Foreword: This installment updates an earlier post (A Real-Life Spiritual Experience), and adds examples of Al’s intervention when the boat’s bow deck was under water.
My first experience of being vividly aware of being protected by an “unseen force” happened while transporting four hunters back to Whittier from Naked Island, where I had dropped them off a week earlier. Naked lies 40 miles from Whittier, about in the geographic center of the Sound. The morning weather forecast on the day of the pickup called for a small craft advisory, with northeasterly winds. I left Whittier mid morning, traveling close to land along the north side of Wells Passage as much as possible, which afforded some protection from the wind. Once past the protection of Axle Lind Island, the seas were running four to five feet in height, and were fairly far apart, so they were not especially steep. The seas came directly from the northeast as the forecast had predicted, putting them on the boat’s port beam, or left side. It was a fairly tolerable ride as the boat rose up over the crest of a swell, and then descended into the trough between the crests.
When I arrived at the island, the hunters had not started to break camp and it took us about an hour to do that and load up. And a huge load it was, with their extensive gear filling both the covered stern and open bow decks to the gunwales. Meanwhile, the wind and seas had been building in the hour it took us to load. Once under weigh headed for Whittier it was fairly smooth traveling close to the island, but a couple miles farther out, and away from the island’s protection, it was evident that the seas were higher than on the outbound leg. When the boat was in the trough between wave crests, we were looking up at the crests, which meant that they were at least six to eight feet high. By keeping the boat perpendicular to the following seas, we were on a course toward the south end of Lone Island, about eight miles ahead. The waves were traveling about 16 knots (or 18 mph), with their crests about 40 to 50 feet apart. To minimize the danger of the heavily-laden open bow of the 31-foot boat getting buried in the swell ahead of us, I tried to keep our speed about the same as the seas were moving — just fast enough to stay in the trough, with the crests of the waves several feet ahead of and behind the boat.
Despite my best efforts, the boat crept up the back of the wave ahead several times until we reached its crest, whereupon I had to back off on the throttles to keep from accelerating down the face of the wave and burying the bow in the wave ahead. To say the least, it was a tense time for all five of us. My passengers, very talkative as we left the island, had grown very quiet — a sure sign that the big seas had gotten their attention. I was tempted to panic, but I knew that I had to give my full attention to piloting the boat. By the grace of God, I was able to stay calm enough the entire time it took us to reach the safety of the far side of Lone Island, where we were in the lee of the wind and waves.
When we were again in more open water beyond Lone, the seas were again too high for comfort, but decidedly calmer than on the windward side of Lone. My passengers began talking again, with one of them telling me, “Just keep doing whatever you’re doing to get us to Whittier.” I complied, and we made it safely back well before dark. I believe that it was God’s agent on my behalf, my guardian angel Al, who kept me focused. It was a harrowing experience, but that supernatural calm in spite of it was something beyond my normal self. For that I say once again, thank you God, in Jesus’ name.
The bow end of the boat had been precariously close to flooding on that trip from Naked, but it took that actually happening a couple years later to reveal problems with the boat that needed correction. Three repeat hunter clients from Fairbanks (Jeff R, Tim O and Jerry D) had spent a week hunting around Montague Island’s Stockdale Harbor. We were on the return run to Whittier, enroute across 20 miles of open water from Stockdale to Upper Passage, at the north end of the Knight Island group. The weather forecast wasn’t too bad and the wind was moderate when we left Stockdale Harbor, but as we neared Knight Island we were more exposed to the far wider expanse of open water to the east. The easterly wind and seas were noticeably stronger and higher. Rather than motor all the way to Upper Passage, I decided to get in protected water sooner by going through Lower Passage. By then, the seas were running at least five to six feet and were “smoking,” as the wind blew their crests off in angry streaks.
We all breathed more easily when we were in the protection of Lower Passage. But the wind and seas were still strong and turbulent, so I decided we needed a break to evaluate the wisdom of continuing on into more open water again. I picked a little cove with a gravel beach near the mouth of Herring Bay to beach the boat on the rising tide. An hour later the wind had not subsided, but I then remembered Ed and his wife, who lived year-round in a private cabin on Eshamy Bay, nine miles across Knight Island Passage on the mainland. I raised Ed on the boat’s radio to ask about the weather at the cabin. He said it wasn’t too bad over there, so I decided to head the Sound Access out toward Eshamy Bay.
Things started out fine as we headed out, but just a few minues later when we were “on-step,” the seas had built to about 4 to 5 feet and were moving only slightly slower than we were traveling. I backed off on the throttles, attempting to ride in the trough between the waves, like had worked bringing the hunters back from Naked Island. However, the seas this time were not quite far enough apart for the boat to fit between them. The combination of the steep waves and the boat’s wake immediately raised the stern end and buried the entire bow end and its load of three deer in the wave ahead. One of the deer went overboard, and water rushed into the cabin through the then-leaky bow door, covering the cabin deck. The hunters jumped to their feet, asking “What can we do?” Me: “Put on your life jackets!”
