Every team is mostly theory, and their arrival in Ketchikan serves as the sole standing proof that they weren’t completely bonkers when they came up with the sum total of boat, crew, propulsion, and mystical X-factors that they thought would get to bullseye on whatever target they’d aimed at. There’s a type of logical elegance to that kind of experiment: you make it, you were right. QED.
Other than being in the same alphabetic neighborhood, R2AK doesn’t get anywhere near scientific. While we had a couple of quadriplegics finish a couple years back, each team’s experiment isn’t double-blind, there’s no control group, and unless you consider racers animals, PETA would be totally ok with our testing methods. When teams apply, our team of lab coats puts them under the microscope, takes core samples, uses one of those beakers with liquid that you add a drop to and swirl around until it turns blue—when all of that fails we take a step back and try to take it all in, touch a crystal, do a yoga, and use our intuition to take in their aura. It sounds as woo-woo as it really isn’t, but each team has a specific energy that is both the cause and effect of the humans and boats that get drawn into their bid for Alaska. The teams that finished Monday come from all parts of the Chakra color wheel and enough of them have finished to span most of the rainbow of ways to do this thing. Two days into the finishers and the Ketchikan docks are a couple of unicorn farts of R2AK theories; double rainbow, what does it mean?
If you went to Benjamin Moore and picked the paint that most closely matched Team Super Friends’ R2AK aura, you’d find a mottled greenish-brown bearing the name, “Yard sale.” In an office poll undertaken during a rare honest moment in the R2AK Command Bunker, Team Super Friends was one of the unheralded favorites for their pluck, tenacity, and ability to pull their world out of the jaws of defeat time and time again with uncanny miracles of seamanship that impress us as much as the need for it causes us to scratch our heads. Sure it was incredible, but couldn’t that have been avoided?
R2AK’s lack of handicaps has been described as “run what you brung,” and Team Super Friends are three years deep into a “roam what you own” strategy for choosing vessels. Super Friends’ 2015 DNF was on a San Juan 21 with a failing centerboard. Their 2016 attempt was completed on a 50-year-old plywood sloop that was under construction all the way through the Victoria restart. This year Chris and crew decided to sail his house: an aluminum, 44’ IOR (International Offshore Rule, a class of boat that was big 40 years ago) with a deep draft, flush decks encasing six bunks and jumping jacks headroom below. If the boat he lived on was chosen by which boat was closest when he woke up with the idea, the crew was similarly selected by proximity: Chris picked four of his co-workers at Super Friends Moving (.com if you need them) and the guy who lives in the bow. Done and done.
Their win is as much about their arrival in Ketchikan as the fact that they were still friends, still super, despite the amount they had rowed on their 2×4/plywood oars. They’d moved houses before, but this is the only time they had to row one for a week and change on makeshift/make-do monster oars made from Home Depot’s Finest to propel all 24,000 pounds of the house with the efforts of three humans at a time. Other than finishing, Super Friends set a personal best for the number of groundings: 1 (down from 4) as their 9 feet of underwater touched bottom in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Superfriends rolled into a crowd of fans to claim their beer and the respectable “double bronze” 6th place finish.
On their heels was the docking in current miracle of Team Sea to Sky Sailing’s “ice blue, but warm” aura. While it doesn’t sum up their big roll North, we think it’s too funny not to share: a fan cheered for them online with the following: “OMG Go Team Sea to Sky Sailing, GOOOOOOO!!!! Love, your prison bitch mom.” ‘Ice Blue, but warm’ is the new black.
Team Sea to Sky is as much a team as it is a sailing school that put their rep and part of their season earnings on the line (and some joyously awkward dance moves online) to do something incredible. They started with a crew, a laugh, and a Hotfoot 27. Somewhere between application and race day they developed Serbian issues—a crew member was a Serbian national, living in Canada and being summoned by the powers that be due to an international transfer—he had to be at immigration on day two, missing the appointment might cause the Serbian and his Mexican wife to be deported. We have no idea how it shook out, but at the Victoria Skippers meeting, R2AK developed its first immigration policy as the skippers voted to allow Team Sea to Sky to break the rules and let the Serbian jump through the government hoops and rejoin the race. It ended up not working out, so they swapped a Serb for an Irish woman and stayed lucky all the way.
