Despite the color of the flag, the feel of the money, and the sun-deprived caucasian pallor whose skin tones fall somewhere between sidewalk stripe and salamander belly- Alaska is different. Bigger mountains, more rain, fewer people, louder jokes, thicker shirts, more xtra tuffs that serve here as the footwear of choice for anyone within a chew spit of the shoreline. Different as Alaska is, from the time the solstice-driven dawn began its slow yawn at 3 am, until three exhausted beers after the two teams finished, the same things were happening on the screen side of the last frontier as were happening in the rest of the R2AK nation. All of us were there: wide eyes, twitchy fingers that were alternately wearing out the tracker refresh and offering a center digit salute when it froze. All of us shared the desire to make eye contact with anyone nearby who wasn’t our boss to share just how damned exciting this all was. 750 miles and they were right on top of each other? If you had a pulse and more than two bars of cell coverage how could you not be excited? This was a race to the end.
After the first coffee was poured and before the pledge of allegiance, right after updates on raffle ticket sale R2AK was the primary subject for Ketchikan Rotarians at their weekly breakfast. A shotgun shell sat upright on the table, next to the bacon, chosen special from among its box of brothers to be fired in honor of whatever team first crossed the finish line. This year it would be fired from a newly serviced bronze signal cannon, last year from a sawed off reminder of the second amendment. Alaska: different.
Staff of the local NPR affiliate found a way to translate lat/long positions into distance apart so they could know the closing distance between Broderna and Freeburd. They seemed to do the math every quarter hour. Fish boat crews in their Grundens checked for updates in between sets. The cab driver answered our “Do you know about the Race to Alaska?” with a few-toothed grin betraying an exuberance that jangled with his three gold chains and smelled like wet cigarettes; his yellowed finger jabbing at his phone already lit up with the tracker. The boats were at 11 knots, finishing fast with 10 miles to go. 10 miles. Shy of the record but right there, right where our driver liked to go fishing. Three ling cod and a halibut last time. With his brother-in-law, in case you were wondering.
Alaska was excited as the rest of us; this was a race.
With the infinite decisions encompassed by the hundreds of miles in their rearview mirror, 10 miles from the dock in Ketchikan Team Freeburd and Broderna were in sight of each other. It was race on in the only way the R2AK knows how: by any means necessary, each team playing to their strengths and using every tool at their disposal as they clawed for any gain on the other. Less than a mile apart after the 700 since the restart in Victoria, these two teams couldn’t be more different in the same way; both fully realized embodiments of their hometowns.
In the lead were the brothers Burd, sailing fast and splitting their attention between their progress and the closing distance of Broderna off their stern. Pro and near pro sailors all, they were the proud scions of Marblehead, repping their town’s fabled sailing legacy steeped in America’s Cup victories from the 1880s through 1970s. They were eastern imports to the northern coast, but founding members of the R2AK diaspora and sailing true to its bootstrap spirit. Their race was a 750-mile test drive on a borrowed boat they had sailed for only a few hours before they started, and never together. They were brothers, on a coast they had only seen once before and only through the spray and hypothermia of their beach cat campaign two years prior.
In their last 48 hours, they had passed, been passed, and then passed again these newly found rivals that at 10 miles out were a mere quarter mile to the south. They were running scared and determined, sailing like hell and hoping the wind and current would hold only the good kind of surprises. They pulled every trick they knew, down to jettisoning water overboard to lessen their weight. This would be a game of inches and they knew it. Everything mattered.
If Freeburd sailed for a hometown where sailors wear gloves and pose for big trophies, the commercial fishermen, riggers, and tradesmen of Team Big Broderna were the blue collar heroes, of a blue collar town, sailing for subdued glory in a race cast in the west coast’s unconventional norms.
The Strandberg brothers learned from their mast-breaking, double-handed strategy of the first R2AK: bigger boat, two more crew, a beefed up pedal drive, and a couple of years practice mopping the floor with one local race or another. The larger notches in their belt: in 2016 they took top honors in Swiftsure then R2AK’d for third and set the record for trimarans.
Fast boat, practical, know how and steeped in “here,” the Broderna’s 2017 run to the finish was defined by the can-do grit and know-how one would expect from their origin story. Hours into Victoria’s flat calm start the pedal drive that had taken them to Alaska then delivered a keg of beer to Seattle jettisoned a drive shaft it felt was no longer necessary. The weather was calm, the tide was running, and Broderna’s crew broke out the paddles, dodged a reef and hit the softest beach Saturna Island’s eastern end had to offer. Three hours later they had found a ride, a bent but nearly useable shaft that became their replacement and running dirty joke, a willing shop. They ground a length of bar stock to almost round then shoved off to complete the work underway. The rust stains in their deck tell the tale of metal work on-the-fly. Duct tape and impromptu lashings tell the tale of underway engineering. Broderna jury-rigged human propulsion to take them to Alaska, bungee cords and all. “The key was this bungee chord. If we stopped pedaling at more than 4.5 knots the whole thing would fall out.” The bend in the shaft wobbled and made a grinding noise. The duct tape had to be cut to sail, re-done to pedal, but they were underway and running down teams in their pursuit of victory. They crushed it—moving from near the back to number three, and then two in short order. It should surprise no one that 10 miles out half of their crew were below decks, madly stitching a blown spinnaker to eek out one more run they knew they needed. Resourcefulness was their stock and trade.
Fast forward 500 miles and three days, and this east coast/west coast 4th quarter dogfight was as close as sailing gets to a goal line stand. Doubling down on a clumsy metaphor (and clinching a future where ESPN will continue to let us go to voicemail) with ten miles to go and a closing competitor the Burds were up by a field goal, and Broderna was in the red zone with home field advantage. It was the bottom of the ninth, time was running out, and with enough sea room, odds were they would kick a touchdown.
The drama was in the moment, but the seeds of this showdown were sewn well before anyone could see it all in a single camera frame. Two teams, five minutes apart, both sides of the pursuit living out the total of everything leading up to this; their hometown legacies, the margin calls of their countless decisions from the time they committed to race until to now. Every crew choice, sail change, every twitch of the tiller, every sea thrown half-sleep suffered in the swamp of drysuits and wet sails. Every read of the current, every fatigue-driven negotiation with their weary legs to make this pedal stroke harder, now this one, now this one- all of it added up to right now. The whole race hinged on the last few miles of flat calm on the pedals. This one mattered.
We know how this story ends. Fans on the dock cheered in the rain, reporters thronged, the internet reeled, a nation of managers looked forward to returning to productivity, and that anointed shotgun shell lived its glory moment blasting out as Team Freeburd sailed across the line in the rain-soaked afternoon. They had won the race of their lives, melding their pedigree with skill to come out ahead- barely and with the humble enthusiasm of true champions. “This race is like no other. The rest of sailing needs to learn from this. This is real.” Team Big Broderna hit the line 2/3 of a snooze bar later, and landed with affable exhaustion “My legs are jelly.” They reveled in their competitors and the bemused speculation from the gathered crowd. “Another couple of miles, and I think they would have taken them.” followed by head shaking refutations of equal conviction. “That was so close…”
It was close by any standard but especially considering the scale of it. Usain Bolt won gold in the 100m dash in 9.58 seconds. Silver? 9.71. 1% difference. Six minutes over 4 days 3 hours and 5 minutes? .01% difference. Whether you see this as the six minutes that cost Broderna $10,000 or the Freeburds eight steak knives, this was incredible. A photo finish in slo-mo, it couldn’t have been more exciting.
Congratulations all, and safe travels to the remaining fleet still striving to Alaska. The gale is letting up, and teams are on the move. R2AK’s finish line is just getting started.