R2AK: An impressive kind of dumb

Published on June 17th, 2023

The 7th edition of the 750 mile Race to Alaska (R2AK) began June 5 with a 40-mile “proving stage” from Port Townsend, WA to Victoria, BC. For those that finished within 36 hours, they were allowed to start the remaining 710 miles on June 8 to Ketchikan, AK. Here’s the Stage 2/Day 10 report:


Two thousand-plus years before St. Peter started gatekeeping the Pearly Gates, the ascension to afterlife in jolly old ancient Egypt was adjudicated by Maat.

If you’ve ever heard of her (pronounced “/múʔʕa/” if that helps jog your memory) she was Kardashian-level, “hieroglyph famous” for side eye and judging your trip to whatever they called heaven. Back then, your application to the afterlife was simple: weigh your heart against a feather while Maat watched. Tip the scales and you’re off to the hot place. Lighter than feather and it’s an eternity of La-Z-Boys, canned peaches, and whatever else looked like paradise to the 5,000 years ago to the mummy set.

Our point? Fair question.

Try this: How you arrive at the finish is the sum total of everything you’ve done to get there.

Today’s three finishers (and then two more in the early AM) teams manifested their everything for some light hearted/heavy feathered finishes across the Thomas Basin line, their final approach and dockside public purgatory a demonstrative display of their true selves. Plus, there’s US Customs, a special purgatory onto itself.

In sequence, here’s who we/Maat ushered into R2AK-ternity:

Team Pestou: Party of One
In this race with only two prizes, the greatest injustice is that the hands down, most impressive feat of sailing and seamanship that we have seen in years has absolutely zero cash or object to take home to recognize his accomplishment.

Sure, Team We Brake for Whales ginned up an engraved butter knife to celebrate his accomplishment, but Eric Pesty (above) clearly deserves more. Team Pestou’s R2AK, solo sailing Master Class finished 3rd overall in a Corsair F-24 MKII trimaran with a time of 7 days, 22 hours, and 43 minutes, breaking Russell Brown’s solo record by 3 hours 31 minutes.

Third, but way different and even more impressive than his predecessors:

1. Team We Brake for Whales, 8 crew
2. Budgies, 5
3. Pesty, o sole mio

From the collective admiration of the internet and the sum total of 10k/Steak Knife winning teams who came out of post race hibernation and piled onto the docks to welcome him in, his performance in the Race to Alaska is as close to magnum opus as anyone could hope for in a lifetime.

Racing to Alaska enginless is already a bad idea, but doing it solo is a special and impressive kind of dumb. If you’ve never done it, sailing solo is a different experience than even having one another person onboard. Whatever the context, solo is an exercise of skill, experience, and ruthless priorities.

Is making a sandwich more important than hand steering down a following sea? Are the next hours of sailing more important than the next hours of sleep? With less than 30 hours of sleep in a week and no crewmember to talk to, how can you be sure that your fatigue-ridden mind is making good decisions?

If the final approach to the finish line can stand proxy for Pesty’s heart weighing moment, the dock full of fans and R2AK sailors who arrived with their pockets full of 10 grand and steak knives were losing their effing minds.

Yes, because of his time, place overall, and that after a sleepless week of heavy weather he had out battled two other teams for a 3rd place win. Yes that, but also because after 9 days underway, with little sleep or human interaction, he sailed into the harbor, dropped one sail, set another, struck it with 150 feet to go, then absolutely greased a docking under sail. The last 20 feet he wasn’t even steering—at that point the boat knew where to go.

Let that soak in.

Here in the R2AK Command Bunker, after a lifetime of sailing and 7 years of R2AK, we’ve seen some things. We don’t impress easy, but watch the Facebook live stream and starting at 12:30 you’ll see Eric Pesty shrug off a cherry on top seamanship masterclass. His absolute unity with his boat was perfection. Two sail changes, calmly executed within 150 feet of the dock, in 2 knots of current and 15 knots of wind. We’ve watched it six times and are still fan-girling, out loud. Yes, we’re alone.

Maybe more magnetic than the sailing itself is the genuine, socks-blown-right-off impressed reactions from Team WBFW, Budgie Smugglers, and the R2AK Race Boss. The collective cheer is and respect is palpable. In the words of a Budgie Smuggler: “That was as good of a piece of sailing that I’ve ever seen. Makes me want to learn how to sail.” That from someone who just sailed 750 miles for 8 smallish knives.

