With help from friends, a transplanted Philadelphian embarks on a voyage of discovery through Alaska’s waters

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Day One

The morning of our departure I woke in the dark, Rachel and the baby breathing softly beside me. An oval of light worked its way over the knotty pine of the Adak’s stateroom, cast by the sodium floodlights of a herring seiner passing in the channel.

Reber Stein

Lying there I could see my upcoming trip projected on the ceiling above: Our World War II tugboat plying Peril Strait, coasting down Chatham, hooking around Point Gardner, then east, past Petersburg, into Wrangell Narrows. And there at the bottom, scattered like diamonds at the foot of the mountain, the lights of Wrangell—and the only boat lift in Southeast Alaska burly enough to haul our floating home from the sea.

It was time. Since buying the Adak in 2011, I had sealed the decks, ripped out a rotten corner of the galley, installed berths, and convinced the engine, a 1928 Fairbanks-Morse, to turn over. But the planks beneath the waterline—these were the mystery that could make or break our young family. Surely the bottom needed to be scraped and painted. I just hoped the teredos, those invasive worms that keep shipwrights in business, hadn’t been having too much of a feast in the ten years since the boat had been out.

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I slipped out of bed, made coffee in the galley, and rousted Colorado, our husky-lab mix, for his walk. Frost glinted on the docks. A sea lion, known around the harbor as Earl (my guess is there are about a hundred “Earls”) eyed us warily. Soon the herring would spawn, orange and purple salmonberries would cluster above the riverbanks, and Chinook salmon would return to their native grounds. Pickling sea-asparagus, jarring fish, scraping black seaweed from rocks—all these rites of spring would begin again, rites I’d first come to love when I arrived in Sitka at the age of 19, when I spent nine months living in the woods, independent, self-reliant, and lost. In those months Alaska had planted a seed in me that, despite my efforts to quash it, had only grown.

In 2011 I finally gave in, sold my construction company, back in my hometown of Philadelphia, along with the row home I had been renovating over the previous five years, loaded the dog into the truck and returned to Sitka-by-the-Sea, an island fishing village on the North Pacific horseshoed by mountains, known for its Russian heritage and its remoteness. I took on small carpentry jobs, commercial-fished, and wrangled with a novel I was writing over the long winter nights. A couple of years after moving onto the boat, while moonlighting as a salsa instructor in town, I met eyes in the mirror with a student, Italian on both sides, originally from New Jersey. On a rainy day in that same classroom, I proposed, and we married soon after.

Alaskan Laundry

Today we raise our 11-month-old daughter, Haley Marie, aboard the boat. My novel, The Alaskan Laundry (in which the Adak plays a starring role), has just been published. The tug has been good to us, providing waterfront living for the price of moorage; 2,000 square feet of space, much more than we could ever afford on the island; and an office for Rachel, which doubles as a baby nook. But it has also presented challenges, catching fire twice, almost sinking twice, and setting my hair prematurely gray. I still love it—and so does Rachel—its varnished oak interior, Army certifications emblazoned on the timbers, how it scents our clothes with that particular salt-oil odor. Haley, whose stuffed animal of choice is Scruffy the Huffy Chuffy tugboat, falls asleep immediately in the rock of the swell.

*****

This trip to Wrangell would determine the boat’s future. Either we could or couldn’t afford the fixes, simple as that. Rachel and I agreed on a circuit breaker of a number, and the math wouldn’t be difficult, estimating about a thousand dollars a plank. We’d know the moment the boat emerged from the water. And this would only happen if the harbormaster in Wrangell accepted the Adak, not a done deal by any means, considering that the dry dock in Sitka had refused us for being too heavy and for the unknown state of our hull.

I whistled for the dog, and we doubled back. At the boat Steve Hamilton, in his logging suspenders and Greek fishermen’s cap, climbed out from the hatch. I knew his arthritis woke him in the early hours. He had agreed to accompany us on the voyage, along with his son Leroy, 40, who had grown up on the boat, leaving his name etched into the planking, and his grandson Laddy, short for Aladdin, 22. They had all come down on the Ahi, a 40-foot “shadow-tug” that in an emergency would keep us from running aground.

Raised in Alaska logging camps, Steve had owned the Adak in the 1980s, bringing up four children on board. I had done what I could to prepare in advance of his arrival—filling the cylinder water jackets with freshwater to preheat the engine, hosing enough water into the forward tank for doing dishes. But when Steve came in three days before our departure, the serious work began: rebuilding the salt water pump, changing the compressor valves, switching out injectors for the three-phase generator. We’d be joined by Alexander (Xander) Allison, a Sitka seventh-grade language arts teacher who lived on his own 42-foot boat, and former competitive powerlifter Steve Gavin (who I’ll call Gavin to keep it simple), who now clerked for a judge in town while studying to become a magistrate.

“She’s ready,” Steve said across the deck.

I threw on my coveralls, pulled on XtraTufs—milk-chocolate rubber work boots ubiquitous in Southeast Alaska—and dropped through the hatch to lend a hand.

*****

The sun broke cleanly over Mount Arrowhead that morning, so rare in these 17 million acres of hemlock and spruce and cedar, where what islanders call liquid sunshine thuds into the carpet of moss and needles on average 233 days a year. The only frost remaining on the docks was protected in the shadows of the steel posts.

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Rachel and Haley stood on the docks as we untied the Adak and prepared to fire the engine. I knew Rachel wanted to come, but she was recently pregnant with our second child, and we had both agreed it would be too risky.

