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Into the Bering Sea

June 13, 2023

Bella-the-Boat-Dog in the Endeavour pilothouse at 0200, crossing Bristol Bay.

The seas north of the Alaskan Peninsula and Aleutian chain – the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay, Norton Sound, Kotzebue Sound, and the Chukchi Sea – are very shallow, seldom more than 200 feet and often under 50 feet when in sight of land. You can run a boat for hundreds of miles without ever being in water deeper than your boat is long. There are also frighteningly few places to hide from heavy weather because the bays and river mouths are silted in and go dry at low tide, or nearly so.

The cause of both the shallow water and lack of anchorages is the same: the sediment coming down the rivers – the Kvichak, the Nushagak, the Togiak, the Kuskokwim, the Inglutalik, the mighty Yukon, the Kobuk, and 20 others of consequence – has no continental shelf to fall into, so it settles and piles up, and up, first in the bays at the mouths of the rivers, then further and further out, filling up the northern seas. The Yukon has three mouths. The southernmost is 400 nautical miles from the continental shelf. The mouth of the Columbia is 11 miles.

I took the Endeavour north through False Pass on June 11th, headed for Dillingham on the far side of Bristol Bay. We were due to pick up a film crew from the BBC on the 14th.

False Pass is the first gap in the east-west barrier formed by the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian chain. It’s called False Pass because, while the northern half looks like 10 miles of open water, the old sailing ship captains couldn’t get their ships through the shallows. At low tide, it’s as shallow as one foot in places. There is a serpentine and ever-changing channel, but stretches of the channel get down to 12 feet at low tide. The Endeavour draws six.

Which would have been fine except the wind and rollers were up, consistently between six and eight feet. We also had a robust current from our stern, slamming into the swells, making them steeper. On the down stroke, our keel was something like two feet off the bottom. It was too shallow to deploy our paravane stabilizers, which made for a wild ride.

A mile past Cape Krenitzin, I considered a shortcut, turning right toward Dillingham. On the charts, it looked deep enough. But I followed the channel markers to the left. (A few weeks later I took on a crewman who had come through False Pass at about the same time on a 58-foot salmon tender. His captain took the shortcut, ran aground, and the boat banged against the bottom over and over as it was lifted up by the waves and dropped down hard. His crew left him at the next port.)

Once through False Pass, I was able to lower the paravanes and we turned east, heading for an anchorage in Moffat Lagoon. But the waves were considerably higher than forecast, and there were two sets – that five-to-eight-foot swell from the west, building over 850 nautical miles from Russia (that’s a long fetch of open water), and similar-sized wind waves from the north, building 630 nautical miles from the Bering Strait. Conflicting wave sets don’t cancel each other out, but pass through each other, creating a washing machine effect. It is highly unpleasant.

In consideration of my crew person, who had spent most of the day lying on the floor of the head, we anchored early, on the east side of tiny Amak Island, a dormant volcano. The two swells wrapped around the island from both sides (it’s called refraction and it makes otherwise good anchorages uncomfortable), but it was better than being out in the open.

Eighteen hours later, we were crossing Bristol Bay in the middle of the night. At 0200, the wind and waves were calm without a ripple on the water. The sea and sky were both liquid mercury, except for the bright orange glow of the sunset in the northwest, which was starting to move to the northeast and in a few hours would become sunrise. Bella-the-boat-dog wouldn’t go below to bed without me, so I made a bed for her on the bench seat behind the wheel. We were cruising along at a stately 8.3 knots, 60 nautical miles from land, in 100 feet of water. It looked like we’d make Dillingham a day early.

—  Bill Urschel

The route of the Endeavour from False Pass to Dillingham.

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