Article

 November 1, 2015   Joe Cline

R2AK: Why It’s So Cool

I’m not exaggerating when I say this: With the exception of the foiling boats and close racing of the San Francisco America’s Cup, I believe the Race to Alaska (R2AK) is the coolest thing that’s happened in sailing since I’ve worked in the industry. It’s done something that almost nothing in sailing manages to do – it’s captured the attention of non-sailors, and crossed the often divisive lines drawn in the sailing world. It’s inspiring to racers, it’s engaging to cruisers, it’s drawn the eyeballs and Facebook clicks of big boat sailors, dinghy sailors, wooden boat enthusiasts, passage makers, Olympians, and average Joes. R2AK drew a few boats from out of the area, but

R2AK-Chart

Image Courtesy of NW Maritime Center

thousands of fans from around the country and beyond. The idea was spawned in one of our bars, and it’s happening on our waters. But, it’s much bigger than that now.
I wanted to start with that – an acknowledgment of the surprising and enormous success of this event. It’s a testament to a good idea that’s been very well executed by the team at Port Townsend’s Northwest Maritime Center. The courageous men and women who have set sail in small boats on a great journey, and pointed their compass needles to “N” towards cold, rugged waters have become our inspirations, heroes, and friends. R2AK’s success is assurance that the spirit of adventure burns in people from all walks of life, and that traveling our waters in a little boat fans the flame.
At the time of this writing, there are still 16 teams on the course. Three teams have finished. Nearly half the boats that set out from Port Townsend for Ketchikan have had to withdraw. The challenge has been undeniable, particularly because of the weather Neptune hurled at the R2AK racers. With so many teams still racing, there are still chapters to be written. I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the finishers, my respect and admiration to those who’ve had to retire, and my sincere wish for safe passage to those who are still sailing north.

The Scene in Port Townsend

The indications that this was a different sort of race were immediately evident in Port Townsend. The whole 48° North team hopped
on a ferry to be a part of the shenanigans. We helped host a lamb roast for the racers, giving us a chance to get to know many of the teams, and to clink keg cups of donated Fremont Brewery beer, to a safe trip. The people that came out of the woodwork for this event have an extraordinarily broad background. Some specialized in sailing, other in paddling or rowing, all were adventurers to their core.
Seeing their boats was eye-opening. You’re going to take THAT outside the breakwater, let alone to Ketchikan? I would say that nobody raised eyebrows more than the gregarious pair on Team Mau, Phil Wampold and Joanna Ludlow. Their 18’ Nacra 570 beach catamaran looked fast, sure. But it didn’t have any storage. Like, none. They had built a small, collapsible dodger, and everything they needed for the entire trip was to be in dry bags strapped to the trampoline. You must be planning to stop each night to camp. NO?! How are you going to cook? Oh, you’re subsisting on your sponsor’s just-add-water nutritional powder?! It was then that Joanna, who has an extensive wilderness background but has only been sailing for a few months, told me about Type II fun. I hadn’t heard of this before. She explained, “this is the kind of fun that leaves you saying, “That was AWESOME!” after it’s over, even if it might be miserable when you’re in the middle of it.”

Team Mau’s Type II Fun Nacra.

Team Mau’s Nacra wasn’t the only intriguing, or slightly concerning boat. There was the foiling 17’ Windrider Rave, there were several outrigger kayaks and triaks with some really questionable-looking sailing rigs, and there were essentially untested new designs like the shunting Bieker Proa and the Turn Point 24 catamaran. Ingenuity and innovation were on display all over the place, some of it hearkening to traditional designs, others breaking new ground. Thomas Nielsen, the captain of Team Sea Runners, who were featured in our R2AK article in the February 2015 48° North,
described their approach as the “hipster version of sailing.” They used all sorts of found materials, and their sail was an $18 yellow tarp from a farm supply store. And in this race, that kind of thing is at the heart of it, and is very, very cool. Hipster cool. R2AK cool.
Because no engines are allowed, teams approached the human-power element of the race each in their own way. There were many pedal-driven propellers, as well as a variety of rowing solutions with homemade sliding seats or hand-lashed oarlocks. The thought was that human power was going to play a huge role in the race, as the Inside Passage can be very light at this time of year. That, of course didn’t turn out to be the case, at least for the first week of the race.
The most exciting part about the scene in Port Townsend, however, were the folks that weren’t there to race. People converged on Port Townsend from all over the area. A raucous crowd of over 1,000 attended the Pre-race Ruckus the night before Leg 1, ogling the boats and meeting the competitors. The atmosphere was electric. Media was everywhere. Even more impressive than the pre-race event, was the traffic jam at 4:30am for all the people trying to get in to see the start. Better than 500 hollering fans stood bleary-eyed at the 5:30am start, cheering as the boats left the dock and sailed, pedaled, or rowed out to the start line. I’ve never been a part of a race start that had any fans. And here, before the sun was even up, were hundreds of supporters.
The enthusiasm from fans and enthusiasts has only broadened. Twice now, the race’s tracker page has been overwhelmed by traffic. It wasn’t ideal, and we had to see the winners come into Ketchikan via the harbor’s web-cams. But, it represents an amazing amount of interest. In fact, reports are that it was 10+ times the traffic the same tracker page gets for Swiftsure.

