Little Boats in a Big Race #R2AK

by · June 22, 2016

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The fast and famous “Bad Kitty” docked forward of Team Mail Order Bride’s F-boat.

From the moment the Race to Alaska kicked off its second year by calling out billionaire America’s Cup mogul Larry Ellison, the gossip and speculation has surrounded the biggest boats in the fleet. Ellison never called back, but another presumably wealthy and well-connected sailor did plan to enter an America’s Cup 72. The only catch was that he said they’d require a motorized support boat, which would mean a formal exemption to R2AK’s only two rules. Fortunately race management objected.

Then word came that the 34-foot custom catamaran Bad Kitty had signed on. While not as fast as the America’s Cup boats, the regional legend and Swiftsure and Vanisle 360 champion is arguably far more formidable in these waters (as demonstrated in part by their NOT requesting a motorized support boat.)

If the arrival of Bad Kitty took wind out of the sails of the many F-Boats eyeing the $10k first prize, seeing Team Tritium enter the 73-foot ocean-racing champion Lending Tree trimaran must have deflated them entirely. But then a few days ago word arrived that Tritium sailed into a rough patch on their way up the coast to the starting line and the Lending Tree boat broke. That’s the thing about this really fast boats, they can also be a little…delicate. To their credit, Team Tritium scrambled and came up with their own bright orange F-boat and made it to the starting line here in Port Townsend yesterday.

With all of the talk about big, expensive boats, one might assume that the Race to Alaska is going the way of so many other sailing races and becoming contest to see who’s pockets are deepest, but in fact this year’s fleet has plenty of modest entries, including some very small and home-built boats. Of the 44 teams aiming for Ketchikan, 22 of them—fully half the fleet—are in boats 24-feet or under. And 17 of the teams are in boats of 20-feet or less and therefore eligible for the Small Craft Advisor Side Bet prize, $1,000 and the cover of our magazine.

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The Colin Angus-designed RowCruiser sailing version.

FAVORITES
Handicapping R2AK is a fool’s game, as each boat is only a broken rudder, a navigation error, or a deadhead away from an early exit, but there are a few small-boats teams that look especially likely to compete for our $1000 prize.

World-class adventurer Colin Angus will be solo in his 18′ 8.5″ RowCruiser with sailing rig and amas. The RowCruiser-as-trimaran offers good speed and stability under sail and excellent performance under sliding seat and oars if the wind dies. And Colin’s experience and familiarity with local waters are no small advantage.

One might have assumed Colin would be the only R2AK competitor who had once rowed across the Atlantic, but Team Liteboat’s Mathieu Bonnier has done it as well—and he’s also showing up in a rowing-sailing trimaran of almost identical length. The match-up between these two experienced adventurers on similar boats should be fascinating.

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The Mathieu Bonnier-designed LiteBoat

But one thing that Angus and Bonnier lack that would nearly double their chances, is crew. Teams like Bunny Whaler (Boston Whaler), Team Nordica (Nordica 16), Team Excellent Adventure (Montgomery 17), Team Coastal Express (16-foot Mirror), Team Vantucky (Windrider 17) and Team Squamish (6M Monohull) have extra hands and someone to give them a pep talk when things inevitably look bleak—also no small thing.

The rugged and relentless Roger Mann would have been among our pre-race favorites, but late word is that he’s been forced to drop out after car trouble delayed his cross-country arrival.

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Turnpoint Design’s carbon cat “Felix.”

UNTHINKABLE?
If there’s a giant killer among the smaller boats it might be Team Turnpoint and their custom carbon Turnpoint 24 catamaran Felix. Demonstrating plenty of speed under sail and pedal power last year, Team Turnpoint’s crew of two was forced to drop out in the heavy weather as their hastily prepared prototype showed its flaws. But a year and many modifications later, the local team returns with a faster Felix and, importantly, three crew members.

DESIGN
Adventure races, just like sailing regions themselves, tend to steer the development of boat design. There are certain boat design characteristics that are advantageous in particular waters and for particular purposes. Obviously a light boat and more than one hull is an advantage in terms of speed, but quite a few of the boats entered in the R2AK look like speed was the only consideration. When we look out over the small-boat fleet assembled, the word that comes to mind is “exposure.”

The open beach catamarans and low-riding trimarans will be fast, but for how long? Somewhere around three days of being cold, uncomfortable, and sleep-deprived has even the most masochistic sailor thinking about warm beds and hot showers. In terms of comfort—and quite possibly race longevity—the “cruising” boats have a distinct advantage, with a cabin to act as a bulwark against wind and weather and warm, dry place to sleep. Here’s where Colin Angus’s RowCruiser with its enclosed cabin, and Turnpoint’s Felix with her protected cuddy (where most catamarans have only a trampoline), look like a better fit for the conditions.

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Bill Gifford’s (Excellent Adventure) Monty 17 has been fully vetted

VETERAN EXPERIENCE
Several of the small monohulls look well-prepared also. Team Coastal Express is back in their 16-foot Mirror Dinghy for another shot at Ketchikan. Team Excellent Adventure, who completed the race last year in 18 days, is back to do it again. After two rudder failures and some close calls night sailing last year, Bill Gifford and crew are carrying an extra rudder and have upgraded navigation lights on his Montgomery 17.

Team Sea Runner’s Thomas Nielsen, who was forced to bail out in his Wharram-designed catamaran a few windy days into R2AK 1, is back in what might be the fastest monohull in the race—an 18-foot Seascape. With a small cabin to duck out of the weather and surfing speeds as high as 20-knots, the Seascape, with its twin outboard rudders, code zero, and spinnaker, makes an intriguing choice.

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Thomas Nielsen (Team Sea Runner) aboard his swift Seascape 18.

HEY THAT’S MY BOAT!
Many race fans and trailersailors will enjoy following the adventures of teams in popular small production boats just like ones they own. A rugged but heavily-laden Nordica 16 will aim for Alaska with two souls aboard, as will a Windrider 17, a Drascombe Longboat, and a Cal 20, among others.

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The Nordica 16 ready for 750 miles of cold water.

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Team Bunny Whaler’s Harpoon with custom sliding seat rowing

STAY TUNED
We’ll be following the action and will try to post a few updates along the way. Wishing everyone fair winds and smooth seas.

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