Race to Alaska begins fifth race Monday morning

Karl Kruger of Team Heart of Gold raises his arms June 25, 2017, after finishing the Race to Alaska on a stand up paddleboard while a crowd cheers at Thomas Basin. Staff photo by Taylor Balkom, File

The fifth annual Race to Alaska will kick off at 5 a.m. Monday, in Port Townsend, Washington, where 46 engineless watercraft and their crews will race to Victoria, British Columbia.

That portion of the race, said R2AK co-founder Jake Beattie, is “kind of a qualifying leg.” Vessels must arrive within 36 hours to qualify for the second leg of the race.

Racers who reach that checkpoint within the required time can depart Victoria during the race’s second start at noon Thursday to head to Ketchikan, 710 miles distant.

There are two more required checkpoints: Bella Bella, British Columbia, and Seymour Narrows.

Racers are followed by the sweep boat, “Grim Sweeper,” which will leave Port Townsend as soon as the first racing boat crosses the finish line, or by June 19 — whichever happens last.  The Grim Sweeper will travel north toward Ketchikan at a rate of about 75 nautical miles a day, according to race rules. Any racers that are passed by the sweeper are officially ”tapped out” of the race.

R2AK is a project of the Northwest Maritime Center, of which Beattie is the executive director. He founded the race with his friend and Race Boss Daniel Evans.

Evans, in a phone interview Tuesday, said that Beattie had the idea for the race, then told Evans to “make it a reality.”

Unique to the race is not only the length of the journey, but also the few rules applied.

At the r2ak.com website, interested parties are told that the race was “created not as a cutthroat competition but as the best way we know to spread excitement about the magic of onwater adventures that are human powered and sail driven and to remind us all that big adventure can be obtainable on virtually any budget.”

Beattie explained in a interview by phone Tuesday, that “we’re trying to recast what it’s like to get on the water.”

He said with their open rules, a team could choose “a big fancy racing sled, or you could pull something out of the bushes.”

Evans said, “The cool thing about the race, always, is that there’s a Craig’s List boat next to a million-dollar boat.

“A different challenge, means a challenge nonetheless,” he added.

Beattie also stated that racers have literally pulled their boats out of the bushes, including the Funky Dory team this year. They not only completely rehabilitated their 16-foot open dory that they found degrading in the shrubs along the Columbia River, but have had to scramble to make repairs to the boat after a car wreck damaged the boat while they were towing it.

Original repairs, according to team information, included fixing cracks with “chopsticks, dental floss and spray foam.”

Beattie said that pedals have increasingly become the go-to propulsion system for many sailing vessels, to maintain speeds when there is not enough wind.

Last year’s race, Beattie said, featured much flat-calm water, and the winning team, Sail Like a Girl, earned an edge in the race by pedaling many miles.

“They sailed it well and they sailed it hard,” Beattie said.

He said that the pedaling technology has evolved over the years from rigs cobbled together from old bike parts to more sleek pedaling modules now being sold by companies.

Beattie said the R2AK also is unique in that “we don’t really care how you move,” just as long as it’s not with an engine.

Many vessels have completed the race, including paddle boards, trimarans, monohull sailboats, kayaks and row boats.

There are three ways to finish the race, according to race information: race only the leg to Victoria, race all the way to Ketchikan, or race until the sweep boat tags the team out.

Racers also are forbidden to receive any pre-planned supply drops, or to receive any support not available to other racers.

Racers also are required to comply with maritime state, province and federal laws. A list of essential, required supplies is listed in the sign-up information on the website, as well as a list of strongly recommended equipment. Each racer is provided with a GPS tracking device.

Fans of the race can track vessel progress through daily updates and at a live tracker. Links to those resources are available at the R2AK website.

Team Sail Like a Girl, with its Melges 32 monohull sailboat, is coming back for the 2019 competition, Beattie said, adding that they are the first champions to return and “try it again.”

That team was the first to win the race in a monohull sailing design.

