Three teams with members based in Friday Harbor entered the 2022 Race to Alaska, or R2AK, this year. R2AK is north America’s longest human and wind-powered race spanning nearly 750 miles of spectacular beauty and rugged environments of the coastal waters of Vancouver Island and the Inside Passage to Alaska.
Now in its sixth year, the R2AK race begins in Port Townsend Washington, ending in Ketchikan roughly 750 miles to the north. Non-motorized vessels of any size and kind are welcome to enter, and except for a few simple rules, the race is basically a free for all for participants.
According to race organizers, R2AK is a self-supported race with no supply drops and no safety net. Any boat without an engine can enter. The prize for the first-place finisher is $10K cash, nailed to a board and located at the finish line on the dock in Ketchikan Alaska.
Second place finishers take home a coveted steak knives set, with R2AK logos emblazoned on them. The race has two stages. Stage One this year began at dawn June 13, at 5 a.m. sharp out of Port Townsend, with the Stage Two start time of High Noon June 16, out of Victoria.
The first stage, known as the “The Proving Ground,” is a 40-mile race designed as a qualifier that spans the open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Port Townsend Washington to Victoria, British Columbia. Race participants must cross two sets of major shipping lanes and an international border, along with miles of relatively open water and unpredictable sea states, winds, and tides.
Racers generally have 48 hours to complete the first leg, arriving in Victoria BC to then prepare for the race to Alaska. Exceptions were made this year, however, due to the inclement weather in the Strait of Juan de Fuca the very day the race got underway. Rough seas and challenging tides at the start of the race caused many vessels to shelter for up to two days in Dungeness Spit and surrounding areas, before continuing on safely to Victoria.
The second stage and full race “To The Bitter End” begins in Victoria BC, ending in Ketchikan, Alaska, an over 700 nautical mile journey through some of the most rugged, beautiful, and always unpredictable inland waterways in the Pacific Northwest. Other than one waypoint in Bella Bella that race participants must pass, racers are free to choose their own course to the finish line. A new feature was added to the race this year that allowed participants to travel either the inland passage or the outer coast of Vancouver Island, with three race participants choosing to take the newly opened option.
While Team Pure & Wild, based in Seattle, were the first place finishers on day five of this year’s Race to Alaska earning the top spot and the $10K prize, Friday Harbor’s Team Elsewhere ended up ‘neck and neck’ with Team Fashionably Late on day seven as they approached the finish line. Team Elsewhere eventually won the coveted steak knives and bragging rights for second place in the grueling 750-mile engineless race, entering the Ketchikan harbor to a cheering crowd chanting “Steak knives! Steak knives!”
For Rhys Balmer, Friday Harbor resident and skipper of second-place finisher Team Elsewhere, the novelty and newness of the race opening up on the outside of Vancouver Island, along with the opportunity to return to places he’d experienced in his youth was what inspired him to assemble a team to take on the challenge.
“I was homeschooled on a boat and cruised around Vancouver island a lot when I was young, so I have fond memories of my childhood sailing the northwest coast of the island,” he says, but the engineering challenge was equally intriguing to Balmer.
Since the race is entirely human- and/or wind-powered, engines are removed from vessels prior to the race. To compensate for the missing engine Balmer’s First Mate Martin Gibson devised a two-pedal-driven system that hooked into the existing prop and shaft, allowing crew members to pedal the sailboat when wind was not an option.
“More of a challenge,” adds Balmer, “was designing and building a water ballast system with two bags with 550 pounds of water in each, 11,000 pounds total, that instead of eight people on the rail, we could pump water to the high side of the boat to level her out.” Solar-powered pumps were used to transfer the water, making them somewhat susceptible to the weather conditions along the trek.
For Balmer, the highlight of the trip was achieving second place. “Hope is hubris, and springs eternal,” he went on. “We were in it to win it, and thrilled to take on the challenge of the outside. But the real treat was the fanfare in Ketchikan. In all my racing experience I’d never experienced anything like that before. Respect from fishermen and sailors, and props from different types of boaters and people. We’ve been welcomed by so many cool people up and down the coast.
“And much respect to people doing it the long way. Many props for people taking the time (to do this race), it’s quite an adventure and people should see it. We couldn’t have done it without the support of so many people in Friday Harbor. Thanks go to Dane Easterly of Island Art Metals, Nigel Oswald of the Sailing Foundation, Matthew and the boys at Meat Machine, and Greg Alanhorch of Mainstay Marine Diving.”
TEAM POCKET ROCKENAUTS
The race this year was not without major challenges and mishaps for most involved, and no teams were immune to the challenges of adverse weather, lightning storms, and rough sea conditions as they ventured north towards Alaska.
During the first leg of the race “The Proving Grounds” lived up to its name, with four rescues required in the first four hours. Several boats capsized and one vessel experienced a dismasting in the over 30-knot winds and rough seas that turned back a number of participants, forcing many to wait out the weather for nearly two days until it calmed, before venturing to Victoria BC. Eventually, most of the race participants along with all three Friday Harbor teams made it to Victoria, passing through Canada Customs to enjoy a brief respite in the city of Victoria before continuing the race.
