Stage 1, Day 1: Start, Gales, and the Right Turn to Nowhere

If you haven’t been, if you weren’t there, the Port Townsend start of the Race to Alaska is as magic a moment of early morning ridiculous as you could possibly imagine. 

3 AM wake up? Ridiculous. 

The thousand-fan community lining the docks in predawn camaraderie? Ridiculous. 

The Unexpected Brass Band that shows up like clockwork for the 5th year in a row? Ironic, fantastic, ridiculous.

Even if it’s the same as last year, there is nothing normal about the R2AK. 

Beyond the steadfastly random absurdity of the bleary-eyed hootenanny on the shore, imagine yourself on one of the 40-some boats trying to peel back your eyelids and claw your way to and across the starting line and into the Race to Alaska. 3 AM is early, but especially after an uncomfortable sleep, laden with anticipation. 

At best you were expecting wind, and lots of it. Race Boss and all of the forecasts were calling for gales if you waited long enough; 35 knots, delivered straight on the nose from the business end of the Pacific Ocean against the massive river of the outgoing tide. Current going out, wind heading in; it’s the classic forecast that results in massive seas that shake loose whatever you didn’t lock down. 

That happened, but later. The train of breaking waves left the station around 11 AM and sent teams and support boats alike into an “Are we ok?” Puckerfest to Alaska. Chunks would be blown, but that wouldn’t happen for hours. The first moments of R2AK’s 2024 launch sequence were a feel-good photo shoot; the shoreside and cheering masses at the starting line were treated with enough wind to fill the sails, music to fill their ears, and a prophetically red-hued “sailor take warning” sunrise. 

It was as close to magic as science would allow. 

Horns were blasted, cannons were fired, and the Race to Alaska 2024 was born.

By the time we wiped the starting line afterbirth from our eyes, the Proving Ground started living up to its name. 

Teams that were ready made it in early. Team Malolo shrugged off a sub-5-hour romp back to their Canadian homeland, not a course record, but fast and safe so who cares. Handily done for the hands-down fastest boat in the race with a crack squad sailing in their own backyard. They were in the barn in time for high tea at the Empress (unconfirmed). 

The fast and ready followed suit. Next and most notably, the sixteen feet of fury of Team Tips Up romped their Hobie 16 across for second, blasting past mathematical models of faster teams, and line honors by hours for the under 20 set. With big waves and no shelter, you can bet it was a wet one. At least prune hands, probably cold tips. 

On the other side of the dialed-in divide, more than a few teams discovered the parts of their realities that weren’t quite as ready. If the late-night construction noises on Race Eve were any indication (spoiler alert: they were) more than a few teams found the flaws in their plan and prep:

  • Team Knot So Fast made a quick pit stop within earshot of the starting line to deal with an issue that wasn’t covered in their new owner orientation. They bought their lake sailing Hobie 33 in April from a decade-long stint on a trailer from the  “little old lady who only sailed it on Sundays.” They hadn’t noticed the hole in the hull that let water into the part of the boat that was supposed to be dry. Anchor, epoxy, pray. They made it, with epoxy that is apparently still curing. 
  • Team Loose Screw played a modified version of rock paper scissors with the ocean. Turns out “water beats metal” and a wave sheared the metal bracket holding their pedal drive together. It sheared off and sank like a stone. They limped in and have already mobilized the Racer Network for a replacement. Fingers crossed. 
  • Team Boogie Barge. Holy shit and thank god…

From the jump, Team Boogie Barge’s four-person, human-powered contraption-fest was either a Bad News Bears favorite or a WTF All-Star. The first of its kind, and a concept years in the making, Boogie Barge’s boiled-down algebra is roughly: muscle + concept = fate. 

30-foot custom pedal/row catamaran, four people, no sails, self-built, big waves. What could go wrong? 

Somewhere between the all-night construction leading up to the starting line and the 6-foot waves, a weld failed on the crossbeam that served as 50% of the hardware keeping the two hulls together. Six hours in and 15 miles from the nearest shore. 

Curse words.

Waves were building, the tide was turning against them, and the weld wasn’t healing itself. Each wave flexed the boat, each one bringing them closer to breaking apart. How many more waves could they take before they transitioned from racer to rescue? Luckily it was at least one more, but it was dicey, for hours. We can’t speak for them, but we just unpuckered 15 minutes ago. 

They made it, but barely, and are looking for a welder in the greater Victoria area. Forward a contact if you have one. It takes a village. 

By mid-afternoon the fleet had separated into the teams that had rocketed/limped into Victoria before the full force of the predicted gale descended, the gaggle of wise and small vessels that buddied up in the wind-swept waiting room of Dungeness Spit (more on them tomorrow), and the three teams of pioneering yahoos who took the right turn to nowhere and spent all day walking/paddling to get just as far from the finish line as when they started. As of 5 AM of Stage One’s second day, Teams SUP N Irish, Bowen Arrow, and Hard On Port are all in various parts of the San Juan Islands, 30-ish upwind crow-flying miles between them and the 5 PM cutoff. (More on them tomorrow, too.)

As day one closed on the first day of R2AK, the proving ground had done its job of testing the limits of teams hoping to fling themselves into the unsupported wilds to the north. Limits were tested, survivable damage, bearable wetness, pucker weary, but bodies and souls intact. More teams are on the way in the first light of Day Two. We’re just getting started. 

R2AK, out.

*LATE BREAKING UPDATE: Team Hard On Port has resigned from the race as of 0700 on 6/10. No details as of yet. 

Disappointed for them, and slightly relieved for us. 750 miles of writing about a team with that name and trying to stay above even our low bar of classy? If their decision lasts more than four hours… Ok, we’re done. Hope all is ok for the Hard On Porters

*LATER BREAKING UPDATE: Team Make Fetch Happen has also resigned from the race. No news, and no Viagra jokes.

*LATEST BREAKING NEWS: Team Occam’s Laser’s boom broke but he and the boat are safely aboard a Canadian Coast Guard vessel heading into Victoria. Alex Webb was the only person aboard and is safe and sound.

Header photo by Taylor Bayly

R2ak playlist

Niche legends, Admirals of Disco, took a break from their 13-week reunion tour of midwestern casino ballrooms to drop by the R2AK virtual recording booth. Gloria and the gang dropped an adaptation of their B-side “Electric Disco” just for you.