Everybody’s a Winner

Though they were far from the first boat in, Bill and Ted of Team Excellent Adventure were "winners" when they arrived in Ketchican!

Though they were far from the first boat in, Bill and Ted of Team Excellent Adventure were “winners” when they arrived in Ketchican!

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks pondering what exactly it is that has been so captivating to so many people, and

especially why the momentum has carried on after Team Elsie Piddock won the race in convincing fashion. This is important to me, because replicating the successes could be huge for the sailing community at large.
The biggest thing I’ve come up with is that R2AK has the unique condition where racing success takes many forms. I’m not aware of another boat race where there’s so much pride to be taken in finishing. It’s like a marathon. Have you ever encountered a marathoner who felt like a failure because they didn’t win. They accomplished something great.
That’s the distinction between R2AK and a lot of sailboat racing. While many “normal” racers might be out there to have a good time, there is generally a great emphasis placed on winning. And, the alternative to winning, in most races, is losing, which has an element of failure.
In the R2AK, the alternative to winning is finishing. There’s no element of failure in this. Like the marathon, if you set out to finish and actually finish…massive success! If you set out to finish and aren’t able to, the challenge you set for yourself was great enough that the vast majority of your competitors aren’t competing against you. They’ll support you. Because you accepted the challenge, you’re a winner.

 

Photo Courtesy of Nick Reid Photo

Courtesy of Nick Reid

R2AK: The Carnage

Nobody knew what it was going to be like, this whole Race To Alaska thing. Plenty of speculation was bandied about ahead of time, and when you look at the new designs being built for this race, performance in light air and human power were the leading factors. The Inside Passage, oooh it’s gonna be light up there! Nobody knew what it would be like.
As it turned out, it blew like stink. For a week. Basically without relenting. It was like that from the very beginning. And, it turned the R2AK into a war of attrition. For most teams, the goal was to finish, not to win. Yet for many, the weather won. I’m incredibly thankful that, to this point, it’s only been equipment damage and no one has been hurt. These racers are in small boats, and this weather has been HARSH.

The Qualification Leg

Beautiful and harsh - the Straight of Juan de Fuca on R2AK Day 1. Photo courtesy of Sean Trew

Beautiful and harsh – the Straight of Juan de Fuca on R2AK Day 1. Photo courtesy of Sean Trew

Even 24 hours before the start in Port Townsend, forecasts were calling for light wind. But, by the night before, rumblings of solid breeze were circulating. The wind was blowing when we went to bed. And when I got down to the marina at 4am to sail Stage 1…yup, still breeze on.
The race organizers had a pretty brilliant idea. They would have a “qualification leg” from Port Townsend to Victoria, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If you could cross that pretty big water, you could continue in the race. But, there are a lot of early mornings in the Strait that are flat and glassy. If it had been one of those mornings, many more teams might have encountered trouble even further from help. As it was, the “filter” leg did exactly what it was supposed to, exposing liabilities in boats and sailors.
I sailed leg one with Stephanie and Andy Schwenk, who were doing only Stage 1 on their Santa Cruz 27, Wild Rumpus. It was pretty breezy at the start line, but the water was flat because we were inside the bay. Coming around Point Wilson, the waves that had built up as the breeze blew overnight came into play. As we crossed, it blew 15-18kt with 2’-4’ waves and a few washing machines along the way.
It was the chop that would cause the most problems in Stage 1. By the time we arrived in Victoria, rumors were going around, and eventually confirmed: a 19’ beach cat had been dismasted, a trimaran took on water and flipped, requiring rescue by Vessel Assist, and multiple kayak capsizes required what the Race Boss described as “very active management” until noon. It was only day one, and 12 of the 55 boats that set out to sail to Victoria were out of the race, six of those had been planning to go all the way to Ketchikan.

