The starting horn rings out. The Russian National Anthem plays. The crowd cheers as the boats take off, powered by wind and by paddle. They race out past Point Hudson and then… they’re gone.
Some of the crowd attending the start of the Race to Alaska on June 3 turned around and went back to bed after the 5 a.m. kick off. Others milled about chatting, getting coffee and watching the very last boat make its way out of the Port Townsend Bay.
But the most hardcore R2AK groupies immediately knew how to combat the post-race-start blues. These fans are known as “tracker junkies.”
As team Angry Beaver raced to the finish line on June 10, taking home first place and $10,000, weather guru and team supportman Eric Dorman refreshed the R2AK tracker page—an online map created by the Northwest Maritime Center to electronically track racers—127 times.
Team Angry Beaver completed the race in 4 days 3 hours and 56 minutes aboard their Schock 40, a 40-foot performance monohull with a canting keel. They were followed by second place winners Team Pear Shaped Racing, who finished in 4 days 6 hours and 23 minutes and won a set of steak knives for their effort.
But long after the winning teams have rung the bell at the dock in Ketchikan, tracker junkies across the nation still have their eyes glued to the screen.
“At work I use two computer screens and on one of them, the tracker will be up, every day,” said Dean Burke, who was one of the first paddlers to cross the strait during the R2AK in 2017.
One of the founders of the SEVENTY48 race, which takes place before R2AK, Burke is an avid paddler and adventurer. But one R2AK was enough for him, at least for now.
“Going across the strait is no small proposition,” he said. “There’s no handrail. You can’t pull over and take a break. So I watch with a great amount of respect. When I hear about the weather concerns, the struggles they’re facing, I feel that in my stomach.”
Burke is the prime definition of a tracker junkie: he’s got his eye on the online race tracker 24/7.
The tracker is an online map created by the Northwest Maritime Center. On a blue map depicting the Inside Passage, the tracker has tiny orange figures in the shape of boats. Each is labelled with a team name.
Watching those little orange boats can become an addiction.
“It’s always fascinating when a boat suddenly stops and you think, ‘I wonder what broke,’” said Tim Yeadon, who watches the tracker from Ballard where he runs his creative agency, Clyde Golden.
A small craft builder and sailor, Yeadon has done some sailing in the Inside Passage and therefore has a sense of how difficult the race is. He watches the tracker to see which routes the racers take, where they hide out when the weather gets tricky, and how they navigate the tides and currents of the Inside Passage.
“It’s very interesting to see the decisions that are being made on the water,” said Sean Grealish, who was the skipper on the youngest team to ever finish the R2AK last year. “Especially now that I’ve been on the route. I have a sense of what it’s like to be out there.”
Last year, 20-year-old Grealish was out on the water with the other racers. This year, he’s in school at the University of Puget Sound. But while doing biology research, Graelish has a window on his computer screen set to the R2AK tracker. He’s experiencing a bit of longing to be out racing again, he said.
“There’s only so many years I’ll be able to sit on the sidelines,” he said. “There’s a certain calling to it. I’ll be back, that’s for sure.”
But for now, Grealish has settled to watching the tracker day in and day out.
From the tracker, it may seem like the orange dots are moving at random. But from the water, it’s all about strategy, Grealish said. But when it comes to weather, the viewers from land actually have a better idea of the forecast than the racers do.
“It’s fun to watch the tracker and keep your eye on the weather,” he said. “I know from experience it’s really hard to do when you’re in the race. All we had was a VHF weather broadcast, which are not updated with half the frequency of some forecast websites.”
If you know a storm is coming, it can be fun to watch which teams try to power through it and which teams find a place to wait it out.
Keeping an eye on the tracker, the weather and the currents helps armchair sailors better understand why the teams might be making the decisions they’re making, Grealish said.
“There were a couple bad current days where we didn’t go through, we just hung out,” he said. “That can be hard to tell on the tracker. You might think we broke something, or that someone is hurt. It doesn’t tell you half the story. But what’s fun is to put the story together, by keeping an eye on the weather and the currents.”
Tracker junkies can’t help but predict who might win (“Pear Shaped Racing is looking pretty good, based on pure boat speed,” Grealish said. “But with speed comes treachery.”) but keeping the tracker on 24/7 is about more than just seeing the winners.
“I’ll watch the tracker long after the top 10 boats arrive,” Yeadon said. “I’ll watch the stragglers. That’s when the really great stories emerge.”
Watching Karl Kruger become the first ever stand-up paddle boarder to finish the race in 2017 was one of the best tracker experiences, Yeadon said.
The experiences racers have along the way, posted in videos and photos on their social media is like an annotation to the tracker. That orange dot on the map becomes a real-time adventure story, with strategies to devise, struggles to overcome, and the great outdoors to contend with.
“It really becomes an addiction,” Grealish said. “Before you go to bed, check the tracker. When you wake up, check the tracker. I probably check it every two to three hours while the race is happening.”