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Even nonmariners can appreciate Boone's guide

"Wrangell Narrows at a Glance"

Louis B. Boone Jr. , Boone Maritime Press


Daily News Staff Writer

In Edgar Allan Poe’s "A Descent into the Maelstrom," a mariner gone gray from a single nightmarish encounter with the whirlpool Moskoe-strom currents off the Norwegian coast speaks with horrified awe of the events he experienced in those waters.

I was reminded of Poe’s fiction recently by a new book about Wrangell Narrows in Southeast Alaska. While not as terrifying as Poe’s exaggerated maelstrom, Wrangell Narrows absolutely commands the full respect of any maritime pilot guiding a vessel through its 22 constricted miles of twists, rocks, currents and shoals.

"It is considered by many professional pilots to be among the most, if not the most, difficult body of water in the world to pilot ships or tugs with tows," writes Louis B. Boone Jr. in his just-published book, "Wrangell Narrows at a Glance: Transit with a Maritime Pilot."

Boone is a credible reporter in that regard. A federal pilot and now chief mate aboard the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Matanuska, Boone has transited Wrangell Narrows hundreds of times during his maritime career to date.

The many real perils of Wrangell Narrows inspired Boone to write and illustrate "Wrangell Narrows at a Glance," first as an aid for mariners studying Wrangell Narrows from marine pilot’s perspective, and second as general source of information about the narrows and the navigational skills needed there.

"This is a supplement to the only real way to learn Wrangell Narrows, which is to sail it," Boone writes.

Like a ship’s bridge, "Wrangell Narrows at a Glance" is a concise book with everything in its proper place.

Boone provides short chapters describing Wrangell Narrows and explaining the role of the maritime pilot before getting into specific areas of nautical knowledge needed for a successful transit.

These include tides, currents and how they are affected by wind and barometric pressure. Boone also writes clearly about general hydrodynamics and ship handling, and applies the concepts of pivoting points, bow cushions, bank suction and ship squat to specific vessel behavioral patterns in Wrangell Narrows.

Appendices include a navigational history of Wrangell Narrows and a chronological roster of the many shipwrecks and maritime incidents there.

"The recorded incidents on this waterway have occurred at a rate of nearly 1 every 1/4 mile," Boone writes, adding elsewhere in the book that "close calls and mishaps are the price of doing business in Wrangell Narrows."

In Boone’s view, mariner experience — lots and lots of experience — is the best way to reduce risk in Wrangell Narrows.

"Initial conning time would roughly begin after the observer has experienced approximately 250 to 500 trips through the narrows," Boone writes. "About 500 to 1,000 trips are necessary before a pilot may be turned completely loose."

Pilots learning Wrangell Narrows likely will appreciate Boone’s detailed turn-by-turn illustrations of the northbound and southbound routes through Wrangell Narrows.

The precisely-drawn illustrations include courses, leg distances, aids to navigation and turn points, in addition to notes about errors on existing charts and other information.

Boone said "Wrangell Narrows at a Glance" is now the text for the Alaska Institute of Technology AVTEC navigational simulator class on Wrangell Narrows, and is on the bridge of each AMHS ferry that transits the waterway.

As a non-mariner, I found the book interesting, and likely would enjoy sitting in a ferry’s forward lounge with the book in hand, using the illustrations in an attempt to see what the pilot sees while guiding the ship on a safe course.

For afficionados of Southeast Alaska nautical knowledge, Boone’s "Wrangell Narrows at a Glance" is an excellent addition to "Wrangell Narrows, Alaska," the 2006 book by retired AMHS Capt. William M. Hopkins.