(Editor’s note: This story is graciously presented to olson30.org by Will from Hot Mess Racing, documenting their epic adventure in the 2016 Race To Alaska. For more info on the R2AK visit the R2AK website. For more info on Hot Mess Racing check out their site)
All video footage by: Spencer Weber (spencerweber.com), all videos edited by Will Schwenger
All Photos by: Spencer Weber (spencerweber.com)
Naively believing that we would not be stopping we had only brought a 25 lb anchor and 3ft of chain for our 30ft sailboat. There was no way it was going to hold against the nuking conditions of Johnstone Strait. The whole team had been up all day keeping the boat in control as we pounded north towards Alaska. We were now exhausted and quickly running out of options. How had we found ourselves in this mess?
The race to Alaska is a 750 nautical mile (nm) race from Port Townsend, Washington to Ketchikan, Alaska. It is made up of two legs: a 40 nm qualifier from Port Townsend WA to Victoria BC, and the 710 nm race from Victoria to Ketchikan. The race is pretty straightforward and has few rules: boats must be human or wind powered, no outside assistance is allowed, and most importantly no motors. Even to get yourself out of trouble.
First team to Ketchikan wins $10k; second place is a set of steak knives.
Hot Mess Racing is comprised of Neil Roberts, Spencer Webber, Nick Schwenger, and myself, Will Schwenger. We entered the R2AK on Double D, our 1979 Olson 30 – hull #38. We had put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears leading up to the June 26th start in Port Townsend to prepare for the race. We had a busy winter refitting the boat and an even busier spring doing every distance race we could as training. Oddly, we were feeling prepared when we arrived in Port Townsend before the race. All around us teams frantically made last minute preparations. Had we forgotten something?
The morning of the qualifier broke dark and cold. The forecasted wind had arrived. Timed perfectly with a falling tide it looked like it was going to be an awesome sleigh ride downwind from Port Townsend to Victoria. Watching the other boats struggle to paddle out of the harbour against the breeze we decided it would be easier to sail out and short-tacked up the channel to the start line. We had been warned the night before at the Skippers’ Meeting that no one was allowed to be over early so the plan was to have a conservative start at the far end of the start line away from all the little boats that would be clustered closer to shore. There was some excitement before the start as the media helicopter – in its quest for the best photos – got really low and blew some of the kayaks and smaller boats around. We stayed out of all this and hit the start more or less on time, hoisted a spinnaker and set off.
The plan was to stick to the American side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca until the Dungeness peer and cross over towards Victoria as the tide switched. As we rounded Point Wilson we saw the pressure was better to the east. A group of faster boats had passed us and were shooting the rum line to Victoria. What’s the point of a plan if it’s not flexible? We switched to a bigger spinnaker that allowed us to sail deeper downwind and followed in hot pursuit. We had one of the best sails we have ever had on Double D surfing down waves surrounded by big multihulls.
Unfortunately as we neared Victoria, we noticed the lead boats getting larger on the horizon. Were we catching up, or was the wind dying? We were about to sail into a huge wind vacuum, and about 5 miles from Victoria we found ourselves using our paddles for the first time. Our mode of human propulsion for the race was 4 sup paddles. Back in Vancouver our limited testing had shown us that if all four of us worked together we could get the boat moving an impressive 2 knots – what more would we need? Double D is a sailboat and the plan was to sail the entire way, not row!
Using the paddles we were able to keep our momentum through the lulls and link puffs to get to the mouth of the harbour. Paddling the last stretch into Victoria was the longest part of the race but hopefully it would be the second last time we had to paddle. Hot Mess Racing finished the first leg 15th in a time of 5 and a half hours qualifying for the 2016 R2AK!
