M/V Tustumena Navigates Through High Seas and Gale Force Winds on a Return from Dutch Harbor
“We are proud of our good ship Tustumena”
Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS retired
Westward, one sees a land largely untouched by people, a wild landscape devoid of timber presenting itself in sharp relief to the exploring eye. There are dramatic sedimentary promontories like Castle Cape, and other equally rugged capes with impressive Native and Russian names such as: Igvak, Unalishavak, Kekurnoi, Ilktugitak, Atushagvik, Kuliuk, Kuyuyukak, Nukshak, Kiukpalilik, Ikolik, and Karluk.
Steep islands rise above the ocean floor, and massive strato-volcanoes, some steaming, others smoking—all covered in perpetual snow and glacial ice. We look forward to seeing these massive volcanic mountains, Makushin, Akutan, Pogromni, Shishaldin, Isanotski, Roundtop, Frosty, Pavlof and the Pavlof Sister, Veniaminof, Chiginagak, Fourpeaked, and the Cape Douglas complex of volcanoes.
There are bays extending deep into the mountainous coast with high bluffs of columnar basalt and others formed of sedimentary rock, barren offshore islands and inside routes such as Illiasik Passage between the Alaska Peninsula and the Pavlof Islands where the Tustumena seeks temporary shelter from the formidable open sea. This is the eastern Aleutians and the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, a brown landscape in spring, white in the winter, but a rich green, luxuriant landscape in the summer and early fall. Few Americans ever see it; we who sail westward are privileged.
On a return voyage from Dutch Harbor on the M/V Tustumena in October 1989, large crowds gather on the dock for our last voyage of the season. A woman from Norway with long, blonde hair paces the dock from stem to stern saying admiringly, “What a beautiful ship!” We are proud of our good ship Tustumena.
Our gangway approach is cluttered with personal belongings stacked high, excited dogs mingle with the crowd, and “good byes” and “farewells” are overheard. Luggage is scattered about the ship, and sleeping bags are rolled out on the deck in the Forward Lounge, each one claiming a small amount of deck space, as though to say, “This spot is mine.” A limited supply of staterooms sells out and colorful pup tents populate the Solarium. We depart on schedule and pass into the Bering Sea at Priest Rock. Soon, we cross over through the wild currents and whirlpools of Unalga Pass to the Pacific Ocean to find shelter under the lee of the Krenitzin Islands to avoid a strengthening northwest wind as much as possible.
A deep, low-pressure storm system has moved into the Gulf of Alaska from the Aleutians. It moves slowly, becoming mostly stationary, covering the entire Gulf of Alaska, and lashing the southern coast of Alaska with powerful winds and high seas for days without intermission.
Calling at the various ports on the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula, they report the wind is storm force, blowing northwest fifty-five knots off the dock at Cold Bay. My first attempt at docking at Cold Bay failed, the wind blowing our heaving lines back toward the ship, the volunteer dockworkers were unable to receive our mooring lines. People ashore were waiting in desperation to get back to the mainland at Homer, knowing that this was their last chance. Understanding their predicament, I made a second attempt at docking the ship.
Being more aggressive, I came in with more speed to get our mooring lines to the dock before the wind could blow us out into the bay. We nearly made it, but as before, the wind returned our heaving lines before they could reach the dock. Approaching the dock at a slight angle, the wind blew hard on the stern, setting it rapidly away from the dock, while at the same time the bow came rapidly toward the dock. Regardless of hard left rudder, there was not enough engine power to overcome the force of the wind.
This was jaw-dropping fear as a monstrous rogue wave struck on the port bow with unexpected suddenness.
We struck a dock fender with a solid, glancing blow on the bow—our ship bounced away and I missed the landing. Four transverse frames in the bow tripped, that is, laying down flat against the inside of the ship’s hull plating. There were no holes. Following a damage assessment of the dock allision, I made the decision of not going back to the Cold Bay dock for a third try at docking. We sailed on regardless of several loud radio messages from Cold Bay on our VHF radio expressing their immense disappointment and imploring the Tustumena to return for another attempt at docking in their wind-swept harbor.
We were able to make it into and out of the next port of King Cove in high wind from ahead, rather than on the side. Powerfully, the low-pressure weather system deepened more, and the northwest wind continued strengthening without pause, racing through mountain gaps and bays along the Alaska Peninsula and spilling out on the open sea with tremendous force.
At Sand Point, the wind blew fifty-five to sixty knots straight on the dock. Rather than try docking, we jogged in Popof Strait in the shelter of the Shumagin Islands, thinking that in time the wind would diminish or change direction. Seven hours later, there was no change. We bypassed Sand Point, departing from the safety of the Shumagin Islands at the Andronica Island Light, continuing on our voyage to our next port of call at Chignik.
