Nordhavn broker Valerie Weingrad and her clients leave the world behind in Alaska
At the beginning of this year, I sold my first Nordhavn – a beautifully equipped, well-traveled N63 – to a couple who had owned many cruising boats. Rob and Monica Tissue were looking for the pinnacle of cruising yachts that would take them into their retirement, one they could eventually live on full-time and would allow them to travel the world.
They found their perfect yacht in the former Ithaka, a boat that was certainly no stranger to world traveling. The previous owners had taken her to the far reaches of the globe including the San Blas Islands and around Cape Horn twice. The boat was a perfect match for the Tissues, and before long they were dreaming of future itineraries.
I had flown to Vancouver with them to view the boat and again for the seatrial where the boat performed perfectly in the harsh conditions of PNW waters in winter. The keys were handed over and celebratory talk included a new name – Almost Heaven – and a maiden voyage: Alaska in summer. “Valerie, we want you to come with us,” Monica had said to me. What other way could I respond than with an enthusiastic “yes”!
That was February and we all know what happened next. Uncertainty about everything loomed. Months went by and by June’s end, Monica checked in with me about plans for a potential mid-August departure. The more I considered it, the more enthralled I was with the idea of getting away and cruising around Alaska. Four negative-COVID-tested people on our own private ship, coming in contact with nothing but nature and the rare person.
I had spent the better part of my life traveling and seeing the world. It started in my childhood spending summers cruising the Great Lakes with my dad on board his 50-foot Sea Ray. Later I became enchanted with sailing, got my USCG captain’s license and started teaching. I was fortunate to get to sail around the British Virgin Islands, the Leeward and Windward Islands, the Bahamas, and as far south as Trinidad and Tobago. The travel bug got the best of me and I wanted to see more of the world so I started a charter company and spent 18 summers cruising the Greek Islands, Turkey and Italy before settling back in the southeast U.S. and becoming a yacht broker.
All those places visited, but Alaska was not among them. I had to go, but I had to come to grips that I would have to take a very long plane ride during a global pandemic across the country to get there.
Flying turned out not to be quite as daunting as I’d imagined. I avoided people as much as possible and when I stepped off the plane in Juneau, the surroundings were everything I had envisioned – only amplified a thousand times more.
The first thing I noticed was how green, lush, fresh and oh-so-quiet it was. And then the glaciers, so imposing with their blue ice. (For you Game Of Thrones fans, I couldn’t help thinking about “the wall”.) The taxi dropped me and the other crew member, Jonathan, off at the marina in Auke Bay where Monica met us. As we walked the pier out to Almost Heaven I surveyed the scene around me. A fisherman cleaning salmon on the dock, men and women carrying huge King crabs by the legs like it was nothing, and a historical gaff rigged schooner with gleaming bright work. The stresses of travel and COVID-19 melted away by the quaintness of this icy land. I was immediately hooked.
Menu planning had been an indispensable skill I’d developed in my former life managing charters, so I took over galley inventory and headed off to Costco with Monica for provisions. We loaded up with enough food to feed a small navy ship, so imagine our panic when we returned to the marina at low tide (Auke Bay experiences extreme tidal ranges) – a certain 20 feet lower than when we’d left. As we comically maneuvered our full carts down a very steeply inclined dock, I’m sure anyone watching us had a good laugh!
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One of the best things about boating is the sense of camaraderie that exists amongst a community of boaters, and people seem especially enthusiastic about meeting anyone who cruises aboard a Nordhavn. After all the groceries were put away, I roamed down the docks to check out the other boats. Auke Bay is not in downtown Juneau, so many of the commercial fishing boats are in this marina. I saw the Sephina hailing from Boca Raton, FL. As I admired his boat we struck up a conversation, when I told the captain I was on the Nordhavn, his face lit up and he waved me aboard. He had a story to tell.
Anyone who knows anything about Nordhavn is aware of the book Voyaging Under Power written by Captain Robert Beebe. It’s what gave fuel to Jim Leishman’s concept of creating the Nordhavn 46. Captain Josh told me Sephina he had owned was hull #3 of the Ben Ostlund designed 52’ trawler, which was featured in the first edition of Voyaging Under Power. He, of course, knew that Jim Leishman had gone on to revise future editions of the iconic book and was a huge fan. The boating world, indeed, is a small one.
