Boaters start 750-mile race Port Townsend to Ketchikan

The Race to Alaska launched a flotilla north to Ketchikan from Port Townsend, Washington, on Monday.

The 750-mile wind- and human-powered race has two starts: 5 a.m. Monday for the first leg, which organizers call the “The Proving Ground,” and noon Thursday for the second leg, which organizers call “To the Bitter End.”

R2AK advertising is notoriously humorous and 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.”

The first leg is 40 miles, stretching from Port Townsend to Victoria, British Columbia. The second leg is 710 miles, with boats leaving from Victoria and crossing the finish line at Thomas Basin in downtown Ketchikan.

The R2AK event invites any individual or team to compete in a variety of engineless vessels, with no supply drops or scheduled outside help. Vessels ranging from an 11-foot trimaran to a 44-foot monohull sailboat are entered in the full race this year.

There is one Alaska registered to race: Doug Smith, of Talkeetna, dubbed team “Darkstar,” in his 17-foot 4-inch rowboat.

The first R2AK race was held in 2015, and was continued through 2019. It then was postponed due to the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Canada in 2020 and 2021.

The prize for the first-place finisher is $10,000 and the prize for the second-place finisher is a set of steak knives.

A sweep boat, dubbed “The Grim Sweeper” by organizers, is scheduled to head north from Port Townsend either as soon as the first team crosses the finish line or at noon June 29 — whichever happens last. When a team is passed by the Grim Sweeper, it is tapped out of the competition.

In a phone call Wednesday, race boss Daniel Evans said that 38 teams are signed up for the full race this year, and 11 teams are signed up for the first leg only.

This year, organizers made a change to allow racers more leeway in planning their route. The previous R2AK events required racers to stay in Inside Passage waters along the east side of Vancouver Island, with a mandatory waystation in Seymour Narrows.

The requirement for teams to stop at the Seymour Narrows waypoint has been removed for the 2022 race. Evans and R2AK Race Marshal Jesse Wiegel explained in January the decision that allows qualified competitors to opt to race along the open waters to the west of Vancouver Island rather than through the Inside Passage.

The one waypoint that racers still must check into is located at Bella Bella, British Columbia.

Evans said 11 teams have been approved to traverse the outside passage along Vancouver Island. There is a long list of required vessel specs, safety equipment, proven skills, rigging and gear that must be met for teams to be approved for that route.

Those teams will not be required to make the final decision to which route to take until they reach Victoria at the completion of the first leg of the race, Evans said.

Evans said the outside route is about 30 miles longer than the Inside Passage as well, offering another challenge.

Those extra miles could get even more challenging, however, if the weather gets rough. In that scenario, Evans said, “they’re going to have to go pretty far around the north end of Vancouver Island and Cape Scott because there’s a little island group that comes out of there and it gets really nasty when the weather gets nasty.”

The planning for each route is complex, Evans said, noting that in his last look at weather patterns for the inside and outside routes, the winds were blowing from the north on the outside and from the south on the inside.

“So, in that scenario, the teams on the inside would be doing really well,” but, he pointed out, the teams traveling on the inside have to contend with strong currents.

Another factor that vessels on the outside route will have to contend with is exposure to open waters and no places to stop for supplies or repairs.

“You’re in it or you’re quitting,” Evans said of the outside-bound teams. “On the outside you have to be a lot more prepared for just going it alone, so the level of self-reliance really goes up.”

Judging by finish times from past races, Evans said that the first teams could be expected to reach the finish line in Ketchikan this Sunday.

But, he added, “it really could be all over the place.”

The race website at R2AK.com will have a live race tracker for “tracker junkies” who want to follow it closely.

Also on the website are biographies for each team entered, and during the race there are planned daily posts by three field reporters to keep people updated on the race.

 

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