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
I had first heard about the Arm from some sailing buddies who had gone to college with Kallestad. After graduating, they stayed in Southern California (where I was living at the time), while Kallestad moved to Anchorage to work as an environmental engineer. One thing led to another and before long I was headed north to sail this place Kallestad described as "sort of like [Oregon's] Columbia Gorge—but on steroids."

Once I reached Anchorage I learned that Kallestad, 27, was the youngest member of a small band of watermen who take their rigs out into the Arm in late spring when the icebergs clear out and sail until the early fall when the bergs return. The water temperature never gets much over 55 and cools to 35. Lured by the high winds, powerful currents, and the resulting massive swells, these daredevils routinely face conditions that would overwhelm most boardsailors.

Of course, they aren't the first to reckon with the Arm. Originally believed to be the elusive Northwest Passage Europeans had sought since the mid-1500s, the Arm was discovered by Captain James Cook himself. In the summer of 1778, the seafaring Englishman entered what is now Cook Inlet with two ships, the Resolution and Discovery, to find a way through. A crew commanded by a young officer named William Bligh—later famous as the captain of the mutinous H.M.S. Bounty—put ashore at Fire Island, at the mouth of the Arm. Bligh found nothing of note, but an adventurous Connecticut Yankee named John Ledyard jumped ashore, likely becoming the first American to set foot on Alaskan soil.

By the time Bligh and his crew returned to their boats, Cook had located an opening at the northern tip of the inlet, which he hoped was the Northwest Passage. Cook and Bligh set sail for it only to be beaten back repeatedly by headwinds. To complicate matters, Cook, on one attempt, mistimed his reentry into the Arm and found himself beached in the middle of the channel. Frustrated by the wind and what he described as "a prodigious tide with a terrible appearance," Cook named the body of water "The River Turnagain," and after high tide refloated his boat, he promptly set course for Hawaii. To this day, no commercial or pleasure boat ventures into the upper reaches of the Arm.

"Part of it is the big waves and the wind, but what makes it really special is the fact that the tides change the sailing quality of the water on a minute-by-minute basis," said the 38-year-old Tower, the only woman in the group and the second-place finisher in this year's rugged Iditasport 100 cross-country bike race. "You can go from flatwater speed sailing to navigating mast-high swells at the same spot within a span of 45 minutes. Then there's the scenery—the mountains, the Dall sheep on the hillsides, the pods of Beluga whales passing by—where else can you find that?"

And despite the fearsome nature of the place, almost all of the Turnagain regulars defy the extreme athlete stereotype. Their average age seems well north of 40. None has tattoos or piercings. No one's sponsored; most have full-time jobs. In fact, there are no boardsailing shops in Anchorage, so there's no place to buy or repair equipment, or take a lesson, and you have to look hard to find a boardsailing magazine, even more so now that the sport is less fashionable.

"All our gear has to be imported via air freight from the outside or brought back by those who take windsurfing vacations to Maui or the Columbia River Gorge," explains Gary Randall, a 50-ish real estate appraiser who was among the first to sail the Arm in the mideighties. "Heck, most of us could care less about reading a windsurfing magazine. People don't come here for that. We're not into the image thing—that's a Lower-48 state of mind. We're here to sail."

Clutching well-worn tide charts from the local Kmart, the group rabidly tracks the wind via the Weather Channel, Coast Guard reports, barometric readings taken at two places along the Arm, and an impressive word-of-mouth network. "Since there's only a three-hour window between the height of the bore and the outgoing power of the ebb that can be considered safe for sailing, we've got to pay attention," Kallestad said, and then laughed. "We're the only people in Alaska who spend the summer praying for crappy weather, because it brings the breeze."

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