Ford’s Terror and Juneau
Thursday June 24th
Clear skies have held as we wake to a glorious 'sky blue' overhead. Our anchor is up by 7:04 because we are heading to Fords Terror today, about 20 miles distant, and we must arrive at slack high water to enter. The approach to Fords Terror, up Endicott Arm, is stunning.
According to our guide book, "Fords Terror is a narrow inlet that extends five miles in a north direction. Its entrance, dangerous except at high water slack, is on the north side of Endicott Arm. Tidal currents rush through the narrowest part of the inlet with great velocity. Fords Terror was reportedly named in 1889 for a crew member of the Patterson, who entered the narrows, got caught inside, and spent a terrifying six hours until the tide reversed."
It requires four hours to make our way to the entrance, and we arrive just before 11:00--supposedly at slack high water, according to the nearest tide station which we passed by along the way. Because the guide book indicates that the high water here is only 20 minutes after Juneau--some 40 to 50 miles away--I calculate that slack high water in the narrows should only be 5-10 minutes later than the closest tide station, which is 18 miles away.
We easily find the entrance to Fords Terror, and enter at a crawl, until we can gauge the layout of the approach to the narrows. Our chart isn't detailed enough to provide any useful information, so we must navigate by a sketch in the guide book. The sketch shows an approach to the north, followed by a turn to the northwest between two shallow shoals. That turn places you in the narrows, which then hooks sharply back to the north around a large boulder on starboard.
We continue to approach slowly, alternating between neutral and dead-slow. Good thing, because our first approach is wrong. As we drift over the western shoal our shallow depth alarm sounds off. Set to 15 feet, it only gives us about an 8-1/2 foot buffer over our 6-1/2 foot draft. I click the throttle into reverse, stop the boat (requires about 10-15 seconds even at this slow speed), and then back away. I must steer around a large 30-foot iceberg that has drifted into the entrance, and grounded on the shoal.
Our next attempted approach is to steer northwest from what looks like mid-bay, based on my radar set to 1/4 mile range. This approach also proves too shallow, as the depth readout is down around 18-feet. I'm beginning to wonder if we'll fit.
Moving to starboard, however, gets us into the main but narrow channel. We are now aligned for a correct approach, and the depth display levels out around 24-feet. Success. Relatively.
Confident that we have found the optimal approach, I concentrate on current. The time is now 11:15, so we should be at slack high water, meaning no current. To gauge this, I pull the throttle back to neutral, and watch our drift. Our drift is about one knot, toward the narrows. A one knot drift isn't ideal. But it is safely workable. So I continue to approach, sometimes drifting in neutral, sometimes engaging the engine to gain a little control. Within one boat length, however, everything changes.
As we approach the narrows, and before I realize it, the current accelerates from one knot to 2-1/2 knots. In hindsight this makes sense, because when you force a volume of water into a smaller container, in this case the narrows, it goes through faster and under higher pressure. This is the principle behind a spray handle on a garden hose, but the realization didn't quite hit me in time to be useful. The realization that did hit me was that we were committed. Attempting to back up in this current would swing the boat sideways to the current, and into the narrows. Not a good combination, particularly since I can now clearly see the narrows, which we are heading toward at 2.5 knots. The narrows at Fords Terror is only about 100 - 120 feet wide. (Our boat length is 43 feet. We do not want to go sideways.)
As the skipper, I have made a decision: we go. The good news is that we're in mid-channel with adequate depth. At least according to the hand-drawn chart in my book. (Keep in mind that the person who wrote this book lost his sailboat attempting to pass Cape Horn.) OK, so we're not at slack, but two out of three ain't bad.
Time to concentrate on the next item: The upcoming sharp turn to starboard, around that boulder, isn't lining up quite right. We'll miss the boulder just fine. It's the rapidly approaching vertical rock wall on port that's more problematic. When I say problematic, I should be more specific and say that if I don't do something, we'll hit, bang, or scrape. The swift current now skids us to port as we experience a bit of centrifugal force moving into the turn. I need control, and that means more speed. More speed is not what I particularly want at this point in time, approaching this narrows.
