R2AK: Race to Alaska

by · January 28, 2015

First appeared in Small Craft Advisor Jan/Feb issue #91.

It was always there—right in front of us—the ultimate small-boat racecourse; a route that would test seamanship, strategy, and competitors’ sanity. All we had to do was look north—toward seven hundred and fifty cold-water miles along rugged, sparsely populated shores where grizzly bears roam and tidal currents rip like rivers.

Starting in Port Townsend, Washington, and ending in Ketchikan, Alaska, the Race to Alaska or R2AK has only one rule: no engines. Whoever can row, paddle or sail their way there first gets $10,000. Second place? A lovely set of steak knives.

Like a lot of you, we’re fascinated by this first ever boat race to the Last Frontier and wondering just what combination of boat and crew will finish first—or for that matter finish at all.

With all of the chatter about the first ever R2AK, we thought it would be interesting to poll some experts to see what kind of boats they think will do well, what obstacles they believe will be most significant, and how long they expect it to take the winner. First we caught up with Race to Alaska founder and Northwest Maritime Center Director, Jake Beattie to get some additional information.

No rules? Really?
Jake Beattie: Well there are a few—but “no rules” just sounds so much better than “Not that many rules.” That said the biggest rules are that your boat can’t have a motor, and you have to be self-supported, so no wimp wagons or prearranged help of any kind. Not even food drops. We wanted to level the playing field and focus the race on the boats; everyone can get a boat and train, and if you take the supporting organizations out of it entirely it’s more purely about seamanship. We didn’t want it to turn into a race with rules where the MVP of the race might just as likely be a lawyer or a UPS driver as a person actually in a boat.

With the light winds that prevail that time of year, isn’t a row or paddle boat sure to win? Or what’s to stop a big multihull from speeding along offshore and dominating?
God I know; it’s very frustrating to think about. Boat choice is a big part of the strategy and a lot of the fun of the conversations that are being had across the country over half full glasses of beer. We designed it to be frustrating in its simplicity—the same way that nature is frustrating because there’s no way to game it. There are a couple of factors that level the playing field. Seymour Narrows is one of the required waypoints. Seymour is inside Vancouver Island and is a tidal river that runs at 16 knots and switches directions every six hours. Bella Bella is another waypoint that is less dramatic, but it does suggest an inside route. If you look at the route, it is as much small constrained waterways as it is big open crossings and a lot of it is extremely tidal. We picked a time of year where the wind is either dead or on the nose, and I think that $10,000 wouldn’t be enough to get the big racing cats to think about it much. This first year it’s anyone’s guess who will finish first, and depending on the weather it will be the same next year.

Will there be divisions for different classes of boats?
Nope.We only have one stack of Benjamins, so it’s winner take all. It seems like no one has a neutral opinion about the approach of having just one class and no handicap. It’s either what makes it exciting or it’s incredibly annoying to folks. We really tried to create something that was basically a crap shoot without prejudice—that it was equally unfair to everyone and kept the race as wide open as possible. Every boat has its compromises, and the goal was to get people thinking about the best boat for being engineless in, and folks have developed designs that are being built specifically for the race. We will be breaking the finishers into classes so we can hand out accolades. As far as we know this will be the first official race of its kind on this route so we can establish some world records and give well deserved glory to everyone who participates.

What do you see as the biggest obstacles racers will face?
The website makes a big deal about the bears—and there are a lot of them up there—but I think the biggest race obstacle is going to be the water itself. I don’t just mean if weather kicks up and people get caught in the middle of a big crossing. The people signing up for this race tend to be pretty experienced so should do ok with that, I think that the tidal currents are the biggest obstacle to plan around. Half the time they are in your favor, but there are several passes along some of the route you simply cannot get through with a foul current, and they make big dangerous whirlpools. Seymour Narrows is one of those places, but current is a factor the whole way. Unless a racer is used to dealing with big tides it’s going to be a steep learning curve.

