Today’s twin finish line honors of Team Bunny Whaler and Team Squamish was a celebration, and rightly so. We crowned them the 24th and 25th winners of the R2AK, teams finishing a minute apart after 750 miles. It might have looked like something between a gentleman’s agreement and the orchestration of a pro-wrestling pageantry, but these two under twenty-footers were supporting each other the best way they knew how: by pushing each other to race their best. For days their tracker signatures have been double-deckered- easy to assume that they were a polite squad flying in formation. You go first. Oh no you go. No you. Turns out they were as much as they weren’t; supporting each other while at the same time doing whatever they could to be the supportive team that got to stand on the dock to clap the other one across the line. Way to go.
We couldn’t get closer to the spirit we hoped this race would spawn than the sentiments of the two teams whose mutual respect crossed the line within 60 seconds of each other. Team Bunny Whaler, named to pay homage to an overlooked Wailer, and Team Squamish, named for an overlooked town in an overlooked province in a country overlooked outside of it’s export of lumber and comedians, a melting northwest passage, and the sexiest Prime Minister since forever was invented. No one overlooked these teams, as literally thousands of people tuned in to watch them cross the line and ring the bell. Thousands, roughly as many as the first boat that finished nearly three weeks ago, because that’s how R2AK fans do. First place is great and all, but we love us the back of the pack.
Their R2AK stories diverged and rejoined almost as much as their tracker paths but in one light they were totally different: unity. Team Squamish might have started as one but they divided and finished as another. The story Paul finished with was one of endurance and the git-er-done determination. His crew rocked a French Exit somewhere in the mid-coast. Never said a word just walked up the gangway and never looked back. Left his gear and a steaming cup of coffee. If Bunny Whaler’s beards hadn’t seen the back of his head moving inland the scenario might have presented like a very limited rapture. Just him apparently. Halfway in and nowhere near done, Paul soldiered on, rowing, rowing some more and using every ounce of him and to keep the boat level when the wind machine switched from “Off” to “Holy crap”. Blowing 30, right on the nose, his estimate: he tacked 300 times Grenville Channel before he lost count.”I was hanging on the rail for two days straight.”
The wind took its toll on the boat, and the short handed repairs took a toll on Paul. Mast issues forced him to the beach to affect repairs, and a quick decision gone wrong unleashed the mast in a freefall from all the way upright to horizontal and on top of him. To call him lucky would be a stretch, but he got all of his body out of the way, except for his leg that was bashed and punctured. Deep. “I probably would have gotten stitches.” But on a beach in the middle of the middle of nowhere, definitive care was an impossibility. Paul got his boat back together, and winced his way onward; to Rupert (doctors office pronounced that it wasn’t broken) and then on to Ketchikan, through the dark, in the slop and wind of three wave sets converging into confused seas six and eight feet high. Paul clipped himself and his newly not broken leg into the lowest point in the cockpit and rode out the sleigh ride, all the time worried that no one could see him because his bow mounted running lights were submerged at least half the time. He was invisible, alone, and hurt…and his rudder was falling off, but he made it.
Not that we tried, but the Brothers of Team Bunny Wailer are hard not to like. The rear guard of the sibling crews (6 in total this year) their great spirits and matching clothes have been a crowd favorite since their lager-fueled campaign first rolled into Port Townsend nearly a month ago. Their corporate allegiance was one of genuine affinity rather than contractual “We like to think that we sponsor Rainier…” and their race seemed punctuated by good natured fun and a near supernatural ability to locate everything they needed- including what seemed to be naturally occurring concentration of vitamin R along the BC coast. They found bowling pins in Butedale and spent time racking them up and knocking them down (there was at least one strike caught on film, as one might expect from a collegiate bowler.) They found refuge and a dry sleep in the hold of a fish boat, they were even given free moorage and $10 in change for the showers. They were adopted by an engineless adventurer turned author who gave them a book which they read to each other while drinking gin and diet grapefruit soda in a bold leisure designed to keep their minds occupied by anything other than the mountains of water they met in Dixon Entrance. Their high fives were epic and plentiful, and when they hit the dock in Ketchikan they were closer than they had been when they started, they shotgunned a beer, in matching outfits, simultaneously. They were the hairy Blues Brothers of the R2AK.
Jake and Elwood’s social media feed shows the good times, the harry moments don’t lend themselves to a selfie stick, nor do the monotonous days after never ending days on the oars; one sitting infront of the mast while the other rowed in the cockpit. They were in the same 30 knots that frothed Grenville Channel and kept what was left of Team Squamish on his toes and on the rail. Boston Whaler famously boasted their boats to be unsinkable, and Team Bunny Whaler did their best to get a warranty claim to the contrary. Swamped and knocked down four times, both of their six foot four frames in a prolonged lunge to windward to keep the boat level. They never sank but the knockdowns took everything they had to get the unsinkable boat back to floating in the preferred orientation. Thousands of stress fractures that formed or became evident as their awareness of the boat increased with each tense moment and sleepless night: Was that crack there before? Is it getting bigger? The whole game in Grenville was bailout “Every 5 seconds I was looking for the closest rock I could swim to.” We’ll skip the part that inspired the title.
The wind died in the homestretch and the gin dulled tumult of the 16 hour port tack across the border turned into a rowing race. Twenty five years younger and a tandem of collegiate rowers, the Whalers held off the stubborn sailing inevitability of Squamish but barely, and it took everything they had including channelling the voiceover of their old rowing coach: “Never come in second in a photofinish.”
Euphoria of breaking the tape on today’s the finish line gave way to reflection and the creeping nostalgic regret of being at the other end of epic. “I’m not really ready to be done.” Us either, but as the Sweep Boat and remaining two crews are days away from Ketchikan R2AK 2016 is getting closer to a memory to make sense of. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but now I never have to do it again.” Well said.