Ripping the Tide

On Alaska's most dangerous body of water, a rugged band of sailors lives to sail—and to tell about it

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Two hours after I had plunged into the torrential murk, I was sharing a cold one and recounting the highlights of what had been an epic session. Seconds after I launched, I'd found myself overpowered and skipping like a rock across the frothing madness, my field of vision narrowed to a pinhole. Picking a sweet swell and tossing a jump was completely out of the question—I was desperate just trying to stay downwind against the pull of the current. But after my fourth reach, I started to feel comfortable and thought, I can do this. The speed went from scary to exhilarating.

Though I hadn't been wearing flares, I soon learned that the entire group had quietly focused on my safety. Given that the nearest rescue team is several hundred miles away in Kodiak, self-rescue is the only option if things get hectic. Everyone adheres to a strict code of conduct: No one sails alone; no one leaves while someone else is still out; everyone carries extra rescue gear.

Despite the precautions and constant communication, the unspoken still looms large within the group. Two sailors have died in the Arm in the last ten years—one body was found months later, 50 miles out in the Gulf, wrapped around the leg of an oil platform—and there is great reluctance to discuss such tragedies. Part of this reserve comes from a fear of being banned from the place by state police; another part is the inevitable sense of "that could have been me." Still, they keep at it.

"I just love it," Toennies said. "There are no crowds, no boats, no fishermen, no spectators, nothing. There's just this beautiful place filled with an awesome solitude and a small handful of us, sailing as often and as hard as we can. That's what we share."  

Tom Byrnes lives in Portland, Oregon, and writes for several boardsailing magazines.

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