Moving down the dock, I next came upon the Kadey-Krogen, Salty Dawg and Captain Knut and Gerri from Norway. He was obviously a fisherman, so I went over to talk to him about how to catch a King crab. I learned the crab pots they use are lowered to depths of at least 400 feet and then retrieved via a crane which hoists them back up… a little more complicated than what we wanted to deal with! Sometime later he came by to offer us frozen halibut and salmon from his stores of fish on board. He wouldn’t take money from us and he wouldn’t take a chocolate pie I offered in trade.
Evening fell and it was early to bed for all, in anticipation of shoving off for Juneau in the morning. Before we left, I took in the view of Auke Bay glacier and that blue ice. At the time, I had no idea of the crazy number of glaciers we would wind up seeing over the ensuing days. There are 50 named glaciers in Glacier Bay alone.
Our week-long journey brought us to so many of awesome places, like Glacier Bay National Park, and an indigenous Indian village. I learned so much about this vast land and sea. For instance, what was causing the noticeable change in water color? It became greener and had an opacity to it that I had not seen anywhere before. We would later discover the opacity was silt in the water carried by the glaciers and it really clogs up the filters of the watermaker. Note to self, don’t run the water maker in Glacier Bay.
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Alaska and the Northwest Passage have been on the top of Rob and Monica’s cruising bucket list for quite some time. To get themselves ready, they watched videos on YouTube from “Cruising Sea Venture”, which takes place in Alaska and is full of really helpful information for anyone wanting to cruise the area. Prior to our trip, Rob had applied for a park permit, which is a requirement to enter Glacier Bay. You can apply for a permit up to 14 days in advance, and only 25 private vessels at a time are allowed in the park. Luckily, we were approved for 5 days and 4 nights. In normal (non-pandemic) times you are required to stop at the ranger’s station and watch a Boater Orientation Video prior to entering the park. Both Rob and I watched the video online and uploaded the documents required for entry.
There were a few major things happening with this Alaska adventure of ours. Number one, it checked a huge item off the Tissues’ to-do list. Number two, it was the longest journey Rob and Monica had taken on Almost Heaven. With Rob still working full-time, they have to squeeze in time aboard where they can. This would be a perfect opportunity to put what they’d learned in their training sessions to the test. Rob is the captain of the ship, but Monica without doubt is a stellar First Mate. She is in charge of the engine room, performs all daily checks in the morning and while underway. She also is in charge of the watermaker system (and is the one who discovered the evils of aforementioned glacier silt). She’s still working at docking and anchoring but determined to get it down. Certainly she’ll be a pro by the time Rob has retired and the two of them head off together for parts unknown.
This also marked my longest trip ever on a Nordhavn. I just celebrated my one-year anniversary with the company and I was anxious to spend more than the typical one-day seatrials and deliveries I’d been on with all the other models. It was my chance to really feel what drives people to buy Nordhavns. I was definitely ready to get into my clients’ heads, so to speak!
Our first anchorage was Funtner Bay. Funter Bay was the site of a World War II internment camp for Aleuts. Today the bay is part of the state marine park. The original Tlingit name for the island where Funter Bay is located means “Fortress of the Bears”. We looked, but no bears were to be seen. Funtner Bay is a 22-mile journey that would position us for our arrival the next day in Glacier Bay National Park. About 15 minutes into the trip we saw our first of many humpback whales. Monica had started a “critter count” and this one went on the list.
The next day we covered over 60 miles on our way to Shagg Cove. As we made our way down Icey Straight to Shagg Cove we saw chunks of ice, or bergies as they’re known, floating all around us. Some were fairly large and we would have to steer well around them. That saying about “just the tip of the iceberg” is all too true. Since Rob and Monica recently got a brand-new blender as a boat warming gift, we decided to collect some ice and make Glacieritas to go with dinner. Rob maneuvered the boat perfectly and we were able to collect the ice without falling off the swim platform. With the huge Sub-Zero freezer we could store a lot of glacier! At Shagg Cove we saw several glaciers, countless otters and more whales spouting and bubble feeding in the distance.
The water in Glacier Bay is very deep. We often found ourselves anchoring in 45- to 85-feet of water. Once anchored we thought about launching the tender and exploring the beach, but the wind had picked up and we thought it would be safer to stay put and not deal with the threat of flying tenders. After dinner that night we decided to try out some of the toys that came with Almost Heaven. Rob had not had the opportunity to test the high-powered spotlight or the Flir Infrared Night Vision. Since bears are nocturnal, for sure we would see one tonight. We tried the spot light which really lit up the bay, but nothing moving out there that we could see. Next, we fired up the Flir. The infrared capabilities were really amazing. We could see the wall of blue ice on the night vision screen. As we swung around the bay the waterfalls lit up on the screen as well. We played around with the Flir until we were all content and tired and ready for bed. I retreated to my forward cabin VIP suite and drifted off in the still of the night dreaming about bears.