The less discussed hazard for the bigger, faster boats is the amount of driftwood up there—especially at night. There is a ton of driftwood, snags, and deadheads that float just below the surface. They are hard to see during the day, but impossible to spot at night. I worry a little bit about a go-fast multihull pushing the envelope and punching a hole in a hull.
How much is the entry fee, and what’s the sign up deadline?
For the full race its $650 for the team and $20 for each person on the crew. Some folks are just doing the first stage to Victoria as a practice round or a sprint for glory. The first stage is only $50 plus $20 per person. I think the first stage is going to be a lot of fun—it ends right in Victoria’s inner harbor, running up the dock and ringing a ship’s bell before clearing customs.
How many boats have signed up already?
We’ve got about 20 teams with applications either accepted and entered or still in the application process.

Will armchair adventurers be able to follow the action on the Web?
Each boat will have a SPOT tracker onboard that will be uploading to the website and tracking on a live map. You’ll be able to watch the race in real time, and I think you’ll even be able replay it if you want.

Any predictions about how long it will take the winning boat?
I think this is really going to be weather dependent, but most folks are guessing a first place finish in 1-2 weeks. There are some multihull guys who think it’s a 3-4 day trip. I think that is impressive.

Below we ask a group of experts three specific questions about the Race to Alaska.

1. Keeping in mind prevailing conditions along the route, what features and characteristics would be most important in a boat designed to win this race?

Dudley Dix: My opinion is that this boat should be long and slim with low wetted surface for minimum drag, wide enough only for comfortable sleeping. Berths for two people, one forward and one aft in sealable compartments, separated by a self-bailing cockpit holding two sliding seat rowing stations. This boat will be short on stability, so a trimaran or proa configuration with low volume ama(s) will give power to carry a low profile cat-schooner or similar rig with square-top sails.

Water tankage in cockpit tanks to concentrate weight and minimise pitching in lumpy water. Dry food and gear stowage under the berths. This boat will slip easily through flat water for human-powered or wind-powered sections of the voyage and will give a smooth ride through the lumpy conditions of open water or tidal overfalls. It will allow one crew to sleep while the other keeps the boat moving; both can row together or both can sleep if tucked into a cove while waiting out an adverse tide.

Richard Woods: The winner will obviously go nonstop, so singlehanders won’t win. It will be very hard for two crew, so three is probably the optimum, two to row/sail, one to rest/steer.

A 25-30ft catamaran will be ideal. It is large enough for speed and some comfort, yet small enough to row. A catamaran is preferable to a trimaran because it’s easier to row, as the trimaran will tend to flop from outrigger to outrigger making oars difficult to use. The human power choice is between conventional oars, a “bicycle-powered” propeller, or the Hobie Mirage drive. The latter two can be used in waves, are easier to stow, and may be more efficient for casual rowers; furthermore, you can see where you are going.

Meade Gougeon: I think an important but often overlooked consideration is boat organization. Can you get at all of your gear? Do you know where everything is located? Can you find it in the middle of the night? Opening and sorting through dry bags that, depending on conditions, are becoming “wet bags,” is not a good situation. It can become critical when you can’t find a key piece of equipment you need immediately.

I don’t think the race will be won by a boat with more than two crew aboard for the same and related reasons. Keeping track of stuff with three people aboard becomes a nightmare. And you’ve got to figure 300 pounds or so for each person with gear. This requires a bigger boat that will take more energy to move.

John Welsford: The weather will dictate what wins to a large extent. Given that the weather at that time of year is very changeable with long calm periods, and that there are a number of “tidal gates,” a boat that can be kept moving 24 hours a day in both wind and calm will have a considerable advantage in being “on time” at each tidal pinch point which will be very helpful.

That means a sail and oar boat, one which will be fast under oars, which can rest part of the crew while the other keeps the boat moving, and which is both light in weight but tough enough to cope with quite difficult conditions should they arise.

Scot Domergue: The boat will need to be fast, as well as viable in the full variety of conditions. I think it’s likely that one or more very fast sailing multihulls, like Dragonfly (a formula 40 catamaran) or Bad Kitty (another large, fast catamaran that’s seen success in the Van Isle 360) will enter the race.  They could be set up with two or more rowing positions on each hull.  They have crews experienced in these waters and enough capacity for two or even three shifts so they can keep moving as fast as possible all the time.  These boats are large and designed to be fast in a very wide variety of conditions—as they must be to do well year after year in the Van Isle 360.  They are big racing boats, not small cruising or expedition boats.

