Race to Alaska

sailing in pnw by kristen gill photography 2Blazing Trails on the Iditarod of the High Seas

Alaska’s Inside Passage has been explored for centuries, paddled first by natives in dugout canoes, by sailboats and steamboats filled with gold prospectors, and now by massive shipping and cruising vessels. Based on this spirit of adventure, the “Race to Alaska” by Northwest Maritime Center (R2AK) was born.

Billed as “The Iditarod with a Chance of Drowning,” the R2AK involves racing 750 miles with no motors and no support.

Now entering its third year, the sailing race goes from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. As North America’s longest human and wind-powered race, it currently has the largest cash prize for an event of its kind: $10,000.00 cash nailed to a tree in Ketchikan. That’s right. The money is literally nailed to a tree, and the first one to reach it wins it. Second place gets a set of steak knives!

No motor, no support, all the way to Alaska

Clearly, the R2AK is not for everyone. Like the Iditarod, it attracts a hearty set who are willing to face nasty squalls, tidal currents running upwards of 20 miles an hour, killer whales (not to mention grizzly bears while on land), a chance of capsizing, getting run down by a freighter, or even drowning. So, wherein lies the appeal?

The allure might lie in its sheer simplicity. There are only two rules: no motor and no assistance. Anyone can enter, as long as they register a motor-less craft: whether a sailboat, standup paddleboard, rowboat, kayak, canoe, or even a homemade pedal-powered floating bike. If it can get you across the water, you can enter it.

Others enter the race because of their own sheer fearlessness. Seasoned sailors enter, as well as others who have never set foot on a sailboat. Many have no idea how to navigate. But one thing is clear: everyone benefits by getting the chance to sail through some of the most pristine waters and jaw-dropping scenery on earth. Doing it amongst a group of like-minded adventure-seekers and scallywags must be part of the attraction as well. Or, perhaps they just really want a new set of steak knives. Who knows?

The race consists of only two stages: Stage 1: “The Proving Ground” a qualifying race across open water, two sets of shipping lanes, and an international border; and Stage 2: “To the Bitter End,” a race starting in Victoria, B.C. and continuing to Ketchikan. If you fall behind the sweep boat, you are disqualified. Other than two waypoints along the way – Seymour Narrows and Bella Bella – there is no official course and there are no official rules.

sailing team alula crams before big race to alaskaLast year’s top story was Team Alula, an all-paralyzed, wheelchaired crew of three who were proud to be “the first disqualified team to cross the finish line.” The team, consisting of captain Spike Kane, a Liverpool native now living in Seattle, Zachary Tapec from Hawaii, and Bruno Hanson from South Africa, met when competing against each other on the adaptive surfing circuit. Not wanting to be seen as a novelty act, Team Alula conscientiously chose not to announce their disability when sending in their application. One of Team Alula’s members had never sailed before. He advanced from zero to 750 miles on his first attempt!

Before starting the race, first mate Bruno Hanson expressed that “Being in a chair is a constant struggle every single day. I think that will help greatly in this trip. Even if we are cold and wet and hungry, none of us will complain about it. We are just used to living a bit rough.”

Captain Spike Kane stated that “One of my dreams has always been to sail the inside passage to Alaska. As soon as I heard about the race, I knew I wanted to do it. The thing I’m most excited for is witnessing Zach and Bruno experiencing this for the first time. This is the most beautiful sailing terrain in the world, and it only gets more stunning the further north you go.”

sailing team alula photo courtesy of spike kane via facebookUnfortunately for Team Alula, it ran into a bit of trouble early on in the race and quickly fell behind in their daily mileage goals. After losing a crew member in mid-stream for personal reasons, the remaining two realized that they were probably out of the race. Unwavering in their desire to keep on, they sent an official message to the R2AK officials asking for help with getting a replacement crew member. They were determined to make it to Ketchikan.

Perhaps the most inspiring part of this story is the response of crew members from boats who had already finished the race. After getting word of the emergency, they came back to lend a hand. While having the extra onboard help disqualified Team Alula, it was a show of teamwork of the highest proportion, making the seemingly impossible a reality. Team Alula passed the No Wake Zone finish line in Ketchikan after 16 days, 10 hours, and 10 minutes at sea, officially marked in at number 21 out of the 44 boats that entered.

“Team Alula is the product and the reason for the Race to Alaska. It humbles our false bravado to try to give justice to their story’s true depth,” said Dan Blanchard, owner of Un-Cruise Adventures, whose company is proudly sponsoring R2AK for the next three years.

Captain Kane, like a watery sage, spoke his philosophy: “We’re only ever going to be racing against ourselves. Our goal was to get from Victoria to Ketchikan. If we can do that, we’ll have won our race.”

That they did. And, so much more.

sailing in pnw by kristen gill photography 1This year’s Race to Alaska starts on June 8th.

Race to Alaska is a project of the Northwest Maritime Center, a 501(c)3 non-profit committed to engaging people in the waters of our world in a spirit of adventure and discovery. To learn more about the Race to Alaska, visit https://r2ak.com/

This post originally appeared on Medium, and can be found here.

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