The Race 2 Alaska starts le mons style; where everyone runs down the dock and jumps onto their boats. Our 15th place finish had secured us a spot second from the end of the dock. This tactical advantage allowed us to have a great start and we were quickly off paddling through the harbour. Unfortunately our propulsion solution made us the slowest boat and we exited Victoria harbor near the back of the fleet. The wind was light and shifty on the nose. Chasing the breeze we rode a big lift out into the strait and then an even bigger knock back towards Discovery Island. The rest of the fleet had short tacked up the shore and were now sitting in a huge hole off of Oak Bay. Sticking close to Discovery Island we were able to skirt around a few boats and stay in breeze the whole time.
The rest of the afternoon was also light and shifty. We continued to play the pressure along the Canadian shore towards the Gulf Islands. The race tracker revealed that most of the light human powered craft and many smaller dinghies were ahead of us. Damn! We would have our work cut out for us.
We knew the first big test of the race was going to be how we handled the tide. At midnight the tide was going to flip and trap all the teams who hadn’t made it out into the Strait of Georgia in the Gulf Islands for the night. Many teams drifting around in the islands did the math and took this opportunity to stop for the night and rest. The lead teams however pushed forward and we knew that if were to have any chance at staying with them, we had to escape too. There was no way we were going to make it through either of the passes in time. Our only hope was to use the tide to suck ourselves past Stuart Island and out around Saturna Island. We could see team Salish Express on their Express 27, hot on our heels, formulating a similar plan. Amazingly, we both managed to pull it off just in time!
The wind overnight was light and we drifted around the Strait of Georgia. As we passed Portier Pass we joined up with a few of the multis who had spent their nights rowing up the inside against the current. The early summer sun warmed the land creating steady thermal breeze all afternoon. We sailed as fast as we could north. Weather reports showed a system up the coast along the outside of Vancouver Island. If we were able to get to Queen Charlotte Strait by the end of June it would be downwind to Alaska!
In the evening the wind receded back North, dying around us. Sensors still showed good breeze in Powell River and the surrounding islands but nothing south of us in Nanaimo. We had to get into that breeze if we were to have any chance of getting through Johnstone Strait in time.
Special for the race we had purchased a code zero off a 30 ft trimaran and had it cut down to fit our bowsprit. The sail is huge! It blankets the entire side of the boat. We had only used it once before the race in Port Townsend where it was able to pull us around at 5 knts in 5 knts of wind.
The code 0 really proved its worth on the second night. Its huge size allowed us to keep ghosting forwards staying up with the breeze as it receded. We find the wind quick near the Sisters Islets and a mad scramble brings the code 0 down and our #3 jib up.
Tides from the Pacific Ocean moving North up the Strait of Georgia meet the tides heading south down Johnstone Strait near Mitlenatch Island. Whirlpools and tide rips are exaggerated by the wind and Double D starts to make new noises we had never heard before. All the wood inside the boat groans. A metallic pinging sound echoes down the mast. Waves splash past the head of whoever’s asleep below. It is our first treat of what is about to come.
Sun up the next day finds us short-tacking up the shore past Campbell River. Overnight we had caught up to Team Fly on their F27 trimaran and as we get close to Seymour Narrows we see Nice Pair on their 38’ Crowther Catamaran at anchor waiting for the right tide to go through the famous gap. In probably some of the luckiest timing ever we hit Seymour within 5 minutes of slack and gracefully pass through with no drama right behind the two multis.
Before the race we were warned over and over again about how the wind increases as you go north up Johnstone Strait. I’m not sure I had ever been in a situation that would have prepared me for how fierce it hit. In under an hour we went from the #1 and full main to #3 and reef, to #4 and double reef. It was like hitting a wall every time a gust roared down on us. Double D took a beating in the short steep chop as we slogged onwards. We were still being pushed by the tide at this point. None of us were sure what was going to happen when the tide flipped. Would we be able to fight it or were we going to have to find a bail out point to wait?
On deck the warm sun and turquoise water lulled us into a false sense of security. Our sail plan was keeping us mostly upright and in control. The unnerving noises from down below even faded away in the background. We adjusted to the new normal and it even started to be fun. We passed team Fly for the first time. Little did we to know that we had just met our biggest rival.
