The first stage of the inaugural 750-mile Race to Alaska -- a non-motorized endurance race up the Inside Passage -- has thinned the field.
The adventure contest began at dawn Thursday at Port Townsend, Washington with a qualifying leg to Victoria, BC. It was designed as a shake-down to weed out unsuitable small craft.
Race founder Jake Beattie wrote in an email that he expects 29 vessels to set out for Ketchikan when the quirky, nautical marathon restarts at high noon on Sunday.
Beattie commended the competitors who dropped out of the race on the first day. The five teams signed up for the full race that did not reach Victoria included several small outrigger sailing kayaks and a 16-foot dory. One captain capsized and had to be rescued.
"I think the bravest course is to bow out of something that you've been planning for a year. Everyone's watching and you decide, 'You know, these are conditions too extreme for my boat and my skill level,'" said Beattie. "There's also been some equipment failure."
The qualifying leg took place in blustery conditions Thursday. National Weather Service stations recorded steady winds around 15 knots with gusts above 20 knots in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Beattie said the wind and the tide were going in opposite directions as the race began creating waves in the strait higher than some of the boats in the event.
The first racers to arrive in the sheltered waters of Victoria's Inner Harbour covered the 40 miles from Port Townsend in less than four hours. Team Golden Oldies finished the qualifying leg the fastest, followed closely by Team FreeBurd. Both are competing in racing catamarans.
The Race to Alaska was purposely created with relatively few rules in order to spur creativity and innovation. The key parameters are that the vessels must be engineless and unsupported by a chase boat or resupply/relief crew.
Racers are voyaging in vessels as small as a single kayak with a jury-rigged sail to as big as a 38-foot Crowther Shockwave catamaran. The largest crew in the race is onboard a six-man outrigger canoe.
The first racer to reach Ketchikan wins $10,000. Second place earns a set of steak knives.
The Race to Alaska was conceived by the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend as a way to engage people in open water adventure and recreation. Beattie is the nonprofit's executive director.
Beattie told public radio he has been most surprised and heartened by how many people are connecting with this race. Hundreds of people crowded the Port Townsend waterfront before dawn to send off the racers Thursday.
"Not everyone should do an adventurous boat race to Alaska, but I think everyone deserves a little bit of adventure in their life," Beattie said.
"And if this race is the thing that gets people a little bit closer to doing a little more adventure, I think we all win."