Team Sail Like a Girl does have some new talent in their crew this year, including Lisa Cole, a U.S. Coast Guard captain and the owner of Seattle-based “She Sails” sailing school; biker and offshore sailor, Laurie Kaplan; and Nikki Henderson, who at age 26 was the youngest Clipper Around the World race skipper.

There are not only tales of swiftness, tense competition and rugged individualism on the course, but also, of love.

The two members of Team Oaracle, this year competing in a tandem kayak for the second time, met and fell in love on the course. They first competed on separate teams, then competed together, paddling a 22-foot rowboat in 2017.

“The first time, the race was their first date,” Beattie said.

They then moved to their kayak for the 2018 race, calling it their “second date.”

“They’ve found ways to increasingly take longer … by choosing progressively slower boats,” reads the cheeky team bio on the R2AK site.

A competitor coming back for his second stab at the race is Team North2Alaska, which also raced in 2017.

That team was headed up by Port Townsend-based Henry Veitenhans, who decided that he would build a boat and sail the race as a high-school graduation challenge.

“His senior project was to build a boat and race to Alaska,” Beattie said.

Henry and his father, Greg Veitenhans, built a 25-foot aluminum Maryland Fishing Sharpie, then found some high school friends to crew it with Henry Veitenhans and they were off to Ketchikan.

After the race, they fished on a seiner in Southeast Alaska, then carried the Sharpie home on the deck of the seine boat.

Beattie said he expects the fastest boat on the course this year to be the 34-foot trimaran, manned by Team Pear-Shaped Racing. He said its high-tech advantages such as its lifting foils and a hydraulic canting mast should give it impressive speeds, and its highly experienced crew only boosts the team’s chances.

Beattie described one boat entered in this year’s race as “the most interesting.” The 52-foot, 12-ton gaff-rigged cutter Ziska never has been equipped with an engine, he said. Beattie said that in calm winds, the crew’s strategy will be to launch rowboats and tow the big sailing vessel.

Race Boss Evans said that the race has “completely evolved” over the five years since its inception.

He said at first, he did everything, including coordinating shoreside activities, creating and monitoring the website and handling registration. Now, he manages teams that handle that work.

“In the beginning, the idea seemed so crazy,” Evans said.

He explained that people told him that the race would put people “too much at risk.”

He said he didn’t exactly disagree that the journey was risky.

“It’s perilous, even with an engine,” he said.

In the beginning, Evans said, people were “trying to crack the code.”

The first year of the race, 37 teams entered, and only 15 made it to Ketchikan in the allotted time. In 2018, 37 teams were accepted and 21 finished.

When asked what his advice for persons interested in joining the race was, Evans was clear.

“Don’t do it. Run away from that idea.”  He added that it would be “better to take up knitting.”

Beattie and Evans said they encourage the Ketchikan community to join them at the Alaska Fish House downtown to greet the race finishers. The finish line is at the entrance to Thomas Basin.

The first-place team will receive a $10,000 prize, which is traditionally offered the form of cash nailed to a tree; and the second-place team will earn a set of steak knives. Sponsors have set up their own side prizes for categories such as “first boat 20 feet and under to finish the race,” “team most in need of keeping their crap dry,” and “team most in need of a stiff drink.”

He said the Ketchikan Yacht Club is a big supporter of the event, and is sponsoring Team Ketchikan Yacht Club this year. Other local sponsors of the event include Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, My Place Hotels, Baranof Fishing Excursions and the Fish House.

“I totally encourage people to come down,” Evans said. Of the finishing racers, he said, “They will be there, they love people to be there. We’ll have friendly faces, smiles, beer.”

People can get an idea of when the racers will begin arriving by following the tracker, which is linked to the R2AK website.

Beattie said he and Evans would be in town by June 12.

He said joining the gang at the Fish House also would be an opportunity for fans to get answers to their questions as well.

“Come down and wave them in with us,” he said.