People sometimes ask, “Can you sail in Alaska?” Certainly. Tripp Wood lives in Charlotte NC and Alaska. It’s rare to find anyone who can sail Alaska. “My sons help as deck hands and first mates on our fishing charter out of Whittier, Alaska. I used to sail, and I’ve always wanted them to experience the beauty of sailing, the quiet, the sounds.” So off we went on a bright afternoon, across the York River toward Wormley Creek.
“I grew up on Cook Road in Yorktown,” Tripp continued. “At night during the summer my pals and I would sneak out and play in the trenches of the Yorktown Battlefield. We’d be out all night and our parents wouldn’t know. I have ancestors in the Moore family going back 14 generations to that house.” He was referring to the Augustine Moore House, where the surrender treaty for the Siege of Yorktown was negotiated. We sailed right by.
His son Bobby, 37 with piercing eyes, sat quietly listening. Sons Michael and Taylor, 13 and 11, moved about the boat with curiosity. Taylor was in his bare feet and his dad was in shirtsleeves on a chilly day that nearly brought out gloves—for me. Taylor and Michael were well behaved but squirmy. I was holding Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn hostage on a boat.
He continued, “I run a 30-foot Harber Craft KingFisher. We start April 15 and run commercial work for a while, then switch to sport fishing for tourists. We also take them out to become commercial fishermen as part of their licensing requirement. Yes, it’s like a dude ranch on the water.”
Tripp runs dual 225 hp outboards 90 miles offshore. “They don’t realize it’s that far,” he said of the tourists,” because there are a lot of islands we pass, and one of them is 45 miles long. We fish in Prince William Sound, often for prawn. It’s shrimp that tastes like Maine lobster. We catch it and sell thousands of pounds over the weekend at $25 a pound. Tourists say, ‘Oh I can buy that at Sam’s Club,’ but they can’t. Locals hug us for finding prawn because they love it.”
Whittier is on the coast and is accessible through a tunnel that runs 2.6 miles, longest in North America. “The tunnel was built narrow and runs one way with railroad track down the middle. At the top of the hour, you drive one way out of town. At the bottom of the hour you drive into town.When it’s 15 and 45 after the hour, the trains run.”
As for the town itself, “You’ve heard the cliché about a fishing town with a drinking problem. That’s Whittier, population 168. We all live in one big building, left over when the military left. During the summer the population doubles for the fishing season. When we drive it from Charlotte, the distance is 5,001 miles to Whittier. I love the drive, but in Canada it’s 300 miles sometimes between gas stations.”
His expeditions transcend fishing. “We’ll go ashore and find snow to pack the prawn to keep it cold. We explore caves dating back to the 1900s. We have to watch out for the brownies [bears]. I took a grandfather and his two little boys out once, and he asked about the special weekend trip that includes fishing, hiking and exploring. He said he wished he could afford that, so I said I would do it at no charge. We had a great time out there together. One of the boys hugged me and said, ‘Will you adopt us?’ So I did. Here they are, Michael and Taylor. The paperwork is almost finished.” He beamed. I nearly wept.
First day of Spring
While visiting Williamsburg, Brad Sanford and his colleagues went sailing on the first day of Spring on March 20, 2021. They got to heeling to 25 degrees in brisk winds. They work in petroleum measurement in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, and thus took special note of the Yorktown Oil Terminal.
Brad served in the North Dakota National Guard during the Iraq War. “We were an Engineers unit under the Army Corps of Engineers. We were supposed to build temporary bridges across rivers, but they assigned us instead as an EOD unit to go hunt IEDs. Our Humvees and APCs had soft bottoms susceptible to road bombs, and these are big bombs — as big as the console to this boat. Since we were Dakota farmers and hunters and oil roughnecks, we fashioned our own steel plate to protect the undercarriage of the vehicles. Saw a lot of nasty stuff.”
