Light winds prevail for Race to Alaska
Published on June 11th, 2017
After four small craft propelled entirely by human power took top honors on June 8 in the qualifying stage of the third annual Race to Alaska, which included 57 starters for the 40-mile leg from Port Townsend, WA to Victoria, BC, 34 entrants started the 710-mile second stage from Victoria to Ketchikan, AK on June 11. Light winds continue to prevail, helping early leaders Karl Kruger (SUP) and Matt Pruis (kayak) continue the human powered domination.
Update from race organizers:
This update should be about the whole race, from the first to the last boat that as we type is full fleet rowing, paddling, and/or sailing North through the gulf islands and beyond. It should be about the last minute preparations, the safety gear purchased out of fear-driven common sense and nerve calming commerce. It should also be a deep dive into the inter- team camaraderie where competitors help each other locate sailmakers to turnaround sails in 24 hours, after-hours access to maritime suppliers, loaned tools, loaned welders, and two-part underwater goo passed around between teams to stop the leaks. Competition never looked less cutthroat.
We should write about the palpable nervousness in the final moments as if we had a stress measuring Geiger counter they’d reveal nervousness is increasing at logarithmic rates. As every finite minute dropped into the past and items on the list were demoted through the lists of “must do” to “in case I have time” to “later.” The 5- minute countdown gathered teams on the seawall, boats on the dock, and the final last minute preparations were complete. Teams Fueled on Stoke popped out of the crowd in a dead sprint, drybags in hand, down the dock to secure their entire kit to their boards and back up to where the racers were waiting to run down to the same docks en masse when the clock struck high noon. When the Stokes had reached the top of the stairs with 2 minutes to go the nervous energy had built to near static electricity, hair on necks and arms were standing up in anticipation. Omigodomigodomigod, this was about to happen. They were going to Alaska.
The crowds gathered. High noon struck, the bell rang, and teams streamed down the cobbled steps to their boats to cast off and take the first pedals and paddles toward their Alaskan goal.
We’re going to stop there.
From two minutes after the start to midnight of day one the full fleet story of the race feels eerily similar to the two years prior- different teams, same starting sequence, and oddly same-ish weather. Read last year’s here. For 2017 add in Team PT Watercraft spun off their first propeller and is now on their spare, Team Pear Shaped Racing complained about “all the rowing” and Team Broderna lost their pedal drive shaft. They fetched up on Saturna Island to find a shop to fabricate a new one. Add all of that to last year, and you get close enough, down to the fact that Karl Kruger’s Team Heart of Gold was leading the pack for a long stretch. A SUP, in front. Even if only for a few hours it’s pretty incredible.
You might call us lazy, but we’ve only got so much of this virtual ink to spread over the three and a half weeks of this race. We’ve got something better than recoating the proforma with a fresh layer of metaphoric dissonance and other words we had to look up after we wrote them. We’ve got Team Oaracle; the double handed rowing team that won R2AK 2017’s first virtual tiara for tenacity, and they won it within sight of the starting line.
The door cracked on this story on the walk up to the seawall. Team Oaracle offered a preemptive apology that began “Sorry I smell like radiator fluid…” He did, and it was confusing, but let’s start with the fact they were run over by a powerboat after the race start and work back from there.
They were run over by a powerboat, not an exaggeration. While rowing out of the inner harbor, a powerboat ran them down from behind. The boat powered into Oaracle’s stern and then bounced them down the side, clipping their outriggers (the sticky-outy parts of a sliding-seat rowboat that hold the oars. Important for a rowboat.) The skipper emerged from the cabin yelling at the two rowers, they yelled back and left his potential to become a good Samaritan fully intact, the powerboat sped off. Stay classy, Bayliner guy.
With 50% of their horsepower bent, Baylinered, and unusable, and psyches revved up from watching the pointy end of a powerboat get closer and closer, thoughts of “I’m sure they see us” turned into holy crap yells of alert. The scramble to try to row in the direction they thought that the powerboat might not turn—even surviving is stressful. No one would have blamed them if they hit the beach, ordered a couple of Bloodies and Bennys to unwind. It was still brunch time, and in Victoria, hollandaise sauce appears to be a folk remedy for just about everything. While we might have considered second breakfast an important step for the project at hand, they went to shore, found someone with a big enough wrench, borrowed it, fixed the damage, and kept going.
To appreciate that resilience, you need to hear the rest. Their tale of pre-race tenacity started the day they arrived in Victoria as the triumphant fourth and final human powered uber-victor of the first stage. Somewhere between the elation of finishing and the Sunday morning start one of them lost prescription glasses. This set in motion a Sunday morning scramble that unraveled up until the moment when both of the Team Stokes were running down the dock, and everyone else was smelling antifreeze. It started with the Oaracles searching for spectacles; driving around Victoria to find whatever pharmacy/optometrist was ambitious enough to be open both early and on a Sunday. Finding one, they drove most of the way to the launch ramp when their radiator blew.
Think of that moment, you’re running late for a race, your radiator blows, and you need to find some way to get your boat to the water. You now need to deal with a car, that is broken down on the side of the road, and you’re leaving for a month. This is the point we can only imagine that they checked to see if they were wearing pants. They were. This was not a bad dream; this was happening. This was IRL.
They rallied help, but the first two or three trucks all had the wrong sized trailer hitch (Pants check: yep, still there.) Finally finding the right hitch, they found a nearby rowing club with a ramp clogged with rowers getting ready. Rowers who went from semi-annoyed to “How can we help” after “We’re in the Race to Alaska” was followed by “…and we’re suuper late.” Their boat splashed, they hit the water, and rowed to the start happy to have all of that stress of preparations behind them…and then the boat ran them over.
As of the early morning of Day 2, Team Oaracle is just getting underway from the top end of Prevost Island waking from a well-earned sleep, and if it’s available, we hope considering the Bloody and Benny option if only for us to feel better about our choices. The rest of the fleet is beginning to separate. The vanguard of three sailboats is duking it out in the winds of Georgia Strait near Nanaimo, a chase group near Point Roberts, and the rest at +/- a couple of minutes latitude from Team Oaracle. Some teams are going up the islands to use currents and straight line distance to shave time; others are betting on big water for better wind. Tomorrow will tell who was right.
R2AK Day 1 in summary: Teams are tired of rowing, still breaking, or they are Karl Kruger. Team Oaracle wins the resilience crown for the day, but Alaska doesn’t show up by itself, and there are plenty of crowns to go around. Resiliency is just getting started.
Stage 1: The Proving Ground – June 8
Port Townsend to Victoria BC (40 miles): R2AK starts 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.
If you want to be a part of R2AK but don’t have the time or inclination for the full race- join for a full day of all out racing across some of the biggest water in the course. 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: To the Bitter End – June 11
Victoria, BC to Ketchikan, AK (710 miles): Racers start in Victoria and continue until they reach Ketchikan, accept their mortality and quit, or lag too far behind and are tapped out by the sweep boat. Other than two waypoints along the way, Seymour Narrows and Bella Bella, there is no official course. To quote the bard, You can go your own way.