Here is another navigation-challenge
tale. There is a spot in SE AK where an enticing
shortcut exists. It is right at the junction of
Icy Strait, Lynn Canal, and Chatham Strait at
a place called Swanson Harbor. The shortcut between
Swanson Harbor and Couverden Cove means a savings
of several miles out in waters that are frequently
pretty windy, often with nasty seas. However
this is a very dicey little shortcut and is best
done only by dinghies or larger boats with solid
"local knowledge" of the shorcut. That
means doing what I did after we were docked:
reconnoiter the shortcut by dinghy and decide
if you really want to do this with the "big
We had not been to Swanson Harbor before so I
was very curious to check out this "Coverden
Channel" shortcut myself. We knew there were
two public floats in Swanson so we were watching
for them as we entered the bay. But we first saw
these odd looking, really large poles in
the distance. Strange. That didn't look right
for public floats.
Oh, here are the two floats off to the right.
So we picked one and tied up the boat.
I was determined to go
check out those poles. They are (non-Coast Guard)
markers meant to guide boaters through the
shortcut channel. They were much taller and than
I had anticipated. I hopped into the Green
Devil on a falling tide with just a few minutes
to spare and went off to dinghy through this channel
with camera, GPS, and pen and paper in hand. Before
reaching the west end of the channel markers I
had to be sure to skirt this hazard called: No
And here are the channel
markers. This is pole #1 (green). (The
green tells boaters that -- when entering
from this end -- all the greens should be
on the left side of the boat.) The tide level here
can reach about 18 feet above charted depths.
It can also go below the zero mark on a "minus"
tide. Most (but not all) of the
rest of the markers were substantial metal
There are five sets of poles. Each had a
colored flag with a number. In this picture you
see in the distance: 3 & 4, 5 & 6, and
7 & 8. The width between the poles is approximately 40
feet so there is not room for a large boat to
do any turning around. Once you start through
you are committed.
As I approached the shortcut's
west end (in Swanson Harbor), there appeared
to be just enough water covering the bottom
of the channel to slide the skiff through and
back. Fast! Before the water level dropped
further. (The skiff draws 18" with the
motor down; as it turned out there was about
2 ft - 5 ft throughout most of the
The green-marked pole is # 5. The red in the distance
is # 8.
Here are #7 and # 8 shown
And here is # 9. Oops, something
happened to this pole for sure. And # 10 was completly
I didn't have time to ponder
this mystery very long as the water was continuing
to drop. I quickly did a 180 and started
my way back through the channel.
Heading back. Hmm.
The water is already more skinny. Hurry up Linda.
Kack! Kack! Kack! Kack! Argh.
Get that motor up higher! OK
now. Keep going.
Watch the bottom more closely.
Yes, I confess. I managed to add a few little
nicks to the prop. (It was, after all, a bit difficult
to drive, take pictures, and record GPS coordinates
all at the same time.) David was kind about the
prop and only gave me a slight frown and shake
of his head.
When I got back to the dock we helped tie up this
boat. The skipper intended to go through this
very same channel at half tide later in the evening.
He had a 3 foot draft and lots of local knowledge
as he is a charter vessel. He says he has
been through there many times and goes at
anything above half tide. (His timing for
the upcoming passage would give him
about 7 feet of water. He was satisfied with just
4 feet under his keel.)
I decided to do some more exploring of the channel the
In the meantime, I had
another ..." You look really familiar" moment.
We were at the Swanson dock with yet another
boater that had attended the Douglass Inside
Passage Seminar: Simpatico.
These folks brought the
boat from Seattle to Juneau, where they live.
They were out playing for the weekend and decided
Swanson was a convenient stop.
The next morning we had a minus tide of 1.9 feet.
The shortcut channel is bare on that
kind of tide, so I decided to return right at
the lowest point in the tide cycle and WALK the
channel this time. That way I could get really
accurate GPS coordinates. (And it certainly protects
the skiff's prop doing it this way.)
Blaine (Simpatico) was also curious about the
shortcut channel so he went with me on my
morning excursion. As we dinghied over I discovered
that he is retired Coast Guard so I had a
real professional with me to witness my coordinate-gathering
Here is what we found. Those are poles 1 &
2, with 3 & 4 and 5 & 6 in the background.
Poles 7 & 8 are way off in the distance.
We pulled the skiff up
and set its anchor (around the pole!), then
started out on foot.
What a sight.
got roped into the project by proxy. I couldn't
get my pen to work in the misting rain so I
radioed each coordinate back to him to write
down for me.
The water was no more than mid-calf puddles as
we walked through the channel. After poles 5 &
6 (seen here), there is a left turn in the
And we solved the mystery
of the missing pole # 10. It has been knocked
down completely and was lying in the channel.
We could see why this end
of the channel (east) is the tough end. As we
looked out from the last set of poles, this is
what we saw at the minus tide. A scattering of
rocks that must be threaded through. We sighted
the rock/reef beyond the last bar (barely visible
left of center in the picture) and decided
we would probably need to keep that to the left
of our exit course.
When I returned to the
boat I entered all the coordinates and looked
at the chart for the rocks noted at the East end.
I plotted my impressions on the electronic
chart and did a screen capture. The purple icons
are the lat/longs I gathered through the
actual marked channel; the circles are waypoints
of the route that I estimated would complete the
exit. Here's the result of my little research
Click Chart to Enlarge
And what were the final
conclusions? Blaine said he was glad to have scouted
the channel and would now probably take his 32'
(3 ft draft) Simpatico through the shortcut at
high water in good weather. OK, what about Royal
Sounder (45' long; 4-1/2 ft. draft)? My conclusion
was no. It would not be worth taking the
chance in our boat.
That's exactly what reconnoitering is meant to
do: help you make decisions about what is right
for you and your boat.
David thinks I'm nuts putting so much time into
things like this. But the reseacher and explorer in
me is still alive and kicking. I consider doing
things like this part of the fun of boating for
M/V Royal Sounder