2015 June 20 – Summer camp is over


The end of epic adventures are weird, unsatisfying. The beginnings are excitement itself – the lightning bolt of clarity that selects one idea from an infinite inventory of possibilities and transforms it into a path. Then preparation, so much preparation. Months of anticipation channeled into route planning, drying food, buying gear, packing gear, repacking gear, unpacking gear because of weight limits. All of the work and checklists required for taxiing down the adventure runway – just getting ready for liftoff gives you time to get used to the idea. The adventure is lived in the imagination many times before you cast off lines and set off into whatever perils and elation await. Casting off is a magic moment, instantaneously the world of tedium is left behind and even the farthest corners of your periphery become focused entirely to the tasks at hand. The next mile, the next meal. After all of the work to make it happen, starting an adventure is immediate and complete.

Adventures end more gradually. While the beginning is a plunge, the end creeps in one thought at a time. Work, family, property, the future. Regardless of the proximity to your intended destination, the end of an adventure is more accurately located at the place you arrive when the mental real estate encumbered by thoughts of home exceeds that portion of your brain dedicated to the tasks of now. Pack your stuff, bring down the flag and get on the bus. Summer camp is over.

That same realization crystalized on the 14th day of the R2AK for Team Sea Runners.  They didn’t whimper off to go sulk in a corner, their clarion call back to the real world happened in a megafauna moment that Disney would be proud of: 7 whales and 100 (or so) Pacific White Sided Dolphins offered themselves to the air in a single moment that served as the Sea Runners’ sign to head for the barn. It was a big moment for all of us here at R2AK Central. Roger Mann was the first person to sign up for the race, but Scott and Thomas seem like they have been with us from the start. Their energy is infectious, a combination of mad scientist and carbonated ADD. If Kerouac would have instead written “On the Sea,” the Sea Runners would be our Neal Cassady. Their exuberance and sense of humor is legend, down to the spork on a rope around their necks and the steak knife hard-mounted to the masthead of their impossibly yellow boat. Two months of bourbon-fueled garage sessions and they had their boat, and the sober training that followed was a constant dose of HTFU: ice bath immersions, swimming practice to the point of hypothermia just to see if they could warm themselves by coaxing some wet driftwood into flame – these guys ran at the R2AK full speed and donned the cape as all of our DIY heroes. After spending all three of the first two weeks of the race holed up in Nanaimo for repairs they pressed forward until the reality of work and family crept as far north as their anchorage in Telegraph Cove. While we understand, we weren’t quite ready for summer camp to be over. See you next summer.

On the 14th day since Victoria, Team Grin’s onboard world merged with the rest of ours right around the time when late becomes early. Their finish was days earlier than Jullie and Jeremy’s plane tickets back to their shipboard jobs in Antarctica or Hannah’s furlough from punching the clock as a paper-cut artist for children’s books; R2AK summer camp might be over, but with these three it’s a hard to know where the “real world” starts. In the race for firsts, Team Grin was the first team to cross the line with the most women onboard (two, first woman was Denee Blanchard on Team UnCruise) and was the first to cross the line with blatant utilization of dimensional, construction grade lumber. Their rowing stations, both midship and bolted to the foredeck, were well fashioned, but straight up 2×6. Team Grin are mariners whose job it is to keep the ships moving rather than racers skilled in coaxing another tenth of a knot out of a rig. Their competitive advantage was the skills their hands and brains possessed to repair and construct on the fly – the race of attrition would be won by this professional group of cobblers. As what often happens with the best laid plans, the fates shrugged and laughed and nothing broke on their Etchells. Nothing. This shatters Team Por Favor’s previous high mark for light damage. They at least broke an egg.

Our favorite post-script: When they step off the back half of their AK to South Pole round-trip, two of the three members of Team Grin are returning to their boat to cruise back south. Same boat, same route, but no tracker, time limits, fanfare or sat phone reports back to the sailing media. No one will notice when they ghost back into Port Townsend – whenever that happens, if it even happens – who knows where they’ll end up. The return trip will be as long in duration and distance as they determine it should be and not a moment less, pending nuptials or no.

If the R2AK stripped away as much as possible to create a new relationship with the water, Team Blackfish stripped away even more and bared the full frontal truth of their race to us. “Be kind” was their instruction and they offered up a full depth recounting of the trials and triumphs that happen onboard when people organize and test themselves against the sea. Other teams focused on the obvious trials: the weather was bad, their boat was uncertain, things broke. While all of these were also true for Team Blackfish, their team clearly racks up a few extra points on the “F”-ing score of Myers-Briggs as they were able to strip away that surface level and talk about the feeling, the human trials that we are pretty sure that every team experienced whether they knew it or not. A boat is a delicate balance of human emotions and conflicting management ideas. In its strictest sense, by law, it is a dictatorship. From the type of law that evolved from human practice rather than something snuck in as an amendment to the tax code, the captain is legally bound as soul responsible for the vessel and everyone onboard. A lot of responsibility, dictatorship is an alien concept to the sit-in-a-circle, consensus driven culture of the West Coast where even the dumbest people’s thoughts are considered with equal weight and we give out ribbons just for showing up. “If I wanted your opinion I’d tell it to you” isn’t a phrase you’d hear in the drum circles of Port Townsend, but it’s something an actual captain actually told us, right after we offered an insight and right before we went back to our cabin to bury our tears in our collection of green ribbons.

The truth is that boats don’t really work like that, at least not the good ones. To work well crew onboard need to be more than extensions of the Captain’s brain and body, they need to both be extensions and fully functioning brains and bodies as well – more like the distributed brain in the arms of an Octopus whose limbs contain 3/5 of their neurons and if severed from the rest can continue to swim and hunt for themselves. (It’s a bit of a tangent, but you should learn more about the Octopus, they are incredible, tasty, and a great source of metaphors. Start here: laughingsquid.com/true-facts-about-the-octopus-by-ze-frank/). There is a tension between absolute deference that comes with a legal dictatorship and becoming a fully realized Octopus arm; too much in either direction and you get dysfunction, hurt feelings, boats go up on the rocks. Crews have to find their own path through to that equilibrium or the whole thing falls apart. By the second act of the race, Team Blackfish was well down the road of “forming, storming, norming, mutiny.” There were dissatisfactions, weather and competition creating friction points between the crew and rubbed raw. Feelings got hurt, tension built, and since the rules allow for subtracting crew along the way at least one of them was well on the way to packing their bags. “What’s the next town?” Port McNeil. “I’m getting off there.” In a move we hope we remember for our own marriages, rather than harnessing the momentum of the moment they pulled over, hiked up a mountain, looked at the view, and slept on it. The next day they hashed it out and found a way to continue on. It’s not unusual for a crew to get to the boiling point, the remarkable thing is that they were able to own their piece of it, unpack their own sensitivities around age and merit, value the others for what they brought to the team, reform and continue. We’ll try to use that for our marriages too. From the dock in Ketchikan they were smiling and all the closer for what they’d been through, just like summer camp.

…and rounding out three finishers of day 14 was Roger Mann, who crossed the line in the afternoon and entered the books as the first solo finisher in R2AK history. His story is tough as nails, unbelievable and true. Simply too good, too incredible to rush. Throw your tomatoes as you may, but we’re going to take the day to get it right and tell you about it tomorrow. You should take the day preparing to be amazed.