By Kurt Hoehne
In today’s world, there are few adventures with Big Questions. It seems every adventure has been done at least once before. Somebody’s going to find a new route to the summit, win the game on a superlative performance or lucky bounce, or find that extra bit of speed around the race. Those are relatively Little Questions.
Maybe that’s the appeal of the inaugural Race to Alaska (R2AK). It asks Big Questions. There aren’t a whole lot of rules other than make your way to Ketchikan via boat. The boat can’t have an engine and has to pass through only three checkpoints along the way. Use whatever boat you want and go the route you want.
There’s no big safety equipment checklist (there is a little one, however). There are no scantlings to adhere to, no nanny boats to accompany the fleet. The race organizers are leaving it to the competitors to manage the dangers themselves.
“It’s like the Iditarod. With a chance of drowning, being run down by a freighter or eaten by a grizzly bear.”
– from the R2AK web site and promotional material.
To understand the race, you have to know a little bit about the race founder, Jake Beattie. He’s a Northwesterner through and through. He spent 3 years on tall ships, three years with Outward Bound, worked in commercial shipping sector and at the Center for Wooden Boats. He is now the Executive Director at the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend. To say he’s passionate about getting people on the water is a profound understatement.
It doesn’t take much to get him to say what he really feels about boating. “Boating is in trouble,” he says. “Every year a new gadget comes out and every year it gets more expensive. At the same time disposable income and the middle class are decreasing.”
Praise Neptune! We’re with you Jake, go on!
“We need to think in different ways about what’s acceptable, which suggests a lower price. We need big adventures in smaller, more affordable boats.”
Beattie himself has a target max of $600 when he buys a boat, and sticks to it. It doesn’t buy him much, but he’d be quick to tell you he’s had as much or more fun on his $600s as most people have on their $600Ks. Beattie himself is going to do the R2AK on a square-sterned Grumman canoe, modified with amas to make it a trimaran. “I’m not going to win,” he says flatly. He won’t, and won’t care.
Jake and some like-minded simpler-is-better folks, properly lubricated in the Wooden Boat Festival beer tent in 2013, started batting around the idea of a non-motorized boat race to Alaska. Make it interesting, put a real sum out there for the winners. The image of nailing $10,000 to a tree stuck. Six months later the same group found themselves at dinner and the topic took over conversation again.
How long would it take? What boat would work? Who would do it? Would anybody die because they weren’t prepared? Big Questions.
Beattie was undaunted and put it to the Northwest Maritime Center board to see if his employer would sponsor the race. Somewhat to his surprise, the board said Yes, the insurance company said yes (lower case, I’m sure) and the announcement was put out last August.
The race had to become a little bit more complicated than “meet you in Ketchikan,” but to its credit it’s remained relatively simple.
Any boat is welcome as long as it doesn’t have an engine. Beattie and others had to look at the event from a competitive standpoint. They had to come up with actual starting and finishing lines, a way of tracking the fleet (SPOT tracker)and come up with some common sense basic equipment such as a VHF on every boat.
One fundamental principle of this race was for competitors to be self sufficient. There would be no food drops, shipping parts ahead or getting outside assistance that was not available to everyone. Racers can stop anywhere along the way and get help (or a burger for that matter) as long as it is available to everyone.
Looking through that competitive lens, Beattie also concluded there had to be a couple of checkpoints. After the 5 am start on June 4 in Port Townsend, the fleet has to check in and get through customs in Victoria. That first leg is considered a qualifier for the full race. And you have to love the finish and subsequent start lines in Victoria. To officially finish Stage 1, the competitor has to ring a bell on the steamship dock in Victoria’s inner harbor. For the restart from Victoria on June 7, there will be a bell start with competitors seated on the seawall in front of the Empress. Yep, a Le Mans start where competitors can run to their boats. What a photo op.
There are two other checkpoints, at Seymour Narrows and Bela Bela. There are various ways for competitors to prove traversing these points, but there will be nobody waiting with a clipboard and pen, or any kind of bell.
There also had to be some clarification on the issue of portaging. It was conceivable and reasonable that someone could portage a light enough boat if there were adverse currents or some other obstacle on the water. OK, R2AK said, but you can’t do it with another vehicle. You have to carry it yourself.
