“The best bad idea that anyone’s ever come up with.”
That’s how Race to Alaska “Race Boss” Daniel Evans described the event in a presentation he gave Feb. 16 during the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Cape Fox Lodge.
The 750-mile Race to Alaska event is set to start at 5 a.m. June 13 in Port Townsend, Washington, and will end in Ketchikan.
“R2AK,” as the race has been dubbed, is an event that invites any individual or team to compete in a variety of engine-less vessels, with no supply drops or scheduled outside help allowed.
The first R2AK was held in 2015, and was continued annually through 2019. It then was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Canada.
The prize for the first place finisher is $10,000 and a set of steak knives awaits the second-place boat.
The R2AK is conducted in two stages: the “proving ground,” which is an initial 40-mile leg from Port Townsend to Victoria, British Columbia; and the “to the bitter end” stage, which is the 710-mile leg from Victoria to Ketchikan. The racers are scheduled to leave Victoria at noon on June 16.
The official finish line is the breakwater at Thomas Basin. When a team crosses that line, a “loud horn” is sounded, according to race rules. The Ketchikan Yacht Club places a wooden stand with a brass bell attached that racers ring to announce their arrival on the Baranof Fishing Excursions dock in Thomas Basin.
The sweep boat, dubbed the “Grim Sweeper” by organizers, heads 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.
Racers can sign up to compete in only the first leg, or in both.
There is one required waypoint, located at Bella Bella, British Columbia.
The first-place finishers usually have taken about five days to complete the second leg, Evans said in a January telephone interview.
Evans began his Feb. 16 presentation at Cape Fox by talking about the race’s parent organization.
“Race to Alaska is a thing, and it’s a thing that’s part of a greater thing, and that greater thing is the Northwest Maritime Center,” he said.
The Port Townsend, Washington-based nonprofit started about 42 years ago, Evans said, and the backbone event has been the Wooden Boat Festival, which first was held in 1978, according to the organization’s website. Evans said that the festival is the second largest of its type in the world.
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.
He is an adventure race organizer for the Northwest Maritime Center along with R2AK race marshal Jesse Wiegel, who also attended the Cape Fox luncheon. The center holds other races, including the SEVENTY48 and the WA360.
He described the SEVENTY48 as similar to R2AK, but it is 70 miles long, from Tacoma to Port Townsend with a 48-hour time limit. Last year, fewer than half of the entrants finished, he said.
“It’s a similar challenge to the Race to Alaska,” Evans explained, “but the both disappointment or elation happens over a much shorter period of time.”
He added, with a grin, “You get two days to find out whether you hate yourself or love yourself.”
Evans displayed a slide with a photo of an ad claimed to have been written by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton as he was seeking crew members for an upcoming expedition in the early 1900s. The text in the slide read: “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.”
Evans said that legend has it that the ad attracted so many applicants that there was a line “around the corner” from Shackleton’s place.
The spirit of that ad inspired R2AK organizers, Evans said.
“I find there to be a strong parallel between what they were doing when they were looking to understand the Antarctic and what we’re doing with the Race to Alaska, in some ways,” Evans said. “And this is — that is all of us — all of us come from the same place. … We all share a similar spot in our heart that is waiting to be called upon because whether we know it or not, we are greater than what we believe ourselves to be.”
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.”
When organizers of R2AK created the event, Evans said they looked around at the existing sailing and racing events around the world and saw that it seemed as though they were getting more exclusive and expensive.
They wanted to create an event that would truly challenge people and would be accessible to anyone.
“There’s this part in our heart that is just waiting. It’s just waiting for that call,” Evans said. “The hope was, that the Race to Alaska could be that call for some people. That part would rise up, take the logical half of the brain, stuff it way down in the boot and stand there and say, ‘Yes I can. Yes, I can.’”
Organizers also focused on keeping convoluted rules out of the race.
“People who race love rules,” Evans said. “They just add ‘em on, add ‘em on. We did not love rules.”
He explained that they had no interest in running a race in which they’d have to keep track of a long list of regulations and spend time in “arbitration.”
He stated the basic rules as: go without an engine, no drop-offs or pick-ups of crew, and “go from A to B and B to C.”
