Friday, February 25, 2011

Escapade- Alaska to Maine Overview - 12,700 miles voyage over 18 months

Welcome to, an online-based community of cruisers exploring the waterways of the Americas.  The “Big U” is a journey that can begin on the East or West coasts of the United States or Canada and takes voyagers through the Panama Canal en route to the other coast.  Along the way are countless historical ports, crystal-blue bays, and coastal communities that make this a voyage unlike any other!

Escapade- Alaska to Maine Overview
It was a wonderful, exciting and delightful voyage, filled with a few challenges and many rewards. In total, we sailed 12,700 miles but were never more than 100 miles offshore. It took nearly 18 months but we went around North and Central America and cruised most of the coast of the United States. It included the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans and the Caribbean and went from icebergs and bergy bits to tropical waters. We visited six foreign countries, but skipped several others. All told, it was a fabulous experience filled with many pleasurable adventures.

Escapade, our Oyster 55, has been the boat that opened the world to us for the past 10 years. We had previously circumnavigated the world and spent four years cruising the Mediterranean. Escapade had been positioned in 2004 to be in Vancouver, BC, Canada, so it was the perfect opportunity to go to Alaska in 2006 and then continue to Maine.

Our overall plan was determined by basic weather considerations, which were:
- Be in Alaska during June and July for the best weather.
- Leave Seattle southbound before early September, before the fall storms begin.
- Don’t leave San Diego southbound before November, so the hurricanes are over.
- Be in the Caribbean between January and April for the best weather.
- Be as far north as the Chesapeake Bay by mid June, before hurricane season starts.
- Be in Maine in August and early September for the best weather.

This plan worked well and we were blessed with good weather for the whole trip. The importance of this was underscored by the fact that a hurricane had damaged some of the towns in the Sea of Cortez a few months before we arrived and hurricanes hit Cabo San Lucas and Belize after we were there. So timing is everything.

In general, this was an easy voyage with many opportunities to make stops along the way. The longest passages were about five days, and they were between Seattle and San Francisco at 826 miles and between San Diego and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico at 750 miles. I concluded that we had to go directly to San Francisco as the ports along the west coast all had sand bars in the entrances and in case of bad weather these bars become nearly impassible. Thus, if bad weather developed, we could not enter any port, so whatever the weather, we had to go non-stop. That focuses ones thinking. For the San Diego to Cabo leg, there are places to stop but we wanted to stay ahead of the Baha Ha Ha, which is a cruisers rally, and which makes two stops. There were two passages slightly over 500 miles and one at 453 miles. All other legs were less than 355 miles.

There are many very good cruising grounds along the way. The hard part was to keep moving so as to stay on our time line. We could write articles, or even a book, on each of these cruising grounds and each one has it’s own special appeal and character. But I will summarize our feelings.

- Alaska, Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm in particular. This is a different type of cruising and our trip there was wonderful. The grandeur, the wilderness, the vastness, the desolation, and the areas devoid of human impact are overwhelming. It is a majestic wilderness that cannot be conquered by man. We saw dozens of humpback whales, orca whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles, bears, and other wildlife. We stayed in anchorages with no other boats most of the time. So if you want remoteness and isolation, Alaska is the place. Suffice it to say we truly enjoyed Alaska and the unique experience it provides. We arrived in Glacier Bay National Park on July 4, 2006, and enjoyed it with some great weather.

- Puget Sound, Vancouver Island, the Bay Islands, and the San Juan Islands- A wonderful area to cruise, with many options in terms of anchorages, marinas, and towns and cities to visit, and the distances are short. Mostly protected waters, but not a lot of wind. For sailing the Strait of Georgia was the best. There is something for everyone and one could explore the area for years. Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor are great, and are good ports of entry to the USA. Roche Harbor has an outdoor sculpture park, Shakespeare under the stars, and fine dining, all in one stop. I liked the Canadian Bay Islands better than the San Juan Islands, and there are more of them with a larger variety of things to do. A circumnavigation of Vancouver Island is a quite nice little exploration and the northwest coast, on the Pacific side, is especially rugged and remote. In the inside passage there many interesting places like Desolation Sound, with several anchorages. It becomes more remote the farther north you go. The weather is nice during the summer and inside of Vancouver Island the microclimate is quite moderate. The city of Vancouver is a wonderful, modern city with many activities. The city of Victoria is a unique and special place to visit. The harbor is full of activity with floatplanes landing and taking off, small and large ferries, water taxies, and pleasure boats of all descriptions all moving about at the same time. Docking in front of the Empress Hotel is nice, and high tea at the hotel is not to be missed. Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island are world-renowned, the flowers change for every season, and they have a special boat entrance. We spent two summers in the Pacific Northwest and still did not get to see everything.