Offshore of magnificent Castle Cape, a blast of wind over ninety knots hit the port side of the Tustumena so forcefully she heeled over to starboard. We rounded Castle Cape and struggled into Chignik at the head of Anchorage Bay. Successfully docking between strong blasts of wind that picked up water and twirled it around like desert dust devils, we paused, and kept a close watch on our mooring lines.
The entire town came down to the Aleutian Dragon cannery dock to watch our arrival and greet the ship with an air of community festivity. Clusters of people gathered excitedly on the dock where one explained, “We are quite isolated out here, you know. Like a fine weave the Tustumena knits our communities together,” weather permitting.
Tustumena was scheduled to go directly to Homer from Chignik, bypassing the city of Kodiak. Reports for Shelikof Strait were terrible with hurricane force northwesterly winds. I decided on another route, sailing south of Kodiak Island and then up the big island’s eastern side to find some shelter from the dreaded northwest wind.
Nearing Cape Sitkinak, off the southwest corner of Kodiak Island around 5 am the next morning, we fell into a deep trough and faced a wall of black, menacing water unlike anything I had ever seen before or since, reflecting the ship’s lights, as though falling into a deep hole with black water looming high above the ship. This was jaw-dropping fear as a monstrous rogue wave struck on the port bow with unexpected suddenness.
Tustumena went upward a long distance, estimated to have been ninety to one hundred feet, while rolling sharply over to the starboard, and then, as the wave passed underneath, she slid down the backside of the monster wave like a surfboard. It was a terrifying event, and privately, for a few moments, I thought we were going to roll over. A passenger later remarked, “It threw me from my bunk and I was staring down into the sea through my stateroom window.” A crewmember tossed from her bunk suffered a painfully bruised hip.
More terrible weather reports followed without indicating any easing of the weather. I made the decision to seek shelter at our dock in Kodiak regardless of the schedule and wait for the wind to subside. Subside it did the next morning, from eighty knots through the Barren Islands, between Kodiak and Homer, to a mere forty knots. With that, we sailed for Homer. Arriving at our dock on the end of the Homer Spit, we were battered, late, but safe. Those destined for Homer were happy to finally step ashore.
When the time for departure came, we ran the Barren Islands gauntlet several times, arriving and departing Kodiak and Homer, attempting to catch up with our published schedule. On one of these passages to Homer, while nearing the Barren Islands, the wind increased sharply once more to eighty knots, despite the weather forecast. We passed among these rugged, wind swept, sea battered islands, passing between Sugarloaf and East Amatuli to get a better angle on the sea. Just beyond the East Amatuli Light, we found steep seas with short periods between crests. With a thunderous crack, a wave slapped the bow, knocking out two portholes below the “yellow stripe” in the forward crew quarters.
One porthole shattered into hundreds of glass shards, spraying the interior of the stateroom with glass and water. The other circular porthole glass window came out whole and undamaged, lodging itself behind an insulated hot water pipe behind the sink. With each wave, the ship shuddered, and water came in through the openings. I turned to put the sea on the port quarter and ran for Chugach Passage off the western end of the Kenai Peninsula, piloting our way “around the Horn” of the Kenai Peninsula into the quieter waters of Kachemak Bay and the port of Homer.
Our competent bos’n replaced the shattered porthole from a supply of spare porthole glass we store onboard. The undamaged glass from the other porthole was re-installed from where it had come. Tustumena was watertight once more and we proceeded on to Kodiak, Seward, and Prince William Sound.
At only 296 feet long, Tustumena is not a large ship, but she is stout and strong, a veteran of countless storms at sea. Our voyage to Seward was rough, but uneventful. After conducting our business in Seward, we were soon underway for Prince William Sound. Following a voyage as this it is a relief for all to be on “inside waters” as we entered into Prince William Sound from the southwest by way of Elrington Passage. Here we found quiet, calm, flat water, sheltered from the rigors of the Gulf of Alaska.
As though the storm had finally ceased, we set our course for Valdez, and soon found signs on the radar screen of drifting glacial icebergs from the Columbia Glacier. In the night darkness of Valdez Arm, dense fog closed in to eliminate any visibility or any chance of finding icebergs with our searchlights. Slowing down to a crawl, we picked our way through the icebergs by radar alone.
With lookouts posted on the bow and in the wheelhouse, mates hovered over the radars, and light from the sweep on the radar screen illuminated their serious faces with a yellowish-green glow. Rudder commands were all that was spoken, “Ten left, ease to five, midship, steady there, right fifteen, ease to ten, check her up, steady there.” Gingerly, we passed among the icebergs, through the fog, passing Bligh Reef, and then through iceberg-free Valdez Narrows, arriving safely to our Valdez dock at dawn, surrounded by sharp-peaked, glacially scoured mountains rising from the sea. We rest.
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, check out “Precipice of the Deep – Part 1.”