It’s over. One month after a low flying heli-jockey nearly ended the race before it began, three weeks after Mad DOG Racing’s sub-four day finish was dog-piled by eight teams who all finished under the five day mark set last year, two weeks after Team Alula’s elated DQ finish had tens of thousands cheering from around the world, a week after we invented a team to keep ourselves occupied and see if anyone was paying attention—on Friday at 6:45 p.m. the 2016 Race to Alaska was officially over. Team Coastal Express pulled out early and pasting their smiles all over the internet from their declared finish line in Prince Rupert. We raised a glass, wished them a hearty huzzah, put the leash back on the Sweep Boat, and started rolling up banners at the finish line. It’s been a long and glorious haul, a solid month of human triumph and defeat, one twelfth of 2016 consumed wearing out mouse pads and touch screens to refresh the tracker, lingering conversations that are mostly conjecture to the wall and other beings that can equally benefit from the advice. “If I was SeaScape I would get all the way in the bow and heal it over. Those mini transats can go in zero wind if you get the stern out…” all done as of a day ago. One phone call from Prince Rupert confirming a departure followed by 24 hours of not knowing what to do and reintroducing ourselves to our families who are apparently still around.
How do we even function?
Our day has been one of shellshocked recalibration, just drifting through the hazy mayonnaise of the everyday world that is still pixelated but slowly coming back into focus. If we’re having a hard time with it, think of the two teams who tied up the R2AK’s endgame into a sweaty exhausted bow. Regardless if the stopping point is the official finish line or one in Prince Rupert, is it harder to win in three days or continue for 25? Team MAD Dog Racing has one perspective, Teams Coastal Express and Can’t Anchor Us have another and both are equally valid, equally true.
Heather and Dan row sailed and smiled their Coastal Express 600 miles up the coast, the wrong way and against the wind, if there was any. Their boat was 17 feet designed to the specifications of 60 year old hardship leisure. Mirror Dinghies were camp cruisers developed for the generations who were still reeling from the great depression, or at least the rationing and huddled scrounging of the Blitz. Boating was different then, this was affordable “luxury” developed to fill the gap between the invention of tinned food, the fall of the Hun, and the Future when we’d all have flying cars. These were boats for folks who were biding their time to meet George Jetson and pet that Sputnik dog. That oiled wood experience vs riding a foiling carbon fiber blur until the RedBull ran out? Hardly a comparison. Heather and Dan have done the coast before, and on top of all of their adventures they bested their 2015 run at the R2AK by a conceptual 500 miles (honestly, we didn’t do the math, but it seemed close), which must make them most improved in one category or another (still, not doing the math, we went to public school.) More than whatever their accomplishment was, Heather and Dan get our sincere thanks for keeping the faith, a nicer pair we have never met, and they embody the “just get out there spirit” that the R2AK hoped to inspire when we found the bottom of that beer that launched this idea a few years back. Thanks to the both of you for being part of the family.
The last official finisher of the R2AK was Tim Penhallow, the sole competitor onboard Team Can’t Anchor Us. This was Tim’s second finish, his first solo finish, and given his combined successes he has the distinct honor of being the most prolific soul of the R2AK—he has more elapsed time in the race than anyone, ever. He’s like Lou Gerhig without the disease, Cal Ripken without the milk scrubbed morals, wait, sorry, he’s Canadian—Tim Penhallow is the R2AK’s Gordie Howe, but alive (We miss you Mr. Hockey, R.I.P.)
This was Tim’s second run in a 17-foot boat that he rehabbed after its decade in the blackberry bushes. For 2016 he shed a crew member and added three days in total travel time. His trip was one of innovation (“I’d just get my mast tangled in the trees, it was easier than anchoring) solitude (“I’m so bored of being bored. I’ve run out of things to think about”), personal triumph (“It’s kind of like losing your virginity, you’re glad you did it but you’re somewhat embarrassed by your performance.”) and was the self declared hardest thing he’s ever done (no quote, but the truth.) His was a small boat, but by not bringing Patrick this year he had enough room for the high performance quote machine, compact but effective and churned out the following after he was on the dock in Ketchikan:
“I’m going to walk around and face forward for a whole bunch…I tell you what: I’m not going to sit down, I’ve done enough of that for a while”
“My chest is a totally different shape, chimpanzee muscles.”
“I could do a thousand sit-ups right now, my abs feel exactly like me rib cage.”
“It’s for sale!”
“This boat against someone who wins in three days? It’s like bringing a rolled up newspaper to a gun fight.”
“I’m going back to mountaineering, it’s totally safer.”
“…biblical rain, couldn’t see the surface of the water in the misty splashes”
“I’m going to sit down and read tomorrow. I was re-reading food labels just to have something.”
25 days alone, and other than the time with Bunny Whaler, some cookies and fruit from a flock of bird watchers, and breakfast with the missionaries (“Really nice people, a little crazy about God, but nice people.”) he’d been rowing with himself and had exhausted self discovery. He stopped in Prince Rupert to snag whatever week old newspaper he could get his hands on. Like many in the last half of the race, 90% of his trip was rowing, but unlike most his was mostly naked “Saves a lot on laundry”. Not truly naked, he’d wear sun hat, shoes, and other than zinc oxide on his nose, no sunscreen (Yes, you would think it would get burnt.)
His hourly routine: 55/5, a five minute pause for traffic news and sports at the top of the hour just to break things up. His longest day 22hours, well really only 20 and a half if you count the breaks. Pansy.
His last day was a howler across Dixon Entrance 6.5 knots with a jib and sea anchor. “I’ve discovered that solo sailing is not for me.” That revelation was somewhere earlier, midway-ish into the race, in-between three standing waves and a rock wall that the wind was driving him into when he realized he wasn’t really into solo sailing. He’d crash if he left the tiller to drop the sails, and he needed the sails down to not crash.
His rowing against the wind was done maxing out his newly found chimpanzee muscles a 100 yards at a time, sprint row against it, get in the lee of something and rest. Another 100 yards, another rest. If he looked out around the corner and it was 400 yards to the next shelter? “Stay put, never making that.” He lived in the back-eddies he could find and weren’t so close to the overhanging trees that his mast would get hung up in his innovative sky anchor.
Tim’s finish was a triumph of dogged repetition (“I figure I get five to six feet per stroke…”) and one that set a new bar for maximizing a registration fee. More than that, it was a victory of resilience, and Tim paved a new lane in the on-ramp to adventure. He can row to Alaska in a rowboat, by himself, in under a month. Most people wouldn’t do that at all, and if they did they’d take three months and another person. We can’t think of a better outro to the R2AK’s sophomore year than Tim’s crazy intrepid accomplishment on a boat that is worth twice whatever it is he is asking for it, plus our commission.
Is it harder to finish first or to be the last winner across the line? Who cares. The people in the front, and the headlining teams at the end of the performance who use the front of the pack as their opening act are never going to arm wrestle egos in some sort of R2AK king-of-the-hill hunger games. No one is getting voted off of the island. As we bring down the R2AK flag and fold it into the box until an undefined and hopeful future date, the spirit of camaraderie still reigns. This is still about adventure in whatever form is meaningful to whoever toes the line. Adventure uberalis.
Thanks for the memories, R2AK out.