The Race to Alaska is poised to launch a flotilla north to Ketchikan from Port Townsend, Washington on Monday.
The race is “the best bad idea that anyone’s ever come up with,” R2AK race boss Daniel Evans told an audience during a presentation at Cape Fox Lodge in February.
The 750-mile wind-and-human-powered Race to Alaska has two start dates: 5 a.m. on Monday for the first leg, which organizers call the “The Proving Ground,” and noon on Thursday for the second leg, which organizers call “To the Bitter End.”
R2AK advertising is notoriously humorous and chock full of hyperbole.
One description of the race on its website explains the event as: “It’s like the Iditarod, on a boat, with a chance of drowning, being run down by a freighter, or eaten by a grizzly bear. There are squalls, killer whales, tidal currents that run upwards of 20 miles an hour, and some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.”
The first leg is 40 miles, stretching from Port Townsend to Victoria, British Columbia. The second leg is 710 miles, with boats leaving from Victoria and crossing the finish line at Thomas Basin in downtown Ketchikan.
The R2AK event invites any individual or team to compete in a variety of engine-less vessels, with no supply drops or scheduled outside help. Vessels ranging from an 11-foot 6-inch trimaran to a 44-foot monohull sailboat are entered in the full race this year.
There is one Alaskan registered to race: Doug Smith of Talkeetna, dubbed team “Darkstar,” in his 17-foot 4-inch rowboat.
The first R2AK race was held in 2015, and was continued annually through 2019. It then was postponed due to the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Canada in 2020 and 2021.
The prize for the first-place finisher is $10,000 and the prize for the second-place finisher is a set of steak knives.
A sweep boat, dubbed “The Grim Sweeper” by organizers, is planned to head north from Port Townsend either as soon as the first team crosses the finish line or at noon on June 29 — whichever happens last. When a team is passed by the Grim Sweeper, it is tapped out of the competition.
In a phone call Wednesday, Evans said that 38 teams are signed up for the full race this year, and 11 teams are signed up for the first leg only.
This year, organizers made a change to allow racers more leeway in planning their route.
The previous R2AK events required racers to stay in Inside Passage waters along the east side of Vancouver Island, with a mandatory waystation in Seymour Narrows.
The requirement for teams to stop at the Seymour Narrows waypoint has been removed for the 2022 race. Evans and R2AK Race Marshal Jesse Wiegel during an interview in January explained that it was a decision that allowed qualified competitors to opt to race along the open waters to the west of Vancouver Island rather than through the Inside Passage.
The one waypoint that racers still must check into is located at Bella Bella, British Columbia.
During Wednesday’s phone call, Evans said that 11 teams have been approved to traverse the outside passage along Vancouver Island. There is a long list of required vessel specs, safety equipment, proven skills, rigging and gear that must be met for teams to be approved for that route.
Those teams will not be required to make the final decision to which route to take until they reach Victoria at the completion of the first leg of the race, Evans said.
“The reason why it felt like a good change for the race was because, especially in June, the weather — it can be really unreliable. And so, it changes the different elements that you’re gambling on quite a bit,” Evans said.
He added that when the teams choosing the outside passage leave Victoria, they must first travel west through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to reach the ocean. Westerly winds are common at this time of year in that area, Evans said, and that could slow the vessels as they travel to the ocean. On the other hand, winds could switch to a southerly direction by the time they reach the ocean, giving the vessels a push north.
Evans said that the outside route is about 30 miles longer than the Inside Passage as well, offering another challenge.
Those extra miles could get even more challenging, however, if the weather gets rough.
In that scenario, Evans said, “they’re going to have to go pretty far around the north end of Vancouver Island and Cape Scott because there’s a little island group that comes out of there and it gets really nasty when the weather gets nasty.”
The planning for each route is complex, Evans said, noting that in his last look at weather patterns for the inside and outside routes, the winds were blowing from the north on the outside and from the south on the inside.
“So, in that scenario, the teams on the inside would be doing really well,” but, he pointed out, the teams traveling on the inside have to contend with strong currents.
Another factor that vessels on the outside route will have to contend with is exposure to open waters and no places to stop for supplies or repairs.
“You’re in it or you’re quitting,” Evans said of the outside-bound teams. “On the outside you have to be a lot more prepared for just going it alone, so the level of self-reliance really goes up.”
Judging by finish times from past races, Evans said that the first teams could be expected to reach the finish line in Ketchikan on June 19.
But, he added, “it really could be all over the place.”
Race organizers plan to arrive in Ketchikan in plenty of time to welcome teams as they arrive.
“There’s going to be a bunch of us up there,” Evans said, and gave a shout-out to one of their sponsors, local hotel The Ketch, for hosting the group.
Additionally, the executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center, Jake Beattie, plans to join them in Ketchikan to welcome finishing teams.
The Port Townsend, Washington-based nonprofit Northwest Maritime Center started about 42 years ago, Evans said.
The organization also holds school programming, learn-to-sail classes, a program that runs through juvenile justice, and recently opened the first maritime high school in Washington, located in Seattle.
“It’s a really healthy, mission-driven organization that the Race to Alaska gets to be a part of,” Evans said.
Evans said that the Race to Alaska is the brainchild of Beattie, who first envisioned the race with Evans.
The race website at R2AK.com will have a live race tracker for those “tracker junkies” who want to follow the race closely. Evans said it is very accurate, with updates on vessel locations every six minutes.
Also on the website are biographies for each team entered, and during the race there are planned daily posts by three field reporters to keep people updated on the race.
There also is a R2AK “Kickoff Party” planned for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at The Ketch, located at 4871 North Tongass Highway. The public is invited to attend, with an RSVP to the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce recommended, by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.