For the past five years, the Northwest Maritime Center, a non-profit organization based in Port Townsend, Washington, has overseen the Race to Alaska.
The 750-mile trek, which begins in the town located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and finishes in Ketchikan, at Thomas Basin, has ridden waves of ups and downs in its brief history.
But each season, the Race to Alaska has overcome adversity.
And this year has been no different.
As the coronavirus pandemic has continued to spread, the NWMC has had to “place significant portions of itself into hibernation until things stabilize,” according to a press release.
But race fans rest assured. The Race to Alaska still is on course for its send-off on June 8.
“The only reason this race is not going to happen is if there’s some governing body that has enough chutzpah to be like, ‘You’re not doing the race,’” said Daniel Evans, the Race to Alaska race boss. “Or there’s some evidence that actually running the race will increase exposure of the COVID virus from people who won’t be otherwise exposed. Those are the two reasons why we wouldn’t do it.”
In addition to the Race to Alaska, the NWMC also will continue its SEVENTY48 competition — a 70-mile boat race completed in 48 hours, in which only human-powered vessels are allowed.
The organization also will host its Wooden Boat Festival in the fall, and continue publishing its 48-degree North magazine.
But those four items on the docket are it. The non-profit has had to let more than 30 employees go, and cut time in half for others.
“The maritime center does a lot of stuff,” Evans said. “It does a ton of programs for youth, for the school district, for adults. Not just learning to sail, but it does professional mariner recertifications. There’s coffee shops; there’s a rower house for rowing clubs. ... So it’s a very active community. And what it’s had to do is it’s had to cut all that out, and lay those people off. And it’s chosen to focus on the things that it can.
“... So those are the four things out of a hundred that they did two weeks ago,” he continued.
But the coronavirus has rippled its way around the world, and throughout the country, hitting both people and businesses, alike.
“It’s crippling; it’s devastating,” Evans said. “It is the wrecking ball that’s running through the fabric of all of our communities. I don’t think really anything is safe from this. Even the people that for sure won’t lose their jobs — which is like the medical (field) — well, they just have to work twice as hard. So everyone is going under some dramatic change.”
And the Race of Alaska will have to, too.
“We likely won’t be able to have any of our larger parties,” Evans said. “... We have a pre-race event where we invite anyone to come down and meet the racers, and see the race boats and have some food and drinks. We even play some music, and it’s all free.”
But as it stands now, those events won’t happen.
And the race course might have to change, as well.
Typically done in two stages, the Race to Alaska goes from Port Townsend to Vancouver, British Columbia, and from Vancouver to Ketchikan.
But Canada and the U.S. have recently agreed to restrict travel across the shared border.
“Maybe we won’t go into Canada,” Evans said. “Maybe we’ll have to go around Canada. And maybe the Canadians will have to start in Canada, sail to Ketchikan and not stop. Just give us a high-five, turnaround and go back to Prince Rupert, and that’ll be their race.”
But Evans, and the group of Race to Alaska co-founders, isn’t throwing the towel in on that idea just yet.
“I am hopeful I’ll find a way around that,” Evans said. “Either they’ll back off (the restriction), or I’ll just buy a bunch of cheese — and each team can bring a block of cheese — and trade it for some toilet paper, and we can reclassify the whole thing as a trade partner, rather than a tourist event. So (maybe) that’ll get us in.”
Thirty teams have signed up for the Race to Alaska, and are in the process of gearing up to make the long trek north this summer.
Only human and wind-powered vessels are allowed, with the grand-prize winner receiving $10,000.
Second-place is awarded a set of steak knives, and the third-place winners receive nothing but a hearty handshake.
“The whole idea of the race is to celebrate the audacity, the courage, the tenacity in these people,” Evans said. “It’s the celebration of what ... I’ve come to believe is some of the finest examples of our human nature.”