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.
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:
- Taller mountains, with more snow on them
- More wildlife – especially humpbacks and bears
- Fishing is phenomenal
- Weather is colder, with more frequent rain
- Summer is shorter in Alaska. We missed out on the warm summer days of August and early September typical in lower BC and WA. While Alaska is warm when it’s sunny, by mid-August we were having mostly 60F rainy days.
- Fewer sunsets – since we’re often anchored within tall mountain ranges or closely enclosed by hills, it’s rare to see a colorful over-water sunset like in BC and WA.
- Little stargazing, moon gazing or northern lights opportunities. Since many nights have dense cloud cover, we rarely if ever saw the stars. In June and July if we had a clear night, it didn’t always get dark enough to see the night sky.
- Longer transit days, generally. We had plenty of 20-30nm days, and even some shorter 10-20nm days, but it’s rare to have a <10nm day like is possible in BC and WA.
We spent April thru August cruising Southeast, and Alaska definitely has a shorter nice weather season than BC and WA. June and July were the two months where we had the most summer-like weather (and most other boaters focus their cruising on just those two months, using May and August to transit from/to Washington).
It’s true what they say that Alaska is big. But we felt Southeast Alaska is actually pretty manageable – not much different than cruising all of BC. What makes SE Alaska feel bigger is when you try to do it all plus the Inside Passage north and south from the Seattle or Vancouver area. That adds on at least 600 nautical miles (without any side trips / exploration) each way.
By staying in Alaska for the winter we eliminated the return trip and freed up a lot more time / flexibility for exploring Alaska. Since we transited up in late March/early April, we had part of April, all of May, June, July and August to explore SE AK. We were surprised to learn the vast majority of boats spend 2 months (or less) cruising Alaska. Having more time enabled us to go slower (shorter itineraries, more sailing) and explore places more deeply.
What we’d heard is correct – it’s colder and wetter in SE AK. We expected a lot of rain and chilly days, so we were mentally prepared when it was rainy and chilly most of the spring and summer. That said when the sun comes out it can be glorious – and the sun raises the “feels like” temperature tremendously.
I wrote previously about our experience learning to sail in Southeast Alaska – challenging, and a bit different from the Inside Passage, but ultimately very doable. That was a relief, because one of our fears had been the reputation for it being a place where very little sailing is done. That was not true at all. We sailed about 60% of our mileage and 75% of the time. Overall it felt about the same as sailing the Inside Passage (San Juans to Central/North Coast BC) like we did in previous seasons.
As usual the main keys to sailing were not being on a schedule and having plenty of time (so you can go slow and pick anchorages closer spaced). Wind forecasting was a bit trickier however – it took us time to learn the wind patterns of different areas and how the wind would often be much higher or lower than forecast. The sailing was about the same difficulty as sailing the Inside Passage – a lot of tacking and gybing – but the straits were generally a bit wider so we could get in longer tack/gybe lines.
The main difference in SE AK is the distances are often longer – while in BC or WA we could often sail 15nm between anchorages, in AK we sometimes had to do 25-30nm. Many boats do even longer legs (especially motorboats), but they’re usually skipping past 1 or 2 anchorages – since we had plenty of time we could do shorter legs by visiting all of them.
Ports: Far Apart and More Limited Provisions than Expected
Southeast Alaska really only has one city that we’d consider a city: Juneau, population 32,000 – about half of Redmond WA, and a tiny fraction of a major city like Seattle (1/20th its ~730k). In fact all of Southeast Alaska only has about 75,000 people. And all of Alaska has only about 3/4 million people, about the same as the city of Seattle or Vancouver BC despite being about twice the area of British Columbia, or about 1/5th the size of the Lower 48 states.
These incredible demographics explain how the ports can be pretty basic compared to larger ports in BC and WA. BC ports like Campbell River and Port McNeill are metropolises compared to some Alaskan ports. Small Alaskan towns like Kake and Hoonah have only about 1000-2000 residents, and get their groceries by ferry once a week generally. This means they may be out of some things, and fresh produce may be not-so-fresh (a week or two older than what you’re used to in big cities).
During our summer cruising, towns were out of eggs, bananas, lettuce, fruit in general, potatoes and sunscreen (I guess Alaskans didn’t anticipate sun in July! All of Petersburg was out of sunscreen, across all 4 stores that normally carry it). Propane was also difficult to refill at times. Parts you need to ship by mail take a few days to a week longer.
And because the distances between ports are a bit larger than in BC and WA, boaters typically keep to a schedule of moving every day, simply to get to their next port before running out of groceries. If you can find a way to slow down and stay in an anchorage for 2 or 3 nights, as we often did, it’s well worth it. Since almost all other boaters are moving every day and doing long days, the anchorage typically clears out by mid-morning, is empty for a few hours, and then the next round of arriving boats come in starting mid-afternoon. Staying in a place for more than 1 night gave us a lot more time to explore and relax.
