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R2AK 2023 Is Underway In The Great White North Eh?


  • R2AK 2023 Is Underway In The Great White North Eh?

    Today’s Stage 1 was unlike any other that we have ever seen. Out of the gates it was on brand, weather-driven and rowdy, then quickly went vanilla sideways.

    We’ll explain.

    To be clear, the 5am start didn’t disappoint. A full moon sunrise greeted the hundred-plus, bleary-eyed racers who exited the marina to navigate a starting sequence unlike any other. True to the instructions from the skippers’ meeting the day before, the start was marked by a series of standard preparatory flags followed by “a horn, a cannon, and a symphony,” and mostly in that order. All the teams started, mostly on time, and hundreds got up at oh-my-god-o’clock to cheer while the Ukrainian national anthem blared. In the quirk-forward character that defines Port Townsend, a local served up oatmeal to anyone who thought it was a good idea and a brass band, dancing clown, and bagpipers showed up to volunteer their own enthusiasm to the cacophony.

    Then things got weird.

    Pulling back the curtain: Stage 1 is central to R2AK’s design. An engineless, unsupported race to Alaska is a 360-degree bad idea. For racers, the wild coastline offers the chance for big weather, monster tides, and a diminishing set of resources to lean on when things go from bad to underwear-filling. Stage 1 is called Proving Grounds for well-earned reasons. Between Port Townsend and the Victoria finish is 30 miles of notoriously nasty open water filled with shipping traffic, tide rips, an international border, and 90 miles of running room for as much weather and seas the North Pacific needs in order to take out its frustrations on any boat (and whatever a paddleboard is) that catches Neptune’s ire.

    Stage 1 is the undercard fight for R2AK’s heavyweight title. With two sets of Coast Guards and Race to Alaska’s volunteer navy of safety boats there to scoop up whatever wheat gets thrashed from the chaff, Stage 1 historically plays the role of Darwin’s Bouncer, and is the only part of the race that has dedicated safety net ready to catch teams whose sum total of experience and preparation could use a little more time in the dojo. After Victoria, teams rapidly travel into remote corners of the coast where response times go from minutes to hours and population and life-saving resources go from less to nothing.

    In the yet-to-be-created R2AK video game, the Proving Grounds is the level one mini-boss, and to the delight of racers, and semi-chagrin of R2AK High Command, today it left work early.

    Images mostly Joe Cline 48' North Magazine

    Teams rounded Point Wilson into the familiarly brutal sea state it’s famous for. An outgoing high tide in Washington’s inland sea caused a monster ebb current; hundreds of billions of gallons all trying to squeeze through the narrow gap between Port Townsend and Whidbey Island.

    Tidal current 101: imagine the rising tide is like filling a tank with a hose. When the tide goes out the water flows out of the hose. Point Wilson is the geological thumb on the end of the hose; making the water go crazy, faster, and everywhere. Boats rounded the point and rode that thumb spray that set into 2-3 foot standing waves, wind on the nose, water over bows, and flashbacks to the maelstrom of 2022.

    Rewind: Stage 1, 2022, was somewhere between calamity and catastrophe. Record tides against record winds created weaponized conditions that broke boats, tossed crews overboard and scrambled the lifesaving efforts of R2AK volunteers and Coast Guards alike. Twelve-foot breaking seas that snapped masts, capsized boats, and prompted Coast Guard rescue swimmers to jump from helicopters multiple times—all in the first 20 minutes of what could have been the final performance of the Race to Alaska. In the end, all resolved on the good side of alive. Broken boats, terrified humans on both sides of the internet, but the day ended with all bodies and souls intact.

    Fast forward: The ghost of Stage 1 past lurked in the shadows of our heads leading up to the start. Yes all year, but also in the hours before. The winds on R2AK Eve raged angry and reminiscent; blew hard enough that a local boat sheared its mooring and smashed up on the beach high and dry and forever broken.

    In the nervous darkness before the 5am start, the wind howled and snarled, circling wolf-like just outside the harbor. But by the time the sun rose and teams left protected waters, the wolf rolled over and wanted a belly scratch.

    In what seemed like an apology for the previous year, conditions dropped from sporty, to optimistic, to damned pleasant before we were halfway through our second cup of coffee. Rowers used the flat water to keep time with racing sailboats. Team SUP N Irish paddled to a mid-pack finish on a paddleboard. Impressive. No one finished in record time, but in a welcome change, blood pressure stayed uncannily low for racers and fans alike. If 2022’s soundtrack was death metal, 2023’s was Michael Bolton. Unassuming, mildly irritating, but harmless.

    It wasn’t all 90’s power ballads and roses, but by and large hangnail-sized consequences compared to the butcher’s bill of a year before. Last year: multiple, legitimate concerns for preserving lives. This year:

    Three confirmed naps
    A snapped jib block (replaced in 5 minutes)
    At least one pedal drive was broken (and repaired)
    Team Toybox Express had what they called “a domestic:” a mid-race relationship dispute—not uncommon for “divorce boats.” (they worked through it)
    Robert Hodge of Fisheries Supply Team Monkey Fist hurt his elbow in an incident he denied was sock monkey related.
    A member of the media team walked around Victoria with extra sunblock on their face for at least an hour.
    The day’s biggest scares?

    Team Kuaka traveled all the way from Hong Kong to paddle his outrigger canoe to Victoria. He’d get there, but not without a couple of early morning capsizes. He self rescued, dried out, then paddled across in time for the dockside happy hour. Just a good day on the water for an experienced paddler such as himself.

    In a moment of familiar adrenaline, Race Command got a report that Team Hornblower’s boat was sighted sailing along without its crew aboard. Had he fallen off? Was he floating hypothermic somewhere in the shipping lanes? It was getting dark and the chance to find him was decreasing with every minute. We hit the alarm and scrambled a full-throttle response. Like volunteer firefighters racing to the scene only to find that the house fire was actually just a cat that had already rescued itself from the tree, when we found him he was aboard and fine. Weather was so good he went below and chalked up one of the three naps of the day.


    When morning broke in Victoria’s Inner Harbor, we could see by the dawn’s early light that not only were the flags all still there, limp and windless, but all but three teams were snug asleep and dockside in Victoria’s inner harbor.

    The three:

    We can’t confirm whether Teams Jackalope and Supernautiloid were becalmed when the tide change and swept the wrong way for 15 miles or if they took the initiative to scout the first part of Stage 2 in person. They eventually made some miles back south, Jackalope spent the night anchored off of Chatham Island, 10-ish miles from Victoria, Nautiloid spent the night with their tracker off, shrouded in secrecy. We expect them both by lunch.

    Team Flow State Wingfoil proved to skeptics that even wingnuts can be prudent mariners. The calm day meant that there wasn’t enough wind to propel his levitating inflatable kite contraption across the border, so Satchel rounded the corner, paddled to a park, then spent the day in a perpetual picnic waiting for wind that never came. Day 2 brought an even more prudent choice: Flow State called into Race High Command at 0730, with the news that without enough breeze to move his magic skateboard, he was going to pack it in and head to the breakfast joint, lick his wounds, and make plans for 2024. DNF Number 1.

    For everyone playing the R2AK fantasy league, score the Proving Grounds as Racers: 1, Neptune: 0. Unless the sin dens of Victoria lure the teams to their downfall, everyone should be safe and sound until the second inning.

    Different day, different water, different race. While we can’t say if the Venn diagram of “pleasant” and “adventure” have any overlap, we can say that at least for racers’ families and our insurance guy, it was a welcome change of pace.

    Rest up R2AK Nation, Stage 2 starts Thursday.
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