Words: Norris Comer // Photos: Nick Reid
$10,000 is nailed to a tree in Ketchikan and it could be yours. Interested?
All you have to do is sail or row from Port Townsend. The good? You pick your vessel and crew. The bad? No propulsion engines or supply drops are allowed to assist with the 750 miles of twisting water flanked by Canadian and American wilderness. You will face some of the world’s most extreme tidal shifts and endure hypothermia-inducing North Pacific temperatures. Gale-force winds may force you ashore to camp in bear country and who knows what you’ll eat when the supplies run low.
But the grizzlies will be the least of your worries, for you’re not the only one after the prize. A staggeringly diverse fleet of vessels manned by local legends and internationally recognized athletes are on your tail and they’ll stop at nothing to beat you. These rivals include a National Geographic Explorer, a madman who is paddle boarding the whole way, and a tireless robot.
Still interested? Welcome to the Race to Alaska (aka, the “R2AK”).
The R2AK is a race like no other, and 2016 marks the second iteration of the increasingly high-profile event that consumes Port Townsend every June. The rules are brutal in their simplicity. The participant checks in at Port Townsend on June 22 with an engineless vessel and hand-picked crew. R2AK is “self-supplied,” which means no supply drops or support systems are allowed and all resources used must be available to all participants. Self-supplied translates to no meet ups with smiling family members for a spare halyard and words of encouragement on the route, and certainly no following boats to make sure everything is ok, however, a stop in town at a local chandlery or grocery store on the route is acceptable.
R2AK 2016 consists of two legs, the first of which begins on June 23. Leg 1 is a 40-mile qualifying stretch from Port Townsend to Victoria B.C. across the Straight of Juan de Fuca meant to give the competitors a taste of real water. Some racers plan to race only Leg 1, for a taste of the glory is enough for many comers. Larger vessels face a real challenge at the entrance to Victoria itself because sailing is illegal in the harbor. Many rely on oars or homemade pedal contraptions, some jury-rigged from bicycle components or cannibalized off of pedal-driven kayaks.
Leg 2 runs from Victoria to Ketchikan and begins the next day on June 26. Any routing is fair game as long as two waypoints are hit. Waypoint #1 is Seymour Narrows, a 2.7 nautical mile-long channel between Vancouver Island and mainland B.C. that sees some of the largest tidal shifts in the world. 15-knot tides are not uncommon through the narrow channel that is about 2,460 feet wide on average. It is said that even gray whales have to wait for a favorable tide to pass.
Waypoint #2 is Bella Bella, on British Columbia’s Campbell Island, which is situated on Queen Charlotte Sound. If you’ve made it this far, you’re looking at the final stretch of water through the Hecate Strait and across Dixon Entrance to the finishing line.
The route is a puzzle meant to delight armchair navigators and daunt participants, and the event’s laissez-faire rules make the riddle even more complex. What boat to choose? A large, high-performance sailboat can clean house on a windy day, but what happens when there’s not a puff in sight and the tide tears against you? Maybe a rowing craft is the way to go. More crew means more muscle, but also more mouths to feed. Do you prepare enough supplies for a week or a month? You don’t want to run out of supplies, but every pound aboard is weight that makes one slower.
So works the mind of an R2AK competitor whose thoughts wander northward.
It becomes clear as one digs into the R2AK story that this adventure race is about more than the money and bragging rights. Talk of the R2AK lights up the eyes of landlubbers and sea salts alike, of professionals and amateurs, sailors and rowers. What is this intangible power, this essence of something that inspires the adventurer in observer and participant alike?
We turn to Jake Beattie, a founder of the R2AK and Executive Director of the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend, Washington, for answers. The conversation becomes philosophical pretty quick when we asked him to describe what R2AK means to him.
“You think I’d be better at that question, seeing how we’re going on two years now,” Beattie thinks aloud as he collects his thoughts. “It’s as much a race as a celebration for the human spirit. It’s an opportunity for people to propel themselves into an adventure of a lifetime.” He continues to grasp at the right words, to define the ethos of authenticity that gives R2AK its magical quality. “This race is meant to be a recalibration of assumptions of what yacht racing is meant to be. It’s just the people and the coastline where nature is the arbiter of whether or not you’re doing a good job.”
We talk about the origin of R2AK. “The idea crystallized at the 2014 Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend. There was a group of us sitting around in the beer garden and the conversation around how we get people on the water without engines and with sails came up.” The theme of an increased need for people of all types, not just the regatta crowd, to hit the water in an adventurous fashion emerged. NASA’s X-Prize with space research was going on around the time and helped fuel Beattie and company’s fire. Beattie’s frustration with the highly structured world of traditional races was echoed by his conspirators.
“I just hate rules in general, and yacht racing has so many rules,” Beattie reflects. The idea of an engineless, self-supplied race to Alaska with a $10,000 cash prize was proposed.
Word spread and things started to get really exciting. What began in the beer garden became a reality, and 35 teams stepped up to the plate to go the entire 750 miles. The event’s website racked in 11.5 million hits in June of 2015 as millions caught the fever. Some contestants, like 2015 winner Team Elsie Piddock and crew aboard a high-performance Ferrier F-25C trimaran, were dedicated racers. Others were locals, fired-up amateurs who resurrected boats they found in blackberry bushes as winter projects. Race day 2015 was a sight to behold.