Gulf of Alaska Weather

One of the reasons we made the offshore run from Seattle to Prince William Sound was to gain experience. A gale in the Gulf of Alaska wasn’t exactly the sort of experience we were hoping for. But we did learn that the boat, and our rough-water preparations, could take the conditions. The full log of both offshore runs is at Cruising Prince William Sound.

Three days out from Prince William Sound, on our way north, the forecast called for 30-knot SE winds and 10-foot seas. Two days out, the forecast had worsened to 40 knots from the SE with 13-foot seas. As we neared, the surface analysis charts showed the low deepening from 998 to 991. Within a day, the barometer fell from 1014 to 1003 and the seas built from calm to 10-12′ on the stern quarter. Even with the stabilizers and autopilot working well, the boat motion still was substantial. We had to be careful to have good handholds when moving about–crawling often was easier.

We ended up not using the off-watch berth at all on this trip. Partly because the pitching motion the first few days was enough to make sleeping there difficult, and also because it was easier on the person on watch to not worry about making noise and waking the person who was off-watch.

In the past when we’ve been in rough water and had difficulty sleeping in the pilothouse berth, the master was comfortable. In this storm, James slept fine in the master berth, but I was having trouble falling asleep because I was sliding around on the bed with the sideways motion. I eventually wedged myself between the bed and the floor, and slept well.

At some point during the storm, the starboard caprail flipped open. It’s a big, heavy piece of solid fiberglass–that must have taken some force. Nobody felt inclined to go out and close it though. One more item for the heavy weather preparation list–on the return trip, we ran a bungee from the inside to the outside handle to hold it down.

We hit much worse weather on the return trip. We’d left Prince William Sound as conditions were settling down from a gale the night before. At the Cape Cleare Data Buoy, the wave height had fallen steadily from 20′ at 10pm to 11′ by 11:50am, and the forecast indicated continued improvement. Another storm was predicted in a few days, and we wanted to get well south before it hit.

Conditions, however, worsened rather than improved. The winds picked up to 30 knots, with gusts to 41 and then to increased to 40 knots with gusts to 59. The seas were 13′, about 5 seconds apart, and were breaking above the pilot house roof. Several slammed into the side of the boat at that height–we were glad to have the lexan storm shields on those big salon windows.

This time we were taking the waves on the bow and the pitching motion was severe.  We both got seasick, James for the first time ever. Although it wasn’t debilitating, we both put on a scopolamine patch so we could keep food/water down. I’d had no problems with seasickness on the way up–severe pitching generally is what does me in. Spitfire seemed to be nervous, but otherwise did well. He ate lots, slept lots, and occasionally headed down below to use the cat box.

We were through the storm in 36 hours, although it felt a lot longer. We were pretty tired, but the boat handled remarkably well throughout. The furnace plug was torn off during the storm, the wind pressure against the dinghy cover wore a hole through it, and our US flag was slightly shredded, but otherwise we had no issues. The rest of the trip home was amazingly calm–we could run for days or weeks in those conditions.

Seasickness really makes taking video unappealing, but we did shoot some on the trip north as the storm was building. Waves never seems to look as big in pictures as in person, but notice in a few frames the horizon disappears off the top of the screen and then almost under the bow. Those waves are a good 8-10′. You can see the stabilizers working to counteract the rolling motion of the waves. And notice the caprail flipped open in some of the starboard shots.

We were surprised at how quiet the pilothouse is. The salon isn’t particularly loud, but the engine noise is more apparent there. We’d never noticed that until put the video together. We have things pinned down pretty well everywhere, so boat is pretty quiet even in some of those big sideways swings.


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4 comments on “Gulf of Alaska Weather
  1. Richard, you were asking about manning the helm and if we were comfortable leaving the helm briefly. There are so many schools of thought on this I won’t claim to know the right answer. Some folks single handing may leave the boat unattended for upwards of an hour or even more. We chose to have one person on the helm and awake at all times. What does it mean to be "at the helm at all times?" We’re OK with short zips down to the bathroom if the horizon is clear. Or short runs down to the galley to get something to eat. To ensure that short doesn’t accidentally become long we have a Watch Commander Pro ( that signals a very loud alarm if the watch keeper falls asleep or gets distracted with something away from the helm.

    The net is we always have someone on the helm and that person is always attentive and watching around the boat. If radar, AIS, and visual confirm nothing in the area and all is clear, they can leave the helm briefly but its a minute or two type of thing. We have a loud alarm as a safety if someone is away from the helm too long or falls asleep.


  2. Richard Moore says:

    36 hours of that…and I suspect there was much worse than the video shows. I have enjoyed your blog and travels for some time now (many thanks BTW) but this is probably the first time that I have no desire to do that or go there, even if my boat was as capable as yours.

    One question. When James is taking pictures of you asleep in the master, does Spitfire man the helm?

  3. Jennifer Hamilton says:

    Thanks Yair. I think we’ll keep the bed though. :)


  4. Yair says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Apparently a bed on a Nordy should be optional and even so you should get credit for the MSR bed delete! Not the worst seas – but definitely BIG seas. Thanks for the post and an opportunity to a limited vicarious experience. Cheers,

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