We talked about the winter weather in the Dakotas. Anything under 20 below and they call it a day as just too dangerous. Brad said, “Here we are on the first day of Spring, and our Lake Sacagawea still has six feet of ice. You could drive a tank across it.” We sailed on for miles with no sight of ice. The last time the York River iced over was 1952.
Sailing Dragon Boats
Next day, three couples went sailing on the York in the morning and one in the afternoon. Kim Goodall of suburban Philadelphia seemed unusually adroit on the helm after others had taken us down river on a steady southwest wind. Her husband Wilson Toussaint Jr. explained, “She’s a world-class dragon boat racer.” Kim elaborated, “Dragon boats originated in China, and we have 22 crew plus the drummer who keeps pace from the back. We went to China last year to race against teams from 40 countries.” Wilson beamed, “She medaled in three of the races.”
I asked Kim for her times. “The 200-meter race is a sprint that we finish in less than a minute. The 2-K takes eight or nine minutes.” That works out to plus or minus 7 mph, about what we were sailing at. Wilson said, “To train, they went ocean-canoeing in Hawaii.” Kim said, “You get so worn out paddling that you have to switch sides to keep going. It’s exhausting.” Wilson provided a photo from his cell phone.
A couple who transplanted from northern California to North Carolina told a bizarre story while enjoying a robust sail in the afternoon.
Bob Googins shook his head in wonderment. “When we packed up to move from Redding, the mover didn’t deliver the furniture. Instead, they kept calling wanting more money. Our furniture was being held hostage for ransoms of $1,000 over time. We had no idea where our stuff was, for months. We foolishly had let them take it without giving us a bill of lading. A month later it arrived, but we still had no idea where the truck or the furniture was. I called various 800 numbers, but they were all disconnected. Finally we got a call from a guy in Atlanta who said he would deliver the next day. And he did. It was a Thursday. That very week, I had prayed to God that if we didn’t get our furniture by Friday I would do something desperate. The only reason we got it was that the Ukranians had sold this particular furniture company to an unsuspecting new owner. On Friday the FBI arrested 12 Ukranians for the scam, which apparently involved many, many trucks of furniture.”
I shook my head in wonderment over such a labor-intensive, logistical scam. It seemed perverse. “Yes,” Bob said. Perverse is exactly the right word.
Sailing the Ferry
Christi Conder of suburban Philadelphia was in Williamsburg with her brother and sister when she got a yen to go sailing. They rode the Jamestown Ferry, and she wanted them to get the feel of a yacht. They were ambivalent at first but warmed to it as the boat heeled 10 degrees in the afternoon breeze.
Her brother Joe said, “We came across on the ferry when a wave washed up on the front and a fish fell out of the wave. A seagull swooped down to catch the fish and fly away. I found it quite something.” We eventually encountered a blue heron sitting atop a day mark, thin as a rail until it opened its wings and flew away silently.
Christi said, “We are among seven children, one died. We all lives within a few miles of each other. We travel together sometimes and have a lot of fun.”
Earlier, Patty Pondor took her husband Jon sailing as a new adventure. They live in Gallatin TN. John said, “It took me 67 years to get on a sailboat. I like it.” After a couple of hours, Corinna Caldwell turned the helm over to him, and he liked that too. Jon is an experienced boater. “I used to do bass fishing. You get close to the coast and troll low in the water. It’s very peaceful and quiet. You get to think out there on the water.”
By contrast, they also ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. “I had a 1700 cc Harley that we rode 27,0oo miles. We stayed once in Panama City and rode through Mexico Beach. Just terrible what happened to those poor folks. Now we ride a tryke with three wheels. No, it isn’t particularly tippy. Neither is a motorcycle as long as you don’t hit a squirrel while turning a corner. It’ll slip right under you and take you down. Gravel too.” Patty added, “We had all boys, my first one at age 17. We grew up together on motorcycles.”
Let’s Go Sail Alaska
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