Race to Alaska 2016 just passed the 72 hour mark since the running/rowing/pedaling start in Victoria. It’s hard to believe it’s only been three days. Time is flying for those of us who are armchair tracker junkies, but I have a feeling it may feel like a lot more than three days for the sailors on the course! In the last 24 hours, I’ve had two conversations with MAD Dog, one with Jungle Kitty, and one with the brothers on Team Bunny Whaler.
If you haven’t checked the tracker in the last few hours, we’ve got a serious four-boat race for the steak knives developing. Of course, nothing is to be taken for granted. MAD Dog continues to smash the upwind miles away, passing the Bella Bella checkpoint yesterday evening. Their lead has diminished proportionately to everyone’s progress on the course, but is probably still equal in total mileage. But there’s a lot of big, cold water still ahead of them.
When I talked to the MAD Dog guys yesterday afternoon, they were around Calvert Island and were still on cloud nine about how everything went down in Seymour Narrows. They timed the tide gate perfectly, and went through with a lifting breeze on the nose and about 4 knots of current with them. They were assured of their good timing because all of the cruising boats that had waited for the gate to open were just starting to motor through. Once through the Narrows, they described “pacing with two purse seining fishing boats, making VMG of around 12 knots through the passage. We were psyched about that!”
As the water widened into the typically windy Johnstone Strait, the breeze indeed started to pick up. The forecasts they saw were calling for even more wind the next day, so they decided this was their best opportunity and pushed the boat and themselves really hard to make it through Johnstone as soon as possible. They sailed for most of the day in 25-30 knots with a double-reefed main. Colin said, “It’s like the Columbia Gorge, wind funneling through moutains and working against the current.” It was the first time they had their new main double-reefed, and they were impressed with the power and control it delivered. However, they told me, “The boat is so light [just 1,100 lbs], it just gets pushed around in the waves. We were still showing 6-10 knots of boat speed in the big breeze, but a puff would hit and pick up the windward hull while just shoving the leeward bow hard into the next wave. We got no sleep in Johnstone Strait.” Toward the end of Johnstone, around 10pm, the breeze backed off enough that they got back into their watch shifts and got a little rest.
They called again around noon today when they had the boat slowed down for a bathroom break, trying not to splash the guy with his bare behind hanging off the leeward hull. Randy’s commented about sleep being hard to come by, saying, “We’ve been just about fully close-hauled the whole race, and upwind makes sleeping pretty brutal. Everyone has gotten a little sleep. But there’s no sleeping when we’re in narrow passages or if it’s windy – then it’s all hands.” They’re hanging in physically, but the fatigue is definitely showing up at the end of their watches. They have been on a schedule of 6 hours on, 3 hours off. They just switched to 4 hours on, 2 hours off now to try to make the ends of the on-watch a little easier.
Despite the challenge, they are in good spirits. They’re currently in Hecate Strait, making good progress in 10-15 knots of northwesterly breeze. They loved the approach into Bella Bella, painting the picture of “a full-on archipelago with turquoise water and nothing man-made for miles and miles.” They picked their way through an island group while their tracker was off, and said it was some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip. But, as beautiful as that was, with a day of distance from the blustery gauntlet of Johnstone Strait, they still count their timing through Seymour Narrows and the big push to put Johnstone behind them as their biggest highlight. “We crushed that timing. It was epic and intense,” Randy told me. Plus, they thought it was amazingly cool to have a plane and a helicopter coming to film them!
They said they were a bit frustrated this morning, because they had been hoping to make more miles in the moderate breeze they had. “It seemed like everywhere we went was a 40° header.” But they’re going well again, and have consistently been seeing 11-12 knots of upwind boat speed. They still have the jib up, but not deployed, in the 10-15 knots of breeze they have, because they roll it out in the light spots. There are puffs where they’d like to have a reef in, but they’re setting up to power through the light stuff for now. Despite that set-up, Randy said, “we’re definitely slower than full race mode right now. We’re not actively trimming the main.” Those speeds, and they’re not in race mode… this boat and crew is really something!
As they look ahead to this evening, they’re hoping to see the breeze do as it is forecast, and shift more westerly. They’d love a reach or maybe even a run as they approach Ketchikan. It’ll let them sleep better and will be a little easier on the boat (though they said, “knock on wood, our only gear issues have been very, very minor.”). We’re certainly pulling for them, and are thoroughly, genuinely surprised and impressed by what they’ve done thus far in R2AK 2016.
MAD Dog is but one team of 36 total still on the course. In second place, and just through the Bella Bella checkpoint, are our friends and correspondents on Team Jungle Kitty. They had an extremely challenging time around Seymour Narrows, which I could tell was still weighing on them a bit when we spoke in the late afternoon yesterday. When they called, they were in just over 20 knots of breeze and 4’ seas, which after the night they’d had, they described as “mellow.”
