Day Done: A Letter from the Race Boss

Field Report
photo: Team Pure and Wild by Thomas Hawthorne

First things first: without the huge support from our Presenting Sponsor—Fisheries Supply—and Mustang Survival, First Fed, The Ketch, Marine Exchange of Puget Sound, Ketchikan Visitor Bureau, Baranof Fishing Excursion, Outpost Ag, British Columbia Ministry of Tourism, MapTiler, and Victoria Harbor Authority this race would be very different and not nearly as awesome. Huge thanks to them for believing in all of us.

It’s a loosely held point of pride to Alaskans that Alaska is big. If it was sumo wrestling, it would have Texas and its four cousins—Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico—by the silk loincloth, pointy ends buried into the rice straw mat by the time it takes to write this. The salmon, hauled into boats with such quantity you’d think they were running upstream, are commonly mistaken for Leedsichthys. And brown bears don’t rummage in garbage cans in Alaska; they peel tops off of houses, looking for soft bits inside. In fact, I rotated the paper to write this update because, in Alaska, you only write in landscape. I know you’re thinking, “that’s over the top,” but don’t be ridiculous. Over the top in Alaska involves risking collision with low orbiting satellites.

Everything said here is true enough because being in Alaska and the BC Coast makes you want to embrace big things; it invites you to be part of big, witness big, and believe in big. 

Logs were big this year. And Numerous. And Everywhere. Mother Nature chose June to become a logger, moving every available timber upstream or downstream and making a mess of race teams throughout the route. Each person I spoke with had a log story. I have never written the word ‘log’ so much in my life. The record-chasing solo hopeful Team Pestou turned back after the fourth log strike made it too dangerous to continue. Pturbodactyl fell to the logs too. And Malalo. Malalo, the odds-on favorite going up the Inside Route—log. It was brutal.

Only 53% of the teams who toed the line made it to Ketchikan, and while many chose to find their own personal finish line somewhere besides Ketchikan, some of those ‘finishes’ were heartbreaking. Katy (Razzle Dazzle), a four-time finisher of R2AK, capsized in the first two hours of the race. Doug of Perseverance was forced to call it quits in Port Hardy, for the second time in two races, after too many upwind days and a design flaw in his boat. Lillian, R2AK alum of Team Interstice, couldn’t square the desire to go home with the lack of desire to keep on to Ketchikan and left the race at Bella Bella. For an R2AK first, not a single solo racer completed the race. 

Since 2015, it’s been an honor to see this race become part of the bigger coastal storyline, and though the question of whether the west coast route is faster still lingers, Team Pure and Wild forged a pioneering path to finish days before the next team. In their wake was the surprising duel for steak knives brought on by some fantastic sailing from Fashionably Late, who not only had designed their own drink and accompanying playlist, but served tea while underway. In teacups. 

Dueling happened to be a thing in 2022. After the flurry for steak knives and all the teams who trailed in that day, major race milestones were decided on the dragstrip of Revillagigedo Channel as teams made final pushes into Ketchikan; human-power, 10th place, and the Final Finisher were all decided in that last stretch. Team Mustang Survival’s Rite of Passage, though having to settle for 9th place, is now the youngest team to ever complete R2AK, at an average age of 16.75. And the crowds went wild.

I relish the moments when racers’ experiences intersect with those of us who support and cheer on the race. Yesterday, Sockeye, of Sockeye Voyages, told me how his team was hailed over to a boat on a distant island. They knew about the race, loved it, in fact, and offered “if they could help in any way.” Sockeye replied with a common racer refrain, “Water or food!”

Bella Bella was a waypoint for some but became a mid-race sanctuary for others. Even as the Heiltsuk community wrestled with the complexities of reemerging from the last two years of COVID, they opened their hearts and homes to teams. With tremendous respect and gratitude, we thank them.

Support works the edges of this race. The effort and participation from staff, volunteers, tracker followers, fans, friends, and families often meet the rhythm of race teams; work, support, viewing, and celebrating happening with the tempo of the race, not a clock on the wall. And we’re all there ‘til it’s done. Sockeye Voyages was the Final Finisher at over 21 days, and still, almost 500 people viewed their finish online in real-time.

Between the start gun and the final bell, patterns of adventure emerged. Breaking points happen up and down the coast, and the danger is real. It’s a choice to take this on, and amid the stories of breaching whales and pristine anchorages, the subtext of struggle exists. Crew cry themselves to sleep or yell at their loved ones. Racers live at the edge of their capacities because it’s that rim of existence where you meet the person you are and even the person you hate to be. I’m frequently asked, “Why are there no classes in the race? You should do more to celebrate the small boats and the human-powered and solo racers.” It’s a small slice of racer that comes to R2AK with “first to Ketchikan” (or first to whatever) in mind. We’re not writing stories here. We’re trying to tell them. All we can offer is a landscape so big it’s humbling, a challenge more audacious than it should be. A race defined only by a start and end point. Everything in between is up to this whole cast. We are all so used to rules that we need to remind ourselves the world will take us as we are, without limits. Where our best is authentically our best.

I love this race so much; the community that surrounds it is full of so many kindred spirits and so much love. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. So grateful for this opportunity to put all of my talents to use in a way that challenges me to my utmost, and to feel connected to and supported by the far-flung R2AK family while doing it. Thanks for making it happen; it’s truly changed my life. 

–Leigh Dorsey, from the rowing team Don’t Tell Mom.

2022 ends as it began. Celebration, disappointment, resolution, and grace. The bigness of this race lives within us. We invite it. Because there will come a time when you are tired of talking about a thing and just must do it. Thank you to the world of watchers, doers, and dreamers for finding a way to rekindle the best of life. 

Thank you for Race to Alaska.

Daniel Evans, Race Boss

Video by Zach Carver. Camera by: Lucas Gardner, Lynnette Oostmeyer, Zach Carver, Julian Laffin, Heidi Baxter, Liz Harpold, Ashlyn Brown, Team Fashionably Late, Team Kootenay Pedalwheelers, Team Loustic SuperSonic. Music: I Just Wanna Be Great (Instrumental) by NEFFEX, Flames by Dan Henig

Field Report: The Solos

By Lynnette Oostmeyer, Field Reporter