Without warning the famous tide rips and whirlpools started to appear. Turns out there is a right way and a wrong way to go through Johnstone Strait. As the tides flipped against us we were about to find the wrong way. We were forced to run away from one bad section of water into the next. It reaches peak nastiness just past Kelsey Bay. Teams Ain’t Brain Surgery and Nice Pair have anchored until things calm down. Fly joins them.
With our little anchor that’s not going to be an option for us. We take the main fully down to see if we can flatten the boat out. Buckling down for the worst our goal for the night was simply keep moving 6 knts in the right direction.
Around Robsons Bight is when we first started to notice the whales. It started with the sound of them sleeping and the scent of their fishy breath. We could hear and smell them all around us but in the darkness we couldn’t see them. I was worried that we might collide with a sleeping pod but Neil reminded me that we were hardly moving fast enough for it to be a danger. Sleeping whales would have plenty of time to get out of the way.
Before we can make it to Telegraph Cove we encounter our first real period of no wind. There isn’t a breath of it anywhere and the tides are about to flip. We’re going to get sucked back down Johnstone Strait! Paddling like mad only gets us stuck inside a whirlpool off Parson Island. Spencer throws the anchor off the bow and it catches on a sandbar like a grappling hook and with the tide pulling us backwards the anchor keeps us secure! A thermal kicks in the late morning freeing us from the island. We start the day with the code zero and progress to smaller and smaller sails until we are reefed again. The day marches on as everyone settles back into the rhythm of our shifts.
We are becalmed at night again. This time it’s near the welcoming Deserters Island, a nasty chain of rocks near the mouth of Queen Charlotte Sound. We are absolutely surrounded by little rocky islands and the ocean is alive around us with sea lions. We can see them stalking the boat, inquisitively gazing at us. Luckily the tide is on our side and will help push us through the islands and out towards Cape Caution for a little longer. We paddle to keep steerage on the rudder. For the second night in a row it’s pitch black. There are no lights on shore and few marker buoys to show us through the channel.
No sun comes up the next morning, and we are in a thick fog. Cape Caution is a few miles away at our 3 o’clock. Large gentle waves roll in off the Pacific Ocean and knock the wind out of our sails. We hope with each passing wave that we don’t get knocked too close to shore. The sound of breaking waves from Cape Caution carries across the stillness of the morning teasing us. The rising and falling of a wave reveals a pair of sleeping sea otters who – startled by us – disappear underwater.
Team Fly is back and we have a choice to make. There are two main ways to get to Bella Bella. We can either go up Fitz Hugh Sound, along the inside passage or stay in Queen Charlotte Strait and cut in at Hunter Channel. Both meet in Lama Passage but which one will have better wind? Which one will Fly take? And should we follow them?
The waves make this choice for us and we are forced to follow Team Fly into Fitz Hugh Sound. Were we happy we did! A group of humpbacks greets us at the entrance and shows off with some tail splashes and aerial maneuvers. The day clears up and another thermal kicks in. It’s finally spinnaker time!
We trade jibes all day with Fly and engage in a little match race through Lama Passage. A local charter boat throws us both a huge bag of cookies and other treats. As we pass through Bella Bella, the media team doing the interview even throws us some beers. Life is good.
The radio is warning us of a potential storm in Hecate Strait; winds of 30 knts gusting to 50 knts and three meter waves. We have another decision to make. Team Fly pulls into a cove to wait out the storm and these guys aren’t strangers to the area. Should we follow their lead? If we press on we’ll stay in the top 10 ahead of Fly, and remember, we don’t have an anchor that works. Plus, how bad can the storm be? We can just put up the little spinnaker until it gets too windy, right?
Almost immediately, it’s too windy. We’re not even past Cape Swain and we are forced to do a headsail change down to the #4 and two reefs. The sea state is bad. Its pitch black again and we are not feeling very confident. The jib car explodes under the stress from the flogging sail. Fatigue is setting in. Hecate Strait in the middle of a storm is the last place we want to be and we turn and start beating back the way we came. We waste a ton of energy and time sailing around all night waiting out the storm. Eventually we find a protected cove and manage to get the anchor to set so we can all get an hour of rest.
