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The 'best worst idea.' Race to Alaska for engineless boats returns after pandemic hiatus

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Tom Banse
/
NW News Network
Race to Alaska entrants of many shapes and crew sizes were getting ready for the 750-mile engineless, unsupported boat race in Port Townsend on June 12, 2022.

A Northwest adventure race that some call "the best worst idea" has returned after a long, pandemic hiatus. The 2022 running of the Race to Alaska for engineless boats cast off at the first light of dawn Monday amid high winds in the Strait of Juan de Fuca that the organizers characterized as “between seasick and dangerous.”

The race stretches 750 miles from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. The first leg, dubbed "The Proving Ground," covers the 40 miles to Victoria, British Columbia. The name was apt this year as the rough weather quickly caused three small boats to capsize and dismasted a fourth. All crew members were safely rescued.

The U.S. Coast Guard launched a helicopter from Air Station Port Angeles to hoist two men who were flung into the choppy water from their overturned 14-foot C-Lark sailboat. Two other solo skippers whose small trimarans capsized were pulled from the hypothermia-inducing seas by a Coast Guard boat crew in one case and in the other case by a civilian vessel.

At least a half dozen captains decided to delay their starts and stay in port until the winds and waves settled down. The race's High Command gave all competitors an extra 24 hours to cross the strait on the qualifying leg so that no one would feel pressure to row or sail in unsafe conditions. That created a 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline to reach Victoria’s Inner Harbor without assistance to qualify for the full race to the North.

On the eve of the start, Race to Alaska co-founder Jake Beattie said it had been a long wait for this day to come. It's been nearly three years since the maritime adventurers were last trying to puzzle out a safe passage to Alaska.

"The racer community and the fans of the race are almost vibrating about how excited they are to have this back on line and back ready to happen again,” Beattie said in an interview Sunday at a pre-race block party on the Port Townsend waterfront.

The closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential crossings had to be eased for the race to return. Plus, the isolated small towns along the route north had to be welcoming of visitors.

"The last thing that we wanted to do was to be the event that took COVID from the Seattle area and put it into the remote communities of Canada,” said Beattie, who is the executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center.

Beattie and his co-conspirators at the nonprofit in Port Townsend purposely designed this race to have as few rules as possible – and this year in the sixth edition of the frigid, wilderness marathon one required waypoint has been thrown overboard.

"We decided that the thing that we could do to freshen the riddle of the Race to Alaska was to remove one of the rules -- one of the few rules -- which is that you have to go through Seymour Narrows," Beattie said.

Seymour Narrows is a tidal channel rife with whirlpools on the Inside Passage, halfway up Vancouver Island. The alternative for vetted ocean racers is to go outside in the open, unforgiving North Pacific. One mandatory mid-race checkpoint remains at Bella Bella, British Columbia.

A standing rule is that any size boat with any size crew can enter the race, but the boat has to be engineless. That means only sail power or muscle power. In addition, the competitors must be self-supported. No chase boats with mechanics and fresh supplies allowed.

Beattie says one of his early, witty encapsulations of the race still holds: "It's like the Iditarod, but with a chance of drowning or being eaten by a bear or run over by a freighter."

It sounded doable to first-time Race to Alaska crewmember Steve Colman, who came all the way from New South Wales, Australia.

"That's the attraction of adventure -- uncertain outcomes,” Colman said while stowing supplies for the voyage Sunday. “If it was all pedestrian, then we wouldn't want to be in it."

Colman is voyaging with Aussie friend Bob Killip and captain Stuart Sugden on a used 20-foot recreational sailboat purchased online sight unseen in Vancouver.

"We've won the race if we get it to Alaska as far as we're concerned,” Killip said. “And see bears, see orcas and meet a few people, have fun and be safe.”

Thirty six teams from as close by as Victoria and Friday Harbor, from Portland and landlocked Missoula, to as far away as France and Australia started the full race. They are mostly a mix of trimarans, catamarans and sailing yachts (aka monohulls), along with two kayaks and a half dozen expedition rowboats. No standup paddleboarders are competing this year, for a change. Nine people are attempting the race solo.

The solo racers include Doug Shoup of Sedro Woolley, Washington, who is making his third try to reach Ketchikan, this time with a brand new, 19-foot wooden boat he built himself over this past winter. He’s competing under the name Team Perseverance.

"It's taken a lot to get here. And I'm going to get there,” Shoup vowed as he made last minute adjustments Sunday to his modified Angus RowCruiser model boat. “I put a lot into it when you consider I built two boats, not one. A lot of training. I've lost a ton of weight."

Now on the silver screen as well as on the water

For landlubbers unwilling to brave the elements and exhaustion, there is another way to experience the Race to Alaska and meet its alumni. Filmmaker Zach Carver directed a 98-minute eponymous documentary about the race. It’s now showing in select theaters and coming to streaming later.

Carver chose a pithy description attributed to Race Boss Daniel Evans to serve as the movie’s promotional tagline. “The best worst idea,” fits because of the amazing human potential on display, Carver said.

"The through line is a flair for the absurd to some degree,” Carver said in a waterside interview. “It is an absurd competition that is also calling on something very deep and beautiful within us. It's that balance."

When the starting gun fired Monday, Carver joined a worldwide subculture known as "tracker junkies." These folks will be following the Ketchikan-bound racers, now reduced to dots on an online map corresponding to their GPS beacon signals. You can overlay the real-time weather, the vessel speed and then let your imagination loose for what the teams might be facing on their way to southeast Alaska.

As in year's past, the winning boat gets $10,000. Second place earns a set of steak knives.

Quick separation expected this year

Carver and Beattie said they expect this year's race to divide fairly quickly into two groups. A group of experienced ocean racers at the front will sail hard day and night on vessels purpose-built to go fast. Those in this group who manage to avoid catastrophic collisions with unseen driftwood logs should finish in Ketchikan early next week. The majority of teams who are in it for the personal challenge and possibly a life-changing experience will string out far behind and generally take two to three weeks to reach the finish line.

Team Pure and Wild, a 44-foot racing monohull, captured bragging rights by winning the first stage to Victoria this year. The Seattle-based team is captained by two-time Olympic (sailing) medalist Jonathan McKee and his crew includes the skipper of 2019 Race to Alaska-winning Team Angry Beaver.

After a roughly two day break to make any repairs or adjustments, the race restarts in earnest on June 16 at high noon for Stage 2, the remaining 710-mile trek from Victoria to Alaska.

A team named Mad Dog Racing set the course record in 2016 with three days and 20 hours of nonstop sailing on the second stage. The three-member team completed their speedy trip with barely any sleep on a 32-foot high-performance catamaran that had no cabin.

In 2019, only 25 of the 35 teams that started the full race made it all the way to Ketchikan.

This story has been updated.