Navigating the Gulf of Alaska: A Recreational Boating Adventure
The Gulf of Alaska coast is one of the great maritime travel routes in the nation. From the urban waterfronts of Puget Sound and lower mainland British Columbia to lush rainforests, glaciers, treeless tundra bluffs to the volcanic cones of the Aleutians, the Gulf of Alaska coast is an essential transit route for commercial vessels and a dream destination for adventurous cruisers.
With a point-to-point distance of about 2,500 nautical miles, nearly the breadth of the continental United States, and a total shoreline length of nearly ten times that, the Gulf of Alaska coast is too long, complex, and diverse to encompass in a single take. Furthermore, since the eastern third including Southeast Alaska and south is heavily traveled (mainly on relatively sheltered “inside” waters) and adequately described in literature and guidebooks, this compendium focuses on the central and western Gulf of Alaska where vessel traffic is sparser, communities fewer, and exposure to the North Pacific greater.
To read the yachting magazines you could get the impression that Alaska ends at Glacier Bay and Cape Spencer, since few recreational boaters venture beyond. But for many of the half-million Alaskans who live in mainland Alaska, for commercial fishermen, towboat crews, and others who ply their trade “west of Spencer” and for a small number of adventurous boaters, the end of the Inside Passage is just the beginning.
The Gulf of Alaska coast is a daunting destination and an intimidating barrier to transit boaters due to two characteristics: exposure to the open Pacific, and a dearth of sheltered anchorages. In particular, the 300 nm run from Graves Harbor to Hinchinbrook Island offers shelter only at Lituya Bay, Yakutat, and Icy Bay, all of which can be treacherous under less than ideal conditions.
Given the challenges, why make this arduous voyage?
- It’s the direct water route from Southeast Alaska to the rest of the state. There is no other way to get there by boat other than an offshore voyage directly across the Gulf of Alaska. (Small boats can be trailered up the Alaska Highway, put aboard an Alaska Marine Highway state ferry, or barged up, at considerable cost.)
- It’s a spectacular trip in good weather with opportunities to experience the scenery, the solitude, the geology, human history, natural history, wildlife, and excellent angling of the region first hand.
Part 1—“The Lost Coast”
(Part 2 describes the coast from Seward to Homer.)
The part of the coast starting with Cape Spencer at the northern end of Southeast Alaska and the terminus of the Inside Passage and extending to Prince William Sound and Resurrection Bay is the first leg of this journey. Starting points at the south end are the remote fishing villages of Pelican and Elfin Cove, and end point is the railroad and highway port city of Seward. Between, there are only two communities big enough to warrant an airport: Yakutat and Cordova, plus the tiny village of Chenega Bay a few miles up a channel in Prince William Sound. Sometimes called The Lost Coast or the Fairweather Coast, this challenging 500-mile shore includes part of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, the Yakutat Forelands, several large glaciers, part of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, parts of both the Tongass and Chugach National Forests, and concludes at the eastern edge of Kenai Fjords National Park. Most mariners making the voyage for the first time are likely traveling north. This narrative describes the route from south to north.
There are two approaches to doing it. One is to head offshore a safe distance and plan to avoid landfall, leaving open the option only in the event of unexpected severe weather. A sailboat or small displacement vessel in fair weather would require at least two days and one night at sea en route from Elfin Cove to Yakutat, and at least another two days and a night from Yakutat to Cordova, or three days to Seward. Most, however, would choose to anchor at Controller Bay, Cape Erlington, or inside Prince William Sound.
The other approach is to hug the coast and plan to anchor up for at least part of each night. This requires more careful planning and an element of good luck with the weather, as adverse winds and seas can slow progress enough to cause the boat to miss critical tides at points like the entrance to Lituya and Hinchinbrook Entrance. Still, this is a far more interesting and enjoyable option provided the operator allows plenty of time for the trip and is patient enough to work with the conditions.
In this case minimum voyaging times are Elfin Cove or Pelican to Graves Harbor, Torch Bay, or Dixon Harbor in one day, a second day to Lituya, one very long day from Lituya to Yakutat (or overnight at Cape Fairweather if conditions allow), a day from Yakutat to Icy Bay, a day from Icy Bay to Kayak Island or Wingham Island, and an additional day to Hinchinbrook or Cape Erlington. Add a day to Cordova or two more days to Seward.
At the sedate speeds of a sailboat or displacement motor boat, your days will be long and demanding, and layovers are highly recommended; besides, it’s the time spent in places like Lituya, Yakutat, Icy Bay, and Hinchinbrook that provide the greatest joys of the trip.
Interactive map of waypoints
The pins on this Google Map are linked to their respective web pages. Clicking on a pin will bring up the location name and a link; choose the link to jump to that section of this site, or choose a different pin. Green pins represent the main waypoints of the route, and orange pins are additional points of interest along the way. There are icons on the map to zoom in and out, and you can drag the map to see different areas.
Text and photos by Terry Johnson, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program.