2017 Stage 1, Day 2: Mistakes were made

Victoria’s clocktower pealed five and the deadline was official. Stage one was in the books and the known quantities of incredible were already headlines in the news, an online forum or two, and dockside chatters of amazement. Anyone with the tracker page, a need to know, and the ability to left click already knows the boldface.

Headline #1: Muscle power sweeps the Non-existant podium.

The award for doing well in the qualifier is a ring of the bell and the ability to buy happy hour beer at happy hour prices, but if we handed out medals  in Olympic podium style, a pedal-powered boat would take silver, and three rowboats would be standing proud for gold, bronze, and that impressive but awkward spot in the grass just offscreen. All four would come across the line before the first of the sailors. Take that Russell Coutts.

Weather, chance, and pride makes fools of us all in equal measure, and especially sailors. Before they had their sails disrupted by the air wake of passing rowboats, the racier teams had been sizing up their competition since the list was finalized. Throughout stage one they kept tabs on their peers—making the best bid for bragging rights over their self-declared competition—during the first leg of a race that cares so much about how fast teams finish that we rushed to post results a brisk  24 hours after it ended. Even if winning didn’t matter to the race, racing mattered to these teams. They clocked each other’s sweaty, frustrated, flaccid sail, human powered progress only to be surprised that teams existed outside of their blinders. “We were keeping tabs on Bad Kitty and Pure and Wild and we were doing pretty good, then we zoomed out the tracker and were like ‘Liteboat? Who the hell is LiteBoat?”.

The humble pie that Team LiteBoat served up to the wind dependent tasted like a couple of 60-year-old Frenchmen on a boat they designed, built, then rocked across in the perfect conditions of early Thursday. They left the boats and sailors with infinitely higher PHRF ratings both impressed and wondering who of their friends would understand just how unfair it was. “A rowboat beat you?” Shame face.

Headline #2: People finished, or didn’t

Yep. There’s a list and everything: 2017 R2AK Victoria Finish Results

Headline #3: Wind was strong, but actually stronger

Environment Canada claimed 30 gusting to 40. Exhausted, scared, and wide-eyed racers were sure it was more. They were right. A lighthouse keeper on Trial Island let us know that their on-scene observations saw sustained periods of at least 50 knots.

50 knots.

Dude.

Try standing up in a pickup on a rural highway. Now put a bouncy castle in the bed, have oncoming vehicles throw buckets of water at you and you’ll get nowhere near what it was like to be out there.

On top of the wind’s ferocity was its surprise. The wind didn’t dial  up with the usual progression. It went from 0-50 like it had something to prove. Teams went from rowing, to reefing, to an out of control scramble for survival in a span that for some was less than 30 minutes. The wind came down like a cleaver that chopped the fleet into those who made the harbor in time and those who would suffer for an untold number of additional hours. The tracklines show 2pm as the rough edged  dividing line between teams with linear progression and those eastward accelerating curly-q’s of desperation scramble. More than a few teams were in sight of the breakwater, some less than a mile, when the wind hammered down and threw them downwind and into howling hours spent clawing back into the teeth of some of the roughest conditions many had ever seen. Even teams on the harbor side of the cleaver were surprised. “We barely made it. We were with a pack all day and when we hit the harbor and turned around and there was no one.”

Headline #4: Everyone’s safe, things broke, mistakes were made

If R2AK’s was the Hunger Games, the night cannon would have sounded for nine teams that didn’t make it. Five intending for Victoria, four for Ketchikan, all who are now somewhere in the process of adjusting their expectations and beginning the paradoxical process of moving on by reliving it all in spirals and in waves.

Beyond the headlines there were the stories of triumph and longing and teams who wished they were on the greener grass side of the wind cleaving line.
“The wind and tide built so fast. If we would have started 20 minutes sooner we could have shaved 5 hours off of our time.”

“We did great but part of me wishes we could have had a little of what was out there.” Really? “I mean, a little bit.”

“Colin and I were so close for most of the day that we would talk to each other…. or really like he would talk to me. He had a speaker playing music—like kids’ music, like Wheels on the Bus—and couldn’t hear me. I don’t think it was on purpose, I mean he has kids right? Right?”