My personal interests go in other directions. I’ve been exploring design of a lightweight trimaran in the 18 to 20-foot range that could be quite fast sailing and reasonably fast rowing (sliding-seat; amas moved in close to the main hull for rowing). It would have a small cabin so that one of the two-person crew could comfortably sleep, navigate, prepare meals, etc., while the other rows or sails. Only in extreme conditions would both members of the crew need to be active in managing the boat. She would be fully decked and quite seaworthy. She’d have quite a lot of sail for her size, easily reefed. She would also work well as a small, fast cruiser for one person or two. I think this boat could be quite competitive in her class and in relation to most of the boats I expect to see in the R2AK, but I also expect she’d be blown away by the likes of Dragonfly and Bad Kitty.

Chuck Leinweber: Not having sailed this route, I can’t really speak to the conditions, but the concept of winning I understand. I think I can safely state that no solo sailor is going to win the race and that no slow boat is going to win it either. So besides being very fast, the most important characteristic for a boat to win would be that it is large enough for a crew and that it have accommodations for the crew to rest off watch.

Howard Rice: The course, distance, currents, weather germane to the area seem to point to one of two general types. A larger sized multihull with several crew members able to be rowed or a two to four man pulling sailing boat capable of offering some type of shelter for off-watch sleeping. It may also be that if the year is a light air year then a dedicated crew of two in a pulling boat of some sort could be in the running. I reckon a boat like my Tremolino MKIV with its 180% amas, 19-foot beam and powerful Tornado rig with adding rowing capability may do well. Although a catamaran would be better for rowing given it would be more averse to rocking while being rowed. Hard to pick a horse for this course given the weather variables.

John Vigor: An all-out effort to win this race must surely involve a multihull that that can make way to weather when it’s blowing a 30-knot northwester in Johnstone Strait, and also be rowed or paddled at 2 to 3 knots in a dead calm in Georgia Strait.

But no matter what design of boat is chosen, a serious racing entry should include all or most of the following characteristics:
• Some kind of shelter, for sleeping and for cooking
• Ability to accommodate sufficient crew for continuous watches
• Ability to be rowed or paddled efficiently, as well as sailed
• Generous sail area, but simple rig and easy reefing
• It should be fast and closewinded
• An easily driven planing hull, or a multihull
• Ability to carry a substantial anchor with a minimum of 300 feet of rode for deep water (countercurrent in calms)
• Shallow draft, or retractable foils to enable landing en route when necessary, and sailing in near-shore counter-eddies
• Repair kit (I’m thinking deadheads, reefs)
• GPS for fog
• Sufficient stowage for water and food
• Self-steering wind vane or autopilot for shorthanded crews
• Bear spray

Jan Nicolaisen: Sailing is a picturesque, romantic but utterly useless pursuit for winning this race. Rarely these parts have extended periods with the right wind conditions, if any breeze at all. Even the distraction of a simple downwind rig will take away time when the boat could cruise at 4 knots under muscle power. Tidal currents played well are an important asset in the inland waterways of the PNW, but waiting for times when both feeble winds and strong currents are behaving favorably together will further showcase the frustration of sailing rigs. 

A seasoned seaman will be safest in the vessel type he or she has the most experience with. But let’s imagine the hypothetical situation of an Alaska racer with an equal weekend warrior level of proficiency in all types of small craft. What boat would best allow him to live to tell, or possibly win? Here are important aspects to look for: Self bailing, or unswampable as with a kayak. Easily driven under human power with basic durable gear that favors the racers physical strengths. Smooth set up of sleeping arrangement, galley and head on or off the craft, with an adaptable approach to utilizing the rare rest spots and storm shelters along the mainly rocky shores. And above all else, stunning looks!

Going solo and sleeping snugly on the boat takes ground tackle and sheltered water paired with a complex tarp setup or even below deck infrastructure. Another option is to have a boat light enough to drag up the rocks and bivy above the high water mark with the bugs and the furry beasts. Either way, it takes experience, research and close study of charts trying to locate these far-in-between, safe havens, and still, without a good dose of luck, the choice spot might not be anything but an open bight with impossibly deep water or a driftwood choked cove featuring fresh bear scat.

