Stage 2, Day 17: Team Super Friends – Sail It Like You Broke It

The last 24 hours of the R2AK couldn’t have finished two more disparate teams. The first was the raw energy and gumption of Team Super Friends who broke then fixed themselves for the length of the full course and crossed the line in the early morning light—0444 local time.

The Super Friends’ supercharged R2AK boat of choice was a Thunderbird, the everyman utilitarian sailor that crams as much speed and hard-chined ugly into 26 feet as is legally allowable. That rumble you just heard was the growl of T-Bird owners everywhere, a navy that sails worldwide at 1,200 strong. We’re in trouble. To be fair, the T-bird is usually ugly only to the uninitiated, it’s an acquired taste that flips the switch to infatuation the moment you sail one. It’s like the sailing equivalent of beer goggles. Drink in the fast and there’s no regrets.

While the Thunderbird might look best in the darker corners of a smoky room, its performance can’t be denied, nor can the the design execution to create a great boat that an average person in the 1950’s could build (aka: the handiest person you know today) out of supplies from Home Depot. The whole thing was a contest sponsored by Big Plywood to break trail for laminates in the boat building game. That’s where the money is. Two words: wooden boats.

Team Super Friends’ campaign north was every bit a T-Bird incarnate. High performance enthusiasm, skills of the expert everyman, Home Depot resiliency—they were screwing in makeshift plywood hatches and Sawzall subtracting length from their 2×4 oars from Victoria all the way to Ketchikan. The three of them were going to ride the ply. The had sponsors, but this wasn’t a matching of foul weather gear, day rate, and per diem sort of a campaign, the crew pitched in money and time to get the $3,500 boat to its fighting weight.

Their crew was a mix of Chris’s lifetime of figuring it out on the water, and his two crew who had more entry level experience. Brian was a farmer, a utility player, whose chief sailing skill before Port Townsend was an uncanny ability to use his big beard and Grundens to blend in and infiltrate whatever Gorton’s Fisherman impersonator conference might be in the vicinity. The third crew member didn’t stick around long enough to warrant mentioning his name as they told their stories in Ketchikan. “Voldemort” was a bartender they picked up in Portland and dropped off in French Creek when they apparently included him in a trade of their newly broken roller furler for a new head stay and change. This was their trip: break, repair, calamity, recovery, all the way to Alaska.

Despite the bartender getting off, they made it on the rocks just fine without him when they went aground in the last days of the trip. Wait. How many times did you go aground? “Twice…we bumped another time.” They also ironically found the only sandbar (Get it? Sandbar, bartender. We’re super clever.) we’ve ever heard of in the craggy coast of British Columbia, on a falling tide, that left them high and dry. Like the deep heritage of explorers before them, they named it for posterity. Votes were cast for the alternate titles of Super Friends Sandbar and Expletive Pass. So far there’s been no response from the Admiralty to verify the discovery and to update the charts.

“When you call the coast guard here’s what you tell them: ‘There are no holes and no injuries.’” Going high and dry attracts some attention, even in the remote nowhere of coastal British Columbia, and well-intentioned do-gooders called them in. They didn’t need help, they were safely aground.

Boat on its side, six feet up, 500 feet in from the lapping waves. Completely dry for ten hours. They used the time wisely and went to sleep, wrapped around the mast on the high side. “There was too much crap on the low side and I didn’t feel like moving it. I was tired.”

When they weren’t sinking into the luxury of a posturepedic post in the middle of their back, they were digging a trench from their keel to the water in the hopes it would help them float off just a little bit sooner. The 2x2x75 foot trench was dug with with buckets and paddles over a few hours, then filled in in a matter of minutes as gravity and rising waters helped the soft sand walls find the lowest spot. The wind piped up and Team Super Friends was able to claw off when the water returned by heeling the boat over and sailing off by any means necessary. They set an anchor off the leeward side and winched the boat over as far as they could to see if they could pivot the keel up enough to float free. Not enough, but close, they set the biggest sails they could, light air stuff but now in 15 knots on the beam, and hauled them tighter than is prudent for any purpose other than this. They were essentially already knocked down, they were trying to stay there until they floated free. The boat was loaded up, on its ear, and with their body weight on the downhill side the T-bird slid off the bar, sailing perpendicular in a dynamic state that must have looked like a kinetic capsize. Impressive work, less so the getting stuck on the bar part, but certainly the part when they recovered.

