R2AK: Knocking on wood is easy
Published on June 18th, 2022
After the race was cancelled in 2020 and 2021, the 6th edition of the 750 mile Race to Alaska (R2AK) began June 13 with a 40-mile “proving stage” from Port Townsend, WA to Victoria, BC. For those that survived, they started the remaining 710 miles on June 16 to Ketchikan, AK. Here’s the day three report:
To be clear: we are hustling. Up and down R2AK’s elongating geography, we’re hustling via boat, car, plane, and internet to connect with the ever shrinking field of competitors to find out just what the hell is going on. But there is a lot we don’t know.
We’re still waiting for reports of just how gnarly it got on the west side of Vancouver Island. We don’t know why Team High Seas Drifters is heading so far west along Vancouver Island rather than jumping across towards Cape Caution with the rest. We don’t know how Team Stern Wheelin’s fresh R2AK tattoo is healing up, or how any part of “Racing” to Alaska includes Team Sockeye Voyages getting on the water at the crack of 2:30 pm. Unknowing runs rampant here.
What we do know is that after a Profanity of Driftwood retired, any chance of an inside-team win fueled by anything other than a leaderboard catastrophe, and the “flock of log” debate was definitively settled by the global citizens of R2AK’s Tracker Nation.
Team Pure & Wild, the loaded Riptide 44 with Jonathan McKee, Matt Pistay, and Alyosha Strum-Palerm, made history by being the first R2AK team to round Cape Scott at roughly 19:30 and balanced their definitive right turn out of Victoria with a veer to the right towards the checkpoint in Bella Bella.
Weather models are flawed at best, but at this point it’s looking like a speedy downwinder to the pin, and then downwind again into Ketchikan glory. Barring logs or any other catastrophe, while we fear the jinx potential of saying this out loud, with the nearest team horizons away and no one anywhere near their boat speed, it looks like it’s their race to lose.
However, logs are everywhere, hubris and jinxes are real, so for the health and safety of everyone onboard, everyone reading this should knock a non-floating piece of wood right now. Now.
At time of writing, Team Pure & Wild are making more than 8 knots, and have 400 or so miles to go, putting them in as the presumptive favorite for fastest outside team, and in the running for fastest monohull ever.
…and now everyone should knock a piece of non-floating wood, again. Health and safety first, please.
While Cape Scott is the newly anointed and geographic climax of the outside route, in the not-yet-conceived-of, warranted, or desired “R2AK: the Video Game,” Seymour Narrows remains the the inside route’s stalwart and challenging first-level boss.
Anyone experiencing R2AK through the warm blanket of the internet can call it a tidal gate. It is, and will ever be, but Seymour is different up close. To experience it on the water at maximum current is as exhilarating as it is—to use the epithetical and nautical parlance of our times—f-bombingly unnerving.
On Day 3’s max tide moment, five teams short tacked north on Seymour’s 10-knot tidal escalator that ranged between benevolent helping hand and incubator of some of the most epic swirly bits we’ve ever seen.
On paper it’s a tidal river to conceptually flush teams closer to Ketchikan or stymie their progress until the tide changes. To witness the fabled and violent collage of whirlpools and upwellings is another, jaw dropping reality. Sea level is a concept that goes completely out the door in the hydro-force topography that happens between the tight and tidal shores of Maud and Vancouver Islands.
The much-hyped, 30-foot whirlpools in R2AK’s literature were doubled today—no joke, whirlpools sixty feet across opened up hodgepodge and from nowhere as the current grew. Six feet deep? For sure, and maybe more. Upwellings frothed out of nowhere and caused boats to abruptly go uphill, and then down for maybe the first time in their level sailing lives. Everyone stayed safe, and Seymour’s wondrous fury didn’t cease to amaze.
While the tidal cycle raged in Wagnarian proportions, Teams Lost But Don’t Care, High Seas Drifters, Fashionably Late, Vegemite Vigilantes, and Wraith 2AK were locked in heated and close tacking battles that turned simply transiting R2AK’s most challenging boss energy into an aria. After 120 miles, these 5 teams were trading tacks and swapping leads through Seymour Narrows and Discovery Passage more times than seemed possible.
It was a day seemingly scored to the plot of a mid-inning boat race jumbotron’ed at a Mariners game. Pick a boat, and play out the drama as it goes from way ahead, to way behind, to ahead, to behind, to whatever version of checkered flag elation or “I was so close” you share with your seat mates before a pitcher returns to the mound.
Translating all of that for all of you who’ve never attended a game of professional sportsball: these teams were on top of each other, dodging whirlpools, working the wind lines, and vying for advantage in this narrowed gate that is as much of a challenge as it is the turnstile to wilderness. It was exciting.
It’s day three, and as much as the leaders are clipping through the mileposts, the rest of the fleet is settling into whatever race R2AK provides. After receiving a spontaneous mid-race cookie drop from a fan, Team Ruf Duck’s 31’ trimaran is mixing it up with the teen crew on Mustang Survival’s Team Rite of Passage and the 20-foot contenders on Teams Loustic SuperSonic and Goldfinch.
The rowers of Teams Don’t Tell Mom and Let’s Row Maybe? continue to duke it out one stroke at a time, and have oddly converged with the paddlewheeled fury of Team Stern Wheelin’s riverboat/mid-70s sailing tech mash-up. Olympic medal rowers vs pedal-powered Steamboat Willy? It’s a good thing we don’t attempt to time correct for boat speed, because how?
Day 3 was big, and the bigness of Day 4 is looking like Team Pure & Wild lining themselves up for a log- dodging, tailwind sleigh ride all the way home. Stay frosty, racers, and stay tuned, race fans. The racing is just getting started.
BREAKING NEWS: Team Shear Water Madness has snapped one of their masts just past Seymour Narrows and is retiring from the race. Everyone’s okay, and the details remain unknown for now, but the sum total of forces proved too much for at least 50% of the unstayed masts of their custom cat ketch/schooner. Game over. Time to find shelter, repair, and a warm bed. Live to race another day.
BREAKING NEWS 2: Team Stern Wheelin has left the race. We clearly don’t know anything. More as we know it.
Race to Alaska, now in its 6th year, follows the same general rules which launched this madness in 2015. 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. Here is the 2022 plan:
Stage 1 Race start: June 13 – Port Townsend, Washington
Stage 2 Race start: June 16 – 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.
In 2019, there were 48 starters for Stage 1 and 37 finishers. Of those finishers, 35 took on Stage 2 of which 10 were tagged as DNF. There were no races in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.