Finally, with the probability crews will be out there for several weeks, there had to be a way to end it. The idea of sweep boats solved that dilemma. On the day of the first finisher or June 25th (whichever comes last), two boats will leave Port Townsend. If a competitor is passed by one of them, that boat is officially out of the race. They can (and probably will) keep going, but not as part of the R2AK.
In a refreshing departure, Beattie talks and writes about the “Spirit of the Race.” Our modern culture dwells on technicalities and loopholes, i.e. how can a situation be turned to advantage. In its glorious infancy, the R2AK can still refer to the event’s “spirit” without those of us jaded types sarcastically nodding our heads and saying “sure it is, sure it is.” Hey, at this stage, it IS about the spirit.
If you’re the least bit curious about just who’s doing the race, or just want some entertainment, visit www.R2AK.com and read the competitor profiles. Beattie is right when he says just about everyone in the race is a “character.” And his humor filled profiles of each team are funny and telling, in a kind way. Here are some excerpts.
Regarding Team Por Favor and their (by R2AK standards) luxurious Hobie 33, here’s what Beattie wrote: Sure it’s comfortable, but what will they do when there is no wind? Our guess? While other teams madly froth the water to make desperate miles and exhaust themselves to the point they can sleep on a lumpy pile of camping gear, these guys will be calmly waiting for wind, having another canapé, and resting up their pinky finger for the next round of tea drinking.
And for Team Seawolf on the Windrider Rave: We think that Team SeaWolf’s decision to enter the race sounded a bit like this:
Guy 1: “You know, we are way too comfortable most of the time”
Guy 2: “And dry”
Guy 1: “Boats are inherently wet and uncomfortable, maybe we should do this Race to Alaska”
Guy 2: “Yes, but I wish that while we are wet and uncomfortable we could test our incredibly strong sphincter muscles. They are wasted on everyday life”
Guy 1: “I know, let’s do the race on an incredibly fast but incredibly tiny boat that rides off of the water on foils!”
And for SUP St. Louis, the lone standup paddleboard in the fleet: In an email equivalent of patting him on the head, smiling patronizingly, and giving the propeller on his hat a twirl, we wrote back and told him that the R2AK wasn’t for everyone. We told him about the cold water, the miles involved, the long open water crossings. We asked for credentials that we were sure didn’t exist for anyone on the planet, and then sent him on his way.
His response was email equivalent of a backboard shattering dunk. Credentials? How about the world record for SUP miles in 24 hours (he broke 100 without wind or current). Longest trip? Over 300 miles, oh and by the way that included a day when he paddled 34 hours IN A ROW. Logistics? He’s got a detailed plan including a custom 19’ board that packs cargo in watertight compartments. How do you sleep? On shore in a dry suit. What if things get rough? He gets low and waits it out like he did once in 15-foot seas in shipping traffic….he kept throwing us checkmate answers until we ran out of questions.
And it’s not just the people who have diverse characters. Has there ever been a more diverse fleet?
Etchells, several trimarans, Nacra 570 catamaran, Windrider (foiling), kayak, outrigger, SUP, rowboats, Hobie 33, 6th Century West Kerry Naevog (?), plus several purpose-built originals and some mystery boats. And, to my mind the most intriguing of all, the proa.
Team Pure and Wild, aka The Proa.
In September last year, another group of boaters were having a beer (what a coincidence) after the International 14 Nationals while waiting for a plane back from San Francisco to Seattle. Winner Dalton Bergan and third place finisher Joe Bersch started talking about the R2AK, and the others all chimed in. What would win? For sure, as fast as it was, an I14 wouldn’t be the right boat. Then what?
Bersch’s soft spoken and easy-going affect belies what must be some serious tenacity. He latched onto the idea and wouldn’t let it go. His company, Premier Pacific Seafoods, has a natural tie-in with the race because of Alaska fishing, and Bersch’s connections might just produce some sponsorship with the Alaska seafood industry.
Bergan, multiple class champion and collegiate sailor of the year, has the Midas touch on the helm of just about any boat, and was immediately pumped up by the prospect of challenging himself outside of the round-the-buoys dinghy racing world he frequents.
It’s not in the nature of either of these guys to be “just happy to be part of it.” They’ll enjoy being part of it, but make no mistake, they want to win. So, it came back to the question of the boat. And that question was rephrased to “What would Paul Bieker do?”