But as you recall, we're committed, so I throw the throttle forward to gain a degree of steerage in order to turn starboard. I throttled up as much as I dared, given that I didn't want to hit anything, unexpectedly, any faster than we were already going. Like that boulder on starboard, for example. I didn't have time to look at the knot meter, but we were probably approaching four knots by now. High adventure. I needed a little miracle, and it came in the form of technology close at hand: I hit the starboard bow thruster, and spun Andanté starboard. Perfect entrance.
But too shallow. We were now approaching a 20-foot depth again. Steering to port quickly placed us in deeper water. We shot through the narrows to the relative safety of the other side. The crew cheered, and the angels sang. And then the crew cheered again. In fact, for some reason, they wouldn't stop cheering. But the game wasn't completely over.
Upon rounding the corner in the narrows we came face-to-face with another sailboat approaching form the north. His idea was to enter the narrows after we passed through. His approach will be much easier because he will have steerage heading against the current. But I had news for him. I steered close to yell some valuable information to the crewman on the bow. "You've got another sailboat coming through behind us," I yelled. "I'd advise that you wait until they clear through, because they'll be coming through very fast."
You may have noticed that most of my attempt at humor is about human nature. It's such ripe subject material. And so is the rest of this story. The crewman, who was working hard at looking nonchalant, casually nodded his appreciation, as if he had been transiting Fords Terror every day since he was five. He may have even said "thanks" as we passed by. But he chose not to share this information with his skipper, who, back at the helm, heard nothing. And so, into the narrows they plunged, oblivious to the oncoming sailboat which was by now, heading around the corner.
We continued to look behind us, with great expectations of experiencing a high speed sailboat-to-sailboat collision. (I have never seen one, and have often wondered what it would be like.) Tangentially, this reminds me of the story about the fellow who was being interviewed for the job of switcher in a railroad yard. "What would you do if a train was approaching and the automatic switch failed?" asked the foreman. "I would use the safety override," replied ... Bob. "What if the safety override failed?" asked the foreman. "I would run out to the yard and switch it manually," replied Bob. "What if the manual switch was stuck?" asked the foreman. "I would use signal flags to communicate with the engineer." "What if the engineer couldn't see you?" asked the foreman. "I would call my son," replied Bob. "You would call your son?" the foreman said. "Why would you do that?" "He likes to watch train wrecks," said Bob.
So anyway, we looked backwards and saw the sailboat that we had just passed, motoring south, meeting the sailboat coming around the corner, motoring north, and both of them meeting at the narrowest and fastest point on the west bank.
Because we were now a bit distant from the narrows, it was difficult to determine exactly what happened next. To avoid scraping that west wall, the sailboat heading north slammed his throttle into full forward. We could tell this was happening, because, although we couldn't hear his engine, we could see a large cloud of blue smoke exploding from his stern. To avoid a head-on collision, the boat heading south cut hard to port, to the east, across the narrows. They passed each other close enough to exchange presents. In fact, they seemed to know each other, because they appeared to be having a conversation right there in the narrows.
Having cleared the obstacles in the narrows, both human and natural, we wound our way north, and then west, to an anchorage that can only be described as spectacular. Picture an oval basin, about two miles long, with steep rock face mountains on all four sides rising up from the water to 5000 feet. All four mountains are capped with snow. The western mountain, the one we are closest to, starts with a snow field at the top, and cascades into a large waterfall, perhaps 1000 feet or more in width. This waterfall covers the entire vertical face of the mountain, straight down to the water. It creates a thunderous wall of white noise that completely fills the anchorage.
As we anchor, a large black bear meanders out of the forest and down to the water's edge. Because the waterfall obscures other sounds. So, he didn't hear us until a noise from our anchor alerted him to our presence, after which he turned tail and ran back into the woods.
After anchoring (deep) in 100 feet of water, sunlight streams down from a cloudless blue sky, allowing us to sit on deck in T-shirts and shorts--a much needed respite after days of rain. I lay down on one of the foam cushions in the cockpit, listening to five waterfalls surrounding us, basking in the sun, and drift slowly and peacefully off to sleep.
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