R2AK: It’s hard for a reason
Published on June 5th, 2019
The 5th edition of the 750 mile Race to Alaska begins with a 40-mile stage from Port Townsend, WA to Victoria, BC before the entrants are permitted to continue on to Ketchikan, AK. With the start on June 3, there was a 36 hour window to pass or fail, and with the wind inhospitably snorting, there were more stories than usual. Here is the Stage 1 Day 2 report:
“It was crazy, waves were coming out of everywhere… I’ve never been in conditions like that.” – Team Ghost the Coast.
All across R2AK nation, day 2 started early, angry, and asking, “Are they going to make it?” to coffee mugs, tracker screens, and unsuspecting family members still rubbing sleep out of their eyes.
For teams on the southern side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the day 2 soundtrack was a mixtape mashup of amps to 11 howling wind against the deafening tick of an imaginary clock that erased possibility with each pounding second; the space between 4:59 and 5 pm in Victoria held the difference between ringing the bell to peel out the decibels of completion and the promise of a year consumed by the inner whispers of “What if…”
The romp fest weather and Death Star forecast of the day before had cleaved the fleet in two. Teams that made the jump through day 1’s romp and white caps were largely the large ones. With the exception of Team AlphaWolf who slept it out in Port Townsend’s marina in the cabin of their F-28, the dozen or so teams who waited woke to another day of big wind and a waning clock between them and the finish line.
They were little ones: open boats, kayaks, paddleboarding teams whose living quarters required assembly and a flat piece of ground. After clawing as far as they could then abdicating from day 1, they clung to whatever beach they could find and alternated their conversations between distraction and strategy until they had to make the call: to go or not to go?
As the sun rose on R2AK’s second day, the dozen or so boats with passports still in the holster looked at the weather, and made the best call they could in the soundcloud of wind, anxiety, hopes, dreams, and fear. The farther and smaller chose safety and sanity over life and limb.
The kayaking crews of Teams Madam Mollusk, Gorgonian Girl, and Overwork made it to Victoria in record time with a “No thank you very much” and a ticket on the Blackball. They rolled their kayaks off the ferry and down the dock to join the festivities with smiles on their faces, the shadow of ‘Next year…’ in their eyes, but their body and souls intact.
The two SUP-ing teams of Extremely Insain and LaqVelo looked at the 40 miles of paddling on the right side in a crosswind and beam seas and gave their families and loved ones an early birthday present, retiring from the race like a boss.
Karl Kruger, whose run to Ketchikan makes him the only guy to date to SUP to R2AK all the way, was dockside in Victoria and answered the question of, “Could he have done it in those conditions?” with a strategy shift. “My plan for that was to paddle from PT to Whidbey Island, portage the three miles to Coupeville, then put in and go up and around the San Juan Islands. It would have added a ton of miles but I would have made it. The weather is different up there—I called some folks and it was flat calm yesterday.”
After a night sleeping in and around the Dungeness lighthouse, the R2AK cleaver chopped again and split the eight-boat gaggle who camped at the lighthouse into two fleets: those who would go early and those whose faith favored the subset of forecasts calling for a later day crossings.
They say hindsight is 50/50, but with the information they had, what would you do? The wind was howling already but tends to build in the afternoon. The ebb tide was going to stack up the waves into a tide-driven puckerfest in the morning, but ran the risk of ripping boats past the mark when it switched to a full five knots of flood later in the afternoon.
It’s 6 am, you’ve been sleeping rough, cold, and scared on a wind-swept sand dune since you washed up there the the night before. You’re staring backwards at a year of preparation and hope, and forwards to an Alaska you’ve convinced yourself is your destiny.
You know your friends and an internet worth of humans are watching the tracker. You know how cold, unpredictable, and unforgiving the next 30 miles will be and have no idea which of the conflicting forecasts to believe. Will it be better now or later? Should you go now or go in a few hours, or just pack it in? What do you do?
Being clear: beyond the choice for brunch and a ferry ride, it was all horrible. Hearing reports from those who made it across in the morning made the face pale. Team Solveig divided the labor to keep their 20-foot open boat afloat:
“George was driving on the third reef and I was pumping.”
Did it ride well?
“Yes, but it’s an open boat so when the waves break on your side the whole wave fills your boat…”
And then there was damage; Team Perseverence broke his daggerboard not by going aground, but from the sheer force of the waves.
“It was chunky out there!”
How big was it?
“Right then they were every bit of 6 feet… I heard a big pop and I was checking the amas, to make sure I wasn’t breaking up and the next thing I look over and there’s my daggerboard, broken and hanging on just sticking out on the side. Then the next wave hit and it was gone.”
