Today’s was not the regular story, or even one we expected.
We were hopped up on the obvious: a juxtaposition piece that chomped at the bit and then flew out of the gates with hard hitting opposites. The teams that finished today begged for it. Team Ketchikan: three dudes from Alaska, monohull, hit the dock and rang the bell in shorts, track suits, and camo shade hats—they were weekend sailors but this was summer for them. Team Sistership: four women in their 50’s from mid to southern California, trimaran, hit the dock and rang the bell in multiple layers of matching fleece, sweatshirts, and wicking long underwear—they had more ocean miles than most of the teams in the fleet but this seemed like fall to them. The extrapolation possible from just that is as obvious and as it is gendered, as it is regional, as the day is long. Their rallying cries at the time of their applications boxed them into those corners months before the R2AK began. Team Ketchikan sailed for Ketchikan and would donate money to support Ketchikan youth sailing programs. Team Sistership sailed for the legacy of Title 9 and to raise awareness and money for women and girls programs at the Northwest Maritime Center (at present, an impressive scholarship kitty of over $6,000! You can add your own bucks here). That could have been the story, but truth is seldom that obvious and a good yarn rarely spins itself. We had to go deeper.
Despite all of the surface level divisions of boat, geography, gender, matching and non-matching clothes, stated purpose for the race; their finish line stories were unified in a single shared struggle: calms.
In the race that came before this one, and the racers that already came in 2016, the hoary punchlines of struggle have come from the big winds, salt spray and tide, drysuits and jetboils pushed to their design specified limits, blown sails and tethered crews hunkered down hitting double digit speeds in the roller coaster ride of their hopefully longer lives. Those exciting moments snag the headlines and the highlight reel. Exciting. Obvious.
Teams Sistership and Ketchikan found a different kind of horrible served up in long drawn out courses that are an awkward fit for today’s world of 8.5 second social media attention spans. Calms, so much nothing, forever.
The ultra fast in the vanguard got what turned out to the last of the summer’s wind, they came blowing in from across the sea with ferocity; wide eyed, white knuckled and happy to be alive. The fleet finishing today found themselves at the business end of a bunch of rowing, for days on end, and their catharsis seemed more rooted in the grind of endurance than the adrenaline of survival. Both teams rowed in across the finish line today, and then shared their breaking moments—the Alaskan boys and the California girls united in their stories of being broken by calms and the prospect of rowing another stroke.
Team Ketchikan rowed in at the underside of breakfast to a dock-load of hometown faithful who came to cheer them in; in one case an employer who came to offer a reminder that work started Monday. This was day eleven for them, and for the last ten they had been in a race with Team Sistership—a marked accomplishment to best a trimaran full of great sailors. In their minds the monohull vs. trimaran victory that would even the score for the rowboat that beat them to Victoria. They might have finished fourteenth, but they held off Sistership for the better part of a province and that was something to be proud of.
A finger of wind, 400 miles back was the difference. They spotted a wind line, light but enough to lift them clear of the next current change, get them into the next riddle of local light winds that was like an invisible maze; a dynamic, three dimensional labrynth of vespers and cats paw waves. While it might not have been possible, in desperate fatigue it would be hard not to think that your fates rested on the ability to read the water, that there was a solution if you were just good enough. Time the puffs well and you can coax a drift from one ripple patch to the next. Timed poorly and your sore hands and weary body would be back on the oars. “You got to take advantage of every opportunity because you miss the tide, and you are screwed.”
Team Sistership pulled themselves to the dock on the backside of the next meal. Their fans cheered loudly and virtually—across the country this high profile team had fans rolling out of their cubicle to share the news with whoever wasn’t in that meeting: the first all women team in the R2AK’s short history had made it to Ketchikan. Yay! Getting through customs and the obligatory dockside beer, the Sistership story took shape. There was wind, there had been singing, camaraderie and the struggle through the disappointment that comes from jilted expectations. Their trip had been everything, but their crucible moment was as stark and powerful as it was quietly annoying.
Their race had been the same light air rowing affair as Team Ketchikan’s; wind, but in stints and long periods of nothing. Leaving Bella Bella the forecast was for a 20 knot sleigh ride in Hecate Strait, a downwind forecast of easy miles—or at least a new, faster kind of hard. Downwind homestretch? Hot damn.
In the kind of irony only nature and hipsters can provide, rather than showing or growing the wind shrugged off its forecast and shrank, then died. From 20 knots, to 5, to light airs to nothing. So they rowed. This was already a week of rowing into a race that all evidence from the prior year said would be for sailors. Their bodies were exhausted, and after darting out for wind they were 20 or so miles offshore, rowing.
Open water rowing is a different beast compared the test tank waterbugs you see in the prep school onramp to the Olympics, and the biggest difference between rowing crew and the R2AK isn’t the most obvious. Rowing a trimaran in left over swell is inherently more futile than the act of pulling a 40 pound needle through flat water. But imagine being tired, bone tired, strapping yourself into the seat, pulling like mad and having no visual cues that your efforts are making a difference. Team Sistership was 20 miles from land. 20 miles—far enough away that they might have been able to see high mountains but nothing to talk down the tired inner skeptic that said this wasn’t working. And then it got dark, dark and exhausted. A bobbing tri in complete and windless darkness, 20 miles from shore, hundreds of miles from the finish, even further to home, absolutely isolated and without whatever combination of physical and emotional reserves that they knew the moment called for. “I’m not sure I can make it.” They had reached the breaking point.
The unspoken hammer of the R2AK is this version of alone that is a rarity in an age when the screen in your pocket can summon virtually everything you could possibly desire. Friends, pizza, a set of collectors plates from the Franklin Mint, sex, videos of cats playing the piano—even when we are by ourselves we are seldom alone because of that constant potential of anything. Hecate Strait at midnight is that different kind of solitude; a place without the possibility of Uber, a tow truck, your therapist. You are alone, in the dark, too deep to anchor, too tired to row, you don’t know what to do, and there is no one to help. This is on you.The world gets pretty vast in that sort of vacuum. The clock slows. Inevitable starts to take over.
The four women of Team Sistership weathered the calm; drifting, rowing off and on until their exhaustion was confirmed, grabbing what sleep that overtook them, drifting in dark limbo until unknown hours later when the wind rose and carried them again. They reached Ketchikan a few days later, stronger and weary, celebratory and ready to find their outboard, apologize, and buy it a beer.
Farther back in the fleet the calms were taking their toll as well. Team Kraken Up embraced their name and hit the beach for good, and just this morning Team Shadowfax decided to pack in the Hobie 16’s bid for Alaska while he was still in sight of a highway. Sometimes the best cure for calms is waiting for wind, and sometimes its trailering to windward at 50 miles an hour.