After fielding many calls regarding how the rules could be bent or interpreted, Evans said they added another rule: “If we decide that we need to consult a lawyer to figure out if you’re disqualified or not, you are automatically disqualified.
“It’s the best rule ever,” he declared.
Like the Shackleton advertisement legend, the R2AK organizers also were surprised by the response they got, even the first year.
“How many people would think going engineless and unsupported to Alaska is actually a good idea?” he said they’d pondered.
More people showed up for the first event, and over the years it resonated with more and more people from all over the world, Evans said.
Audience member Christy Willis asked Evans how many teams were anticipated to sign up this year, and he said they have 46 teams signed up now, which is more than normal this far out from the April 15 deadline. The average for other years was about 45 teams, he said.
Willis also asked, “What is the number-one reason that people drop out?”
Evans answered, “The thing I love about this course is that this waterway has a way of finding the weaknesses in the team, no matter how well-prepared they are.
“So, maybe something in the boat’s going to break, maybe it’s their psyche that’s going to go, maybe it’s the loneliness — they scream, no one answers. There’s sleep deprivation; people hallucinate. One person thought they were being chased by ghosts.”
Evans continued, “There is a lot of times — the number-one reason is because the spirit cannot keep the logic part of the brain down in the foot. The logic part of the brain comes up and says, ‘You cannot do this anymore. You’ve lost your mind, you’ve gotta go back to work, you can’t be wet anymore. You can’t be cold anymore,’ and the brain just gives up after a time.”
He said that early in the race teams drop out mostly due to equipment failure, such as suffering a broken mast or capsizing.
“It’s not pretty,” Evans said.
This year, racers have been given an option for a new route north. Previously, teams were required to stop at a waypoint in Seymour Narrows, British Columbia. That waypoint has been removed from this year's race requirements, which will allow some teams, who must meet more stringent safety qualifications, the option of traversing the outside passage west of Vancouver Island or the traditional inside passage route to the remaining waypoint of Bella Bella, British Columbia.
Evans told the listeners at the Cape Fox luncheon that about 30% of the competitors that have entered past races are international teams.
He also recalled how surprised they were when Karl Kruger, the first racer to compete on a stand up paddleboard, finished the full race.
Evans pointed to a photo of a collage of various R2AK vessels on a slide, and said that Kruger “created one of my favorite things, which is the ‘stand up paddleboard wall of shame.’ These are all the boats that Karl beat, on a stand-up paddle board, racing to Alaska.”
He pointed specifically to an impressive, high-performance sailboat on the “wall” and added, “It was no joke.”
He also talked about another stand-out team, “Sail Like a Girl,” which won first place in 2018 and fourth place in 2019. He said that not only was the team sailing the first monohull to win the race, it won when “many people” said a monohull could not beat the multihull sailboats.
Evans said, “Not only did they win the race in a monohull, but they were the first all-female crew to win the race in a monohull. I would say they’re the first to be the most classy” as well.
He said that “Sail Like a Girl” also was the only first-place winner that has returned to race the following year. The team also used their notoriety they’d earned to create a nonprofit called “Race Like a Girl” that aims to empower women by training them in maritime skills. Some of their students have joined their crew on the R2AK.
Evans also emphasized the other component of critical participants in the race: the “tracker junkies,” or “super fans.” There are thousands of people who follow racers in live, on-line maps. Each vessel is required to carry a GPS tracker for safety, but it also allows fans to cheer them along remotely.
In Ketchikan, a group of enthusiasts follow the teams and meet them at the Baranof Fishing Excursions docks after they cross the finish line. Evans pointed out “super fans” Hunter and Deb Davis, who were in the audience, and said they always have been there to greet racers, “rain or shine, dumping down rain, 2 o’clock in the morning. … They're as much of the culture of the race as any of us.
“That’s the great thing about it. It’s not just about the racers, it’s all the people that kind of celebrate the endeavor. You don’t have to race to be part of that.”
Multiple videos including clips from actual races and entertaining promotional videos, including two that Evans shared during his presentation, can be found on YouTube.com by searching either for “Race to Alaska” or “Northwest Maritime Adventure Races.”
More information on the race can be found at the website r2ak.com.