After a Lemans-style start with team members racing down the docks to their waiting boats in Victoria Harbor, racers set out from Victoria at high noon after completing last-minute repairs and final goodbyes to family and friends. Once out of the harbor, however, the sailboats among the group found themselves with no wind to sail, forcing them to use their alternative propulsion options. Peddle and paddle-powered craft enjoyed the calm seas and lack of wind as they began putting miles behind them, but sailboats faced slow progress on their first day out. Of the remaining teams still in the race, most decided to stick to the traditional course up the inside passage between Vancouver island and the mainland, including Team Pocket Rockanauts and Team Sockeye Voyages. Although the lack of wind was a minor issue, the weather otherwise was favorable at the beginning and the race seemed off to a great start.
Then tragedy struck.
Less than 24 hours into the second stage of the race Team Pocket Rockanauts, with Friday Harbor resident Doug McCutchen aboard as crew, capsized in the early dawn of June 17 just a few miles North of Saturna Island in the Strait of Georgia, abruptly dashing their hopes for continuing the race. The crew were all wearing dry suits and personal flotation devices (PFDs) when they transmitted an urgent MayDay call to the Canadian Coast Guard. Rescue c, which shouldn’t e rews from both Pender Island and Vancouver BC were dispatched, arriving on scene soon thereafter to assist the stranded mariners. According to the crew, after capsizing the vessel experienced downflooding into one of the hulls, making righting the boat impossible.
According to McCutchen, the Gougeon 32’ they’d been sailing was in good shape in Victoria following the first leg, but had probably sustained some damage while crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which later became a factor in their subsequent capsizing at 5 a.m. a mile north of East Point as they began crossing the Strait of Georgia. “It’s not one thing, it’s compounded errors,” says McCutchen. “Basically we ended up on our side, which shouldn’t be a problem, but one of our pedal drives came free and smashed a window, filling the cabin with water in a couple of minutes.” Though the vessel was capsized, the crew were all warm in their dry suits, immediately putting out a MayDay over the radio. “The Canadian Coast Guard were absolutely phenomenal,” adds McCutchen, “the reserve crew from Pender arrived and the hovercraft from Vancouver was on scene helping right the boat and pumped out the float. By the time they finished, we were only 50 yards from the rocks at Patos island, and without their help, we’d have certainly smashed on the rocks.”
After determining with a high degree of confidence the crew could responsibly handle getting back to Friday Harbor on their own, the Canadian Coast Guard left them on a buoy at Patos island. After some rearranging and vessel preparations, the Pocket Rockanauts crew got underway for the Customs dock in Friday Harbor. Realizing they weren’t going to make it in time without a tow, they enlisted Deborah Giles and her husband Jim to tow them the final few miles to the customs agents before the office closed.
Though their hopes to get to the finish line were dashed early on, McCutchen was in good spirits when interviewed for this story: “I’ve been following the race since it first came out,” says McCutchen, “and the place is spectacular, but for my team it was an opportunity to get together with some old friends to create time to experience something together. Karl and I have known each other since grade school, and Tim was a roommate in college. For us the journey was the destination. Sure, capsizing the boat was really disappointing, but a lot of the experiences we had I wouldn’t trade for anything,” says McCutchen, “We’ve made fast friends, and rooted them on. For us the common thread was the journey.”
Once the capsizing mishap was behind them and the crew safely back ashore, McCutchen, along with a number of family members, still had time off and tickets booked to Ketchikan because family members had already been planning to be there to greet them. “We’ve got the tickets paid for and we’ve got the time,” says McCutchen, “so we decided to go to Ketchikan and see other racers arrive. It was a good time to decompress, and to process what we’d experienced. It was always about the journey.”
TEAM SOCKEYE VOYAGES
Last—literally—but not least, Team Sockeye Voyages with Friday Harbor resident and skipper John Calogero at the helm arrived in Ketchikan along with his crew Thursday evening, June 8, to celebratory fanfare and cold beers (an R2AK tradition) officially closing the 2022 R2AK race to Alaska. All three team members aboard Team Sockeye Voyages are ocean-voyaging Outward Bound instructors with decades of maritime experience between them. Yet even with all that experience, the challenges the Sockeye Voyages crew faced over the 22 days on the water at times pushed them to their limits while only hardening their resolve to cross that finish line.
When asked why do the R2AK race, Calogero responded “Outward Bound is all about challenging ourselves, so I’m in the challenge business. So that’s what nice about this (race) is that is the point. And the guy who came up with this race originally, Jake Beattie, is an old friend and the Race Boss Daniel Evans and Race Marshall Jesse Wiegel are good friends. But what I didn’t know back in 2017 until I first did this race with friends was the camaraderie of everyone, from racers to the boaters we met along the way. The support you get along the coast is wonderful. People would see us and cheer us on wherever we went.”
Calogero continued “As far as the experience, the two young ladies with me are both with Outward Bound, one with a captains license and one getting one, and they just got loads of time and experience that will last a lifetime. That was part of the motivation, as well. Frankly there are a whole bunch of boats that enter with no chance of winning, but winning is completing it. That’s winning.” Based on the R2AK online race tracker that fans from near and far used to follow their favorite boats in real-time, 32 teams started the race in Victoria BC, with 19 finishers.
“As far as coming in last,” Calogero adds with a chuckle, “what’s more memorable, coming in second to last, or last? Besides, some would say that by coming in last we really got our money’s worth. The temperate rainforest is beautiful and we should all celebrate it. Indigenous people have lived in harmony with this place for 15,000 years, and it was gorgeous!”