Tootling, as Captain Robert Oakes would have it, is more than just the speed of a vessel. It’s his slow-paced ambling philosophy of how to explore the tidal sounds of south-east Alaska’s Inside Passage.
And what better vessel to tootle in than MV Swell, her cruises fashioned by nature and nurture. The nature: whales, grizzlies and bald eagles galore, and the captain’s desire to drop anchor frequently to marvel at all creatures great and small. The nurture: well, she’s a 1912 tugboat. Her top speed is eight knots per hour – somewhat slower than an Olympic rowing eight.
In a previous incarnation she hauled log booms a mile long around British Columbia for the Victoria Tug Company of Vancouver. Now the repurposed Swell is the most unusual cruise passenger vessel plying the Alaskan coast.
I first clap eyes on her in Sitka harbour at the beginning of nine freewheeling days in the viscerally wild Inside Passage: nature’s Eton mess of forested islands, stony coves, wriggling kelp forests and curacao-hued icebergs – all tidally infused by the North Pacific Ocean. It’s love at first sight.
Tugboats are workhorses. They shouldn’t be such irresistible eye candy. She’s 88ft long with clawfoot bathtub curves. Her blackened Douglas fir hull is silkily smooth and rises to the bow like the upturned tip of a sultan’s slipper.
Two upper decks behind the captain’s wheelhouse host six wood-panelled cabins named after conifers. Mine, Sitka Spruce, has more than enough room to swing a sea otter while the en suite shower’s pressure is as strong as the tides that allow Swell to squeeze between pinched shallows with her 12ft draft where the big cruise ships dare not sail.
‘She’s one of three coal-fired tugboats built together in Vancouver in the early 20th century to haul logs, steel and gravel as British Columbia boomed,’ Captain Robert tells me and six fellow passengers.
‘She’s a living lineage of the boats that built the north-west Pacific coastline.’
Our oldest guest, 75-year-old Marion, recalls growing up in a small town on Vancouver Island and seeing the tugboats haul log booms. Maybe even Swell? ‘There were no roads so coastal communities needed to be supplied by sea,’ she says.
Swell went diesel in 1954 and following several rebuilds was refitted in 2004 with cabins as a fishing charter, then dive vessel. Maple Leaf Adventures bought her for small luxury passenger cruises and relaunched her in 2015.
‘She’s an interesting boat to sail,’ Captain Robert opines. ‘At first, she felt slow and cumbersome, but she can turn on a dime and is very seaworthy. She’s made for tootling.’
Ah, yes. Tootling.
‘We’re going to tootle around running a very loose schedule,’ says the captain. No uniformed silver fox, he is happier in shorts and possesses an irreverent humour that stretched to putting on an eye patch when I asked to photograph him.
‘Our itinerary will be organic. We’ll head to places we think we’ll see whales. The constraint is we only have an eight-knot boat, so she’ll be slow.’ The ebb and flow of strong Pacific tides would prove both our ally and foe in determining our progress.
We tootled for the first few days around the so-called ABC (Admiralty, Baranof, Chichagof) Islands, sailing from Sitka, a little fishing town of 8,000 hardy souls with a curious fusion of First Nation Tlingit and Russian culture. You can eat pelmeni dumplings near a wooden 1840s Russian Orthodox church and visit totem poles in a forest where the two disparate cultures shed blood during clashes between 1802-4.
‘The Russians came in the 1700s hunting “soft gold”, sea otter pelts,’ says a Tlingit guide at Sitka’s National Historical Park.
After slipping anchor we chugged between Baranof and Chichagof, their mountains ground by glaciation, shorelines scalloped by tides into shapes on a map resembling a Rorschach inkblot.
Between them lies Peril Strait, which takes a sure-footed vessel like Swell to avoid misfortune in gushing tides at Deadman’s Reach, Poison Cove or Murder Bay, where two traders were killed by Kake natives in reprisal for a village massacre.
‘Murder Bay was a whaling station and had a post office here until 1953,’ says Captain Robert. ‘The Swell delivered its mail.’ Such historical footnotes permit this Canadian vessel to operate in U S waters. ‘The Jones Act restricts working boats to American-only but Swell has a “grandfather clause” because she operated here previously,’ he explains.
Near Admiralty Island we steam south into Frederick Sound, hypnotised by a sea as smooth and shiny as liquid mercury. I stand at the bow scanning for whales with the ship’s naturalist, Misty MacDuffee, and we are rewarded by the sight of dozens of humpbacks that spend a morning breaching. Amid gasps of incredulity they soar near-vertically, rising out of the foaming ocean like Apollo space rockets before gravity sends 30 tons of whale blubber crashing down with a thwack like a sumo belly-flopping into a paddling pool.
