The skies were overcast, but there was no fog at 4:45 a.m. as team by team sneaked out from the Point Hudson jetty into Port Townsend Bay on race day.
With the wind at about 15 knots, sailboats tacked behind the starting line and the kayakers feathered blades while rowers shipped oars or sculled lightly to hold position.
Forty-six teams are competing this year for the chance to win $10,000, the grand prize for the first to reach Ketchikan, Alaska. Second place is honored with a set of steak knives. But before they set their sights on Alaska, the teams must cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 36 hours where current, wind and monster cargo ships make the trip to Victoria, B.C. the “proving grounds.”
From land, hundreds gathered on the Northwest Maritime Center dock and at Pope Marine Park, cheering as each boat headed for the starting zone, accompanied by Port Townsend’s Unexpected Brass Band, energetic despite the early hour. The line at Velocity Coffee was out the door, while Jefferson Healthcare chef Arran Stark and his team dished out free oatmeal from a pot big enough to row to British Columbia.
Just as the sun began to rise, the racing committee blasted its horn and the racers were off.
Team Pear Shaped Racing immediately took the lead. In their Chris Cochrane 10.6m custom trimaran, they raced over the rolling waves, sailing off into the Strait just as the sun peeked through the clouds. They were the first to reach Victoria at 8:52 a.m.
A gale watch had been issued by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration from Monday morning until Monday night. Those who could harness it made their way quickly to Victoria. Others chose to cross the starting line and then anchor for the night at Point Hudson to wait for better weather on Tuesday.
“That was an excellent judgement call,” Race Boss Daniel Evans said. “We started with a nice wind, definitely challenging, but that’s what the race is about.”
For those racing by paddle, such as the kayaking duo Team Oaracle, the goal was to make it through the wind and waves to the Dungeness Spit, where many teams spent the night before crossing the Strait next morning.
Team Angry Beaver out of Port Ludlow, representing the Skiff Sailing Foundation, was the third team to reach Victoria Harbor, at 9:25 a.m. Monday aboard a 40-foot sail and pedal boat.
Angry Beaver is skippered by Matt Pistay and crewed by Gavin Bracket, Brent Campbell, Alan Johnson, Mats Elf and Simon Miles. With a novel canting keel, it got the third-highest odds of winning in an R2AK poll.
Team Sail Like a Girl, which took first place last year, came into port in Victoria in ninth place at 10:19 a.m. on Monday, June 3.
Two teams, Big Lamposki and Texada, have already forfeited. Last year, of the 36 teams to leave Victoria for Ketchikan, only 21 made it.
Another hometown team to watch is North2Alaska. The six-man team is made up of Port Townsend natives Malachi Church, Henry Veitenhans, Joseph Veitenhans, Erik Pokorny and Henry and Joseph’s father Greg Veitenhans along with Tommy Gray.
The Veitenhans built the 25-foot aluminum Sharpie, called Johnny Horton, in their backyard. The team sailed the race in 2017, finishing in ten days. North2Alaska was the 26th team to make it to Victoria late Monday night.
The underdog in the race this year is team Funky Dory. Two crazies from Maine are piloting a 41-year-old, 15.9-foot wooden Swampscott dory. The course to the starting line has been long for Thor Belle and Pax Templeton. They decided to enter R2AK after meeting Karl Kruger, the man who paddled the 750 miles to Ketchikan in 2017.
Belle and Templeton found the dory, which had been stored outdoors for a decade, and restored it to racing trim. But just a few months before the race it was damaged in a car accident during transportation and the Mainers had to repair it again. The crash dislocated Belle’s shoulder. Templeton dislocated his elbow a few weeks before the wreck. Now the two are recuperating by trying to row to Alaska.
After taking off from Port Townsend, Funky Dory began to take on water, got a rock stuck in their centerboard and Belle’s shoulder injury was acting up. They decided to wait out the winds and camp just past Fort Worden and make their crossing on Tuesday.
“You may look at the tracker and think we’re insane but we’re not,” Belle told the race boss.
On Tuesday morning, with the 36-hour proving ground deadline winding down, Evans said Funky Dory had repaired their boat and were back in business to cross the Strait. He described their attitude and determination to reach Victoria as unwavering.
After the 36-hour mark, which expires after Leader deadline, any teams not in Victoria will be disqualified from the full race. After one day to make repairs and rest, the teams going the full distance will strike out for Alaska on Thursday, June 6.