The afternoon before we left, Eric Jordan, a third-generation Alaskan fisherman, and about as salty as they come, reviewed the route with me at his home.

“Of course you’ll hit Sergius Narrows, not with the tide change but with the currents … same with Wrangell Narrows; take it slow in there. Scow Bay is a good anchorage south of Petersburg; you can also drop the hook at the end of the narrows.… Do you have running lights?”

I looked up from the map. “We’re not sailing at night.”

“Look at me, Brendan. This is no joke. Tell me you’ll put running lights on the boat.” I told him I’d put running lights on the boat.

Steve kicked air to the engine and it rumbled to life. (“It’ll rattle the fillings out of your teeth,” a friend once said.) Built in 1928 by Fairbanks-Morse, which specialized in locomotive engines, the beast requires air—without a good 90 pounds per square inch, compression won’t start and the prop won’t turn. Quick story to drive home this point: A previous owner had run out of air while docking the boat in Gig Harbor, Washington. He destroyed eight other boats, and then the dock. Boom.

But the problem we were discovering as we sailed the 500 yards down the channel to the town gas dock was oil. “We’ve got it pooling in the crankcase,” Steve said, watching as Gavin and Xander threw lines to the dock, the workers seemingly paralyzed by this pirate ship drifting toward them. Xander hopped off and made a clean anchor bend on the bull rail, a penchant for neatness I’d come to appreciate, while Gavin, headlamp affixed to his forehead, set to work lugging five-gallon oil buckets onto the deck.

“We could run her at the dock a bit,” Steve said.

“Or we could just go,” I said tentatively.

“We could do that.”

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And that’s what we did, gassing up, untying again, and punching her along past the breakwater. Past Middle Island, the farthest the tug had gone since I owned her, past beds of kelp, bullet-shaped otter heads bouncing in our wake. Despite feeling that same cowboy excitement as when leaving on a fishing boat—that zeal for danger and blood and money—now I wished Rachel and HMJ could be here in the wheelhouse, gripping the knobs of the oak wheel, smelling the tang of herring and spruce tips on the water. Steve’s copper wallet chain jangled as he came up the ladder, snapping me from my thoughts. He ran a rag through his fingers. “Crankcase is filling up. Something’s got to be done.”

Friday, I thought. It was because we were leaving on a Friday—terrible luck for a boat. We also had bananas in the galley, a plant on deck, any one of these enough to sink a ship according to the pickled old-timers in their early morning kaffeeklatsches at the grocery store. We were barely out of town and already in trouble.

Leroy tied the Ahi alongside, and Steve detached the air hose from the compressor, screwed on a section of copper pipe, and blew air into the crank pits. The oil pressure didn’t drop.

We decided to stop early, with plans to troubleshoot in the morning. It drizzled as we dropped anchor in Schulze Cove, a quiet, protected bight just south of the rip of Sergius Narrows. Gavin showed me a video he had taken earlier that afternoon from deck of humpback whales bubble-net feeding. Magnificent. I checked the GPS. We had gone 20 out of 200 miles.

I fell asleep with a dog-eared manual from 1928, using a fingernail to trace the path of oil through the engine on the diagrams of its thick-stock pages, knowing if we couldn’t figure out the oil situation, we’d have to go home.

Day Two

The next morning we took apart the oil pump.

Let me revise that. Steve and Leroy bantered while one held a pipe wrench and the other unscrewed, breaking down the oil pump while I held a light and furnished tools. When the engine ran in forward gear, the pump stalled. When it ran in reverse, things worked fine. Leroy, worrying an ever present stick of black licorice, suggested we just go backward every 20 miles. Funny.

Frustrated, I went to the bow to make sure the generator, powering the electrical system on the boat, had enough diesel. A few minutes later Leroy held something in the air. “Check it out. Old gasket caught in the valve.” Back at the pump Steve was smiling. “Too early to tell,” he shouted over the engine, “but I think we might have ourselves an engine.”

We lined up the boat to go through Sergius Narrows, a dangerous bottleneck of water where the tide rips. About 50 otters floated on their backs, fooling with mussel shells as gulls floated nearby for scraps. Cormorants on a red buoy appeared incredulous as we coasted by. “Well I’m just tickled,” Steve said after checking the oil reservoir. “We’re back in business.”

Our second night we anchored in Hoonah Sound, a stone’s throw from Deadman’s Reach—a section of the coast where, as the story goes, Russians and Aleuts died from eating tainted shellfish. Fucus seaweed glistened in the white light of our headlamps. Driftwood bleached bone white was scattered along the beach. Xander pointed out where he had shot his first deer, at the top of the slide, just above the tree line.

We needed a light so other boats could see us in the dark. I went out in the spitting rain and used a role of plastic wrap to tie a headlamp to the mast, then pushed the button. Voilà! A mast light. Eric would be proud. Kind of.

In the salon we lit a fire in the woodstove and dumped fresh vegetables Rachel had sealed and frozen into a cast-iron pan, along with burger, taco seasoning, and cormorant we had shot earlier in the season. Water darkened with wind as we ate, the seabird tough and fishy. The anchor groaned, and we all went out on deck into the blowing rain.

We were stuck in a williwaw, the wind whipping off the mountain, bulldozing us toward deep water, the anchor unable to hook into the sandy bottom. We were—and this is one of the few sayings at sea that is literal—dragging anchor.

I woke continually that night, watching our path on the GPS, imagining contours of the bottom, praying for the anchor to snag on a rock, going outside to check our distance from the beach, and talking with Xander, who knew more about such things than I and reinforced my fretting.

None of us slept well at Deadman’s Reach. 

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