Other Boaters: Few of Them, but Incredibly Generous
Southeast Alaska has a few thousand boaters plying its waters in June and July, but spread out through hundreds of anchorages and 1000+ nautical miles of distance – making for a much lower density than the tens of thousands of boats in the Salish Sea (San Juans, Gulf Islands) that come from boating epicenters like Seattle and Vancouver.
In April, May and August we often were the only boat in the anchorage. In June and July, the peak months, we typically shared an anchorage with only 3-5 other boats. The scarcity of other boaters meant it was often hard to meet people and things were a bit lonely in the early season. When we did meet people, it was usually on park docks or marinas (this holds true in southern waters as well – docks are social hubs; for some reason other boaters are hesitant to approach at anchor).
When we did meet another boat we often experienced generosity beyond any we’d experienced before. A megayacht invited us to happy hour and then gave us their leftover groceries because their cruise was ending the next day! When I lost some fishing gear, another fishing boat generously offered up two new flashers and a lure. In turn we gave away fresh fish to many boats, freshly baked banana bread or whatever someone was in need of.
Perhaps since there are fewer boats up here, and self-reliance is more important with ports far apart, there’s a stronger culture of sharing and helping others. Or perhaps it was simply a post-covid effect – people, including us, are craving genuine human contact after a year of relative isolation.
One difference from BC and WA that surprised us was the breakdown of different types of boating – it was very different up in AK:
- Far more cruise ships, tour ships and megayacht/superyacht private charter cruises
- More commercial fishing boats (this we expected)
- Very few local cruising boats, and even fewer full-time cruising boats living in Alaska (see my pyramid of cruising models analogy in this post). The majority were from WA and of the local Alaskan pleasure boats we met, many were out for only a few days/weeks or for fishing. We met some boaters who live in Alaska and cruise for 3+ months but we can count on one hand the number of those we met.
The impact of the latter meant that most boats are on a schedule, and in August most of the cruising boats have left and anchorages are much less busy than in WA or BC, with the remaining boats there for fishing or charters.
Boat Issues: Humidity and Electrical Power
We were fortunate to have few serious boat issues this year. The biggest was when our engine fuel filter developed a leak in Hoonah, but that was relatively easily repaired.
One issue we perpetually struggled with was controlling humidity inside the boat. We ran our diesel heater as much as possible in the chilly months, which other boaters have reported does a good job expelling moisture, but that wasn’t always sufficient. In the ice cold waters of Glacier Bay in late May/early June, with 50F air temps and 100% relative humidity from daily rain, any moisture in the air condensated onto the cold hull surfaces (which were seawater temperature – near freezing). We had mildew start to grow in places. Nothing but a dehumidifier on 120v power could really address this. Or a few days of sun with low exterior humidity (but that isn’t something we could ever count on).
So for dehumidification we relied on going into marinas with shore power every couple weeks. But a challenge at times was that not all marinas in Alaska have shore power. A few don’t have any shore power wired at all, and a few have it on certain docks but not necessarily the transient dock.
Another problem was keeping our batteries charged up – we normally are 80-90% powered by solar (10-20% by engine alternator when we motor) and that worked pretty well in the super-long daylight months of late April, May, June, and July. Even though many days were cloudy, 18 hours between sunrise/set meant a good chance of getting a decent amount of power. That coupled with moving mostly every day or every other day (due to long distances between ports) meant we got some alternator time.
In August however, more rainy, cloudy days return and the daylight hours shorten along with the sun’s angle getting lower (less solar radiation). Sometimes we saw the sun only 1 or 2 days out of each week. On dark days we only got 1-5% of the solar output of a sunny day. Adding solar panels wouldn’t really solve the problem – a near zero percentage of 1000 watts is about the same as near zero of 350 watts.
For next year we’re considering a portable gas generator like this one as a supplementary power source. I really don’t like them (they’re noisy and will mean burning more gas) but there aren’t many great options on a sailboat that doesn’t have a built-in generator and doesn’t motor every day. A wind generator is very appealing, but doesn’t help when you get sunless, windless days. We have seen sailboats with wind gens up here, but almost every boat also has a generator or runs their diesel engine a lot.
If I had to sum up sailing in Southeast Alaska I’d say the challenges are tougher but the rewards are greater as well. The highs and lows are amplified – which is notable given that cruising already is known for high highs and low lows. It was totally worth it though, and having several years of experience first cruising BC definitely helped prepare us better.
We’re living in Juneau for the winter and will start cruising Southeast Alaska again in May. Living here in the winter will certainly be hard, but we’re excited to experience it – and surviving the winter is the price Alaskans pay to reap the rewards of a full spring and summer here.