2018 Day 5: It’s a vortex, man.

There are places in the world that are their own centers of gravity. The great garbage patch of the Pacific gyre that collects the downstream accumulation of our plastic world, the beaches that unexplainably attract a disproportionate number of left shoes, the British Columbian coastline’s odd but statistically significant macabre collection of severed feet—these are places on the planet that through a blurry line confluence of physics, hydrodynamics, and the seemingly random total of human behavior are a black hole vortex of one anomaly or another. The why of it we’ll leave to the smart people and anyone with an internet opinion. But on Thursday, Day 5 of R2AK, Lama Pass was the focal point vortex that tractor beamed this year’s leaders, feet intact, into a single horizon to the surprise of everyone and the ‘oh my god’ obsessive compulsion of Tracker Junkies across the global diaspora of the R2AK nation.

It’s all we could talk about: Teams Sail Like a Girl, Lagopus, and Wild Card in a single moment merging onto the single lane on-ramp to Bella Bella; they were within sight, shouting distance, and tack on tack action of each other after 4 days and a million decisions after Victoria’s Sunday’s start. After all of that, after all of the rowing, pedaling and muscle vs. drifting vs. let’s do something different strategy leading up to Seymour Narrows, three single hulled teams were +/- one camera frame from each other as they charged through R2AK’s final must-do before the Ketchikan finish line.

You can explain it away all you like with play-by-play sailing analysis or a post-doc research thesis on the Lama Pass Vortex Effect, but from our side of the tracker screen, it verged on miraculous. After a beat or two we dismissed the fleeting thought of 16 wives and a compound in West Nowhere, Texas, but legit: religions have started for less.

Not only has the last 24 hours obliterated the ho-hum, row/pedal through the wind desert narrative leading to Seymour, but across the internet, screens of all sizes were on blast, draining batteries and data plans with tracker refresh, weighing the risk of another R2AK related sick day vs. another update at ‘Poor choices o’clock.’ You did it too, all of us fixated on the icons of the three lead teams advancing up the jagged coast only to be right on top of each other. This is the tightest race on record, and we can’t look away.

It’s hard to imagine it more exciting. These aren’t sailing’s Unsullied from some hired-gun master race who globe trot with a crew bag and a pair of gloves to crank for whatever logo is paying the bills. These are three teams we can all relate to—moms with a hall pass, live-aboard boat neighbors with a dream and access to Craigslist, Canadian ultra-marathoners on an Olsen 30 (ok, so maybe less on the last one)—all sailing to the brink of their and their boat’s abilities. Boats hammer down charging on the wildest part of BC’s wild coast. Teams converging on a single patch of water in a single vortex moment—Sail Like a Girl covering Lagopus up the outside of Calvert and Hunter Islands, Wild Card on the inside—all ending up at the same place at the same time as an undetermined number of severed left feet. Two streams of human effort coming together in three crossing bow wakes in the confluence of Lama Pass.

Imagine that moment when First Federal’s Team Sail Like a Girl allowed their gaze to stray from Team Lagopus’s nipping at their heels and glanced starboard to see Team Wild Card bow on from the other way to Bella Bella, closing, then in front, and then a short bit behind. For those of us with the vantage of the internet, we’d been banging out our ‘oh my god can you believe this’ in online comments, and the pummeled pillows and shoulders of friends and loved ones as it all unfolded (“Look at them go, it’s so close GAH!!! ). Imagine the moment when it all came to a head as the three teams felt the gravitational confluence of their moments as they sailed into each other’s reality from both sides of Hunter Island. Elation vs. competition, the rising bloodlust for the crown they find themselves in contention for after a year of telling themselves that theirs was a race to do their best despite the hot shit boat full of ringers that never appeared. From this moment until Ketchikan this is their race to lose. Race on, race on!

In all honesty, we didn’t see this coming. The last time we punched out a couple of screens worth of our take of the action, we waxed indulgent about the slowness of rowing, the hot, the stillness. We squandered paragraph upon paragraph embracing the boring; resigned to teasing out the technical feats, wearing beige and eating gender neutral oatmeal while we looked for anything exciting enough to write home about. This ain’t our first rodeo, we’ve done this a time or three, but a day and change past the last missive and we can report solidly on one thing: god we are bad at this. This year isn’t a slow rowing battle against the sweatiness of the Pacific high, but the most exciting race of everyday heroes we’ve seen to date.

The internet has its full share of live stream analysis of every puff, twitch of the tiller, and weather call. To our highly opinionated inaccurate eyes, this is a race to the finish without precedent. Will the building winds in Hecate and Dixon favor the bold or punish the fatigued? The water between Hecate and glory is a notoriously rough patch, and weather forecasts make it look like the wind is getting a dividend check from Dramamine and adult diapers. How safe can you sail if you need a boatload of tired seasick to keep the thing wet side down on the gust with your name on it that is for sure coming sometime in the darkest sleep-deprived moment of your indecision. Will stock boat speed overcome the gambles of slower boats that modded-up over a winter of post-purchase overhaul and are pushing past the envelope? Will a match race against unlikely rivals give space for a dark horse of Team Ptarmigan’s trimaran to come out of the nowhere defend the honor for multihulls everywhere? Damned if we know, but we couldn’t be more thrilled in our ignorance. As of Friday morning, Team Wild Card had fallen astern, looking for wind in the clear air in the middle of Hecate, Lagopus held a tenuous lead as they and the First Federales are working the thermals and eddies on either side of Estevan. If forecasts are to be believed, the next 24 hours will be an up-winder that will bash them face first into the next wave train inbound from Dixon Entrance. Welcome to Alaska.

Shifting our verbal spotlight to the back of the fleet, as much as Day 5 has been a contest for the bold, it has been a victory of prudence as several teams exited the race with glory and applause from us for following the first rule of the R2AK: don’t die. Team B4B2’s rudder raced across the failure finish line before the separating centerboard. Team Reliance decided that prudence dictated they stay and sail the lower part of the course. Team Perseverance completed a winter of knowledge and determined that his boat was the wrong set of compromises. He’ll be back, but this year he’s headed to the mountains to cast for Sockeye. In a footnote to a footnote, Team Waterworld Impending, the one man Tornado of Mark Dix who was forced to drop before the close of stage one, went sailing anyway and caught up to the trailing fleet yesterday about halfway to Seymour. He’s doing great, having a blast and sailing well. Even the back of this race is a vortex, even after the teams are out they keep getting pulled back in.

Citizens of Ketchikan are propping up fridge magnets to the south in the hopes they can manifest the vortex of our own to speed things along to the land of the midnight sun.

Whatever happens, some will win, some will lose, some will sit around to sing the blues. Don’t stop believing, hold on to that feeling. R2AK glory is waiting a couple of hundred miles upwind miles to the north.

photo credit: Katrina Zoë Norbom