PORT TOWNSEND — About a half hour before sunrise Thursday morning, Port Townsend Bay was humming with activity as a party of mariners waited for the signal to begin the first stage of the 750-mile Race to Alaska.
If boats could nervously pace, they were pacing.
Hundreds of people packed City Dock and the shoreline all the way to the Point Wilson lighthouse, shouting encouragement to the sailors and paddleboarders, creating the festive, party mood.
Arran Stark, executive chef for Jefferson Healthcare who just finished the Seventy48 race Wednesday, was back on his paddleboard for the fourth year, accompanied by his crew from the hospital, handing out bowls of oatmeal to the teams and their fans.
The Unexpected Brass Band entertained the crowd as 44 competitors awaited the race committee boat’s horn blast at precisely 5 a.m. to start the Race to Alaska (R2AK), which is a race without engines. Competitors use sail or human power only.
One by one, the craft left the bay serenaded by a recording of the Red Army Choir singing the National Anthem of the U.S.S.R. Some headed out quickly, setting a quick pace; others took their time to soak up the experience and get their sea legs, waiting for the sun to shine through a layer of broken clouds sitting on the horizon.
“We had a very excellent start to the race,” said Race Boss Daniel Evans from his perch with a view of the action in the Northwest Maritime Center about two hours into the event.
“There was a light wind and a strong current, but everyone was calm and collected and the start was orderly and polite.”
Team P.T. Watercraft — Russell Brown, Ashley Brown and Alex Spear — guided their Port Townsend customized Gougeon 32 catamaran into Victoria Harbor first, arriving at 9:10 a.m, 4 hours and ten minutes after the start.
First Federal’s Sail like a Girl team from Bainbridge Island arrived second at 9:51 a.m in their monohull.
In third place was Team Strait to the Pool Room, a three-person catamaran from California at 10:04 a.m.
Steve Rhodes of Team Extreme Sobriety based on Bainbridge Island is a prone paddleboarder who had hip surgery a few months ago. He injured his new hip Wednesday night and had to withdraw. Other early exits included Team Hot Water, a father-son duo from Olalla, who designed and built their own craft; and MaxElla, a kayak from Alberta, Canada.
Evans and his team of 45 volunteers keep track of the participants in what he calls the “war room.” Every vessel has a tracker, a phone and a way to be in touch with race organizers. They use vhf radios when the trackers are not working and are in constant contact with other agencies for safety.
“We are not trained in vessel rescue in heavy seas,” Evans explained. “We have a team of vessels watching out for our racers all along the way. They are not alone out there.”
The official cutoff time for those trying to reach Victoria is 5 p.m. today.
Teams will spend a couple days in Victoria making major or minor changes to their boat set-up and partying at the Racer Party tonight.
On Sunday, the long slog to Ketchikan, Alaska begins. Teams assemble under the statue of Captain Cook and experience a “Le Mans” start at noon. Racers run to their vessels, untie them, and self-propel out of the Inner Harbor to Ogden Point before they can legally raise their sails.
Northwest Maritime Center Executive Director Jake Beattie said although this was not a record-setting pace, it was still a wonderful event.
“The first-place finisher was only off of the record by 20 minutes,” Beattie said. “The conditions were benign and the Strait of Juan de Fuca was kind to us today. The weather wasn’t a factor at all.
“But the racers know there is every single weather event possible between here and there.”
According to the National Weather Service, the Ketchikan forecast for the next 10 days is partly cloudy to mostly sunny, with highs in the mid 60s and lows in the low 50s, with winds 10 to 15 knots and seas to 3 feet.
To track the R2AK competitors, see www.r2ak.com.
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-3385-2335 or at [email protected]