Navigating the Wrangell Narrows
The Alaska Marine Highway – Twenty-Two Miles of Treacherous Travel
By Captain Bill Hopkins (retired)
Melancholy can set in on gray, rainy days, especially when located in one place. However, on a ship, a rainy day is of no account for a ship moves and the scenery is in a constant state of change and motion from one location to another. There are unimaginable maritime scenes, an ever- changing sky and powerful weather. Old mariners say, “With southeast wind blowing twenty-five knots and rain, one can travel anywhere,” meaning, the air is moving and no fog can form. However, there are areas of stagnant air with very little wind movement as near Blind Slough in heart of Wrangell Narrows.
Between Light #2 and Light #50 of that difficult waterway, it is nearly impossible to turn around and retreat once a ship is committed to the channel, regardless of fog, heavy snow, or complete darkness without moonlight. Rain and southeast wind blowing 25 knots is a welcome thing, stirring the air, ventilating the narrows, preventing any fog from forming.
There is nothing soft about Wrangell Narrows; it is not a place for error or a place for sentimentality or a place for second-guessing. Disaster lurks just outside the wheelhouse windows. Known to Marine Highway officers as “The Ditch,” the waterway wends its way around islands, boulder fields, rock ledges, reefs, shoals, and mudflats for twenty-two and a half nautical miles. Fog may settle in for the night, an impenetrable, stifling, suffocating fog, like a white shroud clothing the land and the narrow channel from a navigator’s view. Dense fog muffles any sound except for the prolonged blast of the ship’s whistle every two minutes and a returning echo from the mountainsides. “Fog is so thick it can be cut with a knife,” say the old timers, especially at Blind Slough. “A bit of nastiness,” said one captain observing the limp, chilly air filled with dense fog, hiding all from visual sight, stressing any navigator who dares to challenge it.
Our captain watches for a breath of wind or a ripple on the surface of the water that may offer a clue that the wind is about to ventilate the narrows. Nothing stirs. “How long will this last?” he wonders.
All he can do is slow down and continue forward. An experienced captain is to a point where he hardly thinks about it, and takes the ship into the narrows on radar by the numbers etched into his procedural memory. Another prolonged blast from the ship’s whistle breaks the obscured silence.
A blinding fog is a hazard to navigation, the ship creeping along the narrow waterway in a bewildering mist where spatial disorientation is a possibility, the side of the ship only feet away from the edge of the channel. There is gratitude among the officers for the wonder of modern marine radar and electronic charting, confirming one’s precise location, removing most doubt to a ship’s position with a quick glance. In fog, our perceptions and sensations may give us false information.
A captain must use discretion, that is, sound judgment and wisdom to avoid errors; a captain must trust the radar. Yet, we continue feeling our way, moonlit shadows dance, discomfort is elevated, there are sweaty palms, wrinkled brows, and tension in our voices. “Fog scares the dickens out of me,” whispers a mate.
Regardless of the presentation on the radar, a ship pilot takes all precautions, using all one’s senses, eyes, and ears; it is all business and alertness. For a captain, there are gut-wrenching decisions to make, whether to go forward with a transit of Wrangell Narrows, or stay put. Without any visual navigational aids, there are matters of timing when changing a course. “I sleep just fine on the hook,” said one old captain, electing to drop the anchor in Scow Bay and wait it out.
A chief steward once complained of his pay in comparison to the captain’s pay. Captain Gary Ogilvy replied, “You do the worst job you can do, and I’ll do the worst job I can do. Then let’s see what happens.”
Captain Harold Payne, one of the Alaska Marine Highway’s very finest, remains calm, quiet, firm, and in command. His ship, the Malaspina, responds to his every word and touch. A sailor’s competent hands are on the wheel, maintaining the course, preparing for a jolt from the current. Captain Payne always checks the helmsman: Did he know and trust this person? Moreover, if not, replacing that person with someone he knew and trusted. “A green helmsman does not know when things are going wrong.” No sooner is one steady on a course when another course change comes. Keeping the ship on course while either traveling against or stemming the current or traveling with the current requires steady concentration. In a tight place, or meeting another vessel close by, Captain Payne would say softly to the helmsman, “Nothing to the right, and nothing to the left,” meaning, steer a steady course with no wandering or “fishtailing.”