If ever there was an independent thinker who could combine modern technology with the spirit of the R2AK, it’s Bieker. He’s done the engineering on the Oracle America’s Cup from the IACC monohulls to the foiling cats. He’s the dominant I14 designer in the world, his 35’ Longboard has jaws dropping around the Northwest racing scene and his powerboats are amazingly fuel efficient.
But Bieker is a Northwesterner heart and soul, and this race captured his imagination too. His solution? A proa.
Proa? Didn’t the Polynesians use those? Really? Where’s the punch line?
No punch line, Bieker sees the proa as the right answer to the challenge. His colleague Russell Brown has enlightened him on proas over the last few years, and in fact Brown helped build and develop the Pure and Wild proa. And what a proa it is. It has tremendous speed potiential, with a sail area to displacement ratio off the charts, and tremendous righting moment of the ama with water ballast. There will be a jib, but Bieker thinks that in more than 6 knots of wind it’ll be kept on deck. The weight of the hulls will be around 500 lbs.
Who in the Room has ever Shunted?
Like the race itself, the proa presents Big Questions. You don’t tack proas, you shunt them.
The Who Had Shunted question was voiced while Bersch, Bieker and Bergan were giving a presentation to the Northwest Multihull Association. Only Bieker had shunted, which means that Bersch and Bergan have some learnin’ to do. I’d love to watch their first shunts.
The ama has to stay to windward since the mast is not strongly supported on the non-ama side. The three-dimensionally thinking Bieker puts it simply, “It’s symmetrical fore and aft, not side to side.” To work upwind or downwind, you basically stop the boat and make the bow the stern and vice versa. The Polynesians would pick their strongest guy to pick up and restep the mast in a new position.
Bieker had a better solution than a big Polynesian. The mast base (and hence center of effort) runs on a track so can be adjusted to work with whatever way the boat is oriented at the time. There’s a rudder mounted in a cassette at each end. In goes one, out comes the other.
This is going to take some practice, and there’s a very real question of how quickly this can be done in tight confines or while playing currents along a shore.
There’s also a sleeping pod, dubbed the sarcophagus, extending from the main hull. Bersch and Bergan will take turns getting it all to themselves when the other’s on watch. If they have to anchor for a while, I guess they’ll flip for it.
As anyone who has cruised the Inside Passage knows, deadheads and other flotsam are a real issue. Bieker is a stickler for safe construction. None of his America’s Cup boats break. He gave each end of the proa a watertight bulkhead. Furthermore, one bow is removable for transport, making it in effect sacrificial if holed (If the “other” bow is is holed, oh well, it’ll just fill with water) The removable bow and sectioned mast enable the entire boat to fit in a 20’ container.
Bieker’s got a lot of skin in this game. He wasn’t paid for the design, yet not only did he put in the design time, he spent dozens of hours helping build it. Basically stitch and glue, the boat came together with minimal waste and fairing necessary. The plan is for Bieker to sail the boat back from Ketchikan with his son, before shipping the boat in a container to Bermuda where Bieker will use it for recreation while working on the next America’s Cup.
The most impressive thing to me about this event is the tone. While a serious challenge, the event hasn’t taken on the heavy, self-important feel of many events. With $10K at stake it could have degenerated to that. But Beattie is having fun with it and, so far, so are the competitors.
The race instructions include several references to Rule 8. Here it is: “If we decide it’s necessary to consult a lawyer to figure out if you are disqualified or not, you are automatically disqualified.”
Sometime in June, one of the 40 or so boats will have won the inaugural R2AK. And chances are the Spirit of the event will remain intact. Whether it’s the $80K proa program, the $600 canoe or the Montgomery 15 with a sliding rowing seat, everyone will have had an adventure. And some Big Questions will have answers.
One more important note: Everyone Gets to Eat More Fish
If Team Pure and Wild wins the $10,000, it will go to Seashare. This charity is supported by the Alaskan fishing industry and has donated more than 200 million seafood meals to the food needy in the U.S.
Hopefully some fund raising will spill over to the BlueH2O charity that Joe Bersch’s friend Mike Schoendorf started. Last year BlueH20 equipped a Ugandan hospital with running water, and this year the aim is to provide running water on a Navajo reservation that has none.
And the boys in the proa are going to be eating lots of pure, wild and sustainable seafood as well. “It’s a great source of protein,” says Bergan.
All that shunting is sure to burn some calories.