Strait of Georgia: Wind and Waves

The dismasted L-7 Catamaran. Photo courtesy of Nick Reid

The dismasted L-7 Catamaran. Photo courtesy of Nick Reid

The remaining 30 full-race boats started from Victoria, rowing, paddling, and pedaling in light wind. The light conditions stuck around until after dark, when the breeze started to fill. By the morning, it was blowing 15-20 knots, and the seas kicked up quickly. When I woke up and turned on my computer, three teams were out. Team Real Thing, an L-7 trimaran, had broken an inner diamond stay and watched their mast crumple. Team Pure & Wild on the Paul Bieker Proa and Team Turn Point Design on their newly-built high-performance 24’ catamaran had both withdrawn. Both of these brand new, custom-built designs were relatively untested, and experienced problems in that first night that made them realize that the building forecast may have spelled disaster. Turn Point was having major rudder load issues and some water incursion. The Proa was having what skipper, Joe Bersch, described as “payload issues.” In each case, these two-man teams realized they wouldn’t be able to singlehand while their partner slept, and had enough concerns not to take the risk of continuing.

This would likely prove to be a very prudent choice, because in the next several days, more boats would fail, withdraw, and even need rescue.
During the night of June 8, the second night of the race, Team Sea Wolf, on their foiling 17’ Windrider Rave trimaran, found themselves in serious trouble. Due to the winds and sea state, they couldn’t maneuver; unable to get enough speed to make it through a tack into the big waves, and risking a pitchpole every time they drove down a wave trying to gybe. And so, they were stuck. They essentially drifted out of control across the Strait of Georgia, finding themselves dangerously approaching the lee shore in the Sands Head area of the Fraser River Delta. At Sands Head, a shallow bar extends for miles, creating hazardous wave conditions. By the time they got in there, the team reported 40 knot winds and 15’ waves. TROUBLE, in other words. They called for rescue, which they desperately needed, and were picked up by hovercraft, the only vessel that can get into those shallows. Their broken boat was salvaged the next day, and they say they’ll sail it again. Skipper, George Corbett told Small Craft Advisor Magazine that “It was hard to do, but it was better the boat was smashed up than us with it. I’m actually proud we made the correct decision to call the Coast Guard in enough time that they were able to recover us instead of just a couple of bodies.”

Team Sea Wolf lives to sail another day!

Team Sea Wolf lives to sail another day!

Team Sea Wolf weren’t the only ones overwhelmed by the Strait of Georgia. The San Juan 21, Team Super Friends, also had to withdraw with boat damage. Their bow delaminated and they were taking on water. The winds were high enough that Team Triamoto’s mini ORMA-style trimaran had catastrophic jib damage…three times. They also had to retire.
Even boats that didn’t have to retire had issues: Team Sea Runners’s $18-tarp sail held up so well that the yard, the spar along the topside of their sail, snapped. Their Wharram-catamaran buddies on Team Puffin had issues, too.
The Strait of Georgia was not a very friendly place during the first week of R2AK. But, if you were lucky or good enough to get through it, things got even harrier in Johnstone Strait.

Johnstone Strait: The Gauntlet

Johnstone Strait is known to be a bit of a wind tunnel, but I don’t think anyone expected days-on-end with a forecast of 30-40 knots. Sailing through the immensely challenging Seymour Narrows (something nobody does) gave the R2AK teams access to a beautiful strip of water where “the damned sunshine brings the wind funneling through.” At least that’s how Dan, of Team Coastal Express, described it.

Broderna in Johnstone Strait before they lost the rig. Photo courtesy of Nick Reid

Broderna in Johnstone Strait before they lost the rig. Photo courtesy of Nick Reid

The wind in Johnstone knocked out several boats. First to go was Team Golden Oldies, a 38’ Crowther Super Shockwave catamaran, and the largest boat in the race. They parted their main halyard, and turned the boat south. Team Broderna’s F-27 was dismasted. They reported just after, “Tough weather out here, tired…We need a stronger boat.” The Port Townsend locals on Team {Hexagram 59} also withdrew in Johnstone Strait.
Most boats that avoided major damage still had to stop and wait out the conditions. Many of them had some damage, too. Team Un-Cruise blew up both jib cars, a total of six blocks, and had several lines parted. Teams without significant damage wanted to keep it that way, and weathered the storms in coves and bays off of Johnstone. Some boats didn’t move for days.
Sometimes, the waiting became too much and teams tried to make a go of it. Our friends on Team Grin poked the bow of their Etchells out at 5:30 am one morning, figuring it might be a little lighter in the early morning hours. Nope. Team Mau on their Nacra 570 went for it one day out of Kamish Bay, when the forecast was only 15-25. They had this to report about that attempt:

Team Mau's shelter on Quadra Island. Type II fun for sure!

