Author Archives: Kevin John Gilhooly

About Kevin John Gilhooly

A poet, a dreamer, a caffeine addict. President of KNON 89.3FM - The Voice of the People in Dallas and Ft Worth. President of Sparky's Pals, a humane education non-profit. Wedding officiant. Owned by four dogs. Retired IBMer.

Alaska Excursions

We managed to get our excursions chosen and booked. Since we’re traveling with my niece and sister-in-law, there were twice as many votes as usual. Still, a consensus was eventually achieved.

We booked through Norwegian, although we could probably save a bit by booking independently, but the port times in a couple of places are short enough where we wanted to be on an excursion that was run for the cruise line.

In Ketchikan, we are on the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour. We are going out on a The Aleutian Ballad – a ship that was on Deadliest Catch (season two – she was hit by a rogue wave) to catch crab. Well, to watch trained people catch crab, and then handle the catch before it’s thrown back. It’s a good chance to be on a crab fishing boat (with its slightly inauthentic heated stadium seating), see what pulling a pot is like, and see what comes out of the ocean. This was one excursion I really wanted to do, so I’m happy. (I don’t remember anyone on Deadliest Catch drinking hot chocolate, but I like it, so hand over the mug.)

In Juneau, we will go on another boat to visit Mendenhall Glacier and go whale-watching. An interesting aspect to Alaska whale-watching tours – almost all of them have a money-back guarantee! This either means there are a lot of whales in Alaska or there’s a boat that goes out first and releases them.

In Skagway, we will visit the Best of Skagway and ride the White Pass Railway. I usually avoid “best of” excursions, since you’re rushed through a bunch of places you don’t care about seeing in order to see the one place you want, but I get to pan for gold and see a former brothel, so I’ll take my chances. The White Pass Railway is a narrow-gauge rail line from the port at Skagway up to the gold mines in Canada. The mines don’t need supplies from the line any longer, so now they mine tourists. It’s the first excursion I remember where we will be in two countries, since we’re going from the US to Canada and back.

It’s interesting to see how much there is to do (although each port seems to have a specialty – Juneau for whales, Skagway you have to ride the railway), but also to remember how little of Alaska you actually visit.

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Foamers

There’s a group of fans in almost every endeavor who go a bit beyond the norm. Remember, “fan” is derived from “fanatic”, so that’s already a pretty good starting point.

Still, there are always those who go above and beyond – say, the baseball fans who memorize individual player statistics (“Don’t pinch-hit Sanders! He can’t hit a leftie after 6pm if it’s more than 76 degrees and the roof is open!”), the music fans who know who all the people in the song really are (“Sexy Sadie” was the Maharishi), the fans who know where their idols live (“stalkers.”)

So, it really shouldn’t have surprised me that the same applies to cruises. Now, you would think that you simply chose a cruise, you paid your money and you sailed somewhere, and that was the end of it. Rookie mistake.

The first group are the frequent sailors (like frequent fliers) who can tell you the best cabins on a specific ship, which dishes to avoid in which restaurant, and what weeks will have the least kids. They know the T&Cs and how to work the loopholes. They know the day the line stopped putting chocolates on pillows, and the day the lobster went away.

Then, there are those who track the individual crew members (or befriend them on social media) and book cruises based on who the butler is that week. These people answer a question like “Does anyone know when Julie is back from vacation?” with “Let me call  her and check” or “When we had dinner last week, she said she had two weeks of vacation left.”

There are ship collectors, who want to sail on every ship in a fleet. There’s actually specialists in that group, who want to sail every inaugural sailing or only Transatlantics (we met some of them, before we knew it was a thing.)

So, when I’m awake at 2:30am, watching a video feed of a new ship “floating out” into open water for the first time, I’m a little embarrassed. Just knowing that “floating out” is a thing is pretty bad, but knowing how to watch it (and then thinking about going to see one in person some day) is a bit troubling. But at least I’m not alone.

