June 27, 2019

Sail Like A Girl In ActionAll photos by Katrina Zoe Norbom

While the summer dawn in Ketchikan officially broke at the oh my god early hour of 3 am, for the weary souls whose teams hit the dock and rang the bell in the last 24, the morning that was demarcated by waking started somewhere between nine and noon. With each slap of the snooze bar, rub of the eye, breath, and breakfast, humanity started refilling the husks of humans who left most to all of their everything in the waters between here and Victoria. Adrenaline is a sleep substitute that lasted as long as it needed to and almost to Ketchikan.

Like the odd truth that dogs resemble their owners, boats on the dock had the same ‘rode hard and put away wet’ character of the crews that pushed them to and through the brink in the days that came before. Looking into the eyes/cabins of the racers there was a cold wet mess that had to be sorted out after the sleep that came just in time and not soon enough. The race run and the real-world creeping back into reality, it was time to put humpty back together. Dry out the souls and the sails and figure out how to make sense of it all.

Educated Guess R2AK Drew Malcom Team Educated Guess by Drew Malcolm

Each team had its own needs as they emerged from the race and into the rest of reality. In the hours before the awards party, Team Angry Beaver celebrated their win by dismantling their pedal drives and installing the outboards they shipped from the starting line. Team Narwhal declared it 8 am somewhere and cracked a beer or two seemingly more out of principle than need. Team Educated Guess cringed back into their completely soaked drysuits to ‘dry’ their sails in the Ketchikan downpour and get their boat ready for the barge that would take it back south. Facing a three-mile pedal against the current, they found a willing tow from Team Dockrat—R2AK’s solo bid from 2018 who decided to simplify his return trip by taking up residence. His liveaboard was only a couple hundred yards from the finish line. He towed their Melges with his re-engined race-boat/home—because family is family and once R2AK, always R2AK.

Repair gave way to celebration, first for the culmination of the 600-mile, close as it gets dogfight between Team Dazed and Confused and Team Ketchikan Yacht Club. How close? On a foggy night a navigation panic was created because the single blinking LED on a SPOT tracker on Team KYC was confused for the light of a buoy.

Katrina Zoe NorbomIt ended close. Team Dazed and Confused’s gambit to take the lesser used approach around the west side of Pennock Island paid off against the local knowledge of Team Ketchikan Yacht Club’s straight ahead charge at Tongass Narrows. The gamble worked and gave Team D&C a nose over win with a margin of five minutes—five minutes over 700 miles. Some will try to diminish it with the 100% true claim that if standard rating rules applied, their Olsen 30 would need to give 40 seconds a mile to Team KYC’s SC-27. But that rating only matters if you’re in a different race and willing to do math. R2AK has a lot of neither, and D&C hit the docks in 8th, KYC 9th, and if it mattered to the hometown crowd that thronged the docks to cheer in their boys, you wouldn’t have known it. KYC did great, shaved days of their 2017 race, and their community was bursting to welcome them home.

Dockside celebration led to the Alaska Fish House, whose staff stayed late to host the only awards party possible for a race with a finish line three weeks long. The nine teams in attendance applauded each other and the stack of Benjamins that was given to Team Angry Beaver, nailed in the traditional way to a piece of firewood. Team Pear Shaped Racing accepted the steak knives and wondered aloud what their vegan crew member would do with them. Laughs, tears, back slaps, and inside of 15 minutes the formalities were over and the 100+ in attendance got back to the business of reveling in the lone astonishing fact that they had all just sailed to Alaska, as hard as they could, faster than most, and to the brink of their abilities.

In the middle of it all Team High Seas Drifters closed the day of finishers wet and weary but surprisingly sane for a team that hadn’t met each other, let alone sailed together before they cast off lines in Victoria. One had never sailed before. “I’d worked on tugboats…”

The party migrated to a bar down the street, and in between the rounds of shots that smelled like elation and tasted somewhere between whiskey and the seeds of tomorrow’s regret, truth rolled out in the amped and cathartic recollection only possible after the reporters go home and the racers are left with the only tight knit audience fully able to sound to the depths of their truth. The stories alternated between the parade of cruelties that defined their last five days. Some high points:
Team Sail Like a Girl broached no less than 20 times, but only had to cut their lines to free themselves in 3 of them. “Our spare spinnaker sheet kept getting shorter, and shorter.” It was all fine until the big one that filled the leeward berth with a fresh batch of uncomfortable. “I went to bed and wondered why I was so wet and cold, then I realized I was laying in like 4 inches of water.”

