Stage 1, Day 2: The Little Ones Make It (Mostly), Thinly Veiled Plagiarism, and Human-Powered Suppositories.

Race to Alaska is a lot of things, but it’s at least a race. Yes to Alaska, but first prove you can get to Victoria. 

To get there, you need to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We’re public school graduates here at Race Command, but we all agree that in addition to being well-named, WTF sounds classier in its original Spanish. 

The Strait of JDF is 90 miles long and 30 miles across and is regularly assaulted by brutal weather. On top of that it’s an international border/highway that funnels a constant stream of 1,000-foot ships supplying the better part of two countries’ worth of Amazon doodads, the rest of the world with produce and petroleum, all lumbering at 30 miles an hour—two to ten times faster than any team on the course. If they could even be seen amongst the waves, small boats wouldn’t even register as a speed bump. 

Ask any member of the collective BC/Washington boating public about crossing “the Straits” and their answer will invariably land somewhere between “Don’t” and “Only if.” Ask Race to Alaska and our answer is “Sunday or Monday, regardless.”

Why do we make it mandatory in a specific time window regardless of weather? Because this might be the safest part of the whole damned thing. 

The Strait is R2AK’s intimidating and sporadically violent sorting hat. The Strait is Darwin’s bouncer; imperfect, brutal, and the best we got. Make it to Victoria and we’ll put you on the list, part the velvet ropes, and let you in. Don’t make it in time or get rescued, better luck next time. 

To misquote Sinatra: If you can make it there, you might be able to make it anywhere.

On Day One, our bouncer was in fine form. Wind was crazy, waves were violent, and teams were forced to gamble: could they make it across before the gale descended in the afternoon, or could they get closer and hope for a window on Day Two? Teams with a self-assessed combo of fast, bold, and bulletproof made a play for Victoria on Day One. With only a couple of “Thank god you made it/Juan de Fuca were you thinking?” exceptions, the fleet safely separated itself into two groups, and the ones left on the far side of the gale made a go for it today. 

Teams still out on Day Two were the small ones. None of them had more than 20 feet of length and, with the exception of Team Orca, all of them were solos: two Hobie Tandem Islands, two Angus Rowcruisers, one Santana 20’, a paddle board, a kayak, a 14-foot Laser, and 12 feet of whatever the hell Team Barely Heumann is (more on that later).

All of those understaffed Tonka toys facing the leftover slop on a slow-waning gale? Juan de Fuca. 

Most of the Lil’ Fleet spent the night holed up in the socially distanced, shitty anchorage of opportunity that is Dungeness Spit. At low tide, the sandspit offers maybe ten feet of vertical protection from the 35-knot westerlies that roared all night. When the tide came up, it was seven feet less. At that point, it offered refuge from the massive swells rolling in from all the way from the Pacific, but waves in the anchorage made sleep wet and uncomfortable. 

“I anchored off my stern, and waves sprayed where I slept.” In her 20-some years, Jolyn from Team Forget Me Knot has done most of the coast on a Hobie Tandem Island, but this was the worst she had seen. She departed with the rest around 4 AM to scoot across. It was hairy, but she passed the test and gained a new confidence in what her “team” was capable of. “It was bad, but after that, I was like ‘OK, I can handle that.” 

While details of his trip and background remain shrouded in an eponymous mystery, Team Mr X had a similar experience in the trail pack’s other Tandem Island (Jo’s was orange, his was the red one). He was spotted in the middle of the straits in good spirits, helmet on his head, sailing, pedaling, in 5-foot seas, and consumed by whatever was on his phone at the time. Whether he was navigating or Netflixing, we’ll never know. He’s Mr X; an enigma wrapped in a riddle, inside of a drysuit. He hit the docks, rang the bell, then asked how to get a fishing license. His Tandem Island has a holder for a fishing pole, complete with downriggers. His plan is to Fish to Alaska “Rockfish, maybe halibut, maybe salmon. Sashimi.”

In 2015, BC’s own human-powered circumnavigator turned small boat designer, Colin Angus developed then R2AK’d an 18-foot trimaran that has since made multiple successful/unsuccessful Races to Alaska in the years that followed. Yesterday, Team Hornblower’s “maxi cabin” variant and Team Skoftig’s pedal-powered variant made it across from Dungeness. Derek from Skoftig spent his first night (ever!) on the boat he built and then shipped from Australia. How was it in the sleeping space? “Somewhere between a coffin and a womb. Pretty comfortable!” Amazing considering the rough anchorage

Team Occam’s Laser’s Death or Glory bid for Victoria glory rodeoed its almost 14 feet of open dinghy racer almost all the way to Victoria in Day One’s sporty to terrifying sea state. Alex is an experienced sailor but lacks the BMI to counterbalance his sail for upwind performance, and he had to take a less direct route given Sunday’s massive waves and a ripping current. He made his way to a customs dock in Oak Bay on the east side of Victoria. He returned to the course on Day Two, making it to Trial Island before he capsized, breaking his boom and a water-tight hatch in the process. A mariner, third-generation Victoria sailor, and member of the Canadian Navy he crawled onto the upside-down hull, called for a rescue, and was delivered to the finish with a broken boat but unbroken spirits. Harrowing, but none the worse for wear. Our guess is he’ll be back, maybe even on a boat that’s big enough to make it. 

Then there were Teams SUP N Irish and Bowen Arrow who looked at the forecast, and given just one night braved R2AK’s northwest passage. Rather than turning left after the Port Townsend starting line, they went north, hit the beach at Whidbey Island, slapped wheels on their SUP and kayak, and pulled them and all their gear the three road miles to Penn Cove then paddled all day to avoid the worst of the slop in the Strait. We loved it. 

Is it legal? Yes, human-powered all the way. 

Was it smart? More complicated. 

While they avoided the worst of the weather, they added tens of miles to their trip and eventually were too far to get anywhere near the Victoria finish line. When the 5 PM curtain closed on Stage One’s second day, the two of them had paddled over 65 miles to never get closer than 25 miles of the finish line. They started 32 miles from Victoria. 

Gut punch. 

Was it the right decision? Who knows, but it was a cool idea until it wasn’t. Both of them enter the R2AK annals as DNF (Did Not Finish) but enter our hearts as the rockstars who were first to try. In something that we definitely wrote ourselves, these guys took the road less traveled, and that made all the difference, but this time in a bad way. 

This leaves us with Stage One’s final finisher: Team Barely Heumann; the can-do, human-powered anomaly that is rapidly rocketing into low-key fame as the hands-down, fan-favorite, best-version-of-slow amazing. 

Let’s start with his boat. No way around it, it’s weird. 

12 feet long, the production-built Nauticraft Escapade is a pedal craft that strikes the eye as a charismatic cross between a floating set of ski goggles and a human-powered suppository. We mean all of it, and especially the charismatic part. We don’t know how, but it looks like it’s smiling.

For people who care about the quaint and official, other versions of Team Barely Heumann’s self-contained capsule have delivered adventurers to the pedal-powered speed record across the English Channel. 

Golf clap. 

Call us gluten intolerant, but what Jim just did over the last 36 hours seems more impressive than the milk run between scones and croissants: 60 plus miles in five to six-foot waves in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, without support, nestled in everything he needs to exist for the next month or so. Sure he was last, more than a day later than the front of the pack. The Nauticraft toddles along at 3 knots, and only when you pedal. All of that wind in the Strait, and Jim’s 71-year-old frame just kept pushing. Waves were big, twice as tall as his boat, he’d disappear in the trough and pop back up on the other side. He’d surf down some, bash into others, and eventually learn that he needed to take them at 45-degree angles to keep it going and not roll over. After the trip to Dungeness’s relative protection, Jim spent hours (HOURS!) pedaling in mostly the wrong direction in order to keep the waves at a survivable angle. 

When he hit the dock in Victoria, Team Barely Heumann got the largest cheer of them all. 

Is he continuing? “I think I’ll keep going, but I’ll let you know.” All around him, teams were making repairs to everything. How did he fare on the smallest boat in the fleet? “I almost lost my hat.”

Open docks in Victoria today from 12 to 6 PM. Misquoting Sinatra again: if you can make it here, you should. Today is your last chance to rub elbows with the teams, shake hands with some incredible humans, and shake your head at what some people consider a good time. 

Race starts tomorrow, high noon. 

Race to Alaska, out. 

No idea how he did it, but aspiring Juan de Fucan hip-hop icon, Lil’ Breezy somehow convinced Jazzy Dee to squash their decades-long beef and dropped this fresh new cut. Word to your mother.

Header photo by Taylor Amble