2018 Day 6: Grinding through the land of suspended anticipation

“The longest grind”
“Pace to Alaska”
“Slog in the fog”
“The meanest miles”
“Canada: nice enough to stay”

It’s hard to say which of these printable slogans is destined for the bumper stickers that will encapsulate this year’s R2AK—but the welcome wagon of fans, R2AK alumni, local reporters, and the dockside faithful are ready to slap one onto the hind side of their coaches and wrap-up this mo-fo. R2AK finish line celebration remains on Defcon 3: beer on chill, bell and banner hovering on standby, celebratory shotguns loaded, on safety—with one finger on the tracker and the other stroking the trigger. This is Ketchikan. And the welcome wagon is 9-1-and a hovering finger away from full bell red-alert. This is not a drill.

With the leading teams on the dark side and out of cell connectivity until sometime Saturday, it’s hard to know who is more ready for a finish line: the on-deck revellers of K-Town, the increasingly fatigued citizens of Tracker Nation, or the lead teams of First Federal’s Team Sail Like a Girl and Lagopus who are still grinding it out two-knots at a time on the maple-flavoured side of the border. If the rest of us are tired, we can only imagine the “Jeebus, we have to jump on the bikes again?” levels of grumpy fatigue that the teams in the lead must be feeling on the final push. (This is the final push, right? We’ve been wrong so much this year, even the hoarse voice of our inner critic needs a lozenge.)

As the sun slipped from its overhead apex at the Ketchikan Daily News’s R2AK briefing, to the off-shoulder angle for the weekly burger night at the Ketchikan Yacht Club, to the three-hour forever dusk/three-hour forever dawn of the Ketchikan solstice, the tracker/weather checking of everyone here joined the everyone everywhere else in the “When the hell are they going to get there?” debate that has been flaming out specific sectors of the internet. Best guess: five knots, 3 am. Two and a half: eight hours after the finish line party is over. Our answer: tomorrow-ish, unless things change. Yeah, we still have no idea.

This is the first year where global warming, El Niño and the Masons have seemingly conspired to turn the known knowns into unknowns; periods into question marks. The riddle of weather is what we hoped for when we picked race dates on the transitional edge of spring and summer in the first place, but this is ridiculous. This race has had extreme wind in spurts, fog where it shouldn’t be, and calm everywhere else. For all of us at R2AK Central, and the teams that had a plan when they started this thing, hubris is a (non-gendered) bitch.

A hundred-ish miles to go and we still have no idea how things will shake out. First Federal’s Team Sail Like a Girl is holding hopeful to a symbolic lead that, despite the strength of their boat, their crew, and a national narrative that seems to set the table for females to finally live their truth on the big stage—all of that means as much as their next tack or the log they don’t see as they coax as much progress as possible out of their sled. To the end of the line, this looks to be a race in the hardest kind of slo-mo, fo-sho.

While R2AK’s beachhead forces and AK’s First City citizens check tracker and weather through the overnight and make gentle(wo)man bets on the over/under of a first finish (“I’ve got a fiver on next week.”), the two teams in the front continue to battle out the slowest moving finish line drama that neither could have expected when they hit send on their applications. Monohull on monohull action like we’ve never seen in the short history of this thing. At speeds you could count on one hand and still have fingers left to flip off the non-existent wind, as Saturday’s dawn breaks, the lead teams are less than a few puffs of actual wind from being right on top of each other. The race is still to close to call.

A horizon or two back, Team Wild Card has a quivering, white-knuckled grip on a last-bid chance to stay within striking distance of a winger = a repeat of a their ascension to glory move they pulled off a few days back when they went all in on the Texada-Lasqueti gap and found the chips in 20-knots of breeze on an ocean otherwise flat-ass calm. Veterans of Alaskan sailing, of all the teams, they have the most knowledge of the course to come and a history of taking nails out of their R2AK coffin. They gambled to the good on their experience and rocketed from fifteenth to first, and it’s looking like they’ll need to connect on another-nother endzone hail mary to have a shot at the money or the knives. It would surprise us as much as it wouldn’t if they pulled another rabbit out of their hat or alternately slipped back another horizon and got a head start on the “should’ve-could’ve” hindsight that will sit silently one barstool over for years to come. The window is closing, but fortune favors the bold, and you never know when you’re five minutes to the miracle. Time to go boys.

A tracker zoom behind the lead three, Team BlueFlash is the head of the trail pack, maxing the speed/age ratio and holding off the Aussies on Team Strait to the Pool Room’s comfort wagon. Pool Room as getting competitive too. When we last saw them, they were optimizing weight onboard and eeking out another bit of speed thanks to a program of lightening their load one bottle of wine at a time—as long as it paired well with the fish. Behind them, the Team of Superfriends is leading in the “fastest house” category, rowing and sailing all 24,000 pounds of their IOR liveaboard into the promised clean air past Bella Bella.

At the shovel end of the R2AK parade, if we had such a thing, Team Dock Rat would be putting in a substantial bid for the green ribbon of Most Improved. From high and dry aground on a beach that was further from Alaska than the starting line, R2AK’s other “house sailor” is making slow progress in the middle latitudes of the Strait of Georgia, two knots churning on the two proven strategies of the R2AK: Stay on the blue parts of the map. Grind it out for as many hours as it takes.

Whether they are racing for the knives, running from the sweeper that is, as we speak, warming up the engines in Port Townsend, or racing that damned boat next to them, this year’s R2AK sufferfest/driftorama is fraying nerves up and down the coast. With luck and wind, the lead-boats’ long slog will grind to a halt in the next 24 and sleep can happen for all of us.

Do a wind dance, scratch the backstays, chuck a coin into the sea—let’s bring them home.

photo credit: Liv von Oelreich