photo: Team Elsewhere by Thomas Hawthorne
There are plenty of ways to Race to Alaska. Brute strength, brilliant tactics, and reveling in the full experience of the coastline are at least a few. If you take it on faith that Team Pure and Wild’s winning time is the extreme end of proficiency, the teams that crossed the line in the last 24 hours have biggie-sized ingenuity and fun, with a serious side dish of sailing the shit out of everything this coastline had to offer. One of them won steak knives, all of them laughter and glory. In the small hours of the late night/early morning, the vanguard of R2AK’s big spirit teams crossed the line.
First across: Team Elsewhere, who were welcomed by the full force of K-town enthusiasm, and for at least a few, it was a full force to be reckoned with. There was the cheering crowd and local media who met them on the docks, the unnamed local who took issue/took up advocacy with the whale watch boat that crossed the Thomas Basin finish line moments before the race team (“You blocked them! They’re finishing the Race to Alaska, and you got in their way! I know your boss. I’m calling him right now…!”), and the cheering crew of that same yelled-at vessel whose cheers’ source code was an unknown mix of genuine enthusiasm and/or demonstrative performance to placate the crazy fan.
Team Elsewhere crossed the line 6 days, 6 hours, and 32 minutes after their start in Victoria, and their can-do skills and attitude were the embodiment of what the R2AK was created to celebrate. The sum total of competent mariners, solid boat, and the boat-centered life hacks that take you from streetside anonymous to second to Alaska in six days and change—if R2AK-famous could be obtained through enthusiasm and seat-of-the-pants engineering alone, Team Elsewhere would be perennial champions.
Sure there were unprecedented levels of driftwood whose damage shrank the fleet to a winnable size, but from the jumpoff, it was clear that the secret sauce of Team Elsewhere’s success lay somewhere between their unbridled enthusiasm and their ability to innovate on budget. Whether they knew it mid-task, Team Elsewhere life-hacked Team Pure and Wild’s champagne systems on a Miller Lite budget.
What do we mean? There’s an old story about the US space program that gets as close as we can muster. The 1960s space race spent millions developing a pen that didn’t rely on gravity to function so that the astronauts could write in the zero-gravity of outer space. They spent millions on this. The cosmonauts? They used a pencil.
TPW was filled with ace and pro sailors with medals, bankroll, and an all-pro vessel pedigree to their name. They had a project manager and an onboard oven for cookies (or whatever). Team Elsewhere was a round-down, working-class, pencil-lead, and two-days-slower version of the same program. Team Elsewhere also went outside, but rather than a custom design from the PNW’s America’s Cup design wizard, they raced an off-the-shelf 33’ racer that was also their sail instruction money maker/sometimes residence. Their Soverell 33 is a cult-revered war machine; fast, obtainable, and currently employed as a dinner-roll-sized breadwinner doing charters in the San Juan Islands. Team Elsewhere took that solid, unpretentious platform and innovated the hell out of it to bootstrap themselves to Alaskan glory.
While they might have been an inequitable two days slow for the money, their record-setting innovation—the first ever (that we know of) inboard pedal drive—is as brilliant as it’s totally in the way.
Rather than hanging a pedal drive off the stern or a flex drive off the side like everyone else, Team Elsewhere removed their inboard diesel, welded on a longer shaft, and fabricated a V-Twin tandem system in the middle of the main salon. Never seen it before, might never see it again, but it allowed their crew to propel the boat while sheltered down below, away from the elements, at speeds up to 3.5 knots—all while the Russian bass music (whatever that is) raged on the boat’s sound system.
Like the winners, Team Elsewhere froze premade meals, but instead of only chili, lasagna, pizza, and chicken fingers eaten in rotation, they cooked, froze, and vacuum-sealed individual and varied meals to keep their calories and spirits up. To eat they’d simply steam the bag. Low fuel, low cost, low mid-race prep. Each meal a different bag, a different surprise and delight. Biscuits and gravy, beef and broccoli, alfredo, and tasty etc.
More than food innovation, Team Elsewhere devised a retrofit water ballast that allowed them greater stability under greater sail area. Team Pure and Wild had movable weight with a similar effect, difference being that Team Elsewhere’s system used off-the-shelf water bladders and bilge pumps. Manufactured for wakeboard boats to load their sterns and throw off larger wakes (*shakes head, keeps reading*), the 1100 pounds of water ballast was filled into bags kept on deck, and provided windward stability to allow the boat to carry more sail while going upwind (a concept explained in the update of Team Pure and Wild’s winning finish) but at a fraction of the cost.
