2017 Stage 1, Day 1: 7-10 Split

It started early. By 4 a.m. the growing puddles in Port Townsend’s dark streets glinted with tail lights, broken only by the shadows of pedestrians, and the electric glow of anticipation—all headed in the direction of the R2AK starting line. This was the day.

In the harbor, crews stopped pretending to sleep, packed their gear for the first/last time, ran to avail themselves of the coffee shop that had opened mercifully at 3:30 a.m., doing their bit to pry open a community of eyelids that desperately needed assistance. At least one crew popped at least one pill to ease the weight of the last one, to three-too-many and the nagging regret of their free R2AK tattoos obtained at yesterday’s official R2AK party; needled ink logos of hoped-for glory that were now as raw and swollen as the weather forecast. NOAA was calling for tramp-stamp levels of ugliness in the hours to come.

They flicked on their running lights, zipped up their drysuits, clattered their awkward oars into purpose-built/makeshift oarlocks. Pedals turned the chain that turned the shaft that spun co-opted propellers of model airplanes and moved them out of the slip and into their future. Teams rubbed sleep from their eyes and hangover from their temples, all the time running through the list of last minute repairs made the day before and saying a hurried, silent prayer for each one.

The days before the race had seen repairs, and plenty. The race start is only the most observable deadline in the R2AK. For many, the real race started whenever the niggling doubts of their reptilian cortex crosschecked the Netflix-loving, mother-blaming, social-media-dependent cerebral functions of modern life to make room for the emerging front burner issues: new leaks, old cracks, and half-tested experiments that became part of the hurried prep for their future survival. In the daylight hours preceding the dark of right 0400, a couple thousand race fans moved from boat ogling to the drinking, dancing, free-R2AK-tattoo portion of Pre-Race Ruckus—the best Wednesday party Port Townsend ever threw. Through the party and into the night, teams were still effecting repairs. Our notables: dropping the rig to look at a newly discovered flaw in a shroud lead, pushing enough epoxy and hope into a homebuilt pedal-drive system that it might not chatter apart for a second time, dropping the mast again, repairing a dagger board that went from perpendicular to less so, dropping the mast again, the second revision of a rowing system whose design failed geometry and led to remounting a rowing station that now dangled in the free space off the bow, and dropping the mast again. For more than a few the actual start was as welcome as it was terrifying. Ready or not, its coming was the cessation of last minute preparations—time to stop worrying about wasn’t done and start worrying about what “done” would break first. In the part of the clock that ought to be, at a minimum, an hour before the first snooze, hundreds of kids, parents, grandparents, and pets ignored the rain and the lure of soft sheets to descend on the shoreline and become part of the third version of dark-houred race start celebration that included oatmeal served from paddle boards, a brass band that showed up without warning, the unrelated clown who joined in with scarf-dancing enthusiasm—because that’s how Port Townsend rolls. The horn sounded, the crowd cheered, the Soviet National Choir sang something that sounded as full of struggle, hope, and triumph as we all imagined might exist in the 750 miles that lay ahead.

Go.

The predicted southerlies were a no-show and the still airs left the water bowling-lane smooth; sails yearning, limp, and desperate for any hint of wind to eek them to the next patch of ripples just out of reach. The smooth water meant human-powered teams shot from the gates smugly past their astonished wind-powered counterparts. It was elation itself. The boats headed east, the cheers died, the crowd divided itself between people off to breakfast with a side of bacon-scented tracker, and those who hopped from beach to beach to follow the action as long as their binoculars and work schedules would allow. Around town productivity slowed as folks watched at the tracker, watched at the evolving forecast, and thought outloud: “Get ready, weather is coming.”

Early morning calms were shattered as nature bowled 30 knots and more down the center breaking the fleet into a 7-10 split, cleaving the teams into those who had gotten across or whose prudence left them hunkered along the safety of the southern shore, and the unfortunates in the middle who now had to deal with the maelstrom that encompassed them.

If you haven’t been on the business-end of a gale in a small boat, it’s easy to underestimate the howling inevitability that is delivered to your reptilian core. Imagine you are 20 miles from shore, wind screaming against your bare pole of a mast with seas nearly as high as your boat is long—all the time knowing you may or may not show up on the radar of the boats who might potentially rescue you, or that freighter that may or may not be just about to emerge from that fog bank. Seasick, scared, tired to the bone. Now imagine all of that with your boat on its side, water rushing in, hoping that your radio really does work under water, that your drysuit lives up to its name.

Gusts to 40, waves at 6-8 feet- the details will unfold in the days to come, but the summary might be enough: swamped boats, crews capsized and thrown from their boats into the 50 degree water, at least one mayday, at least one tow to safety, at least one broken mast. The crews who were caught in the middle reefed, swore a little more than loud enough, second-guessed, prayed, scrambled to find whatever version of safety that was most available even if that meant a downwind retreat to distant shores that would add miles to their quest for that dry and stable dock in Victoria.

The R2AK has had its share of scary moments, and day one was one of them. Everyone is safe, and for everyone out there, in time this will become an story that is both a source of pride and a fearful shudder of never again, but in the moment, for the crews onboard, our guess it was a next level version of terrifying.

As midnight closed its fist on the first day of the 2017 R2AK there are lucky stars being counted from both sides of the tracker, from the triumphant and humbled alike; sailors, relatives, and fans are slipping into sleep well-earned by whatever combo of luck, good decisions, and rescue services delivered their crews to the version of alive they presently enjoy. By midnight twenty teams were through customs and thirty-eight more were wondering if their lucky stars would be counted tomorrow.

Triumph, peril, plans and at least one tactical breakfast to wait out weather—hang on to your seats, hug your loved ones, and watch the weather. At time of writing the moon is shining down on calmed winds and waters that have been buffed to bowling lane smooth. The sea can be anything, but if day one is any indication, we are in for a hell of a ride.