Sailing Adventures

Sailing in Icebergs

Sailing in Icebergs One of the beautiful aspects of Alaska are the glaciers. Some are tidal, meaning they terminate at sea level. Others have receded away from the shore. Still others are hanging glaciers, meaning that they terminate high in the mountains.

Obviously the ones that are most interesting to boaters are the tidal glaciers. You can sail right up to the face of the glaciers – or at least as close as you dare. We have some friends who sailed their big yacht within a quarter mile of an active glacier. Then they launched their dinghy and sent their guest closer to get some great photos. This proved to be more “up close and personal” than expected when a chunk of the glacier about the size of a house calved off into the water, creating a series of 6’ tidal waves. The dinghy survived, as did the mother ship. But a few minutes later, after the tidal waves bounced off the cliffs on either size of the fjord, they came pounding back to the center. This created a washing machine effect in the calm waters that threatened to remove all loose items from their positions in the boats (including the people!) Glaciers are like grizzlies – best observed from a distance.


We visited Marjorie Glacier in Glacier National Park. It is a very active glacier, with a face perhaps 100’ high that is continually calving off into the water. We were lucky that there wasn’t a lot of ice in the bay, so we were able to get close to the face on a nice day. We sat there for a couple of hours, watching for calving events, which happened every ten minutes or so. Sometimes it was just one pinnacle that fell off. Other times it was a series of crashes as a whole section of the face would cascade into the water over a few minutes.

Because Marjorie is easily accessible on a deep water bay, it is a highlight for cruise ship tours. Two large cruise ships (holding several thousand passengers) are allowed into the Park each day, as well as a few smaller cruise ships that hold a few hundred passengers. These tours offer “wilderness” adventures. Few passengers realize that there is actually an elaborate dance going on between the various ships. Each ship is allowed a certain amount of time in each location before she must move on and make room for another. The captains are in constant communication with each other to make sure that their passengers rarely see another cruise ship – but see as many whales and bears as possible.

We had no problem with the cruise ships. For those who are unable to see these places independently, they offer a wonderful service. The captains were invariably polite. In one case, the captain of a large ship called us to say that we were welcome to pass in front of his view as he was about to turn his ship around so the passengers with cabins on the other side could enjoy the view. We may have been part of the entertainment. “Look at these world cruisers, who have come from distant lands to share this experience. They are living the dream…” So true!

Later we visited Tracy Arm. This deep fjord was another experience of “sailing in Yosemite”, with high granite cliffs rising straight out of the deep water. Tracy Arm wanders off of Stephen Passage for 20 miles, then splits north and south to two glaciers. When we visited, the South Arm was the active glacier. We first started seeing icebergs outside of the fjord in the main channel. Ice bergs range in size from small chunks, called bergie bits, to enormous floating islands. Some are pure blue ice whilst others are covered with rocks torn from the sides of the fjords. As we entered the Arm, the bergs became more numerous. We spent a night in a quiet cove near the mouth of the Arm, sharing it with a couple of small icebergs (about the size of a city bus), some in the water and others stranded at high tide on the beach.

The next day, Gerry and I took our guests, Wayne and Kristin of Florida and our beloved “Lugger Bob” Senter, up the Arm to see a glacier. At first we would see an iceberg every quarter mile or so. As we proceeded, icebergs became more prevalent and we began weaving our way through them. Before long, we were in an ice field. Captain Douglas was “in the zone”, carefully maneuvering Orion through the icebergs, chunks, and bergy bits. It was like the stop and go traffic on an LA freeway at rush hour.

And then it happened! The Captain screwed up. He jigged when he should have jogged. Although Orion was moving dead slow, when she slammed in to a small iceberg, everything came to an immediate stop. Icebergs are 90% underwater and 100% solid. The immovable object met the stoppable boat. Bob Senter ran down to the engine room to look for incoming water. Wayne and Gerry ran to the stern to check the situation behind us. They loudly reported that we had room to back up and turn around. It was time to go home.

But Captain Cochrane is made of tougher stuff. He promised glaciers and wasn’t about to let one little iceberg stop progress. He carefully maneuvered past the immovable object and continue to push his way through the ice field. The Co-Captain was not pleased. But within minutes the ice field opened up and we were able to get up close and personal with the North Glacier.

Getting back out of the ice field afterwards was stressful but uneventful and we all settled in for a well deserved cocktail at the end of the day, using ten thousand year old blue ice from a bergie bit.. Life is rarely dull on an oceangoing boat! FYI, a diver later reported no visible damage. Nordhavn are built iceberg tough.

Good Reads

One great source of good books is Bill Gates. He is a voracious eclectic reader and publishes in his GatesNotes blog of what he has been reading lately. Two worthwhile books that I picked off his list are Seveneves, a fascinating science fiction story that starts on the day the moon blows up, and Sapiens, a history of our species and its affect on the rest of the world. Both are well written and fascinating. What have you been reading?