One can easily imagine the effects of a few nights in a row of unsettled, stressful camping. This aspect could prove one of the greatest challenges. With a bigger boat and a buddy aboard it might make sense to snooze while the other navigates through the short June nights, and in this fashion minimize landfalls.

Can the racer learn to roll a loaded seakayak in rough water (not beyond the skill set of an enthusiastic amateur)? If yes, then I think a kayak will fulfill most of the fundamental safety and speed requirements for this type of activity in these waters. Few other boats can be righted so instinctively without taking any water on board, and propelled for hours, even days, at a good speed with little strain. But without the roll the kayak becomes a loaded gun with a hair trigger, pointed right at the paddler.

Russell Brown: My image of a boat for this race is one where sailing takes priority and human power is secondary (but with the ability to comfortably do both at once). The boat would have to be light enough to human power reasonably well, yet long enough to carry the considerable load necessary for a race of this length. It would need to be able to sail upwind in light air exceptionally well, yet still be able to thrash through the Johnstone Straights.

There has been little development of this sort of boat from a purely racing viewpoint and that’s part of what I find exciting about the R2AK.

David Omick: Wind, waves and tidal currents are so variable along the entire route that a boat with multiple means of propulsion will have an advantage. I don’t see a paddling or rowing-only craft pulling off a win. Combine either with sail though, and your odds look better.

That said, the big distance days when heading north along that coast in an engineless craft come during inclement weather. Typically that’s when the wind has a southerly component, which means foul weather to one degree or another, but it’s also when the wind is blowing your direction. Boats that can stand up to their sail and carry on in bad weather will have a big advantage under those conditions. My best day’s run in the West Wight Potter was over 60 miles. Boats with higher speed potential could easily rack up a 100-plus mile day during stormy weather. In between those runs though, if they’re sailboats without other means of propulsion, they could also sit there for days or longer going almost nowhere before that happens.

My guess is that a craft with the best chance of winning would probably be a small (under 25′) multihull, capable of being efficiently rowed, lightly loaded with backpacking-type gear and food and carrying a crew of two. In favorable winds it could cover a lot of ground quickly, yet when becalmed could still move reasonably well under oars. The crew of two could take full advantage of the long days with a watch-on-watch schedule and minimum time spent at anchor.

2. What do you see as the biggest obstacles to be overcome by the boat and skipper? (Fatigue? Foul weather? Lack of wind? Tidal current? Fear?)

Howard Rice: All of the above and more including very cold and thus dangerous water. While there are adventure races that test sailors/paddlers most of these are in warmer climates. This is not Florida or the Carolinas, this is a wild west race set in the lap of a legendary northwest weather machine. I would suggest that discipline, nutrition, water intake, the ability to sleep plus a fully tested boat are key ingredients. Equal in importance is the ability for the sailors to understand the tides and related currents for the entire course, no small feat. The art of timing and playing eddies will be of great importance.

Like many long distance races the victory may go to the night fighters, those disciplined enough to sleep off-watch no matter the time of day. Given the possibility for light air during June and the going-to-weather nature of the course a few packs of nasty cigars may serve competitors well. They are great for sniffing up zephyrs of breeze during the dead calm black of night. If the nasty ones are selected (when I was racing big boats in a previous life Swisher Sweets did the trick) I guarantee they will keep the crew awake but may cause a mutiny. If it were me I would divorce myself from any notion of eye on the prize money and finishing first. Instead I would focus on the moment, every moment, every flick of a telltale or boat speed variation. Focus will be key and steady focus will require good sleep and good nutrition.

Richard Woods: Although I am British I have sailed the whole course (admittedly in the reverse direction) and also sailed the PNW for the last 10 years, indeed just this summer we cruised to the north end of Vancouver Island.

Because it is so slow a rowboat will not want to deviate from the shortest route, which means the tides will dominate the strategy. Rowing for 6 hours and only getting 5 miles will sap morale at the very least. Hitting the tidal gates at the right time will rely on a lot of luck, but also careful planning.

