Going Pelagic in the Time of Covid
Updated: 7 days ago
I’m writing this in my office on board the Endeavour, our 72-foot old steel US Army T-Boat. We’re tied up at the dock in Petersburg, Alaska, on Mitkof Island. It's December 31, 2020 and it’s 30 degrees outside with blue skies and snowy mountains. We’re in the middle of today’s six hours and forty-five minutes of daylight.
Looking back on my own personal 2020, here’s what stands out for me:
It was a cold beginning
At the start of the year, we were on the boat up at the far end of Knight Inlet. It was just me, Patsy (my wife) and Bella the short-legged dog. Knight Inlet is a fjord in British Columbia that runs 80 nautical miles northeast from the top of Vancouver Island, cutting deep into the coastal mountains. We like running up the fjords in winter. It’s like piloting the boat up Yosemite Valley with sheer cliffs and icy waterfalls, but no humans anywhere. This year, though, the weather was rotten. The winds were fierce and the clouds were low. The snow got heavier the further in we went. The night we reached the head we heard avalanches dumping masses of snow into the water. In the morning there was a 4” thick ice-pack from wall to wall. A degree or two colder and we would have been stuck. We cracked our way through, but the ice took off our bottom paint.
Cutting through the ice in Knight Inlet
Patsy asked the question
On our way down the inlet, heading back to Seattle, Patsy asked, “Why go home?” We were already living on the boat. We had talked about hosting natural history expeditions full-time, keeping up with our day jobs remotely. We were also getting older; I was 63 and Patsy 56. Opportunity isn’t infinite.
I hesitated, mostly because of work. I love what I do. I had just launched a small stock fund to test an investment methodology, based on my four decades of starting, running, and selling tech companies. The core idea is simple: find tiny public companies with depressed stock prices but long-term promise, evaluate them from an entrepreneur’s perspective, invest, then share that analysis with the market to raise the company’s profile. And be patient. Quality will show itself.
On our way back to Seattle the portfolio started to take off, motivating us to figure out how to do what we do from the boat, and how to apply Patsy’s skills to the fund. As a consultant, she evaluates CEOs and coaches executives.
The exploration plan came together
Back home at our dock on Lake Union, we worked on the exploration plan. We had committed to take a team of archeologists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the National Park Service to look for submerged tar pits in the Santa Barbara Channel. After the underwater work, we had plans to survey the cliffs on the south side of Santa Rosa Island with a paleontologist and others from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. (Back in the 1990s, I helped excavate a pygmy mammoth tusk from those cliffs). After that, we hoped to head back north and up the Columbia River past Portland into the Columbia River Gorge for a geology tour with friends from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and a handful of museum donors. After that, we’d figure it out, but we wouldn’t be coming back to Seattle.
Lake Union slip for the last 12 years
Covid undid the plan
In March, the virus changed everything for everyone. In our case, it forced our museum friends to cancel the expeditions, one by one.
We went pelagic anyway
With plan B undetermined, we sold our car, I closed my office, Patsy left her consulting firm, we terminated our slip lease, and we cast off at noon on April 27. Patsy’s son and my most-excellent first wife saw us off from the dock. In the middle of the lake two good friends on paddleboards gave us the final farewell. Then it was out the Ballard locks and out to salt water.
Outward bound at the locks [photo credit: Erik Long]
The boat needed maintenance and upgrades
The boat needed some work (including new bottom paint), so our first stop was Port Townsend for a haul out. The shipyard was restricted because of the pandemic, but the Endeavour is a research vessel, so we got in. With the boat up on jack stands, we lived on board and worked an average of 11 hours a day for the next 28 days, grinding, sawing, welding, sanding, varnishing, painting, replumbing, and installing all new electronics. As in the past, we did the work ourselves, except for through-hull welding below the waterline (we have a good friend who does that for us) and molding a custom blackwater tank from fiberglass. This was my third haul out of the boat in 13 years, and it was harder on me physically than before. There was more heavy lifting in confined spaces, but it may also have been that age thing. In the early morning and sometimes at night, I kept up with the fund.