Team Mau’s shelter on Quadra Island. Type II fun for sure!

“We spent four nights on Quadra Island, which was a brutal place to watch other boats sail past us. We tried to shoot for a 15-25kt window on Thursday morning, but we promptly turtled the boat. The only way we were able to right it was when the mast hit an island. Ha! Then, once on our side, we slammed into barnacles the size of tennis balls before righting her properly and heading back for safety. Just superficial damage to the mast and a small hole in the bow, which we repaired…. We’re currently tethered to the trimaran that was dismasted, Broderna. Definitely a sobering reminder to keep it safe and avoid carnage.”
Ultimately, the boats that stayed in one piece and were able to stay underway made out. The podium – Team Elsie Piddock in first, follwed by Team MOB Mentality, and Team Por Favor in third – all avoided catastrophic damage and major slowdowns.
But, again, the goal for most is simply to finish. And that, alone, has been enormously challenging with the conditions. With 16 teams still on the course, here’s hoping that we’ve seen all the carnage we’re going to see in this inaugural R2AK!

 

Team Elsie Piddock on their way into Ketchikan. Photo courtesy of Rosie Roppel.

Team Elsie Piddock on their way into Ketchikan. Photo courtesy of Rosie Roppel.

R2AK: How Elsie Won the West

It’s been a few days since Al Hughes, Graeme Esarey, and Matt Steverson sailed Elsie Piddock into Ketchikan Harbor and, with a cannon shot and cruise ship blast, they dropped their sails, rang the bell, received a log with cash nailed to it, and cracked hard-won Rainier beers as the winners of the inaugural R2AK.
In the first article of this section, I go out of my way to point out that there’s an everyone’s-a-winner dynamic to R2AK. This is absolutely true. The battle for the 2nd-place steak knives between Wayne Gorrey’s Farrier trimaran, Team MOB Mentality, and John Denny’s Hobie 33, Team Por Favor, was downright epic. The stories of challenge and success from around the course are amazing – Team Soggy Beavers’s six-man outrigger canoe smashing upwind in big waves, the valiant little Mirror 16 dinghy of , the spirit and prudence of Team Grin on their Etchells, Team Mau’s persistence, the singlehanded kayakers, and of course the hipster-sailors’ on-the-fly repairs of their home-built Wharram catamarans.
These great stories don’t take anything away from Team Elsie Piddock’s remarkable victory. I’ve thought a lot about how Team EP did what they did, and why. This week, I got to chat with Elsie crewman, Matt Steverson, who helped illuminate some of it further.
So, how did Team EP do it? For one, they started fast. As often happens in sailboat racing, an early lead can grow into a huge delta. I’m reminded of Jonathan McKee’s idea that a boat begins every race with the possibility of sailing the PERFECT race, and as you go along, you add time to the perfect race as you make mistakes. So, there’s no catching up, no undoing your mistakes; you can only limit your future mistakes to stay as close as possible to that perfect race. Well, it would seem that Elsie didn’t have to add much time as they went along. It started the first day out of Victoria, and they never looked back. Matt thinks that one of their biggest gains was on that first day. “We sailed up the inside of the Gulf Islands, made it through Porlier Pass, and we rowed from puff to puff for four hours, and the boats with us got farther and farther in the distance. That was the last time we saw another boat. Those gains allowed us to hit the tides right in Seymour Narrows.”
Getting through the Narrows when they did allowed them to make their only stop on the trip, which Matt described as, “the very best decision we made in the entire race!” He said, “we’d just been bashing our brains out. We were off of Texada and it was blowing hard, and the waves were getting big. It was tough sailing, and we were still learning the boat. The approach and going through Seymour Narrows was totally WHITE KNUCKLE SAILING. We had a jib batten coming out, and we had to gybe going from port tack to starboard to keep it from hanging up. Al would drive us right up to the wall. He’s such a pro at this stuff. Once we were through Seymour Narrows, we made the decision to tie up for the night and have a hot meal. We knew that nobody else was going to make it through the Narrows on that tide. Because of this stop, we were fresh going through Johnstone the next morning.”
Johnstone Strait, for the teams that made it there, proved to be the gauntlet of the whole course, worse for most than the Strait of Georgia, which was burly in its own right. I asked Matt what the conditions were like in their trip through Johnstone. He told me, “We knew the forecast was calling for 30-40, and when we were going to bed, we could hear the breeze howling. We hoped it wouldn’t sound like that the next morning. When we woke up, it sounded worse. We made it through the worst part on the flood, accepting adverse current so the waves would be less. But, it was still very, very, very windy and wavy. There were three sections that we went through, and it would get crazy and then it would come down a little. The first section was bad, the second one was really bad, the third one was CRAZY – 40 knots for sure. We had a double reef in the main and the storm jib, and the boat was still going really well. The boat was great. It was reasonably comfortable, but extremely wet. We never really had a moment where we thought the boat was going over or something was going to break. It was strong and steady and fast.” In his opinion, their boat (a Farrier 25c trimaran) is to be credited for the win as much as they are.
But really, even a great boat has to be in the hands of excellent sailors to win. So, why are they so good, as individuals and a team? I’ve written several times about the extensive offshore racing experience that this team has, more than any other team in the race. That offshore racing experience teaches sailors to balance the push for performance against the rigors on the boat more than local or short distance races. Matt said that had a lot to do with their success, but also, again, cited the early lead. “With the lead, we didn’t have to push – ourselves or the boat – as hard as we might have. The whole goal became: get the boat to Ketchikan in one piece. Get there unscathed. Anything could happen; you could hit stuff. All of us were listening for any change, for something that might be breaking.” Matt added, “I think we were one of the best prepared for this race, making sure the boat was ready, taking steps to be dry and fed. The experience of the ocean races or Van Isle was invaluable.”

