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

Looking across the water at the snow-capped peaks of the Chugach Mountains that loom 5,000-plus feet above Turnagain Arm, I realized that it wasn't the liquid smoke blowing from the tops of the 15-foot waves that was making me think twice. It was the flares.

Standing directly in front of me, Anchorage boardsailor Janice Tower gracefully balanced her tiny battered board and her tiny sail in the 45-mile-per-hour gale as she prepared to jump from a rock into a soft-looking eddy below. It was a drop of only a few feet, but after that the water turned ugly, and she was trading glances with Thor Kallestad—the guy who had talked me into this mess—over who would go first. Besides her helmet, her close-fitting drysuit, and a long coil of emergency tow rope, she had something I had never seen in 15 years of boardsailing: a set of waterproof safety flares lashed to her waist harness. Seeing these, I quickly surveyed the handful of locals picking their way down the steep, rocky launch and realized that everyone but me was packing for disaster.

"Bear off hard downwind once you get in or the current will suck you right up the Arm like you're on a conveyor belt," Kallestad shouted in my ear as he stepped forward next to Tower. "And don't sail out any farther than you want to swim, because if you break down and the tide switches, the next stop is Vladivostok!"

With that, he and Tower splashed one after the other into the eddy. They were gone in an instant. The bright colors of their sails flashed across the whitecaps before disappearing in the heavy swells.

"Looks like we've got a fine day for boardsailing the Arm," said Peter Toennies, a retired electrician who's logged 170 days on the water the last two seasons, and who, at 68, is the de facto paterfamilias of the crew of 12 or so regulars who sail the Arm. He was sporting a broad smile and gesturing for me to hit the water. "You'll see, there's nothing quite like it."

No kidding. Essentially a crack in Alaska's Chugach range that reaches ten miles wide at its broadest, Turnagain Arm runs inland from the Anchorage harbor at Cook Inlet nearly 50 miles to Portage Glacier and is home to the second-largest tidal shift in the world. (The Bay of Fundy, between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, sees the largest.) At low tide it's empty, a desolate moonscape of gray glacial silt dotted by glistening tide pools. But when the tide turns, water rushes in from the Gulf of Alaska as a standing wave more than ten feet high, a phenomenon meteorologists call a bore tide. Rising at a rate of about one foot every ten minutes, the shift between low and high tides is 40 feet with an undercurrent that can run anywhere between 12 and 20 knots.

But the bore tide merely sets the stage. Whenever a storm front moves in from the Pacific, wind gets sucked through the towering passes of the Chugach and shoots straight down the Arm. The mountain walls that frame it form a natural funnel, creating wind speeds that average between 30 and 60 knots. Combine the incoming bore with opposing winds of gale force, and it's no wonder Turnagain Arm has an enduring reputation as the most dangerous body of water in Alaska.

"High tide or low, it doesn't matter," I had been told over beers at the Great Alaskan Bush Company, a cavernous, open-timbered Anchorage bar that caters to the special needs of gentlemen who spend excessive amounts of time alone in the woods. "The Arm will kill you."

This wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear my first night in town, but my host at the Bush Company wasn't through. He promptly shared his version of the exurban myth of the tourist who wandered out onto the flats near Ship Creek in the early 1980s to go tide-pooling. She got stuck in the silt and found that the more she struggled, the deeper she sank. Quicksilt. A state policeman saw her and summoned a rescue helicopter from Elmendorf Air Force Base on Anchorage's northern outskirts in an effort to reach her before the bore began to flood. The helicopter arrived in time and lowered a line with a harness attached. She strapped it around her upper body.

"She was ripped in half when they tried to pull her out," my new pal said, signaling for another round. "That's why no one will go in there."

Well, almost no one, I thought as I eased the nose of my board into the eddy where Tower and Kallestad had just been. The shore fell away sharply and I kicked hard to push my rig out into wind, not sure what would happen next.

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