A man with much local knowledge and experience has nothing to prove to anyone. Understanding this waterway in intimate, immeasurable detail, Captain Payne understood Wrangell Narrows’ character and behavior. Payne was a master of Wrangell Narrows. Our captain was “old school,” by compass, stopwatch, and logbook, and his motto: “Constant vigilance is the price of safety.”
In overtaking situations, Payne was particularly tense. Radio communications with other vessels are critical, some vessels replying to a large ship’s Securité Call, and others remaining silent. “I know what I am going to do,” said Captain Payne, “but I don’t know what the other vessel will do,” unless they talk to us on the radio.
Establishing a division of labor between the captain, the helmsman, and his mates, a licensed mate makes sure the helmsman understands and carries out the captain’s conning orders. Listening to the radios and answering any communications, the mate also observes the radar, and if time allows, makes entries into the logbook. “Speak up if something does not look right,” cautions Captain Payne, especially toward the chief mate who stands nearby, observing the radar, watching for error and other vessels, backing up and consulting with the captain.
A bow lookout, farther forward and lower down, points with a flashlight toward a channel light he has seen, perhaps the looming shadow of Green Rocks Light #37. A lookout shall have no other duties, say the Nautical Rules of the Road, but that lookout is near the anchor windlass and ready to let it go if so ordered. Silence in the wheelhouse is the rule. Older captains were strict about this, allowing no useless conversation to distract them from their duty or their attention.
Knowing that a vessel will travel a distance equal to a tenth of its speed in six minutes, six minutes being the tenth part of an hour, quick mental calculations are made using the Rule of 60. For example, a 12-knot vessel travels 1.2 miles every six minutes and a 10-knot vessel travels 1.0 mile every six minutes. Knowing our speed and the speed of an opposing vessel, an approximate time and location can be determined where the two ships will meet along the twisted, narrow waterway.
If it is an inconvenient location, plans are made to slow down or pull over to the side of the channel where possible and wait, letting the other vessel pass by safely. In other situations, it may be finding a place where a larger, faster ship can overtake a smaller, slower vessel traveling the same direction.
Additionally there may be problems with falling tides. Captain Payne advised, “Never come into my wheelhouse unless you know what the tides and currents are doing.” A ship must conduct its business and be out of the narrows before the water level becomes too shallow for transiting. A falling tide adds to the pressure; a rising tide is heartwarming. There are tugboats pulling yawing barges that swing from side to side in the narrow channel. A present danger of a mechanical failure is always a possibility, never far from any captain’s mind, a ruptured fuel line or a ruptured oil line under pressure, spraying fine flammable mist on hot engine manifolds, shutting the engine down, or an electrical failure. There are new mates to consider, and stronger, challenging currents on the larger spring tides.
Stress is an integral part of the job, often there is no sleep in anticipation of a night of fog or heavy snow in Wrangell Narrows. Snow may add to the burden by covering the channel lights from view at night. Stress manifests itself individually with each captain, some saying a prayer, others crossing their fingers, some not showing any stress. Others reveal stress in different ways as toothpick-chewing Captain Maynard Reeser, leaving behind a pile of toothpick slivers on the deck where he had been standing. A chief steward once complained of his pay in comparison to the captain’s pay. Captain Gary Ogilvy replied, “You do the worst job you can do, and I’ll do the worst job I can do. Then let’s see what happens.”
With skill and grace, regardless of dense fog so thick that one could see nothing until the amber dock lights show faintly through the murk a few feet distant, Captain Payne maneuvers through the narrows and lands the Malaspina at the dock in Petersburg. With mooring lines all fast, Payne rings up Finish with Engines on the engine order telegraph, turns toward the wheelhouse, his facial muscles relax, his eyes brighten, and he broadly smiles a smile of relief toward his admiring officers.
“I’ve lost a lot of hair over the years,” said Captain Thomas Aspinwall, “Wrangell Narrows has scalped a lot of us.” No one has said it better.
Written by Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS Retired. Visit the following link to see Captain Bill Hopkins book, “Alaska Sea Stories” on Amazon.
If you enjoyed this article, check out “‘Mayday’ – A Terrifying Night Sinking in the Icy Waters of the Cook Inlet.”