Travel route overview
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.
Read this first
- The following observations are for general information only—they are not be used for navigation.
- Descriptions of suitability for passage and anchoring pertain to normal summer weather conditions only. In other seasons wind patterns are different and winds are generally stronger and more frequent, and in winter icing occurs.
- It is essential to carry and know how to use paper charts in addition to electronic navigation instruments. A tide book with conversion tables is also necessary, and a NOAA tidal current tables publication can be very helpful.
- The United States Coast Pilot, Book 9, published by the National Ocean Service of NOAA and available as a free download, provides much more detailed descriptions of features, anchorages, and hazards. The area south of Cape Spencer is found in Book 8.
- As with both electronic and paper charts, don’t rely on external sources such as the Coast Pilot for specific details of your location. Keep a careful watch, looking especially for kelp beds, foam and swirls indicating wash or submerged rocks, and patterns in the water surface that reveal information about currents. Monitor your depth sounder constantly when near shore and especially in bays, straits, and coves, and even within a couple of miles of the beach where the forelands are low and gradually sloping.
- Many parts of the Gulf of Alaska coast were affected by the 1964 Alaska earthquake and later post-seismic crustal rebound which reduced water depths by as much as 2 fathoms. NOAA charts published in 1999 and later reflected changes in charted depths at the time but mariners are cautioned to be aware that charted depths are not always accurate.
- Check marine radio weather forecasts at least twice daily and be prepared to alter plans in response to changes in weather predictions. Marine weather channels (WX1 to 10 on VHF) are unavailable on many parts of this coast. Be sure to carry an HF-SSB marine radio or at least an AM broadcast band radio to pick up marine forecasts from towns along the coast. FM broadcast band radio reception in most cases is limited to a short radius around towns.
- Likewise, VHF contact with the Coast Guard is limited to nonexistent on much of this coast, and there is essentially no cell phone coverage except in a few areas where telephone company high sites have extended range. HF-SSB radio (4125 mHz is the de facto emergency and calling frequency) is the best method for contacting the Coast Guard, but if one is unavailable a satellite phone allows calling the Coast Guard rescue coordination center. Program in or mark the number on the phone.
- A properly registered 406 EPIRB is essential, along with immersion suits for each crewmember and other required and recommended safety and survival equipment.
- Distances noted in this text are expressed in nautical miles and depths in fathoms, in keeping with nautical chart and Coast Pilot standards.
- These estimates are for vessels that average 5–8 knots; large displacement boats and planing speedboats can reduce travel time proportionately. But higher speed on the water produces harsher motion in the boat, and a few hours of pounding through a steep chop can be taxing and even abusive to skipper and crew. Remember that a small planing boat capable of 25–30 knots on flat water may be reduced to 15 in an ocean swell and as little as 5 or 6 knots if the seas get rough. Also, a planing hull running slowly is very inefficient so be sure to calculate fuel demand and carry plenty of fuel. If you plan to make a voyage in a small planing boat, be sure to get some open sea experience with it in a variety of wind and tide conditions before heading to remote parts of the coast. For each daily leg of the trip be sure to have a Plan B in case sea conditions reduce travel speed.
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.