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The Nearly Lawless Race To Alaska

Photo by Alan Hartman

Photo by Alan Hartman

The first-ever Race to Alaska is pitting dingy against cruising cat, fur trader against tech genius in a 750-nautical-mile slog from Port Townsend, Wash. to Ketchikan, Alaska. There are 33 entrants, no support boats, no pre-arranged supply drops and a $10,000 stack of Benjamins for the winner, a set of steak knives for second.

“No one knows what is going to happen and all of the expectations are complete speculation,” Jake Beattie, 39, executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center said of his brainchild event, which began at 5 a.m. after a community skinny-dip in the choppy, 50-degree waters between Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

There are a few basic equipment requirements in the nearly lawless competition, including a satellite personal tracker. Racers must qualify by reaching Victoria, Canada by 5 p.m.tomorrow, a distance of 40 miles. Registration fees ranged from $50 to more than $650 depending on the size of a team and if it intended to finish in Victoria or try for the “full monty,” as stated on the race’s cheeky website, www.r2ak.com. There are two waypoints racers must hit: The Seymour Narrows and Bella Bella in British Columbia, Canada. A 32-foot Cutwater Express sweep boat will motor north from Port Townsend when the first competitor finishes, or on June 24, whichever happens last. When that sweep passes a racer, he or she is out of the running.

Cash, credit or beaver pelts

The few rules set the Race to Alaska apart from other adventure races that often regulate a team’s size, gender composition and gear list. Still, the entry cost was limiting to some and inspired Alan Hartman, 47, of a remote valley near Palmer, Alaska, to haggle. The back-to-the-lander offered Beattie three of his best beaver pelts for a fair trade and Beattie accepted.

“There was an article in our paper the [Mat-Su ValleyFrontiersman and I was sitting in a little beer joint, a day beer joint, you know, with all these salty fisherman, and the article was saying what a shame that here’s a race meant for self sufficiency and tenacity and there’s not one Alaskan,” Hartman said a week before the race in Port Townsend, as he prepared his 19-foot “Triak” for a test run in the bay. “The fisherman were telling stories of all the baddass stuff they’d done and I said, ‘You know what fellas? I’m going to represent.’”

Those fisherman worried about him for months said Hartman, a Bristol Bay gill-netter himself. He finally told them, “What does it matter? We’re sitting here, killing time in the afternoon. If you look at the whole thing, it’s a daunting challenge but if you break it up into trips, it’s logical.”

With a few days to go before the race, it seemed clear Hartman had already relied heavily on his optimism just to approach the start line. A wood-chopping accident had sent a splinter through his right eye shortly before he flew south from Alaska.

“It looked like my eye was smoking a cigarette, the way the stick was hanging there,” Hartman joked, smiling beneath an eye patch. A surgeon sealed the puncture wound with ten stitches after re-inflating the eye with gel and Hartman said he expects a full recovery as long as he can keep the saltwater out of it, he said.

Hartman was one of three competitors to fall victim to misfortune before race day. Shane Perrin, a 39-year-old logger from St. Louis, Mo., intended to use a stand-up paddle board to reach Alaska but failed to dodge a falling tree last Thursday and suffered a concussion that led him to withdraw from the race. Colin Angus, National Geographic’s 2007 Adventurer of the Year, saw his rowboat smashed in transport and withdrew.

Hartman said he intends to keep a steady, safe pace and complete the race in 30 days. He said he expects no fanfare at the finish line unless he has a “Rudy” moment and wins, in which case he would use the $10,000 to buy everyone a set of steak knives.

“I’ll be looking out for people,” Hartman said of his opponents, “with my good eye.”

Make boats, not pipelines

While Hartman represents his fellow Alaskans, three Canadians in a 19-foot cedar boat will represent those who oppose oil tankers and pipelines along the coast of British Columbia, Canada.

“There’s freak storms, rocks everywhere, it’s a really dangerous place,” Mitch Burns, 36, said of the area where the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline and an extension of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline could terminate one day.

Burns and his teammates Quill Goldman, 36, and Dylan Davenport, 38, are all independent boat builders from Gabriola Island in British Columbia. Their vessel, designed by Tad Roberts of Barefoot Wooden Boats, is an example of how to build with materials from sustainable sources.

“There’s no shortage of these,” Goldman said, gesturing toward the 1980s-era home rowing machines modified to perform as sliding seats for the men at the oars. Those oars were once bridge timbers, and their carbon-fiber bowsprit spent its previous life as a windsurfing mast. Sponsor EcoPoxy provided as much plant-based, non-toxic glue as the team needed.

