I grew up the son of a career Coast Guardsman. I have 8 mm home movies of my father on board the Coast Guard’s oldest icebreaker, Storis, its hull breaking ice and bringing supplies to native villages in the Aleutians. He often told stories of visiting two of the most remote military bases at Adak and Attu in the late 1940s and early ’50s. So, when my good friends John and Kathy Youngblood asked if I’d help them bring their well-traveled Selene 53 Mystic Moon from Japan to Alaska via Russia and the Aleutian Islands, I jumped at the chance.
My wife and I were aboard Mystic Moon when John and Kathy’s 11-year cruise started back in 2007. We helped them take the boat down the U.S. West Coast from Puget Sound to San Francisco, and then rejoined them for the first FUBAR (now called CUBAR) powerboat rally from San Diego to La Paz, Mexico. We’ve had the privilege of being aboard several other times since, including transiting the Panama Canal and a couple of weeks in the Bahamas. In 2013, they crossed the Pacific to the Marquesas, and had cruised the South Pacific and Asian coast for five years, reaching Japan in 2018.
That’s where I rejoined the crew, and it seemed only fitting to be aboard for the final leg of their big adventure.
Choosing A Route
Almost a year before our departure from Japan, we started talking about two main route options.
The first: Leave northern Japan and head directly across the North Pacific for Attu or Adak in the Aleutian Islands. This is the more common route that most sailboats take, and is recommended by Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes. The primary downside to this route is that it’s around 1,700 miles nonstop, and would require us to carry extra fuel in bladders, which would slow us down considerably. The extended time in the North Pacific would also significantly increase the likelihood of encountering one or more storm systems.
The other option was to split the passage into two legs. Leg One would be from Japan to the city of Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka peninsula of Russia, where we would be able to buy fuel. Leg Two would be east to the Aleutian Islands at Attu. In this scenario, the longest passage from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido to the city of Petropavlovsk would be about 900 miles—well within Mystic Moon’s comfortable range at a more typical cruising speed of around 7.5 knots.
The leg from Petropavlovsk to Attu is only about 550 miles. However, there’s no fuel available in Attu, and it’s roughly another 420 miles to Adak, where we could get fuel. This route would keep the distance between fuel stops to less than 1,000 miles, which is no issue for the Selene 53 (even with a diesel furnace working overtime to keep us warm). This route would also mean less time exposed to the North Pacific, so the chances of severe weather would be reduced. The challenge with this route, as we would learn, would be entry and exit to Russia.
In the end, and with the encouragement of another Selene owner who had done the same passage a year earlier, John chose the second option through Russia.
The Adventure Begins
I arrived in Kushiro, a city on the east coast of Hokkaido, on May 25. We left on the morning of May 27. Our plan showed us arriving at the mouth of Avacha Bay, where the city of Petropavlovsk is located, on the morning of June 1. This first leg indeed took about five days. Seas were relatively flat, and what swell we had was behind us, so the ride was quite comfortable.
The route took us along the Kurils, a string of islands between Japan and the Kamchatka Peninsula. Most, if not all of these islands are volcanic, and in many cases are snow-capped cones rising straight out of the ocean. The morning sun rising over these islands is breathtaking.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get close, as we were told that there are Russian military bases on some of the islands. Along the way, a nearly constant stream of freighters passed us while paralleling our track. We quickly realized we were on the great circle route from many Japanese and Korean ports to the Northwest United States and Canadian ports.
We arrived on schedule outside Avacha Bay and immediately began calling the Russian Coast Guard on the VHF radio. The first several calls went unanswered, but eventually we connected with the authorities. Through broken English, we were told to go to “waiting area one,” which was marked on the charts.
We spent the next seven and a half hours circling in the waiting area while emailing with the Russian agent that John had hired to prepare all the paperwork and handle the port entry procedures. The waiting and circling were incredibly frustrating, especially because we had no idea what was causing the delays. Fortunately, the wind was completely calm and the seas were flat.
At about 2:30 p.m., we were told we could enter the bay and proceed to the seawall, where we would meet the customs officials. It took nearly an hour to enter the bay and locate the seawall, which was built of rough concrete with old tires secured by rusty chains. We quickly dropped fenders to keep Mystic Moon off the wall, and passed mooring lines through the chains.
The next problem was how to get the customs officials aboard, since the seawall was for big ships, and was just about the height of our Portuguese bridge rail. We were too far from the wall for anyone to step from the wall to the boat.
In the end, a port worker brought several large wood planks to lay across the seawall and our Portuguese bridge rail. No fewer than nine officials came to check us in: Two stayed on the seawall (apparently as guards) while seven came aboard for a two-hour process of asking questions, taking fingerprints on an ancient scanner, and poring over every page of our passports and Russian visas.
After being officially cleared to enter, we had to wait another couple of hours for permission to move to the small marina where we would secure Mystic Moon during our time in Petropavlovsk. We spent the next five days shopping for provisions, arranging for the purchase of fuel, and sightseeing, all courtesy of our agent/tour guide.
Petropavlovsk is a city of about 180,000 warm, friendly people, surrounded by volcanic mountains and dramatic scenery. One day, a local woman dropped several large opilio crabs (snow crabs) into our cockpit, and we had a wonderful dinner feast with a few new Russian friends.
A tanker truck delivered our fuel to the marina the day before we left. There was no fuel dock, so the truck backed down the beach next to the floats and then extended the delivery hose as far as possible. We were still about 10 feet short, but with the help of the marina manager, we moved a couple of smaller boats to get the job done.
