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Arctic Passage: Sailing the Edge of Alaska – Part III

by | Nov 9, 2022 | Adventure, Cover Story, Sailing

Cape Lisburne and the Chuckchi Sea

Rounding Point Barrow we headed south into the Chuckchi Sea. We were now in the lee of the land. The swells dropped. The winds fell below 20 knots. The tone of the boat and the mood of her crew eased. Sleeping resumed.

In the morning, we passed the past villages of Wainwright and Point Lay then the towering Cape Lisburne, a towering, sheer point of land. Walrus emerged from the ocean with their heads on a swivel, watching us pass.

Weather reports showed a large storm moving into the Bering Sea – the remnants of Typhoon Merbok. We headed to Point Hope – a long spit of land with a village on the western tip. South winds were forecast so we anchored close to the beach on the north side.

After five days at sea, the calm at anchor was intense, and we doubled down to get ready for the storm.

Ben-Wah in sporting the ‘Westport Whaler’ with Cape Lisburne in the distance

My usefulness on a 47-foot foot boat in the Arctic Ocean is questionable. Growing up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, I was a water rat. For the first 14 years of my life, it seemed I spent every summer day on or in the water. I sailed every type of small boat and skulked the water for lobsters in skiffs. I had one brief stint commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, Alaska then I was cut off from the ocean. Other interests – the mountains – and other demands – a career, cut it short. And, in all that time, I’d never sailed offshore.

In Tuktoyaktuk, Mark stowed me in the bunk next to the head (toilet). By the time we reached Point Hope after 5 days of violent sailing, the stench was intense.

I can stand a watch. I make good coffee. But, my real forte in this crew was obvious – cleaning.

While Mark, Ben and Dave got the boat storm ready, I went at the head with bleach and hot water. Mark stuck his head in: “Jesus man! You’re washing the walls too? You keep this shit up and you’re going to get an invitation to sail to the South Pacific next year.” That’s high praise from Mark Synnott.

We spent 2½ days at anchor waiting out the storm.

Typhoon Merbok over the Bering Sea

We never got to the Village of Point Hope, although we had friendly visitors who waved from the beach. Point Hope is a vital community in Northwest, Alaska – home of prominent Native leaders, a strong whaling tradition and Inupiat culture.

Also known as Tikigaq – Point Hope is one of the oldest settlements in North America, continuously inhabited for over 2,500 years. Numerous archaeological and historic sites surround the village. Ipiutak and the surrounding archaeological district are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ben-Wah is a columnist for a yachting magazine. His next story he announced would be on the “Well-dressed Arctic Sailor.” Among his many talents, Ben-Wah makes his own clothes and he’d brought on board a long insulated black overcoat dubbed the “Westport Whaler.” This – together with his take on outerwear, boots and the pros and cons of wool – would be the guts of his column. How about the “Well-Read Arctic Sailor” I asked? The boat carried a small library on Arctic exploration.

Mark listened to our musings, unimpressed. He suggested: “The Well-Hung Arctic Sailor.”

Mark Synnott

Ben-Wah is a unique man and valuable individual on a boat. He’s versed in every relevant detail of sailboat design and sailing tactics. He can whip out a splice and solve any mechanical issue. He’s a solid cook, and he likes strong coffee. He’s also given to offhand wisdom and memorable quotes.

Watching the barometer sink as Typhoon Merbok approached, he said: “Now is the time when strong men quaver.”

The downloaded storm forecasts pulsed with red bands; the staccato weather reports advised of 20 and 30 foot swells. Tucked in the lee of Pont Hope, we felt none of it. We passed the time drinking coffee, playing scrabble, reading, and telling stories.

Waiting for the weather

Mark is a world-class talker and tale-spinner. He’s got that gift of keeping the listener rapt. You never sure exactly what is true, but it’s just too good, too funny. With a captive audience in a small cabin, Mark can go on for hours with a cast of characters: riding boxcars in California, Mo-Chi, Staples and the Wellesley cops, Shit Kid, and the queen of them all, a transvestite from San Francisco named ‘Pretty Jimmy.’

