R2AK: Uncontrolled Clarity
Published on June 24th, 2016
The Race to Alaska (R2K) is a unique 750-mile marathon open to all forms of non-motorized craft. Entrants can have no support of any type; it’s like the Iditarod but on a boat. Avoid drowning, freighters, killer whales, and grizzly bears, and the winner gets $10,000. A set of steak knives awaits the runner-up.
It is a two stage event, with the first stage from Port Townsend, WA to Victoria BC as a 40 mile qualifier before entrants can continue on the 710 stage from Victoria BC to Ketchikan, AK. Here is the stage one report:
Starting on the awkward almost midpoint between Juneteenth and Canada Day, the R2AK growled forth its second declaration of independence on June 23 into the open arms of a stiff southerly breeze. Not enough wind to merit an official first name, but plenty strong to disrupt the last good sleep they might get for weeks.
The clanging loose halyards forced keyed-up sailors to headlamp check their alarm clocks hours before the ungodly time they had planned—a nervous tick that betrayed the inevitable. That uncontrolled clarity that can only come from the months of planning and anticipation slamming itself into the first iteration of unbridled real. This was it. This was the day. It all starts now.
In the daylight hours that came a day before, the teeming throngs of a couple thousand plus spent the day swarming Port Townsend to give action to their own months of anticipation. This was their race too, even if they never left the shore. They came from near and far to ogle the boats and connect with the teams they’ve been obsessing over for months. How will you sleep? How fast can it go? How can you possibly do this on a paddle board?
One band, eight cases of rum, and six R2AK tattoos later, race day began with a marina full of high vis orange and micro fleece doing one last pack of the dry bag, one last adjustment of the dry suit, and casting off lines to claw their way against the wind and out the narrow entrance rowing, pedaling, drifting, colliding, drifting again all on propulsion systems that had been imagined for times of calm, not 15 knots on the nose.
In its best moments it was pellmell, and for a solid hour pit “goat rodeo” against “shit show” for most popular term of the day. The linguistic competition deepened and added new four letter players as teams emerged from the fray to position themselves on the simplest of starting lines (boat, beach) that had devolved into its own chaos.
Boats anchored overnight on its midpoint, 50 boats in the race and another 50 flitting about around the course spectating Tour de France style, a thousand shore bound cameras taking pictures, national media coverage, paddle board Samaritans serving up hot oatmeal, and a low flying helicopter whose prop-wash inspired conspiracy theories believing it to be the killjoy retribution of Larry Ellison himself. Noise, joy, confusion, helicopters, elation, adrenaline—go.
The smoke from the starting gun had barely crawled out the barrel and Team MAD Dog Racing’s twin hulled rocket greased a perfect start then accelerated into a near earth orbit with a speed rarely seen in these waters, deftly dodging slower boats (all of them), working the wind shift seemingly caused by the collective gasp from everyone onshore.
The last thing the fleet saw of their red hulled bullet was their drysuited crew ripping off the rear view mirror as they rounded Point Wilson—for all of it’s power the M32 is weight sensitive—ounces mattered and they weren’t planning on looking back.
Three hours and 50 minutes later they rang the bell and set the new record for stage one – a full fifteen minutes and change faster than the best of 2015. The reward for such a feat? Awed looks, a hearty handshake, and the right to start in Victoria at noon on Sunday (June 26) just like everyone else who finished one to fifteen hours later.
Even the five teams that never started (breakdown in Denver, too much boat, not enough crew, not quite ready) and the three teams that exited the race midway (concepts needing another look, abilities needing another year, abilities needing another year) wrenched out success from the Proving Grounds of the Strait of Juan de Fuca—not a single rescue, everyone left on their own terms.
The R2AK was made to inspire people to greatness, and our hats are off to the intrepid teams who found their own edge of possible and finding themselves on the other side walked away from the year of preparation thanks to the better part of valor.
The seas of stage one raged, calmed completely, then raged again. After Neptune culled the herd into those who should and those who shouldn’t, teams began to set their sights on the competition, the fleet already dividing itself into teams who are in it for the win, and those who are in it for the glory of finishing—regardless of what the category they imagined for themselves when they threw their hat in the ring.
A clot of tris were shocked and awed by the speed of some cats, solo teams set their sights on each other whenever they had time to look around, rowboats stuck to their pact and hung with each other until the sprint at the end.
Team Madrona and Team Skiff Foundation Jungle Kitty touched gloves and duked it out monohull on monohull. The judges gave this round to the kittens who throttled up on their twin screw tandem drive that churned up the Inner Harbor on the final approach. This ain’t a bike race, and the inner harbor ain’t Alaska, but we bet it felt pretty good.
