemic meant we didn’t sail very far and didn’t get to go to our favorite cruising waters (in BC), leaving a big hole in our sailing rhythm. An intrinsic part of cruising is travel to new places. While there may be some who are content sitting mostly in one area year after year, 2020 taught us we’re not that type. The travel part of cruising – nomading, voyaging, exploring – is an essential element for us.
Last year this time our months of preparation got cancelled by the pandemic and we spent the next six months trying to figure out how to make the best of the new limitations on our lifestyle. Our biggest sailing adventure was sailing around Whidbey Island (lol).
After waiting a year for BC to reopen, we’re calling it quits and making a decision for very different cruising plans – Alaska will replace BC as our new cruising territory! (we’re moving our home – ie, boat – to Alaska as our permanent residency)
In a previous post back in August I talked about how we added a cellular router to our boat and hinted we’d probably be doing more soon. Now we’re doing the next logical step which is to add a cellular booster. While a decent external router / antenna does the job in anchorages where we have okay cell tower reception, a booster does the job in places where we have a very weak signal or barely usable speeds.
There are very few anchorages like that in the San Juans, but there are some in BC and Alaska. It’s worth noting previous excellent writing has been done on this at Seabits.com. I’ll be focusing more on the latest install details plus logistics of where to actually buy this thing from.
First, what is a booster? In simple terms it’s a device that enhances your cellular signal. Before I knew anything about boosters I had a few misconceptions – so you should know: you don’t have to plug your device (phone, router) into the booster and you don’t need a SIM card for it. It doesn’t run on any particular cellular service and the best way to think of it is as a miniature cell tower repeater in your boat. You’re installing an outside antenna to pick up a weak cell tower signal and amplify it through a second antenna inside your boat for a slightly stronger signal.
The WeBoost seems to be the leading player in the cellular booster market for boats, RVs and probably more. The WeBoost Drive Reach is their latest model and what you want – but from there it gets confusing with many variants of this package and many different distributors you can buy it from.
The Drive Reach is the booster itself – the red finned component plus some basic accessories – and the manufacturer packages it with components targeted at cars, trucks, RVs, or land homes – but not boats. They don’t make a marine package, but some of their distributors do bundle it with marine antennas. Different variants of this product name (“Drive Reach Extreme Marine”) are simply marketing terms for packages of additional accessories sold with the Drive Reach. The “marine” ones generally come with an outdoor marine antenna.
Additional items that vary depending on how you’re installing it:
- Antenna rail mount (if you’re mounting it on 1″ rail tubing)
- WeBoost mounting bracket (further comments on this later)
- Blue Sea 1001 Cable Clam (to run the antenna cable through the deck)
While there are various types / brands of cable clams, this is my favorite for this situation because you can pass the cable terminator through without having to cut it or reconnect coax terminators.
I just finished migrating this site to a new platform – using its own WordPress hosting (paid) rather than the free blog hosting at WordPress.com. If you see anything seriously broken, or didn’t get your email subscription transferred, please let me know!
Previously I had been using free WordPress.com hosting because I didn’t want the blog to become an expense taking away from our cruising funds. But the downside of free hosting is they run their own ads (from which they take 100% of any revenue) and those ads have become increasingly obtrusive in the last couple years.
But, thanks to readers using our Amazon affiliate links (which are the only form of advertising I get anything from) to buy boating supplies we’ve written about, I now had enough money to pay for web hosting. So this means you get to read the blog with no ads now! (except for inline Amazon product links, which you’re free to use or not, and don’t affect your cost at all).
Blogs can be a surprising amount of technical work if you want to keep them looking good, and this took a few days of work. In theory, moving a WordPress site should be as simple as clicking a few buttons to export/import – however it doesn’t do 100%, and there are some bugs in the code, so the reality is quite different from theory. It made me realize just how much content is up here.
- Of 176 posts (since December 2014), about 60 had to be semi-manually updated with a script.
- I have 1,370 photos, of which about 100 had to be semi-manually refreshed due to an import bug.