- San Francisco Bay- This overall area is relatively small and there are shallows in some corners. But there are consistent winds in the afternoons when the temperature in the valley rises, and that pulls air into the Bay through the Golden Gate. Often there is a layer of marine fog close to the ocean in the morning, which generally burns off by noon. Angel Island has several bays, one of which has mooring buoys. It is an easy island to explore by foot. We especially enjoyed Sausalito, Oakland and San Francisco itself. From Benicia we took a limousine tour of the vineyards in Napa Valley. It happened we were there during Fleet Week and that permitted us to anchor in the Bay near Alcatraz Island along with hundreds of other boats, and watch airplane races and the Blue Angles fly overhead. We enjoyed the Bay area, with relaxed and pleasant cruising and nice sails. There were more sailboats out sailing there than anywhere else in the US.

- Sea of Cortez- This is a unique area, which is generally desolate and arid. The scenery often consists of dry rock formations in a multitude of colors. These colors appear to change during the day from sunrise to sunset so it is a never-ending kaleidoscope. The sea life is overwhelming and the fish seethe beneath the surface, especially at night. In fact, they just about jump onto the boat. We did not see any whales, as I don’t think they had migrated from Alaska yet. There were very few cruisers around at the time we were there in November, but I believe that it is busier in the winter. Except for La Paz it is anchoring out, sometimes just behind a point of land like at Los Muertos. We liked Puerto Escondido, Bahia Santispac in Bahia Conception, Aqua Verde, and Isla Partida. There was good swimming and snorkeling. La Paz is a more typical Mexican town, unlike Cabo San Lucas that is touristy to the extreme. It was interesting to contrast the Sea of Cortez to Alaska as they were so different in physical appearance, but quite similar in the remoteness and isolation from civilization.

- West coast of Mexico and Central America- This is a long coast that changes from arid to tropical as you head south. We made stops at Mazatlan, Nuevo Vallarta, Laguna Navidad, Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo, Acapulco and Huatulco in Mexico. We also stopped in Bahia Jiquilisco in El Salvador and Golfito in Costa Rica. We choose to skip the countries of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua primarily because of security concerns and the fact my insurance company would not cover us in those countries. The legs were between 95 and 521 nautical miles, so they were one to three night passages. In several of the stops we stayed at marinas associated with luxury hotels so we had the ability to use the hotels facilities including the beaches, swimming pools, restaurants etc. We left Escapade in Nuevo Vallarta for Christmas when we went home for a few weeks. In Acapulco we stayed at the Yacht Club, which has fine facilities located in a quiet part of the bay. In other stops we anchored off or stayed in marinas. The atmosphere was very much like a multi-stop holiday and we enjoyed the variety of towns and took inland excursions as well. In general, provisioning was good. One interesting stop was Isla Isabela, which is a bird sanctuary. It had the feeling of a Galapagos island with the ability to approach nesting birds closely. The entrance to the river at Bahia Jiquilisco was very threatening, as you must enter between a reef and a sand bar in a curved path between breaking waves. But the marina sent a boat out into the Pacific to guide you in so that removed much of the worry. All told, an interesting coast.

-Panama Canal- This was our second time through with Escapade, but this time we were going northbound. Although the transit is fraught with a high possibility of damage to the boat, we got through with no damage. By selecting an aggressive agent, we were able to transit on the day we specified and made it through in one day. Escapade was alone, with no other sailboats. We up-locked tied alongside a local small cruise ship and down-locked tied alongside a tug. That avoided the issues associated with center-locking, but we were glad we had rented covered tires to supplement our fenders. Even so, it is intimidating to be in such a tight space with the bow of a huge ship towering above you. It was dark by the time we reached the Panama Canal Yacht Club, where we returned the lines and tires to the agent, but we were very pleased with the experience. There is nothing quite like transiting the Panama Canal in your own boat, but if it is your first time be sure to learn and understand all the issues associated with the transit before you attempt it.

