PORT TOWNSEND — Covering the Race to Alaska through photos, video and podcasts brings fans of the 750-mile non-motorized, unsupported race close to the action.
But what if you want to profile participants who might be a bit media shy and do it in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek kind of way?
You hire a cartoonist, embed them, and have them “live toon” the event.
Port Townsend’s Nhatt Nichols, an artist and cartoonist, and R2AK Race Boss Daniel Evans explored the idea weeks before the race began and the idea gelled.
Nichols, who is actually afraid of the water, jumped in with no hesitation and began to stockpile Dramamine and collected waterproof boots, long underwear and all the wool socks she could possibly find.
“Last summer I went sailing,” Nichols said. “I was on the water for 45 seconds. I capsized the boat. I naturally went on to do other things, like road trips. On land.”
Nichols has been living the R2AK experience on a couple of boats since the race began June 14.
The first was a 28-foot cruiser that kept getting tossed about by 4-foot swells, making everyone aboard a bit queasy.
The second boat, her latest digs, is a 65-foot cruiser that provides a mobile studio with the stability she needs to draw a straight line.
“A lot of what the race is about is telling the stories of these everyday people who are participants,” said Jake Beattie, executive director of the Northwest Maritime Center which runs R2AK, a race that was won by Team Sail Like A Girl on Sunday. Vessels continued to come into the finish line on Tuesday.
“We’ve evolved how we communicate. Nhatt came to us and wanted to be an embedded graphic novelist. In the spirit of R2AK, we went with it,” Beattie said.
”It’s been a cool perspective. It’s still a sideline telling method to introduce our fans to a medium they might not be as familiar with.”
Beattie said the response to her work has been quite positive.
“It’s reaching a different group of people. We are trying to connect with the nerdy sailor-types and the people who think adventure is interesting. If people can relate to the experience in any way, relate-ability is one step closer to access.”
Nichols has been cartooning every day. She’s photographed all the participants and interviewed them, gaining a perspective on their quirks. She spends her days figuring out the story line and then does pencil work and color in the evenings.
“I’m spending a whole month creating a comic diary,” she said. “My gifts are those of a storyteller so being able to listen to some of these crazy stories that don’t have a natural way of being documented other than in photographs is what I do. I turn them into something visual that people can read and begin to understand the magnitude and craziness that’s happening to these poor people.”
What does an artist take with her while out for a month on a boat in the middle of the race?
“I am using gouache. I’ve got four colors: Chinese red/orange; earthy green, flat blue and orange. I have a weighted mechanical pencil — a zero gravity pencil — and micro pencil eraser in a tool roll, and a smooth, beautiful bristol board. I have a Lumix camera with a polarizing filter and my computer.”
“My plan is that none of the final drawings will be done on deck. I’ll do sketching first, spend the day figuring out what my story is, and then the evening penciling and inking.”
Nichols then photographs her work and posts to the R2AK webpage and her Instagram account.
“After R2AK, the maritime center is interested in a book of these cartoons, and Northwind is interested in an exhibit as well,” she said.
“I know how to swim, barely,” Nichols said, laughing. “I am the least likely choice for this idea. It was my bad idea and I’m going to see it through.”
Nichols’ daily cartoon of the teams and their experiences can be found at www.r2ak.com or at
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected]