PORT TOWNSEND — One team found its boat on Craigslist. Another will sail in a boat designed by a man whose innovative vessels have raced in — and won — the America’s Cup. One competitor built a rowboat in the living room of her Port Angeles home. And then there’s paddler who had never even seen his kayak before last week.
The Race to Alaska (R2AK) attracts many different kinds of boats and participants, but they share two common traits: no engines on the former and a boundless sense of adventure for the latter.
On Monday, 37 teams will shove off from the Northwest Maritime Center dock at 5 a.m. for the first leg of a 750-mile race from Port Townsend to Ketchikan that is billed as the longest human and/or wind-powered race in North America.
Nine teams will compete in only the first stage of the race, the 40 miles across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Port Townsend to Victoria, B.C. The remaining 710-mile stage will begin Thursday.
The R2AK returns after a two-year COVID hiatus with a route and rules that test competitors’ seamanship, physical endurance and mental fortitude.
New this year is the elimination of the mandatory waypoint through the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland, which allows teams to navigate up the Pacific Ocean side of the island if they choose.
Each team also will be required to carry at least one personal locator beacon.
However, the basic rules that govern the R2AK haven’t changed since the last race in 2019: no limits to the size of the boat or number of crew members; prearranged food and supply drops are prohibited; and sailboats need an additional method of power like oars or pedals. The first place team still wins $10,000, and second place gets a set of steak knives.
Doug Smith doesn’t need steak knives and he’s not in the R2AK for the money.
In September 2019, the retired teacher from Talkeetna, Alaska, lost Ellen Wolf, his wife and sailing partner of 35 years. He was home alone, and it was cold and it was dark. Smith said he asked himself, “Now what do I do?”
He needed a project.
“I heard about the Race to Alaska and thought, ‘Gee, I could build myself a little boat,’ Smith said.
He bought the plans and spent one and a half winters building “Dark Star,” an 18-foot sailboat that he named after the Grateful Dead song and modified with a custom cabin.
Smith, who is about to turn 69, called it his “middle-age crisis red convertible.”
He said his strategy for the race is to “take it as it comes.”
His only definite plan, he said, is to toast Ellen every night with a glass of wine.Like Smith, Lillian Kuehl built her own boat. But rather than relying on the wind to get her to Alaska, the 37-year-old Quilcene native will be oaring there in the rowboat she built in the living room of her Port Angeles home.
The bow and stern of the rowboat are decked over to protect it from taking in water and to provide storage for some of the 75 pounds of food and gear she’ll take with her.
“I like that the Race to Alaska is anything you can do without a motor,” said Kuehl, an experienced adventure racer and owner of Lilly’s Marine mobile boat repair service in Port Angeles.
This is her second R2AK. Her first came in 2019 when she sailed on Team Quilbillians with her father and uncle, Todd and Paul Miller.
The toughest stage for competitors can be the initial 40-mile stretch from Port Townsend to Victoria, some say, so Kuehl has been rowing out from Port Angeles harbor to train in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“In a rowboat, the waves can really rock you and it’s slow and fatiguing,” Kuehl said.
But she said she preferred competing by herself to being on a team.
“I get to eat when I want and rest when I want. I like the simplicity of it.”
Matt Pistay, 31, who was on the winning 2019 R2AK boat, has returned with a new team, Team Pure and Wild, that will compete in a 44-foot sailboat designed by Paul Bieker, who is celebrated for his work on high-performance boats like the one Oracle Team USA sailed to win the 2013 America’s Cup.
Pistay will be sailing with his mentor, Jonathan McKee, who won a gold medal in sailing at the 1984 Olympic Games.
“I like that he conducts himself as a professional,” Pistay said of McKee. “I view everyone on the boat as equals, but for myself and Alyosha (Alyosha Strum-Palerm, the third member of the team), we both look up to him.”
Team Mustang Survival’s Rite of Passage won’t be able to lean on years of experience or look up to a veteran for guidance.
The average age of sailors Enzo Dougherty, Francesca Dougherty, Nadia Khalil and Sebastian Dougherty is barely 17.The youngest team in the R2AK is racing a 27-foot sailboat purchased off Craigslist in December 2020. They did not know each other well before they formed a team, so they have been practicing and preparing for the long, wet, cold and potentially dangerous race.
“My parents are not sailors and they were reluctant to let me go,” said Nadia Khalil, 17. “They thought it was completely insane. But now they’re really excited.”
Bob McCall, 52, has been kayaking since he was 14 years old, but said he felt a “slight bit of trepidation” ahead of the upcoming race. McCall, from Sharnford, England, had been looking forward to taking part in R2AK back in 2020; he even had a kayak built in Canada in anticipation of competing. Three years later, McCall was finally able to retrieve it from Team Oaracle, a Victoria, B.C. kayak team, that had generously stored it for him.He finally got to see his 18-foot kayak a week ago and first put it into the water on Sunday — one week before the start of the race — and has been training ever since.
“She’s a beut,” McCall said. “She’ll do fine.”
Although an experienced ultra kayak racer, McCall said that he had never paddled the kind of open water he will have to navigate in the R2AK. His co-workers at MIRA (Motor Industry Research Association) gave him a good-natured send-off with a package of cupcakes labeled, “Please don’t die.”
“There are limits to insanity,” McCall said.
The public is invited to come to the Ruckus, a free block party at the Northwest Maritime Center that runs from noon to 8 p.m. on Sunday to meet the R2AK teams, see their boats and celebrate their upcoming adventure. An awards ceremony at 7 p.m. will honor the winners of the SEVENTY48, a 70-mile race that began Friday in Tacoma and will end Sunday in Port Townsend.
The documentary, “The Race to Alaska” (2020), plays on two screens at the Rose Theatre, 235 Taylor St., in Port Townsend, on Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday. The Rose requires proof of vaccination for all guests and masks are required in the lobby, restrooms and concession areas. For information and showtimes, call 360-385-1089 or visit rosetheatre.com. The film is not rated.
The Race to Alaska and SEVENTY48 are projects of the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend, a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
Follow the teams’ progress on the Northwest Maritime Center’s 24-hour tracker, social media streams, and daily content from field reporters at R2AK.com.