Sitting on a boat in the middle of the Alaskan winter, surrounded by an amazing crew and a few icebergs, it finally hit me how truly incredible, unique, and purely entertaining this surf expedition was going to be. Arriving in Homer, the swell forecast was looking solid. A bit too solid, to be honest, forcing us to delay our departure slightly. So when we finally started out it was with 29-foot seas and a few words of warning from locals whose skepticism equaled our enthusiasm. The purple blob on the forecast was right on top of us.
The boat was the Milo, a fishing vessel built in 1966, on which we traveled to the Shumagin Islands in 2014. It was then, and it is now, cozier than a Swiss chalet in winter. The winds were working with us, apart from the first two days when we recorded 110km/h gusts. It ripped one of the windscreen wipers up on the wheelhouse, we lost the ladder that leads to the top deck, and Iceman walked out of the cabin just in time to rescue three surfboards that were about to take off into the sky. Intense.
The days were short, especially the stormy days, of which there were a few, meaning that we had to surf whatever we could find in the few light hours before long nights took over again.
And then there was the crew…
Captain Mike McFish
After a 25-year break from surfing (which didn’t rob him of his wicked surf skills gained on Oahu’s north shore), he can crack about 12 jokes per minute, 32 anecdotes per day, and name around 120 waves in Alaska. The Milo is his baby.
“Big Wave” Wendy
Has appeared in Vogue magazine as one of the few Alaskan female surfers. Her balance must be better than Steph Gilmore’s, considering she can cook anything while the Milo rolls on the groundswell of the Gulf of Alaska, and leans 45 degrees in all directions. The smile could not be wiped off her face, even when we kept her awake with laughter and late night talks.
If not drowning himself in books about fruit trees, farming and poetry, Don, aka Iceman, grows tons of veggies, makes wine, makes beer, makes cider and has been surfing in Alaska for 25 years. In the early days, he only wore a 3.2, so the nickname should make plenty of sense.
If he ever had to write his resume it would most likely be as big as the Bible. He is a dad, a surfer, a SUPer, a photographer, a furniture maker, a wicked pancake and cookie baker, and he made us all look like supermodels, taking photos of us in the most dramatic landscape.
And finally, there were the four of us random surfers on board. Mike had asked me to find a couple of people to make the mission financially doable. I could only find one, but luckily a few weeks before the trip Mike got a call: “Sorry this might sound stupid but are you up for a surf trip in January?!”
“Well, funny you ask,” Mike said. After frantically trying to buy the right equipment, Kelly and Oliver arrived in Homer wearing shorts. Both are software engineers from Silicon Valley. Silly me; I thought that such a profession is synonymous with anything but “coldwater surfer.” I was wrong. They’re kite surfers, surfers, sailors, climbers, and good storytellers.
I came with Tim from Torquay, who didn’t need much convincing. He packed his runners and three boards and off we went. After a week in California attempting to surf Mavericks on a 6-6, our biggest challenge was working out the right amount of alcohol to take onboard. Considering it would be dark by 5 p.m. every night until 9 a.m. the following morning, the right answer was “a lot.”
The surf was good initially. We found lefts and rights, reefs and beach breaks, and always under the inquisitive eyes of a couple of otters, sea lions, or seals. We named one wave New Years, and looked for one to call “Happy.” I think we instead found “Crappy.” The backdrop to all this craziness on and off the boat was the one we all hoped for: looming glaciers and rolling white mountains!
Then the swell died progressively and made our quest more challenging. To our surprise, it only bothered us slightly and sometimes not even at all. We spent time exploring the shores, frozen rivers, and glaciers, looking for eagles, coyotes, and orcas. Kelly managed to “surf” a tiny glacier wave. The waves can be up to 10 feet when large blocks break off and you have to avoid floating ice as it’s harder than rock. Tim and I paddled out in front of the glacier face and sat on a floating ice block, waiting patiently for a big bang. We witnessed a few but in the end, only a couple of waves rolled through that were just too small to surf.
But, perhaps the degree of success for a surf trip cannot be measured in the quantity of waves caught.