Eric Pesty greased the landing, and then was thrust into the IRL and internet admiration of 30/3,000 people; dockside and online respectively. More people than he had seen and/or virtually experienced in a week.

Eric sailed the race of a lifetime. Fast and deftly done, Team Pestou beat Russell Brown’s solo record by over 4 hours, even with an upwind gale for the last half of the course. When he came to shore at 0943 local time he was offered coffee and beer. “I don’t know what time it is, is that beer?” It was, and true to his nature he opened despite the waterlogged fingers. “Self reliance!”

He hit the finish line, drank a beer, moved his boat, and was demonstrably absent/probably asleep for the rest of the day.

Team Dacron and Denim: Party of Five
Next across the line was Team Dacron and Denim, sailing into Ketchikan +/- 15 minutes after Pesty on the borrowed Dash 34.

“How much more graceful was Eric’s landing?” was their first question when they hit the dock and rang the bell. Umm…errr, nice weather we’re having.

Not to throw sparklers onto the gasoline bonfire of another team’s R2AK media moment, but Team Dacron and Denim’s docking was a pat on the head and twirl of the beanie propeller “fine” in comparison to the impromptu clinic just run by Team Pestou.

Team D&D made it, 100%, but Team D&D flopped their sail and mangled their way through an any port in a storm/any landing you can walk away from/thank god there was someone on the dock tie up so they could step ashore and ring the bell relieved and done.

While they might have lost the lead to Team Pestou hours earlier, and then their pride in a docking duel no one signed up for, while they may have lost twice to the sailing Jedi of Eric Pesty, Team Dacron and Denim are the plucky bunch of so and so’s. They not only found a boat to borrow for the race but their crew were able to persevere after nature and Neptune declared a Soloman’s Baby joint custody on their rudder; splitting it in two in front of their very eyes.

“Bella Bella is the best place on the planet to break down.”

Team D&D decided against a mid race name change to “We break for rudders,” but hammered out a mid-race fix for a rudder that had lost its direction in life. “It’s way better now.”

More of a claim of design than workmanship, “It’s way better now” quickly downgraded to “It’s better now, but pretty steampunk,” as soon as they landed in the great state of Ketchikan. The frankenrudder they created had a longer aspect and was deeper than the original. It wasn’t pretty but it was better.

Debate the performance and aesthetics of rudder and dockings all you want, today the Southeast-est part of Alaska greeted Team D and D’s remaining five crew like they were the lost sons of Ketchikan (FYI: They did lose a crewmember in Bella Bella. He’s still alive, but active duty in a Coast Guard that only gave him only so many days endangering lives on the water before he had to get back to saving them.)

The difference between mid-course calamity and fantastic sea story can be as short as a couple of days, and by the time the finish line beers were cracked Bella Bella was transformed from its race-ending potential to epic.

“Bella Bella wasn’t a pit stop, it was a performance stop.” Team Dacron and Denim’s 48-hour weather window/rudder workshop/perfect record of closing the one bar in town gave them the rudder and potentially liquid confidence to surf down 40 knot gusts and massive waves for the last 36-ish hours.

Like the ghoulish souls we are, we had to ask: “Yes you finished but everyone on the dock and on the internet wanted to know. Other than the rudder. What broke?”

Disappointingly and impressively little. The most dramatic was that somewhere in the 40 knot maelstrom, the wind whooshed up the solar panel array from optimal PV angle to as close to their lap as it could get; ripped the mounting hardware so the only thing holding it on were the power wires themselves. Turning their panels into electric flavored sails, a flavor they honestly preferred to their dehydrated diet.

“I am done with all backpacking food. Our hands are swollen because of the sodium.”

Mountain House Stroganoff fingers on swole or no, Team Dacron and Denim did themselves and their boat-owning patrons of Team Fashionably Late (2022) proud. “They called us in Bella Bella and gave us the pep talk we needed. We are here because of them.” It takes a village.

Team Unfinished Business: Party of Five
Rounding out the day was the J/29 Team Unfinished Business, who finished their business after 7 days, 23 hours 5 minutes, and a year after their mast sheared itself off at the deck in 2022. At the time they called themselves by the retrospectively Dickensian handle “Team Shearwater Madness.”