Obviously Seymour Narrows is the big one, but even rowing east out of Victoria on day 1 will be hard work until the tide changes. So before each gate there may be time to stop and rest, or maybe you will need a 1 a.m. Start, or maybe you have to row for 18 hours non stop.

It is generally a light-wind area with flat seas; storm or survival conditions are unlikely. However sailing boats must be able to row for long periods—maybe “motorsailing”, and huge light-weather sails are essential. Sailing into Victoria could be tricky, depending on where the check point (presumably the customs dock) is. It may not even be legal, in which case human power is essential.

Once north of Seymour Narrows there are few anchorages or beaches, never mind convenient places to resupply. Even getting drinking water may be a problem. Walking to stores wastes time furthermore, although crews will carry lightweight freeze-dried food, that uses a lot of water, so it may be worth taking a hand-held desalinator, and certainly worth installing a rain catchment system. Rowing uses a lot of energy and you drink a lot of water, so a rowboat will need far more stores than a sailboat.

The biggest danger will be sailing fast at night and hitting a log.

These are the websites I recommend people use to plan the race.

But anyone serious about winning should cruise the course first, picking out anchorages and stopping places as well as checking for back eddies and problem areas. If the wind is good then going “outside” will be fastest. Maybe even coming in to Bella Bella from the north?

Chuck Leinweber: I think the biggest obstacle to be overcome by the crew is complacency. You can bet that the winning boat is going to have a dedicated, focused, and perseverant group of sailors aboard.

Scot Domergue: The biggest obstacles will be quite individual, depending on the particular participants and their boats. The R2AK will be challenging for all, but in different ways:

For a solo racer, defining strategy and managing everything to minimize fatigue will be vital, along with the mental and physical stamina to keep going. Finding places to pull out and sleep may be difficult, particularly when trying not to lose more time than absolutely necessary. This will be easier in a boat in which one can sleep at anchor than with one that must be pulled up onto the shore.

For crews of two or more in very small boats, interpersonal relations can make or break a team. Staying focused for the long haul may be challenging for most in a race of this length and complexity.

Many of the challenges will be weather dependent . . . the frustration of calms in a boat intended primarily to sail, or rough conditions for rowers; headwinds are likely and could be frustrating for both, depending on the boat’s performance to windward. Weather conditions at Cape Caution and Dixon Entrance may require decisions in which fear plays a part.Tidal currents, lack of wind, strong and adverse winds—all of these come with the territory of this race—best that we all be able to take them in stride.

John Welsford: All of those, but local knowledge will give a considerable advantage. I had the opportunity to get out on the water along the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island and I was interested to see the huge eddies that occur during tide movement. A skipper who does not know these will lose out big time.

Fatigue? Constant attention will be required and mistakes could be costly. Lack of wind will cost the sailing boats a lot, but I don’t think that fear is so much of an issue once the boats are on the water. Natural caution yes but not so much fear, until after its all over when “What was I thinking?” is likely to be a common thought.

Dudley Dix: Fatigue and hypothermia are always big challenges on a voyage like this. Maximum efficiency of hull form will help to reduce the fatigue. Onboard shelter that can be sealed from the elements will help with fighting the cold, but highly efficient clothing systems will be very important. It is extremely difficult to pull one’s self up from the physically draining numbing cold of living in wet clothing. Staying dry and warm takes little energy, but recovering from the combination of fatigue and hypothermia places massive demands on body and mind. Warm and dry we can cope with almost anything; cold and wet we can be stopped by relatively small challenges. That is when the other dangers of such a voyage become major issues, when navigation mistakes are made, fear removes clarity of thinking and we put ourselves in positions and situations from which we have trouble recovering.

David Omick: Here’s the rub: The days will be long, with around 18 hours of usable daylight, especially as the race goes farther north and closer to solstice. That creates a major temptation to keep going, which in turn leads to fatigue and the potential for some serious mistakes. Mix that in with foul weather, tidal currents, rocks, tide rips, boomers and marine traffic, not to mention several of these demanding attention at the same time, and you can see the potential for interesting stories following the race. Hopefully that will be the worst of it.