I then remembered the 1,500 gallons-per-hour bilge pump beneath the water-tight deck hatch just forward of the rear cabin door. As I focused on piloting the boat, I had the hunters remove the hatch cover and the water immediately began draining into the bilge. To our relief, the pump turned on and began pumping water overboard. I turned the boat back east again with the bow now pointing into the seas. That did the trick, and between the bilge pump working as designed and water draining off the bow deck through the two scuppers (drain holes), the bow of the boat was again above water where it was supposed to be. As we neared the protection of Knight Island again, the seas were more manageable, and we spent the night safely anchored in upper Herring Bay. Once again, by the Grace of God, my passengers and I had survived a harrowing experience, and we were counting our blessings.
The next morning dawned sunny and the wind and seas had calmed way down. We had a smooth, peaceful ride back in to Whittier. Soon afterward, I arranged with Heavy Weather Boats in Anchorage to redesign the bow cabin door to make it truly water-tight, and to cut four more scuppers to drain water off the bow deck more effeciently. I also began lashing four big floatation buoys to the bow deck after that trip, both to displace any water there, and to provide more floatation if the bow ever did get dunked again.
And that’s exactly what happened a couple years after that, on a return run to Whittier from Green Island. We left the Island with three commercial fishermen from Homer who I had dropped off at their camp in Gibbon Anchorage a week prior. They had done very well – 16 deer total. That was a 5-deer limit apiece, plus a 6th deer by one of the hunters who bagged it under his mother’s “surrogate/invalid” permit. If that wasn’t enough of a load, they had not skinned nor quartered the deer, and they had a big load of camping gear. Amazingly, all heavy drinkers, they still had a good load of beer too. That all made for a huge load. We stacked 5 of the deer on the open front deck, and the other 11 on top of their gear that was on the stern deck.
It was sunny and fairly calm as we left Green, so we went straight across to Lower Passage, rather than around the south end of Knight Island. Things were fine across the 18 miles of open water between Knight and .Culross Passage, but as we left the north end of Culross, headed west toward Passage Canal and Whittier we were immediately greeted with steep, closely-spaced 4-foot seas, coming directly at us. Normally I would steer directly toward a point a ways south of Pigot Point on the far side of Port Wells, but there was a tug and tow barge directly in that path, which I didn’t want to be anywhere near in those seas. So I set a course closer to cross the mouth of Cochrane Bay.
That was a mistake, as at that particular time the tide was ebbing, and that course would take us close to the northeast corner of Cochrane Bay, where the waves were steeper. In 20-20 hindsight, experience had taught me that one wants to quarter into heading seas, i.e., at about a 45° angle. We were making maybe 4-5 knots, when, as we came off the crest of one wave, the boat didn’t recover and we took a foot of “green water” directly over the bow, nearly filling the bow deck and floating the five deer that were stacked there. With the gunwales not far above water, the next wave completely buried and filled the open bow of the boat. All we could see out of the front windshields was foaming water and deer legs swishing past, one of which lodged against the middle windshield wiper, causing it to jam.
The experience was so sudden and thorough, and with not being able to see through the foaming water on the windshields, I completely backed off the throttles. I was actually too bewildered to be afraid at the time, and my mind was racing, trying to decide what to do. In hindsight, I believe that my Guardian Angel Al’s presence is what kept me from panicking. I wasn’t too concerned about the water on the deck, because I knew that the floatation and water displacement of the four big buoys now lashed there, and the now-six scuppers would eventually drain the water. Plus, the now=water-tight bow door kept water out of the cabin. I quickly glanced at my three passengers, now wide-eyed. One had retreated out the back door of the cabin, and was standing on the port side gunwale. Another then screamed, “DO something!” That snapped me out of it and I was able to turn the boat 180 degrees, so we were now in a following sea – moving in the same direction as the waves. The man standing on the gunwale was now making his way toward the FRONT of the boat, aiming to retrieve a small deer that the last wave had floated and deposited across the starboard bow deck rail, and was just barely hanging on. We were riding OK, and moving at about the same speed that the waves were traveling, but I wasn’t sure all the water had drained off the bow deck, and I was afraid the man’s added weight would cause more problems than that small deer was worth, so I told him to NOT go out there and risk his life. Thankfully, he complied. We were soon safely inside Culross Passage again away from the wind and waves, and anchored up in a cove on the mainland side.
Later, after carefully monitoring the updated 4 PM weather forecast and the automatic reports from the Port Wells weather buoy, we headed out just before slack low tide in waning daylight. The seas had calmed considerably, and we made it safely back to Whittier Harbor after dark. Once again, by the Grace of God, my passengers and I had safely escaped a dangerous situation. Thank you Lord, in Jesus’ name!