One stroke at a time. One stroke after another brought him closer to his goal.
Following the disappointment of dropping out of the Race to Alaska after just 100 miles in 2016, Orcas Islander Karl Kruger hopped back on his stand-up paddleboard (SUP) this summer. On Sunday, June 25, he became the first paddleboarder to complete the race from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska.
Race to Alaska, now in its third year, is a fierce competition of non-motorized boats, sailing unaided, across 750 miles along the Inside Passage. The first boat to cross the finish line won $10,000 and arrived 10 days before Kruger.
In 2016, Kruger had to quit the race prematurely due to stress fractures in his paddleboard.
“That was brutal,” said Kruger, who was the sole participant on his team Heart of Gold. “It was bad enough I had to back out but to back out in such a good position with the plan working as well as it was. Really, really hard.”
Kruger co-owns Kruger Escapes with his wife Jessica on Orcas Island.
“There just isn’t a board on the planet that could do what was expected … I had these shooting pains in my right hip and my right knee,” Kruger told the Sounder last year about the 2016 race.
This time, Kruger was prepared. Over the past year, he worked with Joe Bark of Bark Paddleboards in California to custom-build a stronger board.
“The board I used last year is in amazing shape. It’s still in great shape. It’s an awesome board,” said Kruger. “I stepped onto Joe’s board he built for this race. It makes that one seem like a piece of trash.”
It’s not a piece of trash, obviously, since Kruger lent it to Josh Collins to compete in the first leg of the race; Port Townsend to Victoria, British Columbia.
Collins spent 20 years in the U.S. Army Special Operations and was deployed on multiple combat missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. According to his bio on the Race to Alaska website, he spent 10 years as an Army Ranger and 10 years in Delta Force. Kruger let Collins use his board from last year’s race to paddle alongside him during the 40-mile first stage of the Race to Alaska. Together, the duo and a third stand-up paddleboard rider took seventh, eighth and ninth place in the first stage of the race.
A documentary crew working with Collins on a film about the struggles of veterans followed him and Kruger across the first stretch of sea.
“It changed the whole experience,” said Kruger. “I wasn’t pleased to have that boat tagging along with us all day long.”
The second leg of the race, however, was 14 days of near-solitude for Kruger. On the morning of Sunday, June 11, Kruger and 33 other non-motorized vessels, primarily sailboats, set forth from Victoria to travel the 710 miles to Ketchikan.
“It was a really intense experience… physically demanding, mentally demanding, beautiful, just absolutely gorgeous coastline,” said Kruger. “I enjoyed it very much.”
Averaging about 50 miles a day, Kruger traversed 72 miles on his best day and “only” 29 on his worst. Even his best days were difficult.
“Every day had its own version of hard,” said Kruger. “That’s just the truth. From hour to hour even, it’s a hard thing to do.”
The 14 days Kruger paddled his way north, he survived on Hammer Nutrition supplement tablets, gels and shakes.
“[The tablets are] not a culinary treat for sure,” said Kruger, adding that eating them wasn’t fun, but functional. “… When you get that pang of hunger and it’s time to eat one, you’re happy to have it.”
After two weeks of wind, rain, sun and open ocean, Kruger paddled toward the finish line in Ketchikan. The local paper reported about 30–40 people waiting on the dock for him, with many more cheering from the shoreline and porches along his route.
Stepping off his board at the end of the 750-mile trek was surreal, said Kruger.
“When something like that is over, it’s almost a shock,” he said. “But a happy one. I was tired, it felt good to stop.”
Kruger celebrated his 45th birthday paddling through the Inside Passage.
“Best birthday possible. It was cool; poking that age limitation thing,” said Kruger. “I’ve always had the opinion that people use age as an excuse as to why they can’t do things. It’s a straight up excuse. It’s not a reason at all.”
Kruger said he would like to compete in the race next year, but doesn’t plan on making the trek aboard a SUP again.
“I’d love to do the race again. But, it’s such a huge time investment to do it the way I did it. I think if I do it next year … I’d love to sail the race,” said Kruger. “So that would keep me to a week or less and it won’t be such a huge time commitment.”
It was a time commitment and a financial one, according to Jessica. The couple started a GoFundMe account in October 2016 to help alleviate the monetary stress that an endeavor of this magnitude requires. That account has raised more than $11,000.
“There simply wasn’t enough room on the credit card to make this race happen again. This community stepped up and made it happen,” said Jessica.
Both the financial and emotional support Kruger received helped him reach his goal of finishing the race.
“The support here on the island has just been unbelievable and shocking really. I never expected that … it was just a personal thing – something I wanted to do, but somehow it resonated with people. I think that’s really cool,” said Kruger. “I was so wrapped up in my own head and thinking about how to do it. Such a deeply personal thing. I didn’t think anybody would want to be involved. Turns out I was wrong.”
Kruger’s story has made waves in media outlets across the country. His is a tale of strength, resilience and tenacity that has resonated throughout the SUP community and beyond. Knowing there were people out there cheering him on all along the way helped Kruger continue on.
“There were days when it did get really hard, I would think about the school groups I talk to before I went… I thought about those kids. Just like, ‘Man, I can’t let them down.’ I want to give them a good example about what it is to step out do something hard and not give up. There’s no bloody way I’m gonna quit and let those kids down,” said Kruger. “Just keep myself going, that’s one of the strategies I had, just keep going. There were days where you want to stop… your body wants to stop, your mind wants to stop. It’s just crazy hard so you have to keep pushing.”
You can donate to Kruger’s GoFundMe by visiting https://www.gofundme.com/teamheartofgold.