A cheer went up at about 3:30 Wednesday afternoon as Team Pure & Wild rounded the Thomas Basin breakwater aboard the 44-foot monohull sailboat that had carried three sailors to a runaway first-place finish in the 2022 Race to Alaska.
After the vessel was made fast to the Baranof Excursions dock — and beverages from the Bawden Street Brewery were handed to the Pure & Wild crew — boat owner and skipper Jonathan McKee acknowledged the family members, well-wishers, R2AK officials, media and others gathered on the dock.
“Thanks everyone for coming out,” said McKee, smiling on the boat’s deck with fellow crew members Matt Pistay and Alyosha Strum-Palerm. “Cheers, guys.”
Later, the three men ran the ceremonial bell that signals the completion of a team’s R2AK. The official finish time was 3:32 p.m. Monday. They’d made it in four days, four hours and 32 minutes.
It hadn’t been easy, but it had been their race almost from start to finish.
With 2019 R2AK winner Pistay on board, Team Pure & Wild had bested the rough weather on June 13 during the 40-mile first leg from Port Townsend, Washington, to Victoria, British Columbia, to finish the stage 24 minutes ahead of its nearest competitor.
In the second leg, the only time Team Pure and Wild trailed was during the first few hours of the second leg from Victoria to Ketchikan.
Exiting Victoria harbor in very light winds, Team Pure & Wild turned west, one of three boats to choose the outside route off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The rest of the fleet turned east and up along the inside waters route to east of Vancouver Island.
Under the light wind conditions, the rowing teams fared best early on.
“The first part was, light air against the current,” McKee said. “So, just like getting out of Victoria, just getting around Race Rocks was, was a real challenge. ... Like the whole first part you could tell, see the people on the inside just smoking. I think at one point we'd gone six miles and the lead rowers had gone 22 miles. So, you know, we were definitely way behind at the beginning, but then we got some breeze started.”
On the second day, the breeze had built, and then continued to build until the boat was sailing in 25-knot winds and large waves.
“It was all on definitely,” Mckee said. “And that's the time when you're like, OK, we just need to get through this cause ... it wasn't gonna last forever, but there was some tough hours there for sure.”
Their main competition up to that point was Team Malolo, a 34-foot trimaran that had been fastest through a gauntlet of heavy driftwood plaguing on the inside route before damage from a log strike put Team Malolo out of action on Friday afternoon.
By early Saturday morning, Team Pure & Wild was putting some distance between it and the rest of the fleet.
The boat, Dark Star, is a racer-cruiser built in 2002 in New Zealand from a design by Paul Bieker.
“He's kind of a wizard — and this boat is like no exception,” said Jake Beattie, the executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center that organizes R2AK. “There's wizardry in this boat.”
Talking with the Daily News before Team Pure & Wild’s arrival in Thomas Basin, Beattie noted that the skill of the crew — McKee, for example, is an Olympic gold and bronze medalist in sailing — combined with the boat, is a special combination.
“Seeing the boat out there, sailing, was incredible,” Beattie said. “It's both, the sailors on the boat are incredibly talented, but, like the boat itself, usually there's a conversion between the wind that you have and how fast your boat can go. And especially when you're going with the wind— usually you don't go quite as fast.
“But we were just out there, and they were flying downwind in about 10 knots of wind maybe, and doing 9 knots sailing,” Beattie continued. “We were keeping up with them, doing 9 knots in the assist boat. So it's something about that boat and that team that’s just magic. Magic. Yeah. So, if anyone has earned the right to be here first, it's totally them.”
By about 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Team Pure and Wild had cleared the north end of Vancouver Island and headed toward the second leg’s waypoint at Bella Bella, British Columbia. It passed that mark at about 9 a.m. Sunday, and made a beeline for Ketchikan.
They said they had a bit of a tough time in Hecate Strait on Sunday night as the winds and waves began to build again. The spinnaker was torn as it was being taken down. They hit a log that put a sizable ding in the bow. But by Monday morning, the winds had eased enough to put the spinnaker back up, and Team Pure & Wild enjoyed a downwind run into U.S. waters and on to Ketchikan.
By the time they’d finished, they were about 225 miles ahead of their closest competitors.
At the finish, McKee voiced his appreciation for the support that the team had received.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank all the people that help us get to this point — I’m tearing up a little bit — but especially our families who supported us in all our preparations and said it was OK to do this crazy thing,” McKee said, adding his appreciation for Erik Kristen, the team’s project manager and engineer.
Pistay said that he’d expressed his love for the R2AK during the last mile into Ketchikan, and “asked these guys just to continue what I've been doing since I won at ‘19 of just telling the story and the journey to get here and saying how awesome it is from start to finish.
“Because it's not an easy feat, what everybody else behind us is doing,” Pistay said. “And we really applaud everybody that's still out there, and we hope they get (here) safe and have a cold beer just like this, and they're able to celebrate the adventure to get here. Because, for me, it's very special. Ketchikan is kind of a cool remote place where not too many people get to come. And the journey to sail here is also a great one because very few people get to set eyes on the land the scenery that we can see along the way. And I think that's a big part of the adventure for all of us.”
Among the crowd on the dock greeting the incoming race winner was Libby Johnson McKee, an owner of Dark Star.
She said that this probably is the farthest afield that the boat has been from its home waters in Desolation Sound and other areas north of Seattle since it was brought over from New Zealand. Tracking the R2AK has been “addictive.”
“From the minute they left Port Townsend, and then the minute they left Victoria, just like obsessively, refreshing the tracker, scrolling through Instagram and then to Facebook and then to R2AK.com and ... then following all of the other teams as they've been posting about their adventures, has just been awesome.”
She named several teams that she’d been following, including the all-teenager crew of Team Mustang Survival’s Rite of Passage.
“I think I click in on them every day, because as a parent, I'm like teenagers doing this is just so inspiring and I just want to see and hear what they have to say every day,” Johnson McKee said. So I'm really kind of, again, addicted, and I have done absolutely no work for the last five, six days.”
As of 7 p.m. Monday, Team Pure & Wild had claimed the $10,000-nailed-to-a-piece of wood first prize. Seven of the other 32 teams that had started the second leg on Thursday had dropped from the race.
Leading the rest of the racers — and still in contention for the R2AK second-place prize of a set of steak knives — was Team Elsewhere, a 33-fot monohull that was 198 nautical miles from the Ketchikan finish bell.
Trailing Team Elsewhere was Team Fashionably Late (34-foot monohull, about 224 nautical miles from the finish), Team Lost But Don’t Care (24-foot trimaran; 246 nautical miles) and Team Vegamite Vigilantes (24-foot trimaran; 250 nautical miles).
All of the remaining R2AK teams had yet to reach the waypoint at Bella Bella as of 7 p.m. Monday.