2015 June 16 – Youth, from both sides


What does it mean to get older? From the time we are born each trip around the sun brings new experiences that embolden and frighten us, caution grows for things we survive, skills are honed through repetition, bodies get stronger then broken, “youthful” transitions from an implication of our age in years to the character of our actions.  In that sense there is no one who is old who has attempted the R2AK, rather those whose youth match their age, and those who have retained the adventurous spirit commonly associated with people much younger than their driver’s license would indicate. The teams who signed up, and the elite few who continued, run the gamut of this youth continuum, and the tenth day of the race was filled with the exuberant endurance of the actually young, counterpoised with the self-direction and determination that comes from a significantly larger collection of calendars.

More years doesn’t mean less grit, sometimes it just means clearer priorities. Team Coastal Express exited the race today near Seymour Narrows, not due to inexperience, lack of preparation, or because they were miserable and wet on their 16? Mirror Dinghy. At most you could say that Heather and Dan had a disbelief at the conditions and were amused by how few miles they could make into gales on the nose. They giggled when they told us about the seas, about being rejected by Seymour Narrows twice, that some foolish lady called the coast guard because she saw their tiny boat hobby-horsing over waves and assumed they were in distress. They even giggled when they told us they were going to turn around and continue their trip in a southerly direction. They are out, but only because their adventure will be of a kind closer to their own hearts. Team Coastal Express was the first boat to pull a preemptive Moitessier. We couldn’t be prouder.

Sometimes more age means more focus. From all the reports of teams who have come in contact with the R2AK superhero, Roger Mann’s feats of accomplishment continue to be as humbling as they are incredible. The “Roger Mann disbelief story” has become a bit of a genre for finish-line tales and like Chinese opera, blank verse, and dirty limericks, from what we can tell it has evolved into a standard form with strict rules of structure:

  • It must be told within 10 minutes of landing or 5 minutes of clearing customs, whichever comes first.
  • It starts with a wide-eyed stare and a shaking of the head (slow or rapid pace are both acceptable) and the story can begin with the words “Dude”, “Oh my god”, “Roger Mann is incredible,” or “He’s an animal.” It is entirely appropriate to use them all in sequence.
  • The next stanza must convey their own close call with extreme weather that broke either their boats or their spirit, and after they pulled over in their much faster boat, along would come Roger, in his little red Hobie Adventure Island wearing ski goggles, not only catching them, but unfazed.

After that personal flair is more tolerated, but the story must follow a fairly predictable plot line whose point is humility, Roger Mann as a motivator to continue, and the fact that he impressed the hell out of them. Us too.

Roger Mann is incredible. While we experienced the boat-breaking weather of the first week from an airplane and through the windproof layer of the Internet, we were seriously concerned about all the boats struggling, whose tracker icons didn’t move for days and would give us reports that they had lost a mast (Team Broderna), capsized near Seymour Narrows (Team Mau), or that they were sleeping in their drysuits because they had left their sleeping bags behind to cut down on weight (also Team Mau). Believe that as we type our eyes are wide and our heads are shaking just slightly, but then the little blip of Team Discovery and Roger Mann would venture out in the same weather and make miles into it, repeatedly catching up to faster and more sheltered vessels. We were in humbled awe. No more so than yesterday when he sent us this: “Pitchpoled my beach landing at Cape Caution and spent the night collecting gear and drying out. Monday met up with Blackfish and good thing because I was still hypothermic. Rafted up with them and got dry, warm, and my second hot meal.” Feel free to share that, just make sure your wide-eyed delivery includes the detail that Roger has seven grandchildren.

While aging is nuanced, the young teams that made it to Ketchikan gave more than a few of us that easy-to-recognize glory days smile – both teams in their own way were emitting qualities of youth that were as familiar to us as they were distant. Team FreeBurd hit Ketchikan in the late evening and their good nature seemed largely intact after 700 white-knuckled miles in a boat whose only protection from the elements came from a tarp they would wrap themselves up in when they took turns getting an hour of sleep. With a 38? rig moving 450 pounds of boat, their Arc-22 seems to have a toggle switch that has two settings: “Fast” and “Stop.”  From the moment their 38-foot rig caught a puff at the starting line and the acceleration was visible even from shore, to their 13 knot run that took them into Alaskan waters, to the time they hit the moonlit driftwood log doing 12, these guys have eaten cold and substituted the adrenaline supplied by the R2AK for the sleep they never got. They arrived in Ketchikan smiling, exhausted, and talking about whales.

A few hours later Team Kohara pedaled across the finish line and shared stories of the kind of endurance that comes from being at that period in life when you are simultaneously skilled enough to deal with technical problems, lack the tools and materials to do it well, and are willing for that to be part of the adventure. Team Kohara wasn’t the only one to experience equipment failure, but the 1 am dockside recounting of their trip seemed to center on a single theme: shit broke, like all the time. After they got through their “Roger Mann disbelief story” their giddy tale evolved into a litany of what broke on their borrowed boat. Sometimes they could fix it, sometimes they endured, but they made it to Ketchikan. Champions. The stuff we could remember:

  • They lost two hatches, one they recovered, one they replaced with plywood.
  • They knocked out a portlight near the waterline. Plywood.
  • They hit bottom a couple of times.
  • Nico took two trips up the mast to retrieve and replace halyards that parted.
  • The mainsail wouldn’t reef but sailed okay under jib alone. (How would you tack like that? They couldn’t. They just jibed).
  • After that jib blew out they repaired it by stitching duct tape into the rip.
  • On the last night their trampoline, the very thing you stand on in order to trim sails and steer, began to tear apart. It was so fresh that they had to remind each other about it as they fetched their passports for the customs guy. It didn’t feel like a big deal to them, more like the kind of routine you get into when your $700 car requires a little jiggle to get the ignition to turn.

The scariest was the structural issues that developed after they completely submarined one of their hulls at full speed – that’s right, at least twice the Warrior 29’s entire three feet of freeboard was driven under a wave. A catamaran’s two hulls are only really connected by four points, two beams that span the gap in between the two hulls, and the forward corner on the starboard side was coming loose, flexing the whole deck, and threatening to sheer off, which would cause that hull to spin and break the other starboard connection, which would cause the boat to break apart and sink. Kohara did their best battlefield repair, then changed their course to a more protected route, monitored it like crazy, and soldiered on.

For Teams Kohara and FreeBurd, dockside welcomes from the Ketchikan faithful and the seasoned veterans of MOB Mentality and Por Favor turned into a conversation where mutual respect and admiration flowed between teams and between generations. Tripp Burd’s recounting of details was looked on by Wayne Gorrie’s twinkling gaze that seemed a combination of admiration and nostalgia. Stories were shared and bested, anecdotes turned into ribbing and good-natured laughter (Wayne: “I was down below sleeping and was too close to the heater and the top of my drysuit caught on fire.” Tripp: “Down below? Next to the heater? Huh…”). Even the owners of what was left of Team Kohara’s boat flew in from San Francisco because they were excited to welcome the boys in. They weren’t any of the guys’ parents, no relation at all. Outside of the race they’d be strangers separated by circumstance and at least a generation, but you’ve never seen a prouder or happier reunion.