‘Nobody is really sure why they breach,’ says Misty. ‘They could be removing barnacles from their hide or simply having fun.’ I fire off my zillionth photo of the spectacle with a green Thai chicken curry prepared by Mary, the ship’s classically trained chef, balancing on my lap.
At any time, Captain Robert might announce: ‘Change of plan, folks, we’re going out in the Zodiacs for a tootle.’ One day we go to bathe in geothermal pools in Warm Springs Bay. On another, we hike wildwoods unlogged since the Ice Age, tangled like pickup sticks with fallen hemlock and spruce stems; it’s positively atavistic, and rightly so, because bears likely linger in the chiaroscuro shadows.
And before evening’s three-course meals, Swell demonstrates her manoeuvrability, slipping into coves off limits to larger cruise ships. In Bond Bay’s shallows we are close enough to shore to see a foraging black bear before bioluminescence (agitated algae in layman’s terms) creates a blue glow around Swell’s hull.
Showy whales aside, I sense the key to all life here resolves around the salmon spawn – around July and August. They are fair game for just about everybody: bears, sea otters, seals, and even us, as Mary’s opening salvo is pan-seared sockeye salmon with peach salsa and green beans on emmer-farro spelt.
Streams writhe with wild salmon throughout. On a hike to Eva Lake on Baranof Island, the river shoals are frenzied with splashing sockeye, chums, chinook and pinks – each identified by Misty, who prefers them wild rather than en papillote.
‘Salmon are key to wildlife here,’ she suggests. ‘After spawning, their carcasses decompose to add nutrients to rivers to enrich insects and trees. Killer whales chase the chinook, and bears will delay embryo implantation influenced by the lipid fats they can accumulate from eating salmon before hibernation.’
Judging by the thrashing salmon massing around Pack Creek on Admiralty Island, a bumper winter for bear cubs lies ahead. It has been a bear sanctuary since 1934, administered by the US Parks Service. One morning we watch five grizzlies tootle out of the woods on to a cold gravel spit.
A shaggy mother with rust-coloured fur pounces on a salmon and devours it sashimi-style, sharing with two adorable black cubs, who when not bear-hugging each other eat their fill. A bald eagle hops down from a stump to polish it off before clucking ravens scour the fishbones clean.
As the final port of call beckons at Ketchikan, Clarence Sound glistens in a gazpacho of pure floating glacial ice. Captain Robert’s response is to call for drinks, so his first mate is dispatched to chisel 15,000-year-old ice for our sundowners in the salon. The ice is fragmenting from LeConte tidewater glacier, which recent scientific study suggests is retreating at 16ft per day in summer. Booming thunderclaps reverberate around the U-shaped valley, accompanying powdery avalanches as the glacier collapses in real time before our eyes.
It’s the most beautiful slow death imaginable.
On our penultimate day, Swell slips through Wrangell’s Channel: 20 miles long and barely 20ft deep. We pass many old shipwrecks, mostly marooned on tidal flats. In another life Swell would have been more gainfully employed here in salvage.
It leads to Snow Pass where the Inside Passage delivers a finale richer than Mary’s orange and mint creme brulee. The humpback’s encore. This time, bubble-netting: a rarely witnessed spectacle of humpbacks joining forces to corral small fish and phytoplankton into a bait ball.
Misty explains that the coordinating whale emits high-decibel disorientating frequencies from below to drive their prey towards the ocean surface. She plays a hydrophone recording of the hunt call – New Age whale music turned death metal.
A swirling ring appears on the surface. The captain cuts the engines. The humpbacks herd their prey ever upwards, before four of the largest gaping mouths in the animal kingdom break the surface, seawater sloshing around, mouths eventually closing like lids on flushing lavatories desperately in need of a plumber.
I’m too stunned to photograph it the first time, but they repeat this around the Swell for hours after. True to form, Captain Robert changes plan and we anchor for the night to feast on the continuing spectacle in a sheltered little bay.
A humongous cruise ship with thousands of passengers steams down the centre of the sound oblivious to what is happening. There’s an outdoor screen on deck showing a Star Trek film. If they’d slowed down and embraced Captain Robert’s tootling philosophy, they wouldn’t have missed a spectacle way beyond science fiction.
Mark Stratton travelled on Swell with Maple Leaf Adventures (00 1 250 386 7245; mapleleafadventures.com) on its 11-day Alaskan Supervoyage. For 2020 departures, prices start from $8,359 (Dh30,700) per person, based on two sharing a cabin, which includes all meals and drinks, excursions, and one night’s hotel on land. Flights cost extra.
Fly Emirates to Seattle from Dubai from about Dh6,000 return.
The flights to Sitka from Seattle and from Ketchikan were with Air Alaska (alaskaair.com).
Further information: visitsitka.com; visittheusa.co.uk
The Daily Telegraph