Post immigration issues, the Sea to Sky crew ice/warm divide alternately rowed (and rowed, and rowed…) and sent it when the winds finally showed. The last 24 hours took them over the 100-mile mark, with speeds peaking at 13.5 knots as they surfed downwind into the froth and away from the hot nothing of the lower course—on the frightening side of incredibly not bad for a 27-foot keelboat.
Team Wright Yachts sailed in on their Corsair 970 turning a perfect karmic circle as they docked and rang the bell; the race they finished was precisely the race they started. Given a new boat, an instruction manual, a few fallen wrenches, and the expectations of the internet—Team Wright Yachts had the high profile challenge. Do well enough to live up to the boat’s potential, not sail so hard that they damage the vessel that was on the hoof inventory for the same named broker and already for sale, and complete the build as they sailed. It’s not a joke. The first time they saw the boat was when it came out of the box on May 26th. Firsthand reports from the first time they went sailing claim their cockpit seats still had bubble wrap on them—despite how funny that is, it is 100% non-joke. Anytime you rush a product to market, there are going to be bugs to work out as you go. They stopped in Campbell River to fab up some oar stations. Once they weren’t able to set a spinnaker because they had yet to run the halyard. Details…
Fast forward to the classic R2AK sweaty nerves moment of reaching the finish line and realizing that after 750 miles you need those dock lines that a few sleep-deprived nights ago you stowed somewhere specific and forgotten. Team Wright Yachts figured it out as they went, and given how little prep time they had from inserting Tab A into Slot B, it went about how we figured: a glorious learning curve. With another year of turning the knobs and tightening the allen bolts, unless the boat sells, Team Wright Yachts 2019 will be a force to contend with.
At the hub of that astral color wheel was Team PT Watercraft: the combo of the G-32 “weirdo-maran,” the charismatically shy genius of Russell Brown, and his well-articulated but bizarrely non-racelike approach to getting to Alaska with something that approaches Jedi mind trick. Russell is less of a color than a three-dimensional mirror that only reflects the remaining chromatic bandwidth leftover from whatever of teams you happen to compare him to—that regardless of the team, Russell’s campaign seems to yin their yang. Before you dismiss the whole thing and encourage us to only eat one of those brownies next time we start typing, hang on, we’re getting somewhere that feels closer to grounded than high (also, we can’t feel our face…).
Super Friends had whatever boat they could find with whatever propulsion they could cobble; Russell spent a decade stalking a specific pair of hulls before a year of meticulous work of the highest caliber, and another year of the same after his rehearsal run in 2017. Team Wright Yachts had the raw boat speed and perfect craftsmanship but none of his preparations. Team Sail Like A Girl had a fast boat, designed and tricked out, but they also had that eye on the prize desire to win, to drive the boat tirelessly through their fatigue; Russell leapfrogged the lead more times than we care to count. Before the race even started, he knew he could be a contender in a slower than usual fleet, he raced the lower portion, then went into a mode that sailed like hell for the waking hours, and then rested the rest. The question of whether or not he could have won is engaging in the abstract extrapolation of boat speed and time, but by our analysis, his engine of talent and speed was a quart or two low on give-a-damn required to take him from a near mystical presence in the race to a contender for the crown.
Reflect Russel off of himself (completely sober over here, completely sober) and you get the lithe and smiling figure who stepped onto the dock and beamed out his declaration with an easy smile: “Today was horrible!” He had the worst experience with the smallest animals (bugs ate his face off as he tried to sleep at Dundas Island) and the best with the biggest (humpback breached all around him, including one that splashed down not 15 feet from his stern.). His days juxtaposed between faster than anyone else, in all conditions, and not moving for hours—in the last day he did over 160 miles between the daylight hours of dawn and 8 pm. What he could have done if he kept going is as impressive as it is irrelevant. He raced the race he wanted and got a day closer to the internal standard he measured himself against from his 2017 run. Did he measure up this time? No idea, but it was fun to watch.
As Day 9 hit the dark side of the moon, crews packed away their gear, dried out their auras, and started to put it all into context. Regardless of the how or the why of it, that they were here and whole was all we needed to declare that the clinical trial of their experiments had worked somewhere between well and well enough. Take a bow, go to sleep.
photo credit: Katrina Zoë Norbom