There are the still moments in every life when you stare into the precipice of possibility, toe up to the edge, and peer over the cliff of the unknown. It’s not the day you leave for college, get married, join the army, start chemo—it’s the day, hour, and 15 minutes before; the resigned and the fleeting finite between you and the whatever irreversible-maybe that is bigger than you. The staring down the ski jump, waiting room moment before the next big thing is filled with the twitchy and resolved excitement of a quarter horse too long in the gates. You rattle around a little; sick of confinement, nervous about the release, wide-eyed and resolute to the course ahead, ready to run. In all the ways it could the energy of consuming anticipation ran high and then higher on the docks in Victoria.
The time between teams’ Stage One arrival in Victoria and Stage Two’s high noon departure runs an arc. Teams punch their emotional passport with stops in late night celebration, stress/elation based consumption of alcohol and other marine supplies, retail and more standard hangovers, and the last minute fiddling that, regardless of scale of the issue, takes 5 minutes longer than time allows. After a year or more of preparation, two days of repairs and reflection, today was the same kind of different of all the starts that have come before.
10:00 am: In the last hours of pre-race existence, teams harnessed/accommodated their nerves by futzing, fixing, and last minute buys. Team Funky Dory ran for a last minute bottle of rubbing alcohol, Team North2Alaska sent a fan on a mission of mercy for toilet paper and Tums. Team Holopuni relashed their epoxy to relaminate a crossbeam that was parting ways with itself. An electric grinder was grinding metal, Christian from Team Try Baby Tri was rewiring his electrical system at 11:40. You know, last minute things.
11:45 am: Docks were cleared of civilians and last hugs, kisses, and the well wishes offered from loved ones had the layers of everything: encouragement, love, fear for safety, preemptive longing, and the knowledge that the experiences between here and Ketchikan might make them further apart while the racers got closer to each other and themselves and somehow farther from the rest of the regular world. In a lot of ways, you don’t come back from the Race to Alaska.
11:50 am: Racers gathered under a statue of Captain Cook’s bronze and skeptical gaze. Families and loved ones wandered their teary eyes into the gathered crowd of the thousand-plus fans, press, and the ‘What are all these people looking at?’ curious, who when getting the explanation inevitably blurted something between “That’s crazy,” and, “In that thing?” At 11:51 Team Watertight Instant Paradise was first to the statue’s rally point. An affirmative answer to, “Are we in the right place?” was soon followed by, “So, that means we win this part?”
11:55 am: Bells and horns launched the five minute countdown. Team Angry Beaver lined up shot glasses on some sort of snow ski apparatus. Selfies were taken, bibles were quoted with an unknown mix of irony and sincerity, chants, hi-fives, one last motivational speech from the Race Boss, 5-4-3-2-1.
12:00 pm: Horns and bells started the cheers of hundreds of spectators as shoed and barefooted teams bounded the stairs, jumped the railings, and ran down the docks to jump in their boats to human power out of Victoria’s harbor. The harbor churned the hard core hilarious kind of froth as everything from Team Shut-up and Drive’s four pro-cyclists pushed their racing sailboats with twin tandems and pro-cyclists, to Team Ziska whose wooden oars moved twelve tons of wood and more wood into the wind that hardly came soon enough for their sweaty crew.
Within minutes of the start, Stage Two lost its first team. The last standing member of Team AlphaWolf decided that he didn’t have enough crew to do the race successfully. He was supposed to be one of three, but now it was just him and the trip to Vic was the first time any of them had sailed the boat. He ran the stairs, then got lunch across the street. AlphaWolf, party of one.
In what has become an R2AK tradition, teams crossed the starting line and raised sails into the lightest of winds at the Victoria Harbor mouth. Thanks to light conditions and superiort conditioning, the downeast rowing dynamo onboard Team Backwards AF sprinted ahead into an early lead— rowing the only solely human-powered vessel still remaining after the Proving Grounds. Their steady oars held off the competition for the better part of 12 miles, and kept their rowboat in the top five until they had to turn in for the night.
As the lead boats headed to Haro, the winning math changed from 1 = muscle, to sail area + waterline = faster, and Teams Pear Shaped Racing, Angry Beaver, and Givin’ the Horns passed around the lead like a cold sore at a middle school dance. Facing a half-hearted forecast and changing tide, teams were faced with the first strategic choice: inside and the shorter straight-line, or the out and around gamble for the El Dorado promise of clearer wind in the Strait of Georgia. The tide was changing, there were hours to go until the tide turned the currents southbound; would the wind appear, and where?
Team Angry Beaver followed Pear Shaped Racing into the islands, effectively cutting the corner of the trackline being followed by all the teams that stayed in the big water east of Saturna. The wind was light to absent, and after the big trimaran turned up Trincomali, the Beavers headfaked, then ducked onto the moving sidewalk of Active Pass’s 5 knots of favorable current, and rocketed into the lead. After the wind snickered and glassed off inside, Team Pear Shaped Racing followed suit.
Other than Team Shut up and Drive chatting amongst themselves as they pedaled the length of the Gulf Islands, the small boat navy, and the visual dissonance of Team Razzle Dazzle, most of the rest of the pack stayed outside on the promise of clear air. It paid off. Team Givin’ the Horns’ dark horse bid for glory took the lead for several hours while the scratch boats were stuck in the islands. It’s a long race with a million wins and losses between Victoria and Ketchikan, but the Horn boys were at least 1-0 as darkness fell on day one. At the dawn of Day 2, they’re still in striking distance—both to the teams in the lead and to the seemingly record level minefield of driftwood that crews are weaving through. Record tides are lifting and launching the driftwood fleet in force, a conscription of sorts into nature’s navy that looks hell bent on defending Alaska by any means necessary. That we launched Stage Two on D-Day is not lost on us.
At time of posting 35 teams are still hard at it, the leaders are sailing into a twelve-hour forecast of headwinds ranging in strength between a bird fart and a low setting ceiling fan. The gaps will close, pedals will rage, and Seymour Narrows will have to wait a little longer.
24 Hour Fact Sheet
2 hours 5 minutes: number of hours Backwards AF was in the lead (11 miles)
3: number of times lead has changed hands
78 miles: Distance between leaders and last place as of midnight
1/2 mile: Distance between leaders at time of writing (Pear Shaped Racing and Angry Beaver)
25 miles: Distance between 3rd and 4th place at time of writing (Givin’ the Horns and Sail Like a Girl)
1: Number of teams that completed Stage One but did not start Stage Two (AlphaWolf)
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