We were filthy, but in a good way
We chose Alaska
By the time we were back in the water, in June, we had decided to go to Alaska. The pandemic was getting worse and we didn’t want to be locked down in a marina. Everyone was telecommuting by now anyway, and we had internet equipment on board good enough for video conferencing. We could telecommute from Alaska as well as from across town. Why not.
We ghosted through
The problem was Canada. It had closed the maritime border. I made calls to the authorities and confirmed that a foreign vessel, like ours, could still transit Canadian waters without reporting to customs, but only if it passed through without docking or anchoring, except that it could anchor, if the captain telephoned the authorities. We made the 592 nautical mile run up the Strait of Georgia, north through the Johnstone Strait, and further north up the Hecate Straight into Alaskan waters.
I think we followed the law. We never docked in Canada and never made contact with Canadians. We did anchor out in remote places when we needed sleep, but there never was any cell reception to make that telephone call. Canada, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re cool with that.
The effect of the border closure on boat traffic was profound. From the top of Vancouver Island to the Alaskan border – the last 318 nautical miles of our run – we saw only two fishing boats and one pocket freighter. Imagine driving the interstate from Los Angeles to San Francisco and seeing only two cars and one truck.
Southeast is spectacular
We entered Alaska south of Ketchikan, quarantining on board. For the next four months we meandered through the islands and channels of southeast Alaska, from the southern end of Prince of Wales Island, up the exposed west side of Baranof Island to Sitka, through Cross Sound, around Glacier Bay, up to Skagway, down to Juneau, down through Stephens Passage, east into Tracy Arm and west to Admiralty Island, down the Wrangell Narrows, west to Kuiu Island, and back around Kupreanof Island, finally coming to rest in Petersburg. We went where we wanted.
Our days had an easy rhythm. If we felt like moving on, we’d just raise the anchor and head out. We usually had an idea of our route for the day, but we rarely knew where we would anchor that evening.
Most days we saw whales. There were a few orcas, but humpbacks were everywhere, sometimes so many that we just had to shut down the engine and wait for them to move on. We watched them bubble feed a few yards off our bow, breaking the surface together with gaping mouths. We watched others leap into the air and splash down with a crash that sounded like cannon fire.
There were otters, thick in some places, totally absent in others, still on an unsteady rebound after having been nearly wiped out for their pelts. A local otter expert told us to pay attention to what they were eating. If they had gone through the crabs, clams, and urchins and were reduced to eating starfish, they’d soon be moving on. As we passed, some of them would be floating on their backs with food or cubs on their stomachs. Others would raise their head and torsos far out of the water and watch us go by with a surprised expression (Patsy swears some of them waved to us). In Skagway, with no cruise ships and the tourists absent, the otters took over the docks at night in wriggling puppy piles.
Bald eagles were as common as crows.
We’d stop now and then to poke around glaciers and came to understand their types and personalities. The summer heat caused a lot of calving -- a few tons of blue ice cracking off and falling into the water with a low-frequency ka-boom. We nosed up to one big blue iceberg much larger than our boat and could see the rivulets of iceberg sweat running down its sides. Big ice has an eerie life to it.
When we felt like it, we’d stop to fish. The pink salmon (also called humpbacks, no relation to the whales) were running this year, swarming at the base of some rivers by the thousands, moving as one in living shoals, getting ready to make their way upstream.
In the early afternoon or evening, we’d find an empty cove somewhere along our route and drop anchor. With 600 feet of half-inch chain, we had options. If the conditions looked right, we’d also drop our crab pots. Then I’d take the dinghy into shore with Bella for a hike along the beach or into the woods.