The next morning our first stop was to Johns Hopkins Inlet and the Johns Hopkins glacier. There are actually 4 named glaciers in this inlet, but the most famous is Johns Hopkins. I saw Rob standing in the cockpit with this look on his face. “Everywhere I look, I’m overwhelmed,” he said. We all had the same feeling. As we made our way into the narrow Johns Hopkins inlet, we stopped about 3 miles from the glacier and the end of the inlet and took in that amazing view. I was admiring the beauty of our surroundings when I heard the giant rumble of thunder. Only, it wasn’t thunder, it was a glacier calving into the water. Talk about Mother Nature letting you know who’s boss. I’ve been told if it’s a huge berg calving, it can cause large waves, big enough to flip a tender if you’re not careful.
Our itinerary next took us through the narrow northern passage into Tarr Inlet by Margery Glacier and then to the sealion-infested South Marble Island before we pulled into our slip at the marina in Hoonah. It was the first time we’d disembarked since we’d left Juneau.
Because of the weather, we hadn’t had the opportunity to get off the boat for hiking and exploring although there were plenty of other things to keep us occupied. Having some quality hours to read a good book is a true gift! I also was able to spend some time learning the various systems onboard in the pilot house and engine room. This was a great learning opportunity for me, and will enable me to be a more knowledgeable broker for my customers.
I know some people have their concerns about being confined to a boat for so many days, but this is a Nordhavn. The level of comfort is first class. As a sailor, I come from a “conserve water” mentality. Use what you need and not a drop more. On Almost Heaven there was plenty of water for showers, laundry, running the dishwasher and washing down the decks. Even after clogging our water maker filters with the silty water in Glacier Bay, we still had plenty to get us through the entire trip. The accommodations are roomy and with four people on board, you have the ability to get away for some alone time if you wanted it.
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In any other year, Hoonah would be crawling with tourists off the cruise ships, but the town was ours and ours alone. Unfortunately nearly all the shops in this quaint village were closed. A gift shop had a sign on the door with a phone number to call for appointment viewing. I dialed the number and a delightful woman was there in five minutes to open the store and tell us about Hoonah. We all purchased some souvenirs and continued into town.
Walking through the village we saw many beautiful hand carved totem poles and even learned how to read these native structures and identify the various clans within the Tlingit tribe and their position on the pole. We then made our way to the market to pick up a few things for dinner. While browsing in the cookie aisle we met Jamie, a local, and struck up a conversation. She offered us a ride back to the marina which we happily accepted and on the way there, we detoured so she could show us the town. We drove past where her grandparents lived, where the new medical center was, the airport, and where the bears hang out. Her father is a fisherman and since all three of her previous jobs were eliminated due to lack of tourism, she now fishes with her dad. We pulled into the driveway of her house for a quick pit stop. Moments later she returned with two pouches of frozen halibut she had reeled in earlier that week along with two jars of freshly-caught pressure-cooked Coho salmon. Wow! We couldn’t believe it. Again, we tried to pay and again there would be no payment accepted. Continuing on our way, we passed a car, it was Jamie’s mom. Both cars stopped and she handed her daughter a homemade dinner through the car window. At that, Monica insisted Jamie should join us later for dessert on Almost Heaven.
Later, while we were having dinner, and just as we wondered whether she would show up, Jamie knocked on the door and joined us on board. She really was a remarkable young woman, very talented, proud of her heritage and she had just earned her USCG captain’s license. We all basked in the glow of great food and conversation. This was the type of day that cruisers talk so fondly about – not just getting to visit a place, but really getting to know it, experience its people and culture. A genuine treat.
The next morning would be my last in Alaska. We arrived back to Juneau and I packed my things and readied myself for the long journey back to Florida. I’m so grateful to the Tissues for giving me this opportunity. I learned so much – about our boats, about the people, civilization and geography of Alaska, and about my customers – specifically Rob and Monica, as well as the Nordhavn client in general. Looking back on the trip, I can say assuredly that it was one of the best vacations of my life. The combination of phenomenal cruising grounds (which, thanks to the Coronavirus, we virtually had to ourselves) tremendous company, and the safest, most comfortable accommodations made for a dream journey. And, yes, I’m going to say it. It was almost heaven!