“Pedal drives have advantages. Like, I could eat a snack and still pedal, but a piece of eel grass would foul the prop and I’d have to stop to clear it. I’d gain during snacks, and lose ground in the eelgrass.”

It was in the quiet corners of the truths of the nine who didn’t make it, that even the finishers began their inward journey into their own close calls that for now had landed on the right side of fate’s coin flip. These were the stories, raw and vulnerable, that can only start to emerge after the headlines have dissipated—you get far enough from the adrenaline to relax into making sense of the truth, and still close enough to resist  the need to repackage it all into sharable anecdotes to amuse the in-laws. In between, there is a fleeting chance for honest reflection. For the racers, families, and organizers alike, the beer and food of the finish line party would proxy as the R2AK therapist’s couch.

There were stories of hypothermia both diagnosed and not; at least one trip to the hospital. He was prepared for cold, he wasn’t prepared for sweat he built up rowing to be trapped in a drysuit then turned life threatening when calm turns rowing into hunkering paralyzed and vomiting; seasick survival mode with waves building to twice the size we hope the 13-foot boat will never see again. He couldn’t row to keep warm, he couldn’t do anything, and his body got cold and then colder.

Gear failed. The fingers-crossed preparations from teams running out of time teamed up with extreme weather and things got hectic; sails shredded, masts broke, booms broke, oars snapped, hose connections failed- rerouting bilge pumps to watertight compartments instead of overboard, waterproof hatches removed ‘waterproof’ from their resume. Rather than a boutique purveyor of reasonable portions of shade-grown troubles, teams of the R2AK were delivered calamity by the dump truck.

“It was typical stuff. The ama broke and wasn’t able to be locked down, it banged a lot.” Wasn’t that a problem for stability? “Propably. It was dark and there was no wind, like flat calm. The tide was taking us out to sea and into the shipping lanes. Our batteries were dead, so our AIS transponder didn’t work, neither did our lights or our radios. Sat phone was crapping out too.”

Mute, invisible, and unable to move, just in range they used their last bar on their cellphone to call for a tow. They’re out, but after repairs they might just cruise engineless to Alaska anyway, just for practice, and on their own time.

There were the stories of concern for others. Each pod of conversation produced a “What happened to…” set of questions. Everyone wanted to know that folks were ok, especially those close enough to see but far enough away to be unable to assist. “We had just watched him capsize and then he sort of disappeared. We could see his boat upside down but we couldn’t see him. As far as we knew we just watched him go.” Capsized sailor ended up ok, and after a four-hour tow so were they. Safe and shaken, neither would be continuing from Victoria.

The stories weren’t entirely recounts of catastrophe. In the part of the fleet that gets as close to prudent as R2AK can, more than a few teams (but fewer than we’d like) read the bold faced weather report calling for all caps nasty and opted out of the daylight brigade charge into no-mans-land and waited for the enemy seas to lose interest. Depending on how you count, roughly ten teams waited it out on the calm side until the next day. Some fled the fray for the nearest stateside beaches after things got bad. Some headed back to town directly from the start. Friday morning the prudent were rewarded with sunshine, calm seas, and a following breeze. Their boats still broke, but the mild conditions provided a soft landing and a chance to recover. At least one got a nap on the way across.

We can’t think of another race where the winning strategy includes delaying starting by 24 hours, going to a movie, hot tubs, sushi dinner, and sleeping in your own bed before setting out in the morning. But numbers don’t lie: 100% of the teams who waited until Friday to make the jump finished.  Teams that danced with the wind cleaver? Less so. Defying the logic of everyone poised to hit send on an “I told you so” email, regardless of who sprinted and who waited 100% of the paddleboards made it with 0% issues. Sunburnt (Q: “How do you pack enough sunblock?” A: “We don’t.”) but otherwise unfazed.

There’s less than 24 hours to the start for the long haul north and teams are busy making repairs, licking wounds, reassembling egos, reassuring relatives, getting one last ice cream indulgance and wondering how to stay on the safe side of things the next time the cleaver comes down.

Ready or not, R2AK.