Alaska Routing

Our Alaska itinerary, seven days, round trip Seattle:

Day Port Arrive Depart Distance
Nautical Miles
Notes
Day 1 Seattle 5 pm 0 Embarkation
Day 2 Day at Sea All Day
Day 3 Ketchikan 7 am 3 pm 579
Day 4 Juneau 7 am 1:30 pm 201 AM
Day 4 Cruise Sawyer Glacier (Tracy Arm) 4 pm 8 pm 46 PM
Day 5 Skagway 7 am 5:30 pm 113
Day 6 Day at Sea All Day
Day 7 Victoria 4 pm 10 pm 783 “Distant” Foreign Port
Day 8 Seattle 8 am 64 Disembarkation

I’m still obsessed with navigation, so I’m trying to determine why the port times are so strange, compared to the Caribbean “standard” 8am – 5pm. Juneau is short because we will attempt to get to Sawyer Glacier that afternoon, so it’s really a two-stop day. Victoria is our “distant foreign port” to allow a foreign-flagged ship to call on a bunch of US ports without being US-flagged.

Also, Tracy Arm seems to be a bit of a challenge due to ice for much of the season, so it is questionable whether we will get there or go to an alternative glacier. Who knew there would be ice in Alaska?

Alaska Planning

The Erie Canal adventures has been bumped by another bucket list cruise: Alaska. My wife was helping some of her family book a cruise to Alaska and by the time I had heard all the details, I finally asked, “Why don’t we go along?” So, now, we’re going to Alaska on the Norwegian Bliss, during her inaugural season.

We never planned an Alaska voyage before, since we generally cruise at Christmas, and the season in Alaska is May – September. Also, my wife is allergic to cold, and apparently, any place you go to look at ice may be a bit chilly.

It will be an interesting trip, since the Bliss was specifically designed for Alaska cruises, but is much larger than the other ships Norwegian generally deploys to Alaska. (It’s a Breakaway+ class ship, like the Escape and the Joy. The Escape is moving from Miami to New York. You never hear about the Joy because it is in China.)  I think it is interesting they are deploying a ship built to be a destination in a place you go specifically to look at the countryside and not just play on the ship (although I may have to drive the race cars.) How many people will miss whales breaching the surface or glaciers calving because they’re in the casino?

As usual, we did everything backwards, since you should choose the ports that are important to you and then find a ship, not vice-versa. This would have required more research than “let’s go to Alaska.” However, I’m pretty sure my wife chose the Bliss for her family because she was still annoyed we weren’t doing the inaugural Atlantic crossing, so the Bliss it is.

As it turns out, we’re doing pretty much the exact cruise my sister-in-law did about ten years ago, so she may have deja-vu the entire trip. For the rest of us, it’s all new.

Side note: don’t choose a cruise based on the ship and then get a generic Alaska cruise guidebook since every chapter will contain lots of information about things you can’t do, because you’re not going there.

Alaska is not the Caribbean. It’s cruise season is very short (May to September), the ports are limited, times in port can be weird, and everything is really expensive. Our port of embarkation, Seattle, seems vastly overpriced compared to other major cities I’ve visited. Still, it should be a fun cruise on a new ship, assuming we don’t have to sell the house to finance it.

We will also need new wardrobes, since apparently the only way to survive in Alaska is to dress in layers. (I hate dressing in layers.)

I’m putting this post here as a placeholder for my notes as research continues.

Some sites of interest (so far):

 

 

Planning is Over-rated

Sometimes, there is no time to plan. If you have a desperate need to get out of town and a credit card, you can have an entire cruise chosen and booked with shore excursions and speciality dining in four hours or less.

You’re trying to get away from stress, why not have some stress putting everything together?

That’s what happened on our first Carnival cruise. I really needed to get away – anywhere. It’s just nowhere is very cheap these days, even though we’re after the summer crush. We got down to driving somewhere in Texas or just going to Vegas, when I looked at cruises one more time.

My wife has a rule to never sail on a cruise less than seven days, but all I wanted was a break, so she caved and said five days would do. Galveston to Cozumel and back, plus a stop in Progresso.

Of course, that cruise was sold out, so we booked the next week.  A seven-day cruise from Galveston to Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Montego Bay. In other words, the same as our Christmas cruise coming up. It’s not like we’re sailing for the ports any longer.

So, we’re on the Carnival Freedom. Now, we have to learn about the ship. I’m pretty much ready to wing it at this point, but my wife’s planner mode is kicking in, so she’s freaking out a bit.

By the time we got the cruise booked, got everything registered (and paid in full), booked excursions, booked dining, booked the pet sitter, and finally downloaded the app, I saw something I had never seen before the day I booked a cruise – You sail in 14 days.

Planning? It’s over-rated.

Of course, I wrote this before we left. I may have updates on our return.

