High Winds, Waves Mean Wild Ride in Sitka Harbors

Photo by Ed Ronco, KCAW - Sitka: The Dancing Girl sank during a small but powerful storm on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. This picture was taken Monday, Nov. 14, on the transient float at Eliason Harbor in Sitka.

A small but powerful storm slammed broadside into Sitka over the weekend. On land, the city fared well. But in Eliason Harbor, boat owners scrambled to save their vessels as floats rocked, lines snapped and fenders popped. Many boats came away with broken bowsprits or torn cleats. And one boat – the Dancing Girl – sank.

Port Alexander resident Harmony Garnick bought the Dancing Girl just three weeks ago. It was tied to the transient floats at Eliason Harbor on Saturday afternoon, and she was on her way to check on it. But by the time she got there, the storm was already doing its damage.

“It picked the boat up and set it on the side of the dock some, and the next waves just came in the boat,” she said.

Garnick says her boyfriend was aboard at the time, and called her to tell her what was happening.

“I had my 2-year-old kid in the car so I had to sit in the parking lot until somebody came to sit with her before I could go down to the dock, because it was blowing 60 (mph),” she said.

The National Weather Service says peak wind in Sitka reached 63 miles per hour on Saturday. Down near the Cape Decision lighthouse, peak winds hit 99 miles per hour. And out at the Cape Edgecumbe data buoy, wave heights topped out at 38 feet.

Tom Ainsworth is meteorologist-in-charge at the weather service’s Juneau office. Storms like this aren’t unusual for November, but he says this one is noteworthy because it was small and came straight out of the west.

“So it gathered a lot of speed as it came across the open Gulf (of Alaska), and most of the energy of this storm was felt right around Sitka, down to about Cape Decision, with wind speeds between 60 and over 90 miles per hour in that area.”

Boat owner Bryan Bach said conditions changed quickly.

“It went from a fairly decent westerly to completely out of control within minutes,” he said.

Bach’s 24-foot boat, the Viviana, spent the day pitching around, and suffered minor damage, including a broken cleat.

“All of a sudden it was a life-or-death situation for a lot of these guys,” Bach said. “The Dancing Girl sunk at the end. I was fighting for my boat, and there were dozens of people who showed up with buoys. My neighbor, Mike Mattingly, was right there with bags … Dave … all kinds of folks were on scene helping out. It was quite a show of being good neighbors and kind folks.”

Video taken by a boat owner in Eliason Harbor shows floats and boats rocking and heaving back and forth as waves pound the harbor. In addition to those tied to the floats, harbor residents report several boats dragged anchor during the storm. Harbor Department officials spent Monday dealing with the aftermath, and could not immediately be reached for a comprehensive total of the damage.

Meanwhile, at the end of the transient float, only the Dancing Girl’s trolling poles are above the surface of the water. It’s sitting a little higher now, after divers spent Monday salvaging cannonballs and other items. But the real recovery work is still ahead.

“Just refloat it, get all the electronics replaced, the engine flushed and running, and try again I guess,” Garnick said. “I have to take it home. Have to get there someday.”

Refloating could happen Tuesday.