He had only finished building his boat on May 31, but damaged and determined he limped into Victoria on the ragged remains before the tide turned, and was joined by Teams Solveig, You Either Do Stuff Or You Don’t, and Backwards AF. Others weren’t so lucky.
The three-team chase group from Dungeness who chose a later departure were joined by Team Smokin’ Haute Rower Buoys in the impromptu creation of “Race to Oak Bay” as they were swept north past the harbor mouth with the raging tide and less than an hour to go.
In the best kind of R2AK spirit, Team Oaracle fought to the end by exploiting the portage loophole and threw their kayak on a dolly and ran with it for the few miles between where they landed and the finish line.
They mapped out the shortest route from A to B and roll-raced their double kayak down the centerline city streets and the greens of a country club golf course (‘Playing through!”), and arrived at the dockside finish line inside of the rules, but 37 minutes outside of the time limit. Since the real one had already been removed, they rang an imaginary bell, and walked through the doors of the racer party to a rousing round of applause.
Stage One’s story wouldn’t be complete without Team Funky Dory. Thor and Pax were lifelong friends who found their 16’ wooden Swampscott Dory in the bushes and fixed it over the winter. Rebuilding a neglected wooden boat on nights and weekends while working, traveling, and dialing in a run at the R2AK—from the beginning Team Funky Dory’s bootstrap campaign has been a race to the start.
The road to the starting line got longer when a routine trip smashed their truck and boat-laden trailer into a Subaru—the dory went airborne and smashed. Everyone lived, but Thor’s shoulder was torn, the dory was damaged, and there were six weeks to rehab body and boat.
Other than collapsing into occasional sleep, Thor and Pax worked around the clock and got their boat and his shoulder back into shape. After weeks out of the water they finished hours before the Port Townsend start, launched, and immediately started sinking—out of the water for so long the wood had dried and shrunk to less than watertight, and their first day was spent sailing and bailing close to shore as the wind raged.
They spent the night within walking distance to the starting line, but shoved off early to brave the washing machine crossing in a boat so small that it disappeared in between waves. On the crest you could see them bailing. In the trough, just the top of the mast.
The bailing slowed as it soaked up in transit, the sailing got better, and they took all of their almost 16 feet through the jaws of the wind and into the mouth of the harbor before the wind hammered them with a 30-knot gust that took them from upright to horizontal; ironically capsizing their wooden craft in the basin intended for cruise ships.
Rather than calling for help or throwing in the towel, they righted the boat, threw the anchor, bailed and sorted themselves out, and rowed to the finish line with 14 minutes to spare. When they rang the bell and exhaled from two days and a year of all out effort, they were cheered and greeted by more than a hundred racers and fans who turned out for the biggest welcome of the race to date—because that’s how R2AK do.
As sun set on R2AK’s first stage, the docks were filled with racers and fans somewhere between recounting the day and leaning in on the drying out and repairs. The butcher’s bill tomorrow.
24 Hour Fact Sheet:
• 15 minutes left of stage one when Funky Dory rang the bell.
• 1 and 1: 1 swamping of Funky Dory’s Swampscott dory 1 mile from the finish line.
• 15 minutes Team Oaracle was late to the bell.
• 1: Number of golf courses Team Oaracle ran through, towing their kayak, to try to get to the bell on time.
• 15 million plus high fives we saw between teams yesterday.
• 4 accepted teams that did not cross the start line: Texada, Auklet, Discovery, Big Lampowski.
• 11 teams crossed the start line and did not ring the bell in time: ACE, Extremely Insain, Overwork, Gorgonian Girl, Madam Mollusk, LaqVelo, Arm & Leg, Ghost the Coast, Old Fart In A Windstorm, Oaracle, Smokin’ Haute Rower Buoys.
• 36 teams are left to prepare for the campaign to Ketchikan.
• 7 teams have broken something substantial and are hustling to fix (that we know of)!
Race to Alaska, now in its 5th year, follows the same rules which launched this madness. No motor, no support, through wild frontier, navigating by sail or peddle/paddle (but at some point both) the 750 cold water miles from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska.
To save people from themselves, and possibly fulfill event insurance coverage requirements, the distance is divided into two stages. Anyone that completes the 40-mile crossing from Port Townsend to Victoria, BC can pass Go and proceed. Those that fail Stage 1 go to R2AK Jail. Their race is done.
Stage 1 Race start: 0500 June 3rd, Port Townsend, Washington
Stage 2 Race start: 1200 June 6th, Victoria, BC
There is $10,000 if you finish first, a set of steak knives if you’re second. Cathartic elation if you can simply complete the course. R2AK is a self-supported race with no supply drops and no safety net. Any boat without an engine can enter.
Last year 37 teams were accepted and 21 finished.
Source: Race to Alaska