Each time they tacked, Team Elsewhere would move these bladders through a Home-Depot-rigged, seventeen-step process that included them partially flooding their engine compartment, then pumping that water into the wakeboard water bags on deck that were clipped to the boat with straps that then had to be adjusted as the bags filled. “If you didn’t pay attention and loosen the straps in time, the bags turned into these weird Tootsie Roll things.” To tack, the bags needed to be drained manually, undoing the straps, moving to windward, and starting the whole process over again. Tacking the boat took around 20 minutes—something that was possible with the longer stretch of the outside route, but would’ve been impossible on the inside. “It was a lot of work” … and they were intentionally flooding their boat so that they could then pump it into their ballast. Sinking your boat on purpose even a little bit is super questionable, and brilliant enough to nab the knives. Bravo Zulu, you hardscrabble heroes of Ketchikan.
Following not quite as closely on the heels as bleary-eyed and adoring fans of Ketchikan would have liked, Team Fashionably Late pedaled into town in time for an 11:16 PM AKDT arrival. It was late, and while they were too late for the steak knives, their arrival in Ketchikan was… wait for it… fashionably late.
Mission accomplished: dad joke complete.
As anyone paying attention would have expected, they stepped onto the dock to ring the bell in matching outfits (bowties included), pinkied up, and stepped into Ketchikan with fan-provided cocktails served in bone china teacups. There is no way we could make this up. We’re not that clever.
Despite being the first team to finish and not win anything, their spirits were predictably high. “First inside boat!” the dock shouted and high-fived thanks to an adoring hype-man from Team Elsewhere, who later admitted was mid-race motivated by TFL’s style. “I said: Guys, we’re about to be passed by a team with matching outfits!” As reigning inside champion, how did they do it? Did they miss logs that everyone else hit?
“We hit a lot.” Big, small, one of them big enough to high center their boat and requiring them to use their oars to dislodge it from their keel. They sailed hard, fashionably, and surprised themselves by how competitive they chose to be. “We really got into it!” They changed sails with wild abandon and short-tacked the eddies in the adverse current in Johnstone Strait to gain ground on the competition. Finding themselves behind in the final 60 miles, they decided to take a winger and take the less chosen, western route around Annette Island for the final approach to Ketchikan.
Did taking the less chosen path make all the difference?
But no one wins doing the same thing slower, and they needed a miracle. It didn’t happen, at least the sailing kind, but pizza and cocktails were at the dock when they arrived. Not all heroes wear capes, and not all miracles look like steak knives. Some, in fact, taste like kale-infused cocktails hailing from San Juan Island (again, we can’t make this stuff up).
As dark gave way to early morning light, the rolling dirty joke and nicotine/vegemite delivery system that is Team Vegemite Vigilantes hit the dock, lit one after another, and reveled in finishing an epic race they’d been dreaming of since the race began. Half of the team raced before in 2019, half the team were Aussies who had waited for the excuse to do the race. As they lit their next cigarette with the smoldering butt of their last cigarette, paired their next dirty joke with the smoldering butt of their last dirty joke, they grappled with the fact that while they were two boats removed from winning anything, they were at least the first across in a couple of dimensions:
- First trimaran
- First fresh R2AK tattoos to finish the race (three, one for each hull)
What was the one thing that stood out to them as a surprise from all of the years they’d been following the race?
“The cold. We watched the movie five or six times, but, “To get the full effect people should have someone throw a bucket of water on them and then watch it in the fridge.”
By the time they trundled up the ramp, the active debate was less about the race and ran closer to the middle school game of “What’s grosser than gross?” A jam jar packed with butts, or the vegemite? Only time will tell.
Also finishing today was Team Lost But Don’t Care who showed up in the “We can’t believe we’ve been up this long” o’clock hours of whatever day this is. You tell us, we’d believe you at this point. The team… they were wet or something. Us? Barely alive. You know it’s bad when a group of individuals that just spent a week slogging up the coast ask, “Do you need to go to bed?”
We did, and we did. We’ll get some sleep and do them justice tomorrow. More on their journey then.
R2AK, already out.
Field Report: Part 2: Let’s Row Maybe?
By Rebecca Ross, Field Reporter
Carling and Michelle of Team Let’s Row Maybe? have been showing everyone what they are capable of by displaying true grit, impressive determination, and the ability to catch up and keep up with other teams—Team Don’t Tell Mom, specifically. Unlike the sister duo, who appear to be more strategic and disciplined mainly because Leigh has done this before, Carling and Michelle are brand new to R2AK and experiencing a steep learning curve.
“Have you two been mentored?” I ask the two in a pre-race Zoom meeting.
“Well…” Carling begins, “Janice and Ian [Team Oaracle] let us borrow their boat. They’ve been, you know, helpful by telling us what to expect but…. no more than that.” I press for more, “Do you have a game plan?” “We’re going to have an open mind. We don’t know what’s gonna happen, but we’re gonna go and deal with things as they come.” Carling replies.
Truly her statement holds up. On day four, they rowed from 3 am to 4:30 pm to catch the tide at the right moment. Arriving at Campbell Marina, Michelle collapsed on the dock while Carling displayed a look that only someone who’s been through hell and back can give. Good god… Keep Reading