PLOTTING THE COURSE
With all the uncertainty swirling around the world over the past year, it has been difficult to shift focus from the moment and look towards the future. For at least the foreseeable future, the writing is on the wall that summer 2021 is going to take on an unfamiliar guise with many major events canceled and international travel curtailed for the year.
However, necessity is the mother of invention. Not ones for shying away from a challenge, the team at the Northwest Maritime Center that organizes the annual Race to Alaska began to think through what could be.
After a last minute but necessary cancelation of the 2020 R2AK event, the “Race Boss” Daniel Evans and his Port Townsend-based team stepped up to the plate and declared that adventure is not dead and launched a brand-new event to look forward to this year. Wanting to provide the community with the opportunity to celebrate, they also wanted to create a familiar yet different race that kept its roots of no engine, no support, but also adapted to the current situation. Thus, the new WA360 race invites all manner of waterborne craft to the start line on the morning of June 7 for 360 miles of fun and hardship certain to make for an awesome story to tell the grandkids. Keeping with the mission of inclusiveness and accessibility that the original R2AK and the subsequent Seventy48 have established, the entire race is going to be live streamed via a tracker app, linking supporters and fans to the racers’ every tack, gybe, and paddle stroke.
Taking on a health- and safety-focused trajectory, the racecourse is set for a grand tour of the Southern Salish Sea, keeping participants wholly within Washington State the entire time. Starting out of Port Townsend, the adventurous fleet will head south to the light winds and swirling currents of Olympia. After the turn and trip back northward, the course stays to the right of Scatchet Head and up into Saratoga Passage along Whidbey Island’s eastern shore. Racers must then decide whether to time the jump through the whirlpools of Deception Pass or the more direct route through the Swinomish Slough to Anacortes, either way ending up in Bellingham Bay. Following a bit of dodging and weaving through islands, the fleet heads to Point Roberts for the final and most northern mark of the course, located literally feet from the Canadian border. Finally, it is a more or less straight shot back through the San Juan Islands and across the Straits of Juan de Fuca to the finish in Port Townsend.
The mix of the course leaves a lot of miles to cover with ample opportunities for the sail boats to make some good distance if the wind permits. The big unknown is certainly the wind conditions during the month of June, where even the most powered-up sailboat will struggle to fight against the swirling current while the human-powered boats should be able to make light work of the shorelines and narrow passages. There is an additional mental game at play as the race will be in many racers’ home waters, plus the complications of traveling past the hustle and bustle of Tacoma and Seattle ports. North will present its own set of challenges as the decision whether to nail the timing at Deception Pass or paddle through the slough could make or break the entire race for the frontrunners. Finally, the northern turning marks involve crossing some unquestionably big water, which is absolutely going to be a factor after weeks of paddling or pedaling around Puget Sound.
Whether you’re taking to the race as a first-timer who always dreamed of R2AK or a seasoned veteran with multiple trips to Ketchikan under your belt, it is certain to be an all-new experience. Throw in significantly more commercial traffic, limited camping and stopover options for the human-powered crowd, and shifting mid-summer breeze for the sailors, and it is certainly going to be an amazing adventure even while staying close to home.
Be sure to check in and get your tracker apps set up to follow your favorites as race day approaches. The best place to check for updates and learn about all the teams registered is online at nwmaritime.org/WA360.