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Inaugural Race To Alaska Likened To 'Iditarod With Chance Of Drowning'

A souped-up paddle board, custom rowing craft and high performance, carbon fiber sailboats are just some of the eye-catching entries in the inaugural Race to Alaska.

An unexpectedly large group of adventure seekers will launch on June 4 from Port Townsend, Washington, and race up the Inside Passage to Southeast Alaska.

It will take endurance, self-reliance and a great deal of saltwater know-how to win since only non-motorized boats are allowed in this race.

Thirty-five teams have entered the full race from Port Townsend to Ketchikan.

"There are way more people in the race than we thought," marveled race organizer Jake Beattie. "Originally, we thought we might get ten teams."

750 miles and few rules

The race starts with a long open water crossing to Victoria, which will serve as a qualifying leg. Racers who make it to Victoria's Inner Harbor within 36 hours without assistance can continue. The racers will restart at high noon on Sunday, June 7, and continue to Ketchikan. There are two mandatory checkpoints along the way, the first at Seymour Narrows and a later one at Bella Bella in northern British Columbia.

Jake Beattie's business card identifies him as the "Lead Conspirator" for the Race to Alaska. His actual day job is director of the nonprofit Northwest Maritime Center. Beattie said the 750-mile boat race was in large part his idea.

And one of his principles is to keep things simple with as few rules as possible.

"Get a boat without an engine, any boat, doesn't matter what size or number of crew. Be self-supporting, meaning that you can't have pre-arranged support or boats chasing you around to fix you if you break,” Beattie said. “Start in Port Townsend, finish in Ketchikan. If you're first, we'll give you $10,000. If you're second, we'll give you a set of steak knives."

Everybody else gets a t-shirt.

Human power vs wind power

The "no motors" rule leaves rowing, paddling, sailing, pedaling or some combination thereof as the means to victory.

"Embedded in the race is this tortoise versus hare bet between the choices that favor human power or the choices that favor wind power,” Beattie noted.

Most of the teams entered in the race plan to use sailboats. But if the wind is fickle, as it can be in June, Beattie said the race could go to a human-powered small craft. For example, don't count out a team featuring the former world record holder for pull-ups in a day.

"There's one kayaker, a couple of different ocean-going rowboats and one guy on a standup paddleboard who is going to do the entire 750 miles,” Beattie said.

Beattie said at least six teams had a boat custom-designed for this race. That includes world-class sailors Joe Bersch and Dalton Bergan of Seattle who are racing as Team Pure & Wild.

'You should never try it in that'

At Shilshole Bay Marina, Bersch and Bergan are prepping a brand new 24-foot outrigger sailboat inspired by a symmetrical Polynesian design called a proa. The boat is designed and owned by naval engineer Paul Bieker who worked on the most recent America's Cup winner.

"Both ends of the boat are the bow and the stern,” Bergan explained. “It never tacks or jibes, which is what most sailors are familiar with. It just reverses."

"The boat is going to be a handful,” Bersch said. “It is quite fast and quite powerful."

Some other unusual features of the sailboat include an auxiliary pedal-powered propeller and a coffin-shaped sleeping compartment the co-captains have already nicknamed the "sarcophagus."

"There's a tendency to look at some of these boats and say, 'Why are you doing it? You should never try it in that.' Or, 'You'll never win. Why are you doing it?’" Bersch said. “I think the opportunity to sail up the Inside Passage in a small craft and challenge yourself is a once in a lifetime experience."

Professional mariner Jullie Jackson of Port Townsend has a similar answer to Bersch for why she signed up.

"Having a small crew on a boat, you know, you are responsible to those people and they are responsible to you,” she said. “Being able to have a common goal that you are all working toward is really amazing. And it is an absolutely beautiful part of the world."

Jackson and her two crewmates plan to compete in a sleek, racing sailboat called an Etchells 22. It's usually considered a daysailer and offers little protection from the elements. Jackson's team, Team Grin, will be making adaptations including adding two rowing stations and a place to sleep.

"I completely understand how people would see it as crazy,” Jackson said. “But if you understand what your limitations are and you understand what risks you are going into, it can be approached in a way that is safe.”

Risks and safety plans

The voyage between Puget Sound and Southeast Alaska contains numerous risks. A significant portion of the route follows protected channels, but those are subject to strong tidal currents and whirlpools.

Other hazards enumerated on the Race to Alaska website include floating driftwood and logs that can punch a hole in your hull, bears on shore and the likely necessity of operating your vessel at night at least some of the time.

Race organizers are requiring all participants to carry a satellite tracking beacon and VHF radio for safety. Beattie said the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards were consulted about the race safety plan.

One way the organizers explain this event is as the Pacific Northwest's answer to the Iditarod, the famous Alaskan sled dog race.

"We've been calling this, 'the Iditarod with a chance of drowning," Beattie said with a hearty chuckle. "Or the Iditarod with a chance of drowning or being eaten by a bear or run over by a freighter."

Jake Beattie figures the winner of the Race to Alaska will reach Ketchikan in less than 14 days.

"It could be as little as one week," he said.

Connecting people to the sea

If Team Pure & Wild takes first place, Bersch and Bergan say they plan to donate their $10,000 grand prize to a Bainbridge Island-based charity called SeaShare, which distributes seafood to food banks around the U.S. The team is also trying to raise awareness for Blue H2O, a different nonprofit devoted to increasing access to clean drinking water.

A number of other competitors also are pledging to donate their winnings or are racing for a cause. For example, Victoria-based Team Blackfish is using the race to raise awareness about British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest and to promote the conservation group Pacific Wild.

Beattie also marveled that his board of directors at the Northwest Maritime Center green lighted the race. He sold them on the idea by pitching the event as an extension on the center's mission to connect people to the sea. He reasoned it would inspire people to adventure and spur conversations about how to get out on the water in low cost ways.

The Northwest Maritime Center and sponsors in Port Townsend are planning a public send-off party on June 3, the day before the race starts. Landlubbers and curious onlookers will be able to chat with participating teams and view a rolling display of vessels on trailers downtown or at dockside.

If the inaugural race goes well, Beattie said he hopes the endurance event happens again over multiple years.">R2AK - Are you ready?

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.