We took on about 740 gallons of fuel and immediately started the fuel polisher. Much to our relief, the fuel turned out to be clean with no water or debris.
Russia To The Aleutians
The weather information we’d downloaded the day before our departure showed conditions that weren’t ideal, with 15 to 20 knots of wind on the nose, but they were certainly no threat to our seaworthy little ship. Fortunately, the departure process was simpler, though it still involved a similar contingent of officials. In just over two hours, we pulled away from the seawall and headed out of Avacha Bay.
Next stop: the uninhabited island of Attu at the western end of the Aleutian Islands.
The 20 knots of wind turned out to be formidable. We were almost immediately greeted with head seas that made the motion on the boat uncomfortable. It was time to batten down and steel ourselves for three days of relatively violent motion.
Finally, after about 80 consecutive hours underway, we made it to Casco Cove on the island of Attu, and our first full night of quiet and calm sleep.
Adventure In The Aleutians
Cruising the Aleutians is delightful. The islands have a stark beauty, with rugged volcanic peaks and grassy hills surrounding empty anchorages. Traveling through the westernmost Aleutians is also like walking through a history book.
Two of the islands we visited—Attu and Kiska—were the only U.S. soil the Japanese occupied during World War II. Because of their remoteness and the harsh environment, these islands still display many remnants of the war, including abandoned military bases, crash-landed military aircraft and rusty equipment within an easy hike from several anchorages.
At our first anchorage in Attu, we took the dinghy ashore and made the short hike to the decommissioned Coast Guard Loran station and airfield, which was active until 2010. Walking along the 6,000-foot runway, we encountered a family of geese with several goslings. In the cold wind that swept down the runway, one of the tiny chicks took refuge in the lee of John’s boot and refused to leave—much to the displeasure of the mother goose.
From the Coast Guard station, it’s a relatively short walk to the shores of Massacre Bay, the site of the U.S. Army landing to retake Attu from the Japanese in May 1943.
A few days later, we anchored in Gertrude Cove on Kiska Island. The fascinating remains of a partially submerged Japanese cargo ship, the Borneo Maru, were only about a quarter-mile away from us in the anchorage.
About a month after we were there, an expedition from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration visited Kiska and found the stern section of the Navy destroyer USS Abner Read, which hit a Japanese mine in August 1943. A 75-foot-long section of the stern sank and was seen for the first time since then, in about 290 feet of water off Kiska Island.
Our next stop was at Sweepers Cove on Adak. This was our first outside human contact since leaving Russia. We met a delightful man named Justin who was a civilian contractor for the Navy. He spent many of his summers in Adak leading teams that cleaned up war detritus in and around the abandoned Navy and Coast Guard bases.
At one point, there were more than 6,000 personnel stationed at Adak. The base was closed in 1997, but most of the buildings are still standing, and there’s a small café that a local resident operates in one of the base houses. Justin took us on a tour around the island. I remember my father telling stories of visiting Adak when he was in the Coast Guard, so touring the remains of the base was particularly fascinating for me.
From Adak, we made the 175-mile run to Bechevin Bay on Atka Island. We’d read about a well-preserved wreck of a B-24 bomber that made a forced landing after a weather reconnaissance flight from Adak in December 1942. The pilot was unable to return to Adak because of bad weather, and crash-landed the aircraft in a rough field just above the head of Bechevin Bay. Everyone aboard, including a brigadier general, survived the crash with relatively minor injuries. We hiked to the wreck, which was, indeed, well-preserved.
We rode out a 50-knot blow in Hot Springs Cove on Umnak Island. It blew so hard that it actually bent open the heavy chain hook that secured our anchor bridle to the anchor chain. Fortunately, our anchor held. We were able to attach a backup bridle to the anchor.
Our last anchorage before I left Mystic Moon in Dutch Harbor was at Mailboat Cove in Chernofski Harbor at the western end of Unalaska Island. Here, we met a delightful and hospitable sheep farmer named Art, who lived in the remains of a crumbling ranch built in the 1920s. The ranch is slowly succumbing to the harsh environment of the Aleutians. We spent two days hiking with Art, looking for lost sheep. We also dug coal for his stove out of a mound the U.S. Army left during World War II.
Finally, we arrived in Dutch Harbor on June 28, which left a few days to explore before I flew home. John and Kathy stayed and continued their cruise, ending up in Sitka, Alaska, where they wintered aboard Mystic Moon.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. It was cold and uncomfortable at times, but totally worth it. The scenery was wild and breathtaking, but the journey was as much about seeing history, and meeting kind and generous people like Justin and Art, even in the remotest of places.
Our monthlong, 2,344-nautical-mile journey
Kushiro, Japan to Petropavlovsk, Russia: 933 nm, 124 hours underway
Petropavlovsk to Casco Bay, Attu Islan: 544 nm, 80.5 hours underway
Casco Bay to Gertrude Cove, Kiska Island: 175 nm, 24 hours underway
Gertrude Cove to Sweepers Cove, Adak: 243 nm, 31.5 hours underway
Sweepers Cove to Bechevin Bay, Atka Island: 65 nm, 8.7 hours underway
Bechevin Bay to Inanuday Bay (Hot Springs Cove), Unmak Island: 262 nm, 33 hours underway
Hot Springs Cove to Mailboat Cove, Unalaska Island: 53 nm, seven hours underway
Mailboat Cove to Dutch Harbor: 69 nm, eight hours underway
This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue.