Black suits in white fjords – Alaska

 

Sitting on a boat in the middle of the Alaskan winter, surrounded by this amazing crew and a few icebergs, it finally hit me how truely incredible, seriously unique & purely entertaining this surf expedition was going to be!
Arriving into Homer the swell forecast was looking solid. A bit too solid, to be honest, at least at the start, forcing us to delay our departure slightly. We finally started out with 29ft seas and a few words of warning from various locals whose skepticism equaled our enthusiasm. The purple bulb on the surfline forecast was right on top of us!
The boat was the Milo. A fishing vessel built in 1966, on which we traveled to the Shumagin Islands (along the Aleutians) in 2014. Is was then, and it is now, cosier than a swiss chalet in winter!
The winds were working with us, apart from the first 2 days where we recorded 110km/h gusts. It ripped one of the windscreen whipers up on the wheelhouse, we lost the ladder that leads to the top deck, and Iceman walked out of the cabin just in time to rescue 3 surfboards that were about to take off into the sky after a strap snapped. Intense.
The days were short, especially the stormy days, of which there were a few, meaning that we had to surf whatever we could find during the light before the long nights took over again.
And then there was the crew…
– Captain Mike McFish: after a 25 year break from surfing (which didn’t rob him from his wicked surf skills gained on the Northshore of Oahu, bodysurfing second reef pipe), he can crack about 12 jokes per minute, 32 anecdotes per day, and named around 120 waves in Alaska! The Milo is his baby, and he sold his house (and more recently his fish factory) to surf in the most stunning locations on the planet – I mean it!
– “Big Wave” Wendy: Has even appeared in Vogue Magazine as one of the few Alaskan female surfer – her balance must be better than Steph Gilmore’s, considering she can cook anything while the Milo rolls on the ground swell of the Gulf of Alaska, and leans 45 degrees in all directions! The smile cannot not be wipped of her face, even when we kept her awake by laughter and late night silly talks.
– Iceman: If not drowning himself in books about fruit trees, farming and poetry, Don – aka Iceman grows tons of veggies, makes wine, makes beer, makes cider and has been surfing in Alaska for 25 years (18 of them on his own if i recall correctly), only using a 3”2 in the early days! That’s dedication, especially when you know that the water is between 0 and 7 degrees c! He once flew to some small island in the Bering sea to surf, only to realise that the ocean was rock solid.
– Scottie: if he ever had to write his resume, it would most likely be as big as the Bible! He is a dad, a surfer, a SUPer, a photographer, a furniture maker, a wicked pancake and cookie baker, and he made us all looked like super models, taking photos of us wearing various outdoor brands that his clients send him, in the most dramatic landscape.
And finally, there were the 4 of us random, ring-in surfers. Mike had asked me to find a couple of people to make the mission financially doable. I could only find one, but luckily a few weeks before the trip Mike got a call: “Sorry this might sound stupid but are you up for a surf trip in January?!” “Well, funny you ask!!!! says Mike”… After frantically trying to buy the right equipment, Kelly and Oliver arrived (wearing shorts!!!!!!) in Homer. Both are software engineers from the Silicon Valley. Silly me…I thought that such a profession is synonymous with NOT-COLD-WATER-SURFER. Well I was wrong- it is in fact synonymous with Surfer, Kite Surfer, Sailor, Climber and good story tellers.
I came with Tim from Torquay. He didn’t take much convincing! He packed his runners (as you do when going to sub zero temperature where everything is ice..) and 3 boards and off we went…after a week in California, attempting to surf Mavericks on a 6″6 (he was serious – I was hoping it would be 2ft). Our biggest challenge was working out the right amount of alcohol to take onboard, considering it would be dark at 5pm every night, until 9am the following day… The right answer was a lot.
The surf was good initially, and varied: lefts and right, reef and beach breaks, always under the inquisitive eyes of a couple of otters, sea lions or seals. We called a wave New Years, and looked for one to call “Happy”…I think we found “Crappy”… The backdrop to all this craziness on and off the boat was the one we all hoped for: looming glaciers and rolling white mountains!
Then, the swell died progressively and made our quest more challenging. To our surprise, it only bothered us slightly, and sometime not even at all. Nature was big and kept entertaining us in a major way. We spent time exploring the shores, frozen rivers, and glaciers, looking for eagles, coyotes and orcas. Kelly managed to “surf” a 1/2 foot glacier wave. Mike & Scottie had briefed us clearly as we anchored 1/4 of mile away from the front of a large glacier. The waves can be 10ft when a large blocks break off, and you must avoid floating ice blocks as they are harder than rock. Tim and I paddled out in front, (but not too close) of the glacier face and sat on a floating ice block, waiting patiently and “freezingly” for a a big bang! We witnessed a few – the sound was raw, loud and threatening. In the end only a couple of waves rolled through, but too small to surf. We left with a few blocks of 10,000 year old ice to keep Icemans cider fancy .
Perhaps the degree of success for a surf trip cannot be measured in the quantity of waves caught.
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