For those who made it, ringing the bell at the finish gave way to stories and elation, nervous shrugs and oh-my-gods before they trundled off for whatever sized celebration seemed significant enough. And as glasses emptied their contents and the racers filled theirs, their stories of R2AK’s first leg poured forth in a black and tan of humility of teams working out the kinks floating on top of a base layer of bare knuckled competition.
Teams laid bare their learning curves (“It’s incredible, if stay forward of here I picked up three knots downwind, three knots!”), owned their folly (“I was almost to the harbor entrance and dog tired. I took a bearing on a white light, which seemed to keep moving. It was. The cruise ship was backing out.”) and celebrated each others self-declared victories in the spirit of the R2AK (Guy number one: “We beat Tritium!” Guy number two: “Big deal so did like eight other teams…” Audacious laughter ensues).
Whether the arrival of Team Hot Mess wearing nothing but underwear (“We were hot!”), or the exasperated flippancy of racers too exhausted to filter out a level of decorum, the very stately harbor where the Queen once stayed was given a different kind of royal treatment as the teams arrived. Our favorite:
Customs: “What state was the boat built in?”
Tim from Team Can’t Anchor Us: “What, I’m Canadian?”
Customs: “What state was the boat built in?”
We Laughed as hard as the agent didn’t, and Tim was eventually allowed entry into his native province, raring to continue on to Alaska in the little boat he pulled from the blackberry bushes. In case it mattered, we learned that the bushes were built in British Columbia too.
Sunburned and bruised, elated, defeated, bored and enthralled. Less than a day after it began all were in and accounted for, setting to the tweaks and repairs. Sunday’s high noon start will come too soon and not soon enough. Will you be ready?
Final Stage One Standings:
1. Team MAD Dog Racing
2. Team Bad Kitty
3. Team Big Broderna
4. Team Pure & Wild
5. Team Mail Order Bride
6. Team Un-Cruise Adventures
7. Team Ain’t Brain Surgery
8. Team Turn Point Design
9. Team Jungle Kitty
10. Team Tritium Racing
11. Team Madrona
12. Team Traffic
13. Team Fly
14. Team Ghost Rider
15. Team Hot Mess
16. Team Shadowfax (First boat under 20’!)
17. Team Angus Rowboats
18. Team LOST Boys
19. Team Ketchikan
20. Team Salish Express
21. Team Green Kulshan
22. Team A Pirate Looks at 30
23. Team Sistership
24. Team Sea Runners
25. Team Sparrowhawk
26. Team Jomon
27. Team Whitehall Border Patrol
28. Team Alula
29. Team Supernauts
30. Team Onism
31. Team Vantucky
32. Team Whitehall Yukon River
33. Team Mike’s Kayak
34. Team KELP
35. Team Why Not?
36. Team Coastal Express
37. Team Squamish
38. Team Bunny Whaler
39. Team Excellent Adventure
40. Team LITEBOAT
41. Team Heart of Gold
42. Team The Windsurfer
43. Team Nordica
44. Team Foggy Sailing
45. Team Noddy’s Noggin
46. Team Roving Renton Ranger
47. Team One Wooden Boat, Five Sore Butts
48. Team Bus Bailey
49. Team Whitehalls & Whiskey
50. Team Gold Rush
51. Team Super Friends
52. Team Can’t Anchor Us
53. Team Hodge
54. Team Kraken Up
55. Team Wabi Sabi
DNS: Team Mad Agnes, Team Archimedes, Team Later Dudes, Team Discovery, Team Focsle Refugees
DNF: Team Take me to the Volcano, Team TBD, Team Navocean
Source: Race to Alaska
Stage 1: Port Townsend, WA to Victoria BC (40 miles)
It all begins June 23 with an initial race across open water, two sets of shipping lanes, and an international border. The first stage is designed as a qualifier for the full race and as a stand-alone 40 mile sprint for people who just want to put their toe in. Racers continuing on will clear Canadian customs in Victoria. Stage one winners get to bask in the glory for a full day and a half.
Stage 2: Victoria BC to Ketchikan, AK (710 miles)
There’s no time splits from the qualifier that roll over when the fleet starts in Victoria on June 26. The race for the prizes – real or imagined – is getting to Ketchikan. For those that lag, they risk getting tapped out by the sweep boat which heads north along the course as a rolling disqualifier. Any competitor the sweep boat passes is out of the race. Other than two waypoints at Seymour Narrows and Bella Bella, there is no official course. To quote the bard: You can go your own way.
Winner: The 2015 race was won by Team Elsie Piddock – Al Hughes, Graeme Esarey, and Matt Steverson – that crushed the fleet in a F-25c, completing Stage 2 in 5 days, 1 hour, 55 minutes. They finished almost 40 hours ahead of the second place finisher Team MOB Mentality (F85SR, a 28′ Farrier “Super Racer”) which just edged by 4 minutes third place finisher Team Por Favor (Hobie 33).