The Race to Alaska (R2AK) 2016 was the highly anticipated second edition of the 2015 R2AK adventure race: a 750-mile human- and wind-powered trek from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska. Forty four enthusiastic teams started on June 23rd, and the final winner, out of 26 teams that completed the race, arrived a full month later at the Fish House Dock on July 23.
Sequels can often be disappointing, but this race was far from it. It’s also more than a mere contest; it’s a celebration of a human challenge—with many sub-plots that kept thousands of us glued to the race tracker and the R2AK blog. Jake BeattieDirector of the NW Maritime Center who created the event, described it as “a story of triumph for the whole fleet." Our keen interest in the 2015 race came from the crazy inventions people dreamt up to sail and row in these inhospitable waters. Take a look for yourself, to see just how these mariners thought far outside of the box.
While we saw all types of boats again this year, they were mostly modified production models. An M32 cat, Farrier trimarans, small keelboats, and daysailors like the Seascape 18, all outfitted with various peddle drives and rowing setups, took on the challenge. There was even a stand-up paddleboard.
Team MAD Dog Racing took line honors. The super-human effort of three guys on an M32 catamaran—a carbon-fiber speed machine—zipped up their dry suits, blasted off the start line, and did not look back. MAD Dog deserves a ton of credit and respect. With so much sail area, every moment was a potential capsize. It was amazing they were able to control the bucking bronco without incident.
To get a sense of what racing on an M32 feels like, check out this video.
The top teams with champion sailors quickly made their way north in stiff winds that at times blew over 30 knots, cruel seas, and a wall of waves coming out into Johnston Strait. However, most of the race, the fleet faced the endurance of endless calm. There were only three days of significant wind over nearly three weeks. A normal committee boat would have cancelled the race, but this is R2AK where ‘normal’ rules don’t apply. There were some interesting match-ups between monohulls and multis.
While choosing the vessel is a big part of the race with multihulls being the obvious choice, teams competed neck and neck. For 500 odd miles Team Hot Mess on an Olson 30 and Team Fly on an F-27 trimaran were locked in a tight battle that would end within an hour of each other at the dock in Ketchikan. Even more unlikely competitors were Team Super Friends with their Thunderbird, who finished just within reach of team Alula (also in an F-27).
The racing is just the starting point. The main course is a story of overcoming adversity, a community pulling together and new friendships made. And the stories of endurance abound. There’s Mathieu Bonnier, a Frenchman (who had previously rowed across the Atlantic and around the Northwest Passage) from team LITEBOAT, who arrived dazed and confused after rowing most of the way. There were also tough decisions. While MAD Dog Racing was lapping up the miles in the lead, the solo paddle boarder Team Heart of Gold decided to turn back. After three days of racing he was ahead of some trimarans, but doing 750 miles on an SUP ended up being too much, due to constantly paddling on one side to compensate for the heavy load of provisions. Team Super Friends went aground twice, found themselves sailing in the wrong direction at one point, and had to anchor in one of the most difficult and swift passages in the northwest, the legendary Seymour narrows.
The story of triumph is not limited to the top guns. Thousands of people celebrated Team Bunny Whaler in a 17’ Boston Whaler (yes, Whaler made a sailboat at one time) which came in 24th place and a full 20 days behind the MAD Dogs. Thanks to Facebook, the stories of these adventurers have been captured in glorious detail for all the cheering, tearful friends to see. And we loved the videos of Team Sistership, four women sailing and singing their way to Alaska, raising money for causes that empower young girls. Then there was Team Alula, a group of three athletes who also happened to be paraplegic, who got as far as Campbell River before seeking help from other sailors when they went a man down and nearly dropped out.
The flares were lit and the call went out to the race community for help, and the response was amazing. Two sailors from crews that had already finished the race joined the boat. And while adding new crew disqualified them, this was just a footnote in the odyssey of their adventure. They still got to ring the bell at the finish and drink champagne in Ketchikan. That closes out another successful race. I couldn’t nail Jake down on the plans for 2017, but many people will be crossing their fingers that the R2AK goes on. Check out all the details on R2AK.