Stage 2, Day 7: Cash, Knives, and Two Buckets of Nothing

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TL;DR: Three teams worth of stories from the front of the pack finished today and we gave out prizes. Buckle up and stay hydrated—this is a long one. Sorry, and you’re welcome. 

Since R2AK1, the Alaska Fish House in downtown Ketchikan has served as landing pad for finishing racers, waiting room for loved ones and expectant fans, and supplier of camaraderie and “Welcome to Done” sustenance with some of the hands-down best fish and chips we have ever eaten. On the night of Day 6, the Fish House hosted the 8th edition of the only official finish line awards party possible for a race whose finishers stagger in over a three-week period. But tonight, for a fleeting moment, the top four finishers were in the same room before scattering to the winds in the coming days. Team Malolo was given their first-place winnings in the traditional form—100 crisp Benjamin Franklins nailed to a piece of firewood with an outlandishly large spike. 

Why is this a tradition? Why is this firewood different from all other firewoods?

From the Book of R2AK, 1:15: 

Race Boss said onto the masses, “We shall nail $10,000 to a tree in Alaska and see who gettest it.” And lo, they did race. Racers could not come to the tree, for there was much difficulty, and it was brought to them. And so it is written, and so it shall be. 

Or something.

Less holy and closer to true, someone thought it was funny and it stuck. Eight years in and there’s $80K in US currency floating around with an R2AK-sized hole in Franklin’s nose. 

In front of Ketchikan, god, and everyone, Team Malolo got the log and the money, Team Brio got the steak knives. Teams Hullabaloo and Stranger Danger (the latter landed within minutes of the party starting) both held the impressive, empty honor of being the first teams to not win anything. To commemorate this, they were awarded with a bucket of nothing. An actual empty bucket. R2AK AF.

Insult to injury, they had to give the bucket back at the end of the night. It was on loan from the Fish House. Malolo got to keep the firewood. To the victors go the spoils. 

It was a night of revelry between teams, families of teams finishing soon, local news, local fans, and at least a few members of the R2AK’s Tracker Nation who had flown in specifically to bask in Ketchikan’s finish line glory. And. It. Was. Glorious. 

In the hours (minutes) that happened prior to their Fish House log/knife/bucket ascension, Teams Brio, Hullabaloo, and Stranger Danger had hit the dock, rang the “bell,” and started unpacking—first their stories, then their boats in the dockside boat belch of all the gear below on to the dock that seems de rigueur in the process of shifting from racing machine back to the real world. Stories piled out with similar frequency, all day: 

05:19. Team Brio’s second-place finish can only be described as equal parts improbable, well-earned, and righteous. Team Brio was a pickup crew, built off of R2AK veterans Doug Walker (Team Swan Song, 2018) and Karl Krüger (Team Heart of Gold, 2017), the only person to successfully SUP the R2AK. The two had been planning a joint effort for years, and found willing collaborators in wooden boat sailor turned nav software rep Daniel Joram and Great Lakes multihull technician Matt Scharl. Experience, talent, brains, and skill—a solid portfolio for your R2AK fantasy league draft. One catch: they’d never met. 

That’s a lie. They did meet. It was Wednesday, two weeks ago. “The first time we were all in the same place was four days before the Port Townsend start.” To be fair, they did have a Zoom call prior to that. One. We’re told that in the world of professional sailing, this might not be weird. Game recognizes game, and we’re told that for the grown dogs of the America’s Cup puppy mills, this type of assignment is some portion of normal. The jobs onboard pro-race boats are more or less known, there’s a common language, culture, and sets of expectations. You’re Cog Six, get to work.

To a person, Team Brio’s crew of mutts lacked both the pedigree and the training to muscle memory R2AK’s off-leash area, let alone any chance at Best in Show. Riding this metaphor until we have to have it fixed, when Team Brio shoved off for Stage One they didn’t even know if everyone onboard was housebroken, let alone if/how they would hang together when they were four days in, sleep-deprived in rough conditions (foreshadowing).

Then there was the boat. Doug and Team Swan Song Raced to Alaska on the same Corsair F-28CR in 2018, then put the boat on the trailer and hadn’t touched it since.

Mothballed boat, untested crew, what could go wrong?

Turns out, not much. 

It could have been disastrous. Alchemists spent centuries trying to turn lead into gold, TikTok spent weeks turning Mentos and Diet Coke into face eruptions; there’s a rap sheet a mile long of failed experiments of thrusting dissimilar elements together in the quest for fame and fortune—especially in the R2AK. This thing is a proven accelerator for friendships. But also divorce. 