“We launched the boat April 12 and we finished it probably next week,” Goldman said, laughing two days before the race start. “Our boat is a bit more of a compromise than some of the other ones because we’ve tried to get both sailing and rowing ability out of it and the two are sort of opposite to each other.”

The team’s lightheartedness belies the investment of money and time each member made to get their craft to the start line. The $10,000 prize, if won, would cover a mortgage payment and debts to friends, and a charitable contribution to protect the wilds of their homeland.

Plot thickens with data-modeling duo

The Canadians may have the reinvention of old materials down to a science but two self-described “tech start-up guys” from Seattle, Wash., may have a similar level of understanding about the race course conditions.

“I downloaded all the hourly wind data I could going back about 20 years,” said Michael Dougherty 43, who will race a Wharram Tiki 21-foot sailing catamaran with teammate Sameer Rayachoti, 35. “Then I found all the current stations, so I would know what the currents were doing for every spot along the route for every hour. Unlike the winds, the currents are predictable, so you don’t need historical data. Then, I created a ‘polar plot’ for various boats, which says how fast the boat will go under various wind speeds and points of sail.”

Dougherty worked alongside Rayachoti at Amazon until leaving on a “sail-battical” in January. The pair helped launch the online real estate company, Zillow, and were founders of Redfin and Quorus, the latter of which they sold to Amazon in 2011. Once “Team Puffin,” named after Dougherty’s son’s favorite bird, collected their data, they used a computer program to simulate their passage.

“I would model each hour of the race,”  Dougherty, who studied electrical engineering and international studies at Yale University, said. “So, going from Port Townsend to Victoria, I would go to the model and look up what the winds were doing at 5 a.m. on June 4 in whatever year I was simulating. Then, I would take that and use the 2015 currents for that hour and the polar plot of the boat, and see how far the boat would get in the desired direction in that hour. Then I’d subtract that distance covered from the distance of that leg of the trip, and repeat for the next hour, and so on until we completed each leg of the race.”

Dougherty, who worked as a whale acoustics researcher before joining the tech industry, said data modeling helped him better understand what to expect, but revealed the ideal race vessel would be lighter, faster, and sail upwind better than his Wharram Tiki. He said a multihull boat fitted with pedal drives that had enough space to rest while sailing might be optimal, but the most efficient craft could vary year to year depending on conditions.

Hazards riddle inside passage 

Ever-changing conditions might not only slow racers down, however. They could be life-threatening.

“The least problematic [section of the race] but one that has claimed a few lives: Crossing from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island,” said Robert H. Miller, author of “Kayaking the Inside Passage (2005).”

“Fast currents, the tide that rips right off the [Point Wilson] lighthouse, and heavy mega-ship traffic warrant good timing,” Miller said of the waters racers will face immediately following the starting horn.

Some of the most recent lives claimed in that area occurred a dozen miles west of the race route in Dungeness Bay on April 11 this year when a group of seven kayakers encountered 35 mile-per-hour winds and three-foot swells, according to an article published in the Peninsula Daily News. Two paddlers died when their boats overturned, according to that report.

Motor boats and crews were close at hand on the way out of Port Townsend, Wash. to Victoria, Canada, and towed one 18-foot trimaran to shore when that racer quit a short distance past the starting line. Those crews will not travel further alongside racers, however. Sam Landsman, managing editor of the “Waggoner Cruising Guide,” travels the inside passage every year on a 40-foot power boat and said there are additional hazards 170 miles north of that first stretch at the Seymour Narrows.

“Currents can run to 16 knots and be extremely hazardous to vessels,” Landsman said. (One knot equals 1.15 miles per hour). “In Johnstone Strait [60 miles further north], currents run to five knots, and if the wind is blowing against the current, seas can be uncomfortable in large boats and dangerous in small boats.”

Some racers in small boats may decide to portage around such obstacles, which is allowed so long it is done “under human and wind power, and the boat is the only vehicle involved,” the race website states.

Landsman continued, “The ‘inside’ route to Alaska also requires two open ocean passages—one around Cape Caution, in British Columbia and the other across Dixon Entrance, from British Columbia to Alaska. Participants will be exposed to ocean swells and potentially hazardous weather in both these places.”

A test of self-reliance 

Who will in: The survivalist, the environmentalist, or the scientist? Chances are none of them, considering they are up against teams like  “Golden Oldies,” which arrived first in Victoria at around 9 a.m. with their 5-person crew and a 38-foot catamaran called a Crowther Super Shockwave. However, according to race founder Jake Beattie, who wished he could compete in his Grumman canoe bought at a garage sale and modified to sail as a trimaran, the race is about something else.

“My greatest fear and greatest reason for adventures on the water,” Beattie said, “Being entirely self-reliant and reconnecting with the edge of my abilities.”

 

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