Team Dazed and Confused: “We stopped racing three times.” One of their crew had a 103° temperature at the Victoria start, and by the fourth day all of their core temperatures had dropped to the point of dangerous. They had gone into survival mode, sacrificing speed for soup to ratchet down the creeping hypothermia. They were cold, discouraged, and ready to throw in the towel when they heard an exhale, and then another, and when they looked up 30 dolphins flanked them on both sides, and a single whale that came within 10 feet, long enough to roll over and lock eye to eye for an infinity/second—long enough to find meaning and the reassurance to press on.

Team Sail Like a Girl: “Our cabin was pure carnage—total disaster!” The seas had turned a meticulous pack into a snow globe of drybags. “All I wanted was a lighter to light the stove, we had seven lighters—SEVEN!” The ones she could find didn’t work.

Team Ketchikan Yacht Club’s final day knockdown was from a wave that picked them up knocked them all the way on their beam ends. “This monster wave just hammered us, HAMMERED us.” The mainsail set and locked went all the way into the water, and when the boat righted they had bent the boom.

Insult to injury, one racer made it through their final day by clinging to the promise of a hot shower in Ketchikan. After standing in downpour they arrived in their hotel to find only cold water from the shower head. “The nightmare is real!” was the justified scream her teammates heard through the door.

The standout of the night was Team Educated Guess, whose three beers in recounting offered up a stream of next level jaw droppers that caused even the R2AK racers to shake their heads and genuflect inwardly. Team Educated Guess’ campaign was the kind of R2AK science experiment that fused fast boats with good sailors and the infinite possibilities of a race without guardrails. They upgraded their Melges 24 with a trapeze; a set of harnesses that allow crew to stand on the edge of the boat and extend their body over the water—their body a counterweight to the force in the sails. You can sail without the trapeze, all the other teams did, but a trap provides the leverage to drive the boat harder at the cost of safety. Did they use it? All the time and forever. “We trapezed from Cape Mudge to Current Pass.” How long was that? “I dunno, ten hours…something? They worked out a system to wake each other up when they fell asleep out there.” Still, they had limits: they never trapped downwind.

They had been on the edge and they knew it. With every detail of their humility displaced adrenaline, the face of their audience reflected just how lucky they had been. The apex moment was a downwind run in 40 knots in Hecate strait. “We were hitting 18 regularly.” Their 24-foot boat was on a downwind rager in 40 knots of wind, careening down wave faces 2/3 the size of their boat and making 18 knots on the steady. “We’d get on 16-foot cresting waves, and one of them would break under you and the sea would just fall away and the boat would drop 4 feet.” The drop was the take off assist for a surf down the wave face that would accelerate the boat over 20 knots. “22 was our top.”

This went on for hours. With a full main and a full spinnaker they had carried too much sail for too long. The standard way to shorten sail is to nose the boat into the wind to depower the sails, which in this case would have meant bringing the boat into the waves, and before they got there they’d be broadside to and the boat would roll. Add to that rock in a hard place, at speeds like that, some mind-bending physics starts to take over. When the boat was going slow (ie 15 knots) the trimmer couldn’t work the sheets; they were just too loaded with the force of the sails. But when the boat accelerated to warp speed, the apparent wind dropped and took enough load off the sails to allow for adjustment. It was impossible to put a reef in the main, so they came up with a plan. “I was like, alright boys, the next time we get on top of some big f***-off wave and we hit 22, douse it.” They struck the spinnaker in 35 knots of wind, 15-foot seas, going 22 knots, on a 24-foot boat.

Jaw drop. Genuflect.

There’s a knife edge that separates triumph from tragedy, and knowing that is the tipping point of humility. Their soft and haggard eyes said they had learned their lesson: There but by the grace of god go I.


The night raged long at Sourdough, and longer and wetter for the 22 teams still on the course. Some still making their way to Seymour, but PhD in hand. For the teams in Ketchikan the race is over, but for the rest of us it’s just getting started.


This article is a reprint from the R2uiseAK website sponsored by UnCruise https://r2ak.com/

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