After the cleanup crew turned off the lights and locked the doors, the walls of the Fish House still glowed from the fellowship of the only finish line party we could plan for a race whose champions would finish over the better part of a month. On the 9th night of the R2AK, the town of Ketchikan turned out to eat, drink, dance and celebrate what turned out to be the first three teams to cross the line of the R2AK. Accolades and thanks were given to as many as we could remember to mention and the accomplishments of the swift were surpassed by the acts of mutual admiration. Team Elsie Piddock signed a c-note, still nailed to the chunk of wood, and gave it back to live on to be dusted off periodically in the Northwest Maritime Center’s glass case of heroes. Wayne, Francis and Angus decided to split what has become the ironically iconic prize of the race with the team they beat by a matter of minutes. One half of the coveted steak knives were given to Team Por Favor. The equation was simple: 8 steak knives minus 4 steak knives = a recognition that the symbol of success will never equal the efforts of those who earned it and that the true spirit of competition can bring out the best parts of all of us.
The conversation of the evening ranged from the usual present tense debrief of the race just run (“We didn’t have the tracker – the first I knew about them I was playing the ukulele in the third verse of Froggy Went a Courtin’ when I looked back and there they were”) invaded by keen inquiries about the teams that were still slogging it out. After scant hours of recovery and celebration all the teams were excited to know how their favorites were doing. What about that Roger Mann? The kayakers? Soggy Beavers, Team Mau, where is the Etchells, and will all of those little boats at the end make it? What about that three way race for fourth? In the same moment they stepped into the spotlight they reached around and aimed it a few horizons to the south.
And in those same moments that the band played “Shout” and R2AK’s Shore Boss cut a rug with a 6 year old Ketchikan girl who asked her to dance, a couple of degrees latitude below us Teams FreeBurd, Uncruise and Kohara were within shouting distance of each other around Banks Island. (We’ll admit that shouting would be a stretch, but you get the point: they were close. Please don’t replay the tracker, Google “How far can you shout?” then email us how wrong we were. We get it, we’re wrong. Let’s move on.) Good fellas all, the first three teams to finish were crewed with made-men of the Northwest’s sailing mafia. Guys who earned their bones through decades of covering each other’s tacks in the region’s big races. While they collectively sail the same number of hulls as the first three teams, the race for fourth was a contest among three vastly different experiences.
Our beloved sponsor, Team Un-Cruise might have taken the biggie-sized version of the Farrier tris of the top two finishers but the similarity stopped there. What did CEO Dan Blanchard do to maximize exposure and pressurize his ego by stacking the deck to win? Nothing. Rather than conscripting a couple hired guns he accurately pegged the importance of winning and asked his daughter and her boyfriend to crew. Their boat was ready, their family was tight, and while it’s been an odd mash-up of family reunion and the wettest rodeo ever they seem in good spirits, and in light air and sea-room the honor of finishing fourth could be theirs.
Another family affair, the Brothers Burd on Team FreeBurd’s collective resume shrugged off “a few beach cat national champs” before moving on to extol the miles of oceans they have crossed – no Vic Maui, but the Newport Bermuda. This East Coast duo is the first of the extreme sets of teams who decided the only thing harder than sailing to Alaska without a motor would be to do it on a boat without any shelter other than a dry suit. A beach cat is mostly air held together by wires and mesh that rather than offer protection from the elements seem to aim them right at you. The elements have offered these guys a steady diet of 50 degree water, in the face, wave after wave. Their ARC-22 was built for speed, but our hats are off to these guys for gutting it out with numb, pruned hands and that slow trickle of water that inevitably goes down your neck no matter how much your dry suit lives up to its name. As of posting they have taken a slight lead and unless their repaired gooseneck breaks (again) or they need to sleep they should be able to eat up the next miles with rapid speed.
If the author of the children’s book “Elsie Piddock Skips Rope” put pen to paper for another team in the R2AK, Team Kohara would be the scrappy engine that could. While they are sailors with experience, there is no part of their resume that stands up to Team FreeBurd and their vessel wasn’t purchased for the race like Team Un-Cruise. In fact it wasn’t purchased at all. They borrowed it, from a guy named Tom. Tom supplied the boat, Nico, Matt and Josh supplied the blood sweat and tears it took to get the Warrior 29 out of the water for the first time in 30 years and into fighting shape. Tramps, rigging, fiberglass repairs to the hulls, blades, mast rotation system – they even engineered and fabricated a pedal drive system. They got ‘er done, then threw it on a trailer. The North Coast has taken its toll. Starting with a broken paddle on the first day, Team Kohara has been patching the old warrior together every step of the way. Jury rigged solutions, plywood covers fastened to take the place of hatches that went for a walk. These guys went to war with the army they had and the duct tape they brought. They’re doing a hell of a job out there.
Farther south, the rest of the fleet is Oscar Mike. Weather in Johnstone relented long enough for a few of the small boats to leap frog to the next cove or make the jump to Cape Caution. Another set of racers have found their own gravity and have bunched near the Bella Bella checkpoint, while another couple bunches are farther back. The back of the pack must be starting to hear the ticking clock; the sweep boat leaves a week from tomorrow.