- San Blas Islands in Panama- It is 75 miles up wind in the Caribbean to get to the San Blas islands, which are east of the Panama Canal, so it took us three days, as we did not want to get beat up too badly. But the reward is great as the San Blas is a unique and special cruising area. It is filled with gorgeous, tiny, sandy and palm tree covered islands. They are the classic image of tropical islands with clear, calm water all around. Actually, many are at the edge of the archipelago so while you are anchored in a serene and calm anchorage, you can hear the Caribbean waves crashing on the outer edges of the reef. A bit unnerving, but you get used to it. The swimming is great and there is some good snorkeling. The whole area is picture perfect and wonderful. But what is especially delightful are the Kuna Indians, who still live in traditional fashion and get around in dugout canoes with sails. The women dress in their classic costumes of molas and beads. While at anchor, they come to you in the dugouts and offer for sale molas, fish, and other goods. We also went ashore and visited Kuna villages on the islands of Carti Sugtupu and Isla Tigre. They live in grass huts with no furniture, and only small hammocks in which to sit and sleep. The Kunas are not allowed to marry outsiders so the race is pure and they look like they just stepped out of a history book. This was my second visit to the San Blas and I would put it on a “must visit” list for all cruisers. But do not expect to find any provisions there.

- Western Caribbean- For us, this comprised Panama’s Bocas del Toro region, the Colombian Island of Isla Providencia, Belize, and Mexico’s Yucatan. We skipped the Rio Dulce in Guatamala because I was concerned about security, and the sand bar at the entrance seemed to be just too shallow for Escapade. This is an area less traveled than the eastern Caribbean but is interesting in it’s own right. Bocas del Toro seemed like a modern day version of the Wild West with a lot of growth and potential but still very rough and basic, which is an interesting blend. We visited a butterfly farm that had a huge netted enclosure with thousands of butterflies. Isla Providencia is off the beaten track and it was easy to tour the whole island in a few hours by taxi. We stayed well off shore as we rounded the corner of Honduras as the local rumor was the government impounded cruising boats that got too close to shore. Belize, from my viewpoint, was not as good as I expected for cruising. Many areas are very shallow. For example, if you wanted to anchor off Belize City you would be over a mile from shore. Other towns were not accessible without a lot of risk. So we skipped San Pedro on Ambergris Cay. But we did travel north through the country inside the barrier reef starting with Punta Gorda, which is an open roadstead, to Belize City, stopping at many Cays and Placencia, which does have a good anchorage. Most of the small islands, or Cays, are covered with mangroves. These often have bugs at dusk and no protected anchorage, and you cannot land on them due to the mangroves. There was good snorkeling on the barrier reef but we took a local dive boat out to the reef, as there are no anchorages at the reef. The reef is the second longest barrier reef in the world. We stopped at Puerto Aventuras in Mexico, which was a good decision. It is a good place from which to explore the region and we drove to Tulum, a Mayan ruin, and swam with dolphins, which was a treat. We also took a ferry to Cozumel as there are no good anchorages along the west coast of the island, and the whole area close to the town is covered with tourists, huge cruise ships, and many local snorkel tour boats. In short, it is bedlam. We toured the island by taxi and got a feel of the tourist hype. It was a quick sail to Isla Mujeres off the coast from Cancun. This is where cruisers stop, as there is not a good place in Cancun itself or on the coast north. We rented a car on the mainland, which is a short ferry ride away, and explored Cancun and the Yucatan including Chichén Itzá, a very large Mayan ruin. Our tour of Isla Mujeres was by golf cart and the sculpture park at the south tip was interesting.

