The streets of Port Townsend are tense at 04:00 hours this race day. The third annual R2AK Race to Alaska, the iconic engineless “America’s Cup for dirtbags” to Ketchikan, is to begin. The weather is calm and the horizon a gray void where the fog blends sky and sea. The racers, steeled and anxious, gather quietly offshore in front of a boisterous (and warm) landlubber crowd. The disparate craft ranged from performance trimarans to paddleboards, from custom monohulls to rowing shells. A volunteer paddleboarder makes his rounds with hot oatmeal for the contestants. As per custom, the horn blasts to the brassy songs of the Soviet National Choir, and the decidedly ragtag assortment of ambitious watercraft are off to the cheers from the crowd. R2AK 2017 is underway. North or bust.
Stage 1 of the course from Port Townsend to Victoria is generally regarded as a sort of filter; vessels that can’t cross the Straits of Juan de Fuca probably shouldn’t press on to the more remote waters of B.C. and Alaska. Day One, June 8, is full of surprises as the low winds of the morning favor human-peddled craft. For a stretch of the race, paddleboarding teams even lead the pack. The first craft to reach Victoria is the French double rowing shell of team Liteboat crewed by Dominique Preney and Mattieu Bonnier. They beat the heavy 30-knot plus winds that ravage the course in the afternoon and cause some teams to wash out.
“This is really incredible, no one predicted this,” Race Boss Daniel Evans later commented in a press release. While human power took Leg 1 of the race, the ultimate winners would once again be the performance trimarans for the remaining 710-mile Leg 2 from Victoria to Ketchikan. The winning team of R2AK 2017 is team Pure & Wild/Freeburd with an impressive time of four days, three hours, and five minutes. The racers aboard, Tripp, Trevor, and Chris Burd, are brothers and rightfully claim the $10,000 first prize famously nailed to a piece of wood. In second place, team Big Broderna with racers Sean Huston, Nels Standberg, Mars Le Baron, and Lars Strandberg arrived in Ketchikan a mere six minutes after Pure & Wild/Freeburd. As is R2AK custom, the second place team receives a set of R2AK steak knives.
R2AK is a unique race in that the top finishers conclude only the beginning chapters of the race’s story. Many teams will continue the slog north through the wilderness in the weeks to come and more possible record-breaking firsts tease race fans on the sidelines. Will the paddleboarders finish the entire course and make history? For those interested, r2ak.com is the online resource to tune into. A race tracker updates team positions constantly, and exciting blog posts are the daily norm. Although the finish line has been crossed, it’s very likely that the best stories are yet to unfold.