Team Brio’s come-from-behind second-place finish is a testament to the fact that while you can’t conjure gold out of a sow’s ear, with the right attitude you can turn Spam into Musubi. Over their Race to Alaska, Team Brio didn’t just avoid self-destruction but learned, gelled, and musubied themselves from an also-ran anecdote to second place steak knives with authority. Their philosopher’s stone: trust in each other. 

You can track their learning curve in their progress, catching then overtaking teams in the past few days. Seriously run it back, it’s fun to watch. Early in the race, still figuring it out. By the end, they were a well-honed machine, each crew member realizing which cog they were and turning in unison. Their words on the dock were for appreciation of each other. “I spent 5 days and 14 hours learning what these sails were supposed to do.” By their accounts, Matt is a trimaran whisperer and a natural coach who tweaked and taught the rest of them. “No question, I’m a better sailor because of him. I just had a Clinic to Alaska.” A mathematically slower boat to several, they won on the strength of their crew

Team Brio’s hidden story is as vulnerable to tell as it is important. In 2018, Doug sailed as Team Swan Song as a 74-year-old with a fresh and aggressive cancer diagnosis. Swan Song wasn’t a hyperbole, it could have been his last. Five years later and he’s cancer-free, almost 80, and still able to rock the oars. “I rowed at Syracuse, so I have the technique.Doug is our oldest participant by years, and our oldest steak knife winner by 14. Seeing the spectrum of exhausted, much younger faces cross the finish line over the years, Doug’s near-octogenarian energy and joy, was palpable and inspiring. His quote from the finish line: “I haven’t really slept in 36 hours, but couldn’t possibly go to sleep now. I’m too wound up!”

09:11. Just hours later, Team Hullabaloo’s finish line was a markedly different scene. They finished, belled, beered, then the world fell away as they began a measuredly frenzied debrief with Team Brio about all the tacks and tactics that brought them to the finish line—and with good reason: these were teams in the tightest hand-to-hand combat to hit the beach this side of Normandy, but especially in this year’s race to date. 

A day or so before, from Aristazabal Island to Dixon Entrance, Hullabaloo and Brio had locked horns in a tacking battle that was every bit as close in reality as it looked on the tracker. 37 tacks in 100 miles, they counted. Tack, bait, cover, sail change, tack, cover, etc, for a full eight-hour night shift of upwind sailing. It was a close-quarter fight for the knives that is/will be discussed ad nauseam in the sailing world’s online forums for weeks. The difference between the armchair online chat and the docks yesterday—these guys were there. 

On the dock, at the finish, the fusion of sleep-deprived adrenaline plus fresh memory recency yielded the kind of sailor-to-sailor chatter rarely experienced unless you were in the race. It was like hearing a debrief of the intricacies of D-Day, but no one died and it was just sailing.

To be dockside at 9 AM and change arrival of Team Hullabaloo’s finish was to be inside of a tactician’s waking wet dream. If you love the details of sail trim, backstay tension, wind shift math, and helm positions, who should have beat whom if we used the standard racing handicaps, how those handicaps don’t matter in a sailing race that doesn’t care about them—especially in a year where teams biked for 20% of the course (150 miles!), you would have liked to be on the Ketchikan dock for the 57 conceptual minutes between Team Hullabaloo finish and breakfast. It was like Comicon for sailors, a bleary-eyed collaborative TED Talk in foul weather gear for the most informed. Our livestream cut out before the juiciest dry bits, but if this turns your crank, you should demand a subject-matter-specific podcast from the two of them. #passingthebuck #neverstoplearning

17:36. Team Stranger Danger

If you’re still reading, consider us impressed. That was a lot, clearly you’re reading at or above grade level. Gold star. 

You are out of attention, our keyboard is out of keys, and rather than lure you into the windowless van’s worth of Team Stranger Danger’s R2AK, we’re going to cliffhanger their part until tomorrow when they will likely share the written stage with Team Natural Disaster and possibly Team Narrows Minded. At time of writing both are rocketing north at the speed of stoned Tai Chi—1.8 knots. Team Natty D should be in sometime this evening, Narrows Minded sometime in the oui hours Thursday. 

Sorry, and you’re welcome.


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Header photo by Team Wicked Wily Wildcats. Video by Tori Lee.