But most of all we watched the weather. Storm reports showed Typhoon Merbok’s ugly red bands of high wind over the Bering Sea. Beyond the range of internet of cell phone service, we were ignorant of the national news coverage and dire predictions for western Alaska. South of us many of the coastal communities suffered from the wind and storm surge. Many homes were destroyed.

SAILING SPECIAL: This is the third of a 4-part series written and photographed by Ben Spiess of Anchorage.


Story made possible by:

Family of Sponsors

Advanced Diagnostics, INC | Alaska Airlines | Alaska Oil and Gas Association | Alliance for Support of American Legion Baseball in Alaska | Joe Alston | Arctic Slope Regional Corporation | Aspen Endodontics | Glen Bailey | Kathie Bethard | Black-Smith, Bethard & Carlson, LLC. | BOSCO's | Don Clary & Judy Besh | Zareena and Allen Clendaniel | Continental Auto Group | Joey Caterinichio & Ja Dorris | The Conway Family | Donley Family | Jim & Michelle Hajdukovich | Foley & Pearson | JL Properties | Mark and Jamie Johnson | Kristopher Knauss | Loren Kroon | Dr. Justin Libby, DDS | Jason & Shannon Metrokin | Amy and Jason Miller | Multisport Training of Alaska/Lisa Keller | Rick Mystrom | Kathleen Navarre | Seth Wickersham & Alison Overholt | Dave and DeAnne Rand | R&M Consultants, Inc. | RE/MAX Dynamic Properties Kevin Taylor | Replacement Glass | Residential Mortgage | RSA Engineering- Sarah & A.J. Schirack | Tony and Carla Slaton Barker | Sportclips Haircuts | Alice & Gunnar Knapp | Peter Pounds | Dan Rufner | Harlow Robinson | Pete Robinson | Moria Smith | Taylored Restoration | In memory of Drs. John & Elizabeth Tower | Team Heat | Todd Whited | UAA Seawolves | Don Winchester

Family of Sponsors

Alaska Airlines | Nicole Johnston | Richard Mize | Advanced Diagnostics, INC | Aktive Soles | Alaska Oil and Gas Association | Aspen Endodontics | Black-Smith, Bethard & Carlson, LLC. | BOSCO's | Coho Financial Group | Continental Auto Group | Don Clary & Judy Besh | Glen Bailey | Invisalign-Ben Ward | JL Properties | Joey Caterinichio & Ja Dorris| Kathleen Navarre | Midas Alaska | Moose's Tooth, Bear Tooth and Broken Tooth Brewing | Perkins Coie - Sarah & A.J. Schirack | R&M Consultants, Inc. | RE/MAX Dynamic Properties Kevin Taylor | Residential Mortgage | Seth Wickersham & Alison Overholt | Taylored Restoration | Korndrop Family Foundation | Arctic Slope Regional Corporation | Replacement Glass | Zareena and Allen Clendaniel | Foley & Pearson | UAA Seawolves | Tony and Carla Slaton Barker | Sportclips Haircuts | Alliance for Support of American Legion Baseball in Alaska | Alice & Gunnar Knapp | Amy and Jason Miller | Burgerfi | Charles Fedullo | Dan Rufner | Darren Lieb | Don Winchester | Donley Family | Dr. Justin Libby, DDS | Firetap | Harlow Robinson | Jason & Shannon Metrokin | Jim & Michelle Hajdukovich | Joe Alston | Kathie Bethard | Krispy Kreme | Kristopher Knauss | Loren Kroon | Mark and Jamie Johnson | Mark Silverman | On the Border | Pete Robinson | Rick Mystrom | Team Heat | Team Moriarty | The Conway Family | Todd Whited | Moria Smith | In memory of Drs. John & Elizabeth Tower | Peter Pounds | Multisport Training of Alaska/Lisa Keller | RSA Engineering

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