The upside to these travails? You’re traveling along one of the most amazing coastlines in the world. Whales, seals, sea lions, bears, salmon, birds, marine traffic of all kinds and amazing scenery throughout. There’s no end of attractions for observant mariners. Sometimes you can race along this coast, but sometimes there’s no wind or the current is contrary and maybe it’s telling you to just sit there and take it all in.

Russell Brown: There are dangers in a race like this, but the R2AK course affords places to duck into pretty much everywhere, so the biggest danger is going to be hypothermia. Really good preparation for capsize or swamping and the resulting immersion seems necessary. 

I’m not a racer and never really have been, besides a few memorable races a long time ago, so it’s funny that anyone wants my opinion on the Race to Alaska. Maybe it’s not so funny, because I have been just as captivated by the race as everyone else. My interest is maybe a little different from most people’s though, and more about the future of the race and the way it could influence boat design.

The R2AK race makes me think a lot about my favorite period in sailing history, which started a year before I was born and lasted into my twenties. This was the OSTAR race, a singlehanded, upwind race across the Atlantic. This race, run every four years, was the catalyst for huge leaps in boat design evolution. If you don’t believe me, consider that the winning time in 1960 was 40 days and in 1988, the winning time was just over 10 days!

The beauty of the OSTAR race was that someone could build a boat in his backyard and not just compete, but have a chance of winning. A good example is Mike Birch. Sailing a tiny trimaran that was built by friends on a shoestring budget—he finished second place in under 25 days, just behind Eric Tabarley, sailing a 73’ purpose-built uranium-ballasted monohull. Fifty of the 125 entrants were knocked out of this race (1976) by two major gales and one early finisher was 236 feet long.

The unlikely could be common in the race to Alaska as well, but the OSTAR race lost its Soap Box Derby-like appeal when the commercial sponsorship of competitors took over and the average racer no longer had a chance. The R2AK has the same captivating appeal that the OSTAR once had, but my hope is that the guy who builds his own boat may always have a chance of winning because the human power element will likely keep the boats small and relatively cheap.

Meade Gougeon: Fatigue. And this is also part of boat design—all efforts should be made to have sleeping accommodations comfortable enough that one crew member can actually sleep. Often racers have a designated place to sleep but it’s not comfortable enough to get actual sleep. In the Everglades Challenge, my monohull sailing canoe finished ahead of 10 of the 14 multihulls entered—not because I was faster, but because the crews on the multis were turning into zombies. People who settle down, organize, and eat and sleep well will win.

Another thing multihull guys suffer from is continually getting wet. In cold water this is a tough thing to beat. I’m not so sure that a multihull is the vessel of choice in the R2AK. Whatever the boat, it should allow crew a reasonably good chance at staying dry. I’m an ice-boater—we survive in some pretty difficult temperatures, but 30º and wet is much worse than minus 5º and dry.

John Vigor: Likely biggest obstacles to be overcome by the boat include:
• Rapids and contrary gales
• Calms
• Deadheads
• Current at night setting boat off course
• The open Pacific and large areas of short, steep seas where headwinds run counter to strong currents.

Likely biggest obstacles to be overcome by the crew include:
• Night watches
• Sleep deprivation
• Cold exhaustion (hypothermia)
• Fatigue
• Blistered hands
• Injury
• Depression, from cold, drizzly, gray weather (need for hot food and drink — important)
• Exposure to the elements: windburn and (unlikely but very faintly possible) sunburn
• Lack of knowledge about tides and currents
• Knowing when to rest, and when it is futile to battle a headwind (effort vs reward).

As for fear, the lesser form of fear known as anxiety should be ever-present. It’s helpful. It keeps you on your toes. Really disabling fear tends to disappear when you tackle a problem head-on.

Jan Nicolaisen: The boat that wins this race will likely be human powered. Therefore accumulated physical fatigue is a big challenge. Heading out there with a serious bid to podium is also taxing in the way all ultra endurance events are. Small issues, often shrugged off on a day trip, can grow and fester. They can be real life blisters from rowing or hidden irritations with an untried partner’s antics. Either way, they tend to pop up again and again and one must have the energy and experience to deal with them quickly and effectively.

