Inside Passage Blog

By Linda Lewis



August 3, 2007 – Discovering Fords Terror


One of the things I long ago learned about myself is that I love discovery. Cruising in SE AK makes discovery possible in all sorts of amazing ways. Making it through challenging passages and seeing sights that light up the soul are very high on my discovery list.
We had never explored Fords Terror before, but decided that this was finally the year to do it. I didn't take very many pictures during this exploration, which is odd for me. I was too captured by the raw beauty of a place that I think rivals -  no, exceeds - Misty Fiords National Monument.
The name of this place (as described in the Douglass cruising guide) harkens back to the 1889 experience of someone who got caught in the inner basin and had to wait for six hours before the 2-3 foot waterfall at the entrance became smooth water on a high tide, allowing him to exit safely.
This email contains a fair amount of navigation information in addition to photos, so my apologies to the landlubbers on the cruising email list. Just skip those parts if you're not interested.
Here is the outer basin to Fords Terror, as we approached our anchorage.

Seeing the two boats at anchor, below, gives you some perspective for the size of the walls of this place. Royal Sounder is on the left; a clearly savvy local boat is on the right. We bet he had the best spot in the anchorage.

One of the deterrents to exploring Fords Terror is the chart. It is a really small scale and just doesn't have enough detail to make most people comfortable about coming here. But we were armed with several great local-knowledge tips garnered a week before our exploration; those made us even more willing to try the passage. 
From the experience we now have, it's my opinion that most cruisers can prudently enter the outer basin hugging the east wall, anchor in the outer basin (taking the time to get a good set), then take a dinghy trip into the incredibly beautiful inner basin. With this new (to us) information, we will probably take Royal Sounder up into the inner basin on our next trip. (But ONLY on high water slack.) I think Fords Terror is not to be missed by cruisers.

Using the Douglass SE AK cruising guide, we knew that there were shoal waters in the outer basin between our anchorage and the entrance to the long passage to the inner basin. (Those shoals don't show up on the chart; the Douglass guide gives best-estimate outlines of the shoals.) Just where those shoals really were was one of our big questions.
Here's a look at a (proprietary) vector view of the chart.

Click Chart to Enlarge

This is the outer basin, as seen from our anchorage.

One of the helpful local-knowledge tips we received was to go to the base of this waterfall in the outer basin [located at 57 deg 37.845' N - 133 deg 10.010' W] to begin our passage across the outer basin to the entrance to Fords Terror.

Then we were to proceed on a course of  approximately 290 degrees magnetic. The tip (originally from a local fisherman) said doing that would leave the shoals to either side of us and point us right into the narrow entrance to the inner basin. Here's a closer-view screenshot of the chart.

Click Chart to Enlarge

We anchored in the outer basin where you see the anchor symbol and "Dave," above. We originally headed toward the Douglass anchor sweet spot but found only very deep water along the way, so Dave decided to double back and anchor at a shallow spot he found (approximately 25' at zero tide - 57 deg 38.109' N - 133 deg 10.016' W). It was not an easy set; the anchor bounced along the rocks. After a very determined effort, Dave had a good set.
We did wonder where the neighboring iceberg was going to shift during the tide changes.

The answer was that it shifted within the outer basin, but did not pose a threat to us. We're guessing that the shoal actually stopped it from getting closer to our anchor location.
We had been advised to enter the passage to the inner basin approximately 40 minutes after high water at the Holkham Bay-Woodspit Tide Station. (That is just outside Tracy Arm.) The heading from the waterfall to the narrows entrance and the tide timing based on Woodspit are the two tips I wish I had known about before the 2nd Ed of the Douglass SE AK book was published, because they would have been a nice addition. I think cruisers would be much more likely to try this spot with these additional pieces of local knowledge.
Enough with the navigation challenges details. Let's go!
The morning for our exploration dawned fairly foggy so we decided to make the trip to the inner basin by skiff rather than take the Royal Sounder in. Even though it began to clear up as we were preparing to leave, we stayed with the skiff plan. Starting from the base of the waterfall, we pointed 290 degrees magnetic towards the entrance to Fords Terror. (You can see the entrance just right of center in the photo below.) 
The least depth we found crossing the outer basin from the waterfall on the 290 course was 18 feet; we passed safely between the two shoal areas.
We were at the smooth-looking entrance about 55 minutes after high water at Woodspit and encountered about a 2 knot ebb. So going through the entrance at the suggested time (40 minutes after) would probably have been just right for this (neap tide) high water slack.

This is the entrance with a ghostly river of fog. What a gloriously beautiful place. We had a least depth of 26 feet right at the entrance (at approximately 15 minutes past high water).

We saw many waterfalls in Fords Terror that made the word spectacular seem an understatement. This was one of my favorites, tumbling down a deep chasm in the rock wall. My other favorite eluded my photography abilities. I just sat and stared at it for a very long time. For the talkative bunch that we are, we were all pretty quiet as we moved through Fords Terror. It was truly like being in a great cathedral.

The pictures can only hint.
This is the massive wall at the top of the long leg of the T.

As we looked towards the arm at the right, this is what we saw. There is a shoal area at the narrow part, so that would not be the direction to go if we wanted to anchor the big boat in one of the arms of this inner basin.

This is the basin when you turn left at the top of the T. 

We scoped out two spots at the head of this left arm, with depths we would consider for anchoring Royal Sounder on a future trip.
1) 57° 41.910' N - 133° 11.027' W - depth = 60 feet three hours after high water at Woodspit tide station.
2) 57° 41.918' N - 133° 11.034' W - depth = 40 feet three hours after high water at Woodspit tide station.
Bottom characteristics untested, but probably rocky!
The very still water gave me more kaleidoscope picture opportunities. I can't resist those because they are so magical.

And here is a last look at the inner basin at Fords Terror. Not to be missed!

Linda & Dave
M/V Royal Sounder



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