They had to wait for a tide window at Seymour Narrows, and were in the company of a few commercial fishing boats while they tacked slowly around. They were able to sail against the late part of the flood. Just past the Narrows, the breeze quickly picked up into the 30s, and that’s when stuff got hairy. They broke their jib halyard, and for that recovery and the rest of the night, they were all hands on deck. Sailing with a reefed main and no headsail, their progress in the breeze and the 7’-8’ waves was slow and hard on boat and crew. They noted that the phosphorescence in waves that big was eerie. They could see Madrona closing from behind, too, which didn’t help the vibe on board.
Jungle Kitty skipper, Ben Glass, told me the low moment came around 2am. Nobody had slept, and they just registered a gust of 42 knots. Dropping the main to the second reef meant bringing it all the way down in the full gale and then putting it back up. It was dark, and the traffic in those narrow passageways made any amount of time under bare poles a serious no-go. They saw at least four cruise ships and six tug-and-tows as well as many fishing boats in those tight quarters. Their options to stop are limited because they’re such a big boat and they draw more than 10’, so they can’t just beach the thing. And all the while, they have on their minds that this boat belongs to the National Skiff Foundation, so they have a different kind of responsibility to take good care of it. The discussion shifted to turning downwind, and Ben told me, “If we turned downwind, we probably weren’t going to turn back up.”
Literally in the midst of this discussion, the breeze decreased into the 20s. The boat came under control and they were able to stop the ragging of the mainsail. They could continue on! As they sailed through the night, the breeze continued to decrease, and they even got a bit of a southeasterly and put the kite up for a while in Johnstone Strait.
Morale on board Jungle Kitty had returned to its jovial levels and the rest of the day was relatively mellow. They were headed out into Queen Charlotte, and we lost the call just as Ben was mentioning something about seasickness medication, so I think they were getting into more ocean swell-type conditions. I’m eager to hear more from them this afternoon, especially to hear about their decision to go the inside route of Calvert, Hecate, and Hunter Islands, while Madrona and Broderna went outside.
Last night, I got a call from the young Bainbridge Island brothers on Team Bunny Whaler. Different than MAD Dog and Jungle Kitty, these guys are racing to win something different than the race or money or steak knives. They have pride, fun, experience, and the thwarting of challenging goals on the line, and their progress to those ends is more than admirable. They’re the first to admit it. “We’re just having a great time,” they told me more than once in a 20 minute call.
“It’s been super light, so we’ve been rowing a lot. But, it’s hard to complain when the weather is so nice,” said Cooper early in the call. They are former college rowers, so their muscles know this kind of work. But they said their longest training row was two hours, and they had rowed for over seven hours that day. The rowing is going pretty well in the flat water, though. They’re impressed that they “can make a good two knots rowing such a wide, heavy brick of shit.” When they’re rowing, they’ve discovered that they reduce drag if they put the person who is not rowing way in the bow of their 17’ Boston Whaler Harpoon sailboat. They rig the spinnaker sheets around the tiller and have the brother in the bow steer with those while the other rows.
As is often the case with those who are racing to finish Race to Alaska, the experience with the other racers and spectators has been the highlight of the trip. Cooper and Nate were blown away by the number of people from Nanaimo and Galiano who came out in small boats to say hello. Team Sistership sailed by and threw them a snack. And they described an awesome time pacing and racing in the afternoon and evening with Team Vantucky. As the sun set, the Rooks brothers told Vantucky where they were planning to pull in for the night, and the two boats had dinner together on the dock, hashing out and sharing the stories of the fun racing they’d done that day. “It just reminds you how cool it is,” they told me. No kidding!
They’re definitely making progress up the course, and had their sights set on a night of sleep on Lasqueti Island when we spoke. It got very windy yesterday morning, and they had a few hours of 20 knots of breeze and big seas, they said 6’, and had a lot of water in their boat. Mostly, it has been light, and the currents are strong. “It’s 99.9% super fun,” said Cooper, leaving a partial percentage for the long hours of rowing and the currents that have never quite matched up with the tide charts. They said they’ve made lots of time to step back and realize, “We’re out in the middle of the strait of Georgia. Just look where we are. It’s so beautiful right now!”
One other piece of news today, Team Bad Kitty has had to withdraw. Bob David, of Bad Kitty, wrote on Facebook, “It with a heavy heart that I’m reporting that Bad Kitty is withdrawing from the R2AK. I made the decision after consulting with the crew and assessing the needed repairs. We are in Port Hardy and heading south in the next couple of days. This is such an incredible race and I thank all of the organizers and volunteers that make it happen. Fair winds and Godspeed for all the remaining competitors! The kitty will be back!”
Looking into the next 24 hours, we’re going to see a lot of things happen. I think there’s a good chance MAD Dog finishes in daylight tomorrow, maybe very early in the day. Jungle Kitty has Madrona, Broderna, and a suddenly-charging Mail Order Bride right on their heels around Bella Bella. This is about the part of the course where we saw MOB just lit up last year, eventually reeling in the valiant Hobie 33 near Ketchikan.
Up and down the course, great people on a wide variety of cool boats will be having the time of their lives. You know we’ll be watching and loving every minute.