3.How long do you guess it will take the winner to run the 750 mile course?

David Omick: I’ll guess 15 days at a minimum and 20-30 more likely. There will be days when sailboats without efficient auxiliary propulsion will just sit there becalmed. I’ve spent plenty of time on that routine, which goes like this: drift and row with the tidal current in the right direction for six hours, then anchor. Repeat every six hours until the wind returns. That can sometimes go on for many days. As Captain George Vancouver found out over 200 years ago, engineless sailing along that coast takes lots of patience. Almost no one nowadays does it.

Clear weather, when it comes, will gladden hearts after days of rain, but it usually brings north winds which will slow everyone down.

Route is another variable that can have a significant effect on the outcome, depending on the boat. A primarily paddling or rowing craft is probably better off staying on the Inside Passage for the entire course. On the other hand, north of Bella Bella a capable sailing craft will usually do better on a more outside route.

Howard Rice: I haven’t the slightest notion other than to say the range could be anywhere from just shy of a week to three weeks. A fast powerful cat or trimaran may prevail in a few days given even moderate air. If all goes flat then the rowing/sailing combo or even a strong rowing-only team may do the job in a matter weeks but, this said, it still seems to be a multihull event given the historic wind data for the time of year.

John Vigor: I’d guess 7 to 18 days. It will depend on the weather, of course. If a week of depressions comes spinning off the Gulf of Alaska and sets up southerlies, expect a fast race.

For comparison, the record kayak circumnavigation of Vancouver Island is held by Russell Henry of Victoria—12 days, paddling 11-14 hours a day.

One pertinent question is whether a boat being rowed or paddled can get to windward faster than a sailboat. A Haida raiding party paddling a canoe non-stop and averaging 4 knots could finish in eight days. One of Captain Vancouver’s sailing/rowing longboats that charted Puget Sound so quickly wouldn’t be far behind. There are several replicas of those around.

Otherwise, a slim slippery Viking longship like the Gogstad ship, 80 feet long and carrying 100 berserkers, could be there (and pillaging Ketchikan) in about eight days. But I’d bet on a modern multihull to take the prize.

For some interesting facts on actual course conditions go here.

Dudley Dix: More of a thumb-suck than an educated guess, I think it will take about 9-10 days, allowing for some lost time in narrow passages waiting out adverse tides and keeping going at most other times.

Chuck Leinweber: I predict the winner will make it in under 10 days, and perhaps half that.

Russell Brown: There are just so many variables it’s impossible to predict.

Meade Gougeon: I’d guess 7-9 days.
Richard Woods: Finishing time depends on the wind, and luck on getting tidal gates right. Seven days is a sensible minimum; 10 is more likely.

The easy bit getting to Victoria, the second stage to Seymour Narrows is also straightforward. The challenge won’t really start until boats are in Johnstone Strait. Only the best will get north of Vancouver Island. Few will finish.

Jan Nicolaisen: If an athlete like kayaker Russell Henry shows up repeating his daily average of 55 miles from the record breaking Vancouver Island circumnavigation, then it will take less than two weeks.

John Welsford: This is very dependent upon the conditions, a big catamaran might do the course in three days if there are consistent winds, in a flat calm a two pair oar fast rowing boat might make it in eight days,  but I think 12 to 14 days is more likely.

Scot Domergue: First, the initial 40 miles from Port Townsend to Victoria, including the wait for the second start from Victoria will take two days.That’s how the race is structured. So the real question is: how long will it take for the 710 miles from Victoria to Ketchikan?

Second, it will depend on conditions. A big storm off the North Pacific could result in a big delay for even the fastest, most seaworthy boats at Cape Caution or across Dixon Entrance. Extended calms could delay the fastest sailing boats significantly, but would be quite nice for rowers.

Assuming a crew that can keep the boat moving at top speed for conditions for the entire trip, I think a boat like Dragonfly could make it from Victoria to Ketchikan in five days or less in the right conditions. A strong two-person rowing team in the right boat might complete that 710 miles in a week in favorable conditions, though 10 days might be more realistic (I’m not primarily a rower; I’d take Colin Angus’ opinion). The sort of small, light tri I’m designing could make that same 710 miles in a week, in good conditions that include wind more than half the time; maybe less than a week, though not much less.