…kind of like when they anchored in Seymour Narrows.

Why did they end up anchoring in Seymour? “We didn’t know we were in Seymour.” Really? “Well, my navigation got better later on…” They were moving fast, sailing fast with a following current and in the night they simply over took their expectations and found themselves impressively ahead of where they thought they were.

Rushing along in eight knots of current they paddled (Yes, paddled. The long stern sweep they made was too long and unable to be remedied satisfactorily, even with incremental visits by Dr. Sawzall.) and found a bight just big enough for their boat, dropped the anchor, and had a tense night of almost sleep. We don’t know, but they might be the only people to have anchored in that particular spot. “Right, why would you? It’s a horrible place to anchor!” Anchoring in that much current with the cruise ships cruising past within a stones throw, (“So close it looked like an imperial destroyer.”) we were amazed that the anchor held.

“No it didn’t…” And another new name for consideration by the Admiralty: Horrible Bight; update your charts in case you want to add it for your tour of BC’s worst anchorages.

“All the experiences we had were worth gold. I can turn anything into a fun time.” The good part about it? “We were right there for slack water in Seymour Narrows.” Abracadabra, lemonade.

…kind of like when they sailed the wrong way for a while.

“We were running downwind in Johnstone Strait, I was dead tired, hallucinating and nodding off…” after a while they saw Tim from Team Can’t Anchor Us coming at them, bow on bow. “I was thinking, ‘What is he doing, tacking up wind in the wrong direction?’ This is hard enough.” As they passed within jousting distance their competitor/navigational aid yelled over, “Ketchikan is that way!” and pointed in the direction of his bow, 180 degrees off of the course of the caped crusaders. The Super Friends were having the downwind sail of their lives, in exactly the wrong direction, for miles. Miles. What did they do? “Well, we turned around!”

Team Super Friend’s R2AK seemed defined by their wild enthusiasm and sporadic brilliance in overcoming the natural forces, a lack of consistent geographic identification, the rocks, the sandbar, and those other rocks. Team Super Friends’ campaign is more than a punchline and the wide-eyed eye-roll of the close calls. The R2AK was made to test resiliency and foster a culture of self reliance. Team Super Friends might not be on the short list for the keynote at the Navigation Society, but they could take a few folks to school about how to get out of the trouble you get yourself into. Hook by getter-done crook, Team Super Friends didn’t call for help when they miffed it (at one point the BC Coast Guard described them as “hostile to aid”), they spun into action and pulled off some incredible no-joke feats of seamanship to recover on their own terms. Sailing on and off of the hook, in Seymour Narrows’ peak current, into a dead-end bight that’s a scared hair bigger than your boat? You can shake your head at the reasons they got there but you gotta tip your hat to that kind of skill. They drove an affordable boat engineless to Alaska without the loss of life or serious damage and only a minor amount of bottom paint deposited in the shallower parts of British Columbia. Worthy of respect, even if not direct emulation.

Unknown to us until today, this trip was a tribute and a redemption. Last year Chris and another crew had their race cut short after only 70 miles when their San Juan 21 began to delaminate and they wisely chose the beach. The boat was his father’s, who at one point owned the company that produced them. Chris’s father passed away in April after losing a fight to a long brewing malady that went undiagnosed until it was too late. He was proud of his son’s gumption and his bid for the R2AK. Upon hearing the diagnosis, he asked his doctor, “Will I make it to June?” This trip was for him, and Chris’s voyage and travel arrangements were planned around a July 14th memorial service to spread his ashes back down south. They made it, and we joined Chris in a goal line prayer and finger to the sky. Thanks, Dad.