In 1978, a buddy and I sailed from Seattle to Alaska in a leaky old Dragon sailboat. Yes we had a (very small) outboard engine but no electronics at all. Just charts, a compass and lead line. Old school. Uncomfortable. And wonderful.
When I heard about the Race to Alaska a smile formed — a mixture of memories and yearning. Then when I learned more about the race, the smile turned into belly laughs and full blown admiration. A 750 mile human powered race where a first place finish gets you $10,000 and the prize for second is a set of steak knives. Competition, adventure and humor.
There are no rules other than the boats must be human and/or wind powered and the contestants be self sufficient. Their legal advice is similarly simple. From their website: “Legal counsel has advised us to to remind you that this could be pretty dangerous. You should probably just forget about the whole thing.”
The contestants are as whacky and diverse as their watercraft. Sail, paddle, pedal or row. Or some wicked combination therein. One hull? Two? Three? There’s one fellow on a stand up paddle board. OK, he paddles, but Seattle to Ketchikan on a paddle board deserves a (padded) class of his own. And one contestant even paid his entry fee with beaver pelts.
They will compete against each other and themselves. Weather, wind and current will alternatively play the role of friend and foe. Thousands of decisions will be made. How much longer do we go today? Is this an all nighter? Can I make that next slack? Do I dare anchor HERE? Do I try to beat that freighter? (Don’t even think it).
There are certainly dangers. Bears and freighters for sure, but both sound worse than they really are (although stage one from Port Townsend to Victoria could be interesting, thank goodness for AIS).
I suspect the greater danger could come from how the mixture of fatigue and competitive desire plays into decision making. Most of the trip should be glorious from a weather standpoint, but Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound, Dixon Entrance and a few others can throw notable curve balls and the currents demand attention for both safety and competitive advantage.
Those that scan the water, looking for the back eddies, watching current lines and play them to their favor are likely to gain advantage. Currents aren’t linear, the passages aren’t straight lines and the careful observer will see things others may miss.
If you, like me, are more of an armchair observer this time, their website makes it easy and fun to get to know the contestants and their boats. These guys and gals are taking on a special challenge. Their bios are hysterically written and well worth the read.
And if you like cedar, moss and currents, and if the words “Alaska” or “Inside Passage” get your attention, pick a favorite or two and follow the race. It likely won’t achieve great coverage in the popular press, but keep your eye on Three Sheets Northwest before, during and after the race for updates on how the fleet is tackling this great adventure.
The Race to Alaska kicks off on June 4 at 5 a.m. in Port Townsend, but kicks off again at “high noon” on Sunday June 7th.