There were often bears around, both black and brown. Brown bears are grizzly bears, grown larger on their salmon diet than the inland grizzlies. A large adult male can stand 10 feet tall, weigh 1,200 pounds, and outsprint a racehorse. One evening at dusk on Admiralty Island, Bella and I came across three of them. One took a special interest in us at about the time we decided it was time to get back to the boat. Over the summer and fall I talked to several bear experts up here – hunting guides and biologists – and wrote an article on guns and ballistics for bear defense. I carry a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs on these hikes, but have never had to use it, and don’t expect to.
Thanks to the pandemic, we were usually alone. There were no cruise ships anywhere and almost no yachts except a few local boats. In some places we’d see commercial fishing boats -- purse seiners and long liners -- but mostly salmon trollers. These are 30- to 45-foot-long boats, often wood, many built in the 1930s and 1940s, with long trolling arms on each side, motoring slowly, catching fish by hook and line. There’s usually only one fisherman on board, occasionally two. They spend weeks out on the water, ranging far and wide, off-loading their catch onto roaming tenders who announce their arrival in the area over the radio. Salmon trollers are the cowboys of the open range up here, self-sufficient and alone on the water.
Some days we’d stop at places I knew from the historical logs and journals I keep on board. These gave us a sort of augmented reality, a time-travel overlay to what we were seeing. South of Sitka, I sat in the woods at the site of a fort, where in 1804 the Tlingit almost repulsed the Russians, who had come for otter pelts. There, I read the log of Lieutenant Commander Lisyansky, captain of the Neva, and about the lucky Russian shot that blew up the canoe carrying the Tlingit’s gunpowder and leaders. North of Juneau, we stopped at Vanderbilt Reef where, on October 24, 1918, the steamship Sophia ran aground. All 343 people on board drowned. The newspaper accounts of the time questioned the captain’s decision to delay offloading passengers until conditions improved, but seeing the rocks myself, I think he made the right call. He was just unlucky. George Vancouver went nearly everywhere in southeast Alaska from 1791 to 1795 and kept superb logs and charts. They give us the best early description (at least in English) of the Tlingit and Haida. I counted 148 of his placenames still in use. In Skagway, I read how, in 1898, a con man named Soapy Smith corrupted the local officials and the newspaper and took over the town, until the night he and Frank Reid, the town surveyor, shot each other dead. I stood between their graves.
In terms of weather, piloting the boat through the islands of the archipelago was easier than I expected. The geography funnels the wind and waves up or down the channels, and there is no ocean swell, so the wind and waves are aligned and are almost always on your bow or stern, not abeam. From ahead or behind, 35 knot winds and eight-foot waves are uncomfortable but not dangerous. We only deployed our paravanes – fishing boat stabilizers – three times, twice in the open ocean off the west coast of Baranof Island and once in Cross Sound.
Icebergs were a new challenge for me. The big icebergs were easy to spot because of their size but also because they are always blue or white. It was the little ones I worried about, clear as the water they float in, showing only a few inches above the surface but heavy enough to do damage. Nearly invisible in some conditions, we’d spot them by the interruptions they caused in the ripple pattern on the surface. Near the base of glaciers, I’d have to throttle back to idle-forward, then use the trolling gear to slow the prop even more while negotiating our way through. The Endeavour has one big heavy propeller protected by the keel. I wouldn’t want to run through chunks of ice with two propellers exposed on both sides.
The nautical charts up here are less reliable than down south. Important rocks are sometimes missing or misplaced. River mouths are often much deeper or much shallower than on the charts. We touched one sandy bottom where the chart said we were in 10 fathoms. We went through rocky passages that weren’t much wider than the boat, and often we had to time our arrival and departure with the tides; high tide so we’d have water under our keel and slack water so we could steer.
Mechanically, we had only a few glitches. Early on, the anchor windlass stopped working and I had to replace the controller switch with a piece of PVC pipe, a couple of bolts, and a screwdriver. To get the desalinator working, I had to re-route lines and filters to compensate for a failed valve. The motor on the air compressor (which controls our throttle) stopped working, and I had to replace the burned-out points inside with an aluminum rivet and a dab of epoxy. You can do that sort of thing on larger old boats because the components are big and accessible, and the parts aren’t so specialized that you can’t jury-rig something.