A year later they finished their business, crossed the finish line, dropped sail and pedaled in as the closing act of a three team finale of today’s Ketchikan’s finish line. Not that there were scorecards, but compared to their predecessors their docking was Goldilocks good—just right.

In the “Holy shit, we’re here” astonished and fatigue-infused comments that poured from their mouths as they waited for to clear Customs, we learned a few things:

• Yes they were tired… but Eric Pesty! They had just gone through the same rough seas as the other two teams who finished in the hour before. Everyone was tired, but when you had five times more chances to sleep than the guy who sailed solo across the line before you, seems right that you would mumble mouth how tired you are. Everyone has a right to their own discomfort, but good luck having it land with anything more than the thumb to pointer finger simulation of playing the tiniest violin when a guy beat you to Ketchikan by himself.
• Yes they had damage, of course they did, but it was far from game over. “My hat went overboard.” Don’t worry, it was rescued, and the repair to their mainsail blowout was repairable enough to get them here but embarrassing enough for their sailmaker friend that they didn’t want to show us.
• Higgins Passage merit badge: There are a lot of hard parts of the R2AK, but Team Unfinished Business (..and Team Pestou for that matter) took the optional, Michelin Star short cut/R2AK merit badge route that is Higgins Passage. Higgins is epic: half a pucker wide, shallow as a crab fart, and strewn wall to wall with uncharted and out to get you rocks. Higgins Pass has been the siren song of teams looking to advance their position since R2AK 1. While he might never admit it, Wayne Gorrie and crew shot the gap and then got out and semi-portaged Team MOB Mentality through Higgins in 2015. Team Unfinished Business took it as well as a way to cut the distance between A and B. “We might have had a foot of water under the keel.” They tacked 100 times in 2 hours, in 30 knot gusts, successfully splaying Marco Polo with untold numbers of adversarial rocks rubbing their hands in anticipation. We would have never told them the odds, but had C3PO been on board, the Star Wars droid would have told them that their odds of successfully navigating Higgins Passage were approximately 3,720 to 1. They did it and didn’t even have to get their feet wet.

Realizing the self-actualizing power of their team name but stopping short of “Team 10k” arrogance, what will they call themselves next year? Our best guess: Open for Business, New Business, and (potentially entirely because of the dark shades/white shirted costume possibilities) Risky Business.

***

We’re out of words and out of time, but in the wee-est hours of Saturday morning Teams Ship of Fools and Ruf Duck puppy piled onto the docks of Ketchikan as R2AK’s newest winners. More on them in a later dispatch.

Further south, Team Bonesaw’s double hulled push north took a bow at Port McNeil; sore asses and gudgeon fatigue were the stated reasons for their exit.

In case your knowledge of rudder hardware is less than fluent, essentially rudders attach to boats via two matched and mating parts: pintles and gudgeons. Pintles are the long and pointy part on the rudder, the gudgeon is the externally mounted hole that the pintle inserts itself into and rotates in its tight and snug embrace- the maritime world’s answer to a removable hinge. From the sound of things, Bonesaw’s gudgeons have been pintled so hard, so many times that the stress is creating fissures and fractures. Turn the boat around, head for the clinic, get in line for gudgeon rejuvenation and live to race another day.

The next 24 hours looks like a day of finish line vacay, standby for news from R2AK’s back 9 and recent finishers while we wait for the next load of Ketchikan glory.

R2AK out.

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The 7th edition of the Race to Alaska in 2023 followed 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 2023 plan:

Stage 1 Race start: June 5 – Port Townsend, Washington
Stage 2 Race start: June 8 – Victoria, BC

While the Stage 1 course is simple enough, the route to Ketchikan is less so. Other than a waypoint at Bella Bella, there is no official course. Whereas previous races mandated an inside passage of Vancouver Island via Seymour Narrows, the gloves came off in 2022. For teams that can prove their seaworthiness, they now had the option of the western route.

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.

There were no races in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. In 2022, there were 45 starters for Stage 1 and 34 finishers. Of those finishers, 32 took on Stage 2 of which 19 made it to Ketchikan.

Source: R2AK

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