And less favorable conditions could easily make nonsense of all this!

We’d like to thank our expert panel for their kind participation. We encourage SCA readers to support them and their enterprises. —Eds

Dudley Dix has been designing boats commercially since 1980. He has built three large offshore yachts and many small ones. He has sailed across the South Atlantic four times, three with crew and once double-handed. He has recently designed a boat for a proposed single-handed human powered circumnavigation using pedal-power. Website dixdesign.com  Blog dudleydix.blogspot.com .

Free-thinking designer, boatbuilder, and epoxy specialist Russell Brown regularly cruises the waters of the Pacific Northwest. He and his wife Ashlyn own and operate Port Townsend Watercraft. www.ptwatercraft.com. His new book “Epoxy Basics” is available from SCA.

David Omick sailed up the Inside Passage in a West Wight Potter in 1976 and has returned many times since in sailing sea kayaks and on the ferry. He’s currently working on a pack raft for an adventure next summer along the Alaskan coast. His adventure page is at www.omick.net/adventure/adventure.html

New Zealander John Welsford began building boats at nine years of age—bending roofing sheet iron into a simple canoe shape. Although largely self-taught, John has been designing professionally for some 32 years and has taught Marine Design at University. Although best known for small sailing and rowing craft of generally traditional appearance, he has designed such vessels as a long range power trimaran, Mini Transat singlehanded ocean racers, trans ocean rowing craft, and houseboats. www.jwboatdesigns.co.nz

Chuck Leinweber is a longtime backyard boatbuilder who, for lack of anything better to do, parlayed his hobby into a home Internet business. In his spare time he dreams up activities for small boats such as the Texas200 and the Port Aransas plyWooden Boat Festival. www.duckworksbbs.com

Based in the UK,  Richard Woods specializes in the design of multihulls for both home and professional builders. He has been sailing for over 50 years, designing sailing multihulls for 35 and he has sailed the Pacific Northwest every summer for the last 10 years. Nearly 2500 plans have now been sold and boats built worldwide. See more at www.sailingcatamarans.com

Co-founder of Gougeon Brothers (West System epoxy), boat designer, builder, and developer, Meade Gougeon is a veteran of countless sailing races including the Everglades Challenge. www.westsystem.com

Since 1994 Jan Nicolaisen has explored the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia on month long voyages, mainly in small sailboats. Lately the focus has shifted towards coastal adventuring with his family in packrafts, the simplest of small craft, thus combining backpacking and paddling.

Scot Domergue has cruised solo in a variety of boats. He created the Marsh Duck (see www.scotdomergueblog.wordpress.com/; plans available from Duckworks Magazine online) and spent three months on her between Port Townsend and Alert Bay in 2013. He’s registered for the R2AK and expects to build a new boat for the race.

Small-boat sailor and sailing skills instructor Howard Rice instructs SCAMP builds, is an avid canoe sailor and conducts Small Craft Skills Academies at various locations worldwide. www.smallcraftacademy.com

John Vigor is one of the Pacific Northwest’s best-read boating writers. He is the author of 12 books. His popular blog is read in a dozen countries round the world and has tallied more than 606,000 page views and more than 900 archived columns. www.johnvigor.com

For more information on the Race visit: www.racetoalaska.com

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Discussion3 Comments

  1. Jimi Wright says:

    I agree, given the prevalent fickle and light winds along with tidal currents, a vesslel that is both human and wind powered will likely have the best advantage. And clearly a crewed boat will dominate the single-handed entries, they’ll probably become bear chum when they stop to sleep and eat. Check out our website LocoMotionGear.com for a writeup on the racet and our Team St. Brendan R2AK Challenge, a single-handed sail/row/paddle atempt on Stage 1.

  2. Sandy Banks says:

    Will you have a blog like this for the upcoming 2016 race?

    • admin says:

      Hi Sandy,

      We do plan to post, however erratically, updates on the R2AK. We will focus especially on the 20-foot-and-under boats and our $1,000 prize for the first one to finish. —Eds

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