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Rescue in Tracy Arm

By Joanie Waller

This is a story of an unexpected adventure I had while hired as a cook on a charter trip.

One day in mid summer, the Journeyman, a 42’ Nordic Tug, whiled away the hours in the waters south of Juneau, Alaska, with two guests from Wisconsin, the skipper and cook (me) aboard. The day was a relatively nice Southeastern Alaska summer day - overcast, but not really rainy; very little wind and calm waters - overall, quite nice. On the 5-day charter, we’d taken our time watching whales in Stephen’s Passage and exploring Ford’s Terror, with it’s majestic granite walls. We spent most of this day in Tracy Arm.

The Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm is a retreating glacier, which fills the bay with ice floes. During the winter months it is impassable because of the packed ice, but during the summer months, glacier viewing boats of all sizes are able to venture close to admire the walls of ice, hoping to experience the joy and awe of a glacier “calving”, as it lets loose segments of the wall, oftentimes the size of volkswagons.

Mid-afternoon, we were hailed via radio by a glacier-viewing boat out of Petersburg. Perhaps 65 feet long, this boat had two ‘stories’ with balconies for the guests to view the scenery. I would guess it had the capacity for 40 passengers, but there were only about 15 on board that day. The skipper, who we found out later was a relief skipper, was calling us to ask for aid, hoping we could give him a little tug to pull him off an ice floe he’d accidentally backed over. The vessel had two props and somehow had managed to maneuver one of them on top of an ice flow, rendering it incapacitated. We stayed his towline to our bow cleat and pulled in reverse, until we realized it wasn’t going to be a matter of simply pulling him off of the ice - this chunk of ice was coming along with him! You've heard the term "just the tip of the iceberg"; there was a lot more ice under the water line than was visible above.

This is when things began to get interesting and at which time I was thankful for my past experience as an Alaskan commercial fisheries deckhand. The skipper of our boat offered to take another tact by attaching a tow bridle to our stern to pull with instead of towing in reverse. This entailed first hooking up the bridle, then quickly tying it off to the towed boat’s line and tossing it over so it could come taut without sinking. The exercise seemed simple enough, but became a comedy of errors. The male guest aboard really wanted to be a part of the process and was right there catching and tossing lines. As he caught the tossed towline, the end of it flipped and hit him in the side of the head. He wasn't hurt, but stunned, and his wife rushed to his aid, as neither the skipper nor I were available to help. The skipper was at the helm, and I was otherwise occupied, tying, I must say, the fastest bowline knot imaginable. I tied it and tossed it over, only to find that the other end of the line had never been made fast to their cleat! The whole apparatus had to be retrieved from the drink and the other end fastened to the disabled vessel.

Once secured, the next step was for me to mind the towline, making sure it didn’t get caught under our swim-step each time it was coming taut after it had slackened. This happened a number of times as the skipper repositioned his towing angle. Meanwhile, in order to get the clients out of harms way of the very tight towline, we posted them on the bow equipped with boat hooks, with orders to push ice floes away from our bow.

We towed the boat and that ice floe nearly completely out of Tracy Arm. We were discussing whether we were actually liable, once committed, to tow them all the way back to Petersburg when…we were able to feel the chunk of ice give way.

In the end, they gave us each a bottle of wine, a canvas shopping bag, and lots of thanks. Our clients and theirs went home with stories of adventure on the high seas of Southeast Alaska and I came away with a few good photos and a story of my own.


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