A tough adventure: Race to Alaska

Just recently I bumped into a boating event that really aroused my imagination and fantasy. It’s a long (750 nm) proving course for self-reliant, un-assisted boats. There are very few rules and the most important one is no engine onboard. You can sail, row, or paddle your boat in 50 degrees waters in one of the most difficult and beautidul scenario on earth.

The R2AK ( Race to Alaska ) is possibly one of the toughest races ever. The organizer is Northwest Maritime Center, “a 501c-3 non-profit committed to engaging people in the waters of our world in a spirit of adventure and discovery“. The spirit of adventure must be high in order to participate to this event. The possible dangers range from low water and air temperature, wildlife  encounters (bears and killer whales), squalls, strong tidal streams and marine traffic.

The modest prize for the winner (10k USD) will keep the stardom of professionals boaters with expensive gear/requirements out of the competition. The sum it’s still some interesting money so will attract a lot of DIY boaters and dreamers with small modern and traditional crafts. This could be dangerous as the money prize may push unexperienced and unfit people to try something out of their skills. To avoid that, the organizers divided the race in two parts: the first qualifier leg from Port Townsed, WA to Victoria, BC will offer a callenging 40 nautical miles open water crossing in the reach of rescue squads; entrants who qualify for this stretch are admitted to the full race which is 710nm from Victoria BC to Ketchikan, AK and where you will be on your own.

For this second leg there is not a predetermined course. The only two obligatory waypoint are Seymour Narrows (a treacherous channel famous for strong turbulent tidal currents) and Bella Bella. The participants choose their route, which can be in the open ocean or following the Inside Passage, so the strategy and the type of boat will be the key factors.

During the summer the prevailing winds blow from the NW, on the nose, but generally light and variable when storms and rain come from the SW. Offshore the southern branch of the North Pacific Current (California Current) is unfavorable until boats reach half of the course and encounter the favorable north branch, Alaska Current, but in order to take advantage of oceanic currents boats would have to sail far from land.  On the Inside Passage route entrants have to face strong tidal currents, rivers and any kind of coastal hazard, and possibly have to cover a bigger distance.

Under this unpredictable and generally adverse conditions the organizers are expecting a minimum of 3 weeks for the first boat to reach Ketchikan in Alaska. Around that time a “Sweep boat”will leave Port Townsend and covering 75 miles per day, will disqualify each participant reached, offering a tow and assistance. If their estimation is correct it means that the winner will move at an average speed of 1,5kts. This estimation include possible layover time for rest/provisioning, which is not forbidden unless the help is prearrenged by a team. Entrants could land and find assistance, repair the boat, camp and hunt/fish along the way (beware of Grizzlies!), or book a night in a hotel, provided it’s not pre-arranged.

Endurance is going to be the vital skill to win. The boat who can achieve steady progress in the variable conditions of the race has the best chances of victory. This mean the boat shouldn’t stop overnight keeping a crew member on watch all the time. Constant but little progress will pay in the long term and to do so boats need a crew of at least tw0, a shelter for cooking and resting, and enough storage capability to carry water and food for the entire race. You look for maximum light air performance if you sail, and the ability to propel the boat without an engine in adverse wind conditions (tide stronger than wind).

This is what makes the Race to Alaska so exciting. Beside the extreme weather conditions and the challenging course what really triggers my interest is the fact that so many different boats will compete. I am sure that will push people to invent some new boat designs and build interesting hybrids, using classic boats that where designed when engines were not an option. It’s not even 150 years since the first engine was installed on a boat, and humans have been sailed all over the planet for thousands of years without one.

So which boat will be the winner of the first Race to Alaska? No one knows, the course conditions are unpredictable and for sure we are going to see many different crafts on the starting line. Here I enjoyed playing and I imagined different boats types compete for the first place:

1. Sailing trimaran

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Trimarans have a very good overall sailing speed, they can be fast in light airs, but difficult to paddle/row and subjected to drifting in non favourable wind condition.

 2. Sailing Tri-canoe

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This concept is becoming pretty popular among camping/cruisers for the wide range of uses in different conditions. Shallow draft, light air performance and paddles. Beside some series production most are custom built assembling different crafts. The double handed designs are usually very light and with minimum space for provisions and gear, but it’s not impossible to customize or even build a more heavy duty version to fit this race.

 3. Yawl-canoe and dories

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There are a lot of classic canoe/skiff/dory designs that can be sailed and rowed, and can accomodate two people plus gear for a non-stop trip. Traditional working crafts are epitomes of seaworthiness. For sure we are going to see a lot of them at the starting line.

4. Kayak? (Freya Hoffmeister will think this race is a piece of cake for what she has done so far)

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Slower but virtually unstoppable, with daily average of 30-50 miles per day can make it a possible winner if sailing crafts encounter adverse conditions. a bigger tandem kayak would allow for overnight sleeping altough not a comfortable one.

5. Viking longship?

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Big crew, shelter (and shields!), it can be sailed and rowed. Bear coats foulweather gear included

6.Row boat/canoe?

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As for kayakers these crafts may be slower but virtually unstoppable. Designs offer lightweight boats with shelters and a potential big crew. I wonder what might be the best balance between crew number/overall weight.

7. Traditional First Nations Canoes

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First Nations of British Columbia Coast have been invited by the oganizers. Hopefully they didn’t forget their traditions and should still have the knowledg of the race course and the necessary skills to survive and complete the race.

 8. Mod70 Oman Trimaran

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Probably the fastest racing boat on earth (ocean), even in rough conditions. In 24hrs of favourable winds she  can cover more than half the total distance. We won’t see this boat on the starting line, but a fast performance bluewater sailboat can really be competitive in this race taking the outside route and hoping for the best.

4 thoughts on “A tough adventure: Race to Alaska”

    1. Thanks fot the comment, I am glad you like my post. You are making possible for many people to live a very mind blowing adventure, congratulations!

  1. Great blog about an exciting adventure race! I have no experience in similar waters or currents. However, I suggest a three person crew on a Thistle with oars and alternative small sails or current class dimension sails with reefs would have the best all around potential. Light air sailing ability, yet maneuverable around rocks under oars. And finally, the minimum space needed for gear and provisions where one crew is always sleeping.

    1. Thistles look like pretty nice boats, I have never seen one. I still think a canoe trimaran is the way to go, but hey, the race is so open.
      Thanks for the contribution Bret!

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