Yes, we’re still planning the Erie Canal, but that may be 2018 at the rate we’re going.

 

Erie Canal Options

This is a placeholder page for all the links I’m collecting, as I’m still researching cruising the Erie Canal. This includes my currently reading Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation (on the history of the Canal with a lot of interesting parallel histories of canals in general), watching some really bad (and often repetitious) YouTube videos, and lots of searches.

The State of New York has a lot of information on their canal system. (They are also happy to sell you a massive canal cruising handbook which just arrived today with a bunch of maps and pamphlets. It was worth the $20.)

I subscribed to their email list which includes their Notices to Mariners, so I am officially a Mariner now, I suppose.

Here are the most easily found companies that will rent houseboats for cruising the Erie Canal:

The boats all seem similar – they’re English canal boats (which is lucky, since I only speak English.)

I asked houseboating.org for a Captain’s manual, but I don’t think they understood the request. I really would like a guide to cruising from a Captain’s perspective – a driver’s manual. They sent some proposed itineraries, which were useful for generating Google Maps, but they don’t explain how the boat works. I’m still looking for that information.

It seems surprising to me that companies will give you a rather large boat after a couple hours of training and assume they will see you back home and dry in a week. I guess it shouldn’t, since I was once given the controls of a three-quarters of a million dollar Caterpillar tractor and told “Have fun. Dig a hole.”

The two hours of training does seem to be consistent – it’s virtually the same for the Le Boat rentals in Europe.

Le Boat is how this whole journey started, since I would really like to sail the Shannon River some day. The Shannon rises near my ancestral home (if one can refer to a very small farmhouse that my Grandfather fled as an “ancestral home”), so we could see family and then cruise. The Erie Canal requires less flying time and no passports. Plus, I’m pretty sure our cell phones would work the whole time. It would be a good dry run, if anything on the water could be considered a dry run.

 

Cruising the Erie Canal

I’m in the planning (very early planning) stages of an Erie Canal cruise. This will take more planning than usual, mainly because there is no Captain or staff. We’re the Captain and staff. This is renting a bare-bones boat and sailing up and down the Erie Canal – through locks, under raised bridges and the whole schmeer.

I think this would be great fun, and my wife actually agreed. Many of the YouTube videos show couples older than us, so if they can do it, we can do it.

Here’s one possible route, with ports (you may have to expand the map to be able to actually read it.) The ports are lettered in order – you depart and return from Macedon. It’s a one-week cruise. Except for North Tonawanda (the termination of today’s Erie Canal), all of the ports are overnights. (I think you have to see the end of the canal, so you sail to North Tonawanda and then head back.)

We’re probably talking 20 miles per day (or so), at about five knots. You need to add time for traversing the locks.

There’s a minimal kitchen onboard, but the itinerary  I mapped (which is a suggestion from houseboating.org) has you overnighting in towns, so you could always just have dinner in town and grab coffee and something on the way out. I don’t think you’re ever far from a town, so you could stop for lunch if you didn’t want to bring food along.

This is a cruise where your cell phones would always work, everyone would speak English, and if the boat stopped, you could probably just walk to the nearest town. (The original Erie Canal was four feet deep, so you could just wade to shore, but it’s deeper now.) It should be simple. (I always fear anything that should be simple.)

I’m starting to collect all the information I can – but I don’t think my request was understood. I now have the brochure on the rental boat and I have the planned itineraries, but I really wanted a Captain’s guide (like LeBoat in Europe has.) I would like some specifics on how you actually drive – it’s a diesel-powered boat, so that should be simple enough. It has bow thrusters for getting in and out of ports. The electrical systems are battery-powered, but it’s not clear how you charge the batteries – unless they charge while you’re connected to hotel power in port.

Much more research to follow. I will document as I go, so I don’t forget anything.

I always wanted to do a LeBoat tour in Europe – mainly on the Shannon in Ireland or through Loch Ness in Scotland. This is a lot closer to home for practicing.

The interesting thing to me is that all the rental companies are pretty much similar in their restrictions: you don’t need a license, we’ll show you how to drive the boat, you have fun, be back on time. (They require insurance and deposits, so they don’t expect it to always go smoothly.)

The tricky part to most of the routes would be the locks, I think. You’re always promised that the lock-keepers are friendly and happy to help, but they must get tired of the same questions all the time. Also, on parts of the Erie Canal, you have to remember to contact the bridge master to have the bridge raised.