Boats in the 2019 Race to Alaska compete for a $10,000 prize in a route that takes them from Port Townsend to Ketchikan, Alaska, but organizers say the race is more about the experience than the money. (Drew Malcolm via Northwest Maritime Center)

Boats in the 2019 Race to Alaska compete for a $10,000 prize in a route that takes them from Port Townsend to Ketchikan, Alaska, but organizers say the race is more about the experience than the money. (Drew Malcolm via Northwest Maritime Center)

Race to Alaska sets sail Monday

Participants to use human, wind power

PORT TOWNSEND — The 750-mile Race to Alaska will set sail Monday, when dozens of teams will head out from Port Townsend in a race that will ultimately end in Ketchikan, Alaska.

“Race to Alaska is founded on this idea that we have very few rules, few guardrails,” said Jesse Wigel, the Race Boss and an employee of Port Townsend’s Northwest Maritime Center, which organizes the event.

“It’s essentially this code of honor that they are going to follow the rules they set for themselves,” Wigel said. “There’s nothing more real than an engineless boat trying to attempt this course. There’s no safety net here. People seem really ignited by the idea.”

The only rules for the race — which officially starts in Port Townsend but doesn’t really get going until boats leave Victoria, British Columbia, on June 8 — are that boats can’t be engine powered and no pre-planned assistance along the way. Teams are free to take advantage of shore-side amenities such as harbors or even restaurants and hotels, Wigel said, so long as they haven’t pre-arranged any help.

Teams can propel their boats however they choose, so long as engines aren’t involved.

This year, there are 39 teams and most are some kind of sailboat, but there are a few kayakers and rowboats and even one stand-up paddleboarder.

Applications are open to all, but each team is vetted by organizers for its proposed vessel, crew experience and decision-making ability.

Wigel said a few years ago there was a team of high school students where the average age was just older than 15.

The first team to reach Ketchikan is awarded $10,000 nailed to a wooden board, but for the organizers and many of the racers, it’s the experience of the race that’s most important.

“Most of us would argue that who wins is the least interesting part,” said Molly McCarthy, communications director for the Maritime Center. “It’s the following along with the folks that are putting their blood, sweat and tears into getting across that finish line.”

Each team is given a tracker, and people from around the world tune in to check on teams’ progress, McCarthy said.

Once the race gets underway, the organizers turn themselves into a full-time media operation, broadcasting racers’ status online and on social media.

Depending on the winds, the trip from Victoria to Ketchikan has been made in as little as three to four days, but the race doesn’t officially end until July 1, and many racers end up not making it the entire way.

The first stage leaves from Port Townsend at 5 a.m. Monday and racers have 36 hours to reach Victoria. Boats will stay in Victoria for a few days, but at noon on June 8, the timed portion of the race will begin.

The only required checkpoint for racers heading to Ketchikan is a stop in Bella Bella, British Columbia, a small community on Campbell Island off the Canadian coast.

Once in Ketchikan, there is an official party, but McCarthy said many racers often don’t stick around for very long. Some continue sailing north, while others begin the journey home.

Racers are left to their own devices for getting themselves and their boats home. Some sail back while others put their boats on the Alaska State Ferry and some have an engine shipped to them to power their boats for the return journey.

Race to Alaska comes on the heels of another boat race organized by the Maritime Center, the Seventy48, a fully human-powered race from Tacoma to Port Townsend. In that race, which starts today, racers have 48 hours to paddle, or peddle, themselves along the 70-mile route in competition for cash prizes.

The public is invited to the R2AK Rukus at Pope Marine Park in Port Townsend, starting at noon Sunday. That event will feature music, food, drinks and a chance to meet R2AK racers and those in Seventy48, who’ll be arriving throughout the day. Awards for the Seventy48 race will be given at 7 p.m. Sunday.

In addition to the Ruckus, which is free to enter, the first 15 people who want them can get a free R2AK logo tattoo done by a professional tattoo artist. Tattoos will still be available after the first 15, Wigel said, but they’ll cost $100.

R2AK does offer a cash prize to the first to finish — and a set of engraved steak knives to second place — but organizers say the race is more about the journey and the stories of racers, and that makes the race so popular for both contestants and observers.

Once the race is underway, organizers will have multiple (powered) boats to follow along and broadcast status updates regularly.

“If we didn’t tell these stories, it’d be like leaving all this magic sauce in the bottle,” Wigel said. “The people who do Race to Alaska are incredible people doing an inspiring thing. Leaving those stories untold felt like leaving a lot on the table.”


Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at

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