Neil wakes us all up the next morning when Fly sails past. We give chase. Our plan is to stay inside and hopefully avoid the worst of what’s left of the storm. The wind we think we can handle but we want to stay out of the waves. It will mean sailing a greater distance and it’s possible that we could get becalmed inside as the storm rages outside. It’s a gamble, but we were willing to take it.
Past Aristazabal Island the seas calm down and we disappear down a maze of channels. The water is flat and the wind stays with us. The tall cliffs funnel the breeze around corners and we are simply pushed along North towards our destination. The two reefs in the main make it so small it’s hardly doing anything. All our speed comes from the little red spinnaker we had affectionately named Candy. The tide doesn’t seem to matter, and we do 10 knots against it. We have switched to a 4 hour watch system. In pairs we do 4 hours on while the other pair sleeps and then switch. It’s basic and tiring but hopefully it will give us the push to finish quickly. We begin tracking shifts in miles to Ketchikan and top speed. Each shift we try and sail faster and further than the other guys. Fly taunts us in the distance every so often as we round a corner into a new channel.
Near Prince Rupert the channels push us back towards Hecate Strait and the seas grow. Neil and Spencer have the ride of the trip doing 15 knots while Nick and I sleep below. The fun is contagious and soon it’s all hands on deck. We surf waves and hit our fastest sustained speeds of the trip. Fly is getting bigger in the distance. Ketchikan is feeling really close.
Then we check the race tracker. Teams Ain’t Brain Surgery and Nice Pair had rocketed down Hecate Strait all night and were almost finished. Team Salish Express was able to keep moving while we messed around near Bella Bella and are heading at an intercept course down Hecate Strait. We frantically checked the tracker until we run out of cell service to make sure they are not travelling faster than us.
The GPS was telling us that based on our current speeds we were going to get a warm dinner in Ketchikan, and it’s really hard to not get your hopes up. The finish feels so close and yet so far. Towards the evening the storm passes and we are becalmed in Alaska. The frustration is mounting and we snap at each other to find the breeze. We can see Fly calmly drifting in front of us, waiting for the winds next move. An early evening rainstorm brings the breeze. We were back in front of Fly and trying our best to keep it that way.
Darkness kills the wind. Fly starts to row and soon starts putting a gap between our two boats. We can’t keep up with our SUP paddles; they are horrible for sustained distances! We are wet, tired, and exhausted. Rowing is painful and no matter what we do there seems to be no effect on our speed. We struggle to keep the boat doing 2 knts. Ketchikan starts to feel further and further away.
We worry the tide is going to sweep us out the channel the way we came.
We paddle until we are so tired that Spencer falls asleep and drops his paddle in the water.
Hell no, we are not going back for that. The hate mission continues.
We paddle on with 3 paddles against the current. Boat speed drops to 0.9 of a knt. The gps ETA stays stuck at one hour.
Time stops. We search the shore for the Ketchikan Yacht Club, the finish.
At 3:45 am Ketchikan time we reach the dock and ring the bell finishing 12th with a time of 6 days 15 hours and 45 minutes. A group of racers has stayed up to greet us. Fly is there having finished 47 minutes ahead of us. It feels surreal to be done. I don’t know what I want more; a shower, all night breakfast, or a bed.
Salish Express finishes the next morning 5 hours and 37 minutes behind us. It’s over four days until the next teams row into the finish. The storm leaves a giant vacuum in its wake making conditions miserable for the remaining sailboats.
Of the 44 teams that started, 26 finish. 1st place Mad Dog Racing set a jaw dropping record time of 3 days 20 hours and 13 minutes. Seven teams finished faster than the 2015 winner and 13 teams finished faster than the 2015 runners up. The racing was close as teams pushed each other. While 2015 will always be remembered for the storms and high winds, 2016 will be remembered as the year everyone went downwind to Alaska.