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Race to Alaska: No Motor, Just Grit

Katrina Zoë Norbom, a contributing writer and photographer for Quantum Sails, knows firsthand the grit required to sail the Race to Alaska. She reported back to us after the 2018 race for this spotlight on the epic 750-mile event.

Sail Like a Girl - The Melges 32 raced by a hardcore group of women was the first monohull and first all-female team to win R2AK. Photo by Katrina Zoë Norbom.

“This isn’t for everyone. It’s like the Iditarod, on a boat, with a chance of drowning, being run down by a freighter, or eaten by a grizzly bear.” - Race To Alaska website.


Team Sail Like A Girl won the 2018 race and set a record as the first monohull and first all-female team to win the Race to Alaska (R2AK). The event is a 750-mile no-motors race from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska. R2AK is North America’s longest human- and wind-powered race and currently has the largest cash prize for a race of its kind. The rules of the race are simple, but the challenge is immense. The waters that stretch between Port Townsend and Ketchikan are known for their squalls and tidal currents that can run upwards of 20 miles an hour. 

There are no classes in this race, and the start date is intentionally chosen for a time period when the winds are typically unpredictable in strength and duration. Any engineless boat is welcome in the R2AK, but there is an ongoing debate about whether sail, oar, or paddle power is best. Whether human- or wind-powered, it takes a tremendous amount of physical endurance, determination, grit, and “saltwater know-how” to successfully navigate this extreme race.

The prize for first place is a $10,000 stack of cash nailed to a log (the winners have to figure out how to get it off the wood). The second-place prize is “a pretty good set of steak knives.” There are other side bets and annual awards, but just finishing the race and claiming the rights to say you’ve completed 750 cold-water miles through one of the most beautiful passages on earth is a prize in and of itself. This race is typically finished between four days and never. The R2AK sweep boat, nicknamed the Grim Sweeper, decides when the race is over. The Grim Sweeper leaves Port Townsend and travels north at roughly 75 miles a day as it heads to Ketchikan and “taps” out any racing vessel it passes along the way. The 2018 race started with 37 teams; only 21 teams dropped lines in Ketchikan. 

R2AK is an official event of The Northwest Maritime Center, a 501(c)3 non-profit in Port Townsend, Washington, committed to engaging people in the waters of our world in a spirit of adventure and discovery. Port Townsend  is a maritime town well known for its artistic spirit, Victorian buildings, and the largest Wooden Boat Festival in North America.

The Proving Ground, Stage 1 of the race, launches at The Northwest Maritime Center and crosses 40 open-water miles, two sets of shipping lanes, and an international border to Victoria, British Columbia. Stage 1 is designed “as a qualifier for the full race and as a stand-alone 40-mile sprint” for participants who want to test their limits and get a taste of R2AK. 

Victoria’s Inner Harbor ends Stage 1 and launches Stage 2 of the race, called To The Bitter End. The long haul north stretches over 710 fierce miles from Victoria to Ketchikan. “Other than two waypoints along the way, Seymour Narrows and Bella Bella, there is no official race course.” 

When team Sail Like A Girl crossed the finish line in Ketchikan for the win, the docks were bursting with the cheer of excited fans and bottles of champagne. From the participants to the fans, there is so much heart and soul in this race. R2AK knows how to throw a party and does so at every major point in the race. But all of the love behind R2AK really shines in Ketchikan, where the whole town is invited to celebrate the 750 hard-earned miles that the teams have completed. 

The 2019 Race To Alaska will start on June 3 at 0500, marking the 5th annual race. Want to go? 


 

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