Sketching on the go

Drawing the 2018 R2AK


Whiskey. An orange-flavored electrolyte tablet and Swedish Fish gummy candy.

It’s the “Manhattan” invented by Team Sail Like a Girl on their way to winning the 2018 Race to Alaska, and exactly the kind of detail cartoonist Nhattaleah Nichols loves.

“You get the greatest stories from sleep-deprived weirdos,” she said of her time as one of the embedded journalists covering the race from the water. Tidbits like that may slip past traditional journalists covering an assignment.

During the 2018 R2AK, Nichols was a crewmember first on the tugboat Geraldine and later aboard the Ocean Watch.

From her observations, Nichols has completed and self-published a 31 page graphic novel, “Boats, Bears, and Bad Life Choices: The Race to Alaska.” There will be a book launch at 6:30 p.m. April 26 at Phosphene, 1034 Water St. in Port Townsend.

When not busy on the deck, Nichols was snapping photos and taking notes of all the day’s happenings, transcribing what she saw to page each evening.

“The idea of a story is always the most appealing part for me as an artist and I transitioned over to doing graphic novels recently. Then I got interested in graphic journalism.”

As a journalist in a non-traditional medium, Nichols constantly searches for stories that are hard to communicate through writing and photographs, she said.

This led her to R2AK last year, something that forced Nichols out of her comfort zone.

“I am super afraid of the water,” she said. “I don’t know how to row. I don’t know how to sail.”

Shannon Shea, skipper of the Geraldine, said Nichols never shirked her duties but still made time to complete her observations.

“When we were rocking and rolling out there, she got out her sketchbook and started drawing things,” Shea said. “It was the most amazing thing to watch her see all of it and then have it come to life in this form on paper.”

Shea said she was impressed by Nichols’ courage.

“I don’t know if she knew what she had gotten herself into. She is afraid of water, so this was really rising to the occasion and staring down her own challenges. She just went at it with discipline but also with this gentle force.”

After arriving in Victoria after the first leg of the journey was complete, Shea and Nichols roomed together for a few days.

“Every day she would go out and talk to people, then she would come back and take some notes,” Shea said. “She would get up in the middle of the night and by the time I got up and started making coffee, there was a beginning of a sketch.”

Out of tragedy

In 2009, while Nichols was living in the London area, a recent ex-boyfriend overdosed on heroin and died. This was at about the same time Nichols discovered graphic novels, she said.

“I wanted to draw a little story about him, but it looked terrible. It turns out drawing is hard.”

Wanting to get better, Nichols signed up for college and graduated with a degree in drawing.

“My degrees that I have are specifically from observation, so all of my work is from drawing from scene,” she said.

Shea is impressed with Nichols work.

“She has the combination of professionalism and this intuitive understanding of how to capture the essence of something,” Shea said. “She was able to tune in and depict it in a way that was gentle and funny but also true.”

There is also a consistency to Shea’s work, Nichols said.

“I love the way she uses a very particular palette. She captures the spirit of things.”


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