Here and there we ran into extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, all of them open and generous as fellow travelers in empty spaces usually are. I can’t give names without forgetting someone. But if you’re one of our new friends, I’m grateful for your advice and hospitality and glad to know you.
It’s hard to describe the effect Alaska has had on me. Partly, it’s the scale of things. I have always sought out wilderness. It’s there in the lower 48, but in pockets, always surrounded by civilization. Up here everything is wilderness with civilization being the exception, just scattered dots in the grand expanse. It felt like our little ship was a spaceship and we were exploring a new galaxy, in rubber boots and flannel.
We didn’t escape politics
All that blissed-out nature stuff aside, Patsy and I kept up on the troubles back in Seattle and across the country. Whenever an LTE signal wafted in on a zephyr, we’d download half a dozen newspapers. At times we felt guilty for having escaped, leaving our friends and institutions behind in the chaos, but mostly we felt disgust and anger that the chaos was happening at all. Every day, Patsy and I debated politics, philosophy, science, and psychology. I expect most of us have done the same over this last year, and in the long run, that’s a good thing.
A word about my wife
I can’t imagine living this life without Patsy. She’s absurdly smart. Working through ideas with her is like arc welding steel at high amps, it sparks and the metal flows, reforming stronger. She can also be silly. I’ve seen her do the Hoonah dance on the top deck and sing to otters. She is also wise. She often sees and understands things I don’t and explains them to me. We have an awful lot of togetherness, but we enjoy being with each other every single day. Every single day. I could live on the boat in Alaska without her, but I wouldn’t want to.
We chose Petersburg as our winter home
Petersburg in its wintery glory
At the end of October, we arrived in Petersburg in an early snowstorm. This is our base for the winter and probably for winters to come. There is a paved road that runs 22 miles south, two miles north, and one mile east to the airstrip. In the winter, the population drops from roughly 3,000 to 2,250. There is no mail delivery to houses (let alone to boats) so everyone meets at the post office. The main industry is fishing – not tourism. The town is prosperous because in 1965 local fisherman took a chance and bought the local cannery from its Wall Street owners and replaced the company store with their own. Profits stayed here. The town is highly functional, and it shows in the quality of the fishing boats, the schools, the library, the community gym, and the hospital. We’ve made good friends here.
For us, the biggest and best news of 2020 was the birth of Evelyn Marie Urschel on November 15th to my son and daughter-in-law, Augie and Morgan Urschel. Patsy and I stretched the pandemic protocol and flew from Petersburg to Washington DC to bond with the big pink treefrog. She’s lucky to have been born to those brilliant, curious, and ethical parents. The planet may not be doomed after all.
Evelyn has been introduced to otters
It is the last trading day of 2020 today and the stock market just closed. The fund had a ridiculously good first year. We’re registering as a hedge fund in Alaska, apparently only the second one in the state. I’ve teamed up with two friends – one in New York and one in Seattle – to help us scale in 2021.
I just finished a design for a new tender. I based it on a traditional wooden design called a Garvey, used in the shallow bays and estuaries of New Jersey. I’ll have it made from aluminum. With an extremely shallow draft and a jet pump outboard, it should get us further up the rivers next season.
At the end of January, Patsy and I will make the two-day run down to Ketchikan, then take a week or so coming back by another route, stopping by the LeConte glacier.
We’ll head out from Petersburg again in the spring. In April, we’re meeting Seattle friends in Juneau. We hope to see all three of our sons up here at some point. We’re also hoping to pull together a museum expedition. I’m looking forward to more whales, more bears, more otters, more glaciers, more fish, more hikes with my dog in the woods, and more time with my wife.
Those are my highlights from the year now gone. If you’re interested, you can visit the Endeavour’s site at www.endeavorvoyages.com and follow Patsy’s blog.
Best wishes to you in 2021.
- Bill Urschel