2015 July 2 – Time traveling by sail


Mr. Michelson was right. For the next few paragraphs we ask you to hold that as a common truth. Other than The Miller’s Tale being the only thing of Chaucer’s worth reading, if we remember anything from Mr. Michelson’s junior English class it’s that as opposed to our current linear understanding of the fourth dimension, ancient Celts viewed time as circular. The same people that brought you haggis, plaid and Stonehenge held a notion that time didn’t march on, but pinwheeled left in an unending Shriner’s parade sequencing 360 degrees and 365 days of simultaneity. Civilizations that came later or elsewhere all voted that things go one way, linear from left to right; for us, now, our linear time starts from some poorly defined starting point Before there was a C, until now, until a future set of initials defines a new milestone on the hazy edge of the future-focused right hand side of the timeline.

Celts ciphered time a bit differently. Their calendar spiraled around a circular, seasonal understanding; that if something happened this fall it happened at the same time as last fall, and the fall before that, and the fall to come. Same time, simultaneous. Aztecs held similar cyclical concepts of time – true, those cycles ended a few years ago in a much heralded end of the world that never caught on, and we’ve never donned a kilt, but it does make us open our minds to other options and wax opportunistic on whichever logic is available to support our point: R2AK happened already, and at the same time.

Today, and ten years ago today, the R2AK was completed by the final team. The today that happened now played out like this: after a rare downwind run, the wind packed it in and Team Barefoot Wooden Boats unpacked the oars and rowed across the line to be the final winner of the inaugural Race to Alaska, the culminating victory of 15 teams who triumphantly reached Ketchikan. Their boat was amazing: an open boat designed by Tad Roberts whose construction was led by Quill Goldman of Gabriola Island’s Barefoot Wooden Boats. Joined by Mitch and Dillon, Quill took an idea from design to functional prototype in less than a year. An incredible feat in itself, and even more so in the execution. It’s gorgeous. Named after the late great Richard Lyons who helped start the West Coast’s first small boat raids a decade ago, the S/V Dick Smiley is a high-tech take on traditional and has wooden boat junkies adjusting their resolution knobs to get a second look while wondering quietly if Herreshoff didn’t miss something. Lightweight and modern lapstrake construction, big squareheaded rig, a stern that goes from transparent to nonexistent, dagger boards that are asymmetrical and offset rather than cluttering up the center of the boat- space they needed for the sliding seat rowing stations scavenged off of old rowing machines. There is scarcely a person who sees their boat that doesn’t smile and ask the hopeful question “Are you going to be in Wooden Boat Magazine?” While it might be too radical to feel comfortable in such a hallowed publication, the Dick Smiley is too pretty not to be on the cover.

Team Barefoot Wooden Boats are only the second team to finish in a wooden boat, and the only team to finish in a boat specifically designed and built for the race. There were six boats so conceived for the starting line, but all but the Smiley retired before Ketchikan. Their story of preparation rang similar to most- a nine month sprint of construction from the time they committed to the day they splashed, and like most, the R2AK was a rolling test drive; a best guess gamble they hoped would last 750 miles and end in glory. Team Barefoot Wooden Boats pushed in all their chips and was the sole victor on that wager.

Like all good shakedown cruises, their trip was an experiment in constant adaptation. They adapted the boat. Tweaked this, adjusted that, added a fourth reef point (which they used a fair amount), and learned how to sail this piece of functional art while charging forth and exploring BC’s wild coast. Rowing was okay, but the boat’s top end speed was compromised by the weight of food and gear required for three guys headed to Alaska. “I think we were a couple hundred pounds too heavy, I can’t wait to get rid of all of this stuff and just go sail it.”

They adapted their theory for how they would run the race. They had intended to sail in shifts and go 24/7; two working the sails or rowing with their third sleeping under the tarped section near the bow. Turns out they needed all three of the amigos to keep the wet side down, and unless you were as tired as they were, the slosh of water that found its way onboard floated unsecured sleeping pads and made going predictably unconscious difficult and unsatisfying. Rest came ashore or by surprise. After what Mitch was certain was an unsuccessful attempt at sleeping he was informed by the rest that his snoring testified otherwise. Insult to injury he was at least as tired as he was before he conked out, but it was his watch now. Time to sail.

They adapted their expectations. They had built the boat to be a contender, if not to win to do well enough to coattail on their own success and promote themselves as boatbuilders. Like everyone they were ambushed by the unusually strong sustained winds that favored the larger boats and forced the smaller to adjust, hide, and pick their weather windows. “We were only in Comox when Elsie Piddock finished. That was a demoralizing hour.”

Imagine the truckload of fortitude it took to continue, now double it. Put yourself in their shoes: A year-long solitary focus to build a boat in what amounts to a moonlight job with no pay, your life leveraged to complete a boat that was your best grab at the brass ring, then the elements and the unforeseen force of carbon fiber trimarans took the crown and the cutlery before you were even an eighth of the way to done. Now imagine that moment was an hour drive from your house. In front of you: six hundred miles of optional misery. An hour away: a dry warm bed, your bed, and something other than two more weeks of dehydrated food. Team Barefoot Wooden Boats walked away from an option of comfort and ease and chose the path that would crown them the final winners of the Race to Alaska. “We went into cruise mode for 48 hours, then started racing the sweep boat.”

Their race was a smart, cautious and creative one- and when you consider the miles they made on an open boat of 20 feet- a incredibly fast one. 23 days to Alaska is incredibly not bad for a 20 foot daysailer without a motor, even better when you subtract out the 7 they spent on the beach waiting for weather, or the one day they sailed a total of 300 feet before they sought shelter in whatever bay was next.

Their year of preparing had focused almost exclusively on the building. “We kept looking at the map, and it kept getting bigger. It kind of dawned on us: we’re not sailing downtown, we’re going to effing Alaska and there are no free inches.” They’d row in the left over slop from storms when it died to light and variable, batten down and sail in anything up to 30 knots, but would duck and cover when piped up to 40 no matter what they had to do to make that happen. “We left our anchor home to save weight, so Dillon found a cooler on the beach and filled it with rocks and we swung on it so we could get some sleep.” They waited in that vicinity until they could wrangle a replacement for their two VHF radios that died en route- one of their non-negotiables for continuing. A few phone calls up and down Vancouver Island, a few more across the country, and a day later a motorboat puttered in and dropped one off with a half-price discount in exchange for posing for a photo with the driver- a fan who was impressed as hell at what they were doing. Who wouldn’t be?  They were showered with admiring generosity from people along the way, bacon and egg breakfasts on white leather couches, bunk beds at a fish farm, jars of smoked salmon, bottles of wine, some fresh salmon right off the boat. “We had a bottle of soy so we made sashimi right then then cooked up the rest when we went ashore. It was beautiful.”

When they sailed in to Ketchikan today time came full circle. Today and ten years ago today the Barefoot boys sailed in and helped start the Shipyard School Raids that unearthed, gathered and nurtured a critical mass small boat adventure energy on the west coast. They threw that boomerang of awesome into orbit that landed back and started the R2AK, created new boat designs, incredible adventures, and enthralled us all with both the idea and the reality of going engineless to Alaska. The boomerang is flying again. The Boatyard Boys would answer the inevitable dockside “What’s next?” with a coin flip between “Everything else.” and plans of restarting the raids.  It could have a ten year Aztec cycle or the simultaneous time truth of the kilt wearers but it’s all happening, right now. Mr Michelson was right.