After nearly thee weeks of hard-charging, all seventeen feet of Montgomery sailing fury, Team Excellent Adventure ghosted into Thomas Basin under a main sail and improvised rudder number two, stepped onto the dock and into the five cameras, six reporters, and a small crowd of well wishers – all of us wanted their story. We wanted the whole story, the epiphanies, the specifics, now. We wanted truth and adventure by the boatload; they just wanted to get here. They did a yeoman’s job. From not talking much to anyone beyond that other guy sharing 17 feet of waterline, to talking to every reader of the Ketchikan Daily News, they did great. They rang the bell, answered the questions from the gaggle, joined their signatures with the teams who came before, drank a cider, called their loved ones, and began the odd task of being dropped back into the world and making sense of it all.
Clothes were changed, showers had, food eaten, and somewhere between the last sip of Nalgene water and the tumbler of rum with Team Por Favor, the full story started to take shape, the way it only can when it the layers of memory start to unwind and reveal the core of the adventure: gradually, tangent by tangent, question by question.
“We were trying to think of something that we were first in. Am I the oldest guy?” At 66, Bill wasn’t (we think that was 72) and as a Millennial Ted wasn’t even close. The two didn’t know each other before the R2AK, they both caught the bug last fall and were introduced by a mutual acquaintance – Bill’s daughter, who is Ted’s same-aged friend. After a lifetime of ocean sailing on larger boats Bill had been looking for an excuse to get a smaller boat, and purchased the Montgomery 17 in November just for the race. He loved the 1968 London Times around-the-world race, and while he doesn’t give a solitary hoot about the around-the-world races that have followed in its wake, Robin Knox-Johnson, Moitissier, Crowhurst… for him the first one was the stuff of legends and he wanted to be a part of the first R2AK.
The R2AK was an inevitable conclusion that had been slowly rising in Bill’s mind since before he was younger than Ted; Ted’s enthusiasm grew at a slightly faster rate, like a marshmallow bunny in the microwave kind of growth speed. Sailing has been his singular obsession since his first sailing lesson, a year ago. Ted learned to sail, bought a boat and has sailed the hell out of the lakes in Seattle for roughly 400 days. Ted’s never crossed a body of water that didn’t have a highway visible from either side, but was game for going big. Some people wait a lifetime to pick the right moment, get the right boat and head to Alaska. When his sailing life turned one Ted went for it one-year-old style: blew out the candle and dove head first into his cake.
Was he done? Two broken rudders in, and work to get back to, he thought better of the dream to return the boat back on its own bottom, but has a Team Mike’s Kayak-inspired dream to come back to Ketchikan and head north on an even smaller boat.
“I hope people don’t focus on the rudders.” Their rudder did break, twice. Rudder #1 snapped in half in Johnstone Strait; they rigged up one of their oars to steer and made miles to Vancouver Island’s Kelsey Bay. There they tied up to Broderna, who had snapped a mast in the same neighborhood a week earlier and was there awaiting transport home. The second time was within hours of Ketchikan, in 9-foot seas that were stacking up against an ever-nearing lee shore. Having had some practice a week earlier, they rigged up one, then both of the oars to steer. Both times they accepted the help of folks in the area to get them towed to shore, and then to fabricate a solution. All eight times we heard them tell the curious about the rudders they hoped no one would focus on, Bill and Ted were quick to point out that it was an aftermarket rudder. The boat itself did fine, they believe in their boat. They took it through conditions that most Monty owners would avoid, that most people in any boat would avoid, and it brought them through unscathed. Would they do it again? “No, I’m old. I’ve got to keep doing new adventures… but next time we’d bring a bigger boat, and probably a third guy.”
“Everything was ‘Seymour Narrows, Seymour Narrows, Seymour Narrows’…if I was going to give a class about this race I would make sure people are focusing on other stuff too.” Like what? Cape Fox, or Johnstone Strait, the widow-maker of the race that funnels wind into strong current and makes enormous and uncomfortable seas that broke rudders, masts, and the will to go on for more than a few teams who made it that far.
“We were probably going to stop at Port Hardy” but when they got there they hit a weather window and made the jump to Cape Caution and beyond. They were just as surprised as they were satisfied that they made it all the way to Ketchikan. “I was glad we got the weather because then we couldn’t wimp out…”
“Pub crawl to Alaska? People don’t really know what a difference it is to do this on a boat the size of ours.” They had a rule, 20 knot forecast and they’d stay on the beach, pub or no. Rodney in Prince Rupert helped them feel okay that the forecast was given for 60 miles away, and they got the answer they were hoping for. Confirmation bias was a welcome companion for the last stretch. “Any time we were making 2 knots in the direction we wanted to go we were ecstatic.” Their fastest reading on their chart plotter recorded was a moment surfing down the face of a 15-foot monster wave right before their rudder broke – 12.6 knots. “It was almost impossible to steer.”
“There were lots of best parts.” Their answer wasn’t unusual. They ticked off the usual suspects: the scenery, the camaraderie with other racers, the way people along the route all came down to help them out or just say hello. “One couple drove 15 miles because they had the same boat.” After the dust settled they offered up humility, about how humbling it was to be on the water without an engine and knowing to your core that the sea was more powerful than they were and that there wasn’t a button to push that started diesel-powered override. “You make decisions differently.” And while it might seem limiting, they spoke of the freedom it offered too. They were one with the boat and the elements for 19 days. Impossible not to be.
Does it feel weird to be done? “I’m sure it’s weird to be done” – an honest answer to a question asked 10 minutes after their dock lines were tied, ending nineteen days of repairs, white-knuckled excitement, tedium, rowing stints of up to six hours, a new, intimate understanding of each other and the geography of Coastal BC. Bill and Ted have gone from non-racers to racing one of the longest races that exists, from being new to a boat to being its most vocal proponents, from complete strangers to inexorably connected through a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “I’m sure it’s weird to be done.” How could you answer any other way?