The ‘better worst idea’: Race from Washington to Alaska for the return of motorless boats
A North West adventure race that some are calling “the best worst idea” is back after a long pandemic hiatus. The 2022 Race to Alaska for motorless boats dropped at the first light of dawn on Monday amid strong winds in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, conditions the organizers as “between seasick and dangerous”.
The race spans 750 miles from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. The first leg, dubbed “The Proving Ground”, covers the 40 miles to Victoria, British Columbia. The name was well chosen this year because the heavy weather quickly capsized three small boats and dismasted a fourth. All crew members were rescued unharmed.
At least half a dozen captains decided to delay their departures and stay in port until the winds and waves died down. The race high command gave all competitors an extra 24 hours to cross the strait during the qualifying stage so no one would feel pressured to row or sail in dangerous conditions. This created a 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline to reach Victoria’s Inner Harbor unassisted to qualify for the full race north.
On the eve of the start, Race to Alaska co-founder Jake Beattie said the wait for that day had been long. It’s been nearly three years since maritime adventurers last tried to find safe passage to Alaska.
“The running community and the fans of the race are almost thrilled at how excited they are to bring this back online and come back ready to race again,” Beattie said in an interview Sunday at a pre-race block party. on the Port Townsend waterfront. .
The closure of the Canada-US border to non-essential crossings had to be relaxed for the race to resume. In addition, small isolated towns along the route to the north had to welcome visitors.
“The last thing we wanted to do was be the event that took COVID from the Seattle area and put it into remote communities across Canada,” said Beattie, who is the executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center. .
Beattie and his co-conspirators at the Port Townsend non-profit have deliberately designed this race to have as few rules as possible – and this year, in the sixth edition of the icy and wild marathon, a mandatory checkpoint was thrown overboard.
“We decided that the thing we could do to freshen up the Race to Alaska conundrum was to remove one of the rules – one of the few rules – which is that you have to go through Seymour Narrows,” said beatie.
Seymour Narrows is a whirlpool-filled tidal channel on the Inside Passage, halfway to Vancouver Island. The alternative for approved ocean racers is to go out into the open and unforgiving North Pacific. A mandatory mid-course checkpoint remains in Bella Bella, BC.
A permanent rule is that any size boat with any crew can participate in the race, but the boat must be unpowered. It only means sailing power or muscle power. In addition, competitors must be self-sufficient. No hunting boats with mechanics and fresh supplies are allowed.
Beattie says one of his earliest witty encapsulations of the race still holds: “It’s like the Iditarod, but with a chance of drowning or being eaten by a bear or run over by a freighter.”
It seemed doable for first-time Race to Alaska crew member Steve Colman, who flew in from New South Wales, Australia.
“That’s the lure of adventure – uncertain outcomes,” Colman said as he packed up supplies for the trip on Sunday. “If everything was pedestrian, we wouldn’t want to be there.”
Colman is traveling with Australian friend Bob Killip and Captain Stuart Sugden on a second-hand 20ft recreational sailboat bought online without seeing it in Vancouver.
“We’ve won the race if we take it to Alaska as far as we’re concerned,” Killip said. “And see bears, see orcas and meet a few people, have fun and be safe.”
Thirty-six teams from as close as Victoria and Friday Harbor, from Portland and landlocked Missoula, to as far away as France and Australia have started the full race. It’s mostly a mix of trimarans, catamarans, and sailboats (aka monohulls), along with two kayaks and a half-dozen expedition rowboats. No stand up paddle will compete this year, for a change. Nine people attempt the race alone.
Solo riders include Doug Shoup of Sedro Woolley, Washington, who is making his third attempt to reach Ketchikan, this time with a brand new 19-foot wooden boat he built himself last winter. It competes under the name Team Perseverance.
“It’s taken a long time to get here. And I’m going to get there,” Shoup promised as he made last-minute adjustments to his modified Angus RowCruiser model boat on Sunday. “I put a lot into it when you consider I built two boats, not one. A lot of practice. I lost a ton of weight.”
Now on the big screen as well as on the water
For earthlings who don’t want to brave the elements and exhaustion, there is another way to experience the race to Alaska and meet its elders. Filmmaker Zach Carver made a self-titled 98-minute documentary about the race. It is now showing in select theaters and will air later.
Carver chose a concise description attributed to Race Boss Daniel Evans to serve as the film’s promotional tagline. “The best of the worst ideas,” fits because of the incredible human potential on display, Carver said.
“The straight line is a flair for the absurd to some degree,” Carver said in a Waterside interview. “It’s an absurd competition that also appeals to something very deep and beautiful within us. It’s that balance.”
When the starting gun was fired on Monday, Carver joined a global subculture known as “tracker junkies.” These people will follow runners bound for Ketchikan, now reduced to points on an online map corresponding to their GPS beacon signals. You can overlay real-time weather, ship speed, and then let your imagination run wild for what teams might face en route to Southeast Alaska.
As in the past, the winning boat wins $10,000. Second place wins a set of steak knives.
Quick separation expected this year
Carver and Beattie said they expected this year’s race to split fairly quickly into two groups. A group of experienced ocean racers at the front will sail hard day and night on vessels specially designed to go fast. Those in this group who manage to avoid catastrophic collisions with unseen driftwood logs are expected to finish in Ketchikan early next week. The majority of teams that enter it for the personal challenge and perhaps a life-changing experience will be far behind and usually take two to three weeks to reach the finish line.
Team Pure and Wild, a 44ft racing monohull, earned bragging rights by winning the first leg to Victoria this year. The Seattle-based team is led by two-time Olympic medalist (sailing) Jonathan McKee and its crew includes the skipper of the 2019 Race to Alaska-winning team Angry Beaver.
After a roughly two-day break to make repairs or adjustments, racing resumes in earnest at noon on Thursday for Stage 2, the remaining 710-mile trek from Victoria to Alaska.
A team named Mad Dog Racing set the course record in 2016 with three days and 20 hours of non-stop sailing on the second leg. The three-member team completed their fast-paced voyage with barely a night’s sleep on a 32-foot high-performance catamaran without a cabin.
In 2019, only 25 of the 35 teams that started the full race made it to Ketchikan.