For a long time now we’ve avoided adding fancy electronic networking to our boat to build out a wifi network. One of the best things about sailing is disconnecting from the outside world – sailing and anchoring in remote areas where Internet service is weak or non-existent. Time away from the pressures and stresses of the normal world was always one thing we loved most about cruising.
Without Internet, there’s no news, no Facebook, no bills to pay, and overall much less time spent on the computer and more time appreciating nature. So losing Internet access has always been a feature of cruising to us, not a bug. It feels kind of crazy that we’re now working on adding Internet augmentation to our boat.
But we’re in our 3rd year of semi-full-time liveaboard cruising, and things have changed a bit – the fact we can no longer sail long distances north into Canada has meant we have a lot of time on our hands sitting in the same handful of anchorages. Washington inland waters span only a couple hundred miles, which isn’t really enough to consume all of our time for a 6-month season.
So we’re spending a lot more time on the Internet (see my San Juans Cellular Map for Boaters), and looking into taking on some remote work jobs now that it’s becoming more of a thing.
To cut to the chase, the simple, easy solution we decided on (for now) is a Netgear Nighthawk M1 LTE router – by plugging a data-only SIM into it, we get a device that provides a better wifi network than our phones did, because it can be positioned with better visibility to the cell tower.
The LTE router we ended up buying
Over the last year I’ve started recording cellular signal strength and download speeds in the anchorages we’re in. While previously we were happy to have some time away from the Internet, recently it’s become more important to stay connected. This is our third year of semi-full-time cruising with no home port, and with the Canadian border closure this year we can’t go very far. So we’ve spent more time online for video calls with friends/family, work, and entertainment.
It’s often helpful to know whether we’ll have fast Internet in an anchorage before we go there. You can look at the cellular provider’s own coverage map (T-Mobile, AT&T). However these maps aren’t very accurate for boaters, and say they have 4G coverage in places where they definitely don’t. They’re not customized to the particulars of a boat in an anchorage. Getting actual, real-world speed measurements is much more reflective of how fast and reliable the signal is in a given anchorage.
The way these cellular speed measurements were collected was through the Speedtest.net app on my Pixel 3a phone, usually from the cockpit of our boat. Our Internet service is a Google Fi unlimited plan, which uses a combination of cellular networks (T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular, in the US) and includes roaming in Canada (or other countries) with no increased data charge. I have heard T-Mobile is better than AT&T in the San Juans, so the results below are most relevant for T-Mobile/Sprint (which have merged).
A few caveats apply to cellular speed measurements: the results may vary based on many factors, including the weather, position of your phone, what kind of phone or service you have, and location of your boat in the anchorage (if you’re next to a big cliff that blocks the cell tower, you could have very different results from someone on just the other side of the anchorage).
This is just a screenshot. See below to get the interactive map.
We’ve been meaning to try growing herbs on our sailboat for a while now, and with the coronavirus pandemic sending us into full-on social distancing mode in March, this year was the perfect opportunity. We knew we might not be able to get groceries as often, and keeping store-bought herbs fresh for more than a week or so is very difficult on a boat anyway.
In past years we’ve bought some pretty sad cilantro in remote areas of British Columbia – by the time it makes it to the grocery store it’s spent weeks on trucks and boats, getting less fresh by the day, so it’s no surprise that it doesn’t last that long after we buy it.
With some planted herbs, we could harvest what we needed whenever we needed it. We chose to go with cilantro, basil, and mint. Cilantro is one of our most used herbs since we make Mexican food a lot (tacos, quesadillas, guacamole, enchiladas). Basil and mint were chosen because they’re easy to grow and don’t need much space or a large pot.
Other herbs or plants could be grown onboard too. For example, rosemary is easy to grow, but almost every roadside on islands in Puget Sound and the San Juans has that already, and we don’t typically use a lot of rosemary. Lettuce or tomatoes might be nice, but they require a lot of space and don’t produce very quickly.
There are a few unique challenges to overcome with growing plants on a sailboat:
The seeds were started indoors in peat moss pods and then moved outdoors