- Florida Keys, and the Eastern Florida coast- It is 350 miles to Key West from Isla Mujeres, going west of Cuba. I believe that it is not wise for an American boat to go to Cuba, so we skipped Cuba again. It was nice to get back to the States, but make sure every non-American has a B1/B2 visa, otherwise the Immigration people get very uptight and a person without one will be deported. We were in Key West at the time of the reenactment of the Conch Republic war. It was all great fun with the Coast Guard participating in boat-to-boat water fights and bread throwing and airplanes dropping toilet roll “bombs”. This event remembers the time when Customs blocked the only road to Key West so the local business people decided to create the Conch Republic, succeed from the USA, declare war on USA, immediately surrender and then ask for reparations. They did not get any money but Customs removed the roadblock. It is pleasant to sail in the inside passage up to Miami as it is protected, but you must stay inside the channel or it gets shallow. This time, I decided to skip a lot of the ports I stopped at before and selected only the ones I really liked. So we stopped at Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, St. Augustine, Hilton, Head, Charleston, and Beaufort, NC before getting to the Chesapeake Bay. I enjoy Fort Lauderdale because it is one of the three major boating centers on the East Coast. Also, it is a good place to get anything repaired or replaced, as everything for boats is available. Any mast height above 65 feet requires sailing in the Atlantic Ocean as that is the controlling clearance on fixed bridges over the ICW (Inter Costal Waterway). There is one stretch that is passable on the ICW, as all the bridges open, and that is between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. We did that stretch for a change of pace and because it is impressive to see the homes lining the ICW. We spent one night at the Boca Raton Resort marina, which was delightful. West Palm Beach and Palm Beach are interesting, with a lot activities. St. Augustine is a great little place with a lot of history. As we came into the harbor we found that there was a temporary lift bridge over the route to the marina, which was not on the chart. After several quick radio calls to the bridge operator, we found we could get under it with a little bit of clearance. It was nice to be back in the USA, and we really enjoyed all the ports along this coast.

- Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound- These are the two biggest and best protected cruising grounds on the East Coast. You could spend a whole season, or lifetime, in each. The distances are small, the marina and anchorages are numerous and Annapolis and Newport are major yachting centers. Each has it’s own advantages but I like Long Island Sound as it has cleaner, deeper water and you don’t have to motor up tributaries to find anchorages or marinas. Connecting these is New York Harbor, with the Statue of Liberty, and the East River. Motoring around Manhattan is breathtaking and not to be missed as it is so dramatic and so different from the norm. One especially enjoyable stop was in Mystic, CT at the Mystic Seaport Museum. You can tie up at the Museum, and be immediately immersed into the recreated whaling seaport of the 19th century.

- The coast of Maine- This was new territory for me, and it was an interesting and pleasant area to cruise. We visited eight ports and spent two weeks in Maine and had only one day of fog, which was good. The main detraction is the numerous lobster trap floats. Often they are no more than 10 feet apart, requiring constant steering to avoid them. Frequently, there are several routes to choose from, including going outside. But constant attention to navigation is required due to the many rocks and shallows. And of course, when the fog descends, accurate electronic charts are required. But the reward is pretty scenery and protected waters. Our northern most point was Mt. Desert Island and liked the ports there, including Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor, and Southwest Harbor, all of which had a rustic feeling as Acadia National Park is on the island. We arrived at Bar Harbor on August 27, 2007. Camden is the quintessential Maine port, and Portland and Rockland were interesting towns to visit.

During the cruise there were sailing challenges like rapids, reefs, the Panama Canal, fog, tides, and fiords to keep us on our toes. Each of these requires advance preparation and planning to get through safely. The most important things required were accurate electronic charts and tide and current tables along with local weather information. The rough spots were the Gulf of Tehuantepec, at the southern end of Mexico; the Gulf of Papagayo, off Costa Rica; the Gulf of Panama; and crossing the Gulf Stream between Mexico and Key West.

The Gulfs are challenging because of the northerly winds, which funnel between the Gulf of Mexico to the north and the Pacific over the relatively narrow necks of land. The winds can come up suddenly due to air pressure differentials in the two oceans and can reach over 55 knots. We tried to time our passage of the Gulf of Tehuantepec but were off by about four hours. We used the “one foot on land” strategy by sailing close to the shore to minimize the wave heights, but, of course, it does not reduce the wind. The plan was to go north to the head of the Gulf and then turn to southeast following the shore. The wind, which was predicted at 25 knots, rose to over 45 knots. So we struggled into it for four hours before getting relief when we turned to the east and then southeast. In the Gulf of Papagayo, we had to stay off shore due to the configuration of the land, and again the wind exceeded 45 knots on our aft port quarter. It was rollicking ride for 24 hours, but Escapade handled it well. I was concerned about the Gulf of Panama as you have to go north to the Panama Canal but the weather god was on our side this time and we were able to motor into relatively light winds.

We kept to our timetable the whole trip and achieved all of our goals. The main goal was to have an experience of a lifetime, which was fulfilled in wonderful measure. So you don’t have to cross-oceans to have an adventure filled with a wide range of sailing conditions and experiences.


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