They sent it, sailed smart, and trusted eachother. Here, Team Elsie and their families celebrate with Rainier and $10,000!

They sent it, sailed smart, and trusted eachother. Here, Team Elsie and their families celebrate with Rainier and $10,000!

I’ve sailed with all three of these guys – with Al and Graeme only once, but with Matt dozens of times. To say their dynamic is easy-going and calm is a massive understatement. Matt told me, “It’s really fun, and that’s the most important thing to all of us.” I haven’t been able to speak with skipper, Al Hughes, yet. But, I did hear from his wife, Lou, who was kind enough to share what Al had to say when he called her just after they finished. She had suggested that they must be a little beat up, and he replied, “Sure, we’re a little cold and wet and tired. But, the three of us work so well together, we had a total blast, and we’d turn around and do it again tomorrow.” Lou went on to offer her perspective, “I don’t need to have been on the boat to know that there wasn’t a voice raised on that whole trip. They just love sailing together. They trust each other completely.” Matt confirmed this and said that the loudest moment on the trip “was when we were laughing our asses off. None of us like to yell and don’t need to. We know it won’t make the boat go any faster.”
These are some seriously experienced and talented sailors. Matt describes the other two as “extremely competitive” and says they’re both really incredible sailors. He went on, “Graeme is a great seaman. He grew up on fishing boats in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. He and his wife crossed the ocean for their honeymoon. He’s just really smart and been around the racing scene for a long time. He’s competitive and gung-ho, he brings a lot of energy and does everything 110%.“Matt also confirmed what I’ve been hearing for years, that Al Hughes is the best sailor in Seattle that you’ve never heard of. “Al just sees things that a lot of people don’t see. He has so much experience. He’s cruised to Ketchikan five times. He’s done the Van Isle ten times. He has intense interest in it. It seems like he always has the answers.”Matt continued, “When Al asked if I would do this, it was a total no-brainer. That race to Hawaii that we did – it was magical for me. We were better friends when we got there than when we left. And that was the case with this, which is amazing. You go through crazy stuff and come out closer. For me, the fun is in the challenge, and in the scenery, and in getting to sail an amazing boat. A huge part is the education I get out of it. Getting to sail with Al Hughes to Hawaii and back. To Alaska and back. Being a part of the experience, I learn so much.”Ultimately, between their early lead, their vast offshore experience, and their trust in one another, Team EP was able to keep going, and going fast. With the exception of the persistent sailors on Team Por Favor’s Hobie 33, all the other teams have had to stop. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not remotely critical of those teams who stopped for repair, recovery, conditions, or for any other reason. But, the fact remains that Elsie just went on and on, calmly, quietly, laughing and skipping atop the waves.
In the end, they were sunburned and blistered; cold, wet, and tired. But, they were closer than when they left and would do it all again tomorrow. And, they are the undisputed champions of the first-ever Race to Alaska.

Joe Cline is the Editor of 48° North.