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By BILLY SINGLETON
Daily News Staff Writer
“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”
Race to Alaska’s Race Boss Daniel Evans quoted that ad — attributed to Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer — at the start of his presentation Thursday at the Ketchikan Public Library. Though the ad is probably apocryphal, Evans read it to evoke the annual race’s punishing intensity, which also happens to be its appeal.
In spite of having a completion rate of only about 60 percent, the competition continues to attract roughly 160 racers from around the world each year.
“There’s a call that wants to pull us beyond our perceived abilities,” Evans said Thursday. “I hope that Race to Alaska does that to people.”
R2AK is an engineless watercraft race that runs from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan. Each year, participants sail, row or paddle the 750-mile expedition, with no outside assistance permitted. The competition will return for its fourth year on June 14.
The race’s first-place winner receives $10,000. The only other prize is a set of steak knives, awarded for second place. A promotional video shown Thursday speculates on what might motivate participants regardless.
“What propels them?” the narrator asks. “Is it some kind of ancient insanity? These pitiful souls put their bodies and minds into the chasm of destruction in hopes of a few dollars, or perhaps a set of steak knives.”
Recognizing that Thursday’s audience consisted more of curious observers than potential participants, Evans focused largely on the spectator side of the race. He played several videos and told the stories of many of the race’s participants.
“The race is really about the stories,” Evans said.
Last year, for example, Team Big Broderna lost the use of their (human-powered) propellor, soon after beginning the race. They stopped on Saturna Island, scavenged for parts, fixed their prop and went on to finish in second place, with just six minutes separating them from $10,000.
Evans also told the story of Henry Veitenhans who, at 16 years old, designed his own aluminum boat specifically for the race, despite not knowing how to sail at the time. Veitenhans and his team, which included his father, completed the race in the home-made boat in 2017.
There was also the story of Karl Kruger, who became the first stand-up paddleboarder to complete the race in 2016, beating several boats to the finish line in the process.
This year, competitor Steve Rhoades will raise donations to charity by attempting the race prone on a paddleboard, propelling himself with his arms alone. According to Evans, he plans to return to Washington by bicycle.
Evans said that during the race, spectators are encouraged to keep up with the action online. Each team carries a tracker, so that spectators can track their progress on a map at R2AK’s website. Many teams share videos and update their social media feeds during the race as well.
“You can track them 24-hours-a-day,” Evans said. “You can automatically interact with the racers, even though they’re way the hell out there, in a fairly intimate way. … The ups and downs of that experience are being shared with viewers.”
Spectating has proven popular in Ketchikan. Locals join the racers’ friends and family each year at the Thomas Basin finish line to celebrate as the participants arrive.
Evans said that he planned Thursday’s presentation not to recruit participants or sell anything, but simply to feed that local interest.
“You don’t have to be a crazy adventurer, because that’s typically a bad idea.” Evans said. “But to appreciate it is a whole [other] thing entirely.”